Hatching poetry with Hampshire Poet Laureate Brian Evans-Jones

Brian Evans-Jones is a poet and creative writing teacher living in Winchester, Hampshire.


Here he talks to Christina Cummings:


Q and A with Hampshire Poet Laureate 2012 Brian Evans-Jones


Q. Congratulations on being Hampshire Poet 2012. How did you feel when you heard you’d won the title?

A. Thank you! I’d become steadily more excited about the possibilities of the role during the application and interview process, and I was trying not to want it too much in case I was disappointed. So when the news was good, I was delighted.


Q. In your poem ‘By Sea and Forest Enchanted’ you manage to convey the Hampshire town of Lymington beautifully. But there is also a sort of ‘Heston-Blumenthal-style’ there - by which I mean the poem is served up as a unique and many-layered palate that speaks to all the senses. What would you say is the key to expressing these elements in a poem? I suppose what I'm looking for is some understanding of that magic quality that a really good poet has, and how you manage to convey sensory elements (but not obvious personification) etc. in such a subtle way. Are there any tips you have for ensuring this lightness of touch, so that a poem is not 'overdone'?

A. Sheer toil.. There are 27 separate drafts of that poem saved on my computer, and that doesn’t include the drafts before I typed it up, nor all of the later revisions made on paper. Sometimes I (like other poets) can be lucky and get a poem right more-or-less first time, but usually it takes graft. Subtlety in particular comes hard: overwriting on the other hand I do quite naturally!


Q. ‘A String of Moments’ is a poem about trying to make sense of the world around us and the wish for simplicity, but above all, love. Would you agree?

A. If that’s what it means for you, then yes, I’d agree. For me it means something different – quite simply, the memory of a particular moment. But once a poem is read, I think the writer no longer has the right to say, ‘It’s about this’: it becomes the reader’s property, really, and it’s ‘about’ whatever the reader experiences. A couple of times I’ve had people interpret my work quite differently from how I meant it; a friend once directed a short film of a poem which I thought was clearly about death, but her film was about love! I love it when things like that happen: it tells me that the poem is alive, that it exists beyond me.


Q. Do your poems spend a long time simmering before you write them down, or is there a flurry of quill and ink (romantic notion of a poet!), or frantic keyboard tapping until it’s done?

A. All of the above. I work quite haphazardly, really, though I’m trying to be more organised! I like to make notes as soon as I get an idea, or as soon as I can get pen, paper, and scribbling time to overlap (which is not always immediate when looking after a toddler). But I generally don’t write a first draft then – unless the idea happens to have arrived with a ‘shape’ already suggested, and that’s not very common. I like to get the notes down and then let the idea ‘sit’ for a while before I work on a first draft. Then there’s another period of waiting – anything from a week to several years – before I go back and redraft. Once I start the redrafting process I like to worry at it (in both senses – I tend to be an anxious drafter) pretty steadily until it’s done. Having a deadline helps a lot! I also like to have more than one poem I’m working on at a time: which leads me on to…


Q. What one piece of advice that you value above all others, would you give to an aspiring poet and what would you urge them to ignore?

A. …For advice to an aspiring poet, I’m torn between the two central ones: ‘Write Lots’, and ‘Read Lots’. ‘Read lots’ is essential:  if you don’t learn from poets who’ve gone before you you’ll always be ‘aspiring’ no matter how much you write. But I’m inclined to assume that an ‘aspiring poet’ knows that, so I’ll use the other one: ‘Write lots’. As a new or new-ish poet it’s terribly easy to worry far too much about the quality of each individual poem that you write, leading to chronic insecurity at best, and writer’s block at worst. But if you’re writing poem after poem after poem, preferably at the same time, then you never reach that point with a poem because there’s always a new one to excite you again and take the pressure off. Besides, the more you write the more you can learn about technique; and you simply have more chance of producing 10 good poems if you write 100, than if you only write 10.

What I would urge an aspiring poet to ignore: her own love for her poems. You need to be excited about it while you’re drafting it, but once you step back, you’ve got to put aside your bias and learn to see it as the cold, harsh world will. Switch off your pride and read the way editors do, the way competition judges do. If you’re not prepared to view your poems that way, your progress will be slow at best.


Q. What was the first poem you ever wrote about? Was it an exercise in the medium or was it written to say something?

A. To be honest, I can hardly remember; really I just remember it was very, very, very bad… Being a teenager at the time, I know I was trying to say something profound, but I’m not sure I knew what it was. Probably about being really, like, y’know, miserable


Q. Which poets have inspired you and if you had to choose one line from a favourite poem which would it be and why?

A. The poets who have inspired me are not necessarily the same as the ones who’ve influenced me – at various times I’ve been influenced by Browning, Donne, Eliot, Larkin, Hopkins, Heaney, Hughes, Duffy, Paterson, and many more, but my inspirations are fewer. Thomas Hardy was the first and remains very important to me: I want to have his mastery of form, his eye for minute detail, and his sheer perverse determination to make himself a poet when I don’t believe it came naturally to him. David Morley is another: as my teacher at Warwick he was hugely important in shaping my attitudes to the craft, the draft, and poetic form. I always enjoy his books. And lately Kenneth Koch has spoken to me: not just for the humour, surprising ideas, and innovation in his poetry, but also for his pioneering work teaching poetry to kids, which I humbly try to emulate.

It's hard to choose just one line as a favourite, but I've gone for one of Hardy's, from 'The Going', one of his poems mourning his first wife's death. The line is: 'while I / Saw morning harden upon the wall' (OK I cheated a bit but you have to have the first two words to make sense of the image). When I first read this line as a teen, it showed me how to do imagery: it's so simple, and simply put, yet that idea of as intangible a thing as sunlight growing hard and stiff perfectly evokes the arrival of a colder, emptier world, without his wife in it. It has always struck me almost as a physical thing, that image...


Brian Evan-Jones: Writing Hampshire

As the flagship project of my Hampshire Poet year, I want to get the people of Hampshire writing about the places that matter to them. That means not just the pretty parts, but the whole county: anywhere we live, work, learn, play, eat, or have fun – recording what we think of it, how we imagine it. And I want to involve not just people who already write poetry, but everyone, whether they think of themselves poets or not; whether they are five years old, or 95.

There will be an outlet for this work: the exact details will be fixed soon but I hope there will be a website first, and then an anthology. If you’d like to be involved, and especially if you know of an organisation or group who might like to me to run a Writing Hampshire workshop, please have a look at my website and get in touch.




Photograph: Accepting the award  © HCC/WDC