An Interview with Euron Griffith

When he smiled it really did feel as if the chilly Caernarfonshire wind had stopped for a few seconds and as if the place had suddenly got warmer.

When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.

Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.

Miriam, Daniel and Me is the first novel in English by Welsh author Euron Griffith. In this interview, Euron tells us what inspired the novel and discusses what its like to bring a book out during a global pandemic. Scroll to the bottom to see the details of the virtual launch taking place this Thursday (30th July).

What was the inspiration behind Miriam, Daniel and Me?

Believe it or not, initially this was going to be a book about my lifelong obsession with the Beatles – a kind of ‘music memoir’ of how the band’s music reflected incidents in my own life. This seemed to make some kind of sense since I’d already written a short story collection called The Beatles in Tonypandy (which was a satirical fantasy on what ‘happened’ when the band moved to South Wales and took up pigeon fancying in 1967!) and so I wanted to write about them in a more personal and less surreal way. It soon became clear to me, however, that I was becoming more interested in the context of the piece – that is, my own experiences of my upbringing and my family history – than I was in the Fab Four’s peripheral and distant part in it. I found that the concept was becoming laboured and that I wasn’t making it come alive for myself and, therefore, it probably wasn’t going to work for anyone reading it. So the Beatles were soon rejected in a cruel, Decca-like fashion!

There were parts of my family history that I only had a vague knowledge of – my paternal grandfather for instance, whom I had never met because he died before I was born. I remember my granny and my dad telling me the story of how he had died suddenly in his chair after returning from the quarry one night but that was all I knew. I filled in the blanks myself – guessing here and there as to how things might have happened. The same was true of my mum. She had fallen in love with an Irishman before she met my dad but I didn’t know the whole story. As a kid I recall my maternal grandad showing me little bits of electrical handiwork this Irishman had constructed – little light switches etc. – so I knew he’d been an electrician and I’d seen photos of him so I knew he had red hair…but nothing much else. Only tantalizing fragments.

Once I’d stumbled across a photo of my mum walking down a street with him and, on the back, someone had written ‘Dublin’. She must have really loved him to go there for a visit. Especially in those days when travel wasn’t such a common thing. So here I did the same as I did with the story of my paternal grandad – I just tried to fill in the gaps. To make sense of it all. It soon grew into something of an obsession and, slowly, I saw that there was a novel brewing here. I weaved in my dad’s experiences as a poet and a goalie – how he had been invited for a trial with a big club once (in real life it was Bolton Wanderers but I changed it to Preston North End in this book…not entirely sure why to be honest!). Now, as I stand back and look at the finished piece, I can see that the overarching theme seems to be the notion of chance, often driven by love or passion, and of how it can affect the course of our lives.

The story is told through the eyes of multiple characters, particularly by three generations of Miriam and Daniel’s family. How is this inter-generational perspective important to the story?

The flippant answer would be that I get bored quite easily and I like to allow myself to dive into different characters and styles of narrative. But there is a more stylistic reason for it too. I love the way classic Victorian fiction such as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White utilize a playful and effective way of presenting events through different viewpoints. I was also influenced in this by the films of Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino. I was keen to hurl the reader back and forth without always giving an initial indication of when something was happening in ‘linear’ time because I thought it would heighten the dramatic effect. I suppose a simple example of this would be the rat poison incident (no spoilers!). The novel began with Miriam and Daniel’s story but, around this, there gradually grew the context of their lives- what happened before and what happened after (with the unnamed son). I played with time more outrageously in my last Welsh language novel Tri Deg Tri about a hitman where chapters were numbered in relation to the sequence of the central character’s ‘kills’ rather than to chronology. So I have form! Some readers found it puzzling but more, so I’m told, found it exhilarating!

My other challenge here – admittedly rather grand and insurmountable – was to try to write a kind of Welsh ‘bildungsroman’ – the story of a family and personal development featuring several characters. I was introduced to Buddenbrooks as a student and Thomas Mann’s masterpiece has stayed with me over the years. It certainly influenced me more strongly as this novel developed and the overall shape became clearer. Needless to say I could never come close to such a perfect piece of art but it gave me something to aim for! Aim high. Always aim high…

You build a clear picture of village life in 1950s and 60s Gwynedd by bringing in other members of the community and the events affecting their lives, namely the investiture of Prince Charles. Why was it important to you to bring this to life in Miriam, Daniel and Me?

It was a matter of context. Of filling in the canvas and making the whole world more real and multi-layered. I am a keen painter and there is a clear link, I reckon, between visual art and writing. Paul Klee once said that he liked ‘taking a line for a walk’ and that’s how writing begins for me. A line followed by another and, gradually (if you’re lucky), a world forms – a picture. Then it’s a matter of filling in the details. Picasso once said that the most difficult part of any painting was knowing when to stop. He was obviously right (when was Picasso wrong about anything??). In my own case I only recognise when to stop when it comes to re-writing. The first draft is always a sketch. I really don’t think you know what the book is until you’ve stepped back and studied the overall shape and pattern. It needs time. Re-writes. This novel went through at least three major re-writes! Curiously perhaps, this novel was also mainly written in London so there was an extra layer of distance there. James Joyce once said that he had to move to Zurich to write about Dublin. He wasn’t wrong about much either…

The book is coming out in very different circumstances to those any of us could have imagined but the BBC reported last week that Brits have been buying more books during lockdown. What makes Miriam, Daniel and Me a good lockdown read? What do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

Books and records are an obsession for me and if people are reading more and listening to more music then, in my world, that’s a good thing. Online trading is obviously booming in both these markets but I do worry about the wider context of physical retail – not only from the perspective of people’s livelihoods but also from a rather more selfish one. I really find wandering through shops and cities soothing and exciting so, in lockdown, I miss the bustle of the high street – the sights and sounds. When I was in London I would often hop on a bus in the afternoons and go to the middle of Piccadilly Circus and then wander around Soho just to soak up the atmosphere and work out things in my head to do with this novel and with other matters. I’m hopeful that things will return to normal soon.

