Glen Wilson has been widely published, having work in The Honest Ulsterman, Iota, and The Paperclip amongst others. He won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2017, the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award in 2018 and The Trim Poetry competition in 2019. He speaks to Colin Dardis about his first collection, An Experience on the Tongue, recently published by Doire Pres.
Colin Dardis: Reading the Acknowledgements page of the book, with its hugely impressive record of competition successes and listing, it’s staggering what you’re achieved in just three of four years. What is it that you think allows your poetry to resonate so well in the mind of the reader and competition judges?
Glen Wilson: In some ways I wish I had stumbled upon a secret formula to doing well in competitions, but I just count myself very fortunate to have had the success I have had. I think when I look at the poems that have done well for me they are the ones that I feel I have personally taken some sort of journey with, that I have learned or experienced something that has enlightened my own understanding. I might venture that perhaps that experience of being on a journey feels authentic and comes across that way to the reader.
CD: I’m always interested in just how a first collection is compiled. There are four sections in the book, but is it a case where the book is largely a ‘best of’ what’s been written so far. Did you find certain poems were held back, not being they weren’t strong, but because they didn’t blend with the overall narrative?
GW: Yes, the process of selecting poems did feel like a ‘best of’ when I started out: it was quite unwieldy in terms of subject matter, and there were quite a few favourites that didn’t make the cut purely on the basis that they didn’t work alongside the rest of the collection. They will perhaps find a place in future collections! There was many hours spent shuffling paper copies on the floor before I found the final sequence, and it was only after splitting the book into four sections that it started to feel right; in fact the only poems that didn’t move from initial concept to the final order were “Once Upon a time” and “The Song”, which bookend the collection.
CD: You’ve recently been on a Doire Press book tour with your label mates Breda Wall Ryan and Moyra Donaldson. What does it mean to someone who has just got their debut collection out to be alongside two experienced and older poets? Have you learnt anything from your time with them?
GW: It was an absolute pleasure to go on tour with Moyra and Breda, I wouldn’t have believed it four years ago if you had said I would be on a book tour with such stellar poets! I’ve known of Moyra for a long time and I would regard her as one of the top poets in the UK and Ireland, and she is such a lovely person as well. Breda is a very perceptive poet and great storyteller and her collections Raven Mothers is a revelation, I can’t recommend it and Moyra’s Carnivorous enough. They were both very encouraging throughout the tour and I learned a lot about presenting poems and how to perform to an audience. They both also shared their own experiences of how their books came together which was enlightening.
CD: You’re a Worship Leader in St. Mark’s Church in Portadown; do you see your writing as a chance to give witness to your faith, or are you wary of turning a secular reader away through perhaps too much Christian musing? God is certainly present in the book, although the presence simmers throughout rather than be up front.
GW: My faith informs my outlook but I don’t think I set out to write my poems as mini-sermons and I would I hope they would be accessible for those of any faith or none. I came to faith by invitation when a good friend of mine asked me to an Alpha course at University. There was no hard sell, and it was a safe space to explore questions I had about Jesus and God. I believe that the natural ambiguity that exists in poetry complements the invitation and challenge of my Christian faith. I’m currently working on songs to use in my church and these are going to be more orthodox expressions of worship, but as for my poetry I prefer to be more subtle.
CD: You’re a big Northern Ireland football fan, and last year, you got a chance to record a commissioned poem for the Irish Football Association, which has been watched over 40,000 times. How important is it to you to get poetry into non-traditional platforms such as football and perhaps help create new fans and readers?
GW: Getting to do the poem for the Northern Ireland team was a great honour, and I know for many family and friends it expanded what poetry could be. A friend from school said it was the first poem he enjoyed, which I count as a win! I think that to a lot of people poetry can be stereotyped as dirty limericks, or wilfully obscure and pretentious, but I find it is more prevalent in our culture than people realise. I welcome any opportunity or outlet that expands the reach of poetry, I know I have gained so much from the form, and I believe many others would benefit from its charms. I hope my own work would be accessible but with enough depth to make it worth reading and re-reading.
CD: The poem ‘In Places with Two Names’ captures the schism of life in Northern Ireland, but is also apt in our post-Brexit climate, with the ongoing border issue. The poem states that “[t]he most dangerous heresy is the one a single step away from what we know”. A similar theme, perhaps of a more deadly nature, is explored in ‘Under Olive Nets, Greek Border, August 2015’, and one of the joys of the collection is its effortless shift between local, personal reflection, and more exotic, international influences. As a writer, how affected are you by political and humanitarian issues?
GW: I find that any artist, writer or musician often creates their best work when engaging with the issues of their age. Nina Simone put it very well: “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” We live in very divisive times; and even though we are more connected globally than ever before, there can be a lack of nuance and understanding in how many people view the world. Poetry, for me anyway, is the perfect vehicle to explore the complexities and viewpoints of the world around us. With poems you have to take a breath and reflect; in our present culture there are far too many snap decisions and knee-jerk reactions being made. Brexit and Trump are perfect examples of that type of thinking.
CD: The poem ‘Vashti’ tells the story of the Persian Queen, mentioned in the Book of Esther, who defies her husband’s demand to show her off to his banquet guests. The last line of the poem, “I know where the line is and who draws it” calls to mind the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe who called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for woman's rights”. Your poem ‘Finding the Water Cold’ also deals with the cucking stool, a medieval punishment for “disorderly” women. Did these two poems inspire each other?
GW: Yes, the two poems were definitely intended to work off each other. “Vashti” was written first and fed the need to write “Finding the Water Cold”, which was the last poem to go into the book. I had been looking for a poem to further show how far women’s rights have come (and how far there is still to go), especially in light of the recent coverage of rape trials in the UK and Ireland. I felt it offered a different angle and aspect to the defiant stand Vashti takes in the Book of Esther.
An Experience on the Tongue is available now from Doire Press, ISBN 978-1-907682674, €12.00.
Colin Dardis’s new collection, The Dogs of Humanity, is forthcoming from Fly on the Wall Present in August ’19.