Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Chris Jones

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, 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.

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Chris Jones

Chris Jones has lived in Sheffield since 1990. He was awarded an Eric Gregory Award for his poetry in 1996. From 1997 to 1999 he worked as a writer-in-residence at Nottingham Prison. He was the Literature Officer for Leicestershire for five years and then spent some time as a freelance writer and poetry festival organiser. He currently teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University.
In June 2015 he published his second full-length poetry collection Skin with Longbarrow Press.
n 2013 he published a chapbook with Shoestring Press entitled Jigs and Reels and his work featured in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing, publishing his sequence on Pre-Reformation wall art and its destruction ‘Death and the Gallant’.
His poem ‘Sentences’, published in the magazine Staple, was nominated for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem Prize 2011. The work appears in The Forward Book of Poetry 2011.
In 2007 he published his first full-length collection, The Safe House, with Shoestring Press. Here you can find his prison and River Don poems in full, along with pieces on family and travel.
A pamphlet collection of poems was produced with Longbarrow Press in November 2007. The sequence, entitled Miniatures, is concerned with the experiences of fatherhood, and reflections on wider family ties.

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start to write poetry?

I knew I was going to be a writer from an early age. I thought I was going to be a prose writer, a novelist. But at the age of fourteen I read Wilfred Owen’s poetry and everything changed. I hadn’t read anything so moving or powerful and decided this is what I would focus all my creative energies on.

1.1 Did you use Owen’s poetry as a template for your early work?

My first attempt at a ‘proper’ poem described a tank lumbering across no-man’s land. I was interested in wars and battles as a teenager – but that piece must have been influenced by Owen’s poetry. Perhaps more importantly, the tank piece was a sonnet. I remember spending ages over the form and getting the rhymes right. Therein began my love affair with rhyme, metre and prosody. What you read when you’re starting out is really important. One of the first anthologies I bought was The New Poetry (edited by Al Alvarez). It’s full of dry 1950s/1960s ironic, academic verse which I tried to copy. This nearly ruined me! But I also came across the poetry of Thom Gunn in that volume: his work spurred me on; his literary demeanour still greatly influences my writing and creative outlook.

1.2 Literary demeanour?

Yes, well I suppose I mean that Gunn took his role as a poet very seriously – not in a po-faced way – his stance was more to do with rigour, intellectual energy, a catholic taste in terms of the scope of his reading. Gunn was not so much interested in the lyrical or confessional ‘l’ – his gaze was directed outwards into the world and the people that he met. He thought carefully about form, structure and voice when he wrote. For all these reasons I admire him as an exemplar, a guide through life.

2. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

You become quickly aware of a tradition when you start writing poetry. I read Chaucer at school – so that’s six hundred years of tradition right there in front of you. I read a lot of contemporary poetry to begin with then slowly worked my way backwards through older generations of writers. I think the trick is not to be intimidated by older poets – whether that be Shelley, Eliot, Hughes or Heaney. See them as friends or at least acquaintances who you can have a conversation with, who you are in dialogue with through your poems.

2.1 With whom of those do you have most of a dialogue?

I think I would have to say Thom Gunn, though there plenty of poets I read who I listen to attentively.  There’s a triumvirate of Irish poets who I constantly revisit – Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley – from the same post-war generation who had to face up to and write about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Each poet found a different, singular route through the terrain: they found their own voice (or voices).   But on another day I may be reading Elizabeth Bishop or Kathleen Jamie to see how each one of them solves the puzzle of writing poetry. Constant chatter. Often my poems are homages to other poets, or to poems I wish I had written. I love Vikram Seth’s verse-novel The Golden Gate and thought I should try to shape my own (limited) version. Of course it ended up just sounding like me – but I like the idea of finding exemplary models to use as a starting point.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I have to fit my writing in between the job (especially during the week) and looking after my children.  On my way to work I’m usually listening to a poet read his or her work or listening to a podcast – The New Yorker Poetry Podcast is particularly good.  I read bits and pieces, articles, reviews, poems, through the day (reading is part of the writing process I have always found).  If I catch the bus home I do some editing on my phone of the latest poem/poems (I’m usually writing two or three at once).  When the kids were younger there was a stretch during the evening from about 8.30pm to 10.30pm when I could write uninterrupted but now I get on with it whenever I can catch a spare moment.  I recently got a visiting ticket for the University of Sheffield Library (Western Park Library) and every so often I go there for a morning or afternoon. I have some very productive sessions in there. I don’t have a routine as such – it’s more peripatetic, more improvised than that. As long as I’ve read/written something during the day I am happy.

