Lew Watts | Interview

Kenneth P. Gurney. What got you started into poetry? What age?

Lew Watts. In many Welsh junior schools (ages 5-11), the day starts at Assembly with choral singing and the recital of a poem—I remember R.S. Thomas featuring several times. I must have been around 7 years of age when the headmaster read Dylan Thomas‘ poem “Fern Hill” one morning, and I remember being mesmerized by the sounds and what I now know is cadence. I didn’t understand the poem then, and I still don’t, but…

KPG. What is your favorite breakfast?

LW. Three-four cups of strong, black coffee. I’m not a breakfast eater, despite the pleas of my family and a past stomach ulcer.

KPG. How much influence does your university degree(s) has on your writing of poetry and how?

LW. Very little, at least directly. Geology isn’t normally thought to be a great source of poetic inspiration, but it did allow me to travel extensively, and I have written of those experiences for some time.

KPG. Is there any other endeavor that you are passionate about outside of poetry? How does it enrich you?

LW. Fly fishing, anywhere, anytime, any place. I have only told a few people, but fly fishing saved my life. I was brought up in a district of Cardiff called Splott, a slum. To cut a long story short, a guy who had escaped Splott took me under his wing when I was 7. He would take me fly fishing with him (it was the first time I’d seen the countryside) and, at the end of the first year, he gave me an old rod and reel…and paid for my annual license until I was 13, when I started guiding. If it hadn’t been for him I would probably be in jail or dead by now, and I reflect on that whenever I am fly fishing.

KPG. Tell us about your one of your favorite poetry experiences.

LW. It was at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in the UK. I had just won second prize in the poetry contest (to say I was stunned is an understatement), and I went to a reading by Simon Armitage [wikipedia] who, at the time, was a probation officer—he is now Oxford Professor of Poetry. He was electric—funny, self-deprecating, acerbic, and passionate.

KPG. Do you have a connection to the American Civil War? Relative who served? Visited a battlefield and have a story?

LW. I became a US citizen in 2010, and so the answer to the first two questions is no, but here’s a story on the third. I lived, off and on, for eleven years in The Netherlands, and I visited many battlefields and mass cemeteries of the first world war. One day, I went to the lesser known Delville Wood, where waves of soldiers died to repeatedly capture a small forest that was little more than a burnt landscape of stumps at the end. I was overwhelmed by the sorrow still present in the air, at the utter senselessness of what had happened, the scale of the carnage. And so, even though I have read about the American Civil War extensively, and lived in Washington, DC for 6 years, I have not been able to bring myself to visit any of the battlefields—too painful, I regret to say.

KPG. If you could wave a magic wand and place a poetry book into every high school english classroom as required reading, which one would it be and why?

LW. There is a temptation, driven by the words “required reading,” to choose a book that “would be good for them,” for whatever reason. “Lyrical Ballads,” by Wordsworth and Coleridge, would introduce them to a work that changed poetry forever; “Leaves of Grass,” by Whitman would open their minds and reinforce the heritage of US poetry; Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” would make them think of the personal pain of war. But then, shouldn’t it be something that’s “accessible” and fun, a mixture of formal and free verse, with a different viewpoint that makes them think? I think so. And so it has to be “The Devil’s Wife” by Carol Ann Duffy, a series of poems praising the wives of famous men. Mrs Midas is particularly good!

KPG. Where was your last selfie taken? With anyone?

Lew Watts selfie

LW. Alone on my patio, in Santa Fe, where I smoke a cigar with a gin martini most evenings. I had grown out my beard and decided, after unbearable pressure, to trim it back. I thought I would miss it so I took a selfie—I can’t believe it took me so long.

KPG. Recommend a poetry (or literary) website that you frequent.

LW. The world seems to be full of great haiku journals, Modern Haiku and Frogpond being at the top. But one online journal stands out—The Heron’s Nest, which appears four times per year.

KPG. What is your favorite National Park? Why?

LW. Yellowstone. I go there every year with a group of friends to fly-fish. We are fortunate to have access to a remote part of the lake—one of the so-called “thumbs”—where for company we have eagles, moose, deer, the occasional bear, and (for me) the less-frequent cutthroat trout.

KPG. Do you have a dream that you work toward achieving. If so, please tell us about it.

LW. I’m almost there! For much of my life, I worked to write, often on planes or in hotel rooms. Since retiring in 2009, I have been able to devote much more time to writing, which I adore. But I am, and always have been, searching for a way “to make a difference,” something beyond self-indulgence where I can use my experience for a better good. This is why my involvement with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is so important to me. The Bulletin aims to warn the world of man-made existential threats—nuclear weapons, climate change, and number of emerging technologies—because, to my mind, humanity deserves a future.

KPG. If there is a little known poet you think everyone should read, who is that poet and which book of theirs should we seek?

LW. Well-known in the haiku/haibun world, but perhaps little-known beyond, I would single out Roberta Beary. She is the haibun editor of Modern Haiku, which is how we first met; she also writes flash fiction. Her collection The Unworn Necklace (2007) was a finalist for the William Carlos William Award, and her most recent book is Deflection (2015). Here you’ll find stunning haiku and haibun, of course, as well as free-verse hybrids such as the haunting, and brave, “Irish Twins.”

KPG. If you could be present at any moment in history as a safe observer or unsafe participant, what event would you visit and why?

LW. You did say “safe,” didn’t you? If so I would go back 66 million years to the end of the Cretaceous, where over 75% of species disappeared following a massive comet or asteroid impact. This is not because of any ghoulish desire to witness mass-death, but as a reminder of what could happen in our lifetimes if the lunacy of nuclear war unfolds. If I could stay long enough, however, I would witness something else—the blossoming of life and new species as though, even in the worst of times, there is hope.

KPG. What reoccurring themes have you noticed in your poetry over the years? Is there a point of personal experience you revisit often?

LW. One would think that working for a multi-national company would not create much poetic inspiration. But I’ve written about different cultures, business jargon, climate change, the oppression of women, and the lives of workers and executives. I have also witnessed terrible accidents and, in some cases, multiple deaths. Some of the worst moments of my life have been telling someone a loved one is dead—this is something that has surfaced many times in my work.

KPG. Green, Red or Christmas when you order Huevos Rancheros?

LW. Definitely green.

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