In Praise Of The Poets: James Nash
POEMS PERFECTLY ENTITLED
By Norman Warwick
Born in 1949 in West London, James Nash has become one of the country´s best loved poets and is a widely respected facilitator encouraging others to put pen to paper.
He describes his childhood as a ´fifties, suburban´ one, that for most boys involved a lot of respectability and repression, and grey flannel shorts until you were fourteen. If you were a girl you spent a lot of time helping Mummy in the kitchen (like Jane in the Ladybird, Peter and Jane books). His own childhood and teenage years were difficult, and full of drama, which although challenging, has been a great source of material in his career as a writer.
For greater detail of that personal history, readers should seek out a copy of Exile in Four Fathers.
Pictures of James from schooldays show a lanky, swotty looking boy with spectacles and a full head of hair. This is in direct contrast to the James Nash of fifty years later, who describes himself as ´rather larger (‘filled-out’ as my mother would have it) less swotty and perhaps more engaged, still with spectacles, but now with a lovely shiny bald head.´
James achieved an MA at the University in Leeds in 1971, and decided to stay, living at one address, or another, in Leeds 6, ever since. Much of the seventies, eighties and nineties were taken up with teaching which he turned out to be ´not bad at´, particularly with ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’ kids. In Loco Parentis, another story from Four Fathers will tells a little more about his early years as a teacher.
In the nineteen nineties middle nineties, ´whacked out by life and all its changes´, James eventually decided to leave teaching because he wanted to try to make it as a writer. He acknowledges award-winning writer Char March (wonderful poetry, short, stories and radio plays) who, with great selflessness, gave him a fantastic apprenticeship in writing and performance. The fruits of that friendship can be found in Deadly Sensitive.
He spent the next eight years in writing. He worked for the Metro newspaper, the Leeds Guide, and Northern Exposure, and became Writer in Residence for organisations as diverse as the National Library for the Blind and HM Prison Wakefield. This work extended into schools, so he was for many years the Writer in Residence for Calderdale High Schools, and for the University of Leeds, Faculty of Education. It would be in that period that I first met James when I myself was studying Enlish Language And Literature at the University of Leeds and was also for the first time attending creative writing sessions. These were held in Bradford but whilst I can remember the immediate and uplifting impact James and his writing had on me I cannot recollect the precise venue.
He has also developed a secondary career hosting literary events around the country, talking to and interviewing writers about their work. He can be often be seen on the platform of the Ilkley Literature Festival chairing events with folk as diverse as Sarah Waters, Billy Bragg or Andrew Motion.
Strangely, and coincidentally, for we only rarely have come into contact over the years, James has recently spent time facilitating the Touchstones Writing Group I formed over ten years ago and which I facilitated for several years before retiring here.
James has run writing workshops and programmes all over the UK for adults and young people, within the fields of writing and performance – this includes working with the visually impaired, ‘men in prison’, English teachers and writers’ groups. I have attended, as a ´student´ workshops he has run in the past at Langley Writers in Middleton. I particularly remember such a workshop, too, at Bury Met a few years ago which I attended with my writing partner Pam Mckee, with whom I worked under the name of Just Poets. It was a well-attended session, and everyone was eager to share their writing on completing a particular exercise that James had set. Pam was more eager than even the rest of us and read hers first, and when she did so, she emphasised with obvious delight a two line passage that she was most pleased with.
James had to gently point out that the said two lines might actually be impeding her story and quoted a literary phrase in saying that she ´might have to murder her darlings´ for the sake of the piece. It takes sensitivity and care to deliver such a message but Pam somehow accepted his wisdom, and I learned a valuable lesson in how to avoid some of the many confrontations she and I had during our five year working partnership.
He is extremely skilled and professional at building group and individual confidence, as the above anecdote indicates. His workshops are fun, engaging and educational, and these days James Nash often run workshops as part of literary festival appearances – he was Writer in Residence for the Beverley Literature Festival in 2002 and again at Wakefield Literature Festival in 2012.
Some impressions of James´ present life can be gained from reading Coma Songs, though most of the poems have no autobiographical basis to them, apart from showing what occupied his thoughts at the time of writing each poem. Two collections with Valley Press have followed, Some Things Matter and Cinema Stories.
Some Things Matter was his first venture into sonnets and he has recently had the honour to edit a small Christmas collection for the brilliant Candlestick Press, entitled ‘Fourteen Festive Sonnets’. He has since written a collection of sonnets called A Bench For Billie Holiday, an example of his refreshingly non-hierarchical placing of high art and popular art. (Watch out for our Sidetracks & Detours Jazz celebration week in January featuring a retrospective of Billie Holiday´s career.)
