Extracts from a 2007 interview with Swansea poet Nigel Jenkins who died yesterday
I was born in 1949 and raised on a farm in Gower. From about the age of fifteen, if not earlier, I was sure I wanted to be a writer (much to the unease of my poor father, who had assumed I would follow in his footsteps; many Welsh farmers have been poets, but I was far too lazy to take to that hard way of life: how I hated carrying hay).
My mother’s family were involved in the steel industry, her grandfather having started his working life as a (rather sickly) mill boy. He was highly intelligent, though, and he worked his way up to becoming a knighted magnate of the steel industry – a remarkable rags-to-riches story. On the day of his funeral, 20,000 steel workers across Wales paid their respects to him by standing for five minutes in cap-doffed silence.
Nigel Jenkins, aged 64, who lived in Mumbles, died early yesterday after a brief battle against pancreatic cancer at Swansea’s Ty Olwen hospice. He was brought up on a farm on the former Kilvrough estate in Gower and published several collections of poetry, including Song and Dance (1981), Practical Dreams (1983), Acts of Union: Selected Poems (1990), Ambush (1998) and Hotel Gwales (2006).
His collection of haiku and senryu, Blue (2002), was the first haiku collection ever to appear from a Welsh publisher; his second haiku collection, O For a Gun, was published in 2007.
He won the Arts Council of Wales 1996 Book of the Year prize with his travel book Gwalia in Khasia (1995) and published a selection of his essays and articles as Footsore on the Frontier (2001). He was co-editor of The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, published by the University of Wales Press in 2008.
He was also the author of Real Swansea, (Seren Books, 2008) a personal account of the modern city, and Gower, (Gomer, 2009) and Real Swansea 2 (Seren 2012).
An associate professor at Swansea University, he was the Co-Director of the university English department’s creative writing programme.
So the family, from humble beginnings, became wealthily middle-class and did their utmost to deny their Welshness, giving their offspring vapid names like Nigel and sending them to English public schools. Apart from giving me a valuable insight into the evils of a totalitarian system, my expensive, cheerless education was a waste of time and money.
Falling in love at the age of sixteen (with an older woman – she was twenty-one), together with the music of Bob Dylan and bands like the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and a sense of adolescent revolt against school, church, the police, authority in general – all these things stung me into poetry, although I was 24, I suppose, before I wrote a functioning poem.
I became a newspaper reporter when I left school, and devoted my spare time to poetry. The job didn’t teach me a great deal about writing, other than the importance of accuracy, brevity and clarity; it also taught me, through my reporting of court cases and council meetings, worthwhile lessons about how society ticks.
Then I thumbed and odd-jobbed my way around mainland Europe and north Africa before landing a place, as a ‘mature student’ (aged 23), at the University of Essex (or ‘Excess’ as the tabloids dubbed it). I studied comparative literature and film there (it was early, interesting days for film studies) and then went to work on a circus in the States.
In 1976, I returned to live in Wales, and here I intend to stay. I have two wonderful (and fully bilingual) daughters, Angharad, a musician, and Branwen, also a musician, but studying child nursing. I made a living, initially, as a freelance writer and lecturer, and became a lecturer in creative writing at Swansea University in about 2003 – my first ‘proper job’, my mother observed, in about 30 years.
I’ve toyed with writing something about Patagonia, and might yet go there, but the subject has been pretty well covered by Welsh writers. Much less known is what I believe to be the biggest overseas venture ever sustained by the Welsh, namely the Calvinistic Methodist mission to the Khasi Hills in north-east India, which is the subject of my travel book Gwalia in Khasia (1995). Welsh missionaries in India does not, I agree, sound like the sexiest of subjects, but the story is an inherently dramatic one and the culture of the beautiful and little-visited Khasi Hills is intriguingly imprinted with Welsh influences.
The first worthwhile poems I wrote, after a rhetorical false start, were about growing up on the farm; they concerned activities such as killing vermin on thrashing day, a stallion serving a mare, a cow giving birth, the castration of a calf. I went on to write quite a lot of political poetry – poetry often about Wales from a left-wing, nationalist viewpoint, or about oppression and exploitation elsewhere in the world. The farm poems, I can see now, were in part a preparation for that particular strand – pre-political, in that certain responses to activities on the farm, such as guilt about the indiscriminately brutal way in which we despatched the rats and mice, represent in some ways the dawning of a political consciousness.
It is difficult to write effective political poetry, in the same way that it must be difficult to write religious poetry, without banging the drum and thumping the tub, hurling at the reader crude slogans which are about as subtle as a kick from a mule. I have fallen into such error all too readily, I have to admit. On the other hand, there is scope for the political poem which may not have much of a shelf-life but which has a job to do, gets in there, blazes away, and gets out again. A poem I wrote on the death of George Thomas (Viscount Tonypandy) ended up on the front page of The Guardian and caused a major hoo-ha.
