Paul's website is here and you can find several of his poems there. His poem "Aging", published in Iota no 75 (2006), is here
SHEENAGH: If I had to choose one word to describe the voice of your poems, it would be one which is unusual in the poetry world: it would be "happy". Not that they are unaware of the possibility of sorrow, but they are extremely aware, in a way that isn't very common, of the possibility of joy. GCSE students are always emailing me to ask "why are poems all so miserable, Miss?" and it's true that many look determinedly on the black side, perhaps because conveying happiness on a page without sounding trite isn't easy. I generally finish a collection feeling fairly depressed, whereas your poems have an irrepressible, almost jaunty feel that is distinctly upbeat. Why do you think this is, and are there any special problems associated with it?
PAUL: I agree that a lot of the poems I’ve written seem to have an unwavering optimism and I think this stems from two main things: when I am not being a writer I am an optimist most of the time, and the narrator in my poems is a deeper, more idealistic version of me, even more of a dreamer. I suppose this naturally filters down into the voice of the narrator which means that he sees the world in quite an upbeat way most of the time too.
A word I would tend to use would be quiet, or perhaps quietly-something-or-other, quietly-happy maybe, but sometimes even quietly-sad. I don’t think I tend to shout too much in my poems, or at least I don’t try to.
At the later stages of writing the collection for the MPhil at Glamorgan, when I sat down with Chris Meredith to put the poems into some kind of order, it became quite clear that there were certain, not sequences, but groups of poems that shared similar moods or themes, say music or family, but the overall impression of the poems as a whole tended to have a quiet, dreamlike feel.
I suppose this is because a lot of the poems were written around the same time as each other, as the course (for want of a better word) dictates when work needs to be submitted. For me it became easier to fall into the habit of writing poems that shared a similar feel and I do think that the trouble comes when you get into the same writing habits.
That’s probably why these days I am tending to prefer some of the less-happy poems I’ve written, some of the poems that are centred on some of the more traditional themes of unrequited love and death and so on. For me, these are the poems that are outside of the usual mould and are more interesting to me as a writer because they step away from my usual happy-thinking, non-writer self.
A poem of mine that comes to mind is ‘Shell’ (quoted in full at the end of this interview) where the poem ends up in a much more serious, solemn place than where it begins.
SHEENAGH: This reply interests me because last time I mentioned and linked to a couple of your poems on my blog, I got essentially the same response from two different people. I'd quoted "Shell", as it happens, and they both commented on the way you handle endings. One said " I love the quiet way it leads to the lines about fathers, rather than making this some sort of clever twist", while the other, speaking both about that poem and others on your website, said "...the endings, which don't strive to be smart or sum up what went before". Now I think they both had a point here; it's true that many poems seem to be desperately looking for a killer ending, whereas your endings are quite low-key. Is that conscious on your part, or just your instinctive preference? And is it hard to resist the impulse to hammer the point home or zap the reader with a killer last line?
PAUL: I don’t think poets should be desperately looking for any part of a poem, but especially the ending. For me a poem should follow its natural course, reach its own conclusions, surprise its own author, even. That’s not to say I’m not conscious of the process while I am writing. I’m very aware that what I’ve tried to build up in a poem, the mood of it rather than the direction, can be deflated in one line if I get the ending wrong, if for example, it feels too contrived or too try-hard. That’s why I prefer to see where the poem takes me rather than trying to end it. I’ve come unstuck when I’ve been tempted to end a poem too early without allowing it to reach its own resting place, and also when I’ve tried too hard to force an image. You don’t always need to end with fireworks, sometimes a boat on a lake and a sky lit up by one giant moon will do.
SHEENAGH: Personal question, but I have to ask it! I first encountered your poems when you were an undergraduate at UGlam, and though I thought them promising, I wasn't prepared for what had happened when you came back on the MPhil programme. In maybe a couple of years, the voice seemed to have become far more assured, individual and characteristic. Other than time and experience, was there anything particular, like influences of other writers, that brought this about?
PAUL: It was simply because I started reading more and better poetry. I can’t be a writer without first being a reader. For me, even now, if I haven’t spent a fair amount of time reading over a few days or sometimes weeks, I find it very difficult to start a poem. It’s as if I need to find a rhythm that I am happy with that I can then slip into and create something of my own. When you’re in a jam session with a better guitarist than yourself, you’re listening to them but also trying to do your own thing, and as a result you get better at playing. It’s very much the same thing when I write.
