These three poems, my first appearance in The Lonely Crowd, are quite distinct and represent some of my central concerns, poetic strategies and aims.
“Pro Patria” is a confessional poem, the sort of deeply personal exposure which characterized my work in the late seventies and early eighties. I had lost my father and grandmother and was dealing with grief and the challenges of what that loss of close family members does to your sense of self and purpose. The poems in the sections “Preparations” and “Letting Go” in my From the Fortunate Isles : Selected and New Poems (Seren, October 2016) contain poems which became almost impossible to include in readings. In the mid eighties I developed a more narrative, third person and dramatic monologue approach to researched subjects – wartime characters, artists, figures from history which allowed me to inhabit other lives and concerns; that proved to be much healthier; and so much more engaging for listeners. Poems such as “Soup” and “Incident on a Hospital Train from Calcutta, 1944” and others won awards, prizes and critical acclaim. I was on to something. Lift up your eyes, open your ears and get away from your own concerns.
“Pro Patria”, which comes from a late and surprisingly dramatic questioning of my father’s role in the Second World War seems to be taking a step backwards artistically, but one which was absolutely necessary. I am still in touch with a colonel in the R.E.M.E. museum who is trying to find out more for me.
“The Croquet Club” is from a sequence which I wrote as part of my residency last year at Dyffryn Gardens, the National Trust property in the Vale of Glamorgan. They have one of the few croquet clubs in Wales and have very serious, international, players there. I knew little, having played casually a couple of times on conference visits to Gregynog Hall, so had to Google and dig. Fascinating: croquet gives insights into social and sexual mores at the end of the nineteenth century, was popular before tennis played that role and was, as you may read, the subject of major painters. On our visit to the States last September I stood in front of the Winslow Homer at the Yale Collection.
“At Gettysburg” was written after that USA visit. We stayed for four days with a former post grad of mine in Gettysburg. An astonishing place – moving and ghostly: July 1st 1861 – 150,000 soldiers clashed in a village the size of Narberth and slaughtered each other. The whole pace is a national monument now. The seminary building in which I gave my poetry reading was an improvised hospital – many houses and public buildings were used – there was rudimentary medicine, little knowledge of hygiene or wound management.
Apart from “The Croquet Club” these poems are included in the new poetry section of my Selected. This is an important book for me – fifty years of writing and publishing poems. In May 2017 Cinnamon Press are bringing out my selected stories – Some Kind of Immortality. I trust that isn’t too ironic…..
Those two books, together with a work-in-progress Writers of Wales study of my work for UWP, would seem to be drawing a line under me. However, I sincerely hope that it is a line which leads off one page on to another. I am currently working on a sequence of poems based on the 1966 Aberfan photographs of Chuck Rapoport. That is another collaboration with Welsh language poet Grahame Davies. We premiered that at the Redhouse, Merthyr Tydfil on October 17th, read something at the Senedd on the 19th and will offer a looped video of poems and images for showing around Wales and further afield. I’ll be at the Lonely Crowd reading that evening of the 19th after the Senedd and am continuing through October to have book launches, from Dylan Boathouse on the 1st to the Torbay Festival on the 30th. There’s a contribution to Dai Smith’s Radio Wales Aberfan feature on the October 21st anniversary. I am no longer gainfully employed but am gainfully retired.
Tony Curtis is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of South Wales where he developed Creative Writing. His New & Selected Poems: From the Fortunate Isles is published by Seren in October 2016 and his Selected Stories: Some Kind of Immortality by Cinnamon Press in 2017. He has written and edited over forty books and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. All three poems discussed in this piece can be found in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd.
You can hear Tony read all three poems discussed in this piece at The Murenger, Newport tomorrow night, 730pm as part of our Issue Five launch.
© Tony Curtis, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.