Interview _ Gareth Calway

Gareth Calway is a published poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist and member of folkband, the Penland Phezants.

His works include Doin Different (Poppyland, 2016) and Bound for Jamaica (Collins, 2012).

Like Eric Idle and John Major, he resented his birthday (March 29) being stolen for Brexit Day 2019. These poems are his revenge.

His poems have also been featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction (CivicLeicester, 2019).

In this interview, Gareth talks about his writing:

When did you start writing? 

At school (late 60s, early 70s). I started by imitating lyrics by 'thinking' groups and artists like the Beatles, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Hendrix, self-publishing these as lyrics sheets on mock-up fantasy albums by my own fantasy band. At the time, the hippie movement seemed all to my youthful and optimistic mind to be embarked on a search for 'the answer' (many were but some weren't) and I honestly didn’t distinguish much between writers I was studying at school (like Wordsworth and DH Lawrence), rock bands and Biblical prophets and psalmodists.

I was motivated to write such portentous lyrics by a would-be gnostic yearning to express and share wisdom, which I was constantly trying to imbibe from poets and lyricists and which interested me much more than mundane life in a teenage wasteland. In truth, of course, I knew very little about life and most of what I read or listened to was beyond my experience or understanding. Not all, though, and as a writer I was regarded by my contemporaries as a sincere and enigmatic 'seeker' after something, if no-one was quite sure what, and by the older generation as unsettling and vaguely dangerous.

How did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I loved the engagement of 60s and 70s folk/rock performers (the folk protest scene, Beatles, Dylan, Elvis Costello etc) with their audiences through words that spoke to and mobilised their generation. I also loved learning the history of English Literature at school and assumed that writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets were just earlier versions of such a protest scene. I wanted nothing else than to be part of that, to perhaps one day be listed among the artists who had spoken to and influenced their time.

At University I contributed to the undergraduate writing magazines available and afterwards began contributing to such journals as London Delhi Poetry Quarterly, Encounter, Footnotes, Anglo Welsh Review, New Welsh Review etc and (usually with less success) entering poetry competitions.

How would you describe the writing you are doing now?

Musical, with a unity of sound and meaning - often using forms (like the folk ballad, the rap, the sonnet and the Urdu ghazal) that can be put to music and sung and/or dramatised like an actor's lines.

Who is your target audience?

I would like to connect with young, modern, diverse, multicultural Britain as well as my own generation i.e a contemporary folk audience and to be a 'word on the street' at least as much as in the classroom.

I think poets that matter are those with a vision of who we really are and can be.

I am a poet of Britain, which I love (i.e as a patriot who loves his country rather than hates everybody else's country: not every so-called 'patriot' makes that distinction sadly!) very much including the fact that we have always been defined, diversified and continually improved by embracing peoples and influences from 'abroad'. For example, I write using the Persian ghazal (albeit in English translation) more than any other form and this connects me with the ancient, Eastern tradition of love poetry it embodies as well as its exciting modern re-definitions in fusions of Eastern and Western psychology and culture in Britain, India and everywhere in between.

A language and a literature defines a land: we need a new one to reflect the 'internationally-connected', 'global-embracing' Britain we can become and writing that speaks this kind of 'English' can help to create it. Rooted here, in our unique landscape and history, but speaking beyond to our diverse selves and the world. The 'canon' of English Literature was never narrow anyway – Chaucer, the Father of English Literature is a vibrant new creole of Anglo-Saxon, French, Italian languages and traditions etc. The Tudor sonnet was from Italy (and originated in the Persian ghazal). A poet can help forge and express a new 'national consciousness', help to expand how we think, in the very opposite way from which some politicians - speaking what Orwell would call Newspeak - narrow it down.

What steps are you taking to connect with the audience you would like to reach?

I do most of my poetry performing at folk festivals (and folk clubs) arts centres, museums, history groups, village halls, churches etc - often though not always with and in a touring band - so I have a folk-musical audience more than a 'poetry reading' one.

Folk club audiences tend to be older; folk festivals have a range of ages. I reach a more diverse and international (including a younger) audience by posting my work online … I have regular listeners, viewers and readers in India, America, the Near East, Australia etc as well as in British cities ... and through radio appearances and/or recordings played on the radio (BBC as well as internet radio stations).

The internet is one way of overcoming my geographical semi-isolation from the more obvious and diverse centres of artistic exchange; another is a willingness to travel and tour. It would definitely be easier poet-wise to be in a diverse modern 'happening' city but rural Norfolk does have the compensation of being earthed in the rhythms of country life and the seasons and a lot of untold or under-told stories to tell, if not always the places to tell them in.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Hafiz, John Donne, Shakespeare, Chaucer, TS Eliot, Yeats, UA Fanthorpe, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and the tradition of the folk ballad because they craft their verse with their minds at full stretch but always from an aching heart and don't forget to tell stories to the tavern, and be (like Hafiz) part of national life "from the road sweeper to the university don."

