We interviewed Mab Jones about her life as a poet, performer and about her collection of poetry, Poor Queen. Mab Jones is a resident poet at the Garden of Wales, the host of Heartspoken, and an editor of Sabatage Reviews.
Here’s what the UK writer had to say:
Fem: Can you tell us a little bit about the collection you’ve published?
Mab Jones: Poor Queen, from Burning Eye Books, is my first poetry collection, mostly consisting of works I wrote 5-7 years ago, but with a few more recent pieces as well. The style is satirical and political, post-modern and bawdy – a lot of observation, opinion, and irony. I guess you might call it ‘social commentary’. Some of it might be deemed offensive – I sometimes channel anger through my work, using it as a form of creative fuel – and there is definitely explicit content. A few of the poems are me simply taking a viewpoint, and pushing it as far as I can go. I like to make people think, as well as feel, and to raise questions wherever I can.
My life as a poet has always been a very public one. I was a ‘professional poet’ almost as soon as I started writing, seven and a half years ago. I feel that these poems represent my ‘infant years’, in a way. I write quite a lot differently now. But, people seem to enjoy these, and when Burning Eye Books – who have published lots of well-known performance poets, e.g. Salena Godden and Rob Auton – asked to publish me as well I felt like it was a cool thing to do. So, here they are! A load of punk-ish word-play sorta things, all wrapped up with a bubblegum-pink Queen cartoon on the cover (designed by artist Norris Nuvo). Raw and ribald poems, mostly written for performance, but with some tender moments, too.
F: Did you always know that you wanted to write? What was the defining moment for you when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
MJ: When I was a child I wanted to be an artist and a writer. I thought I would also be a cartoonist. I read a lot of cartoons – Asterix the Gaul was my favourite – and later on, loads of graphic novels, in particular The Sandman series written by Neil Gaiman. But I imagined I would primarily be an artist – until I got to high school, and realised I was not ‘the best’ at drawing. Actually what I did was compare my work (I had just turned 11) with girls who were about 5 years older than me. So, I gave up on that dream. Now, of course, I wish I hadn’t done that… But, I decided at that same point to focus on writing. I had a great English teacher, Mrs Maylin, who really encouraged me, and was a total inspiration – a full-on feminist, very leftwards-leaning, with short hair, stylish clothes, and an extremely sharp tongue. However, even though I wanted to be a writer, I suffered so many setbacks in terms of my mental and emotional health as a young person that I never actually managed to write anything properly until about eight years ago. Since then, though, I have written lots – hundreds of poems, prose, short plays, blogs, and more. Starting so late, I literally feel as if I have books and books piled up inside me, and I have to work hard now to get them out!
F: Where do you find your inspiration?
MJ: People are my main interest – human beings, with all their mess, mores, moral corruption, and various manias. I observe, make notes, and write. I enjoy writing about the usual grandiose themes of life, love, and death, but I also have a political bent – I am featured, for example, on the far right Red Watch list for my poems with socialist leanings, which I suppose were seen as a threat. More recently, I am resident poet in the National Botanic Garden of Wales, so have written a fair number of poems inspired by plants and flowers, and have received commissions from, amongst others, the World Wildlife Fund. I also enjoy wordplay, and writing humorously for its own sake, in which case I might take something very random as my subject matter. In my prose, as opposed to poems, I am more and more inclined towards writing that is fantastical or even spiritual in its subject and style.
F: How would you describe your writing?
MJ: I previously received a review for ten poems I had published in an anthology, Ten of the Best, by Parthian Books, and it said the range of my style and subject matter was very wide. I don’t feel that anything is off limits to me! That said, if I could describe my writing in one word, I would say it was ‘daring’. I don’t feel that writing is a thing made for comforting and coddling, necessarily. I might like to give a reader or listener hope, but I would also want to leave them with a changed heart or mind, and that might involve delving into the darkness, as it were – inequality, unfairness, extremes of emotion, violence, or whatever else.
That said, I can be quite playful. Philosophical and playful, it’s a strange combination!
F: Who are your feminist/female poet icons? Why?
