From Stage to Page: An Interview with Poet Mab Jones

mab-jones-poetMab Jones has a longstanding reputation as a performance poet. She’s performed at numerous festivals and won spoken word awards. But now she’s decided to focus on writing poetry for the page. Her first collection of page poetry take your experience and peel it was published this year. I met up with Mab in the Sherman theatre café, where we chatted about her transition from stage to page, the many novels she is planning to write, the thrill of performance and the necessity of deadlines. We began by reflecting on where it all started…   

Hi Mab, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Looking back to your early years, can you remember wanting to be a writer from a young age?

I always wanted to be an artist, and a photographer, and a writer. It was at the age of 12 that I decided to focus on the writing, when I realised that I was rubbish at art. I didn’t really write much though. I was the first in my family to go to university. Actually, I was the first to finish school. All the women in my family had children early, and they’ve all been housewives and homemakers, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it can be quite limiting. I was more ambitious.

mab reading

Mab reading from her book at the Made in Roath Festival

After university, I lived in Japan for three and a half years, and when I came home I decided to be a writer. Growing up, I was terribly blocked, and had mental health issues. It was when I was 29 that I decided to do a Reiki course, and had counselling. I started writing a novel at the same time.

So, you began your writing career with a novel. Were there any particular writers who influenced you?

When I was younger I loved sci-fi and fantasy. I read Diana Wynne Jones, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov. I never read any poetry as a teenager, I just wanted to be a novelist.

I wrote my first novel 10 years ago. I wanted to be like Irvine Welsh and Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. But I’m not that urban. It was set in a call centre and it was all about façade’s and putting on a front. It was heavily influenced by Martin Amis’s Dead Babies. I sent it to a publisher once and they rejected it because they didn’t like the characters. All the characters sounded the same really. It had a dwarf in it, who lived in the basement of this call centre.

How did your career as a performance poet begin? Where was your first ever poetry performance?

It was at ‘Shot in the Dark’ and it was an open mic night. My friend, Avegayle, was doing a song, and I read out some of my poems. Then I did another one, and the third one was an event run by Literature Wales. Peter Finch (head of Literature Wales) saw me, and he got me into the BBC Radio 4 National Poetry Slam, and I was one of the winners in the Welsh heat and got to go to London. It was then that I realised there was this thing called ‘performance poetry’. I’d never even heard of Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke. I enjoyed it, and just carried on. I did the Cardiff Comedy Festival and a competition called Funny Women, and won the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Audience Award. But it was just a bit of fun, just doodles. I never really took performance poetry seriously.

Mab performing

Mab performing at an event, photo taken by Dave Purcell

I enjoyed becoming immersed in it. I’m not a natural performer, but I enjoy the energy of it – you put a burst of energy in and the audience feeds it back to you – it’s like a loop. After five years of this, it got to the point where talking to the audience was my favourite part, I was doing less poems and more talking.

Did you ever think about becoming a comedian?

I did have a go at being a comedian, but comedians can be quite brutal. They are terribly paranoid people, the atmosphere at comedy gigs can be unpleasant.

So, you decided to move from ‘stage poetry’ to ‘page poetry’. Do you think there is a tension between these two forms?

Some poets say it is all just poetry, as if there’s no division, but there is. One is written for the ear and one is written for the eye. They’re often different lengths – with stage poetry it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit rambly but, on the page, you’re limited to just a white rectangle. Page poetry is more intense, ‘cause they can look at it again and again.

How are stage and page poetry events different? Is there a different atmosphere?

Mab Jones

Mab Jones at the Cardiff launch of her most recent poetry collection

Stage poetry events can be very different. You’ll often get 100 people at an event. I’ve performed in front of 3,000 people at the Latitude Festival, and yet at page poetry events you can get just an audience of 4…

Stage poetry is entertainment, a show – they’re there to have a good time, and they will clap after the poems, but that doesn’t happen with page poetry readings. Sometimes they make a kind of sighing sound, but you don’t really know what that means. They’re there to listen, I suppose. It’s more like reading.

