Jonathan Edwards’ first poetry collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren Books, 2014), was the winner of the 2014 Costa Poetry Award. His humorous poetry covers life growing up in Wales, filled with characters from Evel Knievel to Marty McFly to bicycling nuns. He holds an MA in Writing from Warwick, and currently teaches in Wales.
A shortened version of this interview appeared in Summer Vol. 1, Ed. 1.
You grew up and still live in Wales, and a lot of your poetry focuses on this. Why do you think your home has such a strong position in your work?
To answer the question in a very roundabout way, I think the first thing to say is that I am, simply, addicted to writing poems. This was something instilled when I was at Warwick – the sense of writing as fun, as first and foremost an entertainment for the writer, and the role that game-playing and automatic writing can have in generating a poem. Charles Bukowski, who is a bit of a guilty pleasure, talked about the idea that writing had to compete with going to the cinema or the pub as a form of entertainment for the writer, and if I do have a spare hour, the way I want to spend it is with pen and paper – writing can make you miserable when it’s going badly but it can also create such joy.
As a result of all this, while it’s true that I have more ideas than I can write competently, it’s also true that I often sit down with a desire to write but with nothing to write about. When that happens, an instinct is simply to look out of the window, into the street or up at the mountain, or bend my ear to a neighbour’s conversation, and see what can jump-start a poem. It’s better to plagiarise the world than plagiarise someone else’s poem, because that way no one can sue you! As where I am is a small village in South Wales, it inevitably becomes the case that this place becomes a focus in the poems. If I were in Buenos Aires or something, my technique would probably be the same, but that place would be the focus.
There’s an element, then, of accident, or simply a desperation for material, generating this interest in home and in Wales, but there is more to it than that. I have a really strong personal interest in Welshness for all sorts of reasons. One of these actually was the experience of going to an English university, of having nights out with the Welsh society there, of really realising my Welsh identity for the first time as I opened my mouth in England. I came of age in an era of Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia and Ryan Giggs, and found my poetic voice during devolution and the rise of Gavin and Stacey, so a lot that’s going on in popular culture and politics impacts on my sense of national identity. Then, of course, when you begin researching Welsh history and reading books by the likes of John Davies and Jon Gower, you realise the richness of what it is to be Welsh, and really want to sing of that experience. Beyond and above all this, the connection to place is a connection to people I love. Some of these people are still living and some of them died before I was born, but they all looked up at these same hills I look up at. I’ve always thought it would be amazing to go for a kick-about or a night out with your great, great, grandparents, because they’re versions of you. Writing poems about a place that you share with them can be one way of making that imaginative leap.
You use a mixture of strict forms like villanelles and more freeverse styles throughout your book. Do you find forms restrictive or guiding? How do you go about deciding what form a poem is going to have?
This was another brilliant thing about discovering writing at Warwick. There was a clear understanding of writing as something magical, even supernatural – I can remember one workshop where we were asked to watch the flame of a candle and let it guide our writing where it wanted to go. But there was also an absolute focus on craft. The idea that writing could be worked on, perfected, that a poem could be re-written in iambic pentameter, or as a sonnet, or a ghazal – we were given a wonderful range of strategies and options, a toolbox, and I think I’ve spent all the time since then trying to fix the bloody car. While it’s true that poems which are worth anything take off in a way that is beyond the writer’s control, it’s also true that being able to write in a range of forms gives you more options in terms of reaching that lovely and delirious point.
In terms of matching form to poem, I’d love to say something clever about the choices I make. I could make a case, for example, that in my villanelle about watching Back to the Future, the use of refrain is intended to help deal with the subject of time, its echoes and re-inventions, or that the use of internal rhyme in poems like ‘Bamp’ and ‘Flamingos’ is intended to help the upbeat mood of the poems. Ultimately, though, a writer sits in a room and sweats and just tries to come up with something that isn’t too terrible. One feels, especially with a first collection, that it’s necessary to do that stuff – write a sestina, a villanelle, a long poem, a prose poem – in order to stake your claim or show your stripes. Writers I love – Auden, Glyn Maxwell, Kathryn Simmonds – make form beautiful and also really damned cool, and you want a bit of that for yourself.
My Family and Other Superheroes is overall a humorous collection. How do you go about balancing humour within poetry? Do you think poetry lends itself naturally to comedy?
I heard Simon Armitage asked a question like this at the Hay Festival a few years ago. His response was that he sits in a room and writes the most serious, heartfelt poem he can. Then he goes and reads it and people fall around laughing. This has been my experience exactly. I don’t balance humour within poems, because the humour doesn’t occur to me. What’s become clear is that my conception of what a good line of poetry is is everyone else’s conception of what a funny line is. I’m more than happy with this state of affairs.
