Why is poetry important?
I suppose on the grand scale of things it could be argued that poetry isn't especially important in the world. I think it was Auden who once said that poetry has never made anything happen and it was also Dannie Abse, one of my favourite poets, who once said that poems can't be bombs - by which I always thought he meant sort of the same thing really, that poems perhaps can't have that impact in the real, everyday world. But I think on a very important, different level poetry certainly is important. I think for me it comes down to a question of empathy in that exactly like any form of written communication, in order both to write a poem and to engage in a poem you quite often have to make that empathetic leap - you have to put yourself in someone else's shoes. I think that is an amazingly important experience. It's also important I think on the level of language - a poem and poetry sort of forces language to be used at its sharpest point. I think it's incredibly important that we keep language at that edge.
How does a poem usually start for you?
When I start writing a poem I find that they can start in a variety of ways - although there are a few constants. Probably the most common one being poems starting with a specific visual image. And that's normally a visual image in which I can sense an idea as well. But I don't always know what that idea is - in fact quite often the image actually leads me into the ideas. So for example there's a poem I've written called 'The Light Fell' and when I started writing that - what that really started with was an image of a valley that I'd seen while I was standing at someone's grave at their funeral and half of this valley was lit and the other half was dark. And this image really burned itself into my mind and I was aware that it was echoing something I was feeling at that time - I couldn't work out what. And it was only in actually writing the poem that I realised that this was sort of symbolising for me these two very contrasting feelings that I was experiencing at that moment. Which was obviously great sadness that this person was leaving my life but also an awareness of the celebration of their life and it was that idea that I found in that first image. Another way that poems can sometimes start - and again quite often for me - is with a story, with a narrative I've been told, or even with someone I've met, but again what is always important in that case is there's a sense that this story has a resonance that goes much further than the simple narrative itself. It has to lead me somewhere else - it has to lead to a point of resonance again I suppose.
Can you describe your writing process?
In terms of my writing process, again I don't think there are that many constants - that's partly why I sort of start writing poems around the edges of my life. And in fact I'll quite often start writing them when I'm nowhere near a pen or paper. Some of the best conditions for those early stages are kind of habitual things like driving or washing up, or doing some gardening - and I know that sounds really, really boring but that really helps - when that habitual side of your mind is working for some reason this other part of your mind seems to be allowed to, not exactly wander, but to kind of go off and focus in on the kind of problems you engage in at the start of a poem: what is your entry point? What is the image that's going to hold this whole narrative as one? Once we're past there, the point of actual writing - I do need total silence, I'm not great at writing with music or stuff - I've been known to use earplugs for that. And then the first writing is normally sort of very, very quick - in fact so quick I normally have to type it up soon afterwards because then otherwise I can't actually read my own handwriting. So those are the kind of conditions that help - they might sound quite strange. The other thing that really helps actually is walking - you can't beat walking or running. For some reason you moving the body seems to help move the mind.
Is there a relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice?
I think there probably is a relationship between my spoken voice and my written voice - and I say that mainly because when I'm writing, especially when I'm drafting, I always read my poems out loud. And although I tend to write in free verse I do a lot of the metre, a lot of the rhythm, on the ear. You know, that said, I've always written my poems to be read by someone else - that is the ideal place I would like them to be read, quietly off the page. I think, sort of, on a slightly broader canvas there's an interesting relationship with me and writing in that when I was growing up I always had a slight stammer that was sometimes quite bad. And I think that probably did play a part in leading me into writing - it was very satisfying being able to put exactly what I wanted on the page, especially in such a condensed and exact form as poetry, if sometimes I wasn't able to verbalise that out loud.
How important is your Welsh identity and background to your writing?
