Sunday, March 23, 2014

Guest Poet - Jonathan Edwards

I first met Jonathan Edwards a couple of years ago on a Poetry School course run by David Briggs in Bristol. Jonathan's poems immediately captured the imagination of everyone in the group. The warmth and wit of his work is balanced perfectly with a precise sense of craft. His first full collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, which has just been published by Seren, is a triumph. Moving and audacious, Jonathan's vision is shrewd without being harsh, surreal yet grounded in the world we all share. This is poetry that believes in seeking out the truth in the ordinary, its flights of pop-culture-inspired fancy always bringing us back to the bedrock of what makes us who we are. This is especially the case in the wonderful 'Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family', which is featured below as a guest poem.

Jonathan has this to say about the poem:

"I work as a teacher and sometimes, when they’re not asking me why they have to do the homework, or why they have to study this book for GCSE, or even why the sky doesn’t have orange polka dots in it, my pupils have been known to ask an interesting question: where’s the best place to write a poem? I think they’re expecting me to say something like ‘In a rose-lined arbour in high summer, as bees buzz their ideas round your ears, and all your senses tingle’ or, ‘On a hillside at night overlooking a city, as the silhouettes of office buildings and smokestacks form their ghostly backdrop to the nightingales’ song.’ Instead, my answer is usually the same: sitting on the sofa, during the advertising break in The Simpsons.

The Simpsons is a gift for anyone wanting to write the comic, pop culture surreal – the kind of work that grows out of Jo Shapcott poems like ‘Superman Sounds Depressed,’ or ‘Tom and Jerry Visit England,’ or the wonderful sonnet sequence by the American poet David Wojahn, ‘Mystery Train,’ which explores a series of apocryphal but plausible moments in pop culture. There’s a sonnet about Francis Ford Coppola teaching Philippine tribesmen the lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ on the set of Apocalypse Now, for example, and another about the time Delmore Schwartz went to a Velvet Underground gig. It’s difficult to look at the plot synopsis of a Simpsons episode, or even a single frame, without getting a bunch of ideas for comic and surreal poems which also – and this is the crucial thing – get to something which matters. The surreal as a way of getting to the real – that’s the thing for me.
With ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family,’ the episode of The Simpsons in question was an early one, where a character clearly based on the real-life daredevil 70s motorcyclist inspires Bart to try and jump Springfield Gorge on his skateboard – something which Homer subsequently does instead, to try and win over his son. This reminded me in turn of an Evel Knievel action figure I had when I was a kid and would launch across the room, having him risk his plastic life by leaping candlesticks, coffee tables, toy giraffes. From there I was off. What could Evel Knievel say about my family? What if Evel Knievel jumped over my family? How would my mother feel about that? My great-grandmother?

A very eminent poet once told me that if I wrote poems about my family, they would only be of interest to my family. But if there’s a more important reason to write poems than the people we love, I don’t know what it is. Evel Knievel, as he soars through the air, is my solution to that problem. Throw famous people at a poem and you might also be throwing readers. The poem forms part of a sequence of similar surreal approaches to the family at the start of my Seren collection, My Family and Other Superheroes. I’ve yet to write a poem set in a rose-lined arbour in high summer. But if I ever do, I might well-find that two figures come zooming through it: a boy on a skateboard, dust rising from his wheel-tracks, being chased by his balding, beer-bellied, and strangely yellow dad."

Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family

A floodlit Wembley. Lisa, the producer,
swears into her walkie-talkie. We Edwardses,
four generations, stand in line,
between ramps: Smile for the cameras.

My great-grandparents twiddle their thumbs
in wheelchairs, as Lisa tells us to relax,
Mr Knievel has faced much bigger challenges:
double-deckers, monster trucks, though the giraffe

is urban legend. Evel Knievel enters,
Eye of the Tiger drowned by cheers,
his costume tassels, his costume a slipstream,
his anxious face an act to pump the crowd,

surely. My mother, always a worrier,
asks about the ambulance. Evel Knievel
salutes, accelerates towards the ramps.
I close my eyes, then open them:

is this what heaven feels like,
some motorcycle Liberace overhead,
wheels resting on air? Are these flashes
from 60,000 cameras the blinding light

coma survivors speak of? Before he lands,
there’s just time to glance along the line:
though no one’s said a thing,
all we Edwardses are holding hands.

1 comment:

  1. A really entertaining poem, would love to know what the inspiration was.
    Poetry is great with how versatile it can be and if more people gave it a chance, I'm sure they'd find a lot they would like. My style of writing...I can't quite put it into a specific genre....the only thing I can say is that it's very down to earth and easy to relate to; everyday feelings expressed with an occasionally warped imaginary.

    If you ever get the time, take a look at my blog....there's older and newer samples of my work amongst other things