In terms of what people will take away from this book there is the obvious factor of enjoyment of course but one of the reasons I wrote this book in English was because I don’t think north Wales and the ‘north Welsh experience’ has been explored as often in English language fiction as its southern counterpart. Most people when they think of Wales think rugby and the valleys but this is not strictly accurate. Rugby meant nothing to me when I was growing up and still doesn’t. Indeed, I vividly remember our PE teacher damning it as ‘a game for fat boys who are too slow for football’! My world when growing up was formed by television, football and pop music – the Monkees, The Man from UNCLE, Leeds United, Thunderbirds and Monty Python. Not by chapel or the Eisteddfod or Gareth Edwards. I never ‘got’ Shirley Bassey or Max Boyce and there were no coal mines in my part of Wales. I’m not entirely sure what ‘Wales’ is. My guess is that there are at least twenty versions of it and I didn’t think the story of mine had been told.

We’re hosting an online launch for the book later this week. What can attendees expect at the event?

Well Jon Gower is a perceptive reader and I’m intrigued to know what he thinks of the novel. He always has an interesting perspective on things. I’m thrilled that Rakie Ayola has agreed to read a few passages from the novel. She is such a brilliant actor. Hopefully the conversation and the readings will stimulate all the many thousands tuning in via Zoom to buy the novel and send it to the top of the Sunday Times best seller chart…

Finally, a question lots of writers have probably been asked recently, but have you found lockdown a particularly creative time? Is there anything you’re currently working on?

Writing never stops for me. After finishing this novel I immediately returned to a manuscript I started ten years ago and have been working on intermittently since then. I finally finished it just before last Christmas. It’s a peculiar, surreal ‘historical’ novel based on the adventures of a gentleman traveller. Influenced by ‘Don Quixote’ and more modern pieces such as ‘Life of Pi’ it features a man mistaken for Jesus, a three-legged cat, a serial killer and cannibalism. So it couldn’t be more different to Miriam, Daniel and Me! It’s called The Confession of Hilary Durwood. Since lockdown I’ve started another novel. I was up to 40,000 words before realising that it wasn’t much good so I scrapped it and started again. It’s much better now.

Before Covid struck I played regularly in my band Six Sided Men but, naturally, all that is on hold now. But I’ve been writing tons of songs and recording them myself on my little portastudio (driving my wife mad in the process as we have inadequate soundproofing!). I’m currently recording some Christmas songs I’ve written and will include these on a CD for friends when the season for merriment arrives…

I’ve also been painting and drawing. So yes. A worrying time in many ways. But I can’t say it’s been entirely unproductive…

 

Miriam, Daniel and Me is available now from Seren: £9.99

Join us for the virtual book launch – Thursday 30th July, 7:30pm. Euron will be in conversation with Jon Gower and actress Rackie Ayola will be reading excerpts from the book. Email sarahjohnson@serenbooks.com for the link. Full details here.

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An Interview with André Mangeot

Resonant, complex, rich in heft and texture, these are mature poems that grapple with serious themes. Beautifully crafted, and partly inspired by the poet’s love of the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, they address the natural world, its endangerment and other pressing global issues from multiple perspectives, and with great lyrical power.

‘A thought-provoking book for turbulent times.’
– Matthew Caley

André Mangeot’s new collection Blood Rain confronts the degradation of the planet and individual lives and choices with a steely lyrical grace. In this interview, he discusses the relationship between nature and poetry and our own connection to the natural world.

Blood Rain features poems set in a variety of geographic and historic locations with several of them focusing on Welsh landscapes. What is the importance of these poems within the collection and what is your connection to them?

It’s often said that landscape is a character in itself and it’s true that location is often my starting-point. This is probably most evident in my books of short stories, True North and A Little Javanese, where almost all are set in different countries and an evocative urban or rural landscape is as vital in bringing the story to life as authentic protagonists. In Blood Rain, with one of its key themes being challenges to the planet, including the natural world, there are a number of poems set in locations that I know and value (North Wales, the Lake District, North Devon) – and habitats which are threatened in one way or another.  But ‘setting’ is equally important for poems set further afield or in other times (the trenches in WW1, occupied Europe in WWII, Romania under Ceaușescu) that touch on another form of ever-present threat – our propensity for violence and conflict.

Nature is a theme that runs deeply through the collection. What is the connection between nature and your poetry and what does poetry bring to your experience of nature?

I’ve always felt more comfortable at a distance from cities and the urban environment – though for much of the time they’re unavoidable, of course. And for now I do live in a city, so the contrast between noise/pollution/crowds and most rural settings makes time in the latter all the more special and vivid. Nature clearly works on the senses, on the unconscious, before any poem begins to emerge and evolve.  Thereafter, crafting a poem forces one to focus ever more closely on detail – both what’s being examined and for word-choices, imagery, form etc.

The poems in Blood Rain are often concerned with ideas of balance, particularly a sense of ‘counterpoise’- giving and taking between humans and nature. What role do exchange, and economy of nature and things play in the poems?

Ideally, any natural exchange between man and nature would be reciprocal and unthreatening. But we as a species have so clearly overstepped the mark – due to a frightening combination of arrogance, ignorance and greed, aided by globalisation – that almost everything is now scarily out of kilter. Levels of comparative wealth and poverty across the globe; degree and frequency of extreme/destructive weather patterns; competition for fertile and habitable land. It’s almost as if, because man has ridden roughshod over natural laws for so long, nature is now fighting back, reasserting itself, proving who has ultimate control.

What do the shifts between nature, war, and family mean to you? Does the quoted ‘warlikeness’ carry throughout the poems, even those not concerned with war itself?

Everything we know is connected, part of a larger, possibly infinite eco-system: each individual to their immediate family and community, the nation, wider world, the cosmos etc.  The natural world is no different: amoebas, plankton, myriads of insects are just the base of a survival chain essential for millions of species – including mankind.  In the natural world we’re used to considering the fight for survival as commonplace; now, perhaps for the first time, reality is dawning that we as a species are in the fight too, and that no law precludes our own extinction.  As far as ‘warlikeness’ goes as a human characteristic, I don’t want to overstate it, but I can see the same kind of mirroring of relationship conflicts within families (three or four poems in the book address mine with my late father, for example) with how resentments and misunderstandings on a national or global scale can escalate into something far more serious.

