Today I am featuring the poet Paul Tobin who will be appearing in the ‘Freeze Frame’ anthology which Gallo-Romano will be publishing. I came across Paul’s work about a year ago and started to follow his blog, Magpie Bridge. I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting him and having a ‘Dinner With Andre’ session. (Until I met Paul I had been unaware of this film, but he was kind enough to share it with me. I think it says something about him).
Paul is a dedicated and gifted English poet. His work has a quality of depth in construction that shrugs off ornament. He is one of those guys who is poetry. Everything he comes across and thinks about begins a process of conversion into poetry. When you are around him you begin to see that we are living in a world of unexpressed poems. Much of his poetry centres around his birthplace of Widnes. Here is one of them, taken from his collection ‘Blessed By Magpies’
Widnes Bridge Poem.
Back to the Delta,
Up the Muddy Mersey,
Over the green bridge
Whose struts define the space
Of this gentle arc.
It is never still,
It shudders at the traffic,
Undulates with the volume.
And on a day like this; raw,cold,
That lazy wind would slice through
The cantilever and splay your guts below.
For me, this poem exemplifies Paul’s style. The flesh of the living human, Nature and the bridge engineering flow into an exposure of reality which is just a little edgy and dipped in mortality. As we get close to the launch of the Freeze Frame anthology, I interviewed Paul about his work.
Long before I had started the Freeze Frame project I was aware of your work. I read one of your poems where some men were working on the roof of some kind of factory. Immediately I realised that you were my kind of writer and that we probably had many experiences in common. Coming from a blue collar life of toil and grease; was it easy to come out as a poet?
I was a poet, well aspiring to be a poet, long before the grease and overalls. I suppose I made an existential decision that I was going to be a poet when I was twelve years old. I heard Songs from a Room by Leonard Cohen that would be about the time it came out. I made the connection between him being a poet and getting the girls. It took about another twelve years before the work was anything but awful. But I kept at it with a mixture of naivety and enthusiasm.
I left school at 16 and served an apprenticeship. I was a fitter for a further four years at the local ICI plant. K Unit Maintenance to be precise, which was the title of the poem to which you refer. I wrote it sixteen years after I had left the tools. At the time I was in engineering it would never have occurred to me to write about what I did at work, at that time I was writing mainly about relationships, with the self-absorption of the young.
Looking at your style I notice an enormous range of references. Nature often blends with anecdotal story. The metaphysical often comes down to the personal. Have you always had a questioning mind about existence? Is there a wider quest always in the back of your mind as you write a poem about the specific subject – even if it be an apparently ordinary moment of life?
I have no idea where poems come from, they appear out of the ether and I just grab them and work upon them. I have this idea that poems are all around us and poets happen to be the people who see them then bring them into our world. This sounds a little odd, pretentious even, but is the only way I can describe the experience. Once the poem is here though, caught on the page, being revised and revised through as many drafts as it takes, then I can see where the ideas have come from. But while I am getting the initial idea down I just let it flow with no attempt to shape it that comes later.
Until recently I was a member of a writing group for about four years and what I liked about it was the challenge of sitting down in a room and having twenty minutes to produce something on a set topic. I like the idea of being put on the spot and see what come out. I facilitate a poetry group here in Taunton: Juncture 25, we meet twice a month and one of the sessions is a workshop (can’t get away from the language of engineering)and I usually run the session. I love the challenge and try not to plan it too far in advance, so as not to give my subconscious a head start.
Some of your work is political in the sense that it raises issues of public behaviour and people’s perception of their society. Are you interested in politics and where do you think the poet should stand – as a neutral reporter or advocate of a viewpoint?
I believe that the poet must stand by their beliefs. That said I am not sure what I believe in these days. I think I am interested in ethics more than politics. I cannot see a way forward politically, I think we went wrong as a society probably before I was born, I certainly think we have taken many foolish steps since then. But that’s another interview I think…
Poets attempt to turn the personal into the universal, that’s what I’m looking to do once I catch that idea on the page. And there are dangers in making a poem too overtly political, one is that it will age badly, but more importantly I don’t want a finger pointing, obvious work, that batters the person over the head.
In my last book Blessed By Magpies, there is a version of a poem I am still working on. End of Species Exam is just that the equivalent of an end of year exam in school. On the page it is about forty hectoring lines, in performance it has reduced to about fifteen. I want people to think, not to bludgeon them with a set of simple slogans.
