‘Pen marks on the pillowcase’: An Interview with Glyn Edwards

Glyn Edwards is a teacher in North Wales, an MA student at Manchester Metropolitan University and a graduate of The University of South Wales. He has guest-edited the poetry in the forthcoming 11th issue of The Lonely Crowd and co-edits ‘Cheval’, the anthology comprising entrees to the Terry Hetherington Prize for Young Writers. He is described by Wales Arts Review as ‘One of the most exciting voices in Welsh poetry.’ Vertebrae is his first collection.

John Lavin: The collection opens with ‘The Land or Body Tide’, which draws a parallel between the effect of solar and lunar gravity on the earth with the gestation of the human foetus. Simultaneously intensely personal and universal, it feels like a fitting entry point to a collection that is deeply concerned with parenthood, the natural world and our place in the universe. Indeed the poem feels like a distillation of your poetic aesthetic. Could you tell us something about not only what you are trying to achieve with this poem, but – broadly – with your poetry as a whole?

Glyn Edwards: I had fascinated over the invisible daily swelling of the earth’s surface since encountering the concept of ‘body tide’ in a documentary. When I sought links between geological and physical forms there seemed many parallels with waves and surfaces and mass to explore. Though the ultrasound scans of my son were ultimately thrilling experiences, their memory is affected by slight sadness: as my wife and I left one appointment, the obstetrician asked us to hide the photograph until we had left the ward because, immediately outside her office doors, was a silent couple staring at a blank picture. I later discovered this appointment is known as a ‘morphology scan’; the absence of the expected baby had, at that moment, hollowed the pair’s capacity for language.

Visually, the poem presents this spine down the centre of the page. The number of lines in the poem represent the number of vertebrae in a newborn’s spinal column and the number of poems in the collection. A poem about birth felt entirely appropriate for the first poem in the collection.

JL: Another key poem in the collection is ‘Night Fishing’, which feels like a metaphor for the creative process. The ‘floating shadows’ of the carp, ‘too difficult to land’, feel like poems remaining tantalisingly out of reach. Is this a correct reading? In terms of the creative process, do you feel that as you continue to write, even as your skill as a craftsperson increases, that the process becomes oddly less tangible?

GE: For a year or two, I’d wake abruptly with an idea I was desperate to record before I’d fall asleep again, so I would scramble in the dark for paper or a pen and scribble something without turning the light on. In the frenzy to record something lucid, I’d ignore the need to self-edit or the need to use the page correctly. In the morning, I’d often forgotten the incident and would wake to a dense crush of childish handwriting that I’d reassemble or elide completely. Sometimes there would be pen marks on the pillowcase or a glass spilt too. Many of the poems in this collection came from this process.

The ‘carp’ image is one of frustration. The poem that stares at you and knows that you are too eager to catch it. The poem that needs to be seized by surprise but has swollen into something so significant that to catch it unfairly would only ever result in disappointment. I tried to catch fish with a friend once in the pool behind his caravan and we had no idea how to do it. At the time we felt the huge, black carp were almost arrogant in how they lazed in the sun and we knew we could only catch them by throwing stones or clubbing them from the water. Perhaps, it was easier to speculate on fish the size of myth than to learn the hobby properly and to return at night.

JL: ‘The thirty-three spinal vertebrae’ mentioned in ‘The Land or Body Tide’ are reflected in the thirty-three poems of the collection, suggesting that the collection as a whole has a unity beyond the sum of its parts. I wonder, could we hear a little more about this theme?

GE: The vertebrae in ‘The Land or Body Tide’ is explicit and there is a reference to the spine in ‘Marrow’, the final poem, too; the same word is close to being the first and final words of the collection. There are poems that are fused into two or three or four parts the way that parts of the backbone amalgamate over a life. I intended the poems to be more about skeletons than the spine, insomuch as these poems are unified more by their awareness of mortality than the direct associations to the human frame. Many of the poems celebrate my young son, eulogise my wife, while others reflect on the lives of grandparents, or fictionalise traumatic moments in individual histories.

Having a maximum of thirty-three poems ensured there was a discipline to selecting the poems for the collection and I was often drawn to those ones with imagery of the body –organs, skin, skulls – so this quickly became a motif or theme in the book as a whole.

