Thomas on Cornwall, poetry and inspiration
Cornish writer DM Thomas talks to Mac Dunlop about the personal
tragedies and inspirations which inspired his latest collection of
poetry, ‘Dear Shadows’.
MD: You returned to live in
Cornwall both as a child, and later as a professional writer, could you
tell us a little about that?
DM: As a boy I lived in South Downs, Redruth, but the 'family home',
where we spent every Sunday, was at Carnkie, in a house next to the
Wesleyan chapel which my grandfather had inherited from a mine captain
uncle, called Sam Martin. We were “good” Methodists, not in a dogmatic
way, but I was greatly influenced by Chapel hymns and the amazing
sermons, often spontaneous and very funny. When the Second World War
came, my sister who was 10 years older than me, became a “war bride” and
married an Australian. She left with him in 1947, but soon became
homesick, and as things weren’t going so well for my father who was a
builder, we emigrated to Australia when I was 14.
were one of many “10 pound “migrants as they were called -10 pound each
for the parents and as a child I went free - we had to stay for at least
2 years or pay the money back, but this time my father and I felt
homesick, although my mother could have settled, and we came back to
Cornwall in ’49. But those two years in Australia were very important
for my development intellectually and emotionally in many different
ways, and I came back to Redruth Grammar School with some regret.
MD: Why did you regret going back to school in Redruth?
DM: Because it was all boys! I’d just had a few weeks of co-ed
education in Australia and I liked it a lot! But back I had to go, and
then I had to do National Service, where I was fortunate to learn
Russian. After that I went to Oxford and read English, and then I
started teaching and writing poetry. First I taught at Teignmouth in
Devon, then I got a post at Hereford - where I taught and wrote for the
next fifteen years, until regrettably the college was closed.
MD: Is that when you decide to
concentrate on your writing?
DM: I thought, I’d try writing full time, and I was very lucky in
that within a couple of years I’d unexpectedly written a best seller
(The White Hotel). That meant I could at least get by. But with no
college as a kind of centre and friends gone, I felt isolated, like a
fish out of water - Hereford is about as far away from the sea as you
can get in England! Of course, I’d always come to visit Cornwall, as an
“Emmet” as we say, and I’d dreamt about returning. I eventually came
back permanently in 1987.
Could you explain the “Emmet” reference?
DM: An “Emmet” is like an ant, a Cornishman will scathingly refer to
the hoards of tourists, as “They Emmets!”. Another name for it is
“Grammarsow” - but that probably needs even more explanation!
MD: You felt that way even though you were born in Cornwall?
DM: I’d been away for many years - and most of my family had died
over that time, so I often ended up staying in a hotel or renting a
cottage. That can give you a sort of half and half feeling, make you
feel stranger. I did feel that this was my “home” but in other ways it
no longer was. You can never step in the same river twice.
So when I moved back it was with great
trepidation. I remember driving down the narrow drive to this very
house, and I felt the restriction of the womb enclosing me, so to speak.
I even rang my estate agent to ask if my Hereford house had really been
sold! I’d have gone straight back, there and then! But I stayed, and now
I’m really glad I did.
MD: Did you delve into your own family history with similar
trepidation when you were writing your recent collection “Dear Shadows”?
DM: I have a great sense of my family’s past, in fact many of the
family snapshots are actually from before I was born, such as when my
parents had lived in California. My father lived there from 1920 to
about 1930. He came home to Cornwall in 1924 to marry my mother. That’s
a kind of romantic story: They married on the morning of Easter
Saturday, went to the rugby match at Redruth in the afternoon, then set
sail for America in the evening! My father working in one of the early
Hollywood film studios. In fact my older sister is really an American
as she was born there. That was the background to our little bungalow my
Dad built in the ‘30’s at South Downs, Redruth. There were always
letters arriving from my father’s brothers who were still in America. In
fact the Redruth house was called “Beverly” because my parents had lived
near Beverly Hills.
So, America was always kind of important in my early life. I think
Cornwall has always had a little outreach to every part of the world.
In some ways Los Angeles seemed more familiar to me than London. Then
our emigration to Australia had a big impact on my life. So a bit of me
was cosmopolitan, and a bit of me was a village boy from Cornwall.
