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Surprised by Joy: an Interview with Dai George

In his Summer School workshop ‘Surprised by Joy’ this term, Dai George will be exploring the challenges and possibilities of writing from feelings of happiness, wonder and joy. We had a chat to find out more  …

Hello Dai – tell us about your Summer workshop. What do you have planned?

It’s called ‘Surprised by Joy’, a title lifted straight from Wordsworth. It’s funny because that Wordsworth poem is not joyful at all really: it begins in that fleeting moment when a grieving person forgets about their loss and feels happy again, but ends with the realisation that ‘neither present time, nor years unborn / Could to my sight that heavenly face restore’. So I wanted the title but not the emotional register of that poem – what I have in mind for the workshop will be more celebratory and feel-good. That said, I don’t think pure happiness is a straightforward matter in poetry, which often needs friction and complexity to get off the ground. It got me thinking about how happy poems work, and how often they need to convey some element of surprise so that the joy won’t be chintzy or obvious – so the Wordsworth title seemed to gather a new meaning.

As for the plan on the day, we’ll spend the first hour or so reading great joyful poems and discussing why they work, then we’ll turn our hands to writing some of our own via an exercise (which I admit I’m yet to devise!). We’ll end by reading them to the group, since one of the great joys of poetry is live performance. I’m hoping for a really fun and infectious afternoon.

You use autobiography a lot in your poetry – when you’re writing a poem from first-hand experience, do you have to depart from the truth to make a ‘good poem’? If so, is it a conscious choice, or does the poem do what it wants?

Oh the poem always does what it wants. Maybe you engage that conscious, editorial part of your brain afterwards, but only to think about what would make that poem better – and authenticity to real life is never high up my list of concerns. I’ve had conversations with family members where I’ve said, ‘You know, it’s mainly about you – but I’ve had to make you up as well, so don’t be offended.’

Do you think it’s harder to write a poem about joy, or its opposite?

I was about to say unequivocally its opposite, which I suppose is dejection – but actually that’s quite tricky too because, like joy, it’s a very pure and total feeling. The easy poems to write, in my experience, are those where you have an interesting and unusual idea and you can just run with it where you need to go. There’s nothing original about joy or dejection, so the challenge in writing about them is always going to involve making these obvious, inevitable emotions feel fresh again.

What poem or poet would you suggest as reading material for anyone thinking of taking your workshop?

Heaney, I think, particularly the late period Heaney of Seeing Things onwards. There’s a famous poem of his called ‘Postscript’ that I’m sure we’ll look at in the workshop – its climax is a prime example of how to bring in that element of surprise to reinvigorate the sensation of simple happiness or wonder at nature.

You said in your previous interview with us that you took a bit of a hiatus from poetry after releasing your collection The Claims Office – how’s the return? Have you noticed any changes in your writing or how you approach it?

First of all, thanks for asking. The return, I’m afraid, is still slow and filled with doubts – it’s hard to reinvent yourself without going too far and chucking out what’s good about your work in the first place – but I’m gradually building up a core of poems that I’m pretty happy with. Some of it would be instantly familiar to fans of The Claims Office (if such rare creatures exist!) but some of it’s a little wilder. For a while now I’ve read and admired what you might have to call modernist poetries – adventurous and innovative stuff, often American. I’m trying to let that influence work its magic in my own poetry a bit more, whereas till now I’ve always kept quite a tight leash on myself (at least I feel that way), to make sure that the poems make sense in some primary way. I still want poems to make sense, at bottom, but I’m allowing myself freer rein in terms of syntax and narrative.

Potential workshoppers should take note that I’ll be keeping the academic, cerebral stuff to a minimum in this class. I want to look at poems that connect in a very visceral and heartfelt way – which is another massive part of why I come to poetry in the first place. I’m a shameless omnivore, happy to rove between Charles Olson and Don Paterson. The only writing I can’t abide is trite writing, and that’s the enigma that we’re going to explore here: how does some happy poetry succeed in conveying a simple emotion without falling prey to triteness?

You’ve spoken before about contemporary poetry in the UK, and the advantages of being a young writer now. Do you think that the advantages are still growing? Are young poets getting as much recognition now as more established British poets?

There may not exactly be parity between the established and the young, but I doubt there ever will be – many would say for good reason. Happily, though, there’s been a palpable and I hope permanent shift in recent years: lots of my peers have released great first collections on top-class presses. I think in the decade before I started writing there was a genuine roadblock for unestablished voices (which, after all, aren’t always young) but a new generation of writers has come onto the scene with confidence. You just have to look at the Forward prize shortlist this year – the best first collection prize is no less exciting than the main list (cards on the table: it excites me more).

Do you have one piece of advice for a young poet starting out?

Yes – read contemporary poetry, not just the dead giants. The one thing that defines whether or not you have a chance of publishing in magazines and anthologies – which for most of us must be the ambition, right? – is whether or not it seems like you’ve read other poets currently at work. It doesn’t mean you have to be a slavish follower of fashions – plough your own furrow. But without reading other contemporary poets, you have no way of knowing what sort of writing is clichéd and trite or overdone. And nobody arrives fully formed: we all have to get through some clichéd and trite writing before we find our voices. Besides, not to read contemporary poetry is to shut yourself off from a vast array of potential stimulus. You read someone else who’s just published something great and it increases your hunger to emulate the achievement. And the writing you produce will be much, much stronger.

Finally, what’s your happiest festival memory?

For me, like many others my age I’m sure, the word ‘festival’ conjures up images of rock music in a field. I remember going to the Leeds Festival in 2004 with a bunch of mates. We were 17, we thought The White Stripes were the greatest band of all time, and we were away from home in a tent with a few crates of lager. We were on top of the world.

If you’d like to spend a day with the poetry of joy (avoiding the overly sentimental), you can find out more about Dai’s workshop, including booking details, on our website or by calling us on 0207 582 1679.

Dai George was born in Cardiff in 1986 and studied in Bristol and New York, where he received an MFA from Columbia University’s writing programme. He has had poems and criticism published in The Guardian Online, The Boston Review, New Welsh Review, Poetry Review and others. His poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including the Salt Book of Younger Poets and Best British Poetry 2011 and 2013. His first collection, The Claims Office, was published by Seren in October 2013. He is an editor at Prac Crit and a member of The Heart Requests, a pop band. Thanks to an Arts Council England grant, he is currently at work full-time on a novel about the Gunpowder Plot, with the playwright Ben Jonson as the central character.

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