One of the reasons I’ve always loved writing is because it’s a cheap form of travel. Go into a room, pick up a pen, and within a few lines you can imagine yourself anywhere: loafing round London or Lisbon, through Paris or the past, strolling across the surface of Mars or just holidaying in someone else’s head. I drool over adverts for BIC pens and wide-ruled refill pads the way other folks ogle photos of tropical islands. Who needs Lunn Poly when you have line breaks and prosody? Who needs après-ski when you have ottava rima?
One thing I didn’t see coming, though, through a decade of sitting in a room and scribbling a first collection, was that writing poems can result in physical travel. Draft a stanza, draft another and another, and one day an email pings into your inbox, with an invitation to give a reading or deliver a workshop in a location so far-flung that you’re convinced the email must be a practical joke. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought the whole thing was probably a ruse, even as I sat on a plane on the way to some poetry event. Each time, though, the experience has been far more fantastic than a fiction could ever be.
First up, with all the imaginative extravagance of poetry, was India. One Friday, I was teaching English in a secondary school in Wales, going over the finer points of apostrophe use and analysing the dramatic opening of Hamlet. By the following Monday, I was wandering around Kolkata with writers from India and Wales, working on collaborative poems and even a poetry film. The vibrant energy of Kolkata is about as far away from my sleepy village of Crosskeys as it’s possible to get, and I filled notebook pages the whole time I was there, scribbling on the hoof during a packed schedule, trying to capture images of the city in lines and glimpses. When I read the notes now, the pictures rush back: ‘A flower stall guy names the price/for colour…a girl on a motorbike, plaited ponytail/growing from her helmet like a towrope./Now through your head there speed the words Hold on.’
My time in India began to teach me two significant paradoxes of poetry. Firstly, that writing intensely located and grounded poetry, about the view through a window in a village in Wales, can have the impact of whisking you off somewhere in the world you’d never imagined, that the woosh on a page can be replicated by a woosh in the world. And secondly, that there is nothing like the solitary occupation of poetry for connecting you intensely with others. Read a poem to a roomful of strangers and you do nothing less than show them your insides, make them fast friends. Poetry shrinks the world because it shows us we’re all the same as each other. When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020 and the solitude that writers court became enforced, one of my first instincts was to take up a collaborative project with one of the writers from that time in India. Swapping drafts and re-drafts across the internet and time zones, loving and adapting each other’s language, I experienced another form of poetry travel that, as always, seemed centred on stillness.
After Kolkata came Gdańsk, and the European Poet of Freedom festival. Gdańsk is a city which really celebrates and honours poets from everywhere, with an open-armed poetry community. One of the highlights of the Poet of Freedom ceremony was a celebration of the work of each shortlisted poet in an elaborate and beautiful dance interpretation. Our visit also coincided with a city holiday which involved brightly costumed stilt-walkers strolling through the streets to the beat of a drum, moving gracefully as flamingos, even on the city’s historic cobbles. The visual celebration of their procession offered a wonderful image of the city’s energy. I stood and watched, quite literally put in that street, that city, that afternoon, by the magic of poetry.
Again, though, it was the opportunities for internal travel that were the most significant and sustained part of the experience. Working with a translator on a Polish version of my poems, discussing intricacies of lines I hadn’t thought about, even at the point of composition, working with a stranger who knew the poems intimately, was a revelation. A year after my visit to Gdańsk, I looked up from a reading podium at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, to see one of the organisers of the Gdańsk festival standing there, having just flown in. The connection established in Gdańsk and in poetry sparked immediately across the hall. If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in poetry moves, sustains, is this amazing life force, just waiting to be resumed at any instant.
In Genoa a few months later, the paradoxes of poetry and travel returned, when I found myself in the strange position of attempting to break into a prison. We’d visited the city jail as part of a festival outreach programme, to read poems to prisoners. Poets tend to be disorganised travellers — I once heard of a poet who arrived bare-footed for a London reading because he’d left his shoes on the train. On this occasion, I needed my passport to get into the prison, but had left it at the hotel. There followed five minutes of a prison guard googling my poems on his phone, holding a picture of my face from the internet next to my actual face, before I was ushered into a hall to read poems to prisoners. It was a moment emblematic of so much in poetry. Who the hell are you? says the world, and the poets give back the singing uncertainties of their poems.
The evening after that prison reading, there was another in an open courtyard in the middle of Genoa. I read of how it felt to be Welsh, what the streets of Newport looked like, and the words drifted up to the Genoa stars, and the stars winked back. On the train to Milan for the flight home, I asked for espresso in the buffet car, expecting one of those dishwater train coffees the UK is famous for. Instead, they ground the beans right there in front of me as the train chugged along, served one of the best coffees I’d ever had, and I sat drafting a new poem, as Italy went by the window.
The connection between poetry and a rambling, footloose life has been there forever. As Derek Mahon puts it in his great poem ‘No Rest for the Wicked’:
We were born to this — Deckchairs, train corridors, American bus depots, Park benches, open boats And wind-worried terraces Of 19th-century Paris.
Sometimes, though, poets find that they weren’t born to travel. We all draw our understanding of the world from our experience of our own small part of it and, sometimes, this can lead to all sorts of problems. When I was fifteen, on a school exchange, a German student came to stay with me in Crosskeys, and one of the first things I did was to take him out on a bike and show him the valleys. We rode up and downhill – it’s impossible to do anything else here – and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all. When I went to visit him in Germany, I understood: the land he ambled and cycled through was flat for miles. He had no experience of cycling hills; his legs could not translate what it was to move around my village. Or, to put that more straightforwardly, Wales had knackered the boy.
There are plenty of moments like that in poetry and travel, plenty of confusions, times when the look on your face says What the hell? But there are so many more of connection, of the shared experience of being human, the international intimacy of poetry. Even living through a lockdown is not the end of the world when you have the imaginative travel that writing allows you, the memories of physical travel, and the connections poetry has created. As Ivan V. Lalić puts it in his great poem ‘Places We Love,’ ‘Places we love we can never leave,/Places we love together, together, together […]’. When I think of what poetry really is for me, then, when I think of those times of scribbling in foreign cities and in my living room, on trains and in stillness, while sitting with friends or else alone, I think of how it’s nothing less, really, than this: the most amazing and fantastic way of making feelings move.