FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID CAIN

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

DAVID CAIN: I first started writing poetry in my late teens when living in Luton. I wanted to find a way to express those tongue-tied emotions of being a teenager. All the boundless hope and angst and words that don’t quite do enough to describe what it means to be seventeen and in, or out, of love. I think I actually started writing poetry before I really knew what it was. I can remember having scrawled lines in felt tip across the white doors of a wardrobe in my bedroom. Little snippets that worked as one line poems. Later, I was introduced to poetry by friends and began to think – that’s like what I’ve written.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

DC: My first poem was written whilst walking broken-hearted around the outskirts of the runway at Luton Airport in about 1991. It was about pylons and trees, the beauty of nature blighted by mankind. All typical teenage stuff I guess. Later, I started to focus on nature writing and maybe this was when I first felt I was a poet. In 2012 a number of my short bird poems were set to music and performed by Cerys Matthews on her BBC Radio Six Music show, as part of her Poetry In Motion segment.

All this time I had been developing a career in social history, twentieth century heritage, and sporting heritage. The real true moment of me finding my voice was writing a poem about the agony of watching my football team, Luton Town, lose in a major play-off match at Wembley.

The poem was read on national radio and afterwards the football club invited me to write a regular feature for their match-day programme. From the positive reception to the work, it suddenly struck me that social history and sport were my thing, topics that I loved and that I had a deep understanding of, and that I wanted to move towards framing my poetry around these two star-crossed themes of everyday life and sport. To try and capture what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself at all the major, and minor, moments of sporting and social history.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

DC: It means everything to me. It makes me think back to my journey to today. To the unbounded joy of escaping to Luton Library on an otherwise dull Thursday night to go on a journey around the world through the books on their shelves. It makes me think of the terrifying shame of being made by a teacher to write out one hundred times the words there and their on a blackboard in front of the whole class, because I kept confusing the two words.

But above all, it makes me feel a deep sense of responsibility. To be able to take the voices of ordinary people tragically thrust into the horrors of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and then to be able to give to them a voice beyond their own, is something that is far greater than what it means to me individually. It is everything.

FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

DC: I began writing the poems in this collection in early 2014; however my journey to them started much earlier, perhaps even before the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in April 1989.

Aged 12, I went as a young supporter to the Luton Town versus Everton FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, Birmingham, in 1985. I vividly remember the crush in the Holte End that day as near-on 18,000 Luton supporters were herded onto the one terrace. And I also recall how my late grandfather, a tough ex-Bevan Boy, grabbed me as I was being swept away by the swell of the crowd, my grandfather getting me to stand between the lifebelt of his arms, as he used the barrier in front of us to protect me from the worst of the crush.

It was a scene repeated at many games in that period and one that has remained with me. On the day of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster itself I was in Luton and, like many others, first heard on the radio about the event and then watched the TV news as the tragic events unfolded. My dad worked at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton and had friends from their sister factory at Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool One in particular was an avid Liverpool supporter and he and his son were at the semi-final.

With these personal connections the story of the day and the subsequent campaign for justice has always been very close to my heart.

Like so many who stood on the terraces of English football grounds in the 1980s, I could see right from the start that what was happening at the Leppings Lane End was a terrible and  extraordinary event – and one clearly not incited by crowd trouble.

The poem-cycle was born out of continuing that interest to the point of reading each day the reports of the Second Inquest that began in Warrington in March 2014. At the time I simply wanted to deepen my understanding of the event, and so I started to delve into the daily transcripts of the Inquest that were shared online. At this stage it was just a personal interest. I wanted to learn more about the events of the day and I wanted to try and understand them from both a football supporter’s and a social historian’s perspective.

About the same time I was reading Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff – a cycle of poems based upon evidence given before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals at the trials of war criminals after World War Two. His poems used just the words spoken in evidence at the trials by former Jewish prisoners to develop a narrative account of those who witnessed those terrible events.