With Cinema Stories he took great pleasure to be working with fine poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard on a topic dear to the heart, the lost and forgotten picture-houses of Leeds.
The writer has a great deal of experience, too, in running Readers’ Groups. He has been Reader in Residence for Kirklees Libraries and has trained library staff in many authorities on approaches to running readers’ groups.
Not all great poets are naturally charming hosts, but James certainly is, and very much enjoys hosting events.
These include Readers’ Days, where he is usually compere, running readers’ and writers panels’, and introducing and interviewing acts. He concentrates on building rapport and engagement, making such events stress-free, seamless and fun.
Knowledgeable and confident in the world of books and reading, James communicates his enthusiasm to an audience of any size, from 20 to 200, creating a safe environment where people feel comfortable to make their own contributions to the general debate.
By hosting Readers’ Days and literature events all over the UK James has developed particular skills in having a conversation with an author/writer on a platform or stage and making it appear casual, informal and fun. Writers have included (amongst hundreds of others) Andrew Motion, Sarah Waters, Joanne Harris, Val McDermid, Michael Holroyd and Simon Armitage.
The poet and writer has performed all over the country, reading both poetry and prose. He is an accomplished and amusing performer of his own and others’ work. He also engages well with groups to develop a knowledge and understanding of poetry and has run many open mic spots. He has performed at major literary events like the Ilkley Literature Festival, Bradford Literature Festival, Sheffield’s Off the Shelf’ Festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Bridlington Poetry Festival and The Beverley and Humber Mouth Festivals, to name just a few.
For many years, James has enjoyed working with Metro newspapers, The Leeds Guide and Northern Exposure as an arts / lifestyle journalist, covering everything from book reviews to interviews with writers and people in the arts. He has also had a variety of writing commissions for Northern Ballet, Barnsley, Sheffield and Bradford local authorities, both working alone or with community groups to produce work which reflects local or institutional concerns.
In 2016, my former Lanzarote Creative Writing Group colleague, Leigh Whiting, took the opportunity to interview this highly acclaimed poet and writer and took along ´five bums at the bar´ to join in the conversation. These are well-known characters to those of us who wander the Sidetracks & Detours of the arts: messrs, who, what, when, where and why are never short of a question or two. Their nickname derives from the fact that if you write five of the letter w in a row and underline them, they could be a rear view of five bums at the bar, trying to resolve the mysteries of this world.
You’re a Londoner, but after your taking your MA, at Leeds University, you stayed up North. What did Leeds offer you that London couldn’t?
Leeds offered me a smallish city that I could feel part of. It felt as if it was beginning to grow and develop but there were many like-minded people to find and become friends with. It offered me my first teaching jobs, one in a boys’ remand home a few miles from home, and then a job in a secondary modern school just down the road.
So, when did you first allow yourself to call yourself a poet?
That took a bit of time. It felt pretentious at first, and then after publishing and performing a bit, and being introduced as a poet, I started to say it out loud. It’s an important step, identifying yourself as a writer.
You write as though time has stood still for you to capture the finest of details. How do you do that?
It’s part of living in the moment, having reached a certain age, and also the way that poetry can be used to crystallise moments, experiences and feelings. I like to examine things under the microscope of poetry. Now the DID sound pretentious. but it’s kind of true!
As a poet you have many strings to your bow with your performing workshops and readings etc. What do you enjoy most?
I love them all; at the moment I’m doing twenty chairing events for the Ilkley Literature Festival, and it feels like a real privilege. All areas of my working life focus on reading or writing or performing. I feel lucky, but I suppose like most freelance artists I have made a lot of my ‘luck’ happen!
I once read that when presenting Ted Hughes poetry in a school workshop you wondered to yourself whether you are a ‘fake’ poet compared to Ted Hughes. Why did you feel that way?
Yes I did feel that. It was a fabulous school in Mytholmroyd where Hughes once lived.
I had walked into the school past the Ted Hughes Theatre and may have gulped a little. A pupil did ask me in one of the sessions if I was Ted Hughes. I love Ted Hughes writing, but perhaps have been more influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin and Edward Thomas.
How do you feel about yourself now that you have such a large following?
I feel quite humble about it. It surprises me that people travel to come to my performances and workshops. I feel slightly odd if I’m waiting in a venue and folk [whom I may have never met] say ‘Hello ,James!’. The word ‘discombobulated’ comes to mind, because oddly, although I do such a lot of public stuff, I’m quite a shy and private person.
EDITOR¨S NOTE; James Nash is on our all across the arts recommended reading list. Look out for his live and printed work on https://www.jamesnash.co.uk