An Interview with John Freeman, Part Two / John Lavin

Part Two of our interview with the Wales Book of the Year-winning poet, John Freeman.

John Lavin: We were delighted to publish several new poems by you in the previous issue of The Lonely Crowd (Issue Nine). Could you tell us something about the genesis of those poems? (Perhaps particularly ‘Celebrating the Life’, the beautiful, eulogistic poem that you wrote for your friend, the late Jean-Jacques Gabas?)

John Freeman: I met Jean-Jacques Gabas in my first year in Cardiff, (deep breath) 1972–3. In those days the English department and the other arts subjects, including languages, shared a staff common room, and I found some of my most congenial colleagues in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. I had a strong connection with France, and I still do. My first wife was French, and my daughters and grandchildren are French citizens. There were quite a lot of foreign nationals in that common room, and collectively they were a breath of fresh air to me, but none more so than Jean-Jacques. He was friendly and charming, which was just as well because one could easily be intimidated by his brilliance and learning. He seemed to be writing scholarly books on Corneille, Maria Callas, Cézanne, and several painters I had scarcely heard of, all at the same time. I was convinced he would be the first of my Cardiff friends to be famous, but for whatever reason – being excessively self-critical, a mutual friend suggests – he published very little.

So he is not famous, but he was, and remains, loved and revered by generations of students, and by his many friends, including distinguished painters and opera cognoscenti. His company was always as delightful as it was stimulating and amusing. He was enormously kind. As a host (he was a gourmet cook and a serious wine connoisseur) he made sure that nobody was neglected, however shy or juvenile, and my daughters loved him, as did many other children. But as a teacher he could be a stern task-master. One of his eminent former students, addressing Jean-Jacques in a posthumous tribute, spoke of ‘that terrifying look of disapproval which you reserved for the worst offenders in prose translation.’

As for the poems, I am very pleased they have been well received, but they can never be adequate to their subject. I wrote them between the moment I first knew (from an email he wrote me, after we had been out of touch for a while) that he did not expect to live much longer, and a few weeks later, after his death. This was all between December 2017 and January 2018. I wrote other material, drawing on other memories, but left out what did not work or did not fit. I fast-tracked the completing and editing of the sequence so that it would be ready for a memorial booklet which was privately circulated among his friends, and happened to have it to hand at the right time to offer to The Lonely Crowd. Not much of my work has had such a short lead time from first draft to publication.

Perhaps the one thing I should add is that Jean-Jacques had some quite traumatic experiences in early life, as well as much good fortune and a first-rate education. The overcoming of these traumas is what I glance at in the first poem in the sequence. There was a gloomy side to his vision of life, and his taste in the arts, especially when I first knew him – hence his saying that his birthday was nothing to celebrate, and so on. I think he genuinely lightened up as the years passed, became, in fact, as entirely as a man or woman can be, a being of light.

About the other poems you were so kind to include in that issue, ‘Julia’s Cakes’ and the poem you published online, ‘Shaggy Dog Story’, are about friends and neighbours of mine, while ‘Keeping a Welcome’ describes my regular walk between Cowbridge and Llanblethian. ‘Wentworth Place’ was the name of what is now Keats House in Hampstead when the poet lived there. I got to know the Keats-Shelley Museum in Rome years ago when I lectured on Shelley in various Italian universities at the invitation of its then curator, Sir Joseph Cheyne. The museum had been the apartment where Keats spent his last few months of life, and the room where he died in that museum has a special atmosphere. It was only recently that I visited the London Keats House for the first time. I was struck by what seemed to me the similarity of the atmosphere in Keats’s room there to the one in Rome, and that notion triggered the poem.

JL: I’ve recently been reading The Less Received,a book of criticism that you published in 2000 about such poets as Jim Burns and Chris Torrance. I wonder, could you talk a little about the motivations behind that book? What are your opinions on the current poetry scene? Do you think it still the case that largely unadventurous poetry remains the most amply rewarded, most widely published example of the artform? Are there any new poets that you are particularly excited about?

JF:I have never talked about ‘largely unadventurous poetry’, whether being amply rewarded or otherwise. I know there are people who do, but I avoid that kind of language. I think there is poetry that gets more attention and other poetry that gets less. As I have always had limited time and energy to put into criticism, I wanted in those essays to focus on writers who excited me but were, I thought, less widely known than they might have been. Most of them still are, so I was right in my preface to The Less Received to say that my essays might make little difference, but that it was the desire to make that difference that prompted me. I wrote then that I did admire Ted Hughes – and I still do, though now as then, this side idolatry – but that he did not need my advocacy. If I were writing that preface today I would make the same point using different names.

I prefer to keep quiet about poetry that I don’t particularly like. Most poets are doing their best to create something worthwhile, and my lack of interest may just be because I have not yet discovered how to read them. As readers we do come round to some writers and move on from others. I wouldn’t like to generalise about the current poetry scene. There is so much being published that it is hard to have a confident overview. I do sample a range of magazines, and I find things to like. But once I have identified a poet who interests me, I find it more satisfying to read a whole collection by that one writer than move between contrasting contributors to even the best magazine or anthology.

