JO Morgan interview: “Quite early on I thought, I’ve got to go into the mind of the bomb”

JO Morgan’s award-winning long-form poem Assurances explores Britain’s airborne nuclear deterrent in the 1950s and 60s. His biggest challenge was giving voice to an atomic bomb, he tells Susan Mansfield ahead of his StAnza Poetry Fesival appearance

JO Morgan

Prokofiev is playing softly on the stereo in JO Morgan’s Borders cottage. Apart from that, the only sounds are the crackling of the wood-burning stove, the occasional growls and whimpers of Sam the collie, and a man talking earnestly and at length about poetry.

While knowledgeable and passionate on his subject, Morgan, 41, tells me he doesn’t feel like a poet at all, that poetry events and festivals make him feel like an impostor. However, as the winner of the

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Costa Award for Poetry for his latest book, Assurances, and a writer published on Robin Robertson’s prestigious poetry list at Jonathan Cape, it would appear that others think differently.

It’s true, however, that Morgan’s work is quite unike most of the poetry being published in the UK at the moment. His books are not collections of experiences, observations and reflections. He takes a subject which interests him – an Anglo-Saxon battle from the 10th century, or the airborne nuclear deterrent of the Cold War – and engages with it in book-length form, employing a range of different styles and voices. You might call it a kind of epic for the postmodern age. One review of his 2016 book, Interference Pattern, suggested it “could come to be for the 21st century what The Waste Land was to the 20th.”

It’s also true that he never intended to write poetry. While studying sciences at Edinburgh University, he started to write experimental short novels. “As my works got shorter and more condensed, I had to find a different way to make those words stand out, and these poetic techniques just started coming in more and more.”

He seems to have taught himself poetry from first principles and, perhaps for this reason, his books are completely devoid of self-consciously poetic language. “I want the language to be very clear. There’s a lot of complexity there, but it’s for me as the author to make that complexity accessible without being confusing. I think it’s too easy to take a complicated subject and portray it complicatedly, and therefore not really achieving much.”

Having no connection to the poetry world meant that the received wisdom on long-form poetry (“don’t try it, it’s really hard and you’ll never get published”) passed him by. His work had a freedom to take the shape which he felt was right. “My work gets called long poems, but I tend to think of them as books, and as books they’re quite short. You could think of them as experimental novels.”

He still works largely in isolation – both the method by which he works, and the exacting standards he applies to it are entirely his own. Each project begins with a subject, followed by months, even years, of looking for the right approach before putting pen to paper. “I always want to do something I haven’t seen done. If I’m repeating myself from an earlier book, it’s too familiar, too perfunctory. It would be readable, but would it be what I really want it to be? I’m not interested in it not being good.”

Assurances purports to be inspired by his father, who was in the RAF and worked on the airborne nuclear deterrent in the 1950s and 1960s, though it’s a personal book. What fascinates him is the strangeness of the endeavour, the airmen flying nuclear bombs into the air on a daily basis in the hope that they would never be dropped.

“It’s the psychology of that,” Morgan says, as we watch Sam the collie chase and, rather impressively, catch her own tail. “This waiting aspect, for the people who are doing the job. That’s their task, to take the bomb up into the air every day. And the culmination of your job would be to drop that bomb, which you don’t want to do, but you have to be prepared to do it.”

The book is a perfectly controlled weaving of disparate threads: “I wanted all the voices tumbling over one another, trying to explain themselves, or think about the situation they’re in.” He makes the long form agile, flexible, capable of containing disparate ideas and questions. Even the bomb itself is given a voice.

“Quite early on I thought, I’ve got to go into the mind of the bomb. But how? What would be appropriate? And that’s probably the most lyrical part of the book, the most song-like (“I must be borne / that I may then be born again, / O my creator”). But it’s self-centred, is the bomb, it wants to fulfil its role. And, in a way, the fulfilment of the deterrent is for no bombs to go off. That’s what fascinates me, that contradition. But I think a lot of our lives are run by contradiction.”

I can see a fair few in JO Morgan: a prize-winning poet who isn’t sure that he’s a poet at all; a lifelong writer who has taken a series of menial jobs in order to subsist and write, yet he has never sought publication (he sent his first book, Natural Mechanical, to writer-turned-publisher Charles Boyle after hearing him “by accident” on the radio; it was widely praised and went on to win the Aldeburgh Prize).

What matters most to him, he says, is the reader’s experience. “You hear about technologies these days which are all about immersive experiences. I think, if a book is good, that’s the truly immersive experience. I’m not an expert on the RAF, or the Cold War, or Anglo-Saxon warfare. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a battle. How can I get there by putting some words on a page? But, of course, we know it’s possible because of all the books we’ve read. I just have to work hard until I can achieve that.”

JO Morgan will be reading with Liz Berry at Parliament Hall, St Andrews, on 9 March in Five O’Clock Verses, part of the StAnza Poetry Festival. StAnza takes place in venues around St Andrews from 6-10 March, see www.stanzapoetry.org for details