John Freeman recently received the Roland Mathias Prize for Poetry at the Wales Book of the Year Awards for his tenth collection, What Possessed Me (Worple Press). Lauded by critics as ‘a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing’ (Tears in the Fence) and ‘a collection lit with humour and openness’ (London Grip), the poems in the book provide powerful, witty and moving reflections on his relationships with people, place and time. The poet taught English Literature and Creative Writing at Cardiff University for many years and lives in Cowbridge. Sixth-form students Jessica Austin, Cameron Bird, Emily Jarvis, Erin McInnes Willard and Helena Peacock caught up with him ahead of a celebratory reading of his work in Brecon in February.
Congratulations on your recent receipt of the Roland Mathias Prize for Poetry. What do you feel this means for your writing and do you think it will change your writing at all?
Thank you. The prize is a great honour. I remember meeting Roland Mathias, who endowed the prize, many years ago. He was a fine poet, a great servant of poetry in Wales, and seemed to me to be a generous and kindly man. I salute his memory.
I don’t think winning the prize will change the way I write. What I hope it will mean is that more people who might like my writing may come across it. No writer will appeal to all readers, but the first hurdle, and it is a big one, is for her or his work to be publicly visible. Winning the prize must help, at least a little.
Where does your love for poetry and writing stem from?
I hold both my parents responsible. Our house had plenty of books, including anthologies of comic verse. I only realised later in life how helpful this was, when as a teacher I met students who were scared of poetry because it was all so serious. We had books of that serious stuff as well, and one specially for me with larger print containing Blake’s “The Tyger”, which I loved. There were nursery rhymes everywhere in those days, including on the radio, which we listened to a lot. We had no television or telephone. Both my parents had left school at 14. They both knew poetry by heart they liked to recite. Dad was the self-taught intellectual. Mum was practical and full of turbulent energy, talked a lot and had passionate moods of rage and joy. Sometimes under the pressure of feeling her speech was simple but eloquent in a way I came to think poetry should be. Dad introduced me to Wordsworth and Tennyson. Mum, and later my elder brother, took me to see Shakespeare in the theatre.
Which poets have influenced your work the most?
At different times, I was most influenced by Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, Hopkins, Eliot, Ted Hughes and others. In my gap year I discovered a book by the American poet, William Carlos Williams. He seemed to write poetry that was dangerously close not just to prose but to bathos, and somehow make it work. It was like someone talking. ‘It is difficult/ to get the news from poems,’ I read in his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, ‘yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’
‘What is a poet?’ Wordsworth had asked, and answered his own question: ‘he is a man speaking to men’; or as we would say now, a person speaking to people. He wrote accordingly, but the language of poetry has to be renewed in every generation.Williams wrote like a person speaking to people in a modern idiom. I found this simplicity of approach in other British and American writers I liked, none of them well known in Britain, but all of them at different times main influences on me: George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, William Bronk, John Riley and Jim Burns. I should not forget Robert Frost, and a deepening of acquaintance with Edward Thomas. I made an academic study of Shelley and remain inspired by his example of whole-hearted commitment to poetry and to creating a better world.
For a considerable period, my chief inspirations were by turns Jane Kenyon and Kerry Hardie. I am talking now about the poets I dip into and take off from just before I start writing. Kenyon, Hardie, and latterly Linda Saunders, have triggered many of my poems in the last ten years or more. All of them write about family, landscape, and daily life. Shelley suggested that all the poets throughout the ages have been weaving one great collaborative poem, and I think that is true. I shall be glad if I have added a stanza to it.
If I had to reduce it all drastically, I would say the three main influences were Keats who taught me to be unafraid of writing about emotions and the natural world, Williams who taught me to be modern, and Shakespeare, who can make poetry out of the plainest language but will also use the most sumptuous when occasion demands. He writes poetry that sounds like speech, and prose that is pure poetry. He is our greatest poet, and great poets can be disastrous influences, but they are also a precious resource it would be mad not to draw on. Nobody wants to write pastiche, something absurdly pseudo-Shakespearean. I think Williams inoculated me against that danger. It is only recently that it has occurred to me to dare to acknowledge Shakespeare as an influence. Really he influences us all, because he reinvented not only our language but our consciousness.
