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The One and the Many: interview with Dai George

Hi Dai. You’re teaching a course for us this Autumn – ‘The One and the Many’. Tell us more about it.

Dai: I cooked up the course as a response to some aspects of poetry that have been intriguing me for a while, to do with how we address ourselves and/or other people in any poem that we write. It grew out of a series of questions I had: how do we write when we’re writing very personal poetry? How does that differ when a poem has an addressee, be that one other person or a community? What about if that addressee is God? These questions have major moral and aesthetic implications, but they’re also very practical, nuts-and-bolts issues for any practicing writer: how do you deal with the you, the me, the us and the them in your work? In that sense it builds on a previous workshop I ran for the Poetry School, called ‘Absent Pronouns’ – only, this time I’m very interested in the presence of pronouns, not their creative omission!

I’d recommend the course for anyone who feels that they often write in a certain way, addressing a certain type of presumed audience. The course is designed to walk you through the various types of address, from the confessional to the public political poem. The writing exercises will give you ample opportunity to experiment with new voices and purposes for your poetry.

I think you use autobiography in a really interesting way. For me, many of the poems in The Claims Office are personal but we’re often being directed towards your outward view of the world rather than into any direct knowledge of you as a person. It’s a nice effect: poems jostling against both the intimate but also the aloof. Does this description ring true in any way?

Dai: Yes, though I would resist the word ‘aloof’ – I always feel passionately involved in what I’m writing about, at some level. Conversely, as a reader, I’m rarely interested in poetry that feels bloodless and removed. For me, poetry is a contested space, and each poem an opportunity to imagine and confront what really matters to you. You’d be mad to waste that opportunity by writing poems that you can take or leave – which is not to say that great poetry can’t feel fleeting, playful, contingent.

As for autobiography, yes – it’s everywhere in my work. I’ve always felt enormously challenged by TS Eliot’s dictum that art should be ‘an escape from personality’. On the one hand it strikes me as noble and sensible, and an important check on the narcissism that often accompanies autobiographical writing. But I’ve never been quite able to embrace those words, even as an aspiration. I write about what matters to me, and at least half the time – if not more; if not always – that will originate in my own personality and life. To escape it seems impossible, though of course any good writing will test the limits of one’s own personal viewpoint.

A lot of poems in The Claims Office are ‘place poems’, with quite a few based around your time in America. What interests you about the poetry of place?

Dai: A few people have remarked on that aspect of my work, and obviously it’s true to an extent I probably didn’t appreciate when I was putting together the collection. In hindsight, I think I can account for it like this: I’m a city boy. I grew up in Cardiff and have only once lived in a smaller place for longer than a year, and that was Harrow, itself a suburb of some 200,000 people. The only places I know well are cities and towns – the human space. For me, it was the most natural thing in the world to write about Cardiff, or the Rhondda, or Bristol, or New York; these were the places in which I lived and moved and had my being. I do wonder why there isn’t more ‘poetry of place’, since there’s plenty of nature poetry, and a field is just as much a place as a city. Nobody would bat an eye at a collection full of poems about fields and mountains, but as soon as you put a proper name to the place you’re writing about, the terms seem to change in people’s minds.

What have been some of the standout moments in your career as a writer?

Dai: Publishing The Claims Office. I still remember receiving my blurb from Rowan Williams, about six weeks before the launch. That was a goosebumps moment. More recently, I really enjoyed a couple of summer readings I gave, particularly the Poetry Wales 50th anniversary event at the Southbank Centre, as part of the Poetry International festival. At one point, I would have given my left arm simply to be published in Poetry Wales, so to be featured in an event like that was a joy.

Are you a prolific writer? What’s your writing routine like?

Dai: I’m pretty methodical when it comes to prose. For my criticism and fiction (right now I’m working on the second draft of my first novel, which has been my major project for the last year), I can sit down at a desk from 9am and work steadily up until lunch, and then repeat the process after lunch, maybe with a walk or a swim to blow out the cobwebs somewhere in between. Poetry is another matter altogether. Towards the end of writing The Claims Office, I became more rigorous and forced myself to adapt some of my prose-writing habits in order to get the thing done. Now there’s no deadline on the horizon, I’m allowing myself to write as and when inspiration strikes – for a little while longer, at least. In practice, that usually means I’m drawn to poetry when I should be doing something else that isn’t going so well.

When did you first start writing poetry? What brought you to it?

Dai: Throughout my teenage years I wrote songs, then one day I wrote down some lyrics that weren’t ever going to have a tune. It was around about when I was reading The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin for A-level, and I don’t think I could overestimate the impact that book had upon me. I’ve waxed and waned in my affection for Larkin since, but I still think that’s a brilliant book.

