On July 27th, award-winning poet Steve Griffiths begins a new project that brings together poetry, YouTube and social media. Here he discusses the inspiration behind it.
Nine years ago, when I got together for the third time with the woman who is now my wife, I began to write my Late Love Poems. There’d been a gap of thirty years between our two youthful encounters – and my losses – and a very comprehensive coming together again in our mid-fifties. It was a bit of a thunderbolt that echoed far back in our lives. There was no plan for a book. One poem suggested another as our relationship grew, in a kind of conversation that included our younger selves. It felt good to build a collection like that.
I’ve had this feeling that there’s something life-enhancing about these poems, something to share with an audience in a way that the knotted wrestlings of my past can’t quite aspire to. Last year, I put in my first ever Arts Council England grant application to create thirty filmed performances of the poems, to be uploaded in a series to YouTube week by week, culminating in publication of the book of the same name by Cinnamon Press in January 2016. Eamon Bourke of Park6Productions is creating the films; and the project also aims to build an audience for the films through social media. We hope to have up to 20 social media partners, arts organisations, libraries and other community networks who will disseminate the links for the films as the project builds through the second half of the year. We’re going to try to reach audiences that don’t normally engage with poetry.
Filming presented some challenges I hadn’t bargained for. Before we had the funding, there were some tryouts in front of the camera, and I was appalled by the way I conveyed a certain wooden quality while simultaneously icing up. This was not at all the same as a live audience. I was reminded of ‘doing’ the English recitation in my school Eisteddfod (Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones, Amlwch, 1960-67), year after year in front of a fiercely partisan audience of 900. In my personal English-language bubble, I was a banker for the 3 or 4 points for my House, Padrig, in an Eisteddfod we always won. These were my introduction to Wilfred Owen and R.S.Thomas, and to the process of ‘hearing’ a poem, digesting it and conveying it to an audience under some pressure. There’s a fifty-year-long line of continuity to the sounds I hear now in my head as I’m starting a poem, though my relationship with meaning has grown into something quite different. Some things have filled out; some have got leaner.
I decided, perhaps prompted by that vestigial Eisteddfod memory, that I had to learn the poems. The process was illuminating: I realised how many intonations, insights, glancing emphases, were there when I first worked on the lines, but had somehow gone missing over time. I thought I was a good performer of my work; but I realised that you can forget how to read your own work with full, fresh concentration. The rediscovery galvanised me. Eamon needed to be a patient director, and he was: an unexpected relationship tested in a process that carried some emotional risk for me.
The collection reflects a life-long journey to find room for generosity, my own generosity, in a poem. It was something I had long aspired to and admired, first of all in Pablo Neruda. From the age of 18, I could see, and I loved, the lightness of touch in Miroslav Holub. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t yet have it in me to begin to take on what they had. It was about finding a tone that reflected the life in me. It took many turns, setbacks, and slow realisations in my life to begin to get there. And then there was Raymond Carver. Whatever you think of the resultant poems, when I was 57, I began to see it, under the influence of a relationship I hadn’t believed possible – a process that managed to be both reflective and heady.
[Thinking about this, it occurs to me that I have been in a process of personal consolidation, of synthesis, for some years. I considered An Elusive State (2008), my imagined Utopia, to be a book for the friends of my generation: a narrative for the people I knew who grew up believing, like me, that social progress was somehow inevitable. I put into it much of what I had learned from a life of social and political research and activism, including lessons about failure and defeat, about forgetting and needing to re-learn – and as in the Late Love Poems, about generosity and its place in an individual life and in a society.]
I hope that with these films we’ll have created a format with an intimacy, an immediacy, and something of the quality of a live reading, which is also retrievable and can therefore be savoured and shared. The warm-up has been a month-long flurry of daily twitterpoems @LateLovePoems, haiku-like fragments of the longer work. A second flurry has already begun, and the films themselves will be uploaded weekly from July 27th.
(Photo credits: Jules May)