MD: In your introduction to Dear Shadows, you say that these
poems were actually a return to poetic form for you?
DM: I’d written novels since about 1978, and I found it quite
difficult to combine writing poetry with writing prose. Coming back to
poetry was enormously difficult - in Dear Shadows the poems are very
prose like, they’re stark and simple, I don’t attempt any flights of the
imagination. I tried to treat the poems almost like a photograph; this
is how it was, this is what happened. It was a transition back to verse
You also bring the personal into the verse, you seem to have found a
voice that you are comfortable with….
DM: I feel that poetry is the most elemental of the written arts, and
I’m happy to explore my feelings, and my experiences. The poems in
“Dear Shadows” are more elegiac, and the title itself is a quotation
from W.B. Yeats. “Not Saying Everything” is another very personal
collection, it contains poems inspired by Denise, who was at first my
mistress then later became my second wife. These two latest volumes, are
probably my most personal, and that is deliberate.
MD: Whose poetic voices have
DM: Well I mentioned Yeats, a great poet who also wrote very openly
about sex: “For love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement,
for nothing can be whole or sole that has not been rent!” It’s very
strong stuff and an inspiration to not be afraid and just put it out
there. Robert Frost, the American poet, for his truth to life, and his
integrity in writing. There’s the Celtic writers generally, for their
mystical sense of the closeness between the realms of life and death,
and male and female. Charles Causley, a wonderful Cornish poet, and
friend. Also Russian writers, like Boris Pasternak, when Doctor Zhivago
came out with poems at the end I thought, “I’d like to be able to
combine fiction writing and poetry”. To some extent I think I’ve been
able to do that.
||Holding her, he has
glimpsed at last
the soft white body; no more than that yet:
she is seasick; and will be, till the last day
of the voyage. He will never truly penetrate,
to his life’s end, her winter greatcoat.
Though they’ll go on singing love-songs, each to each.
excerpt from ‘Snapshot 1’, Dear Shadows
||In the field behind
the tiny bungalow he’s built after-work,
two miles from the family home, nestling under
Carn Brea just above my head
he is teaching me – not rugby,
which he has never played – but pride:
in our team, our race,
excerpt from ‘Snapshot 9’, Dear Shadows
MD: Here in your study you’ve got a lovely view over the town
of Truro, do you get inspiration simply from being in the land your
DM: Yes, although - in the way of most Celts - I probably wrote more
about Cornwall when I was outside of it! It’s a good environment for a
writer, I can’t think of one better. Surrounded by the books I love,
and the family pictures, I get a sort of “numinous” feeling - that’s
the only way I can put it - an almost holy feeling when I come in here.
I am with something that has been created over the years, the house
itself is 250 years old, and that too gives a feeling of something good
and solid…like Cornish granite!
MD: There are three main chapters in your collection “Dear
Shadows”. The poems in the second section seem to come from a very
DM: Well my second wife, Denise, died in 1998 of cancer. She was
only 53 and we had a young son in his late teens who was very devoted to
his mother, and it was all incredibly painful. There is a photo I took
of her in 1967 at Connamara, in Northern Ireland. Actually I also
collected all the poems I wrote about Denise into one book, called “Not
“And if I slept for a couple of hours,
in the guest-room with the door locked,
I‘d be rushed out of sleep by your bursting in
shouting ‘And another thing!...’
But now you’ve walked out on me;
and I haven’t said everything.”
-extract from Coitus Interruptus, Dear Shadows, pg
MD: Is controversy something that you’ve courted, or
DM: I don’t seek it, no. I just think well I’ve written something as
good as I can make it. Obviously with a few poems, I know there are one
or two people who will be upset…but I don’t court it …“The White Hotel”
did extremely well, and it got rave responses, but it also got
brick-bats. I also wrote a memoir called “Memories and Hallucinations”
around the mid 80’s. I was in a depression - I couldn’t write novels
and I couldn’t write poems.
MD: Because of the break up with
your first wife?
