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“Through that strange and vast distance”- an interview with Russell Jones

Russell Jones’s “cocoon” is our first full-length collection by a single poet. To celebrate the book’s release Duncan from Tapsalteerie conducted a wee interview with the man himself, covering poetry, collaborations, and the great Edwin Morgan. Read on…

In cocoon, you often use “we” in a poem rather than a singular “I” or “you”. I was thinking about that and wondering if it might reflect an interest in shared experiences, in the interconnection between us (either human or animal). Do you think that’s accurate? And if so, do you think that approach is also reflected in your formally experimental or SF/F pieces?

This is something I’m aware of, particularly my tendency to avoid “I”. I noticed it in my poetry about 15 years ago and almost wrote a series called “Fear of I” to try and rid myself of the condition. Whilst I rarely dislike “I” in other people’s poetry, for some reason I feel a bit too self-indulgent when I try it, unless it’s a very specific event or memory I’m discussing (then, avoiding “I” could feel false). “I” can make me feel vulnerable, so I think I try to dilute that vulnerability by making it about “someone/something else”. A distancing mechanism or self-defence, perhaps, between me and the thing I’m writing about.

Your way of thinking about it is much more positive, and certainly I agree with the sense of community or commonality poetry can create. “Hey, we’re all struggling” – that kind of camaraderie which we feel sometimes when we read or look at art. This is particularly evident, I think, when looking at genres such as sci-fi, in which some concepts may seem improbable and alien to us, but we still connect with the emotion and struggles the characters may face. Through the expanse of the universe, through that strange and vast distance, our similarities can seem even more apparent. Even in space, or travelling through time, we are affected by the death of a loved one, or the longing for companionship.

And I suspect that poetry performs a similar function of “drawing together our similarities”. I’m convinced that’s why we read poetry during difficult times, such as funerals. It’s a way of processing our grief and strife, but also of reminding us that we’re not alone. It’s a way of celebrating the good times together, too, of making something permanent from something temporary. Poetry often punctuates our lives during important moments.

There are five different comic poems in cocoon, one of which (“An official guide to surviving the invasion”) is also being made into a short horror film later this year. How did you first get into collaborating with artists on comic poems, and what’s it like to see your work so radically reinterpreted in other media like that? Have you ever written a poem specifically with the intention of it being recreated in another form?

I love collaborating with other people. They can do things which I cannot, their brains are wired differently. If I produce something alone, it may be predictable (to me at least), but with another mind on board, the results should be more surprising. It also stops me from getting into a creative rut. The comics in cocoon are all incredibly different, all beautiful and worthwhile in their own ways. I could never have created them myself, and it’s great to see how other people interpret my words.

I first collaborated on a comic poem, “Whatever happened to the blue whale in 2302AD?” (which appeared in the special edition of my Tapsalteerie pamphlet, “Dark Matters”) with my artist friend, Edward Ross. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I was certainly inspired by the Metaphrog comic of Edwin Morgan’s poem, “The First Men on Mercury.”

In particular, I think comics are a brilliant medium for poetry — the visuals can completely change how we read the poem. I would also like poetry (and reading more generally) to become more popular, and I see nothing wrong with populism. Therefore I think poetry should be a bit more accessible and, for me, crossing genres is one way of doing this. Comics could be a good gateway drug for crossing over to begin, particularly for people who are into comics but who are perhaps afraid to try “hard core poetry”.

I have written poems knowing they would become video poems or used for a specific purpose (for a charity, a wedding, an exhibition and so on). That impacts on its content, because I want to consider who is in the audience and write something that they might take inside. For example, I don’t want to upset people too much at a funeral with a very sad poem, even if I might feel that sadness is important.

With the movie, “An Official Guide to Surviving the Invasion”, based on my poem of the same name, I had no idea this was going to happen when I wrote the poem. It’s also become a very sinister horror story, whereas when I wrote the poem it felt more like a parody of “alien invasion meets political slogans”. The fact that it’s changed so much, whilst retaining my words as its core, is a great evolution to me. It’s taken on a new life and will reach people who might otherwise have not had any interest in poetry. Bravo to the production team.

