Peter Thabit Jones Interview

Carolyn and I have admired the work of Welsh poet, playwright, opera librettist, and biographer Peter Thabit Jones, who is the author of sixteen books, has won numerous awards for his poetry, and is regarded as an expert on the life of Dylan Thomas.

Peter Thabit Jones was born in Swansea, Wales in 1951. He was raised near Kilvey Hill, by his grandmother. His only memories of his grandfather are of him being “seriously unwell” in a bed in their parlor. Thabit Jones said that his grandfather’s nearness to death at a young age made him “really focus on life.”

Thabit Jones describes his earliest memory as being of the landscape that he could see from his home. As a toddler, he recalls looking out through the open kitchen door of his grandmother’s home and seeing Kilvey Hill, which he has described as a “huge, hulking shape” that dominated the area. As a child, Thabit Jones explored “every corner” of Kilvey Hill and the terrain of Eastside Swansea, and it was here that he developed his “pantheistic belief… that we are connected to nature.”

Thabit Jones describes Kilvey Hill as “the touchstone to that reality that, down the years, changed into memories: my first bonfire night, first gang of boys, first camping experience, first love.” In 1999 Thabit Jones published a book of poems inspired by his time there, called the The Ballad of Kilvey Hill, and in 2007 his poem Kilvey Hill was incorporated in a stained glass window, created by Welsh artist Catrin Jones, in the Saint Thomas Community School in Eastside Swansea.

As Thabit Jones grew older, he explored the busy docks nearby, the beach, and the seaside town of Swansea. He was “curious about the reality of things” and “the depth of experience.” Thabit Jones began reading the work of well-known poets, such as Wordsworth, Tennyson, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Hughes. Reading the work of these monumental poets helped Thabit Jones to realize that he was “not alone in wanting, almost needing, to see ‘shootes of everlastingness’ beyond the curtain of reality.”

It was in 1975 that Thabit Jones began to find his own voice as a poet. Thabit Jones describes the turning point in his life as occurring after the death of his second son, Mathew, when he experienced deep personal grief.

In 1993, Thabit Jones began tutoring English literature and creative writing at Swansea University, which he continued doing until 2015.

In 1997, Thabit Jones began corresponding with New York poet, critic, and Professor Vince Clemente, who helped to inspire him, and they began sharing poems in progress. That same year, Thabit Jones visited New York University, as well as other schools and organizations in New York and New Jersey, where he gave poetry readings. In 2001, Clemente, via correspondence, introduced Thabit Jones to American publisher and poet Stanley H. Barkan, who has been a great supporter of Thabit Jones and his writings and is also Carolyn’s publisher.

In 2005, Thabit Jones founded the international poetry magazine The Seventh Quarry, which he edits to this day. In 2006, The Seventh Quarry was awarded the second best Small Press Magazine Award by Purple Patch U.K. Awards.

Thabit Jones is a recognized expert on the life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who I wrote a profile about a number of months ago. In 2008, Thabit Jones embarked on a six-week Dylan Thomas Tribute Tour of America— from New York to California— with Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Dylan Thomas. The tour was organized by Clemente and Barkan, who they shared as a publisher. It was on this trip— where they visited a number of cities across the country, lecturing, answering questions, and reading prose and poetry by Dylan Thomas— that Thabit Jones first met Carolyn, and their adventure is recounted in Thabit Jones’ commemorative book America, Aeronwy, and Me.

At the end of their tour, Thabit Jones and Thomas were commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government in New York to write the book Dylan Thomas: Walking Tour of Greenwich Village. Their book serves as a self-guided tour of ten places in Greenwich Village, New York, associated with Dylan Thomas, and it contains a foreword by Hannah Ellis, the granddaughter of Dylan Thomas. Thabit Jones’ guided journey is also available as a smartphone app and as an escorted tour through New York Fun Tours.

In 2017, Thabit Jones published a book of his play The Fire in the Wood, which is about the life of Edmund Kara, the celebrated Big Sur sculptor that I wrote a profile about a number of months ago. That year it was performed at the Actors Studio of Newburyport in Massachusetts, and in 2018 it was performed at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, California.

Thabit Jones has taught numerous writing workshops throughout Europe, does poetry readings around the world, and his poetry has been published in many magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, such as the U.K. Poetry Review, the Salzburg Poet’s Voice, and the New England Review. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Lizard Catchers, Garden of Clouds, Under the Raging Moon, A Cancer Notebook, and Poems from a Cabin in Big Sur.

Thabit Jones’ poetry has been translated into over twenty-two languages, and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including First Prize in the International Festival of Peace Poetry in 2007, the Eric Gregory Award for Poetry, The Society of Authors Award, The Royal Literary Fund Award, and the Homer European Medal for Poetry and Art.

For a number of years, Thabit Jones has spent his summers as writer-in-residence at the cabin by Carolyn’s home in Big Sur, and he is the author of The Fathomless Tides of the Heart, which is an inspiring and enthralling biography of Carolyn that was just published this year.

In an interview with Peter Thabit Jones conducted in 2009 by Kathleen O’Brien Blair, he shares some of his thoughts on how he writes his poetry, and humanity’s relationship with nature. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

Kathleen: What is it about the little things and passing vignettes of life that catch your attention?

Peter: I think the little things are all revelations of the big things, thus when observing something like a frog or a lizard one is observing an aspect of creation, a thing that is so vital and part of the larger pattern that none of us really understand. Edward Thomas said, ‘I cannot bite the day to the core’. In each poem I write I try to get closer to the core of what is reality for me, be it the little things or the big things such as grief and loss.

Kathleen: When you write, do you write a poem and then pare it down to its bones, or do the bones come first?

Peter: For me the bones come first, a word, a phrase, a line, or a rhythm, usually initiated by an observation, an image, or a thought. Then once I have the tail of a poem I start thinking of its body. Nowadays, within a few lines, I know if it will be formal or informal. If it is formal, all my energies go into shaping it into its particular mold, a sestina, or whatever. If it is informal, I apply the same dedication. Eventually after many drafts, a poem often then needs cutting back because of too many words, lines, or ideas. R.S. indicated that the poem in the mind is never the one on the page, and there is so much truth in that comment. The actual writing of a poem for me is the best thing about being a poet: publication, if possible, is the cherry on the cake.

Kathleen: Wildness and nature always seems to overcome our best efforts to cage, encrust, or otherwise tame it. Why do you think so many people, and the modern world as a whole, think they can best it? What is it about people, do you think, that they just have to keep trying at that?

Peter: Well, man has to dominate, not just nature but each other. Man strives to be godlike and getting nature/wildness under his thumb maybe confirms that side of his ego. Maybe there is an element of envy too, the freedom of an eagle in the sky, the sheer force of a river, the dignity of a mountain. Modern man has also lost his respectful relationship with nature. Pre-literate people understood and appreciated the preciousness of the world they inhabited, that they were mere brief visitors to the Earth, protectors of it for the generations to come.

by David Jay Brown