Friday, 21 August 2015

Interview with Mike Jenkins

Mike Jenkins is an award-winning Welsh poet and author

He is widely published and is much in demand for his lively performances and writing workshops. He has performed at the Hay Festival and the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and has read and tutored at Ty Newydd, the National Writers' Centre for Wales.

Mike frequently appears on radio and television and is known among Cardiff City football fans as the club's 'unofficial poet'. Here JW Hicks catches up with him for a chat.

Which comes easier - writing poetry or novels?
Poetry’s much easier. It may sound ludicrous but I’ve written on average one poem per week since June 2009 and included many on my blog on

All my energy, in terms of prose-writing has been channelled into the blog rather than fiction, though I have created a fictional character called Dr. Wayne-O Pijin ( a local pigeon) who attempted to stand in the General Election for the Coo-coo-operative Party.

Which excites you more, writing in solitude... or reading to an audience?

Both are enthralling. I love being totally lost in language and also the idea of entertaining and communicating.

I do find it hard to read prose to an audience though and much prefer poetry.

I relish trying to find the right poems for particular audiences and also to take them on small journeys.

My latest book of poetry (for adults) ‘Shedding Paper Skin’ (Carreg Gwalch) lends itself to that : there’s a longer poems ‘Journey of the Taf’ describing a river’s course from watershed to sea and then, in the opposite direction, a train journey up the valley where I live to Merthyr, my home.

I really enjoyed The Climbing Tree (review below). The Commos, Low, Arm and Dog are such well defined characters, I wondered how you they came to you?

The characters aren’t based on anyone in particular. As an ex-teacher I like to draw upon so many characteristics of the young people I’ve taught and got to know well. I was never a reserved teacher and always believed in relating to them on their level.

Initially, I wrote ‘The Climbing Tree’ (Pont) as a play called ‘Waste’, but nobody wanted to put it on so I converted it into a story and, with the help of the then editor at Pont Books Viv Sayer, set about changing the beginning and ending to make it less bleak.

The Climbing Tree is written for teenagers, are they your favourite audience?

I do prefer writing fiction for teenagers, though I’m not sure why. It’s probably because I’ve worked with them for so long and identify with their problems and their enthusiasms. The things which excite many teenagers, like music and football, are still my enduring passions.

I’m hopelessly idealistic as well, which possibly makes me more of an adolescent than the cynical grown up I ought to be.

What interests you in futuristic fiction, the story, or the message?

‘The Climbing Tree’ is my first foray into the future. As a teenager I really liked ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Burgess and dystopian novels such as ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’.

I wanted to create an alternative world and something of Burgess’s teen language. I wanted to create a credible world on a local scale, but threatened by flooding which was ubiquitous.

The message wasn’t paramount. The character of Low and her relationship with the others was more vital.

I always draw inspiration from settings: there is an oak on the Waun at the back of my house where children used to climb and there was a rope swing.

Where do you write, and what are you working on at present?

Mostly, I write in long hand on the sofa and then redraft on the pc upstairs.

I do have ideas for children’s and young adult books but don’t know whether they’ll bear fruit.

I’m too busy blogging on music, politics, football, television and ambitious pigeons!

I occasionally burn haiku onto wooden plaques ( called ‘meicu’) and sell them.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I enjoyed the adventure stories of Arthur Ransome like ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the historical novels of writers like Henry Treece and especially the works of Jack London such as ‘White Fang’ and ‘Call of the Wild’.

In terms of poetry, I recall Robert Louis Stevenson as being my favourite.

What are you reading at present?

Currently, I’m reading ‘Far Rockaway’ a book of poetry in Welsh (with English translations) by Iwan Llwyd and an excellent novel by Rhidian Brook called ‘The Aftermath’ about Germany after the 2nd World War, which would make perfect reading for young adults ( and help them with their GCSE History!).

What makes you write and keeps you writing?

I can’t imagine not writing. It’s so much part of my life that I even get concerned if I go a couple of weeks without completing a poem.

I love the ‘other world’ which fiction enables you to create and it’s fascinating being carried along by something and not knowing where exactly you’ll end up.

Poetry has this utter intensity which is timeless. My friend, a Zen Buddhist, would compare it to enlightenment.

How much does being Welsh and living in Wales inspire your writing?

Being Welsh is critical and has become more so as I’ve become more accomplished in speaking and writing the language.

There are traits in Welsh writing which are unique and which I closely identify with : the passion for community and place, the way in which politics is very much part of literature, the triumph of emotion over cleverness and irony and the way our literature is integral to society ( we crown our bards, after all).

My latest novel for young adults is ‘Question Island’ (Alun Books) and all these things come into play.

It is set on the mountainside above Merthyr and a school very much like Cyfarthfa used to be, housed in a ‘castle’. It shows how a family are affected by the Recession, but also focuses on the relationship between the main character Andrew and his father, family and teacher.

But there is always something else in my novels, something magical. In ‘The Climbing Tree’ there is the mysterious character of Oz and in ‘Question Island’ there’s the island itself, real for Andrew, but does it exist?

For more information on Mike and his work, check out

Review of The Climbing Tree by JW Hicks

This quirky book, inspired by a particular area of Welsh landscape and the youngsters that play there, is futuristic in style and content. It offers readers a glimpse of a future that is perilously close, and poses the scary premise that tomorrow’s woes originate in the way we live today.

The Climbing Tree, a short sixty page novella that packs a mighty punch, deals with teens attempting to survive in a shrinking world – a world where rain falls non-stop, jobs are almost non-existent, vicious teen-gangs abound... and the water level keeps on rising.

The Commos, Low, Arm and Dog, distraught at losing their leader, Oz, spend their days away from disinterested parents and unwelcoming homes in an oak tree on the Common. Living free in The Climbing Tree, away for constant observation and TV walls, is not a bowl of sweet delights. Menaced by the Astros, threatened by refugee Travellers, and made uneasy by mysterious white suited figures searching the Common with strange, bleeping machines, the Commos must learn to stick together, and realise that only in solidarity will they find the strength to carry on.

This novel delivers its environmental message with subtlety. It remains in the background, never overpowering the story, yet adding strength to a narrative unafraid of portraying the darker elements of teenage life in perilous times.

I enjoyed the spare, futuristic teen-speak that lent authenticity to the narrative and gave us words like sile, frappin‘ hell and Fedicopter. All in all The Climbing Tree is an intriguing and highly rated read.,

Genre: YA. Dystopian.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.

Avoid if you don’t like: The affects of societal change and the challenges faced by young people.

Ideal accompaniments: Cocoa, buns and a warm fleecy wrap.

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