DM: The breakup, the children had left home, that kind of mid life
thing. I also started missing my communal life at the college, the
teaching – you make friends in an organization, and a writer’s life can
be very lonely. Denise and I hadn’t started living together yet, and all
sorts of feelings and reasons come into it, arising out of life
situations, some are endogenous - they just sort of come. Eventually I
saw an Analyst, and I thought, well, if I can’t write anything
imaginative or creative I’ll start setting down my memoirs. I was very
honest, more honest than most writers I think, and that got a lot of
flak. I remember being at the Groucho Club in London, and a well known
journalist said “Oh I love your work, but my word! You’re getting some
stick aren’t you?” I suppose that - living down in Cornwall - I wasn’t
very aware of it. But you know “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out
of the kitchen”.
MD: In the introduction you talk
about returning to the poetic form, after a long period of writing
prose, and translations - the biography of Solzhenitsyn, for example -
they sound like they were jobs rather than labours of love.
DM: Actually not the translations. I’ll only translate a Russian poet
if I love them, that’s a labour of love. The biography of Solzhenitsyn,
was a huge effort and I needed the money, but it just wasn’t me to be
doing a lot of scholarly research, and that was really hard work. That
was also when Denise was dying, so I was creatively and emotionally
exhausted around that time - the end of the 90's.
MD: There is quite a long gap between your last published
collection of poetry (1981/82) and Dear Shadows (2004).
DM: Yes, although there was a collection of selected poems between
called “The Puberty Tree”. I was still writing a novel a year or
thereabouts until the Solzhenitsyn biography. At that time, I thought
that I wouldn’t go back to poetry at all, but I’m glad I did, and now I
sort of feel I won’t write novels again, they’re a lot of hard work. I
enjoy the miniature art of a poem, it might be only eight lines, a
triolet* or something, and it can take all day, or it might take only an
hour, and I can just enjoy myself.
*a poem of eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, and
structured so that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and
the second as the eighth.
There are some poems in “The Puberty Tree” where you take on the voice
of characters, the Letters between Sigmund and Anna Freud for example…
DM: It’s a form of mimicry in a way, if you hear a voice it almost
helps to be able to limit yourself to what he or she might say. I use
that in poems and dramatic monologues. Particularly Freud. I write in
his voice for a long section in “The White Hotel”.
MD: Going back to your introduction, you talk about using
poetic forms to bring out the voice that had hidden for so long beneath
your prose writing.
DM: I think I used the structures of formal poetry almost as a
defense. I don’t feel that my poetry is verbally very rich, I don’t
think I have that gift, and I’m still influenced by all the prose I
wrote, so if I write using the form of say a “sestina”**– and I’ve done
quite a few of those - then that’s the poetry side of it, and within
that I can be fairly prosaic. But I’m also fascinated by these forms.
Yeats talked about the “fascination of what’s difficult”. Just as some
people like doing the Times crossword. Give me a complicated form and
I’ll think “Oh, I’ll have a go at that!”
I think that writing is an attempt to find form and meaning in the chaos
of experience, Like death, you wonder what’s it all about, and you don’t
know, but if you can write about it then writing about it is your own
little attempt to impose order on chaos.
**a poem with six stanzas of six lines and a final
triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six
different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, finally all six words
appear again in a closing three-line stanza.
MD: Lastly, does the Cornish
landscape itself have a “voice” for you?
DM: Yes! The landscape that speaks to me most strongly is the Mine
ruins, if one goes to Carnkie where I
up – back then you could still hear the stamps beating away although the
mines had closed down.
Of course now its nature trails and so on,
which is fine as it means they’ll be preserved. I think of the landscape
as having both a masculine and a feminine character. There is the rugged
side of it – Bodmin Moor, the coast - and then places like the Fal
Estuary, and the Fowey, where the landscape is lush and fertile. That’s
the Yin and the Yang of Cornwall.
Portraits of DM Thomas by
Black and White images are from DM Thomas’s private collection and
appear by permission
“Dear Shadows” is
published by Fal Publications,
find out more about D.M. Thomas, visit his online blog at:
The Puberty Tree, published by Bloodaxe Books, 1992.
Not Saying Everything, published by Bluechrome Publishing, 2006