The title poem refers to the natural phenomena of ‘blood rain’ as ‘an augury of rust’. How would you describe the relationship between poetry and omens or symbols in the natural world?

Our response to poetry, literature – indeed, many things we encounter daily – is largely determined by past experience and the particular memories and sensations these things conjure up, positive or negative.  So this inbuilt, often unconscious association will determine different responses to the same word, phrase or image from one person to the next.  To me this is what’s so exciting about sending a new piece of work out into the world: not simply the act of connecting with others but the certainty that no two people will respond to a poem or sequence the same; each will bring their own experience, tastes and prejudices to it.  Some will find symbols or omens, but almost for sure in different places and forms.  But to return specifically to nature – full of wonder and terror in equal measure – all I’d say is that I’ve tried to keep this ambivalence constantly in mind.

What message do you hope readers will take away from reading the collection? Do you feel this message has become even more poignant amidst the situation we currently find ourselves in?

I didn’t set out to deliver any particular message, and would be hesitant about any collection that did. Blood Rain is just one person’s response to/meditation on current times that are clearly troubling and uncertain for many.  Covid-19 arrived after this sequence was written and published, but has simply underlined the global connection between us, and is a stark reminder of our vulnerability, no different to any other species.

 

Blood Rain is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Katrina Naomi shares her poetry advice

This week’s poetry advice blog comes from Katrina Naomi author of The Way the Crocodile Taught Me. Katrina is a poet, tutor, critic, mentor and translator who lives in Cornwall. Her poetry has appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row and Poetry Please, BBC TV’s Spotlight and is currently included in London’s Poems on the Underground. Her next collection is forthcoming in 2020.

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me Katrina NaomiThe Way the Crocodile Taught Me, is a vibrant, heartfelt and tragi-comic collection of poetry. With warmth, flair and a certain ferocious wit, Naomi tears into her subject matter: a childhood fraught with family dislocation, upsets and even occasional violence, and finds, through her art, moments of grace, humour and redemption. It will delight people who know Naomi’s work and undoubtedly win new fans for her courageous and unabashedly entertaining poems.

What first drew you to poetry?

I came to poetry by mistake. I was trying to write about something I really cared about and found that I’d written a poem.

Where do you look to for inspiration?

Art, walking, film and other poets.

What poets or writers inspire you?

There’s so many! One poet who always inspires me is Peter Redgrove.

How do you balance writing poetry with working? If you write full time, what made you decide to do so?

I do write full time, I found that when I was working in my former human rights job, that I was spending longer and longer lunch breaks writing poems. Something had to give. I thought I’d take voluntary redundancy and see if I could get anywhere with my poetry. That year I won a poetry competition and was published soon afterwards. So I’ve kept going.

How do you prepare yourself before sitting down to write?

I usually read another poetry collection for about 20 minutes, or I copy out a poem that I really admire. This gets me to slow down and really look and think.

What methods do you use to overcome feeling disheartened or to keep positive?

I talk to my partner or close friends when I’ve had a disappointment. Also, I often write about the disappointment and see if I can turn it into some other beast. That helps!

 

Katrina’s collection The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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‘Footnotes to Water’: An Interview with Zoë Skoulding

Zoë Skoulding is a poet, critic and translator who has lived in north Wales since 1991. She is the author of a number of poetry collections including The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren), which was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award, and Remains of a Future City (Seren), which was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. In 2018 she was a recipient of the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors for her contribution to poetry.

Her new collection Footnotes to Water follows two forgotten rivers and tracks the literary hoofprints of sheep through Welsh mountains. In these journeys she reveals urban and rural locales as sites of lively interconnection, exploring the ways in which place shapes and is shaped by language. In this interview she gives us a deeper insight into these connections and tells us about some of the processes behind her poetry.

Water can quite literally reflect us, and the symbol of the river features heavily throughout the collection. Why do you think water is so expressive of identity?

I’m more interested in water that is hidden, or that has disappeared, than in reflective surfaces. I don’t think water necessarily expresses identity at all, though it does tend to be a central concern of Welsh writing – there’s Tryweryn, of course, with the idea of loss of language and identity. I was drawn to the Adda in Bangor because it seemed to be the shape of a void I noticed in the city, but it’s not just about language – it’s also about an economic logic that destroys a community’s relationship with itself and its non-human surroundings. On the other hand, water is what connects us to each other and to the rest of the physical world, so it’s a way of thinking about new kinds of belonging.

You use the Welsh language throughout certain poems, although you write primarily in English. Why is that?

I can’t write in Welsh, but in writing about Bangor I wanted to reflect my experience of hearing the city, which is that Welsh is a constant, if fragmentary presence, and one I value. The occasional Welsh phrases are all quotation because my relationship to Welsh is that it lives in my ears, but not in my mouth. One day that may be different, but for now this is the best way I can respond to where I am.

Is this a collection to be read aloud? How could speaking the poems affect our understanding of them?

For me, reading and writing poetry is very much about the sound and weight of words, whether they are sounded aloud or voiced in the head, so sound and meaning are always intricately connected.

The collection brims with varying experimental forms. Can breaking form challenge our conceptions of the world around us?

I like having a constraint to work against, so the book begins and ends with sonnet sequences, although they might not be immediately recognisable as such. In both cases, I was thinking about the form of a river, and the shape that gives it pressure and movement. In the first poem there’s a seven-syllable line, which is more common in Welsh poetry than in English, and it has the effect of wrong-footing the expected rhythm. In many of the forms I used I was trying to find ways of tripping up my expectations of a very familiar city.

In the collection, you seem inspired by the landscape, letters, news reports, and the literature and voices of others. What inspired you the most? Is there somewhere you often look to for inspiration when beginning to write?

