05th October 2016
One Summer at Dylan's house...
If you could pick any destination in the world to spend your Summer volunteering where would you pick? For Laura Potts, an aspiring, celebrated and decorated young writer from Wakefield in the North of England it was a mere 250 miles South to the ‘ugly, lovely town’ of Swansea that birthed Wales’ most revered writer. No stranger to literature, Laura is the editor and typesetter for Wakefield’s Currock Press, a regular writer for The Yorker and has received multiple awards for her writing, which includes being crowned Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2012 and 2013. She is also currently on the longlist for the 2016 T.S Eliot Prize for poetry. A seemingly natural fit then? - the second year student of English and Related Literature at the University of York absorbed the atmosphere of 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, taking in its steeped atmosphere and surroundings and enthusing visitors about the ‘boily boy’ poet who once roamed the house, scribbling away at every opportunity. It comes as a surprise then, that she only discovered Dylan’s works by chance as recently as last Summer. It seems that since her first meeting with Dylan, his words have held her transfixed. ‘Love the words’ he most famously said, Laura certainly does. We posed her a few questions to find out how she enjoyed her Summer at Dylan’s house... Matthew Hughes (Curator)
What led you to volunteer at Dylan's?
“Really, I wanted to use my summer productively. I didn’t want to just sit at home waiting for it to end because that isn’t rewarding to me. And I also wanted to gain some self-confidence, which I felt I could achieve if I went away from the comfort zone of home. But most importantly, as an English Literature student, I looked for an environment which would benefit me academically, and Dylan’s seemed like the perfect place. I could teach others while also learning myself, especially because the staff are just so knowledgeable and passionate, and they stand at the forefront of current research on Dylan’s life and work. It was the closest I could come to actually spending my summer inside a university or research centre. I’m also a writer myself, but my hometown doesn’t have anything as creatively-illuminating as Swansea: here there are many groups of local spoken-word artists who find their muse in the city itself. And that for many is testament to Dylan’s legacy.”
Were you a fan of his work beforehand?
“I’d actually had very little contact with Dylan before I came to the Birthplace. He was never studied on my school curriculum or at university, but I stayed with some family members last summer and they took me to the Boathouse in Laugharne. There’s a plaque there with words of ‘Fern Hill’ on it, and that was probably the first time that, academically, I’ve been completely dazzled by a single poem on first reading. Afterwards I read quite widely, especially his poetry and Under Milk Wood. After spending my days in lectures at university, I spent my evenings reading Dylan for pleasure, which is something I rarely do since reading is my full-time job anyway. But I found solace, and something refreshing, in his work. And I say ‘work’ because, really, his poetry is true grit and labour. You only need to read one piece to realise that. Anyone can write, but not everyone can work like Dylan could. So yes, I was a fan, but only a newly-fledged one. Which says quite a lot about the transformative power of his words.”
Has he influenced your own work in any way?
“Yes, I’ve grown much more attentive to syntax and the juxtaposition of particular words. There’s a difference between ‘windshake’ (‘After the Funeral’) and ‘the wind which shook’, or ‘Bible-black’ (Under Milk Wood) and ‘black like a Bible’. Dylan is much more succinct and economical, probably more so than any other writer I know, so that a whole plethora of images is captured in just one or two words. I think this is where James Joyce’s legacy in Dylan’s work is really manifest. A common response from many people who have read (or attempted to read) Ulysses is that the language is just so esoteric, so hard to understand, because Joyce works in free association: that is, for both Joyce and Dylan, the work seems to author itself. It is as if they were just handed a pen and told to write whatever verbal combination came into their heads, letting themselves be ruled by the subconscious mind. Dylan’s poetry can often seem quite decentring: one image quickly succeeds another without much explanation. But actually, if it is studied closely, the images all link however tenuously together, so that the ‘experience’ of reading is really an insight into a moving mind. In this, most of all, Dylan taught me subtlety. Not everything needs to be expanded or explained, and sometimes just two concrete images, like ‘windshake’, which is an action translated into a noun, are enough to defamiliarise the reader - to make them sit up and think, ‘well that’s different’.”
Can you see similarities between yours and Dylan's work?