One of your poems is called “Prayer” which is a conventional religious term. The poem, however, has a searching pantheistic flavour which does not seem to relate to a codified theistic viewpoint. Often in poems and blogs you give thanks for your privileged life. What can you tell us about the spiritual context of your work?
Yes. I think it is important to give thanks for our privileged lives, we have enough to eat, to drink, we are not in danger of losing our lives, and we are better off than many of our fellow humans.
I have been very influenced by a sixteenth century English mystic, Thomas Traherne. He speaks of delighting in the success of your neighbours as much as in your own success, of wanting the best for everyone. His most famous quotation is:
You never enjoy the world alright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.
It is such an inspiring vision and one I try to live up to. I have no formal codified viewpoint as you point out. I am though influenced by the Tao. I think the idea of Balance is really important. For me it is essential to have a personal relationship with the Creator, and to give thanks for the beauty around us and the privileged life that I have.
I suppose I have been drifting in this direction for most of my life. I like working in groups with other people, I like that energy of creating that you get in groups. I have influenced by my work as a Rieki Master, I think it is that growing sensitivity to the energies that make up the world has brought me to realise how fortunate I am.
Much of your work is cleverly observed human interaction and intercourse – some of it quite conflicted. Were you always an observer of mankind?
I suspect so. I people watch all the time. One of the poems in the anthology For I Keep Watch came about one day when I was just walking about Taunton and on two separate occasions people walked into me. My first thought was that I must be invisible today, then I was struck by the idea of the Stasi, the East German secret police and how they kept files on everyone. Then I thought who follows the follower (to misquote)? I wrote the first draft in a doorway.
As to charting the conflicts within interaction, yes, I do. It is how I see people, we are complex and at times we are in conflict. I write poems about the conflicts I have been involved in to make sense of them.
In a few poems you touch on personal unhappiness and failure of relationships. Do you think that poets need turmoil and sadness to see the truth of things and human nature?
No. As I say I use my poetry to make sense of my life. Even if I am never sure what I am going to write about, when I work on it on the page I can usually chart where the component pieces have originated.
Actually I am an optimist, I can usually see the positive in most situations, though on a few occasions I have become depressed. Then I actually can’t work.
Actually I get many ideas when I am in a calm, contemplative state, when I do Tai Chi or Reiki, or I am meditating. I find as I get older I can turn off the chattering monkeys in my head and just be. First thing in the morning is a very productive time for me. That’s usually when the poems come tumbling out.
You are poet in residence at the Fishguard Folk Festival. To me this is something of a true accolade. It also sounds like a chance to be out there and beating the drum. Tell us a little about this and what it is like?
What is it like? Well that depends upon the festival. I actually have been poet in residence at a number of festivals, last year at The Purbeck Folk Festival and this year at The Acoustic Festival of Great Britain as well as Fishguard Folk Festival. I have also performed at a number of others around the country. They are all very different, some are more organised than others. Fishguard is a gem of a festival, well organised, with a variety of good venues, friendly audience and its free! There is a marked difference between the way the arts are supported in England and Wales. In Wales they are far more passionate and supportive.
I think my abiding memory of festivals is the communication. I tend to walk around the festival site and engage people in conversation and read them a poem. It’s a good way to contact people. I feel quite naked when I do it but I usually get a reasonable response. It is always surprising what poems go down well, though I have a small set of poems that I usually save for the end of a festival set.
There is a difference between the audiences I read to at music festivals and those at poetry evenings or poetry festivals. People at a music festival are primarily there for the music, the poetry is an add on. At a poetry event you can take more chances. I suppose in the end that is what all performance is about, taking the chance of baring the soul and speaking from the heart.
I am excited about the Freeze Frame project and Paul has contributed some fantastic material and also an audio track that brings so much out of his voice as a poet. My next interview will feature a very different type of poet who has such a depth of image power that sometimes I just have to stop for a WOW! Of course, I’m talking about the American poet Jo Von Bargen.
As I’m beginning to shape the show and decide the order in terms of voice and style, I cannot help but having a real sense of joy at bringing these guys together and putting out this collection. The contrasts, juxtapositions and the human voice are adding so much to the mix. OK – head down and editor’s hat on……..