I walk and I read, and in some ways these can be quite similar kinds of exploration. ‘Heft’ is about both of those things at once, a journey though text and landscape.

In the poem, ‘Walking the Adda: A Collaboration’ you incorporate ‘comments made on and after public walks’. How did you approach incorporating the voices of others into your work? Would you say the role of voice is particularly important to this collection?

This was a joint project with the artist Ben Stammers in which we walked the route of the underground river with anyone who wanted to join us. At the end, people added their comments anonymously to a giant map he’d drawn, and these are what I have quoted – so although there are a few spoken comments there as well, most were written down. I arranged them as a prose poem, continuous but with multiple voices. The sense of listening to a place composed of many voices is central to my understanding of cities.

How would you describe the poems’ function as footnotes alongside Ben Stammers’ visual art?

I don’t think they really work in this way as I was not interpreting his photographs. Most of the time we made parallel, separate explorations of the route of the river and what we could discover about it. We did have some very useful conversations though, and Ben’s expert knowledge of birds certainly informs ‘Gull Song’.

You play with the idea of bodies, whether the ceaseless flow of the body of water reflected in the form, the female body in ‘Teint’, or the physical body threatened by flood, disease or pollution. Would you say the collection aims to subvert the boundaries between the human body and the elemental world?

Given the current ecological crisis it’s important to challenge the belief that humans are somehow separate or aloof from the material world. What if we could imagine human existence as a footnote to water, a co-incidental life form existing alongside many others? At the same time, of course I can’t completely sustain this view because my perspective is human, and I’m also concerned that human bodies are not all treated equally, as is revealed by the story of any city. When I write I try to make new paths of connection in language so that different relationships might be possible.

 

Footnotes to Water is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Don’t miss the launch of Footnotes to Water taking place at 8pm on Thursday 14th November at the Aulkland Arms in Menai Bridge. Zoë will be joined by guest readers Fiona Cameron, Peter Hughes, Rhys Trimble and Lee Duggan plus there will be music from The Groceries (Alan Holmes). Find the full details on our website.

Claire Williamson shares her poetry advice

This week’s poetry advice blog comes from Claire Williamson author of Visiting the Minotaur. Claire specialises in nurturing creative writing, both as craft and for wellbeing. She is also a member of Bristol based poetry group The Spoke.

Visiting the Minotaur Claire WilliamsonClaire’s collection Visiting the Minotaur was published by Seren in 2018. In this inventive and intensely felt collection, the poet enters a labyrinth of her own complicated family history, a history beset with secrets and lies, in order to come to terms with her own identity.  She borrows from myths, histories, careful observations of nature, and of city life, in order to fashion her artful meditations on experience and mortality.

 

What first drew you to poetry? 

Foraging in my grandmother’s bookshelves and finding an illustrated anthology of children’s poems. I memorised ‘Three Ducks on a Pond’ and used to enjoy reciting it to myself. 

Where do you look to for inspiration? 

Inside – thoughts and feelings – and outside – the natural and built environment. An emotion or idea usually catches an image or a concept. I’m lucky that I don’t struggle for inspiration.  

What poets or writers inspire you? 

T.S.Eliot was one of my first loves and continues to bring energy, so many years later. I read a lot of contemporary poets. I enjoy Poetry Wales; it’s always a surprise what you’ll find between the covers! 

What does poetry mean to you? 

Poetry has been threaded throughout my life, a companion and a safety net in difficult times – both writing and reading. It belongs to everyone and I enjoy it in the broadest sense, culturally and geographically. 

How do you balance writing poetry with working? If you write full time, what made you decide to do so? 

I’m an academic three days a week for the MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at Metanoia Institute, and I work freelance on writing projects the rest of the time; at the moment I’m working with Welsh National Opera, Fresh Arts at Southmead Hospital and mentoring individuals. Poetry comes up through the cracks and especially if I sit down to write.  

Do you have a writing routine? What is it? 

I’m writing a novel for a doctorate at the moment which I sit down to work on after the children are in bed, which is the quietest time of the day. Poetry is more spontaneous; an image or phrase will start to pester me like a persistent fly. 

How do you prepare yourself before sitting down to write? 

I don’t particularly set aside time at the moment, although I am familiar with needing to do so and to either be relaxed or ‘in flow’, as described in John Cleese’s ‘Open Mode’I’ve trained myself to write even when the house is a complete mess. Most likely, I might be working on something academic and suddenly I’ve opened a new document and out pops a first draft. If I had all the time in the world, without interruption, I’d journal first thing, leading into poetry writing. 

What advice would you give to poets looking to get their work published? 

Workshop your poems with other writers you respect. Enter competitions, send to magazines. Collect twenty of your best poems to put towards pamphlet competitions and publishers. Work your way to a first collection.  

Is it important to build a reputation by submitting to competitions, magazines and journals? 

It turns out to be, yes, although I resisted it for a long time; I was surprised how suddenly relieved I felt at the Bridport prize that I hadn’t been kidding myself I could write and that was about fifteen years after I started to take it seriously; it is easy to feel a fraudConversely, often a performance poet’s trade is their words and style of delivery, and paid gigs to turn up to and present. However some performance poems translate brilliantly to the page and are also great to read.  

Do you have any tips for submitting poems to publishers or magazines? 

Go to the library and read samples of magazines/books, or order back copies, or subscribe before sending in your work.  

What methods do you use to overcome feeling disheartened or to keep positive? 

Treat ‘sending out’ as an administrative task; if the poems return, send them on their merry way again. Commune with other writers and share information and plans. The poetry world isn’t always fair and certainly has its darlings. Be patient, your day will come! 

Do you have any other advice for fellow poets? 

Take risks, it isn’t always the poems you think are the competition winners that win the competitions. Persevere with the craft, sharing with fellow poets and buy books! 

 

Claire’s collection Visiting the Minotaur is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Deryn Rees-Jones shares her poetry advice

It was announced earlier today that Deryn Rees-Jones’ new collection Erato has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2019. It therefore felt only fitting that this week’s poetry advice blog came from her.

