Writing ice cream and eating poetry: a Q & A with National Poetry Competition judge Jonathan Edwards

Today is Ice Cream Day and to mark this occasion The Poetry Society has turned to National Poetry Competition judge and ice cream aficiniado Jonathan Edwards to offer up some of his thoughts on how to best appreciate ice cream and poetry, both separately and together, and to dispense a few pieces of sage competition advice along the way.

Do you have a favourite poem about ice cream? 

The greatest poem I know about ice cream is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Holiday Memory’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMiNjx9XzuY. There are two problems with this selection: first, it isn’t a poem, but a radio broadcast. Second, apart from its first, punning reference, it isn’t about ice cream. Nonetheless, when I think of a piece of writing which embodies the spirit of ice cream – in its rhythms and details – there’s nothing better than this to make you yearn for a 99.

What can you tell us about the first poem you ever had published?

It was in Poetry Wales, in 2007, after a few years of trying, and receiving patient, kind and increasingly encouraging handwritten rejection notes from Robert Minhinnick. I used to love handwritten rejection letters, and especially those written by people whose handwriting was almost as indecipherable as my own, because then you could fool yourself that the letter was really an acceptance, and when the magazine emerged that the omission of your poem was some terrible mistake. The publication of those first poems was among a number of acts of extraordinary generosity by a large number of people, which have kept me going as a writer, and it meant an enormous amount, in all sorts of ways. When the magazine came out it was for sale in a bookshop in Cardiff, and I was quite dumbfounded by the idea that perfect strangers could now read my poems. I went in one Saturday with an eye-catching homemade bookmark, moved the copies of Poetry Wales to the front of a shelf, and inserted the bookmark at the page with my poems on, then retreated to a safe distance to see what would happen. After a while, someone came in, glanced at the magazine, took the bookmark out, then took the bookmark to the counter and attempted to buy it. I remember looking over the top of a shelf – I was face to face, I remember, with a Jeffrey Archer – as the confused sales assistant tried to find a price. Take it all in all, it was a high point which few things in poetry have matched since.

Can you tell us about one of your all time high points in ice cream experiences?

All my best ice cream experiences are tied up with teaching poetry at the gorgeous Tŷ Newydd, and the nearby Cadwaladers ice cream parlour in Criccieth. There’s something about that whole thing – wandering along the seafront, head filled with poetry, in the direction of ice cream – which seems to sum up the spirit of those amazing weeks. Cadwaladers makes a unique flavour, called Unicorn, a vivid sky-blue confection, as much-discussed and mythical as the beast itself. And it has a huge window out back, at which you can sit and look out at the sea on a gorgeously sunny or – this is Wales – dramatically grey day. Filled with ice cream and the spirit of a week of teaching poetry, looking out at that sea, it’s all you can do not to rise to your feet, in that little parlour, clutching your glass of Unicorn, and recite Tennyson’s ‘Break, break, break,/On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!’ It’s because of things like this that Criccieth has a surprisingly large police force, for such a small town.

What are you reading at the moment?

A random selection from these teetering piles: Alan Perry, Waters, John Freeman, What Possessed Me, Sinéad Morrissey, On Balance, Pat Edwards, Only Blood, Arji Manuelpillai, Mutton Rolls, Alan Gillis, Here Comes the Night, Greta Stoddart, At Home in the Dark, Zoë Brigley, Hand & Skull, Marvin Thompson, Road Trip, Jo Shapcott, Her Book, Richard Georges, Epiphaneia, David Morley, Scientific Papers, Sampurna Chattarji, Space Gulliver, Matt Nunn, St Jude’s College Reject, Andrew McMillan, playtime, WH Auden, Another Time, Gillian Clarke, Ice, Peter Carpenter, Just Like That, Dylan Thomas, Deaths and Entrances, Anna Lewis, In Passing, Hanan Issa, My Body Can House Two Hearts, Alan Roderick, Astrid and the Golden Lovespoons, David Clarke, The Europeans,Rhian Elizabeth, The Last Polar Bear on Earth, Jim Carruth, Killochries, Tishani Doshi, Girls are Coming Out of the Woods.

Can you recommend a particular poem that you like and a suitable ice cream pairing to accompany the reading of it?

I’ve tried all the obvious ones, like everyone, the ones we were all brought up on. Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ paired with a decadent brownie sundae. Don Paterson’s ‘Bedfellows’ or ‘A Gift’ with a small scoop of vanilla topped with a double shot of tangy espresso. Plath’s ‘Daddy’ with a sharp-as-all-hell gooseberry sorbet. ‘The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me’ by Delmore Schwartz, teamed with a twenty-scoop Ben & Jerry’s challenge.

What advice would you give to poets looking at a blank page? 

Do anything you can, initially, to reduce your expectations as to what you have to achieve. Don’t sit down and think ‘I have to write my National Poetry Competition entry’ or even ‘I’m going to write a poem.’ Sit down and think I’m going to scribble some notes, I’m going to try and write a good line, I’m going to do some automatic writing, I’m going to spend some time just thinking with this pen about a subject I really love and that I’d enjoy scribbling about for half an hour. Anything that shifts the writing process in the direction of play, fun and enjoyment. The best poems tend to take the writer by surprise and tend to make us feel, in the moment of writing, both that the poem has nothing to do with us and that we are, right then, more ourselves than we’ve ever been. The magic will come: all we can do is sit down and try, if it’s coming or not, so when it does, we’ll be ready.

Do you have any thoughts on the current progress of ice cream compared to poetry?

Faced with the innovations in today’s poetry, one feels like ice cream needs to up its game to keep pace, set the scientists at work in the labs, get the liquid nitrogen going. Things need to happen at a molecular level. Ice cream that is less ice cream than it is experience. You walk through a cold, plain white room wafted with a vanilla scented air. You sit in a fluffy pink armchair while someone talks to you in a soothing voice about raspberry ripple. You run three miles on a treadmill while someone shouts the word ‘Sorbet’ in your face. Of course, there are the traditionalists over there in the corner, munching their toffee nut sundaes, sad as folks at a Jane Austen ball who haven’t been asked to dance. But me, I have faith in a great force – which might be ice cream or might be poetry – to bring us all together, to walk us across this room or this chasm, towards each other, grinning.

What advice would you give to those making their finishing touches to a poem?

Read your poem out loud. Ordinarily I’d say do this in front of an audience, but for now the audience on a laptop screen, or the audience of the cat or the wall or the window, or the one you imagine, will do just as well. In reading the poem aloud, it can be quite surprising as to what the poem can actually bear you to say, what it needs you to change. I’m often umming and ahing about final details in a poem and it is this business of reading aloud which can help the poem tell you what it needs. There’s no such thing as a final version of a poem of course, but this might help move things in the direction of the best version for now. I see poems as primarily spoken things, and what happens on the page as the best visual representation of that spoken thing we can get to, drawing on all the accumulated tricks of centuries of folks who’ve been trying to get things down on the page. When judging, I’ll definitely be reading the poems aloud.

How, in your view, is poetry like ice cream?

Perhaps the more pertinent question here is how is poetry not like ice cream. They are both rich, decadent, beautiful, swirling, lurid. They both make us happy, and both can be enjoyed alone but are, equally, a force to bring folks together. Life is unthinkable without either, and they both express something essential about the human condition. And what are the differences, really? One is made of milk and sugar. But even as I write this sentence, is it possible to tell which one I’m talking about? It would take an expert to be sure. In the midst of all the confusion, we can only eat the poem. We can only write the ice cream.

Enter the National Poetry Competition here

19 July 2020, Ice Cream Day