“The great poems are selfless”: Jonathan Davidson on poetry and literary activism

By Dylan Brethour

Jonathan Davidson is an all around brilliant poet, writer and literature activist. He tells us about pushing back against literary gatekeepers, reading in lockdown, and why a good poem ‘reads’ a reader.

What does it mean to be a literature activist?

When I first became involved in the arts and particularly in literature, there was a sense that one simply had to take things as they were and hope for the best. As a working class young man (although now a middle class middle-aged man) I simply hoped to be ‘let in’. As I worked in the sector I realised, gradually, that I had the power to change things, or rather that I could make things happen and persuade people to support projects I wanted to happen and do what I felt was important or interesting rather than simply being a passive recipient of fortune.

I had realised, of course, that fortune played only a small part in how literature was produced, received and consumed; that the market and various gatekeepers were playing their part too. In the last twenty years I have helped create activities, events, processes and mechanisms to protect writers from the sometimes malign affects of the market and of gatekeepers, to give them and their work the time necessary to properly develop. So if I am an activist, it is simply that I do not accept that the culture we are offered and we way we re supposed to consume it is fixed.

What makes you so interested in how poetry is experienced by readers and listeners?

It will sound odd to say that I am concerned about the privileging of the writer over readers and listeners. Of course in many forms of literature the opposite is the case — in commercial fiction writers are certainly there to supply what the market wants. But in poetry there is sometimes an imbalance, which leaves the reader or listener looking into the artform from outside feeling increasingly out of their depth and marginalised.

Of course what most readers actually do is turn away and never return or they believe everything they read and hear is as it should be and never challenge the orthodoxy of opaqueness that can harm our relationship with some poetry.

So, to return to your question, I am interested in how people read and hear poetry, how it fits into their lives, how it helps them or informs them or entertains them. None of this is about the originating poet, although I have the greatest of respect for them. What it does do is suggest that once a poem is released into the world it enters a commonwealth of poetry, there to be of value to whosoever wants to experience it, and that is a good thing.

Do you think about your readers as you write?

I find out what I think about something as I write and then I set-to to make it as immediate and powerful, or subtle and meaningful, or graceful and courteous for readers as possible. I think of my friends who are not poets, of my mum and my sister and my partner and my children, all of whom I want to get something from my poems. As I rarely read my poems in public I don’t have much direct contact with other readers, but over the years plenty of people have said they found a piece of value.

To come back to my idea of there being a commonwealth of poetry to which I can contribute, I have a duty to make my work understandable for various different groups, but at least for one group as a minimum, perhaps people who have children or who like cycling or are interested in bricks or the history of apples — all things I have written about. What I am not doing is considering my place in the firmament or my position amongst the poetry establishment. I am an outsider poet and I don’t even want to be let in.

How would you describe the relationship between readers and writers?

A good poem ‘reads’ a reader. That sounds ridiculous, but I have many times experienced that sensation that as I read a poem it was as if the poem was reading me, that it understood me and what I felt and wanted to say, that it gave me voice, that it was inspired by my life, that it read me. So a writer must give themselves to the poem, must see themselves as merely the brain and body through which a poem will be released; as if the readers were drawing the poem through the writer into their own hearts.

That is what I aim for but I suspect rarely do. That is what the great poems do, they are selfless, they shake off the corporality of the poet and go on their merry way into the lives of many. So perhaps the relationship between reader and writer is at its simplest that the writer carries the poem for a time and then releases it to the reader who then carries it themselves and may release it further.

We normally focus on the quality of writing, does it make sense to talk about a talented reader as well?

That is such a lovely notion and I believe in its entirely. We know that once we get beyond the stage of functional reading we can become many different readers depending on our dispositions and inclinations. And this will change over our lives, how we read, what energy we apply to reading. For my part, I don’t mind a challenging read so long as I have faith that my investment of time and emotional commitment will be rewarded. And I particularly like an obscure read, works in translation, works by poets or writer now forgotten, the great ‘remaindered’ majority whom the market would sooner forget.

