On Writing ‘Town Talking’ / Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards discusses his four new poems in Issue Eleven.

John Lennon once said that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. For a poet, it’s often the case that a poem is what happens when you’re doing something else. Poems have a terrible habit of leaping out at you when you’re on trains or stuck in a meeting or standing in the shower ahead of a full day of teaching. They know you, poems, and they take great joy in presenting themselves in all of their sexy glory at just the moment when you know you can’t write them down. But give a poet a free day, or even a free hour, and you can bet your mortgage on the fact that that’s the exact time all the poems in the world will have hopped a party bus to the next town over. You’ll see them, the poets with a free day and no poem to write, kicking a stone around your town, and there isn’t a sadder or more forlorn figure on this planet.
In the case of the poems of the ‘Town Talking’ sequence, they happened when I was trying to write something else. Easter 2018 was a time when I was finalising my second collection, and the existence of a poet trying to finalise a second collection is an interesting thing. There is a world which is often saying to you, ‘Ah yes, you’re the poet. Ah yes.’ But meanwhile there’s a large part of your brain (the brain-like part, mostly), which is whispering, constantly, all day and all night bloody long, at the exact volume of your own breathing, This book is not good enough, this book is not good enough. This sort of situation could lead you to consult a medical professional or a generous barman, but me, I thought that a much more sensible way of trying to deal with it was to try and write a long narrative poem about a coffee shop, with the still-developing manuscript in mind. As I was doing so, ‘Town Talking’ emerged instead.

For about a week or ten days, I couldn’t stop writing the poems of this sequence. In addition to those published in The Lonely Crowd, there are others from the point of view of a church, a library, a park and some other places I’ve forgotten. They draw heavily on the influence of a marvellous Carol Ann Duffy poem, ‘A Week as my Home Town,’ which writes each day of the week from the point-of-view of a different place in a town, building to a glorious symphony to the places where we live. I’ve used that poem as a workshop prompt up and down the country, and at some point its lessons lodged in my brain.

The other thing about ‘Town Talking’ is that it’s the product of another interesting thing that happens when you’ve written poems for a while. People suddenly start asking you to write poems. They even pay you in advance to write them. This is utterly miraculous. It is also terrifying. The whole point about writing poems is that if a poem doesn’t work you just throw it away and write another one – it’s fun, and there’s no responsibility. But if someone’s already paid you, you have to make the poem work, and there’s nothing surer to mean that the poem will cross its arms and scowl and refuse to. I found myself in this position on a number of occasions after publishing my first collection, and the way I found myself getting out of it was by delegating the poem to something else to write. I’ve found that I can mostly write my own poems reasonably enough, but I definitely need someone or something else to write my commissions for me. As a result, my commissioned poems have been written in the voice of canals, camels, cities, jelly beans, mousemats, but never as myself. These other voices are hard-working and dedicated to getting a poem done, and I just get to sit there with my feet up, taking down all of their chatter, like a court reporter or secretary, and then turn the poem in.

So ‘Town Talking’ comes out of ‘Newport Talking,’ a commissioned poem in my second book which is written in the voice of Newport. By talking in the voices of bridges, phone boxes and corner shops, I was pleased where these newer poems got to in terms of their consideration of issues like mental health, community and love, but this had little to do with me. Like all of my poems, I was the first reader of these pieces and nothing more. The poems I have actually had to write I add to this enormous, festering slush-pile I keep. Right here. These poems are failures, every one.

Lastly, I’d like to thank or to blame the wonderful poet Ann Sansom for getting this sequence going. I was lucky enough to co-tutor with her at Tŷ Newydd in February 2017, and it was in one of her workshops that ‘Phone Box’ emerged, a year or so before the other poems in this sequence hopped out of the world to join it.

I very much hope that readers of The Lonely Crowd enjoy ‘Town Talking,’ the voices, the perspective on people. As for me, I’m away right now to write a new poem which has been poking me in the eyeball ever since I sat down to write this piece half an hour ago. I have a feeling it’s going to be about the exact tune John Lennon was humming in the shower one New York day in 1980. I just wish, for god’s sake, with all my might, that I didn’t have a full day’s work to do before I get to sit down and write it.

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, Genis out now.

Banner photograph by Jo Mazelis.