Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Peter Thabit Jones

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.

America (c) 2019 Gareth Davies Photography, Tenby, UK

(c) 2019 Gareth Davies Photography, Tenby, UK

Peter Thabit Jones

is the author of fourteen books, several of which have been reprinted and four published in Romania. His work has been translated into over twenty languages.

He is the recipient of the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry (The Society of Authors, London), The Society of Authors Award, The Royal Literary Fund Award (London) and an Arts Council of Wales Award. He was awarded the Ted Slade Award for Service to Poetry in 2016 by The Poetry Kit (UK), the Shabdaguchha Poetry Award 2017 (USA), and the 2017 Homer: European Medal for Art and Poetry.

In March 2008 Peter’s American publisher, Stanley H. Barkan, organised a six week poetry reading tour for Peter and Dylan Thomas’s daughter, Aeronwy. The pair gave readings and workshops from New York to California, at many universities and prestigious art venues. Peter is also the co-author, with Aeronwy, of the Dylan Thomas Walking Tour of Greenwich Village.

Peter has participated in many festivals and conferences in America and Europe, including World Affairs Conference, Colorado, 2009; NEMLA Conferences, (Boston, 2013, Pennsylvania, 2014, and Toronto, 2015); and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. He has also organised A Visiting American Students/Dylan Thomas in Wales Project with Knox College, America, 2010, and an International Poetry Festival, 2011, and a Drama Festival, 2012, at the Dylan Thomas Theatre, Swansea. The latter two events were part of an ongoing collaboration with Cross-Cultural Communications, New York.

His chamber opera libretto, Ermesinde’s Long Walk, for Luxembourg composer Albena Petrovic, premiered at the Philarmonie Luxembourg in 2017; and his full opera libretto for her with Svetla Georgieva, Love and Jealousy, premiered at the National Opera House Stara Zagora in Bulgaria in May 2018.  Ermesinde’s Long Walk also premiered at National Opera House Stara Zagora in December 2018. Love and Jealousy also premiered at the Théâtre National Du Luxembourg in December 2019.

He resided at Big Sur, California, in the summer of 2010 as writer-in-residence, returning again for summer residencies each year from 2011 to 2020.  Whilst in California in 2012, Peter wrote his drama The Fire in the Wood, about Big Sur sculptor Edmund Kara, who is famous for his sculpture of Elizabeth Taylor in the film The Sandpiper. The drama premiered at the Actors Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts in April 2017 and at the Henry Miller Library and the Carl Cherry Center in California in May/June 2018.

Peter is the Founder and Editor of The Seventh Quarry Swansea Poetry Magazine, which publishes poetry, translations, interviews, and articles from around the world, and the accompanying The Seventh Quarry Press, which publishes international books of poetry, prose, and art.

His poem Kilvey Hill has been incorporated into a permanent stained-glass window in Saint Thomas Community School in Swansea, Wales. In April 2014, he was inducted into the Phi Sigma Iota Society at Salem State University, Massachusetts, for his contribution to literature and literary translations.

His poem Lament for Soldiers of the First World War is featured in the film Bells on the Western Front, produced by Holly Tree Productions. The film has won several international awards including First Prize in the 2017 Wales International Film Festival.

Further information: www.peterthabitjones.com

The Interview

 

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

As a boy, I use to sit on Kilvey Hill, a sulking hulk of a mini-mountain that darkened and dominated the row of houses where I lived with my grandparents in Eastside Swansea, Wales. I spent a lot of time up there, alone, looking and thinking.  Even then, to quote Edward Thomas, an English poet, I sensed that I wanted “To bite the day to the core”.  Then in Danygraig Boys Secondary School, Swansea, my teacher Mr. James read out a poem, The Kingfisher, by Welsh poet and tramp W.H. Davies. The opening line is: “It was the rainbow gave thee birth”. That word rainbow lit up in my mind. I had once seen a kingfisher bird down by Port Tennant Canal, where I sometimes played with friends.  I suddenly saw what one word, all by itself, could do. It was the real beginning for me, when language became more than just a way of communicating in the ordinary world of relationships.  I was eleven years-old.