Page One of Beorn – illustration by Aimee Lockwood; text by Russell Jones

This year it’s Edwin Morgan’s centenary, so there’s more attention than ever on the great man. You completed a PhD on Morgan – can you tell us what you were looking at specifically in his work? And how has that influenced you and your poetry over the years?

Ah Morgan. My hero. I interviewed him in his care home, and I think it may be the last interview he did before he died. I was horrifically nervous, but he was extremely kind to me and still full of wisdom and energy. I still feel a bit sick thinking about it, but I’m so glad I did it.

I don’t think I can ever underestimate the impact Morgan had on me, my life and work. I first read his poetry and essays at university, during my master’s degree. I liked his playfulness, and how his voice could morph, how he played with form and wasn’t afraid to experiment with what poetry could do and how it looked. I don’t think that would surprise anyone who’s read my poetry, his influence in those regards is obvious.

He’s the reason I have tried so many forms and approaches. Just before he died, I sent him my first ever poetry pamphlet (a collection of sci-fi poems) as a way of saying thank you for the interview (and – come on – because I wanted my hero to say he liked something about my work). A while later Morgan’s friend and biographer, James McGonigal, told me that Morgan had read the pamphlet and said he’d really enjoyed it. I couldn’t have asked for more.

My PhD research was on Morgan’s sci-fi poetry. I had no particular vested interest in sci-fi prior to that, though I liked it well enough as a genre (I grew up watching Star Trek, X-files, Futurama, playing SF video games and so on). I chose to research it because there was a gap in the research, and I thought it sounded catchy as a project. Since then, I’ve given lectures and readings specifically about his SF work, as well as editing two sci-fi poetry anthologies and publishing 3 pamphlets of my own sci-fi poems. I am now deputy editor and poetry editor of Scotland’s only SF magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and run monthly sci-fi cabaret nights. I write sci-fi novels, too, as well as working as an editor (primarily in sci-fi and fantasy).

So, yes, Morgan has been pretty important to my life and my work as a poet.

What are you working on at the moment? And what poetry from what you’ve been reading recently would you recommend that others seek out?

Back to the topic of collaboration: I am currently working on a full-length poetry comic with Aimee Lockwood (the artist who created the images for “Beorn” in cocoon) which is about a girl overcoming her grief with the help of a talking bear. For that, I really have to bear (excuse the pun) in mind the medium, even just in terms of giving Aimee some useful imagery, knowing where scenes are set, and restraining the length of the thing since it will be expensive to print colour pages. Aimee is a fantastic artist, and I’m really excited to see what we come up with.

I’m also writing a LitRPG novel for Portal Books. Essentially, LitRPG is a fantasy or sci-fi-ish adventure story in which the characters gain levels and abilities (much like in a video game). My novel, Beast Realms, is like a mixture between Pokémon and Skyrim, and it should be out later this year, all being well.

Then I need to get working on another novel which is more mainstream literary sci-fi. Conviction is set in a future where some women are able to control men with their words.

My regular poems tend to come out whenever they deem it necessary, and then I form a collection from them based on what I’ve written. I think it would feel too forced, or like an exercise, to try to write on one topic for a themed collection. So, we’ll see what happens there.

There are so many fantastic poets doing great things. Without being too sycophantic or incestual, Tapsalteerie are basically publishing reams of poets who I’d want to publish if I were in their position: Marianne MacRae, Tim Craven, Sarah Stewart, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, and many others. I also enjoy the experimental nature of many poets under the umbrellas of Penned in the Margins, based in London. Of course, I recommend Edwin Morgan and suggest trying his collected poems first. I recommend Aileen Ballantyne’s first collection, Taking Flight, from Luath. I’m currently reading, and enjoying, Emily Berry and Caroline Hardaker.

Order Russell Jones’s poetry collection ‘cocoon’ here

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