Photo by Lee Woolcock
Nicola Thornton chats with American poet Ed Smallfield.
My wife—Valerie Coulton, also a poet—and I came to Barcelona from California in October 2004. We’d always wanted to live in Europe and had the opportunity for what we thought would be a year, or maybe a little more than a year. We were basically seduced by the city and then found it was quite possible for both of us to make a living, so we just kept staying and staying and staying.
There’s an advantage, at some point in a poet’s life, to not simply travel but to live in a country with a different language. Barcelona has the advantage of having two native languages, which is a more interesting and complex experience for a poet. It’s been really fun for me. I’ve written a lot of poems in Spanish because of a character called Ramon. He’s a male prostitute [from the Prostíbulo Poético].
I grew up in a small town, in a working class, non-literary family. I thought all poets had been dead for at least 100 years so I was originally drawn to being a fiction writer. At university, I took classes in fiction, but then I also started taking classes in poetry and I realised it was just more natural for me to write poetry. I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years.
I’ve done lots of different things in poetry. In grad school in the late Sixties, there was a spread between what we’d call academic poetry and beat poetry, but there was also a large middle. I was kind of in that large middle.
This is actually not terribly exciting, but in English language poetry, I like a poet named William Shakespeare. When I was first starting to write, I was very drawn to the work of William Carlos Williams; it is still important to me today.
I think the poetry scene in Barcelona is fantastic. You have the Prostíbulo Poético, Trilengua, all the Catalan and Spanish poetry going on, the Poetry Machine—there’s enough poetry just in English to keep everybody busy. Having a place to publish [literary magazine Barcelona Ink] has also been fantastic.
For me, writing poetry is almost always a mixture of memory and personal experience. Freud said that every dream you have has something very recent, like from the previous waking day, and it has something very old, from the deep past. It therefore would not work for me to live in a country and a landscape that was completely different from the landscape of my childhood. Being in Barcelona and not being in California is perfect. If I was in the frozen north in the winter time, I might not write anything till the sun came out. Poetry is all about emotion.
I would rather not introduce poetry at all in schools than have it the way it’s taught [currently]. I would propose a more egalitarian way of talking about poetry or literature, where you may have historical info about the writer, things to share around those facts and, as a teacher, not necessarily say a lot. If you talk too much, people may start to adopt your interpretations because you’re older, because you’re a teacher and because you have read more poetry than them. We don’t all have to arrive at the same interpretation and we don’t all have to like the same poetry.
Simply being in Barcelona, simply living my life, is often a form of inspiration but if not, I can find it in music, in paintings, in reading other people’s poetry and, especially, in collaborating with other poets, because that creates a situation where you have to respond, where you’re passing your work around. You don’t have to worry whether it’s good or bad, you just have to hit the however many words.
If I could share a bottle of wine with any poet, living or dead, I would choose Jorge Luis Borges. He spoke English very, very well so we would speak English together and we would talk about wines and cheeses, and about writing.