Editor Jonathan Edwards interviews Jeremy Over whose collection Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet, 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?
JO: It feels like a lovely surprise and an honour. Having only moved to live in Wales a few years ago it also feels like a really nice welcome.
JE: If you had to introduce your book to readers who are unfamiliar with it, what would you say?
JO: Well it’s meant to be enjoyable. Maybe if I have to point this out to a reader I’ve failed, but in the past some people have read my poetry with a furrowed brow and thought they couldn’t understand it. I’ve always liked Gertrude Stein’s slightly outrageous response to an interviewer challenging the unintelligibility of her writing when she said ‘Look here. Being intelligible is not what it seems. You mean by understanding that you can talk about it in the way that you have a habit of talking, putting it in other words. But I mean by understanding enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it.’ What I enjoyed when writing the book and what I hope some readers might also enjoy are some, at times, quite simple childish pleasures. The kind that happen in the mouth. In the last three lines of the poem I’ve chosen below for example. It’s the poetry equivalent of humming or whistling and no more necessary than Fur Coats in Tahiti perhaps, but … . But what? I’m not sure, but something.
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?
JO: The playful strategies of writers within the surrealist movement, the OuLiPo, Fluxus, the Vienna Group and the New York ‘school’ were all important resources. Poems start in different ways for me but most come in sideways: playing with and responding to someone else’s writing, using constraints or allowing for its opposite: chance. Doodling in the margins and letting my mind wander away from what it thought it was doing that was so important in the first place. This seems to be becoming easier with increasing age.
Don’t be too keen to write great poems. Read widely and obsessively and enjoy yourself.Jeremy Over
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?
JO: David Greenslade’s Objects from the Foot Copier (The Red Ceilings Press, 2017) could win the ‘Surrealism is not yet dead but thriving in Wales’ award.
Peter Finch’s Machineries of Joy (Seren, 2010) could well have won the Wales Book of the Year Award this year. This book, like all his work, is a really generous selection of new ways to open up and expand the idea of what poetry can be.
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?
JO: I think this one is representative of some of the impulses in the book: a liking for a kind of verbal slapstick, bumping into the linguistic furniture that surrounds us and the celebration of small pleasures – like being alive.
Red sock in yellow box
After Robert Filliou and GK Chesterton
A red sock in a yellow box
One can easily understand
A red sock in a yellow box
So that a man sitting in a chair
Might suddenly understand
That he was actually alive
And be happy
A red sock in a yellow box
One cannot put one’s foot in the same river twice.
One cannot even put the same foot in the same river twice.
It’s hard to explain why but one cannot. One has tried.
One can however fall in the same canal repeatedly
One can easily
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?
I recently completed a Creative Writing PhD responding to the poetry of Ron Padgett which has been a lovely way to get obsessed with and inspired by one writer and those he was surrounded by, but I’m looking forward now to opening up my horizons a bit and reading more freely. I have a few long poems in the compost heap that need turning soon and I hope another book might grow out of them in the next year or so.
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?
JO: Don’t be too keen to write great poems. Read widely and obsessively and enjoy yourself. To paraphrase Henry Miller’s approach to painting: ‘Write as you like and die happy’. Balance that, perhaps, with Anne Herbert’s ‘Handy Tips on How to Behave at the Death of the World’ which includes this reminder: ‘You are doing some of last things done by beings on this planet. Generosity and beauty and basicness might be good ways to go.’.
Winners will be announced on the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show Friday 31 July 2020 from 6.00 pm.
Fur Coats in Tahiti is a cocktail of borrowed forms and modes from Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, the OuLiPo, the Vienna Group and the New York school. There are scissor snips and slips of the tongue and eye in a sequence of word and image compositions derived from an Edwardian illustrated dictionary. Elsewhere there are childlike, and plain childish, oral and aural pleasures to be had with bananas, cherries and Slobodan Živojinovic; tahini and Petroc Trelawny. The book begins with ‘O’, an open-mouthed astonishment at nativity, and ends, not with Z but, in the hope of further connection, with the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet: ‘&’.
JEREMY OVER was born in Leeds in 1961. His poetry was first published in New Poetries II. There followed two Carcanet collections, A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese and Deceiving Wild Creatures. He currently lives on a hill near Llanidloes in the middle of Wales.Literature Wales WBOTY Shortlist https://www.literaturewales.org/our-projects/wales-book-year/wales-book-of-the-year-shortlist-2020/