I also like Dante’s assumption that poetry is a vocation, that the poet can construct a panoramic vision (which, in his case, embraces all of European civilisation in an attempt to embrace the whole of human experience.) His Universe is driven by Love - which the poetry both philosophises upon and actually manifests in passages of heartfelt lyrical intensity and in the terza rima form imitates Italian speech patterns and chats and chants by turn in a heightened but still natural way. This ambitious role for the poet still seems a measure to which modern poets, in a very different world, can aspire, helping to combine our much greater diversity with a sense of shared humanity and combat our tendency to social fragmentation and atomisation. Oddly enough it was James Joyce’s modernist rejection of Dante as the Catholic model of the artist, replacing it with Joyce’s own epiphanic view of art as a ‘priest of the imagination- i.e a modernisation of Dante’s own vocation- that appealed to me.

Without such an aspiration for our art as a wondering, seeking, delighting, sense-making adventure, poetry would be merely entertainment or crossword puzzle clever. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those as part of the larger artistic role: we could all have done with more comedy in the Divine Comedy! )

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I have always seen poetry as a wrestle with self, other, heart, head, form, music and meaning towards self-knowledge and self-expression, the expression of - or making conscious of - a vision. But humour, comedy and not taking oneself TOO seriously are also part of that. I try to balance satire with forbearance and, if I fail, to at least make my 'victims' die laughing.

I want to make people think about the human condition, feel deeply and laugh at human absurdity. I want words to sing and carry emotion, to be a solace in themselves but also to motivate anyone who hears them to be lifted and encouraged into making the world a better place.

I don't like the way 'serious' poetry has developed a reputation for being so difficult that now even English teachers avoid it. I learn mine by heart and perform it like theatre - or with my drum or my folk band as the lyrics to our songs - to try to connect with audiences before they put a barrier of "oh God this is poetry" in the way of letting it touch, amuse or inspire them. In other words, getting poetry back to its roots in music and feeling and spirit as well as ideas and complexity.

I believe poetry is a calling not a business; the true poet seeks his or her soul not how to market it.

Do you write every day?

I write every day. I don't have sessions as such. Poetry is always working away either at the back or front of my mind.

How many books have you written so far?

One comic novel, River Deep Mountain High, set in a state school in the Welsh valleys, 1968 - present, a requited but long unconsummated love story, Bluechrome, 2008.

One short novel for children, Bound for Jamaica, about the Atlantic slave trade, Collins, 2009.

Cromwell's Talking Head, a dramatic monologue 'spoken' by Oliver Cromwell, Diggers 2012.

Various educational books for secondary school English, most notably for Classical Comics (Study Guides about Jane Eyre and the Canterville Ghost) and as series editor / writer of the best selling 8 book "Aiming at Progress in..." series which is the only publication which ever earned me any real money! Collins, 2009.

Nine books of poetry:

City Zen, self-published pamphlet 1982, Zen snapshots of inner city Gloucester;

Coming Home, 3 sections: dramatic monologues of mineral, vegetable, animal stages of evolution (free verse); of historical moments (various historical forms); of spiritual planes of consciousness (ghazals) King of Hearts Publishing, 1991;

Britain's Dreaming, Frontier Publishing, 3 sections: Boudicca's revolt against Rome as a sort of Greek tragedy in classical, lyrical and 'punk' verse; poems about industrial decline in the Eastern valley of Wales; mystical ghazals, 1998;

The Merchant of Bristol, a Tudor sonnet sequence about a 16th century Mayor of Bristol who smuggled leather and grain to Iberia and wine from it. The Day Dream Press, 2004;

Sheer Paltry, Bristol City Football Club, 2004; football sonnets, chants and personal accounts of being a fan;

The House on the River, sonnets and free verse telling the story of Norwich from primeval to present through one house on a river; King of Hearts Publishing, 2004,

Exile In His Own Country, Bluechrome, 2006, a 'best of' collection of all previous;

Doin Different, 39 New Ballads from the East of England, folk ballads telling the story of Eastern England notably Norfolk through historical figures and ordinary folk, Poppyland, 2015;

6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees of Love, Sheriar Press, 2016, mystical ghazals, sonnets and villanelles about a life following the Indian mystic Meher Baba.

What is your latest book about?

6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees of Love is about the 'calling' of poetry as a spiritual vocation and a path to perfect happiness through desperate trials.

I was working on the book from 1979 to 2016 in terms of its individual poem content ... it's a lifelong achievement and story. The final stages or conceptualisation or refining as a collection larger than the sum of its parts took about 3 years.

