John Freeman is a prize-winning poet and critic whose work has appeared in magazines and anthologies over several decades. His most recent books are What Possessed Me (Worple Press), and Strata Smith and the Anthropocene (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), both published in 2016. Earlier collections include A Suite for Summer (Worple), White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems (Contraband Books), Landscape with Portraits (Redbeck Press) and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions). Stride also published a collection of essays, The Less Received: Neglected Modern Poets. What Possessed Me won the Roland Mathias Poetry Award as part of the Wales Book of the Year Awards in November 2017.
John Lavin: Your most recent full-length collection, What Possessed Me, deservedly won the Wales Book of the Year Roland Mathias Prize for Poetry in 2017. It is a wonderfully warm collection, generous both in size and outlook, reflecting a worldview which can be bruised, anxious and elegiac but never negative. The opening section in particular, which is preoccupied with memory, especially of family and friends, is full of empathy and a sense of the powerful depth of feeling for the people described. Would I be correct to presume that these poems are predominantly autobiographical? And if so, could you tell us something of your approach to writing about personal subject matter? Is it something that comes to you quite naturally, for instance, or is it more of a difficult seam to mine?
John Freeman: First of all, thank you, for that sympathetic and perceptive response to the collection. The poems in that first section are indeed ‘autobiographical’ in the sense that they are based on personal experience, but I am wary of any implication the word may carry – though you are clearly not saying this yourself, John – of being ‘about oneself’. My attention in almost all these poems is, as you say, on something or someone outside me. In all my poems, whatever the subject, I am trying to catch the experience of being alive, in an interactive world, where I encounter it at its most authentic and vivid. In my poems about other people, it’s often a question of bearing witness to some of their most intense or characteristic realities.
Children, unless deeply damaged, are emotionally open, and their perceptions are fresh. As adults, what we remember from childhood often carries a particular depth of feeling and clarity of sensory detail. Memory can be unreliable and distort the past, but how it selects and shapes the mass of information that passes through our consciousness is itself of interest. As well as remembering big events such as accidents, celebrations and family milestones, we find we recall odd quirks of our surroundings that seem to have no objective importance. These things have stuck because they caught our attention at the time, and to revisit them is to rediscover a whole gone world. As adults we can see moments of childhood with a double perspective, from our own point of view now and from our point of view then. It’s like parallax, which, if we are lucky enough to have two eyes, helps us see things in three dimensions, and in perspective. For all these reasons, childhood memory is a rich field for a writer. The older we get, the more that double perspective I’ve mentioned brings its possibilities of insight to later periods, such as adolescence and earlier adulthood.
As to whether it’s easy to write about personal subject matter, we all know that some experiences are too emotional and raw to write about well, especially when they are recent. There may be some things there will never be a good time to break silence about. On the other hand, there is nothing we can know better than how things present themselves to us, a fact (if it is a fact) which is related to the philosophical approach known as phenomenology. Whatever doubts we may have about how things ‘really are’, we can be a bit more sure of how things seem to us as experiencing subjects. So the impact things have made on the writer is a kind of primary material. It’s true that if we look back over our experience, we may wish it could have happened differently. The writer’s job is to see what is there, past or present, as it is, and not as we would wish it to be. That takes practice; it’s a kind of spiritual discipline. The topics I write choose me, to some extent, but I choose among those which solicit me. As you implied at the start, I don’t shy away from trouble, sadness and grief, but I avoid dwelling on negative emotions.
Of course, to produce good writing is never easy. I am a fluent scribbler, but only a tiny proportion of what I produce sees the light of day, and rightly so. It’s easy for me to write about many things, less easy to be sure I’ve written something worth sharing, or to hone it until it is.
JL: Many of the poems take what are quite ordinary seeming details and elevate them to a realm of unsuspected grandeur. I’m thinking here of ‘the three numerals in hard plastic’ on the gatepost in ‘Me and the Gatepost’, or indeed of the titular trilby in ‘My Grandfather’s Hat’. Several of the poems in the collection made me think of the Seamus Heaney of the two ‘Mossbawn’ poems, and of Heaney’s ability to convey the depth of love stored in simple everyday objects and acts. I wouldn’t previously have particularly thought of Heaney in connection with your writing, but I wondered if he might have been an influence on What Possessed Me?
JF: ‘Me and the Gatepost’ records a very early memory, and what I said just now about childhood is relevant here. If the poem elevates the details of the numerals in hard plastic to a realm of grandeur, as you put it, that’s because I am not making it up but trying to convey the glamour these simple objects had in my childish consciousness. I was a young adult at the time of the hat incident, but our home was full of many second-hand, home-made and well-worn objects, so the hat stood out by its pristine condition and luxurious smartness. In that sense it excited the kind of attention that more everyday objects like the plastic numerals perhaps no longer did to the same extent. Though as to that, as Wordsworth says in The Prelude of the infant’s ‘poetic spirit’, it is, while ‘in most [people] abated or suppressed, in some…preeminent till death.’ I have always tried to be one of those ‘some’, as all true poets are, and as Heaney certainly is.
