An interview with author: Brian Evans-Jones
By Enza Caratozzolo
Brian Evans-Jones is a poet, writer, and teacher living in southern Maine. He was born in Britain, where he was Poet Laureate of Hampshire for 2012-13. His poems have been published in magazines and competitions in the UK and the USA, and in 2017, he won the poetry section of the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets and Writers.
He holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick University, England, and an MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where his supervisor was Charles Simic. Brian has taught creative writing since 2005, including fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, in schools, colleges, writers’ groups, historic houses, prisons, community projects, and many other locations.
Currently, he teaches poetry and creative writing in schools and community venues in Maine and New Hampshire, and he is also starting his own creative writing courses online.
What guided your first steps into the creative world? Was poetry your first choice?
It all started one day when I was about 5 or 6, when my grandmother, who wrote poems sometimes, helped me “write” a poem. She wrote 3 of the 4 lines and I added only the last one, but I was convinced I’d written a poem and was very proud of it! That memory stayed with me. Then between 11 and 13, I had an English teacher who encouraged my creative writing, and I discovered that not only did I love making up stories, but my peers loved hearing them too. At that time, I decided I would be a fiction writer when I grew up. But the real key moment came when I was 16 and I read the poems of Wilfred Owen in English class. I loved them and soon started creating my own poems. I showed one to my English teacher, who very gently suggested I should read more poetry as a way to learn. I took his advice, and from there on, never stopped writing poems. So I always feel I owe my poetry to my grandmother and those two wise teachers.
But even though I always wrote much more poetry than fiction, it took me until my 30s to fully embrace my identity as a poet! I somehow still thought I’d be a novelist. Nowadays I stick to poetry, but because I love teaching fiction as much as I love teaching poetry, I’m glad I had a foot in both camps for so long.
Kay Ryan, US poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, once said that for inspiration she turned to unlikely sources such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not! books and tarot cards. Wordsworth famously liked to set out on foot at all hours. How do you find inspiration? How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form or an image?
I find inspiration in various places, which I suppose is true for all writers. I begin each day by writing down something I've noticed in the world around me recently, and that may become
the seed of a poem. I also freewrite for a few minutes every morning, and while most of those freewrites never get looked at again, other times they get me started on an idea. Sometimes ideas pop into my head when I’m out and about—usually, a first phrase and a vague concept of how the poem might develop—and I jot those down and then return to them later. Other times when I’m reading a really good poet, I’ll be astonished by some aspect of their technique—a voice, a way of using line, an approach to found language, anything really—and I start to think of a way I could try out the same technique in a poem of my own. I also love looking at visual art and using that as a beginning point.
But fundamentally, I find writing comes from writing. If I’m already writing, I get ideas all the time and from everywhere. The main thing is just to get started—it doesn’t matter how, all that matters is starting.
Poetry judge, Cynthia Cruz, described your selected poems: An Ox And A House, as brave and beautiful poems that “show the world as it is-- in its incredible and breathtaking entirety.” Would you say that the search for truth is a discerning quality that runs through all your work? If you had to list two qualities that emerge from your poetry, what would they be?
I’m not always truthful in my poetry. I make things up, I distort, I omit—I’ll basically do anything that seems necessary to make a poem better! Having said that, I am always trying to be genuine—in the sense that I’m always trying to be me in my poems, not anyone else. That means I try to use my language, my sense of form, and (unless it’s a persona poem) my thoughts and attitudes. Often I get insecure about the poems and poets I see getting published, and I start to think I ought to write in a different way, or about different topics, but eventually, I remember that the most important thing is to be authentic and to trust that people will value that the most. Just like life, really.
I don’t really know what two main qualities other people get from my poetry, but what I’d like them to be are Play and Seriousness, combined.
Are there any themes which particularly attract you as a poet?
Different things at different times, depending on what’s happening for me. When I first met my wife, I wrote a lot of love poems. When our first child was born, I wrote lots about her. When I moved to America from Britain, I wrote a lot about emigration. It varies.
Sea City Museum: first return after emigration feels like a very personal poem. You’re a British poet now “rooted” in the USA. How does British poetic practice differ from the US? Does your poetry leans toward the American or British “style”?
It’s hard to generalize about the poetic practice of two entire countries! However, when I moved to America and started my MFA at UNH, I immediately felt an openness in American poetry that was stimulating and freeing. In Britain, I had felt that there was a dominant approach that I didn’t fit into—a rather impersonal deployment of imagery as the main
vehicle for meaning, with not much attention to voice. However, I think things have changed in Britain since 2014—from what I read of British poetry, it seems much more varied now. But In America, I LOVE the sheer range of the poetry—it seems you can write any way you want! As I said, I find it liberating.
Personally, I think I’m more American now, but I reckon I’ll never lose the influence of the classic British poets whom I grew up on—I like my poems to tie up at the end and have shape, the way theirs do.
