Read Regional: Connections

“It seems there’s a sense of disconnect between you and your father.”

I’m in South Shields at The Word, and I’ve barely sat down before a member of the group has made this penetrating observation. The Black Cab, my Read Regional-selected debut pamphlet of poems, explores, among other things, my father’s job as a Black Cab driver in London, but I don’t think it had occurred to me what readers might read into this, least of all had I imagined I’d be sitting here in South Shields discussing his character as though he is a character, as opposed to a living, breathing man. Why are the underlying meanings in poems often obscure to the poet?

This is one example of the incredible engagement with my work that I’ve experienced on this Read Regional tour. From Gateshead to York and Newcastle to Hull, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting people who have read my poems and thought about them carefully. In some places, like here in South Shields, the ensuing discussion almost felt like therapy. And I mean this positively: the opinions they shared with me and the connections they made between my poems has fired me up to re-examine a subject I thought I was finished with: London, the past, my father and his relationship with language and the truth. Frankly, it’s been an honour to have had the chance to talk about this work. But the word ‘disconnect’ seems to echo inside my head. Bear with me.

Poems are strange. In a way, a poem is work of fiction made from language; language which, like a raw material, has been used again and again in different ways by different folks to create different things. But on the other hand, a poem is an expression of its writer’s specific language arranged into sentences in ways we hope unique to the writer. As little structures, poems can tell stories, relive experiences, praise, condemn, list, evoke, express doubt or wonderment – though whatever a poem does, all of them seem like composites of their writer’s specific engagement, memory and experience of the world. And for all their similes and metaphors, their desire to build bridges and make connections between oblique things, a poem is, ironically, a method of documenting disconnect – since, like a painting, only a shade of the moment, feeling, thing or person a poem tries to represent existed so exactly in the first place. Are poems then versions, imaginations or mechanisations?

This is my fourth Read Regional event (my last is on Wednesday 5th June in Darlington) on a tour that’s seen me visit a place that’s long been on my poetry pilgrimage wish list: the city of Hull, where I visited the once-home of Philip Larkin which overlooks Pearson Park, a formative landscape of the poet Sean O’Brien, who features its Victorian Conservatory on the cover of his debut book, The Indoor Park. And during this tour I’ve had a rare amount of free time while travelling on LNER or CrossCountry services to think about how poems attempt to slow down or stall time completely by measuring it out in metered breaths or stopping a reader in their tracks with a stunning image, as though the poem wants to hold back or freeze time. John Berger claims “the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.”

I’m indebted to New Writing North for sending this little book of poems to libraries throughout the North, and to the audiences, book groups and writers who have come to hear me read and who have made such insightful comments and asked such penetrating questions which have sent me these down spiral staircases of thinking. Regardless of whether a poet fully understands what it is they’ve written, it seems that the poem can only overlap with the life of its writer briefly, and that it lives on and continues working and meaning something regardless of the writer’s involvement. I take comfort from this: a version of my father, who I know and do not know, goes on living and working and breathing between the pages of The Black Cab.

John has now completed his #ReadRegional tour, but you can find out more about The Black Cab here and follow John on Twitter to keep up to date with his latest work.