Mr. James gave us an exercise to write a poem.  I wrote one called The Canary (one of my uncles actually did keep canaries in a shed in our garden). Mr James took my poem apart but also showed me how to really put a poem together, with rhymes (internal and external in those days). That, for me, was the beginning of the learning of the lifelong thing of craftsmanship.  I realised the excitement of not knowing what was around the corner when one first received inspiration, when one first started to draft a new poem.

I wrote about the things around me, my grandfather (I was raised by my maternal grandparents) who was slowly dying in a bed in the parlour,  Kilvey Hill where I played and where I first experienced a sense of otherness,  “bright shoots of everlastingness”, to quote the poet Henry Vaughan, something beyond what we call reality, a sniff of eternity.  I was in the dark, writing poems and not knowing if they were good or bad poems. I did, though, even at that young age, take it seriously.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Mr. James, though  when I was about thirteen years-old and determined to be a poet, I joined Swansea Central Library and I immediately scanned its Poetry section. The only books in our home were the Bible and, oddly, a book about the Kon-Tiki Expedition. I never found out why we had a copy of the latter in what we called the spare room.

I discovered a treasure-chest of poets in that library, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, R. S. Thomas, Alun Lewis, W. H. Auden, Vernon Watkins, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Charlottte Mew, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes.  Then later on I accessed the works of the likes of Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Federico Garcia Lorca (a favourite) through books of translations of their poems. I became a regular and very keen customer at the library.  Later on, I discovered that Dylan Thomas also made use of the library when he was alive and living in Swansea.  So, in many ways, I introduced myself to the ‘world’ of poetry and poets.

At the same time, I worked as a newspaper boy after school, to earn pocket money. I delivered newspapers in the area where I lived. With some of my money, I started to collect J. M. Dent’s Aldine Paperback editions of the works of Dylan Thomas.  I still have them.  I eventually bought books by other poets, biographies of poets, and critical books on poetry.  I was slowly learning more and more about poetry, its craft and its contribution to human development down the centuries. All the while, I tried to make better poems of my own.  I did not show them to anyone.

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

Very aware, but mainly through books I borrowed from the library. Around the age of eighteen, I started to send some poems to magazines in Wales and it was such a thrill to have work accepted by two of the main magazines here at the time, The Anglo-Welsh Review and Poetry Wales.  This led me to getting to know about older Welsh poets (and eventually meet them in person), such as Leslie Norris and Dannie Abse.  I also started to get to know other Swansea poets, who were older than me and who suggested I read such and such a poet. Some of those early poets I discovered in the library remain firm favourites of mine.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I am very well organised and, according to my family,  a workaholic.  I do put in a lot of hours each day and each night, seven days and seven nights of the week. Luckily, I have a supportive family.  My wife is a children’s nurse and works long twelve-hour night shifts etc and our grown-up children have fled the nest, so I find I am on my own a lot – ideal for a writer and publisher.
I have my own writing room, which overlooks a green and bare field. I am usually in there by 9am. My room is packed with shelves of books, shelves of files that contain my old and new manuscripts, with favourite things on top of the shelves, such as ornaments (birds, a tiger, a fox, an elephant), and shells and stones collected on my walks.  Favourite posters, such as one of an American Native Indian and one of Picasso’s Guernica painting, and favourite photos cover what can be seen of three of the walls between the shelves. On the fourth wall there are some posters and photos of my and Aeronwy Thomas’s 2008 Dylan Thomas Tribute Tour of America, which was organised by my American publisher Stanley H. Barkan. Books and magazines also occupy some of the floor space.

I have three desks, a large one for doing my writing, a small one with a computer and a small one for sorting out postal mail etc. The room is a bit too packed, but for me it’s as cosy as a womb.  Beautiful silence helps me concentrate.  I work until about midday, grab some biscuits or make a smoothie, then back to my room until an evening meal.  In the evenings, if my wife is working a night shift, I spend a few hours, revising what I have done or reading a book.  I am an avid reader, in particualr biographies of writers and books of literary criticism.  Even when I was part-time teaching at Swansea University on the part-time degree programme for the Department of Adult Continuing Education for twenty-two years, this was more or less  my daily and nightly routine. As a young parent, I struggled as a freelance writer for fifteen years before I started teaching, so I already had an established pattern with regard to my writing. I retired from the university in 2015 and I am now self-employed.
I always write by hand, poems and substantial works such as dramas and commissioned opera libretti.  I love the feel of the pen in my hand as if part of me is going into the very ink.  I only go to the computer screen when a piece of work is finished.

