An Interview with Jonathan Edwards / Glyn Edwards

Jonathan Edwards was born and brought up in Crosskeys, south Wales. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick, has written speeches for the Welsh Assembly Government and journalism for The Big Issue Cymru, and currently works as an English teacher. He won the Terry Hetherington Award in 2010, was awarded a Literature Wales new writer’s bursary in 2011, and in 2012 won prizes in the Cardiff International Poetry Competition and the Basil Bunting Award. His work has appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Poetry Review, The North, Poetry Wales and New Welsh Review. His debut poetry collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, was published in 2014 and was the winner of that year’s Costa Poetry Award. His second volume, Genwas published this year.

Glyn Edwards: In the introductory poem to Gen, ‘Sing Song Spring Song,’ you open and close each of the four stanzas with the imperative ‘begin’.  Did your writing lose any momentum after your first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, was released to such acclaim? How much of this anthology was a ‘continuing’ and how much a ‘beginning afresh’?

Jonathan Edwards: This poem was a conscious attempt to write an opening poem for a collection, in the manner of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Prologue.’ I was reading David Clarke’s great Nine Arches collection, Arc, at the time of composition, which has a wonderful opening poem, ‘Throw,’ and this was another inspiration. In terms of momentum, writing poems was essentially a continuum before and after the publication of my first collection. Some of the poems in Gen, including the title poem and the poem about Harry Houdini, were written a couple of months before the publication of Superheroes; others, such as the poem about the servant watching a performance of The Rivals, a month or so after. So that imperative ‘Begin’ is not about a concern as to whether writing is happening – indeed, I think all the business of looking in poems for some sort of autobiographical truth about how a writer feels is deeply problematic. Rather, it’s a way of opening a collection, in the same way that a rock band might place an especially energetic song first on an album or in a set list. When writing doesn’t happen, it’s very rarely, in my experience, about the writing, but rather about other things that are going on. The madness of writing needs you to be absolutely sane to do it, and sometimes life intervenes. So part of what’s going on in the poem is a pleading with myself to put all that to one side, to seek redemption through writing, to crank up the Duracell toy of myself and set it going again.

I think, in terms of the relationship between this collection and the first one, it’s clear that this book is a continuation. I am still writing about subjects like family, Wales, relationships, animals, and so on, still telling jokes, still pushing forms and music. One development I think in this collection is that there are more monologues, and writing these was an interesting thing with this book. I wanted to take my usual themes and push them through this approach, so that there is a poem written from the point of view of lions, and another written from the point of view of the city of Newport. I say ‘wanted to’ but this isn’t quite right. The voices of these poems wrote them for me, their energy took over, and I sat there like a court reporter or secretary, trying to keep up. The chief difference between writers and readers is that writers get to read their own poems first, and these poems were a little like that. Given how few people read poetry, and the fact that you have to make a choice between writing it and say, watching an episode of The Simpsons, writing has to be an enjoyable process for the writer, as otherwise nobody would do it. Giving your poem over to another voice is one way of making the process of writing entertaining. Suddenly you can see your town from a completely new perspective, or see your reflection on the inside of the glass at the lion enclosure at the zoo, feel your lion-breath as it clouds the glass. Or you can visit other countries, live in other bodies, feel new things, all while sitting at your desk, clutching a pen tight – as tightly, say, as a first-time Formula One driver must grip the steering wheel. It’s magic, all this. As Simon Armitage puts it at the end of ‘Zoom!,’ ‘It’s just words, / I assure them.’ But it’s quite amazing what they can do.

GE: Similarly, you implore us to ‘hear’ the ‘church bells or smartphones ring’, while, at other points your poems insist we directly ‘look’ where you are pointing. Gen’stitle poem is a ‘bow(ing) down to the young’, but is this a gesture of submission to, recognition of or even worship for the children of Generation Z?

JE: The commanding, imploring, gestural tone of my voice at points draws on the influence of Carol Ann Duffy. Her poem, ‘Valentine,’ for example, goes like this: ‘I give you an onion. / It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. / It promises light / like the careful undressing of love. / Here.’ I love that word ‘Here,’ because it implies something happening as you are reading the poem – the onion being held out on the speaker’s palm. To read that poem, that word, any time you like, is to conjure the speaker bodily into the room you’re reading in, to see them holding out their hand, to be able to reach out and take the onion. Someone can read that poem, a thousand years from now, and it will still be happening in a super-present tense. Similarly, the ending of ‘Education for Leisure’ – ‘I touch your arm’ – is gestural, even physical. Such moments allow the speaker to connect so dramatically with the reader. The words are more than the marks on the page, they’re a human being here, now. I’m reminded of what Hector says about the experience of reading a great book in The History Boys: ‘it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ I want my poems to always be now for the reader – I want to reach through the words and the page and have a chat with them, to see what they’re up to, to ask them what matters to them. These imperatives you mention are part of the ham-fisted attempt at that grand ambition.

In terms of the title poem’s celebration of youth, I think this is a poem drawn partly out of Larkin’s attitude towards the young, and partly out of my own conception of moving towards middle age. To look at a group of people and say ‘Those young folk over there’ is inevitably about a consciousness of being unable to group yourself with them now, and that being quite new, and quite odd. But I think, as so often in my writing, I am far less interested here in writing about youth or any of the things this poem may be considered to be about, than I am in writing a poem. Writing with a lot of music and pace might be a good way to celebrate youth, but for me it’s more true to say that writing about youth might allow me to write something with decent music and pace. I remember reading a prominent editor a few years ago saying something along the lines of 90% of everything with poetry being about subject matter. It interested me, because for me, it’s really not. I’m happy to treat any subject, to say anything a poem wants me to, if it makes the poem succeed and people enjoy it. Of course, as a body of work builds, your cares, your loves, become apparent. But, day-to-day, I want to write poems. What the poems want to be about is really their concern.

