Interview

Demythologising Dylan: a Centenary to Rock the Boat House Legend

Demythologising Dylan: a Centenary to Rock the Boat House Legend

Dylan Thomas’ granddaughter, Hannah, admits scepticism over the ‘Dylan Myth’ amidst musings on charades and rats.

A torpedo of drunken rebellion and poetic flair ultimately ended by 18 straight whiskies splashed down his throat and across the headlines? Or sensationalised simplification so overblown as to give itself away as media make-believe?

Hannah Ellis is under no illusions about her late grandfather’s sporadic drinking habit, but stands firmly for a more balanced view of Dylan and his poetry. 2014 marks the centenary of his birth, and it is not slipping by unnoticed. Dylan Thomas 100 has set in motion a twelve-month programme of worldwide events, spanning from the unprecedented display of his teenage notebooks and Dylan-inspired jazz, to theatre, poetry conferences, and multimedia exhibitions. The variety is off the scale, and the hype is already underway in his home country.

Hannah has evidently mulled over her grandfather’s international appeal: “He was almost seen as the People’s poet in how he talked about the vulnerable”, noting even communist East Germany’s favour with their invite for Dylan to cross the Berlin Wall. Poems like ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ hint at the writer’s vast empathy, and Hannah suggests such “feeling too much” may have lain behind the drinking. Discussing his struggle to cope with the losses of his father and sister in his 39th year, Hannah concedes: “There’s every truth in that he was completely on self-destruct at the end of his life.”

Yet Dylan’s notoriety as a “roistering, drunken, and doomed poet” (courtesy of John Davies) clashes with tales of family charades and rat invasions. Hannah recalls her mother reminiscing with a smile: “He’d be playing the hunchback, always the best”, and gives a softer portrait of a man who would shriek and leap onto tables in the Boat House as her grandmother and mother chased off rats. Hannah has no doubt that Dylan’s children knew his writing was top priority, but his ability to put others at ease left his daughter with fond memories to pass onto her own children.

Hannah feels she met her grandfather through her uncle Colm, Dylan’s youngest son. She describes someone, by no means perfect, but as a charmer and a wonderful joker, hugely missed by his family. Colm’s ultimate withdrawal to an Italian village might have resembled a “Laugharne in Italy” to echo Dylan’s own haven on the Welsh coastline. “The whole community came out for my uncle’s funeral”, Hannah contemplates, “they adored him, just as Dylan was always one of the crowd”. Even so, she does not ascribe her grandfather’s caricature to outsiders’ distortion alone, and recollects friends’ stories of how Dylan would sip a single pint then feign swaggering intoxication on bumping into an acquaintance. Mystique prevails. Bantering with Dali and the Surrealists in 1936 saw the poet with a teapot and cup of string in tow, accosting bystanders: “Weak or strong?”. Questions certainly seem to outweigh answers in the excavation of Dylan’s own riddled personality.

Perhaps focusing the lens on ‘Dylan the person’ isn’t the way forward. Robert Lovell saw in him “a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding” and indeed Dylan’s audience transcends boundaries. In a festival that stretches to Argentina, India, Canada, the US, and Australia, it seems neglectful that Oxford has yet to map itself onto the 2014 celebrations. The poet’s year spent at Holywell Ford, Magdalen College, is a noteworthy fleck in the diverse landscapes of his career. The influential Welsh ‘capel’ climate of preachers’ dogmatic boomings not only shaped Dylan’s bold, dramatic recitals, but also provoked the claustrophobia that saw him shirking a fixed post-code.

To quote Seamus Heaney, a Patron of the festival during his lifetime: “If ever there is a centenary worth celebrating, this is it.” While Dylan’s life might have been cut short, Dylan Thomas 100 is ensuring his poetic legacy need not be. True to his word, “death shall have no dominion”.

Go to http://dylanthomas100.org/ for details of the festival’s 2014 events that are taking place across the UK and beyond.

