'Looking beyond the obvious': Write Out Loud interviews Owen Lowery
Owen Lowery is a former British judo champion and poet. He suffered a spinal injury while competing and is now a tetraplegic. In an interview he tells Greg Freeman about reading his poetry in public with the aid of a ventilator; the importance of his poetry looking outwards, "beyond the obvious"; his responses to the art of Paula Rego; his interest in war poets; and writing about football, both its “sublime and ridiculous” moments.
Some of your poems in your first collection, Otherwise Unchanged, deal with your disability, albeit often obliquely, but most of the poems look beyond it. Did your injury turn you into a poet, do you think, or is it something that would have happened anyway?
Disability does play an important part in my poetry, perhaps by necessity, but I do not think that my poetry is dependent on my condition. I feel that I would probably have written poetry regardless of the accident, though it might have been a different type of poetry written in a slightly different way. I was interested in poetry from quite an early age, and when I began writing seriously it was the revival of an old interest, a long-standing ambition in some ways. As you suggest, however, a significant proportion of my poems do reference disability in some way, or hospitalisation, and there is no doubt that my condition has probably contributed to the extremely visual nature of a lot of my poems. Observation plays an important part in my life, and this is reflected in my poetry. There are examples in which my poems are actually about this process and the extent to which my observation might be reliant on other people, particularly my wife, Jayne, because she often has to get me to places that I need to go, and literally helps me to see what’s round the next corner. I think it is essential to my writing, however, that I embrace and consider more subjects than my condition, looking beyond the obvious, as you might say. This prevents my poetry becoming too limited in its scope and allows it to be considered poetry first, rather than disabled poetry first.
When I heard you read at the Poetry Library from your second collection, Rego Retold, earlier this year your ventilator was unobtrusive, just delivering a gentle, regular sigh in the background. You make it appear easy. Is it easy, or has it required a technique that has taken time and effort to master?
I am very pleased that you found my ventilator to be unobtrusive during my Poetry Library reading. I am acutely aware of its presence, and of the extent to which it dictates the rhythm of my breathing and speech. This means if I am to read naturally, I have to prepare my poems very carefully prior to any public performances. Since the poems are not necessarily written with my physical and ventilated voice in mind, I have to vet the poems to identify the most convenient and unobtrusive resting places, the points to which I can read before my ventilator breath runs out. I suppose you could equate some of what is happening to musical performance and to opera, in that preparation is required to create the illusion of the process being easy. During my readings, things do get a little easier as I warm up. I fall into a rhythm after a couple of poems and by the end of the reading it becomes quite trancelike for me.
Rego Retold represents your poetic responses to the art of Paula Rego, with your poems alongside her paintings in a beautiful, lavish publication. What is about her art that fascinates you? You met her for the first time at your reading at the Poetry Library, and talked with her for a long time afterwards.
Paula Rego’s art appeals to me for a number of reasons, but one of the most important factors is that it is figurative art, or often figurative art, with a strong sense of narrative and dramatic interaction between the central figure, or figures, and other aspects of their lives or circumstances. Having a story to work with is a beautiful starting point for my poems. It means that the poems can flow between and around the visual and narrative structures of the pictures, often leading to reinterpretation and a reshaping of the scenarios. Since the pictures often exist in a more immediate way than my poems, I am able to extend the time-frame of Paula Rego’s scenarios forward and backward in time. I can ask or suggest what might happen before the pictures and after the pictures, how the central characters came to be in the situation in which we find them, and what might happen to them once the picture moves again. That Paula Rego offers an open invitation for us to interpret her pictures and her stories in any way we like, makes this process much easier and more comfortable.
In your first collection, there are poems about poets from the first world war, such as Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. Comparatively lesser known poets from the second world war, such as Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, also feature. I believe you are completing a PhD on Keith Douglas. What is it about his poetry that particularly interests you?
War poetry has been of interest for as long as I can remember taking poetry seriously really. Firstly, there is a personal interest in military history deriving, at least in part, from my family’s connection with the first and second world wars. Two of my great-grandfathers died at Passchendaele in 1917, while one of my grandfathers and a couple of my great-uncles served in the second world war in India, Burma, and in the navy. Being born in 1968, the second world war was a prominent part of people’s living memory when I was growing up. This is brought home by the fact that it is 27 years since my accident, but when I was born, the end of the second world war was only 23 years old. Among the first of the poets of the first world war to be of real interest were Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, the former because of his passion and humanity, and the latter for his ability to weave the first world war into his poetry in less obvious ways. My interest in the poetry of the second world war came as a natural extension of my interest in that of the first world war. Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis were among the most important poets of that war, and therefore became natural subjects. My interest is in the differences between their writing and that of Wilfred Owen, for example, and of the sense of exile that emerges in their work as a result of serving a long way from home. In Douglas’s case, his particular experiences contributed to a form of writing that he described as being extrospective, meaning outward looking. The practical implications of this approach to dealing with trauma and exctremis are fascinating in their own right, but also instructive from a practical viewpoint, given my own experience of extreme situations. In short, I have been able to learn from war poetry and apply aspects of some of the most significant examples to my own situation. This is at the heart of my PhD research.
