) Please describe your latest book, what about your book will intrigue the readers the most, and what is the theme, mood? Or If you have a blog or project please describe the concept of your project, blog, website
Phil: My recent poetry collection is called Poetry After Auschwitz
.What I hope is interesting is that it addresses ‘difficult’ issues – violence, genocide, colonialism – but does so using largely formal poetic forms: for example sonnets, complex rhyming schemes. As such it explores Adorno’s famous challenge to artists that poetry – high culture – was no longer possible after the Nazi genocide, and that poets shared the guilt of society.
2) What frame of mind and ideas lead to you writing your current book?
Phil: The book is more a collection of poems, than a single project as such. But at its heart it contains a number of poems, including the title poem, that examine my own and others’ responses to actual and structural violence. That probably reflects the fact I’ve worked in international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding for many years, where people are living in sometimes very bad situations, often inflicted by others. So in that sense it emerges from a somewhat pessimistic mindset, reflective of our capacity as humans to inflict harm and pain on others, repeatedly.
But my international work also exposes me to stories of resilience, recovery and progress. So it is not all doom and gloom. The book also contains poems about love, family, friends, gardens and the natural world – and poems celebrating people who have stood out in history as having made a positive contribution: for example Abraham Lincoln, Francisco Goya, Barbara Hepworth, the current Dalai Lama, and the Japanese Zen hermit Ryōkan Taigu.
I think that balance of looking on both the brighter and darker sides of life probably reflects my mood during the years 2013 to 2018 when most of the poems were written.
3) How old were you when you first have become serious about your writing, do you feel your work is always adapting?
Phil: I wrote poetry when I was younger, but never very seriously, and stopped when I was in my early thirties. I picked it up again in 2012 (in my mid-fifties), partly as a way to use the time I was then spending on a long daily commute, and on international travel. I wrote my first poem – an absolutely awful sonnet – on a long flight from Tajikistan to London. Previously, I had written entirely in free verse, but in this new incarnation opted for formal poetry forms. I am not sure why. But I have enjoyed the challenge of fitting my somewhat shapeless insights into formal poetic structures: the unexpected sparks that often occur when content and structure collide, as well as the feeling of pleasure when they seem to fit together nicely, like a hand in a glove.
A lot of the poetry I’m writing now uses less formal forms, and I’m enjoying the liberty that allows me to savour and play with the music of the words more freely.
4) What authors, poets, musicians have helped shape your work, or who do you find yourself being drawn to the most?
Phil: This is one of those questions to which the answer changes all the time. I’ve always enjoyed Larkin, and can still remember where I was when I read his late poem Aubade for the first time. Don Paterson is another poet whose work I really admire. Both of them have used the tension between poetic form and content, skilfully and exquisitely. Heaney and Tennyson for their perfect grasp of the weight and sound of words. RS Thomas for his bravery and the way he brings us face to face with God. Sharon Olds for the way she opens herself and her behaviour up for self-examination. Simon Armitage for his consistency and the way he stands back and considers… John McCullough’s recent Reckless Paper Birds is a great collection: it all fits together seamlessly and is both personal and political at once; and that’s also true of Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart. The new collection I read most recently was Sasha Dugdale’s Deformations, which seems to be very empathetic – trying on other peoples’ shoes – not necessarily nice people – and feeling how they fit; and then reverting back to trying on one’s own shoes, after having worn someone else’s. I also love the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the metaphysical poets. I’d better stop there.
5) What other activities do you enjoy doing creatively, or recreationally outside of being a writer, and do you find any of these outside writing activities merge into your mind and often become parts of a poem?
Phil: I run cross-country, in the countryside of West Kent/ East Sussex where I live. This is a landscape I’ve known for decades – albeit one that I lived far away from for much of that time – and I absolutely love it. I think it loves me back. When I was younger I worked on the land as a chainsaw operator, and did farm work for a bit. The landscape holds a real sense of history for me – and many of my poems have emerged from imagining people in it.
I am married with two grown up children, and come from a large family myself. I’m quite an ‘alone’ person, but family looms large in my life too, and colours my poems. Some of the poems in the book are either formally or indirectly written to my son and daughter. And the book as a whole is dedicated to my parents, who live nearby.
6) What is your favorite or preferred style of writing?
Phil: There is nothing better than feeling that you have got a sonnet just right!
7) Are there any other people/environments/hometowns/vacations that has helped influence your writing?
Phil: Recently, I’ve been writing a series of poems about imagined individuals going about their lives in a semi-imaginary small town rather the like the one where I live. The people in the poems are entirely fictional, as far as I know, but their setting is a version of my local setting.
But otherwise, my poems reflect places I’ve visited, lived in – or simply imagined. Poetry After Auschwitz contains poems set in Central Europe, Abkhazia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Syria, France, Australia, Russia, Italy, Japan, Tibet and the USA, as well as East, Central and Southern Africa. Also, the Holy Land!
8) What is the most rewarding part of the writing process, and in turn the most frustrating part of the writing process?
Phil: The most rewarding part is when a poem seems to have reached that point where it has ‘worked’. There may still be a great deal of editing to be done, but there is already a collection of words that embodies emotion and ideas in a suitable style and form, and is showing signs that it may be ‘effective’ in communicating these.
The most frustrating is when that doesn’t work, and I can’t find a way to make it work, despite feeling strongly that there is an ‘it’ that ought to be made to work.
9) How has the current times affected your work?
Phil: COVID has both enabled and impeded it. Enabled, as life has changed, creating new emotional situations that have inspired poems. Impeded, as being cut off from other people while watching what is happening feels a little voyeuristic and therefore inappropriate for poetry.
10) Please give us any links, social media info, upcoming events, etc for your work.
Phil: My website is Poetry | Phil Vernon’s blog
, and I’m also on twitter as @philvernon2
My publisher’s page for the book: https://spmpublications.com/shop/poetry-after-auschwitz-phil-vernon.html
There are some readings of poems from the collection online:
Thank you for having me!