FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH JONATHAN EDWARDS

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

JONATHAN EDWARDS: I started writing poems while I was a student at the University of Warwick. I had always wanted to write, but it was my time there which really drew me into poetry. There were a number of wonderful poetry tutors there, led by David Morley, as well as a number of brilliant student writers. The energy and creativity of the environment there allowed me to find my vocation, and I’m incredibly grateful to those people and for that time. At about this period, I began going to poetry readings, and will always remember a reading given by Glyn Maxwell at the Hay Festival when I was in my early twenties. I was completely blown away by his approach to poetry, the energy, humour and emotional power of his writing. I just loved the force of creativity in his work, and I wanted to be able to channel my own creative energy onto the page as a result.

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

JE: I don’t think I ever have or ever will consider myself a poet. Poems are utterly miraculous things which the writer is given, and which fill the writer with complete joy, and the most frustrating thing about writing them is that you never know where the next one will come from, or if it will come. In terms of my development as a writer, there were about ten years after university when I was writing very much in isolation, without sharing work with people, and away from any sort of literary community. I’m grateful for this time now, because I think it allowed me to develop my own idiosyncratic style and some sense of my writing identity. One thing that was crucial to my development was a Poetry School course I took in Bristol in my early thirties, led by David Briggs. This was a brilliant workshop course with brilliant students, and this was really important in my development.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

JE: It’s astonishing. The Forward Prizes have always been something I’ve looked up to, something that my favourite writers in the world, like Sinead Morrissey, Liz Berry, Don Paterson and Seamus Heaney have been honoured by. It’s absolutely wonderful that my poem, ‘Bridge’ will be given exposure and get more readers – this is what every poet wants. I’m also quite pleased that it is this poem in particular which will get the exposure. The poem is about the city of Newport – a place which is very dear to my heart – and it’s also a poem which explores the subject of suicide. I am so grateful for the exposure that the shortlisting will give the poem.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

JE: In my second collection, Gen, there is a poem called ‘Newport Talking’ which is written from the point of view of the city of Newport, and presents a day in the life of the city. ‘Bridge’ is part of a sequence which grew out of this, building on the idea of writing from the point of view of a place. As well as this poem written from the point of view of a bridge, there are others written from the point of view of phone boxes, parks, churches and pubs. Carol Ann Duffy’s great poem ‘A Week as my Home Town’ was an important influence in the development of this sequence. One thing I’ve been enjoying in the past few years about writing monologues is that the voices of the poems often say things you wouldn’t say yourself. ‘Bridge’ moves into the territory of suicide at its end, and I don’t think I would have got to this place if I had been writing the poem in my own voice – if any poem is ever, of course, written in the poet’s ‘own voice’.

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

JE: Among writers I love are Simon Armitage and Alan Gillis – the demotic energy, music, range and ambition of their work is a constant inspiration. Because I write a lot about family, in both my first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, and in Gen, the work of Greta Stoddart and Tom French is very important to me – I think Touching the Bones by French is one of the most moving and important collections I have read, and one I keep returning to – and, of course, it won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection! I am a big fan of comic poetry, and as a result I love the work of American writers like James Tate and Thomas Lux. And I also love poetry which has some connection with the musical properties of language – Auden, Kathryn Simmonds and, of course, my first and greatest love, Dylan Thomas, are writers I constantly return to.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

JE: This is a really wonderful and exciting writing time for me as a writer, with this shortlisting coming at the same time as the shortlisting of Gen for the Wales Book of the Year. I’m absolutely thrilled by how my poems are being received, and this is really energizing my writing. I am currently working on a sequence of poems about my maternal grandfather, an enigmatic working-class Welsh Valleys character who died when I was a child, and who has always been a fascinating character for me. I’m also keen to write more poems about zoo animals, a subject which is really close to my heart, and I want to keep beavering away at making the third collection a really strong book. I absolutely love the public side of the poetry world, the opportunity to get out to festivals, readings and workshops and engage with other poetry lovers. I will be reading at the Hay Festival at the end of May and I’m especially looking forward to running a residential poetry course at Ty Newydd later in the summer – these weeks are always so creative and fun.

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

JE: The only advice worth having is to stick with poetry. Absolute commitment, being willing to sit in a room for hours and be excited, frustrated, joyous, despairing over what is emerging in front of you, is essential. The ability to take a piece of paper and a pen and be creative is the happiest thing there is in life, and I am so grateful to have found it. Building the resilience to deal with the rejection letters is crucial. The enormous majority of everything I write is binned, so I think a willingness to only show people your very best work, to be willing to throw things away, is crucial. Almost all poems I write are failures – but that doesn’t mean I have to let people know I’ve written them!