Friday Poem – ‘Arcades’, Paul Henry

Our new quartet of regional poetry pamphlets have just arrived, with each celebrating a special place in Wales: its people, landscape, wildlife, and vibrant goings-on. This week our Friday Poem comes from Poems from Cardiff, our tribute to the Capital.

Paul Henry’s ‘Arcades’ inhabits the busy and eclectic Victorian arcades that wind around the city centre, telling a private tale of sadness, love, and hope. The poem was first published in The Brittle Sea, Henry’s bestselling New and Selected Poems.

 

Friday Poem Arcades Paul Henry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All four regional pamphlets, including Poems from Cardiff, are available on the Seren website: £5.00 (each)

 

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Friday Poem – ‘Angry Birds’, Eoghan Walls

Friday Poem Angry Birds

This week our Friday Poem is the opening number from Eoghan Walls’ forthcoming second collection, Pigeon Songs – ‘Angry Birds’.

Pigeon Songs Eoghan WallsPigeon Songs follows on from Walls’ much-praised debut, The Salt Harvest. From the first poem, we have a sense of the poet’s themes and preoccupations: we have a richly metaphorical and densely allusive style, a pull towards formal metre and structures. There is also the occasional vigorous vulgarity, adding a touch of blue humour to the canvas, breaking up the formal rigour. Family is a potent presence in poems inspired by parents, grandparents, partners, children. They often emit a sort of energy, a fierce gravitational pull of emotion around the burning heart of a poem ultimately about love, or the sorrow of losing a loved-one.

 

Friday Poem Angry Birds Eoghan Walls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pigeon Songs is due for publication on 28 February. Pre-order your copy now from the Seren website: £9.99

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Gen: An Interview with Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards Gen interview

Jonathan Edwards GenJonathan Edwards’ debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, was a triumph: shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and winner of the Costa Poetry Award 2014.
Jonathan now returns with his wonderful second collection, Gen. How did the writing process differ this time, and what can we expect to see in the new poems? In this interview, we find out more about Jonathan and his new work.


How did the process of writing Gen differ from putting together your debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes?
I think, like most people’s second collections, it was swifter, and I had more of a sense of what I was doing. I grew up at a time when the struggles of bands like The La’s to produce a follow-up to successful work were legendary, and the voice of those experiences sits on your shoulder. I wanted to maintain in this collection the strengths of the first book, writing about famous people and their interactions with the ordinary, focusing on Kurt Cobain’s mythical visit to the Newport nightclub TJs, or the impact on a young boy of watching the disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson racing in 1988. I also wanted to continue looking at a Valleys village life in surreal ways, constructing narratives about a village which is inundated by tourists, and another where a street is locked down for a day, and the residents decide to spend the time having a massive party. It was also important, though, to reach out in new directions. One of these was about incorporating other voices in the book. The collection includes a range of monologues, working with the voices of lions and servants, trees and cities, and I wanted to work with real voices too, interviewing some of the figures at the heart of the Welsh historical events which feature in the poems. I was also interested in echoing the collection’s central interest, of being young, through a wide range of experiences, looking at my own youth and the youth of my parents, but also considering youth through a range of events in Welsh history. What was it like for my grandfather to be young at the turn of the twentieth century in Newport? What was it like to be a child at Capel Celyn?