Named after the Greek muse of lyric poetry, Erato combines documentary-style prose narratives with the passionate lyric poetry for which Rees-Jones is renowned. Here, however, as she experiments with form, particularly the sonnet, Rees-Jones asks questions about the value of the poet and poetry itself. What is the difference, she asks in one poem, between a sigh and a song? Erato’s themes are manifold but particularly focus on personal loss, desire and recovery, in the context of a world in which wars and displacement of people has become a terrifying norm.

 

What first drew you to poetry?

As a child in primary school we were expected to write at least a poem a week. Each poem then had to be illustrated. I took these tasks very seriously and wonder if my interest in the relationship between text and image stems from there.

Where do you look to for inspiration?

The origins of that word inspiration are interesting, aren’t they, that idea of inhalation, but one that originated in the idea of bringing something divine into the human body. I have recently been working on an exhibition with the artist Charlotte Hodes. She has made a sequence of four images, now engraved on glass, with my captions – heat, heart, in-breath, unfurls. Glass is one of those transformative materials, which I have become fascinated by. I’m thinking about it a great deal, and in my mind it also connects with something that has also preoccupied me in the past — snow. I’m interested more generally in heat, in the idea of fire as a metaphor for the creative process. Those captions on glass, which evolved from our shared working and thinking, are a shorthand for ideas I have explored a little more relentlessy in Erato. I continue this thinking about creativity in a book length lyric essay – Fires — that will be published in November with Shoestring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What poets or writers inspire you?

My work as an editor at Pavilion is a huge privilege, seeing books as they develop, working with closely with poets. I learn a lot from seeing that process, and from the close reading that demands. Current poetry books I am reading – Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Mei-mei Berssenbruge’s Hello, the Roses. I read a lot of books about psychoanalysis as a theory but also as a practice, and I have also just started reading two quite different but enjoyable and wise books, Mary Midgley’s autobiography The Owl of Minvera, and Rosi Braidotti’s new book, Posthuman Knowledge.

What does poetry mean to you?

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet at the moment about the way poetry sometimes gets claimed as this universal panacea or in some way becomes fetishized. Poetry is a very important and particular process, but it’s deeply connected to other things that its processes allows – thinking in deep ways, feeling, paying attention, engaging with a community of thinkers and readers, being in the world. I honour the process and the pleasures and excitement poetry brings. But I am impatient when poetry somehow becomes separated from those other processes of which it is a part, and then gets reduced to a commodity.

How do you balance writing poetry with working? If you write full time, what made you decide to do so?

I have a full and busy life, and I’m starting to trust a bit more that the method I seem to have developed over the years, of setting other critical writing alongside my creative work, is a useful synergy. I don’t feel the need to separate that process.

Do you have a writing routine? What is it?

I have lots of routines, most of which include the balance of full-time work in the university and childcare. School drop-off and pick up times, walking the dog are all structures built in to the day. I was recently on an extended period of study leave and I tried to work for three intense hours writing every morning in the local café. That time was ringfenced for critical writing and research, but poems inevitably creep in. If you parent small children on your own, life can feel very closed down in terms of the freedom to simply leave the house, take a walk, run out for groceries, have some time alone with friends. That has changed a great deal now and I am valuing the new freedoms but also, as I look back, valuing that enforced quietness and what it asked of me. I don’t have a specific writing routine when it comes to poetry, but the other routines mean there might be space when I need it.

How do you prepare yourself before sitting down to write?

I don’t. It’s more organic than that. You could say that even though I’m not writing, in notebooks, of which I have many, or on screen, that I am writing all the time, because writing is much more than sitting down and putting marks on the page.

What advice would you give to poets looking to get their work published?

Concentrate on the poems, read – what is being published now, but also engage with poems that have come before. Read internationally. Having a sense of what poetry means in cultures that are not your own is really important; understanding a poetic history as well as a context is really important.

Is it important to build a reputation by submitting to competitions, magazines and journals?

For some poets it might be, it’s one route. I’m more interested in that process as a testing ground for readership and the poem than I am in the idea of reputation.

Do you have any tips for submitting poems to publishers or magazines?

Write your best poem in the best way you can. It’s going back to the idea of seeing publication as a testing ground. Not all the poems in a book work on their own, but can be vital when assembling a book. Keep a humble and critical judgement. Leave poems alone for a while. Trust that editors, who are usually poets, have a good sense of what is working or not in a poem.

What methods do you use to overcome feeling disheartened or to keep positive?

We live in an age of soundbites, some of which are directed at least in a superficial way, at improving our mental health. Of course we all have feelings when work is returned or doesn’t appear to have been read after publication. Poets need readers, and it can be painful not to feel heard or relevant or understood, but processing that part of your professional life is also part of life. I’m more interested in the life part  — how to live ethically, and joyfully, than some sense that we can guard against difficulty or pain without seeing that as part of a bigger process.

Do you have any other advice for fellow poets?

I wouldn’t presume!

 

Erato is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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An Interview with Alexandra Ford

A forgotten history, a lifetime of secrecy and one woman’s search for the truth.

Alexandra Ford’s debut novel What Remains at the End sheds light on the lesser-known history of the former Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans – the Danube Swabians – and the horrors inflicted on them in the aftermath of World War II under Tito’s partisan regime. In this interview, we talk to her about writing the book, its themes and what she might have in store for us with her next novel.

 

What Remains at the End focuses on the forgotten history of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans—the Danube Swabians. What first drew you to this topic?

Like Marie, I have a family connection to this history. My grandparents were survivors of the expulsion. And much like Marie’s grandparents, my Oma and Opa, while they spoke a lot about the war, didn’t go into detail about what had happened to them, to their communities. So, in many respects, researching for and writing this book was my own way of grappling with and understanding my family’s history.

What was it like doing research for this book and where did you focus your search? Have you visited any of the places Marie travels to in her own search for answers?