When a reader singles out a poem for praise, that one suddenly seems particularly lovely in my eyes. I especially like it if they mention a poem that is not one of the most popular, or one I nearly left out of the book. It’s like a vindication. But the popular ones (I’m talking about a handful of mentions, not thousands) are liked for a reason, and I like them too. I like all the family poems, and I have a soft spot for ‘The Exchange by the Stile.’ It’s a hard thing to philosophise successfully in poetry, but I hope that poem may have brought it off, as well as evoking a precious memory. In fact it comes as close to the core of my friendship with my father as any of the others about him, that ‘being deep in placid communion.’ An equivalent poem about my mother is ‘New Year’s Eva.’
I also like my landscape poems, such as ‘Summer Solstice, Cornwall,’ which evokes a state of mind as well as a place. It’s a meditation, and an evocation of the calm happiness meditation can bring. I like the way it compares sheep to monks and gnats to angels, drawing on religious tradition, sympathetically but playfully and not slavishly.
As your work is heavily influenced by the surrounding environment, do you have a favourite landscape or area in the UK?
Compared to many people I don’t think I have travelled all that much. There are places I should like to visit for the first time, such as much of Scotland and north-east England, and revisit, such as Snowdonia and the Lake District. I like many landscapes in the south of England, and in south and west Wales, the areas I know best.
It’s stimulating to discover somewhere new, but it’s good to build up a relationship with a place by visiting it often. I have a regular walk near where I live, between Cowbridge and Llanblethian, which I appreciate all the more for having seen it in all weathers and all seasons over the last dozen years. For an even longer period I lived within walking distance of Llandaff, first on one side of the Taff and then on the other, which I have written about in What Possessed Me. But really a dandelion, a sparrow, and an ant in a back yard are capable of refreshing the spirit and inspiring poems. You don’t need special places, you just need to have an attitude of receptivity and attentiveness.
What do you think makes your writing style different from others’?
Perhaps that is for others to decide! And it depends which other writers you compare me with. I don’t set out to be original or unique. I try to follow my own instincts and convictions. The writer any of us becomes, like the person we become, is formed into uniqueness by an almost infinite number of factors – genetic heritage, upbringing, environment, personal choices made many times a day over our lifetimes. You recognise anyone you know well as soon as they speak one word, or even by hearing their footstep, or, if you see them at a distance, by their shape, their bearing, and their manner of walking. As time goes by, perhaps you become more yourself as a writer. Other poets must have learned from Shakespeare and Williams, as I have, and combined the lyric impulse towards the exquisite with aiming at an authentic ease of colloquial speech, as I have; but we all apply the same lessons in a way modified by our own individuality, our own strengths and limitations.
I think my willingness to write colloquially in long lines of (more or less) blank verse, and at length, is unusual. Other poets often write intensely jewelled, clever, puzzling poems, and these poems are often in short lines. I don’t do this, though in the past I too have written short poems with short lines, and I don’t disown them. I’ve just moved on to something different.
I also look for the redeeming features of life to celebrate in my poems, the moments which reinforce our love, our hope, our joy, our ability to go on living more or less cheerfully. There’s a great glamour in our culture generally these days, including in the poetry world, attached to what is variously called the edgy, the challenging, the disturbing, the dark, the extreme. That is not my scene, though I hope my poems avoid painting a false picture of an unreally pain-free world.
We very much like ‘Prisoners’ and its depiction of a hospital waiting room. ‘I sit surrounded by people who all seem iller than I think I am…We are like stones or single-celled beings, dimly lit by stirrings of consciousness.’ We like the drama and intensity of this poem and the war imagery. Do you feel that it’s important for poems to take on serious themes like mortality?