Gen includes poems that provide glimpses into pin-prick moments from the distant and not-so-distant past – for instance, ‘Servant Minding a Seat for his Master Before a Performance of The Rivals, Covent Garden Theatre, 1775’, and ‘Welsh Flag on the Wall of Richard Burton’s Dressing Room, Broadway, 1983’ – told from the perspective of the flag.  Is it more challenging getting into the head of an inanimate flag than, say, a family member?
Writing more monologues was one difference with this collection – I see the book as a boxful of voices you can open, and they all come out, some shouting in your face, some whispering in your ear, some sulking or stuttering, some jibber-jabbering on. I’d been lucky enough to be asked to teach a number of workshops, to all sorts of different groups, since the publication of the first book, and writing monologues is a great workshop activity – I use the great Carol Ann Duffy poem, ‘A Week as my Home Town’ as a way into writing about place. So it became inevitable that I would want to push my usual concerns – class, Wales, animals – through monologue. I say ‘would want to’ but this isn’t quite right. The truth is that the voices of these poems wrote them for me, and I sat there like a sort of court reporter or secretary, trying to keep up. Monologue is great for a writer because it allows you to go into other worlds and see and feel other things, all while sitting at a desk, clutching a pen. It can take you much farther than Easyjet, and it’s cheaper. You can open your eyes as a lion, see your reflection on the inside of the glass of your zoo enclosure, feel your lion-breath against the glass. Or you can rub your eyes again and open them in the eighteenth century, smell the stink of the streets, hear the bloke next to you, gossiping about your master, spot someone in a doorway over there, looking furtive, saying your name. Or you can wake up and be a whole city, think everything you think, explore all your nooks and crannies, your hilltops and waterways, feel how you feel for your rush-hour commuters and your lost-hearted rough sleepers. It’s magic that poems can do this. Charles Bukowski used to talk about writing a poem having to compete with a night out at the movies as an alternative form of entertainment for the writer. Monologue, and the promise of finding out in intimate and fascinating ways about completely alien experiences, is one way of getting yourself onto a chair to write.

Family is once again a central theme, and the small and unnoticed actions of family members often overshadow larger, less personal histories – for instance, the image of your grandfather tying people’s shoelaces together in ‘Harry Houdini on Newport Bridge, May 1905’. It’s obvious you take great joy in recounting these anecdotes – who can you thank for this interest in family history, and will we be hearing more wild tales of the Edwardses in future collections?
As with everything in life, really, I thank my mother and father for the existence of these poems. Also the South Wales Argus: the stories it features always have a decent chance of making it into my poems, and I would politely thank its writers and editors to remember this, when writing up their copy. My family has always been interested in its own history, partly because our history is so mysterious and obscure – World War One, for example, and the way my family seemed to roll down this valley, generation by generation, until I emerged, at the bottom, blinking, headachey and literate. In a framed black-and-white photo on the mantelpiece, my grandfather is the image of me, Brylcreem’d and watch-chained, blinking out of a black-and-white photo, yet I never met him. What was it like to wake up and be him? What were the smells and tragedies of his life? Writing about him can help bridge the gap between what I share deeply with him and what I know nothing of.

In terms of more tales of the Edwardses, they’re always on the go. Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance is a magisterial, holy collection for me, and I especially love the ‘Collier’ sequence, about her grandfather. My maternal grandfather was a will-o-the-wisp character, all pinstripe suits and Woodbines, a rickety, backfiring Volkswagen Beetle and a grin from here to the end of the street. His experience, my nan’s experience, is something I want to shout and sing about – I don’t know what writing is for, really, if it isn’t to re-discover and celebrate their Workingmen’s Club and bay-windowed, permed or eye-sparkling lives.

How do you think your poetic style has evolved since the publication of the first book?
I often say, jokingly, at readings, that my poetry shows enormous evolution between books one and two: the first collection is made up of poems about my family, which often focus on famous people, while my second collection is made up of poems about famous people, which often focus on family. One thing I wanted to do in this collection was explore more fully the ground I’d sketched out in the first book, to approach those themes from different directions and travel into them farther. In my first collection, I was interested in the history of Wales, writing about Chartism and the North Wales village of Capel Celyn, drowned in the 1960s in order to create a water source for Liverpool. Capel Celyn is a resonant, echoing subject in all sorts of ways – the human experience of losing your home, the relationships which people would have sustained and developed, as well as the political implications of this episode, and the way it drove Devolution. Additionally, as someone who lives in a tight-knit village community, my heart is in this place and in its loss. One thing I was keen to do, then, was to get the voices and the real experience of Capel Celyn into the writing. It turned out that David Walters, who was arrested for one of the first attacks on the dam site at Tryweryn, is from just up the road from me in Bargoed, and I am really grateful to him for the interview which resulted in the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ sequence. Equally, these poems are indebted to a number of important books which serve this subject, including Einion Thomas’s Capel Celyn: Ten Years of Destruction and Owain Williams’s first-person account, ­­­­­Tryweryn: A Nation Awakes. The poems in Gen which mourn this experience are a baby step towards the book of poems which is needed on this subject.

