Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Even More Dylan Thomas

Readings are a stock part of the poet’s trade.  They are today, in the literate twenty-first , although I’m sure some can remember when they were not.  Poets are better on their feet than they once were.  They look audiences in the eye.  They’ve learned not mumble.  Down at the Swansea Grand Theatre from where I’ve just come the Dylanthon has been in progress.  This was an off the wall idea dreamt up by producer Michael Bogdanov and Dylan Thomas expert Jeff Townes.  Why not put on a reading of everything DT wrote?  The lot.  Poems, stories, letters, stumbles.  It would take about 36 hours to do straight through.  We could charge £150 a ticket for a show that long.    

If I’d been asked I would have said that getting Leanne Wood  invited round to sing for HMQ would have been an easier prospect.  
The event Bogdanov mounted was a triumph.  A well-attended, very well organised professional performance at a comfortable, central Swansea venue  featuring a cast of several score performers many of whom were extremely famous.  Who else could have got Jo Brand, Nicholas Parsons, Katherine Jenkins, Dai Smith, The President of the Republic of Ireland, Jonathan Pryce and Ian McKellen onto the same bill and without paying any of them anything? 

My slot was on the Sunday morning, right at the beginning when most people were still home reading the papers and eating toast.  But even at that time Bogdanov had managed to fill the theatre.  Punters were allowed to buy slightly cheaper  tickets for selected three hour slots.   The programme flickered between poetry and prose.  On stage were a stream of TV personalities, actors, singers, a very few writers,  plus the occasional MBE and politician.  It also included a range of school choirs who attracted their otherwise not that interested in DT parents and grandparents to the audience.  Tickets flew out the box office.

The readings began to roll.  Where I was at the beginning they were  heavily weighted   with selections from the often impenetrable mouth music of 18 Poems.  I went on four times.  I was  bracketed by Lisa Rogers, Lucy Owen, Rakie Ayola sitting resplendent in a leather armchair and reading a slice from a short story, The Flight, and Tony Lewis CBE, who doesn’t normally do this kind of thing, clearly, but made a decent stab.   I did I see the boys of summer in their ruin and then The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.  The words tumbled into the air and frothed all around me.  I didn’t own them. 

When  I got to When Once The twilight locks, my last presentation and so far faultlessly, I made the mistake of thinking briefly about something else as I was actually reading.  Fatal.  I did this on the penultimate line and, of course, stumbled.  Not to be defeated I repeated the word then added a few more of my own to give it resonance.  Dylan Thomas aided, as Marcel Duchamp might have said.  Did anyone notice?   No.

As a reading the whole deal was as professional as it could be.  You got a dressing room with your name on it.  A runner to bring you rolls, coffee, pies, etc., a fresh bath towel,  a piece of scented Welsh soap, and a basket of fruit.  What is more the audience appeared actually to be enjoying the whole affair.  In the style of those sixties art happenings where you all sat for eight hours watching a man holding a lit candle elements of Zen came into play.  Poetry was first exciting, then it was boring,  and then eventually it returned full of vigour, thrill and excitement.  Just as it should.

Up the hill afterwards at the Do Not Go gentle Festival presented at the Dylan Thomas birthplace.  5 Cwmdonkin Drive.  Here,  among the drizzle and the falling leaves and the freshly repainted windows,  I read again.  This was the new Nia Davies Poetry Wales experimental issue launch.  I did a reprise of my Altarwise by Owl Light mashup created for Radio Three, told a few stories and then did some Dylanesque sound pieces.  The house was packed right up the stairs.  Poetry certainly rocks in Swansea. 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Nigel Jenkins 1949 -2014

We were in a long room above a pub somewhere in Neath.  Nigel was teaching a creative writing class and I was the guest.  I was there to explain what sound poetry was.  This was the south Wales late 1970s and there were edges out there to be pushed.  Encouraged by Nigel I’d done a run of sonic recreations of Schwitters, Jandl and Cobbing and then finished with a blast of my own stuff.    At the back someone evinced the opinion that this was all, actually, crap.  A common perception.  TS Eliot would be spinning in his grave if he knew.  Dylan Thomas would be aghast.  However, this didn’t prevent one of Nigel’s more enlightened students from vocally disagreeing.  It’s not crap, he shouted, it’s good.  No it isn’t, was the immediate reply.   There was growling, a scuffle and then fists began to fly.  God this poetry is exciting stuff, Nigel told me, as he leapt forward to separate the fighting pair. 