MJ: In regards to writers, I share a birthday with Emily Bronte, and do feel an affinity with her in a way – her wildness, her spirituality, and her interest in the twin, tied-together forces of love and lust. However, I admire Charlotte’s writing too, as it seems more accessible to me, thoughtful rather than driven by wild emotion. I aspire to be a mix of the two, equal parts head and heart. I admire the Brontes’ determination to get themselves published, too, so I suppose they are feminist icons, for me. Of the four siblings, the three girls were expected to become wives, mothers, maids, carers, etc. and the brother, Branwen, was encouraged to be a writer/whatever he chose to be. However, it ended up being the three sisters who became famous writers, even in spite of this favouritism, and that gives me a thrill.
In terms of poets, I love Mary Oliver’s fierce yet tender spirituality and Sharon Olds’ confessional bravery, her poems about family, fear, abuse, and so on. Of the performance poets, Salena Godden is a UK gem who writes a fair amount about sex, and her feisty style emanates with me a lot. The openness, the lack of shame, the self-acceptance and sense of empowerment – these are all things I love, have longed for, and am beginning to embody, I hope, (after a very difficult childhood/youth) myself.
F: Does feminist poetry and activism intersect for you? How?
MJ: YES. Big yes. How can they not, really… Sometimes it feels like a damn bore, being This Age (I’m in my 30s) and still having to suffer generalisations and ‘jokes’ that are simply, if we look at them, stupid, insufferable sexism. If similar jokes are levied at people with dark skin, they are deemed ‘racist’, but if a joke is told about women it is alright, and any reaction she gives, especially an angry one, is instantly labelled an over-reaction. I see this all the time. I like writing poems that force people to look at these tendencies. Most recently I wrote a poem about the Sun – a family newspaper – which still shows a topless model, each day, on page three. I had to put up with seeing this awful objectification as a child. It is really so horrible, I don’t want little girls seeing grown women reduced to a pair of tits, or ever being reduced like this themselves. I don’t want little boys to begin doing the same. I can’t help but write about these things. I am a human in a female body, but I am a human over and above everything else! We should all be treated equally, this seems so obvious… But I wonder why it is so elusive.
F: What is it like to read or perform your work? Does the work feel more alive read aloud than it does on the page?
MJ: I became a ‘professional performance poet’ after just 5 gigs, my fifth being on BBC Radio 4, and I think, as well as being a kind of fluke, this is also down to the fact that I usually feel very condensed onstage. Normally, I am scatty, scattered; subject to so many indeterminate influences, almost as if I am constantly putting my psychic feelers into the ether and drawing stuff (emotions, ideas, images) in. But onstage, I feel compact, concise, awake, alive – all in one powerful piece, and I am therefore more confident and do pretty well at it, especially these days, when I know (and have worked on) my performance-related weaknesses (I have performed about 750 times in 7.5 years, so I have learned a fair amount, really!).
Writing for me feels more dispersed… Like swimming, or dreaming. It’s that scattered sensation again. I can’t explain it in any other way than this. I should probably say at this point that I have a very intense spiritual life, and feel that this ‘scattiness’ is actually a part of that. I have vivid dreams, vivid daydreams… I walk a lot, like Emily Bronte, and images seems to flower in my mind, the seeds coming from Somewhere Else. I dreamed a whole poem in my sleep a couple of years ago (Pulp Fiction, it is on my old blog) and since then have begun literally dreaming my work more and more. I wouldn’t say writing or performing is more alive, one than the other, but in terms of how ‘awake’ they are, yes, they are different.
F: What advice would you give to writers/performers who are just starting out?
MJ: Have fun. That’s my best advice. Enjoy what you do. Aim to get better, have ambition, learn, yes – but, above all these, love writing, love performing. Sometimes, things can go very wrong (especially on a stage! Especially with a live audience!) but it is never a waste of your time, and it can never, ever, be a disappointment, if you love it and enjoy it for what it is. And, never give up. Be realistic, but be prepared to take a bet on your own talent and determination, too. You might have literally NO money, for a long time, or forever – or you might get really rich and well-known – but, don’t give up. Unless you start hating it. And then, go train to be a geologist or something.