Discussing superheroes and family: a conversation with Jonathan Edwards

Ben Ray talks to the Costa Prize winning poet Jonathan Edwards about his latest collection 'My Families and Other Superheroes'

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Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, a softly spoken, quiet English teacher from Monmouthshire, South Wales, is an unexpected hero. Alongside teaching English full time in a secondary school, he has managed to win the Costa Poetry Prize for 2014 and make the shortlist for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize of 2014 with his collection ‘My Family and other Superheroes’- no mean achievement.  But Edwards has kept his feet on the ground- he is still teaching, and fitting in writing in between his various poetry readings. For him, he says, poetry is about ‘understanding people’ and using words to convey the magic of dialogue and discussion. “Poems are people watching”, he tells me, “it’s about preserving people and moments.” His new collection certainly does more than preserve the characters it contains: it brings them to life in sparkling colour, from a description of Sophia Loren’s visit to a small welsh village to the wonderfully eccentric image of Evel Knievel jumping over Edwards’ family on a motorbike. These fantastical ideas are everywhere in Edwards’ writing- his clear, beautiful prose gives the subject matter a sense of ease and flow that makes the book feel friendly and approachable.

But these poems aren’t simply about preserving memories: here the everyday mixes with the extraordinary in such nonchalance that the reader is sometimes forced to do a double take. Edwards manages to make the mundane sing- such as in ‘Welsh Costume’, where national dress comes to embody a relationship and our interactions: ‘under all that cotton, what’s the self?’ When asked about this, Edward tells me that he ‘writes from life’, channelling the energy around him with a layer of the magical, surrealist element embedded within it. This means imagination can be used as a gateway for interpreting the everyday, what Edwards calls ‘surrealism with weight’- though “if it adds up to philosophy now, it doesn’t when I’m writing!” In the end, he tells me, a lot comes down to which poets you read, and how they interpret the world- through taking in influences such as Simon Armitage, Edwards has been able to create a unique style that makes his writing easily recognisable.

When asked if his experience in teaching has shaped his poetry at all, Edwards laughs. “Well, it’s taught me to make everything very clear”, he says. “In Dylan Thomas’ early career many of his early poems are difficult, and they later become more approachable and readable whilst still retaining his magic.” Many of Edwards’ poem titles are lengthy, sometimes up to two lines, and this isn’t by mistake: “I value clarity and accessibility- I like people to ‘get’ the poem, and the long explanations in the titles are almost like giving the reader a hug”. This ties in to the mastery of language displayed here: at once comfortable and unpretentious, his poems immediately put the reader at ease. There is a sense of utter honesty in Edwards’ use of regional Welsh dialect and clear prose, such as his description of his bamp (grandfather): ‘with the tweed and corduroy skin, wearing the slack gloves of his hands, those liver spots like big full stops’. “’Bamp’ is the best word for grandfather in any language”, Edwards tells me: “it’s infused with love.”

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Edwards smiles when asked whether he has developed a distinct sense of ‘Welshness’ through living and working on the border between Wales and England. “I think one aspect of being Welsh is simply not being English!” A strong sense of Welsh identity is important to him, and shines through in many of the poems- throughout history, Edwards says, the Welsh language has been attacked and downgraded. “Living near the border strengthens my sense of Welshness and connection to Welsh history”, he says, “as did my time at university in England- I suppose leaving Wales formed by sense of Welshness in relief.” Writing about Wales as a subject matter is clearly important in this book- it is a visible, interactive background to the entire collection, and often takes the main stage. If the identity is so important, though, why not write in Welsh? “I have to be true to myself”, Edwards says. “I’ve grown up using English so I’ll use that. I use dialect where it’s relevant, and write in English whilst being Welsh.” This comes through in the intensely personal role Wales takes on in the poems- indeed, one gets the feeling that the land is one of the family members referenced in the title.

Part of the pure readability of ‘My Family and Other Superheroes’ is the way it is split into clear sections: family, Wales, relationships, they are all addressed in these sectioned areas. Whilst I had an initial fear that this may give the book a slight sense of predictability, in reality this framework simply seems to have allowed for Edward’s imagination to run wild with possibilities, and to have held the book together under all the weight of creativity: from the FA cup winners visiting his childhood village to reliving a cinema trip to see ‘Back to the Future’ with his father, all the poems have their snug place in the collection. “It’s quite an American thing”, Edwards tells me. “I enjoy the wry, accessible writing of American poets.” He had always envisioned the book this way: the sections seem self-contained, and make the book flow. “It also means I got to start with more control”, he says, “and allows for a great sense of variety- even a check list of poetic styles.” Another perk of this, Edwards admits, that he doesn’t have to put any ‘embarrassing love poems in’. But I think readers can forgive him for this: any book that contains the poem title: ‘Restaurant where I am the Maitre d’ and the Chef is my Unconscious’ is more than diverse enough!

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When the conversation inevitably moves towards the 2014 Costa Poetry Award, Edwards is characteristically modest. “It means life is of course busier now, but the scary thing is how many good poetry books don’t get attention, or get published”, he tells me. “There are so many brilliant writers out there- I was very lucky.” Prizes are a great touching post for a poet’s success, Edwards says- and they helped with validating his writing. “Literature Wales was also a great aid, as they supported me in that final, intense writing process, where lots of my internal rhyme and rhythm developed.” This discussion of funding and support for poets is important to Edwards, cementing the central idea this book seems to promote- that poetry does not happen in isolation. Whether it be family memories, a familiar landscape, a love of language, or simply inspiration for an idea, ‘My Family and Other Superheroes’ is a surreal, expressive, joyful shout at the sheer pleasure of being alive. A beautiful, lovingly crafted book, it is a pleasure to read.