Dai George

In Conversation with Dai George

Dai George is a young Welsh poet whose first collection, The Claims Office, has been recently published by Seren.

Carl Griffin: Isn’t 27 too young to produce a full collection?

Dai George: ‘No’ is the short answer, though I can see why the question might arise. There are several ways I might try to explain myself here.

Keats was 25 when he died.

Not everybody can be John Keats, but let’s take Louis MacNeice as a slightly less towering example. He published his proper debut volume in 1935, at the age of 27. I’m struck, reading a poem such as ‘Mayfly’, how this is definitively the work of a young man, and yet the world would be much the poorer if we didn’t have access to it. It’s swaggering, untutored, brilliant.

Dai George

Not everybody can be Louis MacNeice, but Ahren Warner, one of the most daring and innovative British poets currently at work, is the same age as me and released his debut, Confer, a couple of years earlier. And it’s not just Ahren; there’s a whole generation of excellent young poets out there, represented in two recent anthologies, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Dear World & Everyone in It. Some have collections out, some are working on them – I’m happy to be in the company of people such as Andrew Jamison, John Clegg, Emily Berry, Oli Hazzard and Helen Mort, who’ve taken the plunge. I’d bet that most of them have been writing seriously for about ten years, as I have – which is long enough to have developed your own style and expunged the juvenilia.

Aren’t these poets the Jake Bugg of poetry, though, undeniably talented but, in hindsight, showcasing their work before they are fully developed as writers?

For years, up until quite recently, the problem with British poetry was that you had to be over 40 to get a look in. This state of affairs brought worse problems than the alternative, where a poet in his twenties might release a collection before he’s ready. Average poetry comes from all age groups, and quite often it’s the poet in his mid-50s, coasting on the back of a long and successful career, who’s most susceptible to it.

All of which is separate to the question of whether I, personally, was ready to release a collection. The reader will have to be the judge of that, but I wouldn’t have gone ahead with publication if I didn’t think it was strong enough.

The Claims Office has an American feel to it, as well as a Welsh one. Was it important for you that the book should have an international feel, or is it just that you write about the places in which you have lived?

I do write about the places where I’ve lived, you’re right. In addition to the Welsh and American poems, there are individual pieces on Bristol (‘A Clifton Postcode’), where I did my undergraduate degree, and Harrow (‘Metroland’), where I lived with my girlfriend’s parents for a year after coming back from New York. I hope that they’re more than just diary entries or travelogues. Apart from ‘How the World’, the oldest poem in the collection – which originated in one of those expansive, limber moments you get on holiday – I’ve only written about places that have become a deep part of me. Capturing a place is just as important and alluring as trying to capture a person, and in many ways more ineffable.

As for whether I consciously wanted to make it feel ‘international’, I don’t think so. New York is such an intoxicating place to live; it would have been hard for it not to have rubbed off on my writing here and there. The question is whether or not what you write contributes anything new to the subject, and that’s another of those instances – like publishing a collection in your 20s – where you’ve got to take a leap of faith in your abilities.

You attended a Masters writing programme in the States. Do you think that experience has helped you become the poet you are, or is it irrelevant where poets learn their trade?

It certainly helped me. Doing an MFA accelerated my development and put me in touch with a range of very exciting poets like Timothy Donnelly and Lucie Brock-Broido – big figures in contemporary American poetry, as well as generous and stimulating teachers. There’s no way I’d have The Claims Office, as it stands, without those two years at Columbia.

I’m as sceptical as anyone about the general influence that creative writing programmes are having on the wider literary culture. There’s no doubt that, in many cases, the workshop environment will foster a consensus about what’s adequate or respectable in a poem or a story that’s damaging to genuine flair and originality – the type that can’t be taught, as the cliché would have it. Ultimately, it comes down to how it’s taught and how you use it. My workshops were taught very well, and not only accepted but encouraged risk-taking. That said, when people complain about a certain type of poem being a ‘workshop poem’, I have to say I know what they mean. They mean that it’s modest, well turned and sounds like a million other modest and well turned poems like it. As creative writing programmes become more prevalent, we have to be vigilant about spotting that in practice – though it’s hard to cry foul without coming across as presumptuous.

And needless to say, a poet can learn their trade in any number of ways – Keats never did a stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop. But for a poet to be any good, she needs to undergo a period of serious study and experiment, and a masters is one way to get that.

Having just published your first poetry collection, you are now working on your first novel. What is it about?

It’s a historical novel, based in London at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. The central character is Ben Jonson, the playwright and man about town who, through his own recusant Catholic connections, ended up having supper with eight of the principal actors in the Plot only a month before its discovery. It’s an attempt to dramatise that story, and fill in some of the missing links that will most likely never be available to a standard historian or biographer because they’re lost to the mists of time. 1605 to 1606 was a dramatic year in Jonson’s life; he goes from being in jail, for the third time in his life, for his part in writing a seditious play, to being the toast of Court and enjoying the smash hit theatrical success of the decade in Volpone, all via this episode with the Gunpowder Plot where he seems to have sailed very close to the wind.