Your poetry displays a deep and constant affection for the Welsh landscape and experiences of your youth – even down to the mess and madness of an illicit party: ‘there / was chaos, carnage, every pot plant / an ashtray, every ashtray a sick bag.’ (‘House Party at Tanya’s, 1995’). Your poems certainly aren’t rose-tinted, and yet they hold onto a sense of celebration. Do you hope readers will share that sense of fondness and familiarity?
One of the reasons I write is that it makes time travel possible. Once I get the notebook and the biro up to 88mph, I can get there. Time is clearly a concern across both collections, and I love that I can step into a room, scribble a line, and be in another time. Some of these are times before I was born – I like hanging out with my parents in the years before I knew them, and seeing what they were like, or spending time in a poem with a grandfather I never met. I love that poetry can be a way of talking to people who aren’t there anymore, because they aren’t themselves any more, and some of these people are past selves. Either poetry is a loudspeaker shouting across time, or else it’s a box you put yearning in to store under the stairs. Like lots of people, I guess, I know exactly the second of my life I would go back to if I could, and what I would do differently. The poems in this collection about house parties and school days, my father crashing a car in 1965, my mother cutting her arm in 1955, my uncle smoking a pipe in 1986 – it’s all a way, I suspect, of addressing that.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen you perform will know that you are as entertaining in person as you are through your poems. What events and projects do you have lined up?
From now until August, I seem to be reading everywhere that will have me, and several places that won’t, from Cardiff to Cork, from Merthyr to Mitcheldean. This is one of the best things about poetry – hitting the road and seeing what happens to you, meeting the artists, the enthusiasts, the personalities who keep poetry going up and down the country. This time round, it will be about re-connecting with people who are now friends, and I love that poetry has made that happen. As my sinister mega-global marketing campaign has it, all events will be advertised on the Seren website. I love teaching poetry and working with other writers to help them develop, and am really excited about my upcoming courses for The Poetry School and Tŷ Newydd. This month, the Poetry Society will be launching a film of a poem I wrote in celebration of the Monmouth and Brecon canal, made by Chris Morris of Falmouth University. I’m really proud of this work and really excited about the opportunity to sing for a place that has always been really important to me, a place I splashed and grew up in. There are some other exciting things coming up which I’m not allowed to talk about yet and other crazier, wilder projects, including zoo animals and Valleys school children, installations and chaos, I hope can happen, if I can talk the right people into it. Most important will be finding the time to scribble new poems. Whatever else the future holds, whether it’s time travel or history, voices or narrative, I very much hope there’s a lot more writing to be done.

 

Local to Cardiff? Catch Jonathan at the Seren Cornerstone Poetry Festival – he will be in conversation with Christopher Meredith and Archbishop George Stack in the ‘Afternoon Tea: Generations’ event, 9 February. Tickets include a generous selection of cakes, pastries and sandwiches. Book now.

 

 

 

Gen is available from the Seren website: £9.99

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Peter Jones: on editing my father’s letters

Peter Jones Dear Mona Letters

In Dear Mona: Letters from a Conscientious Objector, we are given a window into the life of Jonah Jones through private letters to his close friend and mentor, Mona Lovell. We see his character evolve as he nurtures his love of art and sculpture, and finds new ways to express his creativity.

A pacifist, Jones at first declined to enlist when war broke out, but later served as a non-arms bearing medic in the Second World War. His letters give an emotional insight into the prejudices he faced and the reality of his wartime experiences. Peter Jones, Jonah’s son, has edited this fascinating book and here gives insight into the difficult process of bringing its intimate contents to print.

 

Deciding to publish my father’s letters to Mona was both an easy step and one of the hardest things I have had to do.