JL: You are a relatively new father and a number of these poems deal movingly with this theme. Parenthood is a difficult subject to get right without falling into the trap of cliché and sentimentality, yet in poems such as ‘Storm Arthur’ and ‘What to do with his old clothes?’ you nimbly circumnavigate this obstacle. How did you go about approaching the subject?

GE: When my son was born, I felt a desire to chart every night time feeding in verse but these moments were too personal to be relatable; by adhering closely to the truth, they were too sharp with unqualified allusion, too doggerel in cliché. Poems like ‘Little Gods’ or ‘Storm Arthur’ used a memory to initiate a new narrative; there’s enough distance from the faithful reality to be rooted in sentimentality yet malleable enough for a fresh fiction.

JL: ‘Finding Moortown’ deals with a visit to Ted Hughes’ farmhouse and from a stylistic point of view is an unapologetic homage to Hughes. I’m presuming the poem recounts a real journey? Could you tell us a little about this and about the influence of Hughes on your writing?

GE: In some ways, I prefer Ted Hughes’ poetry to poetry generally. The Hawk in the Rain was my first favourite collection and I learned from Crow how poetry can sustain a polyphony of voices that aren’t necessarily the poet’s. I read his letters recently with the same zeal as I read Dylan Thomas’ in my twenties; I’ve bought and given away so many copies of The Rattle Bag to students as they head to university. He said, ‘What excites my imagination is the war between vitality and death’ and I feel that could be a mantra for all naturalistic writing.

Some years ago, we were on a family holiday in Hatherleigh in Devon and I was reading Hughes’ Moortown Diary without knowing the farm where the poems had been written was minutes away. We drove in circles, losing the Sat Nav signal over and over, until we arrived at a farm that was industrial and empty and threatening. I sent this poem to Hughes’ wife, Carol, and she wrote back to me, kindly, expressing reservations that we had found the wrong farm. The poem is a homage in a sense that, through its pastiche of Hughes’ imagery and tone, we ‘found’ Moortown, when, in actuality, we failed to. Although Hughes is now only one of many influences on my poetry, I am conscious that whatever I write, I may forever fail to find Moortown the way Hughes did.

JL: Some of the poems in this collection began life as responses to classics from the literary canon, which is again a very difficult exercise to get right. One doesn’t want to attempt to ventriloquize another author and yet one is the whole time responding to their material and their aesthetic. How did you initially approach the original poems in these instances? Did you research the original poems in great detail, or did you respond more intuitively?

GE: Carol Ann Duffy’s collection ‘The World’s Wife’ is an exercise that many teachers must use in education to encourage students to engage with a poem by responding to it with a poem of their own. Constructing meaning by ‘Answering Back’ can also be a way to write verse without necessarily having immediate inspiration: Simon Armitage explained in a lecture on ‘The Last Days of Troy’ that translation offered him a way to begin work without having to start with a blank page.

There are about six or seven of these poems in the collection; each uses a spouse or relative or friend from the poet’s life to act as the poetic voice. Once this decision was made, I studied the rhyme scheme and metre of the poem, acknowledged the semantic fields present and planned how I could access the imagery of the original poem through direct or indirect allusion.

With ‘Iago Prytherch is Standing in the Vestibule’, I first needed to established which of R. S. Thomas’ various Prytherch-poems would best accommodate a response, then I pondered what voice to ascribe to a peasant who’d been accused, mocked, apologised for and apologised to. One of the eponymous poems, beginning with ‘forgive my naming you’, seemed to pose a ‘gaunt question’ that I sought to answer.

The inspiration behind these ‘response’ poems was to produce something that could stand independently of their prompt yet be elevated by their referencial elements. Despite this, some poems have provoked further responses from their original poets. Having been asked to write a response to a Gillian Clarke poem, I decided to use her ‘Cold Knap Lake’ as a parallel with Gertrude’s omniscient account of Ophelia’s death in ‘Hamlet’. Gillian Clarke, interestingly, felt the comparison with Gertrude’s unreliable narration of events could affect the reading of her own poem and clarified the exact circumstances of the young girl’s rescue.

JL: ‘Marrow’ opens with your childhood desire to collect skulls before drawing the collection to a close with your son begging you to bury a dead, ‘unzipped’ swallow deep in the ground, ‘beyond vertebra on a shelf of sand and silt’. It feels like an appropriate way to summarise a collection that is always curious about and somewhat in awe of its surroundings; that is always, even in its darkest moments, in love with the joy of being alive, even as it is finding new reminders of the finite nature of our existence. And perhaps in that burial there is a sense too of finding out things through poetry that one would rather not find out about the world and perhaps about even oneself? Because, for me, Vertebrae also often feels like a book about your personal engagement with the creative process. Do you think this is true?

