Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Interview with Paul Henry

Paul Henry is one of Wales’s leading poets. The author of five collections of verse, he has read at festivals across the UK and Europe, and also in India. Originally a songwriter, Henry has guest-edited Poetry Wales and is a popular Creative Writing tutor. He recently presented the 'Inspired' series of arts programmes for BBC Radio Wales. His Selected Poems, The Brittle Sea, was published by Seren in 2010.

Dodging the Waves

The gap between the railings was thirty-five years.
The boy's ghost held on as the high tide raged
and the girl beside him laughed when she too got drenched.
"Who turned all the fairy lights blue?" "Who cares?"

The sea slid back down its pebbly stairs.
"Here comes a big one! Don't let go!" "Never!
I'll never let go!"

                                And both held on to the white bar
before both let go, their laughter caught inside the wave.

SHEENAGH: The internal music of your poems is clear, but the way it's achieved varies quite a lot. On a first reading, it would be easy to assume you were solely a free-verse merchant, because your use of rhyme and half-rhyme tends to be subtle and buried. But actually you use form quite a lot, though more in some collections than others. There isn't much in Captive Audience, for instance, but The Slipped Leash is absolutely full of it. That suggests to me that we have something in common in that respect, because I go through phases where free verse seems to suit what I do, and then suddenly I'll feel there isn't enough music happening and have a reaction in favour of form. Is that how it is with you? Or is there some other factor that decides which it'll be? Does your own musical background have an effect here? I notice a couple of rondeaux or near-rondeaux in Ingrid's Husband, and that's arguably the most song-like form there is.

PAUL: My musical background informs everything, I suspect. I enjoy using traditional forms but arrive at them by accident, unless commissioned to write in one. An intuitive, musical approach to writing means that any form tends to evolve or make itself known. I never begin with the vessel waiting to be filled. I am more concerned that the inner-music is right. This perhaps explains my inconsistency in adopting various forms over the years. I do like to subvert them, or hide them. I hid a sestina in Ingrid’s Husband, and I’m glad you found the rondeaux. I think longer, mainly free verse poems can benefit from formal cadences (and vice versa, of course). I’ve done this in poems like "Gestures", "The Hourglass" and "The Shell House".

I like the way Hardy used to invent forms. I used to copy some of them. There’s a Hardy form in Captive Audience – a poem called "Winter Wedding".

Rhyme has become more and more important over the years, to the extent where I rarely write an unrhymed poem. But I do “bury” my rhymes, as you say, or half-bury them. I think the music has to be there, but as an orchestration of silence.

SHEENAGH: That's an answer that makes me wonder how the white space fits in; is the use of white space in a poem, for a musician, maybe equivalent to rests in music? I tend to think of it as the lead in the stained glass; you don't notice it but it holds the pattern together. I think an awful lot of folk have no understanding of the role of white space...

PAUL: I like your “lead in the stained glass” but I’d go further and say that the white space has its own panels. It’s a crucial part of the effect. I appreciate the popularity of poets like Whitman and CK Williams who can range across the page and cover all the snow but, for all their brilliance on the ear, I’m not drawn in to their pages. There’s a poem I’m not certain about, the second "Nightingale Ann" poem. It’s about listening in to the white space, each “bar’s rest”, the place where the poem’s heart resonates. My mother was a professional singer for many years. She sang as naturally as she spoke. What struck me after her death was the silence. How can we hear such silences if we talk over the white space?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the manipulation of white space is the sole means of communicating silence in a poem. What draws me back, again and again, to the poetry of W.S. Graham is his brilliance at conveying sound through silence. He lets us hear his music by inviting us to eavesdrop on silence. His poems are listening back. He was a gifted singer as a child. His ear is perfect.

SHEENAGH: There's a poem in The Slipped Leash that was a bit of a favourite of mine, called "Heredity". You didn't include it in your Selected, The Brittle Sea - now obviously all sorts get left out of a Selected for sheer space reasons, but there's still a judgement call in there somewhere and poets' judgements on their own poems are always fascinating as a guide to how they work. So what was it that dissatisfied you about this one?

PAUL: As a poem, nothing. I left out at least fifteen poems I consider to be amongst my best. It was a difficult decision - most had appeared in The TLS - but I did so in the awareness that many readers, and even critics, completely buy into the first person. They read literally. As I tend to write out of my own experience it can lead to huge assumptions about my life. The truth of the poem is all that matters but I didn’t want to upset people. I suppose this is one of the indulgences of a selected, being able to claw back, at least for a while, what you regretted publishing in the first instance.