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No flailing for Gail: Trimble plots her desert island library

No flailing for Gail: Trimble plots her desert island library

Gail Trimble hastens into Greens, armed with a laptop and an apology – tempus fugit when you’re exploring the realm of Catullus 64. Two latte-orders later, the scene switches from Ariadne’s isle of Naxos to a less foregone imaginary island. Time to discover the contents of Gail’s castaway book-bag…

Children of two scientists, Gail and her brother grew up in a home laden with piles upon piles of Usborne factual books. An early ingredient to her University Challenge success? Pair this with teeming enthusiasm for fiction (Roald Dahl, Narnia, and Greek mythology all close to the heart) and a winning formula seems at hand.

To relay back to my book-dodging little sister, I ask what Gail deems most valuable in childhood reading, and her first response: “viewpoints”. She talks of images as building-blocks in one’s head – often otherwise inaccessible vistas. I’m engrossed (hugely envying her tutees), being swept along with her lively thinking-aloud style of speaking. Gail singles out the guidance of a personality behind the pages; the classicist inside her seems fascinated by the rhetorical element of reading. “Do I trust what I’m being told? Would I do things differently?” – nothing is to be taken at face value in the Trimble household. Drawing a link between authorial manipulation and the weasel-words of politicians, Gail adds that growing up with fiction can deter from being shepherded blindly by words.

Apart from the occasional teenage verse (“as one does”) Gail has never had much drive to create fiction herself. Plots and characters sketched by others are so engaging, she says, it means that she struggles for her own inventions. Instead, she enjoys “turning what I observe into words rather than creating”, whether that be for her diary or her contribution to Corpus Christi’s Pelican Record.

While her classics degree at Corpus almost led astray onto a philosophy-future, Gail’s love of literature ultimately took the steering wheel. Her current project, a commentary on Catullus’ labyrinthine sixty-fourth poem (alongside tutoring at Trinity), surprisingly makes more room for leisurely reading than the chaos of undergrad life.

Catullus’ story within a story occupies no mean amount of her thought-space – the shape of literature is something that captivates Gail. During our coffee, one proof of this comes in the form of her energised eulogy of Cloud Atlas and its brilliantly bizarre structure. Hence my surprise at her answer as to whether plot is second to style: “no, a great story is obviously a wonderful thing.” 

So, moment of truth. Which five stories make up Gail’s literary entourage on her desert island? Voilà…

* Gaudy Night – Dorothy L. Sayers

* Persuasion – Jane Austen

* The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien

* The Complete Works of Virgil

* Little Town on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Sayers’ detective tale (read and reread since Gail was thirteen, and a spark behind her Oxford application), the obligatory Austen novel, a hefty bulk of Tolkien, an inevitable Latin classic, and the comfort of a childhood favourite. After our coffee convivium, I left Greens in faintly dazed awe at Gail’s blend of genius and geniality. An early Christmas present of a fully-certified and barely academic reading list gift-wrapped with insightful conversation: what’s not to love?

Interview: Tom Ward

Interview: Tom Ward

If you’re an English student who has ever played with the thought of following in the footsteps of your literary idols, you’ve probably dismissed the idea as an unrealistic, momentary craze; after all, hasn’t everyone been telling you that being an author nowadays is an insecure, unsustainable profession? If there is one person who has successfully proven this to be false, it is Tom Ward: Since graduating from Newcastle University in 2012 with a degree in English Literature and Language, he has not only won the prestigious GQ Norman Mailer Student Writing Award, but also published his debut novel ‘A Departure’. But what does it take to be a young writer in a modern climate of unpredictable economic change, where arts and culture budgets are being cut on a national and regional level? With the publication of his first book already several months ago, it’s time to catch up with Tom.

