Mab Jones is a Welsh wonder. I first saw her perform at Hwyl, part of the Green Man Festival, earlier this year but I’d followed her on Twitter a while before that.
We met, we chatted and over a few beers enjoyed the other performs in the day. Since then we’ve remained in touch and she helped me secure my first feature gig at the Birds Nest pub in Deptford supporting her and other Welsh poets.
I caught up with Mab over a shandy or two to find out a bit more about her poetry, her work, Edinburgh and much more.
You’re a poet, performer, writer, educationalist and litrepreneur…what is a litrepreneur?
This is a phrase I made up, it’s a cross between the words ‘literary’ and ‘entrepreneur’, which is a phrase the poet Peter Finch used to describe himself previously… I’ve just melded his words together, to make a new word. Peter was head of Literature Wales until recently, and has been very supportive to me, and many other performance poets in Wales. A litrepreneur is someone who makes their living ‘in’ literature – for me, this includes writing, performing, organising events, collating a monthly column on live literature readings, reviewing shows, running workshops… and anything else that comes up.
Litrepreneurs look continually for opportunities for lit to grow in. Lit is our living, our livelihood, as well as our love…!
You’re the first resident poet at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, what attracted you to the role and what are the main responsibilities that you have?
A few years ago, I saw that a very rare breed of plant, the PuyaChilensis, from Chile, was in bloom there. It’s a monster that pulls in small creatures with its spiky tentacles, then feeds from their blood as they decompose. However, when it blooms – perhaps once every decade – its flowers are filled with a nectar that animals, and even humans, can drink. It is over 13 feet tall, and it was named ‘the biggest bloom in Wales’. So, I wrote a poem about the Puya, which you can read HERE. I visited the Garden, and I realised I wanted to write more about the strange and unusual plants and flowers there… So, I asked to be resident poet. The Garden hadn’t had one before, but they said yes. My main responsibility it to wander, Wordsworth-like, around the Garden, and write poems. I do do the odd reading, but it’s the writing that’s the main thing. It’s great!
The residency means you focus on the gloriousness of the beautiful Welsh countryside, where as some of your comedic poetry can have a focus on the grittiness of the social climate of life in Wales.
Do you have a preference of theme when writing about Wales, and which do you think best represents the country?
I think they are equal, at least for myself. I grew up in Cardiff, which is the capital of Wales, and in fact is the fastest growing city in Europe (or was when I was a child). So, the urban is probably more apparent in my work than that of a poet who grew up in ‘the green desert’, as they say… Even though the sound of traffic is often mixed with that of birds here, I am a city mouse. However, I do love nature, very much, and you can’t really get away from the fact that Wales has water on three sides, and lots of lovely green places, too… Cardiff is sometimes also known as ‘city of parks’, as it has more of these than any other city. Sometimes I can’t help thinking of the city as infiltrating the green, whereas in London you do feel that any green bits you see are the infiltrators… But, more than flowers and plants, I am interested in people, and that might just be my character rather than anything else. I also had selective mutism when growing up, so that gave me some very long periods of my life in which I didn’t really speak a lot but, instead, listened… I think those periods of observation were very important to me.
You have your first book out this year with Burning Eye Books, what are your hopes and expectations for the release?
My hope is that people buy it! Some poetry presses seem to be of the view that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ – I wonder why they bother, really. Perhaps it’s because some books are funded, and then selling copies isn’t paramount. I would like people to read my words! I like making people laugh, and think, feel happy, feel sad… I like wordplay, jokes, rhyme, satire, and so on. My nature poems, and other poems I write, are very different, but the ones in this book are mostly humorous ones. The working title is ‘Dark Poems’. I’d like to do a book tour, and perform the poems to people, as they are to be read out loud… Clive Birnie, who runs Burning Eye Books, is a fine poet and performer, as well as publisher, and I think he, like me, doesn’t see poetry as this lofty and rarefied thing only to be understood and appreciated by a few. I know he likes all types of poem – me too – but he’s the perfect publisher for me because he wants these words to be read! My hope for the book is that it engages with people. I don’t see any point in putting them in print otherwise.
Over the last seven years you’ve toured the world, put on loads of events, and supported some very well-known acts – but do you have a stand out moment from your career so far?
The best moments for me are meeting people I’ve admired from afar, and them turning out to be lovely, warm-hearted human beings. John Hegley is probably one of my favourite people on the planet. Phill Jupitus, as his surname might suggest, is charming, charismatic and generous. Luke Wright is down-to-earth, funny and friendly. Attila the Stockbroker is an absolute gentleman. The worst moments have been meeting poets I admire and getting a rude response. I won’t name any names. Perhaps it was just bad timing, and they weren’t having a good day… But, when a famous poet visits your school, and you are 11 years old, and they make a huge impression, and 20 years later you finally get to meet them, and they speak to you like you’re a piece of shit stuck to their shoe – well, it’s kind of disappointing! I suppose I should be talking about some performance or award or something in this section but, for me, it’s all about the people – I like travelling about and getting to meet em, you know.
How would you like your words to be remembered?
I don’t really mind how my words are remembered. I won’t be around then, will I? As long as I have fun being a poet now, and others enjoy my words, I don’t really care about after.
You’re one of the most innovative and intriguing writers and performers to come out of Wales in the last few years, but who else from the region should we keep an eye out for?
Poetry-wise, names to watch out for are: Johnny Giles; Zaru Jonson; Clare Ferguson-Walker; Hannah Van Den Bergh; Natalie Holborow; Frank Thomas. Fiction-wise: Rhian Elizabeth and Dan Tyte, who both recently had novels out with Parthian Books, are very good. Carly Holmes, also.
Do you have a final few words of advice for people starting out on the long trail of poetry?
I think, just, do what you enjoy. Follow your heart. Be self-aware, if you’re performing because you have a part of you that wants attention (which I do!) then, enjoy that aspect of things; but, don’t be mean. Be kind to others. Encourage, rather than criticise. It’s not a competition! There is room for everyone. Plus, poetry is a small stage; a small community; it’s good to get on with your fellows.
Who do you think would win in a slam, Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth, and why?
I think it would depend on how the slam was being judged. If it was an audience vote, I think Dylan would win. He was a show-off, a bit of a boy, and he would’ve done funny links in between his poems, I reckon, while the poems themselves would have been in that amazing Burton-esque voice of his. Wordsworth would wilt like a daffodil, I think… Unless it was one of those posh slams you sometimes get, at big literature festivals, and then perhaps Wordsworth would swing it.
What else have you coming up?
Well, the book comes out sometimes later this year – I guess about October time. I’ll be doing readings and suchlike around that time. Keep an eye on my website for the other stuff. I am quite busy you know!
I am sort of changing direction at the moment – yet again! – and writing some prose/fiction things… Some short fictions appeared on recent group blog www.thelentproject.co.uk But, even though I’ll be spending more time writing over the summer, I’ll still be doing gigs as usual, and hopefully be up at Edinburgh once again, too. I also have some ‘side projects’ I want to bring into being…so, keep an eye on the website, I guess!