South Wales Echo
Cardiff poet is exploring the edge in new volume
One of Wales’ leading poets, Peter Finch is accustomed to pushing boundaries – and his latest collection of poetry does precisely that, writes Jenny White
PETER FINCH’S latest collection takes us deep into his native Cardiff, on a road trip along the M4 and onwards into the west, and further afield to the USA.
It transports cultural greats to the most unlikely situations – composer JS Bach to Sainsbury’s; modernist poet John Ashbery to Lidl – and offers witty takes on universal frustrations, from “c**p builders” to losing the pet cats.
Its poetic range is equally diverse, from experimentations with the printed word to hypnotic, rhythmic pieces that beg to be read aloud and remind the reader that Finch is an accomplished performance poet.
“Do you get more out of a poem when you hear it read? You do, always, and especially if it’s the poet reading it to you,” he says.
“The poet knows where the tricks are, where the emphasises should be put, where the magic lies and from where the music can be urged to flow. For decades I read the poetry of John Ashbery and always treated it with the upmost seriousness.
“Then when I heard him read, I discovered from his delivery style and his engagement with his audience that this work was witty, that there were jokes in there among the disjunctive syntax and language games. That was something that in my silent readings I’d missed.”
Nevertheless, this collection – The Machineries of Joy – is arresting and engrossing on the printed page, the work juggling a continually surprising ragbag of ideas and musical and literary influences.
Finch is a multifaceted writer who is equally at home writing affectionately about Wales or inventing new names for birds.
“Machineries pushes he says.
“That’s something that has driven me all my life. I want poetry to be a broad church and one where the possible is endless. This latest book collects my attempts, my successes, at realising this.”
At the experimental edge are grids and lists of words: the same word repeated across a page, like building blocks, or collections of words and phrases, some real, some distorted or invented.
“List making is a way of bringing form to chaos, of taking control of the mad dystopia out there, of ordering the world,” he says.
“Taxonomy it’s called in biology. at boundaries,” [Poet] JP Ward pointed out to me quite early on that I had a tendency to list make. It’s a compulsion for me, much like writing itself.”
Cardiff is another abiding source of fascination, as it has been throughout Finch’s life and career.
“Cardiff is where I grew up, where I first discovered poetry, where I bought my first significant book of poems (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, City Lights Edition, discovered, amazingly, on the basement shelves of the old SPCK Bookshop on the Friary), where I first met other poets, heard my first public readings (Keidrych Rhys reading in the back bar of the Park Hotel and then Dannie Abse at Lear’s Bookshop in the Royal Arcade) and where I honed my art,” he says.
Finch’s work as a psychogeographer is well-known, and much of this has focused on Cardiff.
He penned the Real Cardiff books, among others, and has led cycle tours of the city. In both contexts he proliferated a myth of his own invention: that Jimi Hendrix, on a visit to Cardiff, woke up on an island in Roath Park Lake.
One of the poems in the book, Hendrix Island, recalls how he has since heard the tale repeated back to him as fact.
“Yes, the Hendrix story is mine,” he says.
“I inserted it into Real Cardiff One almost as an aside. After an early gig in Cardiff, I wrote, Jimi woke up on one of the islands, stoned. ‘Where am I man?’ ‘Don’t worry bro, you’re in a foreign land.’
“Several years later I had this tale recited back to me by someone who had heard this to be absolutely true and conveyed to her by a park gardener.
“Later the Made in Roath Festival installed a blue plaque celebrating the visit and I began taking riders on my psychogeographic cycle tours of the city to Lake’s edge to point this out. Let the myths flow.”
In a more serious vein, Ty Draw records a visit to his childhood home, where he finds trace of the past all but erased.
The passage of time, and effects of age, are revisited throughout the book – in The Voyage of Dementia, for example, and Bladder, about a hospital visit.
Has writing the poems helped him address themes of ageing and illness in his own life?
“Problems are often solved or at least understood better when you write them down,” he says.
“But this should be a personal thing. Turning your life issues into poetry for public consumption I’d always assumed to be not the way to do it. But here I am doing just that.
“At readings it is these poems that often resonate with audiences. I can’t tell you the number of people who have come up to me afterwards to tell me about their own experiences and the way these have paralleled my own.”
The Machineries of Joy is Finch’s first book since Zen Cymru, which was released in 2010.
This is the longest he has ever gone between major books. In 2010 he was running the Academi, later Literature Wales, and this demanding work took over.
When he finally stepped out in 2013 he researched and wrote first Edging The Estuary, a book about the Bristol Channel, and then The Roots of Rock, a hunt for music in the States.
“Both of these works took me over and my production of new poetry slowed a little,” he says.
“The Machineries of Joy in its original form would have been a two-volume set to rival the Rise And Fall in size and complexity.
“But collecting poetry is not the art of shoving it all in but the art of carefully leaving things out.
“I’ve done that with my output of the past 10 years and the results are this book.
“I need it to be two things: edge pushing and entertaining. It has to engage with the reader and to hold the reader for at least a while.
“Things should not always be obvious. Poetry readers need to work too.
“On the other hand, the poet needs to offer rewards. Lights at the ends of tunnels. Entertainments. Humour. Expansion. Engagements. Discoveries. I hope that Machineries does all these things.”
■ The Machineries of Joy is out now, published by Seren.