CLiPPA Poetry Award 2016: An interview with John Lyons

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lyonbookThe Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award (CLiPPA) is the only award for published poetry for children in the UK and I’m really looking forward to finding out, next month, who the 2016 winner will be. Whilst I’d be hard put to pick the winner, with so many good titles up for consideration, today I’m really very pleased to bring you an interview with John Lyons, who is shortlisted for his anthology Dancing in the Rain, published by Peepal Tree Press.

Funny, colourful and swaying with musical rhythms that entice you into reading the poems out loud, Dancing in the Rain is full of distilled moments from John Lyon’s Trinidadian childhood, drawing on universal experiences whatever the reader’s age and wherever in the world they find themselves reading and sharing these poems.

I was very fortunate to recently exchange emails with John, finding out a little more about his poetry, his life, his passions and today it’s a treat for me to share our exchange.

Playing by the book: How did poetry find you? (Or did you find poetry?)

John Lyons: A very interesting question! It will take some answering. In retrospect, I have to say that poetry found me. After the death of my mother at the age of nine, I left the urban bustle of Port-of-Spain to live with my grandmother in rural picturesque Tobago. I believe now that I dealt with the loss of my mother by embracing the comforting intimacy of the ‘bush’, as we called it. The only experience of poetry I had then was my sing-song recitations of poems from Nelson’s West Indian Readers at Elementary school in Trinidad. The thought of writing my own poetry never occurred to me till much later.

Later, when I started writing poetry, and began mining the cultural resources of my life in the Caribbean, I discovered how impressionable I had been as a child living in the new environment of rural Tobago. I relived the images and experiences which now find expression in the poetry I write. It seems now that, without knowing it then, I was living one of the fundamentals of good writing: direct experiences of sights, sounds, tastes and the physical touch of nature. These could be recalled in future moments of reflection while I was writing. So I suppose, it reasonable to assume that poetry found me, without my knowing it, in the Tobago ‘bush’.

Playing by the book: I’ve read a little about how you moved to live with your Grandma and the reading you did there, the visiting of the public library, but perhaps you could tell us something about your earliest memories of poetry, of the ingredients for poetry and books which made a special impact as a child.

John Lyons: My earliest memories of poetry: ‘The Naughty Boy’ by John Keats, and ‘Land of the Counterpane’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (From, “A Child’s Garden of Verses,”). Both these poems are in the Nelson’s West Indian Readers Book One. The ingredients for poetry, which appealed to me as a child were the rhyme, rhythm and storytelling aspects of the poems. The books which made a special impact on me as a child were ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome, and ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ by Johnn David Wyss.

Playing by the book: What have been the three most informative poetry discoveries so far in your life – whether anthologies by others, individual poems, or perhaps even meetings with other poets?

John Lyons: The three most informative poetry discoveries: 1. ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas. This poem was my first encounter with the villanelle; and I was struck by the emotions that poetic form can convey. I have since experimented with that form in ‘nation language’. 2. Derek Walcott’s ‘Collected Poems anthology 1948 – 1984’, and particularly, his long poem, ‘The Schooner Flight‘ whose Caribbean language, rhythms and storytelling power fills me with nostalgic joy. 3. Discovering in the 1980s to the 90s the craft of editing and refining poems with a Manchester group of poets, Off The Page, of which I was a founder member. We met monthly during a period of 12 years for ‘no-holds-barred’ critical appraisals.

Playing by the book: I’ve always believed poetry and music are closely entwined – a sensitivity and love of rhythm, cadence, tone, so I found it very interesting to learn you play the saxophone. Does song feature in your music playing/appreciation? Were you sung to as a child?

John Lyons: Music has always been part of my life. Looking back at my childhood, with poetic licence allowed, it is no exaggeration to say that music was like the rhythm of our beating heart; it was like oxygen in our breathing. Not a day passed without the sound of music in the air. My teacher-aunt frequently played the piano. Chopin was her favourite composer. As children we were always singing; and yes, I was sung to as a child.

I attempted as a child to make my own musical home-made toys: a piece of wood roughly shaped like a guitar with bared strips of fine electric wire stretched over a bridge; a flute was a small length of bamboo and air holes pierced with a hot iron rod. Much later as an art student at Goldsmiths College, I was given my first real guitar. I have another which I play, though I hasten to add, never in public; I merely amuse myself. An alto sax is one of my precious possessions, which I play not as well and as often as I would like, but I enjoy improvising when I play with another sax player. I do believe, as you do, that poetry and music are “entwined”, but I also include painting. Often when I paint or write (particularly at the early stages of a poem) I am reminded always of the improvisational fluency and freedom of jazz: going with the flow. Charlie Parker – he can do wrong in my book.

Pierott leading the carnival band - a painting by John Lyons
Pierott leading the carnival band – a painting by John Lyons

Playing by the book: Even though words excited you from early on, it was visual imagery that seems to have first really caught you in its web – you taught art and design for many years. Are the illustrations in Dancing in the Rain your own? How did you go about choosing which poems to illustrate?