Currently living in London, he writes for several publications such a Sabotage Times, Vice and Huffington Post whilst working on his next book. Tom admits that it can be quite a challenge to make it in the competitive world of literature for young authors in addition to the day-to-day work to earn a living, so having a novel under his belt is definitely ‘a useful calling card’: ‘A lot of journalists say they’d never have time to write a novel, so it’s good I have the first one out of the way to get the ball rolling’. Tom’s journalistic portfolio includes interviews with World War Z author Max Brooks and graphic novel icon Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell), yet finding a compromise between his literary ambitions, including the efficient promotion of his work, and writing gigs isn’t always easy. ‘I try and do some of my novel each day, but with freelance there’s no definite time to have finished. It’s difficult not having a 9-5 time frame to do you work in. Ideally, I’d love to spend all my time writing novels and just do a bit of freelance on the side if needs be’, he says.

Unlike his second book, Tom’s debut novel ‘A Departure’ was a project in development before the start of his university degree and, more importantly, before he had to juggle his passion for writing with a regular source of income. The story of 18-year old Michael, who witnesses the world as he knows it break down around him due to an unknown disaster killing the majority of human life on the planet, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: As the young protagonist travels through the lawless wasteland that Britain has become after the cataclysm, he is confronted with the brutality and ignorance, but also the inescapable solidarity that humans resort to in extreme situations. But whilst McCarthy’s work has been described as ‘post-apocalyptic fiction’, Tom avoids pigeonholing his book in such terms. ‘With the way Amazon works, A Departure had to be put into different genres: Coming-of-age, apocalyptic and adventure. I wouldn’t have put it into those genres myself and I’ve got a few reviews from disgruntled people expecting some end of the world zombie and explosion epic’, he explains. ‘Really though, people can classify it however they want. I’m not bothered what genre they want to put it in as long as they enjoy it.

But his book did not just generate critical comments with regards to its assumed genre. Despite the overall success of his book and the positive feedback he has received from people like bestselling author of ‘Man and Boy’ Tony Parsons, who referred to him as ‘quite possibly the best young writer in the country’, Tom had to face some fairly harsh reviews that questioned his writing skills and the essence of his story. ‘At first, negative reviews got to me, but I have some fantastic reviews from people and blogs I really respect, and I know I’m proud of the novel, so I try not to let negative reviews get to me’, he admits. And whilst it might be tempting to revise the novel for a second edition to shut up potential spiteful remarks, he feels that his writing has evolved ever since the publication of ‘A Departure’: ‘I think there’s a danger to keep going back and re-editing things, so you have to know when to draw the line’.

Tom’s next book is called ‘City of Arsonists’ which he hopes to be published in 2014. The plot is set is a bleak, ‘possibly Northern’ city where a ‘middle aged fireman, Guy, who’s lost his wife and daughter in a fire’ encounters a rebelling group of ‘jaded, disenfranchised arsonists’. Tom found his inspiration for the novel in Green Day’s album American Idiot as well as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and although his current project includes scenes of gruesomeness and violence that resemble his first novel, he claims that ‘it’s a completely different genre and story. The characters are naive, but in a different way to Michael in ‘A Departure’. They’re less helpless and there’s less goodwill behind their actions, and more anger’.

The most remarkable aspect about Tom’s writing is how relatable his characters are, despite their unique and fairly extreme circumstances. You don’t have be a fan of dystopian literature or know Huxley’s Brave New World by heart to connect with his stories, which is a rare occurrence within most of modern literature featuring protagonists whose adventures might be thrilling, but feel completely out of reach. With his talent, perseverance and focus on improving his skills, Tom Ward has a promising future ahead of him whilst proving that becoming an author in today’s difficult economic climate is indeed a feasible possibility.

‘A Departure’ is available on Amazon; you can follow Tom on Twitter @TomWardWrites

How frost can melt hearts: no skating on thin ice for Gillian Clarke’s sure-fire poetic pleaser

How frost can melt hearts: no skating on thin ice for Gillian Clarke’s sure-fire poetic pleaser

Wales’ National Poet, Gillian Clarke, talks to Sophie Baggott about Ice’s versification of the elements.