Well 'Dw i'n dod o Gymru yn wreiddiol' - which means 'I am originally from Wales' - so obviously Wales played an important part in the background of my writing I think, in that it was where I was brought up, it was where I first met an awful lot of elements of the world. It was certainly where I met an awful lot of the natural world because I was brought up in, well, outside a small village. I think in many ways that was more important than the fact it was Wales. That said, I think I was very lucky in that poetry is still perhaps a slightly more natural medium in Wales than it is in certain other countries. All of that said, I suppose I've never been too fond of the idea of writers being limited by their borders - you know one of the reasons that I write, one of the reasons I love writing, is that it can go further than any border, any boundary so I tend to describe myself as a writer from Wales, rather than being a Welsh writer. I guess where I was brought up was especially important in maybe some of my earlier poems - in that being brought up in a small Welsh market town I felt a lot of the stories of my friends and the people I knew, I didn't see them being represented in any of the contemporary poetry I was reading. So there was a real urge to try and craft some of those stories as poems. So again there's a poem called 'Unfinished Business' about a guy I was at school with - he was the type of character, the type of quite wild character, off the rails, from a small Welsh market town which I hadn't met anywhere else in poetry. So I think it was quite influential on my early subject matter. Oddly enough as I live for longer and longer outside of Wales at the moment I think the landscape is, in a funny way, becoming more and more important for me in that the memory of the Welsh landscape finds its way into my work much more than it did when I was actually living there. Even though I don't have an everyday spoken Welsh accent, when I read my poems in my head my poems do have a Welsh accent - so I think the rhythms of the people that I was brought up around and the people who I met when I was growing up right until I was eighteen, the rhythms and the metre of their speech and their accent is very much kind of embedded in the poetry.
What are the pleasures and difficulties of writing about your own family?
I suppose I have written about my family quite a lot and I'm sort of tempted to say that - a bit like Everest - because they're there! They're very immediate - they are people I probably know best so when it comes to writing a poem they quite often, you know, present interesting stories, interesting narratives with lots of sort of faceted edges. As to the pitfalls and the pleasures I suppose those are some of the pleasures in that you're writing about people you know intimately so hopefully the poem can be very carefully nuanced. The pitfalls are I suppose that even when you're writing about people who really exist, truth in poetry is a very slippery concept. And I'm a firm...I've always believed that sort of my duty as a poet is to be true to the motivation of the poem and to be true to the motivation of a poem you might actually change factual truths around - you might change dates, you might put someone somewhere else geographically. But it's important that you're being true to the essence of the work - so I suppose if you're a member of my family you might read a poem and think well that isn't quite how it happened but hopefully, I would hope that my family would understand why that is the case. I mean obviously there are still some things about my family I might want to write that I don't because you do have to be sensitive to people around you but I think there are a lot more pleasures than pitfalls - for me anyway. I guess you'd have to ask my family if that was the same for them!
Did you get any helpful advice when you were first starting to write poetry?
The best advice I got when I was starting to write was quite simply read poetry - it's amazing how many people try to write poetry or do write poetry and don't actually read that much of it. And it's a bit like asking someone to go away and make a film and they've never seen a film or to go and play football and they've never really watched or studied football. You have to know what people are doing with the language and with poetry at the time that you're writing. Another really important piece of advice which might sound quite simple but has helped me, was quite simply when someone told me to put something on the page that really mattered to me - and that might sound quite straightforward but it's surprising how often sometimes you might try and write a poem not necessarily as an exercise, but because you think it might be good but I think unless it matters to you at quite a fundamental level I'm not sure how successful that poem will be. And the third bit of advice that I still stand by is you shouldn't underestimate the importance of time as your best editing tool - I might have finished writing something and I might think it's brilliant - it very rarely is - but I might think it's great but if I then put it away in a drawer for three weeks and come back to it all of the mistakes in the poem will suddenly sort of present themselves out of the page, and then like three weeks later you can suddenly see where you have to tweak it, where you have to change the hinges and where through a sort of delicate process of calibration hopefully the poem can spring into life again. And then I'll normally put it aside again, sometimes for a very, very long time - I've come back to some poems after several years - and suddenly seen where the problem is. So time - you shouldn't be in a great hurry to finish that poem.
Poet's Guide to BritainPenguin Books Ltd, 2009
White Ravens, Seren 2009
Resistance, Faber and Faber 2007
Poetry in Performance Volume 1 (CD), 57 Productions 2002
Owen Sheers Reading from his poems, The Poetry Archive...
The Dust Diaries, Faber and Faber 2004
Skirrid Hill, Poetry Wales Press 2005Buy
The Blue Book, Poetry Wales Press 2000Buy