Have you decided to leave stage poetry behind?

I moved away from performance to page and I may well be the only poet who’s ever done that. There are some poets who work well in both forms, but I don’t know of any others who’ve gone from one to the other. I’ve always written both for page and stage, then I focused more on stage poetry because that’s what I was doing. Now I’m focusing on this style, but I wrote a performance poem the other day, so I’ve not abandoned it altogether.

Do you tend to write as soon as you get an idea? Or is your writing process more fluid?

Sometimes it comes later, or a few words will come right then and I’ll write them on my phone. It might happen naturally, or I might force it to come. I find deadlines really useful – for competitions and submissions. A bit of pressure is useful. Also, there’s the ultimate pressure of your own impending death. I have loads of novels I want to write, but I can’t write them until I’ve finished the current one. I often dream things. I’ve dreamed a few poems, two Dr Who episodes and a new poetry form, and recently I dreamed the cover of a novel which I’m going to write…

Your collection contains some poetic forms, including a sonnet and haiku… Do you enjoy writing in poetic forms?

mabs-book

Mab’s recent collection, published by Indigo Dreams, won the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize

I’ve only managed to write haiku quite recently. I’ve taught it before plenty of times but I think they’re actually really hard to write. I think it’s because I’ve lived in Japan, so I know more about what they’re supposed to be – they’re supposed to come from a kind of Zen place. It’s like the Japanese form of archery, completely different to our way of doing archery, you immerse yourself into yourself, and then you don’t even aim. Haiku are supposed to come from the same place as dreams, from your heart area – you have to trust that your brain is just the tool, not the source.

Tell us some more about what you’re working on at the moment, and the novel you’re writing…

I’m writing a fantasy novel aimed at young readers. It features Captain Scott and Ernest Willows as children, and Scott is in a race against Willows in his airship. I’m reading it to myself and it makes me laugh! I’ve written about 45,000 words. I’m doing NaNoWriMo, but I’m too busy to do it properly as I’m writing lots of other things too. My plan is to finish it by the end of the year.

I’ve also made a programme for Radio 4 and I’m doing a lot of gigs – I was in Oxford yesterday and I’m going to be in Birmingham tomorrow… I really want to try and sell more of my books. It’s strange that, with performance poetry, people seem to have a good time and have a drink or two, and they’re happy to buy your book, but with page poetry it’s not the same. My previous book [Poor Queen] sold really fast, but even though this one has won an award, and it took four years to put together, it’s not selling as well.

I’m impatient and ambitious. I want to do everything but I don’t have the energy to do everything. I love the Hindu gods, and sometimes wish I had eight arms like Kali – she’s an angry female mother goddess. I once wrote some poems about Hindu gods, as an alter ego – an American with Indian ancestry. It could be seen as cultural appropriation, but I didn’t intend it that way. I’m a Welsh woman living on a hill in Pontypridd, I needed an alter ego to do this. I do a lot of ‘energy’ or healing work and the Hindu gods are important to me. I just wanted to write about that.

Is Mab Jones an alter ego?

Yes, my real name is Michelle Anastasia Oliver. Michelle is a female version of Michael. Most of the men in my family are called Michael, and I think it’s a bit lacking in imagination. I didn’t want to be the female version of something male. I was inspired by Shakespeare’s Queen Mab. She’s the bringer of dreams to men. And it’s a royal name too. ‘Jones’ is working class, and that’s my background. I’ve also written a lot of class-based and political things.

Visit Mab’s website to find out more or buy her latest book. You can also listen to Mab presenting a BBC Radio 4 programme (4.30pm on 27th November), about the Welsh notion of ‘hiraeth’ in poetry (which means ‘longing for home’), which she described as “something I don’t feel”.

She’ll be reading some of her work at Collective, an event in Cardiff on 1st December, and also at an event at Skandia Vale Hospice, in Carmarthen, on 2nd December.

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