Easy because of the quality of the writing and the interest the material holds. There is a clear narrative arc to the letters as the intense relationship between Len Jones (as my father Jonah was then known) and his friend and mentor Mona Lovell develops, and he simultaneously stumbles towards his vocation in art. This makes them a very satisfying read, and gives the whole a novelistic quality. Along the way we get fascinating insights into the life of a conscientious objector in the Second World War, vivid descriptions of action after Len joins the 6th Airborne Division as a non-combatant medic, and powerful accounts of the tension in British Mandate Palestine in the run-up to the birth of the State of Israel.

Len Jones, 1945
Len Jones, 1945
‘…there is no hysteria – only a desperate apathy & an anxious searching for belongings as they come from their cellars or from a few miles back. Once in the back area again they begin to smile even, as the war moves on & they feel safe again – but many have lost what can never be replaced…’

All of this compelled publication. Yet at the same time I wavered, for my father was a very private man in some ways, and I knew he would not have been glad to see these letters released to the world. They cover a time when he was mainly unhappy, a time he preferred to forget. And of course, fundamental to my whole dilemma, was his relationship with Mona – she was in love with him, he looked on her as a soul-mate whom he valued dearly as a friend but could not love in the way she wished. It was extremely hard to lay all this open before a reading public.

Len Mona
Len and Mona relax in the park

So the question arose: could I make the insightful, non-personal material available without publishing the deeply personal side of the letters? Yes, but this would run the risk of creating a narrative without a narrative, for Len’s relationship with Mona (and, to a lesser but still important extent with the poet James Kirkup) is the spine of the whole story. Most crucial, cutting out the personal would diminish Mona to little more than a sounding board for Len’s thoughts and experiences. This would be a grave injustice, for it is clear how vital she was in Len’s transition from his constricted working class roots to the man who could express himself through art. Too often women have been relegated to the shadows of history; Mona did not deserve this fate.

Dear Mona
Mona Lovell, 1935

So, with qualms, I decided to lay out the whole story. It reveals so much: how life was for conscientious objectors in the Second World War (we have heard a lot about their brave predecessors in the Great War, but much less of Len’s generation), the widespread frustration people suffered due to their lives being suspended by the war, the congenial debating society that was Carmel College in Haifa, where servicemen and women did university-style courses prior to demobilization. Some of the issues touched on in Len’s letters seem remarkably topical, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-semitism (whether among forestry workers in Yorkshire or British officials), and homosexuality, on which he evolved from unthinking revulsion to deep compassion. These letters are compelling; the world should see them.

Peter Jones.

Friday Poem – ‘Gen’ by Jonathan Edwards

Friday Poem Gen Jonathan Edwards

Costa Award-winner Jonathan Edwards is gifting us a splendid second collection, Gen, which arrives next week. Our Friday Poem today is the title poem from this new book.

You can catch Jonathan at Poetry in Aldeburgh on Sunday 4 November, 11:30am, where he will be reading some of his new poetry. Tickets available here.

Jonathan Edwards GenGen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. These poems give way to a sequence of monologues and character sketches, giving us the lives of crocodiles and food testers, pianists and retail park trees. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems. All in all, Gen is a superb follow-up to Edwards’ debut, My Family and Other Superheroes, which won the Costa Poetry Award in 2014.

 

Gen Jonathan Edwards Friday Poem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Friday Poem – ‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’, Carrie Etter

Friday Poem Carrie Etter Song a Year after My Mother's Death

This week our Friday Poem is ‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’, from Carrie Etter’s recently published collection, The Weather in Normal.

Carrie Etter The Weather in NormalEtter’s fourth poetry collection, The Weather in Normal is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Its focus is Etter’s hometown of Normal, Illinois, lamenting its loss through the death of her parents, the sale of the family home, and the effects of climate change on Illinois’ landscape and lives.

‘Song a Year after My Mother’s Death’ first appeared in Poetry Review.

 

 

Carrie Etter Song Mother's Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An interview with poet Ross Cogan

Ross Cogan BragrBragr is Ross Cogan’s third collection of poetry, an compelling mix of environmental woes, apocalyptic predictions, and richly reimagined tales from Norse mythology.

