FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
J. O. MORGAN: It was reading some of the old epics, those in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, which really drew me to the possibilities of poetry. I never thought I would be able to make works of similar scope or complexity, so I didn’t attempt to, but the intrigue was there, to marry storytelling with a rich poetic technique. And then, having written fiction for many years, and with my work becoming increasingly experimental along the way, there came a moment when a particular book I was about to begin suggested itself as being suitable for a more openly poetic approach, so I tried it. I think I convinced myself I wasn’t really writing poetry, not proper poetry, just using traditionally poetic methods (such as I understood them). A somewhat chaotic approach (though applied, I hope, in an orderly manner) where I didn’t want to be restricted to a particular meter, or pattern, or form, but instead used everything, shifting technique between passages, phrases, lines in service of the desired effect. Something I would now call polymetrics, or mixed measure. The result was a far cry from the epics of old, but I hoped it would work in its own right, and I’ve found plenty of ways since to extend that initial approach.
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.
JOM: I think it was when that first book was presented by my publisher as poetry, and then to find it was accepted as such, seemingly without question. That was quite a shock. I had never thought of myself as a poet, other than in the broadest sense of someone using words to make things. It worried me too. I found that year I had been put into a world I knew very little about and didn’t really belong to; hadn’t earned my place, so to speak. I still think that when most people these days speak of poetry and poets they really mean lyric poetry, and, as such, lyric poets. So I worry about misleading people ever to claim that I too am a poet. And if I described my work as being in the tradition of epic poetry? Well, that seems far too grand. It’s really best if I stay quiet on the matter and let the work do whatever it does, irrespective of what that might make me.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
JOM: I was somewhat astounded when I was told. It’s always difficult for me to be sure if a long poem will work as a whole, there are so many small complicated factors to consider, and in this final run up to publication I’ve been more worried than ever. So to have this out-of-the-blue affirmation from the judges, it’s really quite overwhelming. And to know that more people will come to the book precisely because of this shortlisting, that’s more than I could have hoped for. I really do hope the readers like it too.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work?
JOM: I try to take a very different approach to overall composition for each book, drawn from the nature of the subject being examined and where I expect it to lead. So I hope that every new work is in some way a departure. I aim for this. It takes a lot of thinking to find that right approach, rejecting all the initial ideas that come to mind, pushing further, till at length I hit upon something that feels like it might just be suitable, might just be something special. This for me is one of the hardest parts of the whole compositional endeavour. There’s no writing involved, just thinking. It feels a bit like trying to free oneself from a straightjacket: seemingly impossible, till after an age of frantic hopeless wriggling suddenly, unexpectedly, something feels just a tiny bit looser, and all at once there’s that small bright hope of escape, a corner to be worked at, worried at, a possible way forward.
With this particular work the main idea for that approach was as a theme & variations. Such a form can’t be applied to words in the same manner as for music, but I liked that, I liked how it wouldn’t really be possible and yet I could still use it as a basis for the structure, and it seemed appropriate. Essentially a singular theme runs throughout the whole work, each time considered through different scenarios, different perspectives, different voices. And then within those variations and possibilities are further sub-variants, and within those sub-variants certain repetitions and reversals, counterpoints, inversions, modulations and recapitulations. That sort of thing. But in a far less abstract manner than would be possible with music. Most of all I aimed for a sense of wholeness, of singularity. And within those constraints of subject and approach I tried always to create as much tonal variety as possible. It’s that tension between constraint and variety that for me makes the effort worthwhile, giving the work a sort of potential energy. At least, that’s the hope.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
JOM: As mentioned above it was the Old English and Norse poetry that really intrigued me, in what the poetic technique being employed was actually doing, in how it made and affected the story, how it gave it a sort of unreal quality, not reliant on familiar truths but providing its own internal truth. It also made me wonder who these poets were, how they might have gathered the stories from elsewhere but used all their known skill to settle the words into their final form. The names of those poets in most cases may have been lost, but their poetry is still as bright as ever.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
JOM: I probably shouldn’t say what I’ve just been working on, in case I change my mind and begin on something else entirely. The universe is wide-open, after all. So really, anything’s possible.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
JOM: Do whatever you feel is necessary, whatever you feel is best, but avoid the easy options.