Monday, June 18, 2012

Light of the Word

I first came across Dick Jones’ poetry when I started blogging, back in 2009. I had tentatively posted a poem, the title of which provides the header for this blog. Dick passed through, left a criticism and breezed out much the way people who are better than you do. But there was nothing aloof about Dick, which isn’t to say he doesn’t have the right to be. Indeed, Dick’s poetry, it was clear to me from the off, was never going to settle for blog land, I only thought it a travesty it did for so long. So it gives me immense pleasure to introduce Dick to talk about his debut collection Ancient Lights (Phoenicia Publishing,2012).

Dick, you’ve been here as a much appreciated commenter, your criticism of the poem I mentioned in the introduction really nailed that piece for me (thank you), and I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your poetry on your Patteran Pages, it’s wonderful to have you here as a guest – finally. Could you tell me a little bit about the genesis of Ancient Lights and why it’s taken so long to get a collection out when clearly you were born spitting similes?

I’m delighted to be here, Rae! Thank you for the invitation. As to the compiling of ‘Ancient Lights’ and the length of time it’s taken me to produce a collection, I think it’s been primarily a function of confidence – the old ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’ inhibition. Although I’ve been submitting poems to journals for many years, I’ve only once before tried out for the publication of a book. In fact, had it not been for the energies of the entirely wonderful Beth Adams of Phoenicia Publishing, ‘Ancient Lights’ may well have never come to fruition. I’m enormously grateful to her for her enthusiasm, her encouragement, her efficiency and her patience. 

The first poem in the collection places the reader in the final throes of WW2, your birth. The action’s very at odds with the title ‘Stille Nacht’ in the context of the war but perfectly at ease with the imagery evoked by the English translation of the carol the title is taken from. You do contrasting parallelisms well; it struck me how exquisitely difficult it would be to mimic this technique. What was the process for this poem, how did it come to you?

Second things first. The whole poem tumbled out of the first stanza, which I scribbled into my notebook during a casual chat about Christmas at the poetry group I was attending at the time. We were all seated around our group of tables with Christmas a week or two away and the little conceit about the bells ringing at my birth popped into my head. It turned like a key and for the rest of the first part of the evening’s activities I carried on writing. By the time we got to the last hour of the meeting and the read-around I’d got most of it finished.

So it came out of one of those white-heat momentum processes that I find sometimes drive a piece of writing. When such cataracts occur there is a powerful element of automatic composition about it all. No glazed trances or zombie focus on the task in hand! But there is a sense throughout the writing of receiving something and acting more as an interpreter than one simply putting it all together from a set of components. In fact, this downhill impetus is much more apparent in the crafting of the longer pieces than the shorter. Both ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Binners’ (once I got past the first section) evolved more rapidly towards the closest one ever gets to a final draft than many a miniature piece, some of which have been years in the cooking. 

The collection begins with the poet’s ‘I’, giving the works an experienced authenticity, there’s omniscience to your observations. Each poem presents ways of describing familiar and unfamiliar things in a manner that renders them true, universally, yet innovatively (every poet’s wish) - and you have a child’s eye for detail, for what the grown-ups miss - but there’s an authority to your words, wisdom that seems almost to take the poem’s speaker by surprise. Possibly, in context of ‘Stille Nacht’, this is because of the inconceivable circumstance of the mature speaker retelling the memories told to him about his birth as if his own – a peculiar configuration of chronologies – but could you talk a little bit about how memory, yours, others’ or imagined, plays in your poetry? 

It’s peculiarly difficult to account for the operation of memory in my writing. I’m simply so close to the cutting edge of the functional process of collating and organising and then rendering it all that there’s a degree of can’t-see-the-wood-for-the-trees purblindness about it all. However, I am aware that my apparent memories of childhood are an extraordinarily rich compound of actual recall and constantly reiterated family lore. It’s as if the accounts related by my parents, my grandparents and our closest family friends have in some way elided with my own startlingly clear recollections (and my actual childhood recollections go back to the age of about 18 months) to create a kind of fertile humus from which narrative shoots continue to spring, even this far in time from their provenance. This mulching procedure works for all of us, of course, and the intensity of nostalgia evoked by some sound or fragrance is proof of its potency. But I remain baffled and intrigued as to why with me its momentum has been undiminished through the years. Maybe my child within is unusually wakeful and garrulous. One for the head doctors, I guess, but I’m not letting them close! 

Ancient Lights – it’s the perfect title for this collection. Side amble: I’ve always been awed by the seemingly never ending variety of descriptions you give, observations you make about light – it is a strong feature of your work, (obviously in light of the title, pun intended). What surprised me was the sound. In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising – you are a musician – but it was the combined effect of hearing the poems alongside one another, the way each seems to kick off from the previous one so fluidly – it really reads like an orchestral piece. Was this a conscious effort? Did you have to alter the poems after you’d written them to make them link and flow?