Where does Cogan’s inspiration come from, and what does he hope readers will take away from Bragr? In this interview, we aim to find out.

 

Where does your interest in Norse mythology stem from, and what made you
choose to combine your environmental concerns with these ancient characters, who are so detached from our modern woes?
I can’t remember when I first became interested in Norse mythology as such, though I have been interested in history and mythology since I was at school. But I would challenge the idea that the Gods and mortals of Norse myth (or other myths for that matter) are at all remote from our ‘modern woes’. The Norse Gods, like many pagan Gods, are personifications of different aspects of our world. Odin, for example, is associated with knowledge, wisdom, poetry and healing but also battle and death; Frigg, his wife, with wisdom and foreknowledge; Thor isn’t just the God of thunder, storms and strength, but also of farming and crop fertility; while Freyja is associated with love, sex, fertility and beauty but also, like Odin, war and death. Each would have had their sacred places, and the landscape would have been full of its spirits and monsters, and heavy with sacred associations. So to me the connections between the ancient Gods and our modern concerns are striking.

Through the course of Bragr a world is created in which the environment is
considered unimportant until it is too late. The ‘Bestiary’ section reads as a lament to the loss of many of Earth’s animals whereas the poem ‘Ragnarök’ describes the earth succumbing to a major natural disaster. However, the concluding poem of the collection, ‘Wreath’, is optimistic in comparison, suggesting that it is possible for the earth to recover. Does this interpretation match your own views on the planet’s environmental state?
During its 4.5 billion-and-something year history the earth has survived all sorts of major changes. It’s been far hotter than it is now and far colder. And for about 3.8 billion of those years there has been life on earth of some kind. But individual species come and go with dizzying regularity. At the moment we humans are busy fouling our nests and bringing about the sixth great mass extinction event in earth’s history. But the fact that this is the sixth mass extinction shows that the earth will survive and life will survive and, given time, recover. I’m less optimistic – in fact downright pessimistic – that human life will survive. But I don’t want to rule it out. Most people have heard of the great battle of Ragnarök that spells the ‘doom of the Gods’. However in my experience few realise that it doesn’t signify the end of the world or even the end of the Gods; a few survive, as do a few people, to start the cycle again. Personally I’m from the apocalyptic edge of the environmental movement, along with writers like Paul Kingsnorth (whose recent essay collection
‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ is outstanding). I believe that
humanity won’t change its ways and that, even if it could, it’s too late; we’ve passed a tipping point and are heading towards a catastrophe from which no amount of wind farms and solar panels will save us. But I’d like to think that the door is still open, just as the writers of the original Eddic verse did, for remnants of humanity to survive and thrive. That’s the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection.

If you could only recommend one poem from Bragr that is the epitome of your own values, which would you choose?
‘Lapstrake’. One of the best experiences you can have as a poet is when a poem breaks free from your control and you realise that you’re not writing it any more, it’s writing itself through you. It’s very rare in my experience, but this was one of them. The word is an old one for what’s better known as clinker building – the process of boat building where each stave overlaps the next. It’s a genuine art – boats built like this are very beautiful. But it also tends to result in craft that are versatile, stable, responsive, easy to handle and flexible enough to deal with high seas. The Vikings sailed to America in ships built like this. The poem emerged from my realisation that their shipwrights were, to an extent, following natural forms. It reflects my deeply-held belief that humans are often at their best when they live in harmony with the rest of the natural world, work with it and borrow natural models for use in their own creation. It also reflects my enormous respect for the skills of traditional craftspeople. I’ve always seen poetry as primarily a craft enjoining upon its practitioners the duty to practice for years, study the forms and the great poetry of the past, and never to be satisfied with substandard work. If I ever produce a poem half as amazing as the Gokstad ship, I will be happy. By the way, I was delighted when Carol Rumens chose ‘Lapstrake’ as her Guardian Poem of the Week for 6 August, so you can read it, along with her perceptive commentary, on the Guardian website.