These two themes began to merge in my thoughts and I started to explore the possibility of developing a similar work about Hillsborough from the evidence presented at the Inquest. Reading the daily transcripts I was repeatedly struck by the poetry of the language used by the eye-witnesses to try and describe such horrific events. There was a real humanity and indeed beauty in these words, and I wanted to try and rescue those fragile lines from all the legal jargon, and also the headline news verdicts.

The editorial process was difficult. Not only in trying to construct a time-bound narrative, but also in final poem and line section. I aimed to place the reader within the building maelstrom of events, to cement in the memory the exact time and location of the unfolding disaster. To share the sights and smells, the personal fears and the acts of incredible bravery.

I gave myself a clear ambition for the collection – to listen to the resonances held in the collective memory of that fateful date, to hear the poetry found in the hearts of the people who lived through that terrible experience, and to weave their testimonies into a singular voice. Focusing on everyday life and language, grammar uncorrected, every line is drawn from over two hundred and sixty days of formal evidence presented to the specially convened court in Warrington.

There are several poems that are important to me. ‘I remember seeing officers on horses’ is crucial as it sets the scene for the events that follow, and it also places the reader into the context that the day started out as a normal, sunny, happy day. A fan is feeding mints to the police horses. There is a clear connect between fan and authority that will soon dissolve into chaos and tragedy.

The two poems that fall at the crux of the cycle – ‘3.05pm’ and ‘4.06 pm’are very close to my heart. They are placed at crucial moments in the narrative of the day and each profoundly touch me. Even today, having read and re-read the collection so many times, the poem 4.06 pm and the line ‘his eyes opened and he said, ‘Mum”, reduces me to tears.

My final selection is the final poem. ‘I thank God that I met him’shares for me the great sense of untold loss and injustice felt by those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. The final line of the collection ‘They only went to watch a game of football’ shares, I hope, the profound tragedy at the heart of the whole event.

I’ve written much – sorry. It’s a topic and a piece of work so close to my heart and one that has only grown stronger these past few years that I can quite easily and literally go on about it. But then if we cannot go on about Hillsborough what can we go on about? Simply, I hope to bear witness to the events of April 15 1989, as told by words of those who were there.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

DC: There are so many poets to choose from. I really love the work of Helen Mort and Kate Tempest. Helen’s poetry is so well crafted and dives down to moments of real truth and insight. Her poem ‘Scab’ from Division Street really cut me to the quick. There is an incredible truth in that poem that makes me feel uneasy and on guard.

Although her writing format is different, I see similarities with Kate Tempest’s writing. Kate has such a wonderful skill of lyricism, and like Helen she takes everyday subjects that matter to people living in the 21st century; honing and shaping them into beautiful works of art. I also love the way her poetry works equally well on the page and set to music.

The first poem that I really discovered growing up remains my favourite. ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T S Eliot is for me just perfect. It would be my Desert Island poem. Over the past thirty years I’ve returned to it so many times, and in each new setting it reveals something new and different to me. I guess you can’t ask for much more from a poem that that.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

DC: I believe that in an age of untruths, uncertainty, non-stop media, and fake news, the truth becomes the most valuable line we have to use as an artist. I also believe that the person-to-person connection, through live acts of bearing witness to the experiences of others, enables us to become alive as individuals and more together as communities.

I want to focus next on searching for the truth through the voices of those people who might not otherwise be heard. I am very interested in exploring contemporary themes and have several long form poem-cycles in development.

I’m also very interested in how poetry can be interpreted in different forms. From theatre, to dance, to music, I would like to explore how I can use my poetry in different live settings that engage directly with new audiences. I’ve begun this process working in collaboration with the DJ and producer Ashley Beedle (Black Science Orchestra, X-press 2) and the musicians Darren Morris (Steve Mason Band, Gabrielle) and Kurt Wagner (Lambchop).

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

DC: What you write is your truth. That of itself makes it the most beautiful poetry that you can write. And keep going. I know how hard it is to do that, to keep believing, but here I am at 46 and my first collection has just been published. So keep the faith, keep exploring the world through your words, and keep on sharing your voice with others.