Researching for this book was a challenge. I interviewed my grandparents when they were still alive, but unfortunately, we’re at the point where many of the people who lived through World War II are gone. At least in the English language, there aren’t many written resources available, and the resources I did find were often written and compiled by people with a strong connection to the history. So, they weren’t academic texts, you could say, and there was a lot of understandable emotion—anger, indignation, horror—written into them. Which didn’t always make them reliable sources. But they were human, and they were primarily composed of personal stories as told by victims. Which is what I was most interested in as a writer—that and those grey areas of morality in Western culture.

And yes, I visited pretty much all of the places Marie travels to in her search for answers. I think it would have been very difficult to write this book without having seen Vojvodina and these places where so much horror took place—both for the historical short pieces and for the modern narrative, to understand what Marie would have felt living her experience.

The book shifts between 1940s Yugoslavia and modern day, connecting Marie’s journey with the experiences of her grandparents. What made you decide on this structure to tell their story? Are the historical sequences based on real events?

This book began with the historical pieces. The first one I wrote was the one about Emma Marzluft and her family being forcibly removed from their home. I created the characters and put them into very real, researched circumstances. A number of my stories came in this way. Others drew heavily on personal accounts. Which is a very roundabout way of saying yes, these stories are based on real events, real people, real places, often real details.

The structure didn’t take long to follow. I knew I needed something to balance the bleakness and violence of the historical pieces, something that wouldn’t trap me in the same place as my resources: coming across as indignant or self-righteous, leading me—and readers—down a path that doesn’t differ terribly from hate. The book needed to make room for complication in the landscape, and paradox, if only because it’s arrogant to believe we are incapable of the things other people have done, that we are better. Maybe we’re not. Western culture as a whole has a lot of blood on its hands.

I also felt it was important to show who these surviving victims became and perhaps why their stories have remained unspoken into the present day. So, I knew what I needed, but I didn’t know how to build it. It was actually in conversation with one of my mentors that I realised Marie was my way forward. I told my mentor about my upcoming trip to the former Yugoslavia, my connection to this story, and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s the answer.’ And it was like someone pulled open a window blind and all the light came rushing in.

You often opt to describe the horrors inflicted on Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans through the eyes of a child. What was it about the child’s voice that made you choose them as key narrators of these events?

Part of this, I think, is that, of the personal accounts I’d heard or read, many had come from people who were children during the war. If they were old enough to be telling me their stories, as my grandparents were, they could only have been children at the time. And sometimes in their retellings, I could hear the childhood language they may have used to describe it all before they grew up. It made sense for me to tell it from that point of view. But also, I find something particularly compelling about a child’s perspective. They can be much wiser than adults. They speak a language more evocative and open than grown up language allows.

What Remains at the End makes the reader consider several moral themes that will be challenging for some: ethnic cleansing, racial prejudice, infidelity. Do you think it’s important to challenge readers by discussing difficult/undiscussed topics?

Absolutely. Where, if not in books, can one wade through these things? I love the space fiction leaves for the reader to think and feel their way through complicated issues. I look for that, as a reader. Life is complicated—both personally and on a macro level. Getting stuck into moral dilemmas is part of what it means to be human. But I acknowledge that some of the themes in this novel are particularly challenging. They were challenging for me as well. I asked myself often if anyone would even want to read about ethnic German victims of World War II. If it was right to tell the story of German victims, if the process of doing so would belittle the millions of victims of the Holocaust. But what I came to, and what I hope readers come to as well, is that it’s important for us to look at our history in its entirety. Because if we don’t look at all the things that have made us, how do we know who we are?

Your book has a dual purpose, firstly to entertain readers, secondly to shed light on a lesser known but significant part of history. Why did you think it was important to bring the horrors of these events to light and why now?

It certainly feels relevant to share this story today. We’re in the throes of Brexit, after all. So much has changed in the decades since WWII, but not as much as one might hope. Donald Trump, the rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, right-wing populism—Western society is swinging the pendulum back toward nationalism and the rhetoric of otherness. I never thought I’d quote Mark Twain, but here I am. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Sometimes those rhymes are riddles. Sometimes they’re terrifying echoes. But we have to know the lines that came before to feel the rhyme. And this seems a pretty good time to brush up on our poetry.

This is your first novel, although you have been writing for a while. How did the process differ from what you have done before and how did you find the process? Was it harder than you expected?

The biggest difference between the writing I had done before and What Remains at the End was moving from short forms into writing a longer narrative. I felt comfortable in the world of short and very short fiction, where you have to be super economical with your writing to pack a whole story into a small space. Longer narratives don’t work in quite the same way, so there was definitely a learning curve. Weaving the historical short pieces through Marie’s story was surprisingly one of the more intuitive parts of the process. But I suppose the thing that was most difficult, and definitely harder than I expected, was how long it took to revise. It took two years to write what I felt was a strong first draft—and five years of revisions after that before it was finished. I learned the importance of embracing a book’s evolution and to accept that that evolution takes time. And it needs people. Writing a book is not a solitary journey.

You are currently working on your second novel. Will it be exploring similar themes or are you looking at something different the second time around?

It’s early days for my second novel, so it’s difficult to talk about with clarity. I’ll continue exploring challenging themes, but with a much more acute scope. It will tell the story of two women isolated together in a rundown house—a mother and her grown daughter—as they navigate life, death, grief, and healing from past trauma. I don’t know if it will be a book about forgiveness, but it will be a book about the idea of home, about memory and longing. And about morally complicated people doing the best they can and coming to terms with the possibility that their best isn’t enough for their loved ones. If it turns out as planned, it’ll be a bit of a dysfunctional Marches pastoral. But one thing I’ve learned is that the process of writing a book is full of surprises. So, we’ll have to wait and see, but it feels really good to be writing something new, not knowing where it might lead.

 

What Remains at the End is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99.

Join us for the official launch of What Remains at the End at The Hurst (The John Osbourne Arvon Centre, SY7 0JA) on Saturday 23rd November from 4pm. Alexandra will be reading from the book and there will be wine, cake and a signing afterwards. 

