Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?
John Challis: Whether from quotidian or political perspectives, I hope to reassess the contributions working lives and places, which often go unnoticed, have made to wider society. I’m fascinated by how poems can represent or disrupt the flow of time and by the political and creative ramifications of conducting such experiments. I began writing as an attempt to replicate cinematic devices to complicate linearity. Over time, I realised I was writing about the intersection of past and present lives. This was partly to protest how little changes. But in the same breath I hoped my poems elegized and celebrated the overlooked lives of working people such as dockers, market workers, and taxi drivers like my father, who hold unofficial degrees in cities and possess a vast cartography of knowledge. When writing the poems for my first book, I started to go back even further in time, exploring the lives of grave diggers, the condemned and prisoners in past and present London, as well as sites of industry like power stations, motorways, and rivers. These poems began to explore how the dead and the living share a rich communion, working side by side. But this investigation isn’t without its dangers. The dead and the marks of their labour, their damage to the land, and their policies written into law, are still present governing our culture, traditions and politics. By dredging up the past, it is impossible to ignore the complexities of politics and injustices that rise to the surface. As someone who comes from a working-class background, I’m personally invested in these subjects. But my life now is very different to that of my parents. The dramatic poems I create are often indicative of internal, personal conflicts.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?
John Challis: I want to write all of the time. It feels impossible to ignore the corruption and moral bankruptcy of our political and economic leaders, as well as the daily global traumas. I feel like many: outraged, powerless and angry that meaningful political and social change happens slowly, if at all. I’m concerned about economic disparity, the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, and how this relates to all manner of political decision making. These concerns undoubtably seep into my work in conscious and unconscious ways. My poems accumulate slowly, appearing on the page in fits and starts, struggling for breath. I then go back and re-write the poem over and over again until it conveys the urgency of its subject. I strive to reconcile the past and present partly out of an optimistic belief that such cohesion can become possible. If the world is like a storm, then writing poems is the anchor to briefly fix myself in place, long enough to take the temperature of the moment or make a few field notes before I’m swept away.
Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?
John Challis: There are two answers to this question: the writers who have influenced my work thus far and those whose influence is yet to be felt. It’s exciting to think about the latter as these are the writers I’ve discovered in recent years, who have been knocking me out with their poems. One of these is the American poet Larry Levis. I used a quote from Levis’s ‘To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969’ as an epigraph to my first collection. The quote – “And if I can keep secrets for years, / The way a stone retains a warmth from the sun, / It is because men like us / Own nothing, really” – spoke to many of my poems concerning work, masculinity and class. The first Levis poem I read was ‘Winter Stars’. There’s a passage about his father’s dying mind becoming a city then a hotel then an elevator to the stars, which is simply breath-taking. I love the way Levis covers so much literal and figurative ground in such a short space. Aside from the classical influence of Dante’s Inferno, the poets who exerted the greatest influence on my earlier work are Paul Farley, Michael Donaghy, Sean O’Brien, and Philip Larkin. But there are many other poets whose transformative poems go into my personal anthology, such as: Natalie Diaz (‘The Facts of Art’), Ken Smith (‘Part of the Crowd that Day’), Carolyn Forché (‘The Colonel’), James Dickey (‘Falling’), Ishion Hutchinson (‘Fitzy and the Revolution’), Greta Stoddart (‘The Curtain’), August Kleinzahler (‘Meat’), Denise Riley (‘A Part Song’), Wisława Szymbroska (‘View with a Grain of Sand’), and David Bottoms (‘Under the Vulture Tree’). Although varied, I like the way these poems combine scenes of social realism with the metaphysical to locate and narrate profundity in the everyday. Much of the work of these poets touches upon the politics of class and work with tender, yet unsentimental regard for their subjects. There is a sense of defiance earned through experience in commune with the supernatural or mythical in much of this work. Other non-poets have also been influential. There are writers who make me want to write, and one of those is Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s most-known books, such as London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory, provide luminary accounts of London at a breakneck pace. Sinclair’s mastery of the short sentence paired with his gift for renewing the ordinary, provides me with no end of ideas. Each book accounts for a journey taken with artistic friends, which makes his work both a discourse around creative practice as well as an evocation of place.
Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?
John Challis: After my daughter was born, I wrote a poem about driving home from hospital the night after she was born. The poem considers many versions of the self: the past selves, the wished-for selves, and the selves yet to come. Seamus Heaney talked about writing poetry as a dig for revelations ‘of the self to the self’. I think this statement holds. My sense of an ‘identity’ has, in many ways, been transformed through the act of writing poetry. Perhaps this is a desire to weigh up the man I am against the man I was. When you devote your time to scrutinising language and shaping it into patterns, it seems impossible not to go on a personal, political and intellectual journey of discovery. The real self and the written self come into new focus upon the page. I think it becomes difficult to trust distinctions between autobiography and the imagination. The imagination is, after all, individual, and informed by all manner of natural and nurtured influences. I think the practice of writing a poem actually shapes my experience more than my actual experience shapes the poem. The event of my daughter’s birth may have provided a catalyst, a flash of inspiration for a new set of poems, but more importantly the act of writing the poem, of doing the dirty work of mining through all that language and choosing word after word to better translate the feeling, has provided a new way of knowing the experience of her birth.
Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?
John Challis: I like the idea of my work being in conversation with the past upon the page. The page is an arena where the rhythms, language and human concerns of poets of the past can become re-electrified by the present. Most of my poems appear as regulated stanzas or verse paragraphs. I like the neat organisation stanzas can provide and how adhering to tercets or quatrains can help edit a poem down to its essential parts. I find it pleasing to see these neat rafts of text blocking the brightness of the page, as though singing from a void. Using form and metre as an organising principle to both contain and release energy can feel at times like an act of defiance against the chaos of our world. I’m fascinated by what a sentence is capable of doing and whether I can wield multiple viewpoints, timeframes and tenses, in one fluid passage, speaking without pause, refusing to go quietly, finding union in rhythm.
Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?
John Challis: Most debates pitching political poetry against literary poetry, or page versus stage, seem reductive. I admire political poems that are polemic in their address for their rhetorical flare and ability to persuade. But I also admire the quieter forms of poetry that whisper, that rely more on tone and mood to hint towards the ephemeral. I’ve tried to write both types and hope my work ‘plays the full keyboard’ as one poet puts it. Poems should affect their readers and/or listeners in some way, whether this be emotionally, politically, intellectually or imaginatively. Value is in the eye of the beholder of which there are many. I want to read as much as I can and expect my preferences and adherence to certain artistic values and approaches will change over the years to come.
Shuddhashar: Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?
John Challis: There’s something vulnerable about writing poetry. I don’t mean in the sense of being exposed by having some stranger read and scrutinise your work. Instead, it is a personal vulnerability that you have to get used to. The self on the page isn’t the same flesh and blood man typing this response. It can never be. A poem uses so few words. Unlike the mind, where thoughts clash, seemingly uncontrollably, a poem is a curated, crafted thing. Writing is a process to learn how to be more vulnerable and to accept parts of the self that are discovered through the writing. It’s hard to imagine or assume that my poetry will transcend its origins. I can only hope it does, so that I may become a part of the wider conversation. It is the vulnerability that I hope translates.
Where the devil gets in
All present and correct: the parcels of mown ground,
ruled lines of hedges, rectangles of ploughed mud,
scraggy fringes of silver birches dangling over fences,
their buds right-angled to accommodate the lorries.
But a sense of our bare selves lurks in the soil
and rises when it rains, the ground as bloated as a man
pulled from the river. Drains empty the understreet
and run along the kerb: new streams to be named
should they stay the course and widen over driveways
and welcome mats, and the country become a filter
for poor taste and bad vibes drawn from the groundwater,
stagnating on the green and pleasant lawns.
All graves flung open
Most films have them half-together,
walking through forest parts at the edge of town.
Perhaps they’re moaning, uncomfortable
in rotten shoes, toothless jaws too slack for words.
They have no memory. This town they knew,
its bowling greens and takeaways and discount shops
where they cursed for hours the hikes
in council tax, a meatless nowhere to them now.
They shamble like blackout drunks, drawn
by muscle memory to cul-de-sacs, fumbling for keys
beneath doormats and flowerpots,
as a motion sensor light snaps and shocks them
to their former selves, long enough to see
in blacked-out windows the villains they’ve become.
