Editor Jonathan Edwards interviews former guest editor of Poetry Wales Deryn Rees-Jones whose collection Erato (Seren, 2019) is shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2020.
JE: Huge congratulations on being shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year. How does it feel to be shortlisted? Is it especially important to you to be recognised in an award for books from Wales?
DRJ: It’s fantastic, always, to feel that I have written something that connects with readers and for that to be valued. To be read in the context of Welsh writing is always important to me; it is a way of being understood, and in this book, where I am trying to explore the relationship I have to language and hybrid identities, perhaps even more so.
JE: If you had to introduce your book to readers who are unfamiliar with it, what would you say?
DRJ: Erato is the muse of lyric poetry, and the book as a whole is an attempt to continue to think meaningfully about my relationship with poetry. But it is also very much a book about loss, especially about the way time and memory might alter what we think is true; or rather how we create ways of knowing ourselves. So you could say Erato is a book which is interested in how we tell stories, and how those narratives become part of who we are. Those narratives might be compelling, or faulty; they might repeat themselves and be slightly different each time we tell them. The book mixes up prose and poems because it is trying to think about the complex relationships between language and experience, and memory. I meant the book to be read from start to finish, a bit like a novel. But it argues ultimately, I think, for poetry, and for that as a place where beauty and difficulty can reside.
Truth has never mattered more. Nor has the ability to create places where we might listen, identify, and understand and enjoy differences.Deryn Rees-Jones
JE: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis and process of working on your collection? What sort of experiences, reading and approaches to writing were important to you in generating these poems?
DRJ: I spent a lot of time working out a structure for the book — some of that began organically, but increasingly became an important way of thinking. I began writing some of the prose pieces one winter as I recovered from flu. There was something about having this time, to daydream and remember, that gave me access to the past in a particular way. But I also had in mind Elizabeth Bishop’s great autobiographical story ‘In the Village’ and Robert Lowell’s use of prose passages in Life Studies. I wanted to find a way of bringing the world into the book, and to show a mind responding to the political events that were happening. Brexit and fake news sharpened my sense of poetry being a medium for telling the truth.
JE: I often think that every poetry book should win an award, because each one is the result of such time, love and care on the part of the writer. Which poetry collections and pamphlets from the writers of Wales, of the past few years, would you especially want to celebrate?
DRJ: There are so many good books coming out of Wales. I love Zoe Brigley’s work, most recently her very moving and brilliant Hand & Skull, and I’ve also really enjoyed Joe Dunthorne’s O Positive and Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip. I am always excited about anything Gwyneth Lewis writes.
Gillian Clarke was one of the first poets I looked to when I started to write: those writers who inform you at the start and say, look, something is possible, never really leave you, and I’m very much looking forward to her translation of Y Gododdin, due out next year.
JE: Is there a poem or extract of your collection that you feel is representative of it and you would allow us to feature here so that people can enjoy a taste of your work? Why are you selecting this piece in particular?
DRJ: In a way that Erato is one poem; everything connects, from the tiny three line fragments to the structured 14 section prose sections, to the 13 line sonnet sequence. In the last section, which is heavily erased, I quote a line from Virginia Woolf, when in Orlando, she asks what poetry is, and the reply given is that it is a voice answering a voice. The last poem in the book is about that strange and beautiful bird the nightjar, and I guess that poem is also about what I think poetry does, connecting us to ourselves and to the world.
Listen to the nightjar,hear her holy tremblings —
star litter, night fragment, slip down a spine of grass.
A circumstance of sound electrifies the heath,
opens up the dark. Though she’s dead now,
or to all effects, in silence, gone
like a ghost ship rising, you can hear her.
Her voice is both inside you
and around you. She pushes you away,
she asks you to be near.
In the silence, let the sound debris, in wild track,
moth-like, poke the dusk. Put your finger on the space
she finds in you, her rattle notes, her love rambles:
let her open up a space beside you — there,
now, there — close beside your heart.
JE: As well as this shortlisting, what other exciting poetry and writing activities and projects do you have forthcoming that you would like to mention?
DRJ: Over the last 18 months I have been working with colleagues in Leeds and with the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, helping to coordinate workshops with members of the Yemeni communities across the UK. Before I became involved in this project I did not know very much about the ongoing and tragic humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Through that project I have met extraordinary writers, translators and activists, and I feel very privileged to have learnt more about Yemen’s poetry and culture. I’ve a longstanding interest in connecting poetry with film, and I have worked closely with the artist Charlotte Hodes over the last five years, most recently on an exhibition in Liverpool, The Errant Muse. https://charlottehodes.com/portfolio/errant-muse . The work with Liverpool Arab Arts Festival took things further that my own practice, and allowed me to commission artists and film-makers to respond to new Yemeni work from poets in the UK. https://www.arabartsfestival.com/yemen-in-conflict/
|Yemen in Conflict – Liverpool Arab Arts Festivalwww.arabartsfestival.comYemen in Conflict is a national partnership between LAAF, the University of Leeds and the University of Liverpool.|
JE: Do you have any writing tips, hints, tricks or techniques to pass onto aspiring writers? If you have to give one piece of writing advice to those who are keen to write great poems, what would it be?
DRJ: The pandemic has reminded me how much it matters for sometimes inchoate feelings and thoughts to be translated into language as a way of exploring collective experiences. Truth has never mattered more. Nor has the ability to create places where we might listen, identify, and understand and enjoy differences. If anything I would say that honesty, and the ability to resist a culture of political untruth-telling, is key to a poem’s success, even if it does that in small, personal and private ways. We have not yet seemed able to publicly grieve for the thousands of people who have died or become sick or seriously incapacitated during the last six months. There is still a lot to feel and say.
Winners will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show Friday 31 July 2020 from 6.00 pm.
Erato takes its title from the muse of lyric poetry. Drawing on brief, documentary-style narratives of her life, combined with lyric reinventions, Deryn Rees-Jones asks questions about past, present and future, about the slippages of memory, all our errors and erasures, and the places we inhabit when processing trauma.
DERYN REES-JONES is the author of four previous collections of poetry, shortlisted variously for the Forward (first collection), TS Eliot and Roland Mathias prizes. What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems was published by Seren in 2016 and was a PBS Special Commendation. Her study of the artist Paula Rego will be published by Thames & Hudson this year. She is the editor of Pavilion Poetry, and teaches at the University of Liverpool where she is Professor of Poetry.Literature Wales WBOTY Shortlist https://www.literaturewales.org/our-projects/wales-book-year/wales-book-of-the-year-shortlist-2020/