With its piquantly seasonal title, Ice is the 2012 poetry collection of Gillian Clarke – the five-year reigning National Poet of Wales. Britain’s Big Freeze of ’09-10 seemingly commissioned these eclogues but, far from a weather forecast frozen in time, the book progresses through these snowy winters into spring, summer, autumn before circling back to The Year’s Midnight. Shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize for Poetry, this work shimmers with her love of Nature’s temperament.

The collection opens with the poem Polar, evoking a scene of quiet solitude as the Gillian of yesteryears naps on a polar bear rug. At a 2013 BBC Radio 4 Bookclub talk, she laughingly describes her former habit of feeding this rusks, but naïve serenity slips away at the poem’s halfway-point, where she seems to morph into her adult self lamenting the bear’s demise: “I want him fierce / with belly and breath and growl and beating heart”. The concept of death is rarely absent for long, and Gillian explains this to the audience by comparing a rose with a plastic flower, observing that we love the former for its fragility. The idea of love strengthened by transience perhaps sheds light on her passion for seasonal swings: “I want March winds, April showers, long summer nights in June, I want cold, I want snowy winters”, she tells Bookclub listeners.

Her poetry’s origins seem almost beyond her control; “energy, creative fire, ‘duende’, is the force”. An audience member questions how she “decides” on a poem, but Gillian responds by conjuring up an image of a poem prowling just over her shoulder and captured only if she turns quickly. The answer? There is no decision: excitement seems to be at the helm. And there is much, much excitability in Gillian Clarke’s psyche; the snow excited her, so she wrote: “I don’t know for whom I write. I love the process, and it is obsessional.”

But it’s certainly not all frostbite in Ice; a sunset, “august and auburn”, is gloriously, warmly evoked in Harvest Moon as the poet runs out into the lane to catch the sun’s ephemeral tumble off the horizon. Even so, the sudden scorch of heat at the very end tilts the book’s closure at an unexpected angle: “The burning bush. The rainbow. Promises. Promises.”  Are these promises, promises to culminate in good or evil? The melting ice and rising seas of the preceding lines murmur to me of global warming but, as ever, poetry’s ambiguity is sovereign.

Thus far, my review might mislead into the false impression that this collection spotlights only the natural world at the brazen expense of ‘the human’. Gillian’s answer as to whether she prefers writing about nature or people swerves the question by shattering the implicit dichotomy: “Aren’t people ‘nature’? We are animals, surely.” Regarding Ice, she has spoken of her desire to write “a love song to the planet”, but surprisingly the human sphere is by no means shoved aside. Moving instances are her poems Six Bells and Gleision, which cast back to mining accidents of 1960 and 2011 respectively – a jostling between ‘then’ and ‘now’ as reflected in the opening poem’s nostalgic gaze back to childhood. Saluting how many layers of her self are behind the pen, she muses that “every single one of ourselves is still alive”, and proclaims her biggest influence in two words: “being alive”. 

The black bleakness of these mining poems discredit this collection as a contender for cosy Christmas card covers; nor does Gillian’s depiction of the Big Freeze beautify its drawbacks: “Motorways muffled in silence, lorries stranded / like dead birds, airports closed, trains trackless”. Occasional writing has been a Welsh tradition from time immemorial. Late in picking up Welsh, Gillian had been forbidden to learn the language as a child by her socially-aspirant mother, but dubs it the “background word-music” of her younger years.

Oddly, the osprey who flits in towards the end of Ice was the one to strike a chord with me. Having soared from Lapland, the osprey pauses for a three-week interlude in Wales. “You could tell it was happy / by the way it splintered the sun / with its snowbird wings. / But its mind was on Africa, / the glittering oceans, the latitudes / sliding beneath its heart.” This plucky winged Odysseus endeared himself, and left me wondering where might Gillian Clarke’s Africa be. In any case, Ice was a splendid stopover in her illustrious marathon of a poetry career.