To a degree there was a sort of organic self-selection to the order of the poems within the book. I had no great difficulty in putting them all end-to-end. In fact, I did most of it at my partner’s parents' house standing by a laptop on the grand piano while the kids ran riot on the floor! I guess the constant edge of distraction enabled me to push and pull the poems around more intuitively. Too much focussed concentration might have made me too conscious of the demands of the task in hand. 

As to sonic properties in the ordering of the poems, I’m not conscious in retrospect of having sounded them against each other like duelling tuning forks! But at the point of writing I’m acutely sensitive to the way in which the words chime and I repeat sections over and again to ensure that there’s some melodic and/or rhythmic symmetry at work. For better or worse, I always aim for a musicality within each poem and I’m very conscious of the common ground between poetry and music. As an adolescent I was fascinated by the possibilities of poetry and jazz. In fact, all these years on ‘Red Bird’, Christopher Logue’s translations from Neruda spoken to a backing by a fine band led by drummer Tony Kinsey remains a favourite. (I waited for three years on eBay before finally picking up a replacement copy of the original EP!) And beyond the ongoing excesses of gangster rap, there’s some terrific hip-hop around that folds poetry and music into each other to great effect.  So I guess I must have operated as a sort of subconscious conductor when marshalling a whole flock of poems into a book! 

For me, the music really connected with the thoughts your poems inspired about memory; events re-remembered; events that stay with us; that push forward to future generations. Sound and light (senses) are what we remember and light will remain long after we have passed. I’m thinking of Larkin, ‘What will remain of us is love.’ What would you like to be remembered of you, Dick? 

I’m not sure how to answer that question. But for me that concluding line from ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is probably the finest clincher of any poem. Those whom I have loved and who have died are still loved. I have no religious belief at all, having felt at no time through my life so far any need for a god or God. I have a profound faith in the primal and redeeming properties of love between human beings and see no place for divinity above and beyond its transformative power. For me human love, eros and agape, is the light of the world. So I suppose would hope for love to transcend my passing in the hearts of those dear to me now. 

Initially wooed by the First World War poets and then seduced by the Beats, Dick Jones has been exploring the vast territories in between since the age of 15. 

Dick’s work has been published in a number of magazines, print and online, including Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Ireland Review, Qarrtsiluni, Westwords, Mipoesias, Three Candles, Other Poetry, Rattlesnake and Ouroboros Review, and in several print anthologies, including Sing Freedom! (Amnesty International), Brilliant Coroners (Phoenicia Publishing), and Words of Power (qarrtsiluni/Phoenicia). His chapbook, Wavelengths, was a finalist in the 2009 qarrtsiluni chapbook contest, and he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 for his poem, “Sea of Stars.”

In addition to thirty-five years of teaching drama in progressive schools, Dick Jones has been an avid musician all his life, playing bass guitar in rock, blues, and folk bands. He lives outside London with his wife and children, and blogs at Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages.

Ancient Lights is available to buy through Amazon Us and UK.


Lori said...

Such a wonderful view into the creative process. I loved the interview! Thank you both for the insightful questions and the inspiring answers.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you, Lori. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Dick’s was one of the first blogs I started following when I began blogging five years ago and I’ve followed him faithfully ever since. I’ve not got round to Ancient Lights yet. I will. There’s a queue and two books of poetry ahead of his but I will get there. He’s a fine poet with a particular talent for metaphor.

Rachel Fenton said...

Jim, lovely to have you here again - it's like the my early blogging days all over again! Hope you're well.

Life and reading lists conspire, don't they?

Dick is a fine poet, and he's created a fine book, Jim, which I know you'll enjoy in good time.

Rachel Fox said...

Three cheers for blogger poets! I hope the book does really well for him.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hip hip - hooray! Hip hip - hooray! Hip hip - hooray! Me too, Rachel x

Titus said...

Thank you both. I'm getting this one.

@parridhlantern said...

Love these insights into a writer & the process involved in writing. Although I wasn't aware of this writer that combination of WW1 & Beats makes me want to find out more. Thanks

Rachel Fenton said...

JoAnne - it's such a strong collection - really doesn't feel like a first.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks, Parrish - I'm fond of nebbing into the creative mind now and again. I'm sure you'll love the collection - let me know what you think of it.

Anonymous said...

Rae, thank so much again for this raising of the flag. Your appreciation means a lot on its own, but expressed so substantively it's greatly appreciated.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hey there, no worries, Dick - you've produced an enviably solid piece of work most of us who dream of calling ourselves poets would be stoked to have our names put to. Easy to wave in support.

Kass said...

I have long admired Dick's poetry on his blog and now am trotting along to Amazon to purchase.

Great interview!

Rachel Fenton said...

It's a superb collection, Kass - not just saying that because it's Dick's! I keep re-reading it. And each poem flows from the previous one as if the whole were written in one sitting. It's quite special.