So as a reader I labour — and sometimes it is a labour — to develop my taste to appreciate what a piece of writing might offer. This isn’t easy, the satisfaction is delayed, it may take decades, but I have a deep and important relationship with a number of writers as a result of this approach. So perhaps it isn’t about being a talented reader, but about being a reader willing to read carefully, to consider, to persevere, to learn and reflect.

As a reader, what do you look for in poetry?

As hinted at in the answer above, I do not want to be told what to read. When I see a book becoming popular or a writer becoming famous I turn away and seek my own path with the books that have been overlooked and the writers who have been forgotten. Believe me, I have a more enjoyable time.

I like, for instance, the poetry of the (East) German poet Peter Huchel (who died decades ago) which is now available in a translation by Martyn Crucefix. There is something about this work that I find wonderful. I stumbled upon the book, I was intrigued, he didn’t look like a fashionable poet and very few were talking about him. So to read him was such a pleasure and to be able to level the playing field a bit by suggesting that people head over in his direction has been great too.

I want equality of opportunity for poets, for everyone to be considered alongside everyone else. And the Estonia poet Kristiina Ehin is also wonderful and what I found in her work was a directness of relationship with her life as a young (-ish) women, an honesty and also a world — the natural world of Estonia — that I knew too little about. Both these poets, perhaps because they have good translators (Ilmar Lehtpere in Ehin’s case), are great phrase-makers, their lines have a calm resonance, there is thought behind them as well as a surface effect.

You write radio dramas as well as poems, how different is the writing process?

I wrote six radio plays, I think, and may write no more. In every case I was writing to contract, I had 44 minutes and a deadline and a subject and to be honest I simply hammered away at them, mostly through the night. To be honest, they are not well made plays, but they are full of language and dialogue that sang in my head, and silence. A bit of silence is important.

So writing them was plotting and then filling in the plot with the narrative, usually carried by characters but also carried by the soundscape I would create. Often the first half a page of one of my scripts was a detailed account of how every second should sound for the first minutes, how a listener should hear not just the voices but birds in the sky, leaves in the wind, trains on the tracks.

I wanted to create an audio world that was completely fabricated and proscribed. And then the actors would come along and do beautiful things with my language. I have had some great voices speaking my scripts — Simon Russell Beale, David Bamber, Frances Barber — and they know how to make words work.

Have Covid-19 and lockdown changed anything about how you write or read?

I buy books like a crazy person. When the postman arrives — Tony in my case, so he is a postman — I’m jumping up at the door yelping like a deranged Jack Russell. I’m buying directly from publishers or writers and mostly independent publishers. The heavyweights didn’t need my help to pay dividends to their shareholders, but the indies need to keep going, I need them to keep going and they are better than the commercials at posting their books out from back-bedrooms and lock-ups down by the Thames, they won’t let a little pandemic stand between their books and readers like me. I’ve read diligently and enjoyed most but not all.

As to writing, well I’m consumed with preparing to launch my next book, A Commonplace, which I am doing my best to pre-sell through hundreds of personal e-mails and a good deal of planning for online launches and podcasts and blogs. I don’t feel like I have a new writing project yet but I suspect one will appear in the not too distant future. I’m not in the game of poetry so I don’t need to keep fighting for space, I can simply wait to see if anything of value comes to mind.

What books would you recommend for lockdown reading, or just for anyone spending extended time alone?

I have just read Salt of the Earth, by Józef Wittlin (the Austro-Hungarian/Polish writer, exiled to the US in the thirties) and translated by Patrick Corness. It is a quiet, slow, almost quaint book, redolent of Stefan Zwieg and other Mittel-European writers of the 1920s and 30s, but it has a foreboding that is very much of our time. It was relatively undemanding to read, well translated perhaps, and I slipped through its 350 pages very easy and then leant it to my daughter. But, you know, it has stayed with me and I think about it often. That’s a real work of literature, one with the capacity to change us, which this book certainly has.

Follow Jonathan Davidson on his website or on Twitter @JFDavidson1964. Order his new book A Commonplace here.