Leaving aside questions of quality and stature, I recognise that what I do in these poems has a kinship with Heaney’s ‘Mossbawn’ poems and much else in his writing. I don’t think many other recently active poets have so consistently worked this seam, to use your metaphor, of childhood perception and the wonder as well as vividness which accompanies it. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about Heaney. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how much of an influence he has been on me. It is certainly possible that some of his poems have influenced some of mine, since I read – present tense – a lot of poetry including his, and am willing to be inspired by anything I read. But I wouldn’t have him down as one of my own chief mentors and guides. I may have arrived at something that looks aligned to his influence at least partly by a different route.
The big influences tend to be ones absorbed when you begin to find your way as a writer, and by the time I came across Heaney’s early work, or started to look at it seriously with the arrival of North, I was already indebted to a different kind of poetry. This was the work of certain Americans, notably William Carlos Williams, and some British poets who were tuned into the American example, whom I encountered through the seminal magazine Grosseteste Review and the ground-breaking Fulcrum Press. With that background, and committed as I was to free verse and modernism, I found Heaney’s formalism and traditionalism dismayingly retrograde.
As the years passed I became more catholic (small c) in my tastes, not wishing to be corralled into any ghetto; and at the same time Heaney became, I think, a better poet, as well as a more and more beguiling speaker and reader of his poetry. So I gradually came round to him, though with reservations. I think, for example, that sometimes he over-describes, and doesn’t leave the reader’s imagination enough to do. But Heaney was an outstanding poet and a great ambassador for poetry. He stood for certain values that are important to me also, including something that might be called a secular piety. I never met him, but one could not help responding to his apparently lovable personality. The one time I heard him in the flesh was giving a captivating lecture in Cheltenham on Rilke and Yeats, two poets who have always been major figures for me, as they were for him. I certainly loved Heaney on that occasion, and have felt warmly towards him ever since. I participated in the widespread grief at his passing, surprised at how keenly I felt it. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech is a wonderful articulation of what poetry is, and why it matters.
JL: Section II of the collection centres on the observance of nature, and opens with ‘Swallows’, a favourite of mine ever since it appeared in an early issue of The Lonely Crowd. ‘Swallows’ evokes the birds of the title with considerable clarity, while also perhaps serving as a metaphor for your own creative process:
…at the periphery of vision,
shadows are swooping against walls, and beyond
living shapes transforming wires to staves,
whispering their music into the darkness
of memory like a nest high in a barn
they will return to, summer after summer…
You’ve mentioned to me before that you are a great fan of long walks in the countryside, and I wonder if many of these poems have had their genesis as a result of such excursions? Do you see parallels between the natural world and the creative process involved in being a poet?
JF: As the lines you quote suggest, ‘Swallows’ is partly about the way impressions get lodged in the recesses of memory to return unexpectedly on future occasions. I am fond of this poem myself, and I am glad you presented it so handsomely on the website, with that evocative photograph of a barn by Jo Mazelis. Looking this up, I find the internet retains also my ‘note on three poems’ in which I say a lot about ‘Swallows’ I need not repeat here. My walks don’t always have to be long ones, but I feel there is something missing from any day in which I have not been out of doors encountering the natural world in one way or another. The same is true with face to face interaction with people, and section two combines both kinds of encounter, though I agree nature dominates. The freshness of perception and vividness of emotion that make childhood memory valuable need to be renewed in us in the present, and this doesn’t always happen if we are beavering away at a computer, say. The natural world and the people we run into are both unpredictable, and for that reason can, in the words of Heaney’s marvellous poem ‘Postscript’, ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open.’
Every person we meet embodies assumptions about what life is and what matters which are different from our own, and challenge us to extend the range of our sympathies. I came across a quotation recently from James Hollis, a Jungian analyst: ‘The greatest gift of relationship proves to be that as the result of encountering each other, we are obliged to grow larger than we had planned.’ I would add that this can include relationships with strangers that last only the length of a short conversation, or an exchange of smiles.
As for nature, the beauty and complexity of plants and animals should be a constant source of joyful wonder and contented humility. How can we be arrogant about our powers and achievements, if any, when we see this miracle of life all round us? How can we mind being reminded of the miracle, when it is so thrilling to behold and be part of? I’m with Walt Whitman: ’as for me, I know of nothing else but miracles.’