The American poet Wallace Stevens wrote: ‘The chief problems of any artist, as of any man, are the problems of the normal and… he needs in order to solve them, everything that the imagination has to give.’ As Gertrude reminds Hamlet, there is nothing more normal than mortality: ‘all that lives must die.’ But as Hamlet replies when she asks him why it seems ‘so particular’ to him, ‘Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems”.’ It seems so particular to each of us. Nay, it is. Our death, I forget who it was who said, is born with us. We are all going to die, and we have the rest of our lives to get used to the fact, once it has dawned on us as children. But we never do get used to it. It is a conundrum we can’t solve, and keep being drawn back to. We keep forgetting we won’t live for ever. Perhaps this is evidence that the conscious spark in us is immortal; some people have thought so. But perhaps it isn’t; some have thought it’s just a sign of human self-delusion and wishful thinking. Poetry for me is serious because it is my chief means of dealing with all the realities of being human, including the fact of our mortality, which sometimes seems a theoretical notion and at other times comes disconcertingly close.
‘Prisoners’ is not just about death, but about that whole other life, and other world, which exists in and around hospitals. I was just visiting, but for some people it becomes, like it or not, a home from home. As for the war imagery, it comes fairly naturally to mind in that environment. We were meekly waiting to be ordered about, like captives. And you can’t help seeing that if sickness and death are the enemy, any victories the staff can help us win are going to be no better than temporary. I think I had the idea of it being like a war before I caught sight of those three letters, P.O.W. It occurred to me at once that they had two possible meanings. I expect you have guessed what they are. If you haven’t, the portrait of a young woman mentioned in the poem is a clue to one of them.
We really loved ‘Brought to Mind’ and its depiction of your relationship with your father. We could really relate to the moving idea of an older generation trying to live through younger people. We were struck by the idea in the poem of ‘the finality of ceasing to be,’ but also the idea of the speaker going to a medium. What are your views on the idea of an afterlife and do you see poems as a useful way of exploring this? Would you agree that poems are a useful way of coping with loss?
Poems are a useful way of coping with everything. Wordsworth writes of having been depressed and how ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief/ and I again am strong.’ Poetry can be healing, like the other arts. It’s also a medium in which one can allow ideas to evolve and change. My views on an afterlife are tentative and not dogmatic.
Like many people in Western Europe, I am caught between the dominant rationalism of our culture, and intuitions of some kind of survival. This in-between state is often admitted to by professionally religious people, and is what Tennyson called ‘honest doubt’ and Thomas Gray, ‘trembling hope.’ ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty,’ someone said (I’ve looked that up: it was Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, who became an agnostic). Atheists have been known to pray in a crisis. I have had fleeting experiences which felt like visitations from people no longer living in this dimension. But I have found arguments about these things sterile, a dialogue of the deaf. Many people close to me have been attached to the rational view that death is an absolute end, and that nothing should be trusted which is not scientifically proven, and they get upset if it is questioned. My Dad was one of those. I am sometimes more sceptical, sometimes more (if you like) credulous. I did once, for reasons which made sense at the time, have two sessions with a medium, a straightforward, down-to-earth woman who saw her practice as quite compatible with her Christianity. I am glad I made those visits, but I haven’t made a habit of it. I don’t believe in messing around with Ouija boards, and I ought to say that some people see visiting spiritualists, as they prefer to be known, as shocking. This is a poem I nearly didn’t publish because I thought the issues it raises would alienate some readers and stop them enjoying the rest of my work.
Since you pick up on the phrase about ‘the finality of ceasing to be’ I should like to quote the one I contrast it with in the poem, ‘the absoluteness of being here.’ I admire people who engage fully with what we normally call the real world; but some of us have an obstinate sense of belonging somewhere else, either because we are hopeless daydreamers, or because we have a sense that the true reality of our lives, our home, lies in its spiritual dimension, or the imagination. I plead guilty to both of those traits, and in neither of them do I waver.
In ‘My Grandfather’s Hat,’ we were really struck by the way a hat can transform someone and make them extraordinary, and the way the poem captures the way we look up to our grandparents when we are young. We were wondering what happened to the hat and whether you have it? In this poem, and in ‘Brought to Mind,’ we were taken by the way that the poems are a way of expressing love for people. Is this at the heart of why you write?
Perhaps this is the place to say that I really like all these questions, and the reactions you have had to the poems. You have asked questions which really matter. You have made me think long and hard, and I hope creatively, about the answers. And you have made me feel understood and appreciated. Thank you! Yes, love is at the heart of why I write, and I can think of no better reason. Thank you especially for asking the question that prompts that simple answer. I am afraid I don’t know what happened to the hat. I had an uncle who wore a battered one a bit like it, so maybe he inherited it. If so, I hope he wore it. It would not have suited my father or my brother or me. I can always find the hat again in the poem, where it remains as good as new. So can you. That’s one of the things poems are for. Perhaps this one is, among other things, a hat-stand.