 

Altruism in fantastic form: building worlds on both planes

Altruism in fantastic form: building worlds on both planes

The Kingkiller Chronicle, currently one of the most popular series in modern fantasy, tells the tale of Kvothe, and his journey as he becomes the most extraordinary wizard ever to set foot in his world. Providing a fresh new take on the classic fantasy tale, it details his life from childhood to infamy, in language that leaves the reader spellbound; in the years to come, it may come to stand among the best fantasy tales ever told. On the fourth of November Patrick Rothfuss, the author of this remarkable tale, visited Oxford University to speak to his fans. The event was organised in support of the Worldbuilders initiative, a fundraiser founded by Rothfuss himself, that seeks to raise money for Heifer International, currently one of the leading charities when it comes to fighting poverty in developing countries. The movement is particularly interesting for its new approach to fundraising, by encouraging charity amongst readers of speculative fiction; I interviewed Rothfuss to find out more.

Interestingly, Worldbuilders didn’t start out as a formal movement: rather, according to Rothfuss, “it came up organically”. In 2008, a year and a half after the debut of his first novel, Rothfuss made the decision to raise support for Heifer International, through what he humorously refers to as a sort of “magician’s game”. Having an already large fan base at the time, he decided to do more than simply donate money to Heifer; he instead publicised to his readers that, over the course of a month, for every dollar they donated, he would donate another. In his own words, he thought “it would be really amazing if I got people to kick in $5000 dollars over the course of the month”.

That goal was reached within three days. From there the money kept flooding in: other authors, seeing what was going on, decided to join the fundraiser, and publicise it to their own fans: by the end of the month, the money raised for Heifer totalled nearly 110,000 dollars. From there, the fundraiser has only grown larger each year; having now expanded into a formal organization and taken on the name of Worldbuilders, the movement is bigger than ever – “This year’s going to be really phenomenal”, Rothfuss says.

While support for the movement has now expanded to include fans of other media, such as video games, the main core of contributors is still made up of readers of fantasy and science fiction. But what is it in this genre, and indeed fiction in general, that Worldbuilders believes to promote charitable giving? When asked, Rothfuss suggested that while “non-fiction answers the question ‘what is?’, fiction is answering the question ‘what if?’”, with tales of fictional events; this hypothetical nature has a large part to play. It allows us to experience something beyond ourselves, and in doing so challenges our assumptions about the world and causes us to think differently; alongside this, experiencing empathetic feelings for fictional characters encourages altruistic feelings, and hence charitable giving.

As for speculative fiction, the genre asks the question of “what if?” far more deeply, and far more exhaustively than any other; fantasy, Rothfuss notes, asks the question “what if there were a whole other world, what if there were magic?”, rather than simply asking ‘what if a certain event were to occur in our world?’. In doing so, this causes us to experience things vastly different to our everyday lives. Through this, fantasy changes the way we think – indeed, it was Coleridge who said that, through faery stories, his mind had become “habituated to the vast”. Speculative fiction allows us to experience “the other”, and this seems to have a profound effect on us, in a way that encourages altruism.

Heifer International, the organisation which Worldbuilders supports, asks very simple “what if?” questions, and that is part of the reason why Rothfuss chose it. Rather than simply giving money or food to people living in poverty, Heifer seeks to equip people with the tools, education and livestock to help them become self-sufficient, and provide them with a sustainable source of income. Heifer’s benefits are immediate and widespread, and unlike most charities, over 75% of the money they receive goes directly to helping people. As such, it is perhaps one of the best charities to support in the fight against poverty.

In a time when the genre of speculative fiction is truly booming, Worldbuilders is an innovative new way of raising funds for charity. Oxford students who wish to support the movement can join the student society, which seeks to raise funds to contribute to the Worldbuilders movement; the society has organised a number of events, including themed formal halls and book signings by other authors – both great ways to get involved. With help from people around the world, Worldbuilders now represents a huge success in charitable giving, and shows how a simple idea can snowball into something truly amazing.

Email president@oxfordworldbuilders.org.uk if you want more information about how to participate.

 

Chatting with the Catweazle

Artsy People, Places, and Publications within the good ol’ Oxford bubble. 