An Interview with Robert Minhinnick

Robert Minhinnick is one of Wales’ (some would say Britain’s) most eminent writers. Next month we publish his latest novel Nia, the third book in his coastal trilogy all set in the same fictional resort. Ahead of its publication on the 1st October, Robert talks to us about the novel’s themes, its characters and what inspires him.

 

 

In Nia, dreams, memory and time all flow into one, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what is real and what is in Nia’s imagination. What about this structure draws you to it when writing and how is it important to the development of your characters?

Frankly, ‘madness’ is a big part of my life, and how it is socially perceived. Schizophrenia continues to play a role in my family, via my mother and her sister, aged 93 and 91. During World War II, my father contracted malaria, in Burma. The result was periodic delirium. My writing tries to explore ‘madness’ and delirium, and relate them to memory and dreams and the very act of writing ‘fiction’.

Throughout the book you touch on themes of the environment and climate change. Do you think it is important that authors use their voice to highlight issues to their audiences, and why in particular are they important to you?

You’re interviewing someone who is co-founder of Friends of the Earth Cymru, in 1984, and the charity ‘Sustainable Wales’, ongoing.

This is your third novel set in the same fictional community, each with interlinking characters but separate, stand-alone stories. How have the community and its inhabitants changed over the course of the series? Will we see any more writing set in the same place?

The fairground is a constant theme. It’s a powerful metaphor, a constant source of drama. I can see it from my attic. I like the idea of a particular family or community being examined.  After all, staying/belonging are familiar themes in fiction.

Nia is a book dominated by sunshine, even drought. Limestone Man experienced a suffocating sea-fret. The town’s economic circumstances always play a part, as does its history, and they are very much based on Porthcawl where I live. The street names, for instance, are the names of ships wrecked off the Porthcawl coast.

You take Porthcawl and the Merthyr Mawr dunes as the inspiration for your fictional town. Why did you choose to reimagine that place?

I write about where I live. I decided long ago that I should celebrate Porthcawl and the areas between the mouths of the rivers Ogwr and Cynffig. My writing is one way of achieving this. In Nia, I also celebrate my time in Saskatchewan, and my brief periods in Kerala and Amsterdam. Writing about different places can create an interesting friction – a little like icebergs grinding against each other in the South Saskatchewan river.

Some may say that the structure of Nia is reminiscent of that of prose poetry. How does your long career as a poet influence your prose style?

Originally, Nia possessed chapter names. I dispensed with these at a late stage, as I felt they directed the reader too forcibly. One of my friends is disappointed by the first two novels in that there seems no real ‘resolution’. Of course, I tell him, even death does not resolve matters…

How has your fiction style developed over the course of writing this series? Did the process of writing Nia differ from that of your previous novels? 

I’m older. But still wishing to learn. The character of Nia is developed because some years ago the former fiction editor at Seren, Penny Thomas, told me I should strengthen my female characters.

Nia is obsessed with words. What is your relationship with them?

Well, obsessional might be the correct description.

Another blurred boundary between time and place, comes about through the travel stories vividly recounted by Nia’s friends throughout the book. In what way is the theme of travel important to the book, and to Nia’s story in particular?

I wanted to write about Saskatchewan. There are poems actually written there incorporated into the text of Nia. Also memories of visiting Auschwitz, Amsterdam, Kerala and New York. But the editing process removed many references…

Nia’s perception of her life seems unstable throughout: she constantly questions her own sanity and her role as a mother. These kinds of traits can be seen in the lead characters of your other two novels as well. What draws you to this type of character as a narrator?

All my narrators are ‘unreliable’, and plagued by self-doubt, dreams and delusion. That’s why memory blends into delirium. The fairground is an excellent means of depicting this. I look at the eyes of my grandchildren as they encounter the funfair, or ‘the shows’ as we used to call it, and wonder what they see…

At the heart of Nia’s story, is her dream expedition with her friends into the unexplored caves beneath the dunes. Why did you choose to centre the action of your book on a caving expedition, and what is the significance of the trip to Nia?

It’s a fictional expedition, but Nia doesn’t dream it. Yet she experiences many other dreams in this novel about the dunes, their history, flora and fauna.  ‘The Shwyl’ caves are based on ‘the Schwyll’ cave system, which provided fresh water for the Bridgend area (including the Seren office) until recently, using ‘the Great Spring of Glamorgan’, which emerges in Ewenni.

Thus, it’s a real place, little known yet fascinating. Perhaps Nia feels intimidated by the travel stories of Isaac Pretty and Skye, and it’s her way of competing with two seemingly powerful personalities, who have returned to her community.

Nia will be available on the Seren website from the 1st October 2019. Pre-order your copy now. 

Robert Minhinnick’s ‘Sea Holly’ series is a set of three novels that follow generations of one family – the Vines – and a cast of characters brought up in the same location, which is dominated by the sea, wild duneland, and a funfair. 

‘Erato’: An Interview with Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones is the author of four previous collections of poetry, shortlisted variously for the Forward (first collection), TS Eliot and Roland Mathias prizes. Last month, she returned with her new collection Erato, which is a Poetry Book Society Summer Recommendation, but where does she look to for inspiration and how do these themes come through in her work? In this interview,  we talk to her about the new book and find out more about the themes, artists and imagery that inspire her.

 

Song comes through in many of the poems in Erato. In ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’, a poem about tragic love between two 7th century Irish poets, even the woods are singing: “When we sang, the woods sang back”. Do you consciously seek inspiration from the outdoor world?

Throughout Erato, I am thinking through longstanding questions I have about the role of the lyric poem, so often criticised because of its potential for individualism, introspection, and solipsism. ‘Líadain and Cuirithir’ is a lyric which attempts to enjoy its own musical beauty. But – and this is the important thing — I also erase it, score it through — because I’m signalling early on in the book my uncertainty about writing about the complexities of a relationship in an elegiac, romanticised way.  Those erasures and errors continue to be explored as the book expands on its thinking through a series of repetitions. So yes, song is a central part of the book. And I’m trying out what that sense of correspondence between the self and the natural world might be.

