“t-h-i-s-space-i-s-space-space-space-space-space-space”: in Conversation with Giles Turnbull

-In conversation with Claire Trévien

Giles L. Turnbull is a blind poet. He spent the first half of his life in North Yorkshire before moving to South Wales to study chemistry at Swansea University. He has lived in South Wales ever since, apart from a 5-year sojourn Stateside and two years in London. He has been writing poetry since his late teens. His debut pamphlet, Dressing Up, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2017.

In your Poetry Wales article you stated that to you ‘no poetry is visual poetry’ – can you tell us a bit more about that?

I had been sighted for 31 years before my sight first began to encounter problems from diabetes. I lost the sight in my left eye first, leaving me with no depth perception but no other significant problem. By 2007 my right eye had also begun to fail and in 2009 I registered as legally blind, making it 9 years this year since I stopped being able to read printed words on a page. Nowadays I use screen reading software on my computer to read any on-screen text aloud for me, including emails, Facebook posts and tweets, as well as novels and poems in Word or PDF format.

If a poem is specifically presented on the page to reflect a particular shape, or a desired spacing between words, then I do not hear that when the screen reader reads the poem to me. As far as a screen reading program is concerned a fully justified line of text sounds exactly the same as a left or right aligned line of text, or with six spaces between the first and second word, 10 spaces between the second and third word and 20 spaces between the third and fourth word. Whatever the poet intended by spacing his or her line that way does not get transmitted to me.

If somebody commented and said that they loved the layout of the poem then I would be intrigued to know how it had been laid out. I would go back and read each line character by character, which might be something like this: ‘This is      the        end.’ and my screen reader would say “t-h-i-s-space-i-s-space-space-space-space-space-space-t-h-e-space-space-space-space-space-space-space-space-e-n-d-dot” As you can probably tell, that does not generally transmit a very visual image into either a blind or a sighted reader’s brain. If a poem was laid out in the shape of a teapot, a screen reader is simply going to read it as if it were a sentence in a page of Oliver Twist.

A poem by Nuala Watt, herself a visually impaired poet, in her pamphlet ‘Dialogue on the Dark’ uses the format of an optician’s eye test for one of the poems. Sighted editor Nell Nelson of HappenStance Press alerted me when I reviewed Nuala’s pamphlet for the Sphinx website, telling me ‘the Eye Chart’ is set out like an optician’s reading test, with the first few words being in huge letters and then descending down the page until the very bottom is tiny’. To a screen reading program it could have been all in 4pt font or 44pt font —it will deliver it sounding exactly the same to a blind listener.

What I was niggled by in my Poetry Wales article was that The Poetry School had a course about visual poetry, and their information for it stated that ‘All poetry is visual poetry,’ and I considered they were incorrectly assuming that all readers of poetry are sighted.

Are there elements beyond the words on the PDF or read out loud that you think can contribute to your reading experience of poetry that you wish more publishers/authors did?

I am very keen to encourage publishers to put a short caption in the introductory pages to a book or pamphlet, describing what the cover shows. As a visually impaired reader I still would like to know what is shown on the cover, and if it is a plain cover I would like to know what colour it is and what text is on it and in what colour font.

Having expressed that desire I must hold my hands up and admit to failing to add a cover description to my recently published pamphlet, Dressing Up, which is published by Cinnamon Press. That is mainly because I didn’t know the cover colour until the final proofs were being circulated and it totally slipped my mind; I will request that the brief description ‘the cover is red and has the title Dressing Up on two lines, with Dressing at the top of the cover and Up immediately beneath. Giles L. Turnbull is lower down on the cover. All text is in white font’ is mentioned alongside the introductory acknowledgements should it make it into a second print run.

To make up for this I recorded an audio version of a flyer that I’ll be sending out to let people know that Dressing Up is now in the Cinnamon shop. You can find the flyer on YouTube by searching for ‘Dressing Up audio flyer’. The picture in the video is that of the cover of Dressing Up and I do describe it in the video.

“The cover is red and has the title Dressing Up on two lines, with Dressing at the top of the cover and Up immediately beneath. Giles L. Turnbull is lower down on the cover. All text is in white font”

Can you tell us a bit about your experience of writing poetry inspired by artworks?

There is a Welsh organisation called Disability Arts Cymru and they hold a competition for disabled artists to challenge them to produce a piece of artwork that responds to a particular theme. The following year they hold a poetry competition where disabled poets respond to a piece of the submitted artwork or to the same theme, or both.

