Interview with John Hartley Williams
Listowel Writers’ Week is a unique literary festival, hosting stellar authors yet retaining an utterly down to earth, non-VIP charm. Smaller, more intimate festivals such as this often offer opportunities to rub shoulders with a long admired author. They can also be great places to accidentally stumble across someone new, as I did this year in the Listowel Arms; meeting poet and teacher John Hartley Williams who was at his first Listowel festival to give a poetry workshop.
Writing is a curious business, and the teaching of writing a stranger one still. The industry of creative writing is booming and yet the idea that writers are “born not made” is one that still dominates. John Hartley Williams is something of a contradiction on this subject. With twelve published collections of poetry under his belt and two nominations for the TS Eliot prize (most recently for the collection Blues, published by Jonathan Cape in 2004), he has also taught more creative writing classes than “he likes to remember” and has co-authored a book calledTeach Yourself Writing Poetry with Irish poet Matthew Sweeney.
Born in London, Williams spent time in France, Africa and the former Yugoslavia before moving to Berlin in 1976 where he has lived ever since. Berlin’s transformation from divided city on the edge of the Iron Curtain to – until recent years at least – a hotspot for global art and culture has been profound and radical. Yet after over three decades, for him Berlin is less “the place to be” and more “the place I am”. Unsurprisingly the city runs a thread through his writing, “I lived through the change, through the wall coming down – everything – I thought of West Berlin as a kind of outpost of the Western Empire”. These ruptures and changes, and sense of being on the periphery inspired the collection Outpost Theater: Berlin Poems 1976 – 2002, published in 2009 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
John’s willingness to explore newness and change is a longstanding one. His early influences reveal his tendency to go beyond his immediate environment, something he feels was shaped by his teachers as an adolescent “starting to put out my feelers”. Growing up in 1960s Britain the poetry movement of the day was the Liverpool Poets whose treatment of the quotidian and the prosaic he found uninspiring. Speaking of Roger McGough and the other northern English poets of the time he said “they were the British equivalent of the Beat Poets but they were a bit tame compared to the Americans”. Instead he was attracted to the flamboyance and extravagance of the Beats: Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlinghetti; echoes of whom run through his quizzical, metrically inventive poetry, which sparkles with myriad cultural and linguistic reference points. There’s plenty of humour and playfulness too, for instance in this poem from 2004:
about the next line of a poem.
to the seaside
just like other people.
You have to admire the way
they walk into the sea
when the red flag is up.
The surf is heavier
and the poets are out there
If I were a lifeguard
I would certainly blow my whistle.
But there they are, the poets,
taming those foam horses
as if they were
the metres of God.
Grey haired and elegant, John comes across as measured and slightly cautious in his speech, deliberating for a time on each question before responding. Yet there is an underlying confidence and authority, a sureness of place that many aspiring writers – or creative writing workshop attendees – may find elusive. ”I’ve always thought of myself as a writer; in the sense of someone who writes down things, who writes down experiences, writes poems, keeps diaries, that kind of thing”. This strong sense of himself, of being drawn to writing, poetry in particular may be due to his family – his father was a writer, as are his two brothers. For John, “it’s in the blood”.
There is a tension between this idea of instinctively feeling like a writer and the more intentional notion of learning to be one. Inspired by his teachers and now a teacher himself, he still espouses the notion of “feeling like a writer”. It is something he has simply known or believed for “as long as he can remember”. For many aspiring authors, this can be the ultimate stumbling block, and it is something that he has a lot of sympathy for. His course in Listowel was, he felt, rather inappropriately called ‘Getting Started’ as most of the participants had been writing for some time. This doubt, or as he put it, modesty, is a self-appraisal that he feels can limit many would-be authors. It reveals a generosity of spirit in John Hartley Williams; that in spite of having a certain natural affinity to writing, he has spent much of his life as teacher and mentor helping to demystify the process.
(c) Catriona Devery July 2011