Where are you living now, and what’s your day-to-day life like?

I’m living in London – Hackney – in a small flat with my girlfriend. It’s great – for the last four months I’ve enjoyed an Arts Council England grant to work on completing my novel, so I’ve been able to get up every day and just write, in a single-minded way that wasn’t even possible at Columbia, where there was always a lot of reading to do for class, papers to write, etc. Unfortunately, as with all good things, that blissful grant period is coming to an end, so I’m on edge about the next step and money in particular. Such is the writer’s lot.

In The Claims Office, there is a poem for Jade Goody. Is this Jade ‘Big Brother’ Goody? If so, what made you write about, or for, her?

Indeed, ‘Two Months Left’ is for Jade from Big Brother. I can actually remember a little bit about how this poem came about, which isn’t always the case. Funnily enough, it originated in a writing exercise at Columbia – a page of automatic writing, which we were then challenged to salvage or craft in some way. I find automatic writing painful and never saw a poem coming out of it, so I picked a subject that seemed unpromising. There was a lot in the British media at the time about Jade Goody, who was entering the final stages of cancer and selling her story to the gossip mags to pay for her children’s future. Something about the whole tragic farrago must have been nagging away at me. I think the page of automatic writing was an appalled screed, angrier and more depressed than I had any right to be. It was only when I sat on the subject a while that this sadder, quieter poem began to emerge.

You have started a blog for Boston Review about British poetry. What are your hopes/expectations et cetera for this?

It’s a great opportunity that’s come about via my ongoing relationship with Timothy Donnelly, my professor at Columbia and the poetry editor at Boston Review. He gave me my first proper critical break, commissioning a review of Don Paterson’s Rain towards the end of my time in the States, and over the years I’ve continued to contribute the odd article or poem to the Boston Review. We both agreed that British poetry often, regrettably, gets overlooked in America (these days, I wouldn’t say that the converse is true; most British poets I know are very hip to American influences) and the blog will hopefully help in redressing that. The other great advocate of contemporary British verse in America is the critic Stephen Burt, who also happens to write for the Boston Review, so it’s a great platform to have. Longer term, I’d love to see more magazines contribute to a genuinely transatlantic poetry conversation. Poetry London is starting to do that on this side of the pond – far be it from me to dictate what Boston Review does at an editorial level, but my blog is a small way of plugging away at that wider goal.

An early post talks about the Best British Poetry 2013 anthology, published by Salt. The first editor of this series was Roddy Lumsden, a poet you have also been heavily influenced by. I am often reading poetry written by a poet I have met or reviewed or interviewed. Is it a matter of just bigging-up your mates in these blogs? How does a critic avoid that these days, with the internet making it so easy to meet other published poets? Is there even anything wrong with bigging-up your mates, if you also think they are great poets? And will you make an effort to explore poetry you might not be too impressed with, but which, possibly, your American audience might enjoy?

It certainly won’t be a matter of just bigging-up my mates, but the poetry world is small and focused on London, so I have become friends with some of the poets that I’d consider the best out there right now. That happens; you just have to be vigilant about it when you come to write about them, and try to keep your critical wits about you. I wouldn’t deny that it raises some tricky questions but – this sounds terrible but it’s true! – I’d be really limited in who I could write about if I took some purist approach and only reviewed people I’d never met. The same applies on the Welsh poetry scene – you’re bound to bump into everyone at some point. I’ve actually had to set a few boundaries in place with reviewing Welsh work, since Seren are such a big player in Welsh publishing and I’m a Seren poet. That raises an actual conflict of interest, as far as I’m concerned, so I’m more or less resolved not to review Seren work from now on. As a result, I can only do so much straightforward reviewing for places like Poetry Wales and New Welsh Review, which is sad, but them’s the breaks.

The question about exploring poetry that I don’t like is interesting. I hope always to do that, particularly if it’s influential or widely praised poetry. I don’t have too much of an agenda about presenting a particular type of British poetry to an American readership. To be honest, that sort of takes care of itself at the moment, as so much British poetry that I consider worth reading right now takes American influences as a start point; mainly I’ll be writing about poets that American audiences might enjoy, and I don’t feel at all circumscribed in avoiding stuff that’ll come across as ‘too British’. That said, sometimes I might make an appeal like I made for Mark Waldron in my post about Best British Poetry – but Mark’s work (yes, first-name terms for us, I’m afraid) is so overwhelmingly informed by the New York School and Berryman that I was happy to do a bit of one-off special pleading, and I might do so again if it’s a poet who I think would sit particularly well with American readers, like Oli Hazzard.