GE: Two poems set in the days of 1995 fixate on the experiences of a teenager and their pivotal moments between innocence and adulthood.  How much fiction is in this 16 year old’s voice and do you ever manipulate the anonymity ensured by time to address lost loves and still-raw regrets?

JE: If I were to ever have a university position or research grant, one thing I would want to do would be some sort of inter-disciplinary project on the subject of nostalgia. Why do we have it? What’s it for? The notion of intelligent design seems to come a cropper here. No one loves the future – no one in 2018 walks round feeling a deep and passionate attraction to say, 2084. The most we feel for the future is curiosity when we’re kids, turning to terror when we’re adults, about hoverboards and flying cars and robots who blow stuff up. And the present is always so intensely for doing things, which means that the times in life when you get to think You know what, I fucking love this moment, now! I will do a dance! – well, you can get there, but you can count those times on one hand. Yet everyone wakes up and walks around all day thinking I loved it then. It was great. The people and the cake. Faces shone beneath the gas lamps like roaring fires you could sit around and tell tales. Why isn’t it like that now? Bah. What use does nostalgia have? All it does is make us yearn. There’s no point in it. Unless you want to write poems. Or be Welsh.

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. I don’t write about that, because I need the poems to be fun, but the writing about football matches, Harry Houdini, Marty McFly, my father crashing a car in 1965, my uncle smoking a pipe in 1986 – it’s all a way, I suspect, of addressing that.

GE: In Gen, there is a poem about the disaster in Aberfan and three about the government’s intentional flooding of Capel Celyn to become a reservoir. You appear to have been so influenced by the weight of these events that you enact a slight change of tone in these poems. Can you explain how you approach topics of such magnitude in your poetry? What motivates the revisiting of modern tragedies and will writers always try to make sense of the incomprehensible?

JE: It’s interesting that you see a change of tone here. I think a poem like ‘Aberfan’ is in dialogue, stylistically and formally, with the collection’s title poem, that the writer who wants to celebrate youth is also the writer who wants to mourn its tragedies. There’s an enormous responsibility in writing about these subjects. It isn’t possible of course for writing to make sense of these events, but what poetry can attempt to do is to focus on and express the human experience, what it might have been like, and by a writer trying to lead the reader into that experience, they are urging them to share it, trying to show the reader its importance.

I should say that all these poems have had great help from other people and other writing. John Davies’s A History of Wales has been an enormous influence on both collections, and other similar histories, such as Jon Gower’s The Story of Wales, have also been really useful. Gaynor Madgwick’s book about Aberfan gave significant impetus to my poem on that subject, and Einion Thomas’s book Capel Celyn: Ten Years of Destructionwas invaluable in writing about Capel Celyn, as was Owain Williams’s first-person account, Tryweryn: A Nation Awakes. In attempting to write about the experience of Tryweryn, I wanted to include other voices in my writing, and I was lucky enough to set up an interview with David Walters, who was involved in one of the attacks on the dam site in the 1960s. His story is a fascinating one.

I think the other thing about these poems is that they draw on the fact that when I was in school, my favourite subject, after English, was History. We’re lucky in Wales that our history, and especially our history of class dissent, is so rich. There’s a well of passion to draw on there (the members of Manic Street Preachers are among those who know this), and you’d be daft to ignore this if you’re trying to come up with poems. I can remember, in secondary school, writing stories from the point of view of a Chartist marching on Newport in the nineteenth century. I loved thinking myself into that other skin, of addressing a subject which felt much more important than anything I could invent.

GE: The three poems in the forthcoming Issue Eleven of The Lonely Crowd give voices to the places in a community where lives bisect; the town is revealing itself through locations of witness. ‘Newport Talking’, which was commissioned by Swansea University for their Vernon Watkins commemoration, is a wonderful example in Gen where the habitat is personified and sentient to its composition. To what degree is ‘Newport’ every city, town and village and were you tempted at all to release all of these poems in one series?

JE: I should say that these poems carry the influence of another wonderful Carol Ann Duffy poem, ‘A Week as my Home Town,’ which is a series of monologues written from the point of view of places in a town. I’ve used that poem a lot as a workshop exercise and it therefore became inevitable that I would begin to express the interest in place, which is there in my first collection, directly through monologue. ‘Newport Talking’ was the first of these poems to emerge. The monologues are able to deal with subjects like suicide and unrequited love in a way that might be difficult to address directly – it becomes easier because of the unusual viewpoint.

In terms of these poems being a single series, the poems other than ‘Newport Talking’ emerged much later, and too late for me to be sure enough of them in a book. It also felt like including these other monologues might dilute the impact of ‘Newport Talking.’ But I’ve been really pleased with how these newer monologues have gone down with audiences when I’ve read them. Along with some other new poems, which range in subject from penguins to my bamp, from Screaming Lord Sutch to my mother’s early 70s car drive to Paris, they’re already putting their hands up and yelling, like, say, over-carbonated Friday afternoon Year Seven pupils, to be included in a third collection. Whatever else the future might hold, whether it’s hoverboards or robots, time travel or nostalgia, I very much hope that there’s a lot more writing to be done.

Wales Arts Review described Glyn Edwards as one of the ‘most exciting young voices in Welsh poetry’. His first collection will be published in 2019 by The Lonely Press. He is an editor of Cheval, the anthology of the Terry Hetherington Prize, and The Tishman Review. He is a teacher in North Wales. Twitter @glynfedwards 

This is an edited version of a longer interview that will appear in Issue 11 of The Lonely Crowd.

© Glyn Edwards, 2018.