We live in a time of unprecedented crisis for the biosphere of which we are part. We are destroying the basis, in the natural world, of our own sanity and our very existence. The more exclusively people live in a regulated, artificial environment, the less they learn to care about nature and its wellbeing. You can’t nag and preach people into caring about it, but if they love it they will care of their own accord. I hope in a tiny way my poems can encourage that love of the natural world which will lead people to want to put the brake on our destructiveness. This is a political issue and I see my nature poems as political poems. And if ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – which I deny, but it can sometimes seem to be so – thank heaven for David Attenborough.
I hope that’s a forgivable digression, but I’ve strayed a bit from the specifics of your question. Yes, a lot of my poems arise directly out of walks, urban as well as rural and coastal. And yes, I see parallels between the natural world and the creative process. Coleridge developed the idea of ‘organic form’ in poetry, and the idea was modified in the twentieth century by Ezra Pound, who said that some poems find form like a vase into which water is poured, such as a sonnet, and some have form like a tree which grows. In a good free verse poem, he suggested, the rhythm of the whole poem unfolds from the opening phrase.
Turning to the process of producing poems, you could say that a poem is sometimes like the blossom and sometimes like the fruit of a tree. (I’m thinking of early and late work, such as Yeats’s ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, say, examples of the flower and the fruit of his career.) ‘If a poem comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’, wrote Keats, and taken in the right way this may be true. Both fruit and flower are the result of years of growth in the tree, and a constant nourishment drawn upwards from the soil and downwards from the sky, a fusion of earth and heaven manifest in every twig and leaf, and each petal and pip. As light and water are essential to the tree, an openness to experience and an attentiveness to language are essential to the poet. However individual our use of language, it is deeply social in its essence, the joint creation of countless speakers and writers, past and present. We depend on that collaboration utterly, and in our own use of it contribute to the constant interaction which is its being. Curiously, writing is rarely a lonely experience, and I think the interactive nature of language has to do with why this is. Language itself is like a plant. Words have roots and genealogies. The Indo-European languages can be presented in their relationships in a diagram like a tree, in the same manner as the various branches on the tree of life that have evolved from a single ‘Big Birth’. When you use a word like photosynthesis, your experience of it is the richer if you are aware that it is one of a family of words including photon, photography and phosphorescence, rooted in a Greek word for light. A good writer uses words with an awareness of this substrate of language. You sense the webby roots on his or her syllables.
JL: Staying on the theme of walking, another section of the book I’m a particular admirer of is IV, ‘Visions of Llandaff’, which traverses a terrain I’m very familiar with myself from daily dog walks along the Taff, following the river from Pontcanna Fields to Llandaff. As in the earlier poems we have discussed, the depth of your emotional attachment to the subject matter is palpable. Could you tell us a little about your relationship with Llandaff and the genesis of the poem?
JF: I lived in Cardiff for more years than I’ve lived anywhere else, and most of that time I lived within walking distance of Llandaff, first on the eastern side of it in Gabalfa, then on the western side in Canton. From both places it was far enough away that going there was a special event. I can’t remember a time when I did not really value and enjoy those occasions. The cathedral itself, the churchyard, the Bishop’s Palace which is now a public garden inside a ruin, the village green, all appealed to me, and, not least, the walks down by the river between the cathedral and the weir. Llandaff needs nothing but its own attractions to recommend it, but it happens that it reminded me of the part of south London where I grew up, Dulwich. Like Llandaff, Dulwich Village, where I went to junior school, really does have a village feel still, and had so even more in those days of less motor traffic. There were two spacious parks within an easy walk of our home, and my elder brother and I used to trot round them with our dad from my earliest years. So, when I was transplanted to Wales, crossing a few roads to reach parkland by the Taff, and ending up in Llandaff, offered a kind of continuity for me. For a long time now Llandaff has felt as much like home to me as anywhere, which increases the pleasure of returning there. In the last dozen years or so I have been building up this cumulative sense of home also round my village in the Vale of Glamorgan, but the whole stretch of the Taff from Llandaff down to Cardiff Castle still feels like one of my ‘centres of the world’.
I had been writing poems prompted by walking at Llandaff off and on for years before I wrote the three parts of ‘Visions of Llandaff’. These were written independently of each other, at intervals, but I came to see they might work as a sequence, which I think they do, though in my first attempts to put them together there was extraneous material I had to overcome my own obstinacy to let go. A friend of mine, the photojournalist Chris Humphrey, has taken some superb photographs to go with the poems, and we hope to publish a separate book of the text and photographs together. We are prepared to try to bring it out ourselves, but if we can find a publisher who would like to do it, so much the better.
Don’t miss John Freeman reading at our Issue Ten launch at Tiny Rebel Cardiff on 30/01/19. Photo of John Freeman reading at the launch of The Lonely Crowd Issue Five © Brian Carroll, 2016.
John Lavin is the editor of The Lonely Crowd. You can follow him on twitter @jtmlavin.