Each summer, since 2010, I have been a writer-in-residence in Big Sur, California, for two months.  I reside in a very isolated and small cabin, a fifteen minute or so walk from the Pacific Ocean and where there is no public access for thirty miles.  A lady brings me provisions once a fortnight.  There is no television.  The aloneness is not for everyone, though I have found it truly inspiring and I have written a book of poems, “Poems from a Cabin on Big Sur”, three dramas, many more poems for a future collections, and half of a novel, which I hope to finish this summer. I work in the small bedroom of the cabin, at a round table.  I work, cook, walk the mountain, and read at nights or revise what I have written.  Sometimes I give talks or readings in Monterey. One of my dramas, The Fire in the Wood, about reclusive sculptor Edmund Kara, premiered at the Henry Miller Library, Big Sur, and then had a run at the Carl Cherry Centre Theatre in Carmel in 2018.

I can hear the constant lap-lapping of the ocean from the cabin.  One becomes very aware of the incredible life-force of nature there.  I see seals, sometimes a whale, pelicans, raccoons, deer, a coyote once (at night), rabbits, lizards, and even the occasional snake basking itself in the sun.

4. What motivates you to write?

There is a mental cliff-edge gamble when one picks up a pen and paper. The gamble that what is stirring among one’s thoughts, one’s nest of emotions and experiences, could become a fully-fledged poem. Without poetry I would find my own life less of an experience, less of a journey. A blank piece of paper and a pen are for me like a vast forest is to a man on the run, a scary but an exciting adventure.  I love the uneasy stir of a poem in the mind, a word, a phrase, an observation, a rhythm, the way all is ejected for the focus of shaping something, the taking away of everything that is NOT a poem, until there is a poem: on that sheet of paper, possibly forever. As William Carlos Williams claimed, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem”.

I particularly like self-made forms, which can use rhythm, rhyme and metre but in which you can also make use of weakened rhymes and other ‘tricks of the trade’.  So even if I write in free verse I try to make the poem sound good, for it to ‘sing’ when read aloud.  I use to encourage my students at Swansea University to try the traditional forms because they are a good way to practice using language, to control words into doing what you want them to do.  I see traditional forms as an adventure and not a strait-jacket.

Structure, for me, is all-important, be it the stanza structure of a poem or the sound-texturing structure of a poem. I don’t think one needs to sacrifice imagination for structure.  I think imagination can contribute to structure and structure can contribute to imagination. Even the energetic passion of a painter like Van Gogh is contained within the rectangle or square of a frame. For me, a good poem should contain the three main ingredients:

*  A message or messages
*  Imagery
*  The Texture of a Tune, in other words musicality or sound-texturing.

An excellent poem, of course, has ‘a ghost in the machine’, a touch of duende as the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca suggested, the unexplainable. The difference between an ordinary poem and an excellent poem is a bit like Welsh poet R.S Thomas’s comment on translation – an ordinary poem is “kissing through a handkerchief”, an excellent poem is real kissing.

The writing of a poem for me is everything. Publication is secondary.  The fear and excitement of a blank page is still something I love. I feel craft assists in the communication, the connection, between writer and reader.  One should use the available ‘tricks of the trade’, in other words the application of craft, to make a reader feel sorrow, sense a landscape of snow, or hear the eternal engine of the ocean etc.

I am so caught up in trying to catch the poem forming in my mind, thus my focus is purely on applying what skills I have to bring the poem out into the world – on to a sheet of paper.  My main concern is have I done enough work with the phrases and lines and rhythms that made me feel this is a poem about to be born.  Does the poem work for me the poet?  It is only later that I think that maybe such and such a poem will connect with a certain type of person or persons.  I don’t show a poem I’m working on to anyone and I rarely discuss a poem I’m working on. Once a poem is published, one hopes that it will connect with someone, hold their attention for the span of its ‘conversation’.