During those two years I began to focus on reading and writing poetry more than any other form of writing and although I don’t think I could say what was right or wrong with a poem with complete certainty, I felt confident to say what felt right or felt wrong.
What I learnt from all that reading, and writing workshops helped with this, is that the influence of other writers was a good thing. I think it’s particularly difficult for young writers to come to terms with this because there’s a tendency to assume you have to be completely new and original in everything you do, but the influence of good writing on a young writer is invaluable. I considered myself to be a student of Heaney, or Frost, or Carol Ann Duffy, rather than just a reader. I learned from these writers as much as I enjoyed them.
SHEENAGH: Talking of influences, are you still a big fan of Billy Collins? He seems to divide literary critics a lot. Any other major influences?
PAUL: I think I’ll always be a Collins fan – his are certainly the collections I look forward to the most. Luckily these days the internet is full of videos of his readings – though I always tend to think of them more as performances – and so I am able to catch tasters of poems that will be in new collections long before they are published. I saw him read at the Ledbury Festival a few weeks ago and he just seems to be getting better and better, especially with performing in front of big crowds. He has one of those voices that just works with his style of poetry – very laid back, very cool – similar to Kevin Spacey in terms of tone, and it seems to fit perfectly with the words on the page. It’s the kind of voice that once you’ve heard him read a poem, you hear it every time you read that poem to yourself.
I was also very lucky to get to know him a little while studying for my MPhil. For a time we bounced questions and responses over the internet and he gave me the ultimate response to the finished paper. He said, “You got me.”
What I like best about Collins is that he is very welcoming in his style. Some poets and critics tend to think of ‘accessible” as a naughty word in poetry, like it’s a byword for watered-down or unskilled. But what I found of Collins is that accessible, as he describes it, is a poem that’s easy to enter, like a building with a clear entrance, and I agree that you shouldn’t have to crowbar open a window to get into a poem.
I try to approach my poems in the same way. I don’t want to exclude anyone from being able to understand what is going on in the beginning of a poem and so very often I begin poems with something that is easy to imagine or something seemingly trivial like lying on the couch or standing at the kitchen window.
When I was still a schoolboy we studied the book Six Women Poets and I just fell in love with Gillian Clarke’s writing. I think the first poem we studied was ‘Miracle on St. David’s Day’ and I remember writing dozens and dozens of notes in the margins in pencil, trying to get down every last detail that the teacher was telling us about it. In fact, I’ve still got the book on a bookcase at home and all of her poems are just covered with notes and scribbles and underlines and asterisks from that time as a fifteen or sixteen year old.
Of course, as fate would have it, years later it happens that I am in a workshop at Glamorgan for my MPhil and in walks Gillian Clarke and sits right next to me. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember feeling so star-struck.
One poem in particular that I want to mention because it resonated with me so much as an undergraduate is Victor Tapner’s ‘Coffee Shop’. I remember reading that poem for the first time and feeling how delicate and beautiful it was, how the lines were perfectly weighted and balanced on top of the next and how such small details were made to become vibrant and massively affecting. I think that single poem taught me so much about so many things in poetry – how to break lines, how to say what you mean, how to expose a moment – that I consider it to be one of the reasons I write poetry now. Even today I come back to it frequently to remind myself of how beautiful the right words in the best order can be.
SHEENAGH: Oh, that's a poem I love too, and am very much looking forward to Victor's having a collection out. And I agree very much with what you say about accessibility. I get annoyed too when I hear it being used to mean simplistic or unskilled. To me language is a way of communicating, and to call a poet too accessible, ie "too many people understand what he's saying", is like accusing a sprinter of running too fast. It's interesting that you try to invite people in at the start with something easy to visualise, and that kind of accessibility doesn't, to my mind, mean that the poem isn't also working on a deeper level.
PAUL: Exactly. I love being able to give a poem to someone to read who perhaps hasn’t read a poem in years and being able to see their reaction to it immediately, from the first line. I don’t think poets, of all writers, should be limiting their number of readers. If a poem is well written, thought-provoking and brings freshness to a situation does it matter if it uses language you might hear every day? If anything it makes it more enjoyable for me as a reader. It says, Look what you can do with language and ideas.
SHEENAGH: The earliest poems of yours that I read struck me as very rooted in the landscape and milieu you came from. I'm less conscious of that in them now. How much do you see yourself as a South Wales writer, or a valleys writer? How much does that experience differ, these days, from growing up anywhere else?