John Lyons: The short answer to the first part of your question is, yes; being an artist it seemed naturally the right thing to do. I chose the poems which gave me the most fun to do, and whose subject matter could be enhanced with an illustration. I also thoroughly enjoyed designing the image for the book cover.

Crab Walk to Callaloo - an illustration by John Lyons, taken from 'Dancing in the Rain'
Crab Walk to Callaloo – an illustration by John Lyons, taken from ‘Dancing in the Rain’

Playing by the book: I read that you described your approach to creating visual art thus: “I enter into a playful dialogue with the work in which line, shape, texture and vibrant colour are brought together to inhabit a theme usually based on Caribbean folklore and mythology.” It seems to me this could equally well describe the approach you take (or at least the end result I read and hear) to writing poetry, so my next questions is this: In what ways is working on a piece of visual art different or similar to creating a poem for you?

John Lyons: This is a great question. Painting a picture and writing a poem have the obvious similarity of being creative acts. But more; I think of them as languages of creative expressions in their own right. Painting uses the visual vocabulary of line, shape, colour and texture, while poetry uses the oral and written vocabulary of words and phrases. In painting, linguistically speaking, the syntax is fluid and mutable based on juxtapositions and configurations of its visual vocabulary to create imagery of full impact and meaning. In creating a poem, syntax is important: the right word/vocabulary in the right order -though I break this rule with creative impact when I use ‘nation language’.

Equally in the early stages of painting a picture or composing a poem, I aim at the freedom of going with the flow, expressing whatever comes to the mind intuitively or otherwise. It is my way of establishing, without inhibitions, the subject matter in its raw state. Up to this point, in my view, painting and poetry are similar in approaches. But whereas in painting I can continue to enjoy the freedom of creative improvisation, as in jazz, entering what I call a playful dialogue with the subject matter, however with poetry, I become more circumspect during the process of editing, using a vocabulary of established dictionary meanings, and/or conventional vernaculars. It is a process of distillation and refining towards an essence of subject matter, which I am fond of describing as good Caribbean rum.

Folklore convention - a painting by John Lyons
Folklore convention – a painting by John Lyons

Playing by the book: I have read your thoughts about process with visual art – about there never really being an end point, just (at best) a resolution. Is this also the case with your poetry? What is your process for creating poetry?

John Lyons: When I write a poem there is an end point – albeit sometimes ambiguous, questioning or deliberately open-ended; and especially when I when I use a standard form or tell a story. Read on the page, or recited, it is always within a time frame which begs some form of an ending; quite unlike a piece of visual art whose initial impact as an image could be instantaneous.

My process for creating poetry begins with the habit of carrying around with me a notebook/sketch book small enough to fit into my bag or pocket. This is because I find my subject matter from the life around me; so I look, listen and scribble. Interestingly, with this habit, I live with an expectation of always finding something. Apart from my memory, the notebooks become my treasure house of ideas.

In my garden there is a summer house which I turned into a writing shed. It has all the facilities for writing: electricity for lights, heating, computer and printer; filing cabinet, bookshelves, a writing desk, radio for background music and an assortment of pencils and pens. Pinned on the wall is a time-table, which, I have to admit, I do not always follow; but it is there to remind me. It schedules writing time and studio time.

With music low in the background, the poem begins at speed in long hand. I write freely without stopping to change anything. Often I let it rest, play some more music, read before I look at it again. When it is picked up again, the bits that I can build on is selected. More drafts follow, before typing out the poem. At this type-written stage I get a feel of how it will look on the page. I read aloud, checking the rhythm and whether if flows to its end point or not. I look at line endings, adjust accordingly. More changes follow. When I get stuck – oh sweet pain of frustration! – it is put away and I do something else: go to the studio, do the lawn, cook. I do sometimes start new poems, or work on editing others that I previously worked on. When eventually I return to the poem, it is seen with really fresh eyes. This is the crafting process which is immensely enjoyable.

Cook up in a Trini Kitchen500px

Playing by the book: Music, poetry, art… and food! I was delighted to discover you are passionate about great food – and the sound of your cookery book is very enticing. What’s the last meal you ate which was poetry in food form?

John Lyons: I do like your penetrative questions. I can see they are based on some research; and I shall do my best to give answers with a fullness that space and modesty allows. I am delighted that you see an aesthetic quality of poetry in food.

A few days ago I invited a few Trini friends for lunch, and, judging by their enthusiasm and repeated praises, I think of it as a success. As with my poetry, I do apply the same principle of love in the process of crafting while remaining open to intuitive experimentation (improvisation, if you like). In my way of thinking, the following menu is like a poem of three stanzas.

The menu
Starter: a deconstructed coocoo & callaloo with crab. One of my friends has a shellfish intolerance, so because of this, I decided to deconstruct the traditional crab and callaloo; I created a seasoned, ‘herby-springoniony’ crab butter, which was served separately. This allowed guest to add to the hot callaloo if they wished. In this way the traditional flavour of crab in the callaloo was kept. The crab butter had a creamy, salmon colour which harmonized well with the dark green of the callaloo and the pale yellow of the coocoo.

