You’ve recently published your first poetry collection, Chalk Outlines, how did you find the process of writing it?
It was a weird one, really, because most of the poems in ‘Chalk Outlines’ were written since I gave up drinking eighteen months ago. They deal with a wide variety of issues such as war and politics, which is the theme of the title poem ‘Chalk Outlines’. The idea of this poem is basically that we’re so used to hearing about death in war that it’s just become statistics. We don’t view them as individual people – when they say one thousand people have died it’s not like one thousand people we know, it’s just a number. Then other poems in the collection also deal with me having a short stay at a psychiatric unit, which in some ways was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me because it’s how I got away from the atmosphere of drinking, and other things, and depression. It’s when I realised that creativity was in me, not in substances.
All the poems in that collection had been written, well, with the exception of ‘Chalk Outlines’, when I became sober. The main reason it got published was because, luckily, I performed at the Dylan weekend which was part of the Dylan Thomas centenary. I was spotted by the editor of Blackheath Books, Geraint Hughes, who then said to me ‘brilliant I want to publish you’.
That same published collection got you the accolade of being one of the youngest published writers in Wales, has it changed things for you? And how?
In a lot of ways, yes. I’ve been writing for years but it’s nice to have that validation and when I had the book launch my family was there and my friends were there, it verified that what I’m doing is actually good. That side of it, my youth, I don’t know how much it’s affected my writing but it’s meant that I got to this stage in writing very early on and hopefully only good things are to come. I don’t know if it’s changed me as a person but it has given me a lot more confidence. That confidence keeps me going, keeps me writing, keeps me doing the readings and engaged in the poetry scene in Cardiff, and to a certain extent elsewhere.
Being a young writer, do you find that people have different attitudes towards you because you’re younger?
There’ve been some strange encounters where one or two of the older poets, Clare Potter in fact, said ‘I’m old enough to be your mum’. But I get as much influence from older more established poets as I do from poets my own age – like Zaru Johnson, who’s amazing. I don’t think, necessarily, there’s that much of a difference between generations in our interpretation of what poetry is. I guess it makes me more interested in certain aspects of life and writing which they might not be as interested in, like the whole social aspect of Uni and alcohol, and all that.
You study journalism at the Atrium, how does this affect your creative writing? Also vice versa, how does creative writing affect your journalistic work?
That’s an interesting question. The two for me are both interlinked. One of the main similarities between journalism and poetry is that you’re, ideally, trying to get the most meaning out of the fewest words possible. In that sense they are very, very similar. When I’m writing for my journalism I’ll write something then cut out the words that aren’t necessary. To make it easier to read and because that’s what you do, that’s how you make articles. It’s how you make sure that the reader follows you.
I’ve covered a lot of events journalistically which are linked to my poetry interest. I’ve covered events such as the Artes Mundi exhibition because I am interested in the arts and cultural side of Cardiff. Other things that I have covered are experimental performances by Peter Finch, and last week I covered a reading that Claire Potter did with a jazz band called Sucking Sugar Cane. The journalism also helps with the networking side of things. I meet new contacts who then can give more stories or they can point me to events that might be worth attending or performing at or covering. So they both feed into each other quite well I think. At the end of the day with what I want to do when I leave Uni, as long as it’s to do with writing, I’m happy.
The Cardiff writing scene, you’ve been in it for a while, what do you think of it in terms of giving opportunities to people to get their work out and heard?
I think the poetry scene in Cardiff is very vibrant, it’s very strong. When I first started with poetry I first read at Tommy’s bar, Cardiff Met’s student union open mic. Basically I turned up to listen to the poetry but then Alwyn, the guy who was running the event, came over and was like ‘do you want to read?’. I was amazed that I could just turn up and was able to read. That was a very empowering experience and I had good responses from it as well, which just pushed me forward.
Also, the other thing I love about the scene in Cardiff, there’s people with a wide range of different styles and different levels of experience. There are people who’ve been established in Cardiff for quite a while now, like Will Ford, Mab Jones and Mark Blayney amongst others, and there’s people who are more up and coming. I do have a lot of time for the poetry scene in Cardiff and I think it’s moving from strength to strength. It’s nice to hear so many new voices. Getting to hear other people read is just as important as reading yourself because you can learn as much by sitting there and listening. It’s a very positive and welcoming atmosphere, it’s one I’m very happy and proud to be a part of.
What are some of your inspirations?
My influences are quite diverse, I’m quite influenced by music, particularly hip hop for some reason. I always go back to those pop-style rhythms in my work. One of my main influences in starting off was Sylvia Plath, when I was studying her at A-level. It was the first time that I’d heard poetry and thought wow, and thought also that I could perhaps do this myself. When I was starting off a lot of my poetry had these weird monstrous images, like Plath does.
William Blake is another one, I quite like him because he’s spiritual not in an overtly Christian way. He’s quite eclectic in his spirituality and I find that really interesting. I always tend to go back to Songs of Innocence and Experience by Blake. Simon Armitage is someone who I strongly admire, some of the topics in his poems are really bizarre – one poem he’s got is about football hooligans pick-pocketing at football matches. Perhaps from more modern poets, I’d say Kate Tempest is starting to influence me. I’ve been dealing with mythology in my work for a while but the way she does it, and makes it more contemporary, is amazing.
What would you say to any young person who wants to be a writer?
Read lots of books and read widely. Find out what you like in different writers’ styles and give it a go yourself. Listen to music lyrics, see what you like about them. Go to poetry events and listen to other people read their work, and read yourself. You can perform at these things and get feedback. Writers groups are also very good. I run a monthly writing group with a drug and alcohol charity, Recovery Cymru, and I’m always amazed when I go there because even though they haven’t got that much experience in writing what they come out with and their stories they tell always tend to surprise me. Just try and write as much as you can and read as much as you can. Experiment with different styles. Read a newspaper and decide to write a poem inspired by an article. There are loads of different things to get involved in and different things you can do to expand on your skills as a writer. Just keep at it, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’ve got no one that you have to prove anything to but yourself.
If you want to find out more information on Johnny Giles and his work you can go on his website: http://johnnygilespoet.weebly.com/, also his facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/johnnygilespoet?fref=ts. You can also purchase his poetry collection Chalk Outlines from the blackheath books website: http://www.blackheathbooks.org.uk/51.html