I hope I am open to being inspired by anything that happens in life. I called one of my collections Ambush partly because I do feel that a poet is usually ambushed by his or her subjects and is compelled to make poems under a commission of ‘strangeness and necessity’. Other important subjects in my poetry include love, family, history, landscape, cosmology.
The ‘mystery and precision’ which Seamus Heaney says is at the very heart of poetry is brought to bear with particular acuity in the haiku, which enables me to engage with the seemingly commonplace while, I hope, celebrating what’s startling, or magical, or moving or amusing about everyday sights and situations – that otherwise might get overlooked. To get on with our busy lives we tend to edit out so much apparent clutter, so many apparent irrelevances. We might like to think that thereby we are focused, but perhaps we delude ourselves, and we are in fact blinkered, and blind to stimuli that, if properly integrated, could be sustaining and recreating us.
In so many of the haiku of Basho and the other Japanese masters, loving, profoundly heartening attention is paid to the most fleeting moments, the most throw-away gestures. I’m thinking, for example, of Basho’s haiku about a woman wrapping rice dumplings and then, with one hand, fingering the hair over her forehead. A worthwhile haiku will find the extraordinary in the fleeting or the supposedly ordinary, will say extraordinary things in seemingly ordinary, spare, down-to-earth language. It should offer more than mere description, though – and locating that resonant extra ‘something’, over and beyond description, is the challenge.
A poet is someone who makes poems, and maybe you are only truly a poet in the act of making a poem. When you’ve dotted the final ‘t’ of your latest effort, then perhaps you cease to be a poet – until you have started work on your next poem. I usually refer to myself as a writer rather than a poet. If I believed in fate (which I do not), then I might think I was tempting it to call myself a poet.
‘What makes you think you will ever again write another poem?’ cruel Fate might enquire. And she might have a point. The dry spells, when no poems come, are more frequent and last longer the older one gets, it seems to me. Poets (makers) have to make, and they tend to be anything but happy when they are not making, either because they can’t or because – even worse – they are prevented from doing so because of their day-to-day circumstances: earning a living, looking after young children, caring for an ailing relative, suffering from an illness, and so forth.
For instance, since 1999, and until November 2007, I have been co-editing The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, as well as attempting to fulfil my obligations as a teacher. The project has been voracious of time, energy and money, with the result that for much of that time – but not all of it – I have had to work a 10 to 14-hour day, five or seven days a week. There has been almost no time for poetry, and I have had to get used to that, denying the Muse on the rare occasions when she has turned up at my door at midnight with an enticing bottle of bardic nectar.
If we have had any trysts at all, they have generally been on the seashore bike path between Mumbles and Swansea, as I have cycled to and from work: the 20-minute bike-ride has been an ideal time for knocking a haiku into shape, and it’s been haiku, mostly, that I have written these past few years. Now that I have finished with Psycho, as we call our beloved encyclopaedic project, I am more than ready for the Muse’s visitation, but I feel rather burned out, and something tells me I’m in for a long wait.
However, I am putting the finishing touches to a 70,000-word book called Real Swansea, which is a subjective, impressionistic prose account of my home city (with a peppering of poems). For years, I have wanted to engage purposefully with ‘the matter of Swansea’, and in 2005 I was commissioned to write this book, which is a volume in a series of books about Welsh towns and cities (I think the series might also be venturing over the border, starting with Niall Griffiths on Liverpool). It has been rather a strain trying to fit in the voluminous research and the writing, but it has been immensely rewarding.
It has been part of the deal that the author has to provide his own photographs, so that has obliged me to buy a digital camera and to become sufficiently competent with it to produce serviceable snapshots. Some of the chapters have appeared, by way of a dry run, in the odd literary journal, and it has surprised me how much the photographer’s rate of pay exceeds the writer’s. I am all too familiar with the routine (in Wales) £50 per thousand words (for an article which it may have taken weeks to research and write). It has been somewhat bemusing, therefore, to find myself paid, say, £150 for a 3,000 word article and, at the same time, £30 per snapshot (which is the result of half a second’s worth of finger-effort).
The lesson for the writer would seem to be: get a camera and slap photographs on everything, if you want to make any money out of your Quixotic endeavours. There’s a great deal still to be said about Swansea, so I’m hoping the book will sell well enough to justify my starting work on Real Swansea 2. In the meantime, I have been commissioned to produce a sort of coffee-table book about the Gower peninsula, mixing my prose with the photographs of my friend David Pearl, who is known internationally as a stained-glass artist but who is also a brilliant photographer, worth every penny of his £30 per shot.