And it was too.  With Nigel at the heart of it.

Throughout the rest of his long career Nigel kept himself there.  At the heart.  Whatever else he became famous for – and there were a great many things – he still called himself a poet.  First and foremost.   For Nigel poetry was the same thing as blood. 

Although never an avant gardist himself, not quite, he supported those who were.  If there was an underdog out there, someone not getting the right treatment, someone neglected or grossly misunderstood then Nigel would be the man to champion their cause.   He supported the work of extreme Welsh-Canadian concretist Childe Roland, for example, offering him readings, bringing him to Swansea, espousing his cause.  He supported the successful bid to get that writer offered full membership of the Welsh Academy. 
The mainstream was not where Nigel felt most at home and despite his not inconsiderable success out there at the top of the tree – the BBC, The Arts Council, the posher publishers of Wales – he never lost touch with the other way of carrying on. 

In America they loved the sound of his voice.  I was with him in upstate New York where he was fronting his poetry and music group Y Bechgyn Drwg.  Dressed in Stetson, long black coat and cowboy boots he could have doubled for Johnny Cash.  But it was the Richard Burton-like sonority of his voice that engaged his audience. 

In the latter part of his life the haiku, that three line form, seemed to take the place of his longer verse work.  He told me once, walking across Swansea Bay in early  2012, that he thought poetry had deserted him.  I just haven’t written much lately, he confessed.  Does that mean you are no longer a poet, I asked?  Certainly not was the immediate reply. 

We’d worked on psychogeography together.  His Real Swansea was a great success.  He’d followed it with Real Swansea Two and before he died had virtually completed Real Gower.  We’d wandered Mumbles together doing research for my Edging The Estuary.  Nigel was keen to show me the ancient roadways of Swansea, Celtic walkways that went out into the sea, wooden paths built millennia ago, unearthed by archaeologists and still magnificently there – except in the incoming tide we never found them.  We turned in circles.  Nothing.  That non-finding, as Nigel later pointed out,  was in itself a perfect psychogeographic act. 

It’ll be hard now not having Nigel out there on the other end of the phone and always ready to respond to emails.  Like me he was a hater of Christmas and in the early days did almost everything he could to be in work away from it all while the festivities rumbled elsewhere.  For many years we’d celebrate this fact by calling each other while the rest of the world was eating turkey.   He’d known John Tripp well, had written the Writers of Wales volume about him.  He was one of the few in Wales who’d followed the poetry wars of the 70s and was familiar with how verse was everywhere from Serbia to San Francisco.  He also understood and valued the little magazine and the small press.   He ran one himself, publishing unknowns and setting them against the prevailing mainstream tide.  He knew who Wales’s champions were, the real ones.   He possessed one of those Hemmingway devices, a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.  He knew who our chancers were.   He tolerated them with ill-ease.

He valued our country and hated to see it maligned, misrepresented or  misunderstood.    He was patriot to the core. 

Others better qualified than I can write about his place as a travel writer, peace protestor, editor, encyclopaedist, teacher, critic, essayist, prize-winner, associate professor, publisher, champion, linguist, administrator,  walker, harmonica player, bon viveur, broadcaster and donkey jacket wearer.   The jacket, that one with the embroidered shoulders. He must have worn it for  forty years. 

Nigel, we’ll miss you.  We won’t be able to replace you.  You’re an impossible act to follow. 

an earlier version of this tribute appeared in the Wales Arts Review