We really enjoyed the way that ‘Making a Meal of It’ humorously skewers the notion of class. Has your perspective on class changed over time and how significant do you feel class identity is in your poetry?
At the time described in that poem I don’t think I had any abstract notion of class, certainly not a developed one. I saw everyone as an individual. The realisation that someone who spoke like Mary must have a different home life from mine may have dawned on me, but that would have been true of all the other children for different reasons.
As one grows up one continues to learn more about the role of class in social life. My own family seemed rather isolated and disconnected. I admire and envy the sense of solidarity to be found in some working class communities, and the social networks of some prosperous middle class people aren’t bad either. But class also seems inseparable from social and cultural advantage and disadvantage. I became aware later that many pupils and students were more socially at ease than I was, a fact which seemed connected to their backgrounds. But I quickly came to feel that education and the arts, the life of the mind, were a realm, or better, a republic, where that didn’t matter. People met there as equals in the light of shared values, whatever their social origins. I still passionately believe that, but have realised more and more how social disadvantage can handicap people in their access to that republic.
The world of formal education, like the health service, operates like a parallel universe. I am afraid that notions of competition, success and failure, and economic imperatives, have increasingly come to poison what ought to be something holy, the spreading of joy, the joy of knowledge and understanding. In that tainted context, class disadvantage can make the pressures on students even worse. The pressures on teachers are increasingly relentless too, come to that, in schools as well as universities. I am not sure that class identity shows up much in my poetry. I try to live as much as possible in that ideal republic, and approach everyone I meet with equal respect and interest, unless they decisively alienate that positive attitude by their behaviour. People without much formal education often have a great deal of wisdom and experience that it would be silly not to try to learn from. When I write about people like the waiter in my poem ‘Good Faith in Athens,’ their social status may be part of what I notice about them. I hope it is clear from that poem that if anyone was superior to anyone else in that situation, it was him. As it happens, he was an educated young man. I hope, by the way, that that is a political poem, and that it works as such.
What is your position on national identity? As someone who was born in England but has lived so long in Wales, how do you feel about national identity and how do you feel this feeds into your poetry?
I think it is harder for a thinking English person to be a wholehearted nationalist than for a Welsh equivalent: Englishness has been hijacked by too many negative forces. People need to feel they belong somewhere, whether in a family, a friendship group, a village or a country, or several of these, and the list could go on, of course – people can be united by a common interest or a common problem. I, too, like to feel I belong, where I live as well as where I come from.
I have an affection for aspects of what I take to be the English character, and of English traditions. I am thrilled by English literature, but anyone who has written well in any version of the language is welcome in my pantheon, wherever they are from. I have mostly felt welcomed in Wales and I have good Welsh friends, and insofar as I understand the distinctness of Welsh character and traditions, there is much I admire in them. But while we may feel we know instinctively what it is to be Welsh or English, national identity can be defined in so many different ways that the more we think about it, the more elusive it is. I deplore xenophobia and insularity, and I am wary of nationalism because it so often divides people and creates enmity. I am all for maintaining cultural heritage and uniqueness, but in an open-minded, internationalist way. Community is something best experienced at a local level, but there is an exciting wider world. So I would emphasise the local and the international politically, and reserve nationalist passion for sporting competitions. I try to keep a low profile when Wales play England at rugby, and weep privately about the sorry state of English cricket.
What things would you most like to achieve with your writing in the future?
Like every other writer, young or old, I am always hoping to get better at what I do, artistically. I would want my writing to help people become happier, kinder, and more curious. I hope I can help people enjoy the natural world, and that out of that enjoyment they will want to do something about the terrible damage we are inflicting on it. I would like to help make the world a fairer and less unequal place. But one has to work within the constraints of one’s talent. I think some of my future work may have social and political dimensions more clearly marked in it. But I shall go on writing about the countryside, and people, and life and death, and even my family. There is always more to say, a new poem begging to be written.
What Possessed Me is available now from Worple Press.