Dannie Absie interview 1994

Back in 1994 I interviewed the poet Dannie Absie in Cardiff when he was promoting his Selected Poems, then newly-published by Penguin. He was a patient and affable interviewee, laughing a lot – thankfully not at my questions.

I wish I’d asked him more. I certainly wish I’d asked him about the lines he quoted when we checked voice levels at the start. Very often people would recite ‘Mary had a little lamb’ when asked to give some voice level. This is what he said:

“Mary had a little lamb. Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.”

I now know that he was quoting “Poem” by John Cornford. I wish I’d asked him why, but I also remember what was going through my mind: I thought maybe it was one of his poems that I didn’t know and didn’t want to reveal my ignorance! Well, now I have.

Here’s a tidied-up transcript of the interview.

Adrian Masters: Is this [publishing a new Selected Poems] something of a landmark for you?

Dannie Absie: Oh, yes, yes when I was a boy I would read the Penguin Poets such as Robert Browning, Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth so to appear in Penguin is a privilege really.

AM: Selected poems are a kind of greatest hits aren’t they, but do you feel that you’ve still got plenty more in you?

DA: Well, I hope so. Indeed, later this year, I have got another book coming out of new poems. I’m writing more frequently these days. But this does cover 40 years work here, so it’s a lifetime’s work in itself, I think.

AM: How much does [your home city of Cardiff] still inform your work?

DA: Well, every now and again, I find that I’m using my Cardiff background. In fact, quite long time ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Return to Cardiff’ and more recently, I wrote a poem about a piano teacher I had when I was a boy, a certain Miss Crouch, and that has a Cardiff background as well. I refer back to going to the Empire – people may not remember the Empire cinema these days, it was knocked down just after the war – and going to see Moiseiwitsch play, I don’t know, Chopin I suppose, something like that. And so I do go back in my mind to Cardiff and I do actually come back to Cardiff itself. Frequently, I feel that the town… I belong to the town and sometimes when I’m being grandiose, I think the town belongs to me.

AM: How important is family to your work?

DA: I’m indebted to my family and, by my family, I’m sure you’re talking about my brothers, but I have of course, my own family. I have three kids and grown up children and they’re now my family but I still am pleased to acknowledge my debt to both my elder brothers, Leo and Wilfred.

AM: How much has your work changed over the years? A lot of it seems to be rather elegiac. Is that the case?

DA: Yes, I think quite a lot are elegiac. On the other hand, I also hope there are quite a number of humorous poems. I think there’s a time to celebrate and there’s a time for lamentation and I hope on different occasions I do one or the other.

AM: How much has your day job [as a doctor] affected what you do?

DA: Well a great deal. You know, ever since the 1960s, I’ve been able to write poems, which have called upon my medical experience, and I’m very pleased about it because, you know, in the past there have been doctor writers, doctor poets, and they haven’t … people like John Keats, people like Robert Bridges … they haven’t referred to their medical experience in their poems. You want to be new in some ways and the fact that I call upon my medical experience is one way of making it new.

AM: What about the importance of Jewish Welsh identity? In one of your poems, ‘Down the M4’ you talk about your mother’s mother and people telling her that she wasn’t Jewish.

DA: Well in that case, my grandmother, her name was Annabella Shepherd and she she lived in Ystylafera in the Swansea Valley, and she was the only jewess in the whole village of course at that time, and she spoke Welsh with a broken accent. And they’d never seen a jewess in Ystalafera but they had seen, they knew people who’d emigrated, in the 19th century, to Patagonia. And some people who came back from Patagonia spoke with a very odd Welsh accent so they said, ‘go on Anabella fach, tell the truth you’re not a jewess, they’re from the Bible. You’re from Patagonia.’

I hope I’m an integrated person and not fractured into pieces, but sometimes I give poetry readings and if I’m, for example, occasionally invited to go to to read to medical students then I read poems which have medical backgrounds, so then sometimes I’m occasionally asked to read at a Jewish charity, and then I find myself reading Jewish poems. Sometimes in Wales, I sort of pick out the ones with a sort of Welsh dimension and so on.

AM: Is identity more generally one of your themes?

DA: Certainly the early poems, I think, do focus on identity and sort of existentialist questions, I suppose. When we are young and so many of us ask, Who are we? and then we don’t know who … if we know who we are, then we know which road to take as it were. But after a certain time, I hope the question of identity falls away because you know, I don’t wake up screaming, I’m a five foot eight and a half Welsh Jew. I just accept what I am and what I am, so much of it comes out, I guess, in the poems

AM: When I read one of your poems, ‘the Wall’ [it seemed to be about] just the beauty of just being yourself. Is that a point that you’ve reached?

DA: Well, I was praising the Wall, not me. I was praising the wall. As a matter of fact, fairly recently, I was walking in Ogmore and it was rather misty and nobody around, you know, not even a dog. And suddenly, a woman appeared out of the mists and came towards me, strode towards me, and she said, ‘Where’s the wall?’ I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about and then I suddenly realised she was talking about the wall I’d written about in the poem. (laughter)

A sense of place is important, I think and South Wales … features a great deal in my work, whether in prose as well as in poetry.

AM: One of the most distressing poems was the … I’ve can’t think of the title here. It’s ‘no more Mozart’ – it has a very strange sense of place.

DA: What happened was, I was asked by the RAF to go to read some X-rays in Germany in the hospital in Germany, in Wegberg and I’d never been to Germany before. And so when I went there, I saw some German soldiers marching down and of course, I had a sense of being in a very foreign country indeed, with a history that I couldn’t forget.

AM: So what’s next?

DA: Well, it’ll be a book called “On the Evening Road” and I am on the evening road.

AM: What does that mean?

DA: It means I’m, you know, that I’m getting older (laughter).

AM: Dannie Absie. Thanks very much.

DA: Good to be with you. Thank you.

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