I discovered several poets who have become essential to me through the series of Bloodaxe anthologies which began with Staying Alive.I bought these poets’ collections, and many of them are now constant companions. It’s a mark of quality in a poet if you can reread them many times without the experience losing its freshness. For several years my inspirations were the late American poet Jane Kenyon, and the Irish poet Kerry Hardie, who is still with us, and to whose books I have recently returned, finding that enough time has elapsed for me to be inspired by her again. You ask about new poets, and it depends what you mean by new. Some poets I have discovered quite recently have been writing for a while, and not all are young. It’s only a very few years since I discovered an American poet who impresses me deeply, Henry Lyman, author of The Land Has Its Say. In September 2017 I encountered for the first time the work of Theodore Deppe (Beautiful Wheel, Liminal Blue), and his wife Annie Deppe (Wren Cantata), American-born Irish citizens living in Connemara. A year ago I did not know their names, but now I feel they are close poetic kin. The same is true about Linda Saunders, author of A Touch on the Remote, who was only a name to me till we read together in May 2017, since when she has been a star for me, as well as one of the poets with whom I exchange work in progress to critique. Rather younger poets I look to eagerly, to see what they will do next, include Jonathan Edwards and Clare Potter. I love the energy and emotional openness in the work of both of them. I look to Gavin Goodwin to help show the way in writing a poetry of political engagement, as he has begun to do in Estate Fragments and Blue Rain, and to Michael McKimm for whatever he wants to do, though I hope he returns to the politics of climate change which he addressed brilliantly in his collection Fossil Sunshine. This list is not exhaustive, of course, and I am always on the lookout for new voices which can engage and inspire me.

JL: Are there any writers or indeed artists in general that have been a particular source of inspiration to you?

JF: How long have you got? I’ve mentioned some of the poets who have influenced me. I’ll sum that part of it up: I am influenced by the poets of what used to be called the canon from Chaucer and Gawain to the present day, including American poetry from Whitman and Dickinson on. Many novelists made a strong impression on me, with George Eliot and Dickens high on the list, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence and so on.

I follow certain campaigning journalists, George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee among them. You don’t have to agree with Toynbee about everything to be grateful for the patient way she has for years exposed the hardship and injustices of austerity economics, delving into the mind-numbing detail you don’t think about unless you have to because you are at the sharp end of government policies. Monbiot and Caroline Lucas and the Canadian Naomi Klein, together with the man who should have been the current American President, Bernie Sanders, are my inspirations and informers about the struggle to wake us out of our sleep-walk deeper and deeper into environmental catastrophe and the political, social and economic factors that interact with that.

From an early age I was taken to the theatre. I am grateful for having encountered Shakespeare first at the Old Vic rather than on the page, which had me hooked on the bard and the theatre for life, especially in my teens and twenties. I worked briefly in the Liverpool Everyman Theatre as Box Office Manager when it opened, and played small parts in some of the plays. From an early age also I loved visiting art galleries, and I still do, and I think this experience has fed into my poems, which often have a strong visual element, as in a poem like ‘Interior with Red Linoleum’ inWhat Possessed Me. I have written about paintings from time to time, including works by Caravaggio, Magritte and Monet.  There are poems due to be published in Agenda about Paul Nash and Berthe Morisot.

I regret very much not having a technical grounding in music, but I feel seriously out of balance if I go for long without hearing classical music. I find it hard to imagine a world without Bach, Mozart, and perhaps especially Beethoven, born in the same year as that other colossus, Wordsworth (1770). I write this with a CD playing of a Haydn quartet, and in between two concerts in the magnificent Cowbridge Music Festival which is now in its 9thyear, with Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet last night and Schubert’s Trout Quintet tonight. Bliss.

JL:Camus said that, ‘art is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [your] heart first opened.’ Would you agree, and if so do you have ‘two or three’ such images yourself?

JF: That’s a beautiful quotation, and Camus of course is a great writer, and an existential (as well as Existentialist) hero. But, though it’s quite a while since I read him, I would guess that my trajectory has been the reverse of his. The novel of his that impressed me most was not The Outsider butThe Plague, an allegory for the German occupation of France during the war. He had to start with politics and the social world and worked his way through fiction and philosophy to the secrets of his own inner consciousness. I have written a lot about my personal beginnings. My two or three images, though there are more than two or three, can be found at the start of What Possessed Me, and in the title sequence of my earlier book A Suite for Summer, and elsewhere. I haven’t drawn a line under writing about childhood and family, but I think the centre of gravity of my attention is shifting. I am writing more about people I see or interact with in the present, some well known to me and some not at all, and often noticing what I think can properly be called a political dimension to these encounters. Softly-softly, though: I don’t want to be a propagandist or pamphleteer in verse. And in response to your quotation from Camus, once could say that the artist’s journey is also towards a new revelation, a new wisdom.

JL: Do you have a regular writing routine?

JF: Yup. I wake up at variable times but always early, make tea, read some poetry with attention, and after a bit start writing, in almost illegible longhand in a large A4 notebook. I may check the news and weather first, and even my emails, but I don’t properly face the new day’s agenda till I have had that time for poetry. Quite often I write about something that has happened the day before, and my impressions of that are freshest and fullest when poetry and tea have woken me up, and a new day’s events haven’t overlaid them. My most recent experience at that time is sleep, and the wild irrationality and emotional defencelessness of dreams. This is when my imagination is most vivid and my intelligence sharpest. That part of writing is almost invariable and I’m happy about it. I’m not so happy at all with how often I manage to make time to sift, type out, revise, sift again, arrange, and share. Life always seems to get in the way of those parts of the process.

JL: Finally, what next? Is there another collection on the way?

JF: The poems which I can regard as in a finished state are accumulating and are not far off amounting to a collection, and I hope to arrange them into a coherent shape early in 2019. I can say that there will continue to be poems about the natural world, with an emphasis on trees and birds, and about family. There will be poems about life and death, and painting, and music, and books. There will be poems about living where I live, and the people I meet here. That’s just the ‘finished’ poems. And I am sure there will be poems which will surprise me, or what is the point of writing them? And I hope that the Visions of Llandaffbook I mentioned, which Chris Humphrey and I have been planning for some time, will see the light of day.

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 Nine © Michou Burckett St. Laurent, 2018.

John Lavin is the editor of The Lonely Crowd. You can follow him on twitter @jtmlavin.