The poems ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ seem to mirror each other, as in both a tree
miraculously grows from branches removed from the tree. The central difference between the two is the environment in which it occurs; ‘Willow’ occurs in a land of plenty, whereas ‘Wreath’ takes place following a natural disaster. What conclusions do you hope readers will draw when reading these two poems in conjunction?
I see now that ‘Willow’ and ‘Wreath’ are companion pieces of a sort, but I must admit that it’s also a happy accident that they came to be written since both also describe real events. I really did plant a willow branch in the ground to mark a row of vegetables and it really did take root and grow into a sapling which, several years later I took down (it was now shading out the vegetable seedlings). I also pruned back a horse chestnut and was surprised when, the following year, the branches that I’d stacked up and supposed were dead, broke into leaf. As it happens there are a number of myths concerning trees that take root from branches planted in the ground. Most famously Joseph of Arimathea’s staff is supposed to have become the Glastonbury Thorn, but the Anglo-Saxon St Etheldreda’s staff apparently became the greatest Ash tree in the land – which looks to me like a pagan borrowing, since the link to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, is obvious. I was aware that trees could do this, and that willow branches in particular had a great ability to take root. However I was genuinely surprised by the Horse Chestnut. I’ve talked above about the role of ‘Wreath’ in the collection, representing as it does the possibility of redemption and survival after the calamity of Ragnarök. So reading the two poems together (and remembering that I didn’t specifically write them to be companion pieces – that just happened), they seem to me to reflect the way in which, in our time of plenty, we have tended to grow complacent and will cheerfully disregard, even hold in contempt, the miracles that occur on a daily basis.

In ‘Kvasir’s blood’, other names for the blood are listed including “the Mead of Poetry”. Do you feel that pain and suffering is essential for creating poetry or do you think you can write with emotional detachment and still create powerful work?
I know that many poets find that, as Henry de Montherlant said, “happiness writes in white ink on a white page”. Some have certainly done their best work when they were depressed. However, just as there are a lot of different poets with different personalities, I don’t think there’s one rule that suits everyone, and poetry written from joy or with emotional detachment can also work. Personally – and this is probably just a reflection of my own personality – I have a lot of sympathy with Wordsworth’s claim that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”, as I need complete calm to write well. I can’t write when it’s noisy, or when I am upset (or for that matter overjoyed) about something. It almost feels as if, for me at least, writing poetry has something of the flavour of meditation, where you attain enough distance to be able to reflect upon and examine the emotions and
ideas that have provoked it. This also imposes some practical constraints: in order to write not only do I need quiet, I also need time – typically I book out a minimum of three or four uninterrupted hours and spend the first of these sitting and staring at a blank sheet before the words come to me. Incidentally, ‘Kvasir’s Blood’ is not actually blood but really is mead, or perhaps wine or some other fermented drink (Kvass is a traditional drink made across Russia and the Baltic from rye bread). So you might also ask ‘is the consumption of alcohol essential for creating poetry?’

What did you find most challenging about bringing the collection together, and what piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets who are trying to do the same?
I mentioned above my conviction that poetry was a craft and should be treated as such. And one of the things that means for me is cultivating patience. If you are learning how to play a musical instrument or build a cabinet, you will need to spend thousands of hours playing the same scales over and over again, or whole days sanding down joints until they fit perfectly. But few, if any, of us are born with patience. So the most challenging thing about writing, in my experience, is not writing. Lots of writing tutors now advise young poets to get into the habit of writing every day – which is fine if they’re going to treat it purely as an exercise and throw most of it away. What I would stress is that it’s just as important to know when you are too tired or emotional, or just lacking in inspiration, to write, and then have the courage to wait. Aspiring poets aren’t necessarily going to like this, but the advice I would give them is not to publish too early. There is a lot of pressure on young writers – especially those who want to get jobs in creative writing – to get that book out in their mid-, or even early, twenties when they can still be ‘the next big thing’. But this can lead people to rushing into print with work that’s not as good as it could have been, and possibly regretting it. Personally I didn’t publish my first book until I was thirty five, and looking back I wish I had held my nerve even longer.