It’s interesting you mention Larkin. When I read your poems I sometimes get transported a slightly old-fashioned nostalgic realm of sloping graveyards, birdsong, “Sunday visits” and function rooms – a sort of atemporal Betjamin/Larkin world – but we’re also constantly being simultaneously interrupted by contemporary life (CCTV, stock exchanges, reality television), often employed with a mixture of lyricism and a mild air of discontent. I’m not sure I’d call you a traditional poet either; for instance, there are nature and love poems you’ve written that veer on the caustic. I also did a workshop with you once where you expressed your disinterest in poems about the Internet. So I was wondering (a) where you might place yourself in any tradition and (b) what your relationship to modernity (or ‘the present’) is and where that attitude might stem from?

Dai: A huge set of questions! I think you’re right to remark upon my edgy, unsettled position in a more traditional mode of poetry, with that traditional lexicon you describe. One of the main preoccupations in The Claims Office is nostalgia for the world of the post-war settlement – a world I only know via reverberation and memory, since, being born in 1986, temporally I’m a child of Thatcher. The title poem of the collection is an elegy for the world of subsidised public life that preceded the neoliberal world as I know it. This very mid-century, communitarian language of offices and institutes runs through the collection, butting against the world of stock exchanges and reality TV in a largely antagonistic way.

But it would be a bad writer who didn’t see the pitfalls and myths present in his own viewpoint. I’ve come of age with the Internet a fact of life, and it won’t do simply to dig my heels in and protest – I’m teaching an online course, after all! When I expressed my reservations about the poetry of the Internet, I think I meant the methodology of the Internet rather than using the Internet as subject matter – the type of poem which reads like a quick, versified raid on a Wikipedia page, to put it crudely. More widely, I worry that the Internet creates conditions in which any type of modernist, forward-thinking poetry has to be glitchy and fragmentary, as if it was enough simply to mimic and subvert the language we find all around us. For me, the gesture of resistance has to be more active – and sometimes that leads to my poetry sounding more traditional, I suppose.

There’s a poem of yours I really like, and it doesn’t fit in with a lot of other things you’ve written – ‘Oran-Bati’. What’s it about?

Dai: As chance would have it, you’ve hit upon the one poem of mine that really was a Wikipedia poem! ‘Oran-Bati’ came out of a commission on the theme of crypto-zoology – in short, animals which have a dubious existential status, like the Loch Ness Monster. I was assigned the ‘Oran-Bati’ as my animal/monster, a terrifying apelike creature supposed to live in a remote Indonesian island. Not exactly a household name, so you’ll perhaps understand why I had to resort to a bit of judicious Googling. But as I started to read about it, I saw the potential of bringing this crypto-beast into the realm of my actual poetic interests. I imagined a callow Dutch missionary travelling to Indonesia and having the basis of his religion brought into question for the first time. Modernity, faith, skepticism: suddenly we were in the territory of a Dai George poem. As a narrative, it’s also the poem in the collection that shows most clearly that I’m an (aspiring) historical novelist.

What are you working on at the moment?

Dai: After my first collection came out last year, I had a long hiatus from writing poetry, to try and clear the head and come back to it with a fresh angle. I’m very slowly feeling my way into writing new work, but it’s a delicate process. Several of the new poems explore my long-held love of pop music – I’m working on a five-part poem called ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, for instance, which is as much a history of Dai George as it is of reggae. I’m always interested in how biography and poetry can intersect.

What’s a good question and what is its answer?

Dai: Would you still write poetry even if nobody else was ever going to read it? Obviously the answer will differ from person to person. For me, it’s fiendishly difficult to pin it down, and the question seems to go to the heart of why I write at all. My gut feeling is that I would always write poetry even if I was stranded on a desert island, but another – perhaps more honest – part of me knows that communication with other people is vital to the whole enterprise. It’s a question we’ll touch on in ‘The One and the Many’.

I noticed the other day that the painting (by Kevin Sinnott) used as the front cover image for The Claims Office is called ‘Public Private Life’, and it’s actually a brilliant distillation of not only the book (particularly the modernist house with impressive hillside in the background) but also the course you’re about to teach. Did you choose it? It captures the mood perfectly.

Dai: Thank you – I agree! I chose the painting in conjunction with Seren. My one concrete request for the cover image was that it should reflect the human world, because I’m not an abstract poet or a nature poet so it would seem disingenuous to have a cover that created that impression. They’d given me a few options that weren’t quite doing it for me – mainly gritty, urban photos – and I must have annoyed them a bit by holding out. But as soon as they mentioned Kevin Sinnott, I knew we were onto something. His work captures the sadness and glory of south Wales in a way that I hope to in my own work. His paintings seem to be quite straightforward and romantic, but there’s always something strange and dynamic happening in them too.

Learn the art of poetry-as-communication and experiment with different modes of poetic address – from the confessional to the polemic – with Dai’s new course ‘The One and the Many’. Book here or give us a ring 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. 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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Image: Hanging Out by Kevin Sinnott