The book was published in America by Sheriar Press in 2016. Some whole sections had appeared in my earlier collections … like Coming Home and Britain's Dreaming ... Sheriar gave me the chance to put all my 'spiritual' ghazals and poems in one book as a coherent statement, as a sort of odyssey through inner space.

The fact that the publisher is based in America and that my connection with them is distant and online is a disadvantage in some ways but they sell more than my other poetry books to a targeted audience there so it may actually be an advantage not to be physically involved in marketing it myself.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into the book?

I am not a fundamentalist and yet the book deals with fundamentals - God, spiritual questing, death, divine love, who we are beyond the physical world etc - so I find it a challenge to address these issues without losing the tavern audience.

It would be easy to lose touch with real readers by sounding 'religious' instead of engaging with the real issues of our times, which religious language has become alienated from. A bit like waging a crusade in the name of one's God instead of the much much more difficult task of actually practising the love all Faiths repeatedly prescribe as the cure.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I love crafting metaphysical words, phrases and ideas into the fiendishly difficult rhyme and metre of the ghazal (or the Petrarchan sonnet) form, wrestling all that profundity into something simple and musical and heartfelt as possible.

I love speaking the resulting 'magical' patterns aloud by heart or having a musician sing and play them. I enjoy this because it's making conscious and easy the wisdom I think we all have and when it communicates to listeners, it's bliss.

The truth is simple but only some pretty intense metaphysical work mastering words, ideas and form can make it so (says he, paradoxically, but then our life itself is paradoxical.)

What sets the book apart from other things you've written? 

This is an interesting question because I think it's because it's all in the present. Much of my work is historical in one way or another, even if only the history of my own life, and it's often set hundreds of years ago. 6 Degrees of Separation; 7 Degrees seems to inhabit an eternal present stretching away beyond the past and the future.

This book is also more intensely personal than much of my work - I more typically invent characters, living in history - and yet oddly more universal as well.

I hadn't really realised this until you asked.

In what way is it similar to the others?

I like working in tight 'musical' forms and metres: the discipline and need for economy helps me distil a lot of feeling.

By nature, I am garrulous, discursive and excursive - always trying to make sense and with a lot of words flowing out – so, the discipline of such form is vital.

What will your next book be about?

Nursery Rhymes - the way they often record real events in history in a gnomic, epigrammatic way. I will explore this with a show with my folk band, the Penland Phezants.

Two of your poems, “Tommy's 100th” and "Breck's Isle" are featured in Bollocks to Brexit: an Anthology of Poems and Short Fiction. What would you say the poems are about?

“Tommy's 100th” was one of those out-of-the-blue experiences where I knew as soon as it started that a poem was going to result. I was at a village memorial, rain and leaves gusting everywhere - the 100th anniversary of 1918 - wondering if there's a moment when remembrance becomes ossified into something else, not so much a grateful salute to the fallen as a perpetuation of dead grievances.

Brexit seemed very much in the air and little remembrance, for example, of those huge parts of Europe with which we were allied though both World Wars, Polish airmen at the Battle of Britain etc etc, or of all the Commonwealth nations who had rallied to defend this land. "The Europe we won (against extreme nationalism) then didn't want" sums up the tragedy of all that for me.

"Breck's Isle" comes from a King Arthur sequence - the Arthur myth (myth defined as an eternal present beyond the past and the future) records the seismic moments when Britain has been invaded and heroically defended but has also absorbed all we've been invaded and enriched by: Saxons, Normans and everything since. For example, Lancelot is both the Celtic god Llugh and the much later Norman knight Lancelot du lac.

We should have more confidence in Britain to cope and grow with age-old change and diversity and learn the mythical lesson of Vorgigern King of Little Britain who tried to shut it all out and perished. We don't live in a vacuum; Britain is greater in Europe than isolated from it. Breck and his isle is my modern mythical version of Vortigern.

How have the poems been received?

With laughter (notably the Daily Mail font line) and with acknowledgement of the 'greater' patriotism the poems expresses; the rejection of the Farage-fake-running-scared patriotism which is so destructive of our national interest...

Also, acknowledgement of the attempt to embrace the whole nation including the Brexit side of the argument and a greater patriotism (a love of modern, diverse, inclusive Britain) that is harder to do than simply asserting a counter-credo to Farage/Bojo et al.

Why is it important for poets to speak up on social, political and related matters?

Because I think poetry, unlike much of our politics, will naturally tolerate nuances and contradictions and express them honestly - even sometimes when the author him/herself may 'think' he/she is doing something else. As Yeats said, out of the argument with others we make rhetoric or politics; out of the argument with ourselves, poetry.

In your view, what do anthologies like Bollocks to Brexit add to poetry and public discourse?

They give everyone a say - including many that are often unheard or have uncomfortable things to say, things that demand your consideration or human allegiance rather than simply your vote. They present a human face to all sides of the story.


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