GE: It’s a sadness of our time that frequently we only come close enough to study animals and birds when they are dead. It is a paradox that studying life in this way is believed morbid or unwholesome. Again, in this poem, I’ve changed many of circumstances: the bird was a blackcap and it wasn’t unzipped – its neck hung to one side so I presume it had flown into a window. My son has been invigorated by his parents’ celebration of stuffed animals and skulls, so he wanted to keep the bird as he had wanted to keep the bat and the shrew and the sparrowhawk. It is Arthur who collects rabbit bones and ram horns; it is his voice in this poem. And yet, he is my marrow, so the voice is mine too.

Today, we walked around a lake near Bethesda in North Wales called Cym Idwal. Charles Darwin had visited the valley at least twice and made discoveries on fossils and glaciers there. The wind was bracing enough to wipe our wet footprints quickly from the stone path. I considered telling my son how, compared to the loop of mountains, our lives are as brief as the prints on the rock, but I decided not to; he will find that out about the world in his own years. ‘Marrow’ is a poem about seeking discoveries of existence in order to justify existence.

JL: To continue with the metaphor of the buried swallow… do you feel as though writing poetry challenges your own perception of your internal censor? Do you, in other words, find yourself writing about things that you are not especially comfortable thinking about, and would maybe not have thought about had you not been writing poetry? And are there times when you find poems going into areas that you’re not willing to write about?

GE: The poem ‘Voicemail’ was difficult. I found an old message left on my phone from my grandmother, who’d called by accident and died weeks later. I heard her loneliness and her mumbling and felt her profound loss to the point where I called her back and left the phone in the empty house ring and ring and ring. She had given me a book of poetry by Rupert Brooke and this poem took the structure of a poem called ‘Fragment’ from his collected poems. His is a preliminary draft of a melancholy poem found in a notebook and published despite it being unfinished.

‘Pachyderm’ is an uncomfortable poem. The truth, that I was going to America one summer with a friend but was let down, became an investigation of sexual desire. The poem improved when the narrator’s voice ceased being my own and became another – more desperate, more spiteful, more sexually curious – and the ‘elephant in the room’ immediately became ‘the elephant in the poem’.

I wrote ‘A Dead Boy on a Beach’ in response to the infamous photograph in 2015 of a three year old washed up on a Turkish beach. While this image was listed in Time’s 100 most influential images of all time, my poem was based on a photograph a week later of an older child. This image drew far less attention: interest in the Syrian Civil War event was declining; there was flesh and ribs and underwear present in the photo; there was a face looking back at a viewer; the body had been made gaunt by water. Though I considered it controversial, I tried to address the voyeurism that had been piqued by the national audience and social media’s subsequent need for reminders of the conflict to disappear. It was the first time that I received negative feedback and I knew immediately that such poetry is essential to confront the silences that the national media construct.

JL: We’ve talked about Ted Hughes but I wonder if there are any other authors, or indeed artists of any discipline, that have acted as a particular source of inspiration to you?

GE: In his essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’, Shelley expounded on the ‘rendering’ of ‘a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’ through imagery. He wrote, ‘poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’ I have permanently on my bedside table Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Andrew McMillan’s Playtime; both poets have the rare capacity to make the regular events lucid. The influences of R. S. Thomas and Edward Thomas and Dylan Thomas have been profound at different stages of my life yet, more recently, I have enjoyed Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems and Robin Robertson’s The Long Take. Ali Smith and Max Porter have been inspirational in the way their styles insist on experimenting; also in their ability to construct narrative from the environmental and sociological crises of our times.

A further source of inspiration has been the desire to compose a single body of poetic work. Initially, the creative need was to form solitary poems and to see them surviving in a wider domain – be that in magazines, anthologies or on the internet – and incrementally that objective became to comprise a series of poems in one book. Vertebrae is a construction that I am therefore very proud of; it is a rare thing to achieve one’s aim. I will forever draw inspiration at contributing a collection to the wider body of literature.

You can purchase Vertebrae here.

Vertebrae is launched this Thursday 4th July, 6 – 8pm. 112 Upper Mostyn Street, Llandudno, LL30 2SW. https://www.facebook.com/events/448217855980043/?ti=icl