Things can only get better
‘Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war.’
Tony Blair, Paris, May 1997.
The war was shot and screened at night.
Eddie arrived with barely a word of English.
At the old doctor’s a flag was hanging
with a red star in the middle. We filled
our socks with water and we threw them
like grenades. We tied our soldiers to sticks,
surrounded them with toilet paper,
lit the pyre and watched their faces melt.
At the school fête a recruitment officer
showcased a Browning. We rolled pears
beneath oncoming traffic. The unloaded bazooka
weighed as much as a cardboard tube.
We had to peel the flattened pears
from the tarmac with our fingernails.
I knocked for Eddie one afternoon.
There was a white shape where the flag
had hung. The living room was empty.
We pretended we were medics. We lifted up
the spattered fruit onto the stretchers
of our hands. Of Tony Blair I first recall
the advertising and the song. I climbed
into the cockpit of the Challenger
and made explosion sounds. We left
the yield of split pears rotting in the bucket.
I’ve been writing elegies for the undead.
Imagining the hovels where their souls will be sent,
and making sense of their still-in-use possessions.
I’m pressing ears to walls and doors, and taking
the minutes of the air, my pen on paper
a cardiograph. I’m planning funerals ahead.
But nightly, ghosts arrive with tickets to the picture house
to see a film from their time, shot in black and white,
with the pale leads dressed in ‘old-style hats and coats’.
And even though we spoke this morning, I see
my teenage father help the Rt Hon. George Brown
rise out of the gutter, with Dave Darkins and a copper,
as I walk past Downing Street, no armed guards or cameras,
to a black cab on Whitehall. No waiting paparazzi.
My father’s on a year of half-nights, printing
Hansard from the Commons. I hear him whisper
as I stroll: ‘I signed the Official Secrets Act.’
Smug to know the price hike before the printers’ local.
And as I write some copy on a client’s APRs,
I hear myself say to him: ‘Dad, you ever get creative?
Change the words? Revise the budget?’
‘No, never, not our place. We left the lies to higher men.’
And as I get this down on paper, I watch him prime the typeset,
see him hold his inky hand, much younger than I am now,
to pass the baton, no, the torch, no, a cloudy pint.
Now here’s my mother’s father who never touched a drop,
lighting up to watch TV. I ask him what’s on
but his eyes and mouth are stitched up and I do not have the heart.
Driving home from hospital after the hottest day of the year
Something in us yearns for time alone in the night
to think upon our great and lonely stages where the stories
of our lives repeat, that frame our disappearances,
these worlds where we are not ourselves
but versions of the ones we left as,
vacantly in transit through departure lounges,
motorways and waiting rooms and terminals,
places where we watch ourselves move comfortably
in sharper suits with smaller, smarter luggage,
or indicate from petrol station forecourts in smoother
more successful cars with bodywork like silver muscle,
or slumped on a minicab’s rain-slathered window,
shirking off the future having seen it all by scrolling
through the births and deaths and marriages,
or told within the tapestry of foam on a pint glass.
Your fantasy is waiting in the queue to pass security,
a canteen in the Welcome Break, beneath the platform clock,
or on the ward where now some magic doctor plies
her trade to bring back from the brink your love
who’s giving birth to love. In such quarters we are held
by open time that may go on though never can –
the wheels touch down, the junction floats up into view,
and someone offstage calls your name.
Midnight arrives. The ward ejects the recent fathers
who walk the drowsy corridors while workers polish
floors to mirrors, past the night’s wounded,
the road’s bruised casualties in the custody of officers.
They start again their sleeping cars, their sober undertakings
waiting to be picked up by a different, less impatient man,
when home becomes the destination once again.
They may shed a tear in passing for their ancient selves
shambling from the closing pubs in pouring rain
that also staged a time-out to reflect upon its purpose
while the country bathed itself in sun, as something
soft and comforting escapes the radio
and the whole night begins to be as perfect as an advert
that knows that time can be distracted but never
ended. They keep their vehicles steady now all traffic
seems too close and all of time too long to pass alone.
*Poems from The Resurrectionists by John Challis (Bloodaxe Books, 2021)