As the book opens out I think about all sorts of songs—and test out my feelings and thoughts about and through them. There’s bird song, the little song of the sonnet, the seductive song of the siren, which is also in the modern world, a different sound of danger and distress than the song of the sirens when Odysseus binds himself to the mast of his ship so that he can hear them but not be lured to his death. There is for me, now, in the current political climate, a sense that I need to question, more than ever, what I am doing, with language, in my engagement with the world. The phrase ‘Look Up’ appears on several occasions. With poetry – and I think poetry is an inherently social act — comes responsibility. A long answer to your question! But yes, I do take deep pleasure in the natural world, but always with an awareness that the world exists in a complex web of interdependences.

The poems often juxtapose beautiful images with sombre ones of loss. Can dark moments contain their own moments of inner beauty?

How do we make the privacy of the lyric engage with, be ethical, and encompass the world? Terrible things are happening, and every day on the news or on my twitter feed, I, all of us, become sometimes, for a moment, aware of them. Uprootedness, war, climate emergency… There is always a chance for empathy, for action. But often, we do nothing. One small way I have attempted to deal with all this knowledge of pain and difficulty has been to experiment with the formal ‘beauty’ of poetic structures.  So there are a lot of prose-like pieces which I have tried to structure like a sonnet. They carry something of the sonnet’s ‘little song’ but also need to find a new way of carrying them. So form and ‘beauty’ become thrown into question as they are pulled to a point of impossibility and transform into something else.

“The water and reflection ask / no question of themselves” in ‘Great Crested Grebes’. Do you think that too much introspection can be a barrier to creativity?

We all need to think and feel as much as we can, don’t we? So much in our lives demands that we think and live within often damaging and coercive and reductive systems. Or learn not to feel at all. I feel lucky that the society I live in still feels safe, and relatively free. But what has happened over the course of the last four or five years is a reminder of how quickly things we have taken for granted, can change. Creativity should not be a luxury.

The poems in the Courtship section of Erato are a riot of colour, sound and actions seen through the lives of birds. How do you make your selections of which birds and which attributes to use?

Because of my name, which means bird,  birds are deeply written into a sense of my own identity. Some of the birds in the book hold particular personal resonances; some I went looking for in books and online. I also have in mind birds as creatures which move between worlds of the living and the dead. The wren of Burying the Wren was both here and not here. Sirens in Greek mythology are also half-woman, half bird….

We were compelled to take a deep breath when reading this in the poem ‘Walk’: “I remembered my son’s look. It’s a kind of scary beauty, mum, he’d said one day but I could no longer recall why. / I was scared now / and took a deep breath. It felt like a wounding. I said, But even in the darkness, you know you are alive.” What techniques do you use to let a poem breathe in order to sound alive?

Each poem happens differently. Increasingly poems seem to get harder to write. But Erato is a book that is less concerned with poems as individual objects and more concerned with the sweep and trajectory of a book as a vehicle for thinking something through. I experimented with that in my earlier book Quiver which also explored ideas through the creation of a narrative structure. I would say that I am increasingly interested in using the book form to create an imaginative landscape for thinking. Once I finished Erato I realised that really it is part of a bigger sequence. There’s a piece in Erato, ’Fires‘, which tries to explore the link between trauma and creativity. Later this year I am publishing a little lyric essay/ poetic fragment called ‘Fires’ with Shoestring Press that explores the idea of creativity further. For better or worse, I already have the next book after this mapped out in my head!  So I am thinking of Erato as the first part of a trilogy that explores, even in terrible times, a vital, hopeful universe.

What are you most particularly hoping to find when you look beneath the foliage, the plumes and the clothing, for material to create a poem from?

Just as each poem happens in a different way so, too, each poem has its own task. The important moment for me is in bringing a book together, and asking all those elements which are fizzing away, making their own plans, repeating and transforming themselves, to have a conversation so that they become part of a more meaningful whole.

Your connection to the visual arts, and artists such a Paula Rego and Francesca Woodman, are themes that run through many of your poems and collections. What is it about the visual arts that inspires you and which are your biggest influences?

Critical and creative work often for me go hand in hand. Sometimes I am making conscious connections, sometimes not, and what goes on unconsciously excites me, of course. In Burying the Wren I wrote a sequence to Rego’s incredible and moving dog women pictures as a way of trying to understand them, and also as a way of trying to understand, or at least put words to, my own feelings after the death of my husband. Rego’s pictures address agency, pain, grief but importantly, too, they are pictures of metamorphosis, scratched out with huge energy, in pastel on canvas. I have spent the last two years working intensively on a critical book Paula Rego: The Art of Story, which will be published later this year, and getting to know the trajectory of Rego’s work over the last sixty years so intimately has been a huge pleasure. She has taught me something, I hope, about how to develop imaginative structures, and has prompted me to think about the relationship between the personal and political, the moment, and the historical.  Rego creates a prism of meaning through image, and story, the personal and the fabular. I think this gave me a way of thinking about giving form to complexities of experience in time. Like Rego, like many women artists, Woodman is also interested in representing the frequently objectified female body in a complex way. The body is central to Erato too  – the memory of a beloved’s body, the bodies of saints, the bodies of the dead, observed bodies, dolls’ bodies, the political body…

When reading the poems in Erato we often found tears in our eyes. If they fell on the not yet gestated wildflower seeds in ‘Gardens’, what flowers would you hope they would grow into?

It’s important to me that people are moved by the book. And I am aware that on one level I am telling a very personal story.  I wanted that to be simple and accessible, and around that things are woven in.  ‘Gardens’ is a poem about wishes, about transformations. I would really like to think that the whole book, now it has been published,  is something generative, that is not mine, but which, in making a connection between writer and reader, takes the reader somewhere else.

 

Want to hear more? Deryn is appearing alongside Tess Gallagher and Nessa O’Mahoney at Books Upstairs in Dublin later this month. If you’re local to the area why not pop along? More details can be found here

 

Erato is available on the Seren website: £9.99

Enjoy 20% off every book you buy from us when you create your free Seren account.

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