The main: a lamb pelau. The lamb was left to marinate overnight, browned the following day in caramelized brown sugar and cooked with lamb stock till tender, and ready to be added to the rice and vegetables in a second stage of cooking. The vegetables in the pelau were sweet red pepper, cut in small rectangles; yellow-orange butternut squash in approx one inch cubes; green courgettes cut into half-inch pyramidal shapes; roughly chopped red onions; two garlic cloves finely minced, reddish-brown kidney beans. These vegetables were chosen, not only for their flavour, but to give a variety of texture to the rice, slightly yellowed with a little turmeric. Coconut oil was used for frying, and coconut cream added to stock was used as the liquid to cook/steam the rice. Not only did the coconut enhance flavours, it gave a subtle unifying element of taste to the pelau. May I add here, my home-made pepper sauce was served separately for the addicted.

Desert: A cake made with a coarse corn meal/maize flour, almond flour, desiccated coconut, raisins, dried apricots stewed in sugar syrup, caster sugar, eggs, baking powder and a pinch of salt. It was served with a Greek yogurt to which honey was added.

This meal was accompanied with wine.

Granny's Sugarcake - an illustration by John Lyons, taken from 'Dancing in the Rain'
Granny’s Sugarcake – an illustration by John Lyons, taken from ‘Dancing in the Rain’

Playing by the book: My mouth is watering.

But as I can’t eat your words, I’ll ask something about your ear for them; I speak a couple of different languages, and I’m very aware that when I’m not surrounded by language X, my sensitivity to it gradually wanes. How does this work for you? You’ve lived in the UK for so long now and yet still passionately write with a strong Caribbean flavour – how do you keep your linguistic sensitivity sharp?

John Lyons: In answer to the first part of your question: for facility with French, I listen regularly to French radio, read the occasional French novel and write from time to time to French friends living in France. I have retained some of my French and Spanish grammar from my school days. That helps enormously, but more importantly, having the experience of listening and making serious efforts to communicate in a language, strictly speaking, not culturally my own is the way I feed and keep a sharp sensitivity to language.

Yes, I have lived in the UK for a long time, but I have kept contact with family and friends from the Caribbean, and especially from Trinidad and Tobago. When we have a ‘lime’ over food and drink, with calypso often in the background, I am happy in a way that feeds my soul. Music and food, wid a-lot-a ole talk, evoke memories of the life I had in Trinidad and Tobago. On these occasions when we get together, body language, with a variety of expressive gestures, becomes part of our stories and conversations. Reading nation language in print, for me, remains culturally enriching.

Playing by the book: And finally, my blog focusses on creative responses my children and I have to the books we read – the play, the exploration, the adventures books inspire us to have away from their pages. What’s the last book (or single poem) you read that made you want to do something, go somewhere or make something?

John Lyons: Every time I read Derek Walcott Collected Poems 1948 – 1984, I experience the overwhelming desire to go off to my writing shed. I particularly love ‘Schooner Flight’.

Interestingly, after creating a small sculpture based on collected bones of meals I enjoyed, I had no idea what to call it; then inspiration came from the first stanza of W B Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium‘ which I have been reading a few days before completing the sculpture: The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas / Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long / Whatever is begotten, born, and dies… The bones I collected were: the part of a salmon spine, breast bone of a turkey, wishbones of chickens, a portion of lamb leg bone and a vertebra in an oxtail. This sculpture which was exhibited in an exhibition called Cultural Connections, I called Fish Flesh and Fowl.


John’s responses to my questions have been full of generosity and warmth, I think you’ll agree. Thank you, John. I hope one day that I might be able to share a plate of poetry and food with you.


10 Responses

  1. Simone Fraser

    What a great interview and post! Such warmth is present. I’ve been ignorant of John Lyons work until now and am so glad to have some knowledge of him.

  2. jama

    Thanks so much for this fab interview! I was not familiar with John’s work and loved his in-depth, thoughtful answers. Especially enjoyed his 3-course “poetry in food form” meal! 🙂

    • Zoe

      YES! Wasn’t that terrific! Made me hungry for both the food and his words!

  3. Rebecca Stonehill

    Wonderful interview Zoe & John! Insightful questions and great responses – it’s clear he really enjoyed answering these questions. The food he talks about sounds divine as well. Thanks for introducing me to John Lyons. Do you have any of the other books that have made the shortlist and if so, what do you think of them?
    Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..The Girl and the Sunbird – Out Now!

    • Zoe

      Hi Rebecca, I have them all except for Falling Out of the Sky. A Great Big Cuddle would make a wonderful gift to a newborn or toddler – beautifully produced, a keep-sake, and fun poems. Poetry Pie is brilliant – my 11 year old has it by her bed and keeps re-reading, and even more excitingly, keeps writing different poems based on ones she’s read in it. The Sarah Crossan book is powerful and eye-opening. There’s a good reason it just won the Carnegie Medal yesterday!
      Zoe recently posted..CLiPPA Poetry Award 2016: An interview with John Lyons

    • Zoe

      Sarah’s books are fabulous – don’t miss her dystopia duo either (not verse, so come as a bit of surprise if you only know her novels in verse). My eldest is reading them at the moment and loves them a great deal.
      Zoe recently posted..Jo Weaver’s Desert Island Books

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