FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
DAVID MORLEY: One of the spurs behind my becoming a poet is my stammer – which I write about through a series of translated poets at the end of FURY. My stammer has been a merciless Muse. Spoken word is after all at the heart of my poetry, and indeed most poetry. I have never spoken aloud without at once being aware of impossibility: speech is a form of terror. My teenage mind developed into a thesaurus of tensioned, alert possibility: hundreds of synonyms and antonyms allowed me to find the path of least resistance through sentences. I became a Lyrebird of language. As a result, my spoken voice grew florid, fractured, and strange and, at the same time, rhythmical and rapid. I was known for being ‘wordy’ as a teenager, but I was in fact editing myself madly. I sometimes replaced broken speech with silence hoping silence might be more eloquent which, in a poem through white space and line break, it sometimes is. I have no doubt that without my stammer I would never have become a poet: it made and shaped my mind. Curse and blessing.
Poetry then became the constant in my life when my English teacher Mrs Jowett read aloud Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Wind’ to the class. This was the first contemporary poem I heard. Hearing it, rather than reading it, was electric. It was the spoken sound that drew me into poetry, with sound carrying meaning. The audacity of images was spellbinding especially the slowed alliteration of a ‘black- / back gull bent like an iron bar slowly’. Poems like this wake you up. You can never be the same afterwards. It is like a spell has been cast, but a spell that wakes you into a new world of possibility.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry.
DM: I travelled a lot on my own as a kid and covered great distances on my bike up and down the country, always camping out. By night and day, I was open to the languages of bird and animal calls, and of trees, weather, and water. I did not analyse any of this but drank it in. I also spent a great deal of time listening to people I met and whose help I needed. Speech is an art but so is listening. I was in thrall to the music of language and dialect, including Romany. Becoming an ecologist and a poet seemed to me a natural confluence. I took the sciences at A level, so literature was about story not study. I always looked to stories for life; and from people’s stories, their truth’s fiction. All these influences connected for me into the making of poems that could somehow become something alive, peopled, and storied.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
DM: It is wonderful. It is so heartening to have your work recognised by people you respect. I am especially delighted for my publisher Carcanet who have shown unconditional faith in my work for nearly twenty years. The Forward Prizes are very much about audience and that is one of the reasons I love it. It is about building and binding readership for our art form and reaching out to people who might not yet know poetry and the way it can change your life (as it changed mine). While delighted about being shortlisted, I am amazed to be on it. Being under the radar is something I have grown with as a poet. Invisibility may have allowed me to be freer about what I try out: in my experiments with Romany language, short story narratives, and poems about the invisible world of Gypsy Travellers.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
DM: I loved writing this book. I feel close to the characters in the stories, to voiceless people, my invisible Travellers, and the Romani language. I laughed and wept with them, as friends. They took me unexpected places. I took them at their word without taking their words. When you write something and the poems and stories come into their own life, I think that life comes over to the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. And that goes for the love and attention that the characters create for themselves. There are poems in the book that began in terror and ended in discovery. There are poems about personal tragedy answered by remarkable love. Each poem in the book weighs the other, in language and speech. The overall order of the poems, the arcing architecture of the book, required a lot of feeling-through and listening. I regard a book as a form of poetry. And FURY found its voice within the book’s long form. Fury is never despair or anger. It is rooted in voice and memory, in loss and love. Fury is a form of expression: the fury of creation.
FAF: Many poems in FURY focus on Romani communities and use Romani words. Could you tell us more about your relationship to Romani language and culture?
DM: As a poet I have no identity. I write from the point of view of characters. I am drawn by the fictiveness of identity and the possibilities of language, including dialects of Romany. I became fascinated with these dialects, partly because my mother used to say that our family descended on her side from Roma Gypsies. Romany identity invites pride but also vulnerability. The more I pulled away from these family stories the more I found myself engrossed in Romany as language. In the same way R.S. Thomas began learning his mother tongue of Welsh at the age of thirty I began learning Romany dialects from books and then from Travellers. It was as if some Romany words chose my poems as places in which to live: to whisper, sing or kick up a racket. I was startled by their presence, beguiled by their verbal music. I became a Traveller by travelling into language. The poem ‘The Key Harvest’ in Fury is spoken by a character, a woman who is half-in and half-out of Roma. I have a lot in common with her. For us, poetry like identity is a complex art form. For us, an invisible identity has been our way into exploring and writing a world. If that also meant taking a stand, then Sorì simensar sì mèn: we are all one, all who are with us are ourselves.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
DM: I revised and reworked the poems in Fury during the lockdown in spring 2020. Reading poetry in the long daytimes of the lockdown was like reading alone by a campfire after dark. A silence enveloped the experience, an apartness. But the sounds of birds, animals, and weather, were all clearer. It was as if the country, the world, was listening to itself without human noise. Many of these poems are set around campfires at which characters tell stories. I hope that by the time my book appears in autumn 2020 there will be other faces in the glow around the fire, and what we have learned from silence, and listening, is something we can share.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
DM: All poets are one poet. I have learned from every poet I have read and heard, in performance and on the page, in English and translation. I have also learned a lot from storytellers, filmmakers, and dramatists, many of whom I also regard as poets. There is a pantoum of 98 lines called ‘Lyrebirds’ in Fury. It is folded into and across the collection as seven sonnets. ‘Lyrebirds’ acknowledges many of the women poets who have influenced me, from Emily Dickinson to Wisława Szymborska to Elizabeth Bishop and Selima Hill. I also admire many poets for the way they teach and write, especially those I have worked alongside on Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd courses. Teaching is the most important job in the world.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
‘This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know”. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.’ – Wisława Szymborska
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
DM: Follow Les Murray’s advice and be interested in everything. Write out of doors. Listen, like Elizabeth Bishop, to the line and linnet. Sit in bird-hides for hours, without binoculars. Take in the world under your feet but do not tread on insects. Love everything, like John Clare, and lose yourself. Embrace John Keats’s idea of Negative Capability and become what you observe: sparrows and butterflies. Read the OED aloud every day for fun. Mimic the world’s sounds, like a Lyrebird. Prowl the fields of science, like Marianne Moore. Learn silence, the sung sentence, the pounce of a full stop.