“In parts, yes. In sound mostly. Dylan fully exploits the mimetic power of sound: that is, its ability to ‘mimic’ the world. If you’ve heard him read with that great sonorous voice which could fill cathedrals, it’s impossible to not notice the importance of sound in his work. Caitlin Thomas, in a late-life interview, remarked on how Dylan would mutter and stutter his way through reciting his work to fully engage with its potential in sound. This is something I try to do too. Literature has always been an oral art, and its ability to capture audiences is largely dependent on combinations of certain sounds, rhythms, and repetitions. With Dylan, attention to patterns of sound is a constant. Take ‘The Hunchback in the Park’. A pattern present throughout the poem is the ‘-er’ word ending: ‘water’, ‘enter’, ‘mister’, ‘sombre’, ‘newspaper’. The repetition is an aural manifestation of the poem’s content, which is full of sound and music itself: the Sunday bells, the stream of running water, the park birds, the roaring children. Put both together, and Dylan has made a representation of sound on the levels of both poetic form and content. And in simple terms, it’s really about making the reader ‘feel’ the scene itself, about making it as mimetic to reality as he can. He’s definitely made me more attentive to sound and rhythm in my own work. He made me realise that poetic form and content aren’t so separate at all, and that they can both mutually reinforce each other. One comment I sometimes get after giving a reading is that the audience can still hear rhythm in my work even though I don’t use poetic metre. It’s the same principle that Dylan worked with: sound patterns can be subtle, not monotonous or laboured, and still extend right out from the page to touch the reader.”
What have you learnt most from your time at Dylan's?
“l think, really, the whole experience has been a lesson in under-estimation. Don’t underrate someone before you know what their mind can do. Dylan was really a very poor school student who skipped classes and who left with only one qualification. But that qualification mattered: 98% in English. And though there were those who were disappointed in such a bright young boy, they failed to realise that Dylan knew from the outset where he wanted his life to lead, and he didn’t need chemistry sets or calculators for that. There’s a statue of a pencil in Cwmdonkin Park which I think perfectly represents the boy Dylan’s childhood hope: the one hope being to write, which stood as a beacon to any other.”
Most memorable moment?
“I remember one day especially. A woman visited the House and told me she considered herself a ‘Dylanologist’. Great, I thought. Someone who’s as passionate as me about the big DT. I expected some engagement from her when I gave my short talk, but she just sat in the parlour, looking very unnerved and puzzled, but patiently listening to my talk on Dylan and his time in Swansea. Afterwards, her friends asked plenty of questions. Who did he marry? How did he die? Did he have children? Precisely what height was Dylan when he was fourteen-and-three-quarters years old? Still the woman sat there. I spoke to her friends for about an hour, and after no mention of music, of pianos or the USA, she finally said: ‘so... which was Bob’s room?’ So here’s a tip for you, friends: try to read the big, blue, unmissable plaque outside before entering the house and thinking you’re about to meet Bob Dylan.”
What are your future plans?
“At the moment I’m still an undergraduate at university, but recently I’ve managed to open some doors which look promising: I’m a new columnist with The Yorker where I run The Poets’ Nook, a platform for aspiring writers to gain some publicity. Too often spoken word is damned to dusky bars and crumbling pubs, and it’s time that changed. I strongly believe the creative arts scene can be invested in, but unfortunately it’s down to small-town writers like me to push that, since little funding is supplied from elsewhere. I’m hoping to publish my first poetry anthology next year too, which has been many years in the making, and I also have the vague ghost of a plan to establish my own publishing house, but let’s see where that one goes. And with academia, I’m aiming for a Masters after my undergraduate degree, possibly in Cape Town where I’ve recently studied. You’ve got to have something to anticipate, or all your creative potential will just simmer away in stale rooms.”
Where can people find your work?
“Generally, the internet is the best place. A quick search of ‘Laura Potts poet’ will practically bring up my whole life history and a good deal of my poetry. I’m on YouTube too, or you can follow me on Twitter @thelauratheory_. I’m always looking for new places to visit too, so if you run or know a spoken-word event somewhere in the UK (please, anywhere will do: there’s only so much university box-room I can take) please get in touch and I’ll try to come along. Other than that, it’s just a matter of time waiting for my first anthology to be published. Which, really, I’m striving for more than the words I have will let me say.”
Throughout her month as a volunteer, Laura has been an incredible help. She has helped make a visit to Dylan's birthplace the highlight of many a visitor's trip to Swansea. Some from near and some from far. She has played a valuable role in helping people discover Dylan's life and works and also reinvigorated those that discovered him years ago. We wish her all the luck in her future endeavours both in literature and in life. We are sure that they will always run parallel. Thank you Laura - we'd love to have you back through our big green front door in the future!