     With regard to writing a drama, it is initially a solitary act like writing a poem, but once it is read on stage or performed it involves teamwork with other professionals.  One must become aware of that factor at some point in the writing process when working on stage directions, dialogue, and action.  A director and actors will bring their energy, often their interpretation to the script.  One must begin to try to see things through their eyes and come to some compromises.

Once a drama goes into the process of production other factors have to be considered, the size of the stage, and the financial input available for the staging, the backdrops, fees for actors etc.  So one has to often curtail one’s inner visualization of what one originally wrote and accept what the director, the actors, and the backstage people can do with your work.

Most audiences, especially with a new and unknown drama, take away a suggestion of a plot when they have experienced a live drama. It is only later, when they dwell on certain things, that other issues and themes within the drama start to make an impact on them. So one must be aware of the need to connect with an audience on an immediate level and to hopefully engage them for the whole unfolding of the drama. It is such a thrill to be in an audience when the curtain goes up and to experience their reactions to the characters one has lived with for so long in one’s mind and on paper.

I begin by making basic notes about the plot, the types of characters, how many acts will it have, how many scenes within an act, and so on. One lives with the characters, their personalities and their contributions to the planned plot and the climax of the drama. I do character notes for each one, such as their age, gender, occupation etc. I am really into writing plays and currently, among a tower of other chores, making notes for a new drama and working on a dramatic piece for voices.

As with a poem, I don’t really think of an audience when first tackling an idea for a play. I am too involved in the plot and getting the characters to interact via their dialogue and their actions, and creating the architecture of the drama (the stage directions, the acts and the scenes).  Once my ideas start to look like a drama, I then think of whether or not it is too long, or too short, for a production in a theatre and whether a director can replicate my vision as close as possible for it to connect with an audience. Once I complete a drama, I start to envisage an audience of sorts.  So for my drama The Fire in the Wood, about Big Sur sculptor Edmund Kara, it seemed natural that we should try to get it produced in his areas, Big Sur and Carmel in California.  The test, though, for a drama is can it connect beyond the obvious audience.  It was such a thrill when it was performed in Massachusetts and the nightly audiences did connect with the dramatised life of Edmund Kara.

5. What is your work ethic?

I believe if you give yourself over to poetry, poetry will reward you. By giving yourself over, I mean put in the hours, learn as much about the craft as you can, read the works of other poets, especially the ‘greats’, and read books of literary criticism. I would apply that to all genres of writing.

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

I still go back to their works and they still inspire me by their approach to craft, their commitment to the written word, and their giving their lives over to writing.  Poets such as Auden, Larkin, and Dylan Thomas still remind me of the importance of  what the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins said,  ”Cold craftsmanship is the best container of fire”. Edward Thomas still reminds me of the inportance of that self-made solitariness which is very much a part of a writer’s life. Federico Garcia Lorca reminds me that drama for the stage can be  magically metaphorical at times, powerfully poetic, intense and pulsing with the notion of duende; and Dennis Potter reminds me that drama can reveal the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

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

I really admire the work of Welsh dramatist Ed Thomas, whose plays often explore the post-industrialised and deprived areas of South Wales and the impact of unemployment and the sense of no hope on his characters.  House of America is probably his best-known drama. His works are so well organised, brooding, moving, and lightened by a raw and dark humour. As for poets, Irish man Paul Muldoon is a favourite.  I like his probing intelligence, the careful casualness of his work, and his masterly handling of a variety of subjects.  As for a novelist, the American Andre Dubus III.  His works, in particular House of Sand and Fog, show a piercing observation when it comes to contemporary America and how human misunderstandings and mistrust can lead to tragedy.  His array of writing skills is truly impressive and he can really tell write a riveting narrative.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

What I love about writing poetry is that during the ritual of creation, the committed poet is plugged into a no-man’s-land of memories, a no-man’s-land of emotions.  Words, syllables, their very singing, are as precious as breath. The calling to poetry rings through one’s being. One is at the altar of all that makes life worth living. The ghost of one’s muse is back in the room. One is a poet once again.

