True Tales of the Countryside
Event: Emma Press launch party for AWOL & True Tales of the Countryside
Venue: London Welsh Centre
Report by Robert Selby
An unfortunate characteristic of the poetry world, at least in London, is that each generation of poets can be rather closed-off from one another: the younger generations look up with an admiration tinged with envy, the older ones look down with a suspicion tinged with fear. Emblematic of John Fuller’s longstanding transcendence of this divide is AWOL, his new epistolary collaboration with Andrew Wynn-Owen, a poet fifty years his junior.
This eye-catching Emma Press publication – accompanied as it is by Emma Wright’s illustrations – was launched at the London Welsh Centre alongside a debut collection from the same publisher: Deborah Alma’s True Tales of the Countryside. The LWC bar, with its mock-Tudor chandeliers, eisteddfod bard’s chair, and practising Welsh male voices emanating up from a lower floor, was an appropriate setting: Fuller penned most of his half of AWOL from his cottage on the Llŷn Peninsula; Andrew Wynn-Owen is of Welsh descent; and many of Alma’s poems are set in or near Wales, where she lives.
Alma commenced the evening by reading poems that demonstrate how unafraid she is in her work of tackling matters taboo and – particularly those regarding a past relationship – sinister. She read from her collection’s titular sequence a poem that describes her picking up a ‘naïve’ young hitchhiker to ‘intrigue’ her then-boyfriend with, a man she drives on to collect from the abattoir ‘smelling strongly of beef, / Blood splashes / On his white collar’. Most affecting was My Mother Moves into Adolescence, in which her ailing mother breaks a favourite mug in the sink and it dawns on Alma that it cannot be replaced as it was from Woolworths: it is ‘suddenly, terribly, unbearably sad there is no Woolworths’.
Next up was Fuller, prolific man of letters and, from 1966 to 2002, tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford; during his tenure he enabled the likes of, among others, James Fenton, David Harsent, Andrew Motion, Alan Hollinghurst and Mick Imlah to embark upon their literary careers. His was a reading of virtuosity – conveying the music of the terza rima form which the AWOL poems, as a rule, follow – and of characteristic modesty. ‘These are just verse letters, they’re very informal,’ he said of the poems, ‘I don’t know if they tackle any big questions properly at all!’ – when they are technically adroit and thematically profound.
To stay or go?
Wynn-Jones, Fuller explained, is a current Magdalen undergraduate and secretary of the College’s John Florio poetry society, at which Fuller is a veteran attendee. ‘We enjoyed practising verse forms which he as secretary had set everybody – double ballads and sestinas and quatrains and terza rimas and goodness knows what. So it seemed entirely appropriate when term came to an end and I rather missed all this fun to write him a letter wondering where he was. Then I discovered while writing a letter to ‘Andrew Wynn-Owen in Luxembourg’ – which is where he had to be, god knows why! – this wonderful acronym ‘AWOL’, Absent Without Official Leave, which I sensed he was in a way. It occurs to me that we all have the possibility of escaping from our own lives somehow; what would it be like to give everything up and become somebody else? You’ll say that’s an impossibility, and I think my sequence of poems here which forms my side of the chain of letters will do the same.’
Complemented by Wright’s illustrations, Fuller’s contributions are a vivid evocation of what he calls in his sixth verse letter ‘the Wales of sheep and song’. Their deeper preoccupation, however, is whether it is better to stay or go. Travelling is often deemed more virtuous than staying home, but perhaps fidelity to a situation is the more virtuous and, at least, kinder to one’s friends:
Inscrutable, and gone. What’s more,
You’re having nothing to do with us.
We don’t know what on earth it’s for.
Is it to be anonymous?
Why don’t you tell us your address?
Are you fed up with all the fuss
Attendant on your great success?
You’re simply absent. You’re not here.
But we’ll put up with it…God Bless.
Wynn-Owen – whose debut pamphlet Raspberries for the Ferry was published by Emma Press last year – then read a selection of his replies, written from Luxembourg and Venice and elsewhere, the turning world around Fuller’s still point, all exhibiting the same formal control:
In Luxembourg, a town designed
Quite like a palace in a dream,
I launch this answer to your kind
And searching letter, John. Your theme
Is travel. Why, you cogitate,
Do people rove to let off steam?
You draw an elegant debate
Between the sticking and the leaving.
I guess I should communicate
I’m far from clear what you’re conceiving
The fulsome applause at the night’s end expressed the extent to which the audience had been charmed by the readings from these two admirable books, and filled with gladness that Fuller, now into his seventies, is, as he writes in one of the verse letters, ‘dismissing / Any idea of a vacation’.
By Robert Selby