PAUL: It’s true a lot of the poems I wrote early on were poems about place but I tried not to sound too much like a valleys writer, even then. I would include local references in some poems, say Cardiff Castle or the Museum of Wales, but I would be just as happy writing about a bus trip in Sweden or a café in Paris. It depended on what I was seeing and doing at that time. I was very much in the habit of writing poems about things and places, almost using poetry to record events. But very little of those events were imagined ones, they were all very real experiences that I was trying to capture.
I don’t tend to think of poetry that way anymore and as a result I don’t see myself as a valleys writer or even a South Wales writer. I just see myself as a poet whose narrator has a British accent and quite a quiet outlook on the world. These days I tend to write poems because of things and places.
SHEENAGH: I'd very much like you to say a bit more about those last two sentences, which both resonate with me. The first implies that though you've already said your narrator is in some ways a version of you, you nevertheless see yourself and him as two different entities, i.e. you maintain a certain distance from the poem, even when it's in the "I" voice. And the second sentence is one that expresses something I've found hard to define, but it's something to do with the difference between "because of" and "about". The implication is that one graduates from writing "about" the subject matter to using it as a trigger to write - what? About something else, something more fundamental?
PAUL: One way of looking at the relationship between myself as poet and the narrator in my poems is to think of the narrator as a character based on me. He is in many ways an extension of my personality but he is allowed freedom to explore things and do things without any restriction. After all, he is living in an imagined world. I’m not afraid of using the ‘I’ in my poems to mean ‘I, narrator’. There’s certainly a distinction in my mind when I write.
I think that as a younger writer I was always actively looking for things to write about, a painting or a headline in a paper for example, whereas now I might be inspired by something I see or hear and write a poem about something else entirely. Several months ago I tried to write a poem for a friend based on a photograph but the poem I wanted to write had so little tying it to the image I had been sent that it would have seemed nonsensical to have put the two together. The image was of an abandoned prison cell and the photographer’s reflection was caught in a mirror but the poem I had in mind was about photography and the world posing for its picture to be taken. I imagined leaves on trees trying to hold their place for the tiniest moment while the shutter clicked, and how afterwards the birds would continue their swoop and the first raindrop of the day would resume its losing battle with gravity and so on. It was all buzzing around because of this camera flash in the mirror.
SHEENAGH: You seem to have pretty much settled on being a free-verse poet, but I notice you tend to impose a loose form, often in the shape of two or three-line unrhymed verses. Can you say something about how you shape your poems?
PAUL: I don’t usually plan to write in two- or three-line verses but often that’s the way the poem wants to go. When I write I’m very conscious of giving a line its time to exist before moving onto the next one, and the same thing goes for stanzas. I try to balance the weight of words on a line with where to break it, and if I can get the balance right I move on to the next line.
Very often I will have the significant basis of a poem in my head before I come to the computer so I suppose I’m neither a poet who writes longhand nor one who writes on the screen. I tend to work the words into a rhythm in my head, often whilst lying down on a bed or a couch or in the bath, and by the time I come to the screen I am just putting it down to see how it looks.
One thing that I do really like about writing to the screen is being able to change a poem with ease – perhaps changing a word, or altering a line break can sometimes make all the difference, and this is made so much easier with a word processor. I can understand that to some writers the font on screen represents the finished article and some are reluctant to make changes at this point, but I’ve never had an issue with making changes and chipping away at a poem until it finds the right shape.
This is one of the poems that seemed to fit into three-line verses without any encouragement:
The sunlight is drawing
across the smooth face
of this kitchen table,
as if it were sketching itself
as it would like to appear
with a soft yellow pencil.
It is forming this
summer-morning image –
a dusting of shadow on the bowl of pears,
a thin ribbon of colour
on my glass of water.
I wonder how we must look
to its skilled eye –
the pears, the water, and me,
all trying to be perfectly still.
And here are two other poems Paul has allowed me to quote in full:
The average garden snail has a top speed of 0.03 mph.
It took him a good ten minutes
to cross the first patio slab
and so he was obviously not in any rush
to reach the small patch of lawn
that lies outside the kitchen window.
You know –
I thought as I watched him heading
towards the tall grass –
if you were going your top speed
you could have been there by now,
and I would not be watching from this chair
your steady, soothing progress,
but making that phone call to my father,
whose own father died exactly ten years ago today.
I would just be dialling his number
as you settled in your shell.
I wonder how the lovers will look
in thirty years, both tired of kissing,
each wishing the other would leave,
pulling the door on their way out.
There they stand, masked beneath
a single cloth, so many hours
lost in shared dark, it would be
impossible to guess who will be first
to twirl away, cloth pooling
on the heavy marble floor.