I enjoy the teaching very much and feel, that when it’s working well, it’s a two-way process, especially with the postgraduate students who are there because they really, hungrily want to be there, and who bring such rich and varied experiences of life to the table. My job, chiefly, is to teach the writing of poetry, and I feel a great sense of responsibility in this. When I was at university, and although I was studying literature from an academic rather than a creative point of view, I deliberately opted for courses that had as little as possible to do with poetry – because poetry was my central, abiding concern and I didn’t want that passion ‘messed with’ by any teachers. I was mistaken in that, because I could in fact have learned a great deal about poetry from some inspiring members of staff.
But remembering my Essex reserve about poetry, or poetry in the classroom, is a caution to me in my teaching today, because we always have some students on the poetry module who are passionately committed to poetry, and may well be thinking along similar lines to the way I was thinking about being ‘taught’ poetry at Essex. Conversely, we have many students – in most years the majority – who have little or no experience of poetry, as both writers and indeed readers. My responsibility is to keep the poetry lovers interested, while perhaps challenging ingrained positions, and to attempt to open up for the beginners a subject which many of them find daunting. Often, it becomes apparent that otherwise quite sophisticated writers (of prose) simply don’t know what poetry is, what it does, how it works.
A year or two ago, I showed to an MA group an affecting poetry film set on the Wales/England border, Charles Way’s lyrical No Borders, by way of illustrating the potential of the long poem. At the end, a practised and urbane fiction writer in her mid 50s approached me with tears in her eyes, clearly much moved by the film. ‘Now I get it,’ she said. ‘Now I understand what poetry is for. It’s not about exams, academic games, arcane conundrums – it’s about life, isn’t it?’ For those of us who have devoted most of our lives to poetry, this is a pretty fundamental realisation, but I am aware that for many of the students on our courses it’s empowering news.
It’s exciting to observe how, about half way through the poetry course, after we’ve devoted a considerable amount of time to formal matters, the newcomers to poetry gradually begin to ‘get it’, as their rhetorical flounderings, abstractions and poetic clichés get re-cast in freighted language and articulate, affecting structures. Few students have published any poetry before they join us, but usually by the end of the course I am recommending that several of them should start sending their poems out to magazines, and before the MA year is over, these contenders are often able to report that they have had poems accepted, invariably in worthwhile magazines but sometimes in highly prestigious publications. Another means of publishing, i.e. ‘making public’, is to take part in public readings, and it’s gratifying to see many of our students taking part in open mic sessions at the Dylan Thomas Centre and elsewhere; occasionally, indeed, they have been booked as guest poets.
You have to serve a long apprenticeship to get your poems pubished. It is folly, after, say, a year or two of making poems, or what you think are poems, to then bundle up your offerings and send them to Carcanet or Faber, hoping that they will publish your first collection. No poetry publisher will take you on until you’ve built up a publishing track record in the magazines and, these days, the on-line journals (paper publication still seems to count for more than internet publication, but that may be changing).
Rejection is the general experience of new poets, and indeed many a more experienced poet too. But once in a while there’ll come an acceptance by a magazine, and this will encourage you and keep you going. It’s pleasant, of course, to get a positive response from family and friends, but they’re likely to be biased in your favour. Much more significant is a positive response, an acceptance, from the editor of a magazine – someone who’s a complete stranger, knows nothing about you, judges your work solely on its merits. It feels like a significant endorsement, and gives you the chutzpah to brave the next wave of rejections.
There are bewildering hundreds of poetry journals out there, or journals with some kind of poetry content, especially since the advent of the internet. It’s not that hard, if you send work off indiscriminately to all and sundry, to get a poem published here and there – and it’s certainly easier for the poet than for the short-story writer. But what is the point in such indiscriminate publication, if your (good) poem ends up in some scrappy little here-today-gone-tomorrow little mag full of broken-backed doggerel or uncrafted, self-indulgent, pseudo-experimental non-poems? It’s much better to place your poems carefully in publications that you respect, so that you feel your poem is keeping good company in an honourable venture.
Absolutely to be avoided are vanity press scams. You see their adverts in the glossy weekend papers: ‘Poems Wanted’, etc. Well, poems are not wanted – apart from by these fly vanity press operators, who will eagerly relieve you of, say, £20 for each poem, irrespective of quality, that you want to see printed (not published – they make nothing public) in these sad parades of the (for the most part) deluded. On the other hand, there is nothing dishonourable in self-publication, which has been resorted to for centuries by poets as varied as Shelley and R. S. Thomas, and which is becoming increasingly an option as desk-top publishing technology becomes ever more accessible and affordable.
I could ramble on indefinitely, but it’s high time I called it a wrap. I will do so by raising a glass of Rioja to the Welsh socialist republic (I hope) of my daughters’ future, a politically mature Wales fit to take its place in a reformed United Nations and to make itself useful in this ineffably beautiful but deeply troubled world.