This week we chat to the delightful Oxford resident Matt Sage – musician, troubadour, founder of The Catweazle Club. 

This club, which recently starred in a BBC Radio 4 documentary, is “a forum for musicians, poets, storytellers, creative and performance artists of every imaginable hue to come and share their genius“. My questions to the Catweazle’s founder Matt were met by an avalanche of essay-style, emotive, and passionate replies. And no wonder – this is an exciting time for The Catweazle. At nearly twenty years old it is still developing and Matt’s newest ventures include The Catweazle Magazine (set up by Phoebe Nicholson and Sam Taplin) and the newly-launched sister night Hatweazleevery Monday at The Mad Hatter, Iffley Road.

The East Oxford Community Centre in Cowley has been the home of The Catweazle Club for the past seven years. Every Tuesday at 8pm, performers and audience gather in what Matt says is “the real centre of Oxford – not Broad Street or wherever“. For him “this is where LIFE happens, where many of the more interesting people of Oxford live, and where many different cultures meet, and the Community Centre is at the very heart of all that“.

The importance of the Club for Matt is evident and when I ask how he came to live in Oxford the answer is tied withThe Catweazle. “I first came to Oxford from London as a travelling musician in the late summer of 1994, and instantly fell in love … I was amazed to discover that there was no kind of open mic or communal performing scene of any kind. It was all about Radiohead and Supergrass and being cool and getting signed. So within three weeks of being here, I realised that if I wanted to find a home, I’d just have to build it myself”. The Catweazle became this home and regardless of whether the performers are Oxford residents, students, or the nomadic troubadour that the Club itself resembles, to all it is an “inspiring, communal, uplifting, open, warming, heart space”. In this, Oxford lays claim to a truly magical weekly event thanks to Matt and the fabulous family that is The Catweazle Club.

Read more about the club and Matt’s interview at www.oxfordstudent.com/category/arts/.

The Albion Beatnik: forging wilderness out of empire

Arts related People, Places and Publications within the good ol’ Oxford bubble. 

This week we chat to the delightful Dennis Harrison- founder of The Albion Beatnik bookstore and Oxford resident .The Guardian recently ran a feature piece on the store following a viral image.

‘We think the internet is great, but the written word is better; we abhor democracy and adore anarchy (in a sort of postmodern, dodecophonic sort of way); we think you should buy a book because you want to read it, not because it is cheap, although this doesn’t give publishers or booksellers the license to overcharge (unless they can get away with it). The shop has a no petting, diving or bombing policy (unless with the owner). And if you are genuine and enthusiastic, you are always welcome.’ 

Dennis welcomes me into the store early and the place already exudes a quiet energy. Artists with suitcases pop in and disappear into the basement. I’m given coffee and we get stuck into a discussion one third interview, one third chat and one third glancing at the bookshelves in glee.

The bookshop has had some acclaim recently including an article in The Guardian. I wanted to know why Dennis chose Oxford and how his special breed of bookshop came about. ‘I’ve always had bookshops, and I could see that the writing was on the wall for general bookshops, so I decided to change horse. I’d always wanted a bookshop in Oxford.’ For The Albion Beatnik the settings are ideal, a spectacular city with artists constantly passing through, alongside a loyal following of local residents.

Dennis so named ‘The Albion Beatnik’ in order to allude to its internal goings on. ‘I couldn’t have called it ‘The Jazz Café’’ but in naming it ‘Beatnik’ the innards become clear. Free range poetry and jazz, the spirit of the American Beat Generation. This blend for Dennis is an antidote ‘at the moment bookshops are sunk in the water – we have to reinvent it.’

The Albion Beatnik hosts readings, workshops, jazz nights and other events most nights of the week yet they still manage to pull in large audiences regularly – a feat difficult in a city of Costa and Waterstones. In his recent ‘Month of Poetry’ Dennis received roughly 20-40 audience members each night reaching heights of 65. Despite the numbers, however, Dennis admits to it all being ‘very ad hoc’ befitting the charm and casual nature of the place.