Humour is instinctive, then, and I think from that point of view I have my family to thank. My father has this very refined wit, and he nicked it in turn from my gran, a genius of sarcasm, who at the age of a hundred could slay a room with one raised eyebrow. There’s a way in which I’m simply writing down their best jokes. This of course influences your reading tastes – Mark Twain, James Tate, Charles Simic, Thomas Lux… – and so the whole thing develops.
What aspect of your time at Warwick do you think helped you and your work the most?
Beyond the things I’ve already mentioned, the range of reading I was encouraged to discover. Matthew Sweeney, Jo Shapcott, Deryn Rees-Jones, Ciaran Carson – these were all writers I discovered at university, because of Writing Programme courses and books like The New Poetry. Poetry was this cool, witty world, in touch with pop culture and the reality of life, and able to express itself in endlessly smart, moving and powerful ways.
I think even more than that, it was the energy of the writing community there. David Morley and Michael Hulse were phenomenal teachers, and beyond this there was a vibrant community of visiting writers – including Peter Carpenter, Matt Nunn, Simon Rae and Eva Salzman – and an amazing group of student writers. It was rocket fuel really, that time and those people, and I’m enormously lucky to have had it.
You’ve been working on a second book lately. Do you have any tips on how to get past the fear of the blank page?
To be honest I’ve never really feared the blank page, partly because, as I say, my initial experiences of writing were that it is game-playing, fun. Almost everything I write never goes anywhere at all beyond my writing it, so I have low expectations when I write. I’m only doodling, and I never think for a second that it’s something anyone would read. I can remember David saying in workshops about giving yourself the permission to write badly, and I think this is really great advice. Automatic writing – simply filling the page and seeing where it leads – can be a great way of jump-starting things. Before you know it, you’re somewhere magical that you never expected.
How do you go about rewriting and editing your poems?
I think time and doing nothing is the answer here. After the first handwritten draft – which may in itself of course be about a hundred drafts – it’s a case of waiting for a few months. At that point I type the poem, and in that process I will strip back, clarify and agonise over. Things will have become clear about what the poem wants to communicate which weren’t clear in that first draft. Somewhere in that process, if it’s a goer, the instinctive and true version of the poem will announce itself and the poem will speak for itself. More recently, I’ve also discovered that reading the poem to an audience can be helpful in fine-tuning. If there are things in a poem you can’t bear to say in the back room of a pub – I don’t mean because they’re too confessional or something, but simply because it’s suddenly clear that they’re naff or unnecessary – that’s one way in which a poem can tell you what it’s after.
Do you have any strange writing rituals?
I’m vaguely obsessive about stationery. I love BiC four-way pens. I often say to my pupils that the initial, excited draft of a poem is a little like having a tree growing super-fast inside your mind – it’s going woosh! here there and everywhere, and every time you pick a word, a dozen new branches and possibilities shoot off from there. It’s dizzying, really, and you’ve got to let it happen and ride along, at the same time as trying to control it and have it cohere. The answer to this is the BiC four-way pen! You can get your emerging draft down in one colour, and all of the variants you might want in a different colour around it, as you work. Worksheets end up as these gorgeously technicolour things. Also, writing’s damn difficult of course, and having a deeply silly and very lovely writing implement in your hand is a great distraction.
If you could go back in time to when you were a student, what advice would you give yourself?
I’d definitely tell that young fellow to value things more, to make the most of his opportunities, to be a bit more grateful, a bit less self-indulgent and generally a better human being. Warwick’s a phenomenal place to be a student, and I can’t help thinking that I could have made even more of my time there. Equally, though, I can’t help thinking that that student would have a few pieces of advice to give to me. He’d probably start by talking about these bloody trousers!
And finally, who would you say is your writing superhero?
This is Dylan Thomas. For me, he’s the thing. There’s an ambition and an extent of achievement in poems like ‘Fern Hill’ which, the work of Hopkins, perhaps, aside, it’s difficult to think of a comparison for. Those later poems, particularly, where he’s managed to balance the incredibly distinctive lyricism of his voice with an accessibility and clarity in his treatment of subjects. He’s also a really versatile writer – he’s very funny, for example, and it’s difficult to think of his equal in descriptive prose. People will say of course that he was a terrible person in all sorts of ways, and I’m sure this was true, in the way that all of us are, but you can’t get to the end of his Collected Letters without wanting to have him round to your house for tea and wanting to look after him. His poems are the absolute expression of a complete individual – there’s a humanness there on the page. I love them for the same reason I loved hearing someone reading their week’s work in those early workshops at Warwick – one of my classmates, or perhaps even me, their voices breaking and cracking, their eyes not daring to rise from the page, but their mouths moving, at the end, into the shyest or else most enormous of grins.
My Family and Other Superheroes is available for purchase online via Amazon or Seren Books.
Interview by Zoë Wells