Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Mike Jenkins

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

cover of aberfan t grenfell
Mike Jenkins

Retired teacher of English. Former editor ‘Poetry Wales’ and co-editor ‘Red Poets’ for 25 years. Winner of Eric Gregory Award, John Tripp Prize for Spoken Poetry & Wales Book of the Year. Author of children’s poetry, stories and novels as well as many poetry books. Next collection – ‘From Aberfan t Grenfell’ ( Culture Matters) illustrated by Alan Perry.

The Interview

1. When did you start writing poetry?

A number of things converging at a point in my life when I was 15.
My mother gave me an anthology called ‘New Poetry’ which I loved reading and we were very lucky to be studying a book of contemporary poetry in school which I think was called ‘Here Today’ and was accompanied by a number of poets reading their work.
At the same time my parents’ divorce had a profound influence and my early poems were personal ones, hidden away in a drawer like a diary.
We also studied some First World War poetry and Owen, in particular, had a lasting impact.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Although I wasn’t close to my mother ( none of us children were) I’d say she was the one member of our family  who enjoyed poetry greatly, especially Dylan Thomas and Manley Hopkins.
I then tended to rebel against her tastes, preferring Eliot and the Mersey poets : poles of gravity and humour.
She loved to read it out loud and could quote Thomas and Hopkins readily ; as a Drama teacher I think she was besotted by the sound of their language.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I did find 19th century poetry stuffy in school and didn’t engage with Hardy’s work at ‘A’ Level, despite adoring his fiction. I got into song lyrics about this time, though it was bands like the Beatles, Kinks and Jethro Tull rather than Cohen and Dylan ( who came later).
When I studied for a degree in English I came to appreciate the Romantics for instance, though John Clare made the biggest impression as I’d grown up in rural East Anglia and could identify with his subject-matter.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have any routine. I’m prolific when it comes to poetry, but now find prose difficult, though I do write a regular blog on my website http://www.mikejenkins.net
I find late at night the most creative time for some reason, when no-one is around.
I don’t make notes, but find walking can be inspirational. Sometimes I do write haiku on my phone while out walking.
There is so much glorious countryside near where I live, not just the Brecon Beacons but the Valleys themselves.

5. What motivates you to write?

I’m literally motivated by everything : weather to animals, conversations to dreams. However, I’d have to admit that people are my main source of inspiration.
I write specifically from and about my own ‘milltir sgwar’ ( ‘square mile’ in Welsh) and often take the persona of both real and imaginary characters in the town I’ve lived for over 40 years, Merthyr Tudful , on the river Tâf.
No doubt my political beliefs inform my work, yet I hope they’re always open and never pushy. I’m not a party person at all and my republican socialism is hardly mainstream.
There’s a satirical side to some of my poetry which does seek to mock views I find repugnant, but I really do want to write in as many ways and about as many things as I can.

6. What is your work ethic?

When I was teaching fulltime in Comprehensives I always found time for poetry, though not so much for fiction ( I’ve written novels and short stories in the past).
Now I’m retired there’s less urgency and the only pressure I put on myself is to write a blog fairly regularly. These blogs can be based on the themes of poems I’ve recently written or I can write poems to accompany them on my varied interests such as politics, education, music and football.
I published 2 books last year and there’s one on the way this year from Culture Matters, a leftwing press based in Newcastle : it’s titled ‘From Aberfan t Grenfell’. I’m sure I write too much, but it’s preferable than the ol’ block!

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Ted Hughes, Wilfred Owen and the Mersey Poets : I’ve always had an eclectic taste and all still influence my work.
I like the way you can adopt very different forms and try to make them work. Several of my books have been wholly in Merthyr dialect and , looking back, I’m indebted to the likes of Derek Walcott, James Berry and Linton Kwesi Johnson ( all of whom I later met).
Then there’s my book ‘Moor Music’ (Seren) written in ‘open form’ and this definitely comes from my student days when I was an avid reader of the US Black Mountain Poets, particularly Charles Olson.
From the likes of  McGough and Adrian Mitchell I love the use of humour and the importance of music in verse. Somehow comic verse is belittled, yet it can often say far more than dry, dispassionate poetry.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Many of my comrades and friends in the Red Poets such as Phil Knight, Patrick Jones, Mike Church and Tim Richards have produced the poetry which has moved me most and I’ve had the immense pleasure of bringing out their books in our Red Voices series.
Last year two books from Bristol-based poets were the most impressive : the late, great Helen Dunmore’s ‘Inside the Wave’ and Cardiff-born Bob Walton’s ‘Sax Burglar Blues’.
I’ve just finished Martin Hayes’ ‘The things our hands once stood for’ (Culture Matters) and he reminds me of a witty Whitman : open, expansive, ranging…..well away from the closeted elites.

9. Why do you write?

I write because I can and have to. I love poetry and in Cymru ( Wales) poets are annually crowned and throned at the National Eisteddfod.
The word for poem in Welsh is ‘cerdd’ and that can also mean ‘song’. Poetry and song : so close as to be one.
Today we’re in danger of over-teaching it, of making it too self-conscious.
Better swim in the sea than photograph its surface.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Well, I used to be editor of ‘Poetry Wales’ in the 80s and received piles of poems from writers who obviously didn’t read any contemporary poetry.
It’s vital to read widely and diversely and to listen to poetry read or recited out loud. Poetry’s meant to be enjoyed aloud just as drama is for stage not page.
I’d say, never be afraid of imitating those you admire and don’t think you have to confine yourself to one ‘voice’. Why not a multitude of voices?
With the growth of the Creative Writing industry the idea of books of poetry with single unified purposes has taken over, yet there’s no reason why one book can’t comprise many facets, forms, themes.
There’s not much money in verse and no real celeb glamour and that’s what makes it exciting : still a rebel art-form, word-sniping from the derelict buildings.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve just finished my next book, due out next month I hope and I’m very excited about it.
It’s a book of Merthyr dialect poems each illustrated by the superb Swansea writer and artist Alan Perry, who has done the drawing on the same page as each poem, so the two merge.
Two of the poems are about the Grenfell fire: one links it to the Aberfan disaster and the other takes a fire-fighter’s viewpoint.
Once it’s out I’ll be on the road again , doing as many readings as possible. If Alan frames some of his work then we can combine the readings with exhibitions.
‘Red Poets’ issue 24 is just out, even though we’ve been going for 25 years and I’ve co-edited it from the start. It’s always thrilling giving poets their debuts in the magazine.
This month I’m off to Cameroon to launch an anthology of Welsh and Cameroonian poets called ‘Hiraeth / Erzolirzoli’ with editor Eric Ngalle Charles and the National Poet of Wales Ifor ap Glyn.
‘Sall appnin!’  as we say here.

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