Today we’re chatting to poet Damian Walford Davies about his latest collection, Judas, which you can pre-order from our website here.
Damian is a poet, writer and librettist. He is the author of three Seren collections – Suit of Lights (2009), Witch (2012) and Judas (2015), together with the pamphlet Alabaster Girls (Rack Press, 2015) and the co-written volume, Whiteout (Parthian, 2006). He is Head of the School of English, Communication & Philosophy at Cardiff University, where he specialises in Romanticism, the two literatures of Wales, and Creative Writing.
Had you always wanted to write about Judas, whether it was Judas the man or Judas the metaphor, or did the poems in this collection quietly creep up on you?
Judas creeps up on you, certainly. I’ve always found him (or ‘it’ – Judas is a phenomenon, a problem, a crux (‘cross’), a paradox, a sore point) compelling. (The same with Lazarus, by the way, but that’s another, if related, story . . .) He is contradictorily represented in the canonical gospels, and that’s before we come to the second-century AD gnostic Gospel of Judas, where he is Christ’s confidant. There are a myriad of historical, theological, political and psychological arguments as to why Judas did what he did (if he did). To accept the historicity of Judas – which many scholars of first-century Palestine and early Christianity do not – means recognising him as an elusive figure. He is a no-man as well as a knot of contradictory representations, built up over twenty ideological centuries. (See Susan Gubar’s excellent 2009 biography of Judas.) This is the guy with the dark halo.
What is it you enjoy most about exploring history through poetry?
I like to write against big accepted narratives, intervene in them at personal, psychological levels, offer case studies of emotional quandaries, reveal terror on local, personal scales. I use the dramatic monologue for this, aiming for an imaginative inhabitation of voice and situation, aware at the same time that ventriloquising others has an ethics attached. This is Judas’s speaking platform, throughout. My previous Seren collection, Witch, did similar things, exploring how a witch is ‘made’ in the tense atmosphere of 1640s Suffolk. In Judas, I’m constantly negotiating suggestive gaps in the canonical gospel accounts. One has to be nuanced here, as well as bold. I made the decision from the outset to play with timescales, and so Judas is encountered during the week after the crucifixion, wandering through first-century Jerusalem one minute, but then clocking two women air kissing in the contemporary city’s Sheraton Hotel the next. Judas quotes Bob Dylan. Time is spliced; the Arab-Israeli conflict is as real to him as the Roman occupation. He is disturbed by a history that hasn’t yet happened. So I enjoy querying dogmatic versions of history, indulging in counterfactuals (which is more than a parlour game – it’s a way of changing the future). History always happens somewhere, and (like religion) is in many aspects terrifying. All this is not to say that the collection is iconoclastic, or without belief/faith, or blandly ‘materialist’. Quite the opposite. Multiple ironies mean that there are no final, fixed positions in this collection.
Throughout the collection you play around with many biblical images, such as the ‘thorns’ in ‘Annunciation 1’ and the ‘silver coins’ in ‘Denominations’. I imagine it would be difficult to write a poetry collection titled Judas without them! But did you ever worry about finding a new way to use imagery that has been around for centuries?
I saw it as an opportunity – to inflect, defamiliarise, and recontextualise these ‘core’ images. Judas is a collection in which all these images exist (I hope) in a complex, kinetic, shifting relationship. Did I worry about this? All the time. Poets must always be on edge, edgy. Poetry is about edgework. Judas is published at a time of political-religious crisis and horror. The collection is a reflection on fundamentalism, belief, faith, history, knowing, unknowing, violence, intolerance and human beings as agents and casualties of history. And (of course) beauty, friendship, love, worlds of spice.
You paint a very vivid picture of Jerusalem throughout the collection, picking out places like Yad Vashem in ‘In Vino’ and Ben Yehuda Street in ‘Siloam Pool’. Was giving your poems a specific setting important to you while writing the collection?
It was crucial. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Jerusalem in April 2012, and parts of the volume were written there in a hostel room under the muezzin’s recorded call to prayer and on the hostel’s roof, from which I could see the Al-Aqsa mosque to the east, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the west, and a sea of satellite dishes in between. And so the journeys that the shattered Judas takes through the old city are the ones I myself took through the narrow streets – full of managed but mangy colonies of cats – and souqs, around the Baths of Bethesda (a place of deep peace), down to the Garden of Gethsemane (from which I phoned my 93-year-old grandmother, who quite understandably asked ‘How big is it?’), back up to the ‘tufted wall’ of the Temple and through the four quarters of the divided (and machine-gun-patrolled) town. Judas is a map. Gethsemane, by the way, is tiny.
What, if anything, have you learned about Judas and the idea of evil through writing this collection?
He wants answers as much as we do. He’s still waiting.