4. What motivates you to write?

In the most general (and critical) sense of motivation, well I’ve been writing for most of my childhood and adult life, so to stop writing now would be like bricking up all the rooms of my house.  In a more specific sense, I attempt to write about things that have confused me, made me uncomfortable, asked me to question my own moral/ethical values, moved me in some way emotionally. I write about experiences that I don’t have easy answers for.   These experiences are mostly my own, sometimes other people’s: I increasingly fictionalise the events/inciting incident – though that doesn’t make it any less true or faithful to me.  Ideas for poems usually sit around in my head for years – if I keep returning to them, testing them, then I will end up writing about that memory or thought, impulse. I don’t want to say a lot but I hope what I do end up saying is thoughtful, engaging and moves people in some way.

4.1 This is, to use a phrase you wrote earlier “the puzzle of poetry”.

I’d like to say writing poetry is easy – but it’s the hardest thing I do.  And each time I start a new poem I have to put in the same concentrated effort to get the poem where I want it to be. Writing poems are puzzles for any writer, particularly when it comes to how much you choose to tell the reader, how much you leave out.  What images do you pinpoint to tell your story? Is there a conflict between being poetical and cogent, lucid? How much do you want to puzzle the reader?  Sometimes you just have to trust being ‘simple’ – that there’s enough in, around and between the lines for the poem to be interesting. Sometimes you want to startle the reader with the language that you use. I’m constantly making these decisions through the process of re-drafting.

4.2 What makes you want to “startle” a reader?

I think as poets a whole range of emotions should be open to us in terms of how we want to affect our readers when they come to our words.  I’m wary about being too programatic about this – that we should try to manipulate the reader or try to impose on them a certain way of reading a poem.  But surely as writers we want to the readers to have a rich emotional experience when they read our works.  And to startle or surprise is just one part of the spectrum that we can open up to our readership.  I’ve just read again Tim Liardet’s sequence about the twenty three Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay (the poem is called ‘Priest Skear’).  That is a startling, a visceral piece of writing – extraordinary, it deserves a wider readership.  It moves me because of the force of the writing, the empathy involved in constructing such a complex narrative.   I think more overtly now about the emotional content anchoring my poems: I believe I need both the heart and the head to write a three-dimensional, persuasive, dramatic creative piece.  Personally, there are lots of poems I read that leave me cold because there’s too much head and not enough heart.  I suppose people are wary of the term ‘heart’ because it conjures up ideas of sentimentality, of mawkishness, an unregulated overflow of feeling.  But writing with the heart is as complex, in terms of technique, tone, voice, language as writing with the head.  I suppose another issue is how can we develop a rigorous, critical language that explains/elucidates how we feel about a poem. Maybe we shouldn’t – maybe that’s not the role of the theorist or the critic. But if we come to poetry wanting that emotional hit surely it should be recognised in some way in terms of how we address it in our reflective, evaluative language as readers.

5. Why do you write?

I’m reminded of the Seamus Heaney lines: ‘I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’  I like that sense of self-exploration. Also I suppose I’m interested in saying something of importance, that matters to me in the most articulate way.  We don’t get that often to choose our words really carefully (and not be interrupted!) I also write to remember.  I spent some time writing about my children when they were younger. I’m glad I did so because I would have forgotten a lot of things I focused on if I hadn’t noted them down. I write because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last thirty five years or so.

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

The two main things anyone should do is read a lot and write a lot.  To every poem I write I probably read over 100 poems by various writers, probably more.  I think people forget that reading is integral to the process of creating.  I get a huge amount of joy from reading poems – particularly ones that move me, that make me think deeply about the experiences being examined. Writing means that you become part of a community, that you are effectively in conversation with many different poets.  I suppose I mean this in the general sense that poems are often in dialogue with (are influenced by) other poems – so the poems we write add to the talk.  But every writer needs to find a supportive community of fellow writers and readers who can help with feedback or just provide ongoing support. Writers groups are good for that. Having a couple of friends to read your work is beneficial to all. Writing is inward facing (we spend a lot of time in a room doing the business of composing) but it’s also important to make contact with the outside world as writers from time to time.

7. And finally, Chris, tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment?

What am I doing at the moment? I’m trying to write a poem about trespass – and in particular trespassing in ‘tree work safety zones’. It’s for an exhibition on trespass in all its forms being put on at Sheffield Hallam University in November. Also – and this has been a long-term project – I’ve been writing a sequence of poems that has at its centre a fictional terrorist incident that takes place in Sheffield. Each new piece has someone new reflecting on the shooting – telling their own personal stories of trauma, survival, heartbreak and hope.  I’m nearly 3/4 of the way there, I think.  Another year or two before the sequence makes it to print.

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