What I love about writing dramas for the stage is that creation of a ‘world’/a location and characters, which for the duration of the performance can  – via the actors – occupy and hold the minds of an audience, draw them in like an ancient storyteller as the theme or themes of the plot unfold.

     Writing is also is something I have done from a very early age and something I committed myself to at an early age. It is who I am as a human being.  I built my life around being a writer, rather than fitting writing into my life.  It has been a struggle. I have done other things, to keep some ‘bread on the table’.

As I said earlier, I taught at university.  When I left school, I worked in offices, worked underground for two years at Abernant Colliery in the Swansea Valley. I did work in factories.  All those experiences were good compost for my writing.  I’m very lucky in that I have arrived at a stage where I can be a full-time writer.

I did stop writing for three years at the age of twenty-four. The death of my second son, Mathew, when I was twenty-four years old took me into a cold corner, a cul-de-sac of grief.  I had come face to face with ‘the eternal note of sadness’, to quote English poet Matthew Arnold. The conveyor-belt of busy life, of course, wants one to carry on, to get back in to the speed of things.  One, though, is dulled by the palpable sorrow, the colours of life darken.  There seems to be more shadows than shining.  One’s heart is in the mud of low-tide, day and night. Words lost their magic for me. There was a dust of silence on my internal voice. I was a dark bird on a wintered and skeletal tree – with no desire to sing.

I realized, as I later wrote in a poem for my son, “Poetry Reading: Robert Frost Farm, New Hampshire, USA”, ‘I am a singer merely, I sing my song’. What else could I do but write? I had been writing in a serious way since I was eleven years-old. When poetry did come back to me I knew I could not fall back on someone else’s voice or experiences. I feel it was the real beginning of my finding my own poetic voice. The loss of my son, though, is ever-present in my poetic vision, ever-present in my life.

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

I think I would echo my response to an earlier question of yours. I would suggest he or she give their life, or as much as they can of their life, over to writing. To put in the hours, learn as much about the craft of their chosen genre or genres as he or she can.  I would suggest they read the works of other writers, especially the ‘greats’, and read books of literary criticism. It would suggest they read biographies of writers, to see how they coped with their ‘dark nights of the soul’ when their writing was not going well and their work was not being recognised, not getting published. I would point out the solitariness of the vocation, the need for such aloneness to write and to improve one’s writing skills.  I would suggest they find out as much as they can about the way the literary world works, such as the standard requirement of magazines and publishers. A lot of disappointing rejections can be avoided by knowing more about the submission policies of magazines and publishers and the types of writings they tend to publish.  I would suggest they look into copyright and learn the ‘rules’ of copyright.  Finally, I would suggest they should try to love what they do, enjoy those hours and hours alone when the blank pages are offering an adventure for their pen.

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

My ‘bread and butter’ work at the moment is the finalising of a commissioned biography of an American poet and artist, who has to remain anonymous at this stage.  It is a ‘putting in the hours’ chore.  I’m revising aspects of the biography with the poet/artist and I’m finalising the Index of the manuscript.

With regard to my own work, I’m hoping to almost complete a novel, which is a comedy about the literary world and set in Wales and America, when I return to California for my eleventh writer’s residency there in April.  I am also working on a dramatic piece for a group of voices. Via individual poems, it explores war, especially the victims, political extremism, and the way we humans are damaging not just the environment but damaging the soul of what it means to be human.  It is meant for the stage and it will utilise photos on a screen and occasional music. To quote W. H. Auden, we are in a “low dishonest decade” and, to quote him again, an “Age of Anxiety”.  Theatre, I feel, can and should tackle such social and political darkness, as well as the joys and grief of being human.

I am very, very slowly putting together ideas for a stage drama about the last days of Dylan Thomas in New York, prior to his death there. I think I have found a new way of approaching those days that have been covered, of course, by other writers. I’m also waiting for the subject of my third commission for an opera libretto, from the composer for whom I have already written two libretti.

I hope, of course, that ideas for possible poems will still continue to visit me, often when least expected in my case.

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