Interview with Taunton Fire River Poet Anthony Watts, who is launching his new collection ‘Stiles’ at the Creative Innovation Centre, Taunton, on Thursday Feb 6th at 8pm.
Graeme Ryan I’ve really enjoyed reading your most recent collection, Tony. Such memorable and varied work, with your gift for imagery, your trademark turns of phrase and surprise perspectives. What made you choose Stiles as its title and what significance does the title poem have for you?
Tony Watts The key lines in that poem are: “Like poets, they [stiles] are largely ignored, / Though each one offers a unique / Perspective on the landscape.” I’ve just realised that the whole poem can, if you like, be read as a metaphor for creative exploration. The stile represents a turning aside from the busy road – an opening up of new vistas.
GR Which poems do you feel are departures or evolution for you – or particularly please you – in terms of your poetry writing?
TW That’s a difficult one. Every poem feels like a departure. And they all please me in different ways; if they didn’t please me I wouldn’t have allowed them in the collection. The most radical departures from my more usual subject matter are when I get away from the personal and from ‘nature’, as in Zoom [in memoriam of a Hurricane pilot shot down in Sept 1940]:
GR Let me quote from it:
“Here’s the Loughborough College Group…
College Sunday 1936:
a casual group of friends taking the air
in mortar boards and gowns (I wonder
if they’re worn with pride, or does he think
he looks a twerp? The faint smile tells us nothing.)”
and A Martian Considers the Great War:
“To raise a crop of bloodflowers you must first
wound the land.”
GR The natural world is such a strong feature of your work and there are some really good evocations of it in your most recent collection, eg: Pied Wagtails:
“A flitter of wagtails came to our garden pond
to drink and bathe and preen –
like icing sugar and wet tar.”
and ‘On The Levels’ :
“…soon you will lie still
as water lies under its duckweed shroud
in the long coffins of the rhines, where willows bow
Have you always been inspired by nature? What early, possibly formative memories do you have of the natural world?
TW I was born in London, so I didn’t experience the countryside until the family moved to Box Hill when I was six. I played in the woods and on the nearby heath, but at that stage I wasn’t consciously collecting impressions and my memories of it are vague. It wasn’t until a few years after we moved to Somerset when I was ten that I started collecting and observing – beetles and later wild flowers. I was fascinated by their infinite variety of form and habit and the inadequacy of words like “beetle” and “flower” to do justice to each individual miracle. In my early teens, being at that time a rather reluctant member of the human race, I sought refuge in the Quantock Hills, walking and thinking, my brain in a permanent fever as it jettisoned all my received beliefs and engaged instead with a kind of nature mysticism, fertilised by the poetry of Wordsworth, Whitman, Lawrence and the music of Delius.
GR Thanks very much for these answers Tony – my next one I’d really appreciate your exploring; (a big open-ended one) is: Why poetry?
TW Blimey! That’s a big’un. Why not? When I discovered poetry I felt less alone in the universe. There were others out there giving voice to my deepest thoughts and feelings in ways that were both beautiful and memorable. I wanted to join that gang.
GR That’s such a great answer. Have you always been a poet (though you may not have realised it till your early teens on the Quantocks)?
TW I ‘knew’ I was a poet even before I’d written any poetry. One day I received a summons from the Muse. She said, ‘OK, you’re a poet. Now prove it.’ That’s when the hard labour began.
GR Is it possible to define ‘poetry’?
TW You can define verse, but poetry in its broadest sense, like God and Love, is indefinable simply because it transcends in itself the terms of any conceivable definition. There have been some brave attempts, the neatest being Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order”. That’s a good enough one to run with.
GR Do you remember the first poem or poems you wrote, and what that felt like?
TW I’ve still got them, but they’re not to be seen by other eyes on pain of death. I did feel good at the time; it was a breakthrough, an accomplishment. Looking at them now, I think they are quite passable as exercises in a bygone style, all my role models at the time being dead poets. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I’d absorbed enough modern poetry to evolve anything like a contemporary voice. Even now I feel a magnetic pull towards the past and I don’t think my poems will ever be fashionable.
GR Having been present at many readings I’m not sure I’d agree with your definition of your own work as being unfashionable, given the response and recognition your work so often elicits. Stiles has such great variety, humour and humanity, with titles such as A Baby At the Poetry Meeting, and Amniotic (Where “Green couples share/their bathwater. She naturally/is first to enter – dirty man-water/ holds no appeal for her.”)
There are also some very thoughtful poems on mortality eg The Last Patch of Sunlight On the Garden, and I am struck by your stated interest in ‘binge thinking’ – a witty coining and so true in relation to your work.
What poets (and particular poems) have most inspired you and why?
TW There are so many and so varied. I swallowed A.E. Housman whole when I was about seventeen. Later I did the same to Dylan Thomas – and it’s hard to imagine two more different poets. My response to poetry has little to do with style or period: it’s more to do with a felt affinity with the poet’s vision. I could name (in fact I will) Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Eliot, Yeats, Robert Graves, R.S. Thomas and Ted Hughes. I will also name e.e. cummings, Charles Causley and Kathleen Raine (I’ve probably forgotten someone important). As for individual poems, there are the unforgettable ones that haunt you with their sheer dramatic resonance, like Ozymandias, Kubla Khan, On Wenlock Edge, The Second Coming and Walter de la Mare’s miniature masterpiece, The Song of the Mad Prince. Then there are the poems which express a world view that I can identify with: To see a World in a Grain of Sand, Tintern Abbey and Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I regard as one of the great spiritual texts of modern times.
GR What poets are you reading at the moment?
TW I read the poetry magazines as they come my way – more, I have to say, to keep up with the current poetry scene than for enjoyment or edification. There’s very little good poetry being written at any one time (when I want to remind myself what good poetry is I dip into my personal anthologies of poems I’ve collected through the years). My favourite living poets are Don Paterson (British) and Billy Collins (American), though I think Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage were both excellent choices for the Laureateship.
GR How long have you been a member of Taunton’s Fire River Poets and what role has it played in your growth as poet?
TW I was one of the original members of FRP, which began (I think) in the late 1980s. Writing poetry is a solitary business, which you wouldn’t normally share with your mates at work or even your family, so it is great to belong to a group of fellow sufferers who meet and share their stuff. Constructive criticism is a vital part of what we do: it is so easy to think you’ve said what you mean when you haven’t, so feedback is crucial.
GR What advice would you give to someone starting out poetry writing?
TW Read. Widely. Read the poetry of the past and particularly the best poetry of the present. No-one writes in a vacuum, so be aware of the tradition in which your work, if you’re lucky, will take its place. At the practical level, spend at least part of every day with your ‘work in progress’, even if that means no more than staring at a blank screen (or sheet of paper) waiting for something to happen (at least you’re giving it the opportunity).
GR Thank you very much for your detailed and wide-ranging responses Tony. As I say, Stiles is a great collection, combining accessibility, a depth of truth-telling and ‘the best words in the best order’ that got me reading it through almost in one sitting. It deserves a wide audience!
Hear Tony launch his fifth and most recent collection ‘Stiles’ at The Creative Innovation Centre, Taunton, on Thurs 6th February at 8pm. Admission is £6 and doors open at 7.30. Copies of the collection will be for sale.
The evening will also feature open-mic poetry from Taunton wordsmiths, including Fire River Poets, of whom Tony is one of the original and most celebrated members!