SHEENAGH: Tell me about it! I think this tendency has got worse with the rise of "reality" entertainment; I've noticed that some readers expect it's all happened to you and that any person in a poem must either be you or someone you know - in fact they are sometimes disappointed when you tell them you used your imagination rather than a tape recorder. This reader failure to recognise that "I is a lie" is why, unlike you, I've almost given up using the first person. We all write to some degree from experience but it can be concealed if we want to, in personae or third-person narrative. I used to write first-person in personae; even the slowest reader generally grasps when you're pretending to be Guy Fawkes' girlfriend. These days I've gone more to third-person, probably in search of some kind of spurious universality. But you do neither; you go on using the I voice even though you know there's a danger that readers will over-interpret from it. So that's a technique choice that is clearly important to you: can you hazard a guess at why?

PAUL: Intimacy, I think. Although the second person would seem more conducive to intimacy. I normally try drafts in different personae but increasingly return to the first person because it seems to work for the lyric poetry I’ve been writing lately. Many of the poems are a first person addressing a second person.

SHEENAGH: Talking of that title, The Brittle Sea, the sea has always been important in your work but seems to be getting more and more central. It's a fact of course that you have lived much in two seaboard towns, Newport and Aberystwyth, but there seems more to it than just the physical. What does the sea mean to you, and how do you think living away from it, as you now do in Powys, will affect the way you see things in your work?

PAUL: Well, apart from four years in Exmouth, I’ve felt landlocked since the age of fifteen, when I left Aberystwyth for Breconshire. Newport never felt like it was near the sea. There was too much heavy industry in the way. Every now and then a seagull would yodel and remind me of the fact. I felt it was the river defined Newport with its amazing levitations and falls, in its turn defined by an off-stage sea. Newport’s a big river town.

But the sea, I agree, has become a greater presence. I’m trying to get back to it, slowly. I’d say it’s now metaphysical (in the incorporeal, supernatural sense of the word) for me. I don’t fully understand why but it is partly my mother’s singing voice and partly my cousin Helen, Brown Helen, who used to visit my Auntie Geta’s house, Penllain, in New Quay.

SHEENAGH: The epigraph mentions the sea too, ""Round the corner is - sooner or later - the sea" and that's a quote from MacNeice, which is no surprise because both his musicality and his melancholy would seem likely to appeal to you. What other influences would you cite?

PAUL: A close second to MacNeice is W.S.Graham. But I’m all out of things to say about him, still recovering from making a radio programme on his work. It was a labour of love and got in the way of writing. Stevens is beginning to influence me, I think. He’s there a bit in Ingrid’s Husband. Others who put the writing spell on me, after reading them, include Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Frost, Edward Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell, R.S. Thomas, Patrick Kavanagh, (who set me writing songs again) and Muldoon. In translation, I return to Akhmatova, Brodsky and Elytis. Early on, I especially enjoyed Douglas Dunn. I suspect all of these have influenced my work in some way. I equally enjoy many others, but none has influenced my work so much.

SHEENAGH: All those iconic women from your past who haunt The Milk Thief and then recur in the new poems; how did your childhood come to be so inhabited by women?

PAUL: My grandmother, Edith Smart, was one of five girls (of whom Geta was one) and these five sisters all had girls. All my cousins were girls, including Brown Helen and Catrin Sands. I had one sister, Saint Julia. As an antidote, my exterior life was as wildly “male” as I could make it: football, fishing, shooting... . And as a child, I just wanted to get away from them. I’d fathered three boys of my own before I realised how precious and civilising they were, these women of my earliest years. I hope they keep visiting me.

SHEENAGH: I'm interested that you gave new names to all those women of your childhood, or rather added epithets to their names, as though you were partly reinventing them, which seems a very writerly thing to do. Was that something you did in your childhood, and were you already writing then? Did you make up imaginary worlds?

PAUL: The names I gave them reflected their personalities and appearance. My sister was very religious, one cousin had sandy hair, another was always brown, my Auntie Gwyneth had bright blue eyes, my grandmother, Edith Smart, was always dressed for chapel ... Some are simply named: Heather, Geta, Prydwen Jane... But I did “reinvent” them. I had to. They were ghosts by the time I wrote about them.

As for childhood inventions, I did write stories as a teenager but was always less interested in narrative than the lyric moment, Eliot’s “distraction fit.” I picked up a guitar at seventeen and started writing songs. This was my way towards poetry.