What are your plans for the future? Are there any new works or events we can look out for?
With luck I will be doing a number of readings over the next year or two linked to Bragr. Other than that, like a lot of writers, I don’t much like talking about work in progress, but let’s just say I have a number of ideas I’m developing at the moment.

 

Ross Cogan will be reading from Bragr at Buzzwords in Cheltenham, Sunday 2nd September. You can also catch him at the Cardiff Book Festival, where he will be performing alongside a chorus of poetic voices in the Friday Night Poetry Party, Friday 7th September

 

Friday Poem – ‘Swan’, Ross Cogan

Friday Poem Ross Cogan Swan

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Swan’, from Ross Cogan’s new collection, Bragr.

Ross Cogan BragrWhether it’s myth intended to explain the constellations, the secret of eternal life, or the bloodthirsty tale of the mead of poetry, Ross Cogan’s collection Bragr (meaning ‘poetry’ in Old Norse) is a reimagining of Norse mythology for our times. The collection also focuses on environmental concerns: the earth’s incredible beauty seems all the more fragile in the face of habitat loss and global warming.
In ‘Swan’ the poet recalls an archaeological excavation of a neolithic settlement in Denmark that unearthed a remarkable grave. The excavation was detailed in Simon Mithen’s book, After the Ice.

 

Swan Ross Cogan Bragr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An extract from The Wellspring by Barney Norris

Barney Norris The Wellspring extract

‘A rare duet, in which father and son rediscover a whole world through the redeeming power of art.’
– Declan Kiberd

Barney Norris The WellspringIn The Wellspringacclaimed novelist and dramatist Barney Norris conducts a conversation with his even more acclaimed father, the pianist and composer David Owen Norris, on creativity, cultural identity, and how the two intertwine.

In this free extract, the conversation between father and son turns towards David’s career as a pianist: how it began; the impact of failures and accolades; the strangely altering milestone of 30.

This extract begins on page 87 of The Wellspring.

Playing

BN: I’ve titled this second sequence ‘Playing’. Ostensibly, what I hope to cover here is the bulk of your professional life – your work as a performer. But I have it in my mind as well that what we’re circling is one person’s route into a life, into living well, and I want to draw attention to that as we begin. This book will take the same path everyone does as they find their way into the world – first we listen, then we simulate, then we live. In some lives, I don’t think the path is as easy to trace. Not everyone has a vocation. Not everyone’s entire life can be expressed as the development of a single project. Of course, your life isn’t adequately summarised if we turn it into a single developing theme, either. If we were to exhaustively catalogue everything you’ve ever done, a meaning would emerge that was too diffuse and complex to express – or you might end up with a catalogue of infinite drift, I don’t know how open you are to the idea that lives have inherent meanings at all, or whether it’s fairer to say all narratives are superimposed. But the opportunity we have here is that it’s in the nature of an artist’s career, where the life feeds the work and the enthusiasms are buried deep in childhood and the work is all-consuming, that a narrative can be constructed more easily than is usually the case that expresses something like a linear development through life. So when looking at an artist’s life, you can say things about the way all people move through time more easily than you can with some other careers. The milestones are easier to make out. So for the purposes of this book we’ll read your performing career as a second stage in a development that leads, eventually, to the writing of music. Not an adequate summation, but perhaps it’s an interesting one, you see the two as connected?

DON: It was the break-down of my early composing career that led directly to my performing career. I’ve already hinted that my composing didn’t go down too well in 1970s Oxford, though come to think, I left with a composition scholarship to the Academy. But the contemptuous reaction to my B. Mus exercise a year later – ‘This fugue subject implies harmony’ was one criticism I still recall with some puzzlement – and the prevailing narrow taste in ‘modern music’ funding circles, led me to concentrate on something I did to everyone’s satisfaction, namely, play the piano. Young performers play a wide range of music, partly because they know they need a wide range of experience, and partly for frank commercial reasons, and so I formed hands-on opinions of the work of still-living composers like Tippett & Britten & Messiaen, and I gave innumerable premieres of works by composers now forgotten.