I ask finally about the gorgeous small notebooks which caught my eye on the way in. Lucie Forejtova’s beautiful hand bound books are sold in store and she hosts workshops on their making. Their delicacy and craftsmanship seem to highlight further the Beatnik’s true allegiance to creative excursions and the written word in a purer form than one might find on Amazon Books. ‘She’s integral to the shop and sums up the ethos of the store.’

I ask Dennis how he would compare The Albion Beatnik to other independent bookshops such as the iconic ‘Shakespeare &Co’. ‘Well no, I think that’s flattering, but I see it as just this bookshop’. A grounded and enthusiastic space such as this shouldn’t be compared. Its genuineness should be praised – Jericho, Oxford here holds a prize space. Like Beat Poet Snyder’s dream, Harrison has, in the realm of bookstores, created ‘wilderness out of empire’.

Search ‘The Albion Beatnik’ on Facebook to find out more. For Lucie Forejtova’s work visit www.immaginacija.com/.

Penning poetry from Pennsylvania (with a Welsh twang).

Penning poetry from Pennsylvania (with a Welsh twang).

Zoe Brigley-Thompson speaks to Sophie Baggott of poetry-confessions, the phony(?) “American Dream”, and being built of books.

To put it mildly, Zoe adores words, and wow does she indulge this adoration well. Her passionate, intelligent poetry is so deep it renders the Pacific a mere puddle. In the words of Pascale Petit, “a fascinating study of women’s sexuality”, Zoe’s 2012 collection Conquest has elements of autobiography but (the poet hopes) not of revelation. While Zoe tends to avoid the baggage of writing about the personal, she says “‘My Last Rochester’ is what I would call an “honest” poem written out of an abusive relationship”. Distance via the third person keeps things a little more lightweight. Tinged with the influence of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, this poem opens Conquest’s first of three parts

Confessional poets like John Berryman have been likewise influential; for Zoe, his poem The Song of the Tortured Girl “seems to confess even though it is written out of Berryman’s context and gender”. The intertextuality of her writing is distinctive. Acknowledging that this can intimidate (“that feeling of hearing a joke in which one is not included”) she nevertheless sees it as “a joyful thing, a celebration of a wealth of stories”. Books were omnipresent in her upbringing, and she assents with enthusiasm when I ask whether the Rooseveltian “I am a part of everything that I have read” quotation tunes in with her. She adds that tracing the origins of stories and poems is a much-enjoyed pastime, giving another glimpse of that inquisitive mind twinkling in every response.

Zoe’s Creative Writing degree at Warwick was a fast-pace time for her poetic output; the sense of space and community was invaluable. Yet a writing degree alone won’t make you a writer”, Zoe admits, “what keeps me writing is a powerful need to produce – not for an audience, just for me – and a strong sense of what it is I want to say.” This is a woman with fiery vocal chords and serious skill in exercising them. Yet the words don’t always flow all at once; Zoe’s urge to write about her two miscarriages nagged at her until she had found a suitably “unsentimental and unflinching” slant by way of the infertility clinic’s strange atmosphere. She continues: “Finding such indirect routes makes your writing more powerful, because suddenly the poem is not simply your personal outpourings but something more universal, something that another human being can recognize and discover.”

One of Zoe’s favourites from the collection is ‘All of which are American Dreams’ (title pinched from the Rage Against the Machine song “Know Your Enemy”) about the intangibility and perhaps-hypocrisy of the so-called “American Dream”. The metaphor for the ‘American Dreams’ in her “both admiring and suspicious” poem came from the feathery seed pods blowing about on a rural American spring day. The conclusion? “what most Americans aspire to – whatever cultural group they come from, whether they are gay or straight – is love”. 

The adage that poetry-writing is not a profession, but a vocation, undoubtedly seems to ring true for this impassioned writer. Conquest really is a victory of verse, and the sense of recovery that emanates from the sequence by no means fades away overnight. This is a poet whose fiery voice echoes long after the book has resumed its shelf-space.

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