Which British poet has influenced your poetry the most? Which American poet?
It’s impossible for me to identify which one British poet has meant the most to me. John Donne? Thomas Hardy? Philip Larkin? Chaucer? Shakespeare? Seamus Heaney? Edward Thomas? Fiona Sampson? They’re all part of my poetry DNA now.
As for Americans, Kenneth Koch was the one who first turned me on to American poetry, so I’ll always have a particularly soft spot for him. I love the way his poems are so completely his own. William Carlos Williams comes a close second though.
Mary Oliver once said: “very rarely, maybe four or five times in my life, I’ve written a poem that I never changed.” Does revision play an important role in your work? Could you tell me a bit about your editing/rewriting process?
My writing life is entirely about revision. I don’t have a single poem I've left unchanged, and I don’t consider a poem to be anywhere near done unless I have at least 20 different versions of it saved on my computer, and usually many more.
My process goes something like this. First, there is some kind of starting place, as I talked about earlier. Once I've got that seed, I create a freewrite in which I write about that starting point as fast as possible and from as many different angles as I can think of. Later, I break the freewrite into lines, creating a line break every time there’s a grammatical break. Then I leave the poem for a while and work on other things.
When I come back to the freewrite, I cut out parts that I don’t find interesting. Then I look at what I've got left and see if it suggests a core theme or “shape.” Based on that core, I chop up, rearrange, add, and delete material, until I've got a first draft of something resembling a poem. Typically, at this stage I alternate between my laptop and my physical notebook, because I find I “feel” the poem differently depending on whether I’m handwriting or typing. What was in the freewrite usually forms at least the skeleton of this first draft, but I typically add a lot more new work as I go. I will also usually try out different approaches to the poem’s form or shape—different line lengths, stanzas or not, different layouts on the page, etc.—until I get one that seems to fit.
When I’m done with the first draft, I like to ignore it for at least two weeks. After that, I’ll go back and see what I missed first time around. That starts another process of adding, deleting, rearranging. Once I've got a second draft, I seek feedback on the poem from another poet.
That always gives me a fresh perspective on what’s missing from the poem and what else it could do. (This is also known as being really bloody annoyed that the poem isn’t finished yet and I need to rethink it AGAIN!)
Then I know I should get back to redrafting right away, but it can take me months to actually use the feedback I've received. Eventually though, I summon up the courage to take on board the pesky extra work my readers have told me to do, and when I get into it, I start to enjoy the poem as much as ever. Cue more adding, deleting, rearranging.
In the end, either I find I can’t make the poem work as I want it to, in which case it dies; or I get it working about as well as I think I can, and I stop!
As you may have guessed, I always have multiple poems that I’m working on at any one time.
What’s the best advice you ever received from a mentor on how to turn good poetry into great poetry?
Poet David Morley, of Warwick University, England, said many great things when I studied with him in 2002-5. My favourites were:
- Write way more than you need, then keep only the best parts. This sets the odds in your favour.
- Use form to help you move a poem forward. If your first draft is messy, give it a shape. If you first draft was formal, try breaking the shape. Then keep switching back and forth and see what happens.
What advice would you give to an aspiring poet? What is the one thing they ought to do/have; the one thing they should shed?
My main advice would be what Stephen King says about fiction: Read a lot and Write a lot. The more you read, the more you’ll know about what’s possible; and the more you write, the more you’ll understand how to use those possibilities in your own writing.
But I would also add: Seek wise help. When someone knowledgeable gives you feedback, you can learn as much in a year as you could manage in ten years by yourself.
The one thing I’d like everyone to shed is resistance to feedback. If someone else is giving an opinion on your writing, don’t be upset or defensive. If there’s something they don’t like in your work, you don’t have to agree with them, but you should still listen. Then decide (maybe later on, when you’re calmer) whether they have a point. There will always be people who don’t like things in your writing, so don’t get het up about it. But feedback is gold dust—treasure it up and use it, because that’s what helps you see your weaknesses and improve them.
For example, I had a student in Britain who was quite upset when I suggested that a story of hers didn’t contain enough action for its length. She thought there was plenty. Two years later, she emailed me to say she’d realized I was right! When she’d tried to adapt the story into a play, there weren’t enough events to sustain the script. If she’d been able to put aside her annoyance and assess my feedback calmly at the time, she might have saved herself two years!
And finally, what are you working on now?
I've recently finished preparing a book-length poetry manuscript, so now I’m sending that out to competitions and reading periods. I have a few new poems I’m working on as well. But my main creative project at the moment is my first online writing course. It’s called Fizz For Your Fiction, and it’s about how fiction writers can use skills from poetry to give their prose more power and sparkle. It’s great to be working on something that brings together the two genres I love. I’m looking forward to launching it—it should be ready in summer 2019.