You were married in 2013 to Jayne. Would you say that love and relationships are also a vital part of your poetry?
Yes, I would certainly say that love and relationships are an important part of my poetry. I write a poem for Jayne every day in addition to my other poetry and it has become an important part of our relationship, so the association between poetry and what Jayne and I mean to each other is reciprocal. Often Jayne and I experience things together, so even when I’m not overtly writing about us as a couple, the subject is there in the background. That we tend to define ourselves in terms of each other is also important to my poetry, particularly in the more lyrical examples. Without Jayne the majority of the poems just wouldn’t happen.
You grew up near Reading, and now live in the north-west. Do you feel strongly about the differences – if you see any – between north and south?
I think there are a lot of differences between the north and south. I feel very at home up here now though. There is a wonderful mixture of culture, sports, and humour, and plenty of green in between the major towns and cities. I think there is a lot of character in the north-west that is unique to the area, including within the different urban areas. The fact that I know so many people up here and have been made to feel so welcome helps, of course. The pace of life in the north suits me, as does the fact that there are a lot fewer Tory voters to argue with.
On a recent tour you performed your poetry with visual and musical accompaniment. How did that work out?
I really enjoyed reading to a visual and musical accompaniment, not least because I felt that it helped to fill in the gaps between my breathing, making me less conscious of the ventilator’s possible intrusiveness. I also enjoyed the fact that it seemed to give the audience a broader range of experience. Having said all that, I really enjoy reading without accompaniment too, perhaps because it forces more attention on to the poems and the way in which my voice works alongside them. It is also easier to put a tour together without accompaniment, because commissioning music and art and producers is extremely expensive. Having said that that, working with artists and musicians has been very beneficial, not least because it has helped me to understand my poetry from other people’s perspectives.
How would you describe your own poetry, and poetic aims? To me, you are always looking outwards, fascinated by what you see.
I totally agree with you that one of the important characteristics of my poetry is that it displays an ability to look beyond my personal experience and reflect on the world beyond me. I would say that this is particularly important for someone in my position, but it must go hand in hand with poetic integrity and honesty. What I mean by this is that it is important to recognise the limitations of one’s own perceptions, the flawed nature of observation, and the ability of a subject to exist on its own terms, rather than those of the poet. I would also like to think that my poetry is not afraid to address any particular theme or subject, thereby providing a broad panorama of interests and ideas, rather than sticking to the impact of disability, for example. Originality is also important, not in terms of what I write about, but in terms of finding my own way of doing it. This often involves working with intricate and complex structures and forms, but doing so in a way that does not mean that I have to sacrifice my own voice. I suppose you could say that this approach actually becomes part of my voice, that structures are built in, and characterise what I do.
I was struck by the number of football poems in your first collection, Otherwise Unchanged, including some that reflect your passion for Liverpool, but are not just written from a fan’s view. Do you think that football makes a good subject for poetry? What are the difficulties in writing about it, do you think?
Football is very important to my poetry, because it has been an abiding interest for as long as I can remember. It would be dishonest of me not to write about football really, since it is such an important passion and plays such an important part in my life. I think the dangers of writing about football are that it has been, and remains, such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it has become drenched in clichés and clichéd perceptions. The best way to avoid the pitfall of this making the poems too ordinary is to try to think of the subject as if I was seeing it for the very first time, a little like the approach of naive artists, I suppose. Football is an excellent subject for poetry in general though, partly because it means so much to so many people, and partly because of what happens on the pitch in terms of combinations of the sublime and the ridiculous.
One particularly striking poem, ‘Fabrice Muamba Returns’, is about the Bolton footballer who nearly died on the pitch at Spurs, and is then welcomed back by the crowd at his home stadium after his recovery. The poem includes the words: “how close darkness came to being complete”. Does this, at least partly, represent your tribute to a fellow survivor?
Yes, there is an aspect of camaraderie in this poem, or empathy at least, born of respect for the player’s ability to survive what seemed impossible odds at the time. The poem is about more than that though, because it is also a poem about resurrection and belief, about being there to witness the remarkable. It is a poem that describes a collective spirit, a genuine group reaction to an individual’s experience. It is certainly a poem of which I’m very proud.
Owen Lowery’s two collections of poetry, Otherwise Unchanged, and Rego Retold, are available from Carcanet