BN: It’s a very interesting environment, the generation of contemporaries one works with at the beginning, before it’s clear who’s really going to make it. I’ve been going through that myself for the last few years – it’s still a bit too soon to tell which of my generation of theatremakers will one day be filed under that ‘now forgotten’. Because there’s no precise formula for identifying the ones who’ll last, is there. It’s not only talent, it’s not only prevalent fashions in funding circles, it’s not only luck, it’s not only hard work, it’s not only whether you choose to have a family, or where you’re from, or who you know; it’s not even whether you’re someone that anyone likes. It’s terrifying, because of course, after the first six months when a few people who thought they were serious wake up and back out, anyone who’s tilting at the windmill of the arts can’t imagine doing anything else, and doesn’t have a back-up plan, even though some will end up needing one. The arts are so hard to break into, you’d never do it if you were capable of doing anything else. But it’s also a very wonderful moment, because, in a Schrodinger sort of way, you live suspended in this moment where anything might be possible for you and your friends – even if in actual fact, when you get to the end, you will look back and find that it wasn’t.

DON: ‘Now forgotten’ sounds callous, doesn’t it? I meant it more as a merciful imprecision. Your list of things that need to slot into place is pretty scary – and very carefully ordered! Academy Professors, as I discovered when I became one, all agreed that we should exert ourselves to the utmost to put students off, because only the students that can’t be put off stand the slightest chance in the business. Good as far as it goes, but things change, become less narrow – good changes as well as bad changes. Some of the less positive changes at institutions of higher education are down to money, which has all sorts of repercussions – not all new courses fill purely educational needs. Then, if half the population is going to university, degrees will need to change, not necessarily for the worse: but we need to make sure that the former methods of study, where they were valuable, can be continued – which has emphatically not happened in secondary school music.

But there are positive changes too. I’m thinking especially of social change. What’s often called dumbing-down (something I’ve hinted at in the previous paragraph) can also be seen as a welcome acceptance that art need not always be on the verge of unintelligibility to be worthy – which is why my music can reach listeners now, though it was so out of tune with the seventies. Another helpful social development is a public acceptance of the portfolio career. We can take real advantage of the new opportunities the twenty-first century has brought us, the communications revolution. I wonder if I could have created a taste for my sort of music back in the seventies, if we’d had the Internet. But it lumbers up too late, like Chesterfield coming to the assistance of Dr. Johnson. Still, it gives us new ways to reach audiences, if only we had time to develop them.

BN: You told me once that the thing to watch for was what happened when everyone turned thirty – it was around then that things started shaking out. Having turned thirty not so long ago, I can increasingly attest to the truth of this. Did that advice come from personal experience?

DON: Observation rather than experience, luckily. There were so many schemes and scholarships that you could compete for till you were thirty. After that, you were on your own, and many winners didn’t make the change into actually earning a living. It’s an age that concentrates the mind in many ways. Clocks are ticking, clocks of self-esteem as well as of biology. Is it still too late to become a bank manager? we used to ask ourselves back in the day, in blissful ignorance, probably, of how difficult it is to be a bank manager.

 

 

The Wellspring is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Hues’, Elizabeth Parker

Friday Poem Hues Elizabeth Parker

Our Friday poem this week is ‘Hues’ by Elizabeth Parker, from her recently released debut collection, In Her Shambles.

‘Hues’ is a shimmering, lyrical account of a river journey that highlights Parker’s artful skill with language and surrealist imagery.
In Her Shambles is a ‘radiantly-written’ collection from a ‘rising star of British poetry’ (David Morley), filled with poems that are emotionally rich, vibrant and original. From the alternative reimagining of Lavinia from ‘Titus Andronicus’ through to the collection’s opening, ‘Crockery’, where a potential lover is fragmented into reflections, In Her Shambles offers a fascinating, observational account of things seen aslant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Her Shambles is available from the Seren website: £9.99

Join our free Book Club for 20% off every book you buy from us.