SHEENAGH: And why do you think these women returned to inhabit your poems at the point they did?

PAUL: By my mid-thirties I became desperate to get back to Cardiganshire. Family and work commitments prevented this so I went back there in my writing. And then there was this light I kept seeing, a sea light that had travelled inland. I try to explain it in an early poem, "Saline Helen". It’s the only poem significantly rewritten for the The Brittle Sea ... . A weaker, earlier version appears in Time Pieces. It sets out my creative stall in many ways. It’s about Brown Helen. She was the first “visitor” to inhabit this stray light, if you like. The others followed soon after. But Brown Helen is the one who won’t leave me alone.

SHEENAGH: " A sea light that had travelled inland" – that would do very well for a description of the light in some of the poems of Elytis, whom you mentioned as an influence. I take it you've no truck with those who decry mentions of gulls and other sea references in poems as "too poetic", then!

PAUL: I can think of no bird less “poetic” than a seagull! And I’m not sure how we can escape reference to that which covers most of our planet. The sea is perhaps two-thirds of our subconscious. It’s beneath us, as well as all around us. Eliot knew this. Landlocked or not, we’re all “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

SHEENAGH: You seem to be on an intuitive journey. Apart from the poems in the first section of Captive Audience, it’s as if you’ve turned your back on current, post-modern trends which would have attracted more attention. You don’t fit in easily – part-Romantic, part-Symbolist. Does this worry you?

PAUL: It reassures me. What was revelatory about the week with Joseph Brodsky at Hay, in ‘92, was the sense of time it gave me. By which I mean, the radar of history may well discriminate between a Post-modernist and a Symbolist but it will be more concerned about the approximate trajectory of that century’s art and which memorable poems it can identify. I’m conscious that, increasingly, the diction and phrasing I use approximates the poem to the past fifty years, rather than fixing it to a current movement (if such a thing exists). An artist competes with the dead, not the living. That is what Joseph taught me. He told me he liked the way the poems “sang” and not to suppress this. He gave me a licence to be myself. I grew up with my mother’s songs about the moon and the sea, about love and death, and with all the “bible-black” Welsh influences fewer and fewer critics understand. And if all this informs and shapes the verse, so be it.

(All the poems quoted can be found in The Brittle Sea)


Already you're gone, fixing your eyes
on a road's darkening arcade.

What song do you sing as the light fades?

The music shop you work in has closed
but I have to believe it is not too late.

Is it your eyes or your laugh I miss most?

I'd buy you those boots or that bracelet
your mother wore, or an amber ring

to prove it is not too late to sing,
to prove we are more than worn out ghosts.

Dream in arcades, love. Dream in arcades.

Catrin Sands

Catrin Sands, are you still there?
I dreamt about you last night.
You think it's all Brown Helen but it's you
who were pale and thin last night.
And your eyes were brown instead of blue
Catrin Sands, if you're still there.

The sea was a long way below
the wooden room I found you inside,
pale and thin, in a white blouse.
You looked at me with your new eyes
like you never did as a child.
The sea was a long way below.

There was something you needed to say,
my ear to your lips as you tried
but the sea, forty years below,
drowned all I wanted to know.
So I held you close, in case we had died
with something you needed to say.

Catrin Sands, are you still there?
I dreamt about you last night.
You think it's all Brown Helen but it's you
who were pale and thin last night.
And your eyes were brown instead of blue
Catrin Sands, if you're still there.

Violin Tide

And this is the sea, of course
scrawling by moonlight in its room,
not quite getting the line right
where it meets the shore.

The earliest hours still find me
thinking of you; somnolent tides
rise towards daylight.
Perhaps you have drowned in me.

A table lamp shines the grain
of an old violin in the grate
and down the slope from your dreams
the bay similarly shines.

Perhaps you are not so far away
from the moon or the violin
and the clock I should wind, to hear
the workings of the bay.

At least in your dreams
see how I can not get this line
to make sense of the sand,
and how I am running out of time

and how easily the night and the day
exchange places, the land and the sea.

Links to other poems and information

Paul Henry's website There are several more poems online here.
Paul reading "Daylight Robbery" and "The Black Guitar" on YouTube
Seren, publisher of The Brittle Sea
A review of The Brittle Sea from this blog
A previous discussion of Henry's long poem "Penllain" on this blog

All the posts about Henry's work on this blog

Tags: interviews with writers, paul henry, poetry, wales, ways of working
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