The first year I heard about this was 2015 which was the first year of the artwork competition and it did not have a theme. I wrote 2 poems, each responding to the respective painting’s title. The painting Blue Ballet Slippers by Rosie Moriarty-Simmonds resulted in Tomorrow’s Dancers, and Study in Red by Lucy Chaplin resulted in a poem of the same name from me. Ill health stumped my ability to submit my poems to the poetry competition, but Tomorrow’s Dancers is included in Dressing Up and is also part of an article I wrote about poetry and blindness for Poetry Wales summer 2016 issue. Study in Red features in another article about poetry and blindness I wrote for Irish magazine Corncrake also in 2016.

The next paintings competition theme was ‘ Austerity or Extravagance’ and again I picked two painting titles and used the main theme to respond to for the poetry competition. A Tree in Two Movements by Rose Foran led to a poem The Unfinished Story of a Tree in Two Movements, which had two stanzas, each one taking the subtitle of the equivalent movement  of Schubert’s Symphony No.8 in B minor ‘The Unfinished’ so called because it only has the two movements where a symphony of that era would have had four; this poem was commended and will be included in the competition anthology. The second poem responded to Dressing Up Dressing Down by Gemma Paine and I titled it Glad Rags and I was again able to use it in my Dressing Up pamphlet; it will also be included in the competition anthology.

I like to respond to the title with initial ideas and then get a sighted person to describe the general look of the painting — whether it shows a scene or is abstract or patterned. Then in light of that description I go back to my poem and think about whether I can bring some of those elements into the choice of words or the structure of the poem.

With the painting Blue Ballet Slippers I was told that the painting showed a ballerina’s feet en pointe, so I brought more about the ballerina preparing for her future dances into my poem.

I did not have any visual input on what the Tree in Two Movements painting from the 2016 competition showed, but I immediately thought of Schubert’s Unfinished symphony, and when I read Rose Foran’s bio page I was delighted to discover she too likes classical music. So that guided the title and the structure of my poem and my mind paired that up with the idea of two different Christmas trees, one discarded after the festive season and the second one being a scavenged tree with improvised ornaments assembled by a homeless couple with their newly born child as a re-imagining of the nativity scene.

Your debut pamphlet Dressing Up has come out with Cinnamon this year – can you tell us what to expect?

I wrote the following as a blurb to promote my pamphlet:

Dressing Up presents scenes of life from getting ready in the morning to going out at night in heels and lipstick and a beautiful dress. Dressing up includes socks and that watch that may or may not be a Rolex. It embraces opera, the theatre stage and knights in front of castles. From the beauty to the self-harm, from job interviews to houses that have burned down. Put on your poetry glad rags and come and have a look at the world in its frailty and finery.

What’s next for you?

I aim to manage some readings to take Dressing Up out into a few places. Being blind means that travel usually depends on other people’s assistance, usually my parents, but I hope to manage half a dozen events. Two events are currently scheduled, one in Cardiff on 27 April and the other in Presteigne, Powys, and details about those will be posted on the Events page of my website, http://gilesturnbullpoet.com. Further events will be added as and when they are arranged.

Much like a band I’m now at the ‘difficult second album’ stage. I have two or three potential pamphlets taking shape, but I need to decide whether I want to keep them as self-contained pamphlets or to start to shape them into a first collection. I am very keen to work on a short story in verse that I have had gently simmering away for about twelve years and get it towards a final draft. It needs some harsh editing, deciding which chapters are fine with a bit of tidying up and which chapters are not as strong as they need to be and don’t really progress the story and therefore need to be killed. It’s definitely a labour of love.

Jon Compliant at Voicebox (UnDegUn, Wrexham,14/12/15)

-Reviewed by Sophie McKeand

It’s Monday evening and, to quote an old Welsh language idiom, it’s raining old wives and walking sticks in Wrecsam town (mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn). We’re braving it anyway because local poet Jon Compliant is performing his first headline slot at Voicebox. More about Jon in a minute, first I want to talk about Voicebox, a diverse collective of poets headed by Tim Humphreys working to promote and support the north Wales poetry scene. I’m impressed with their inclusive approach to form and style: the open floor running at each event is supportive, with newcomers encouraged to get up and have a go. It’s the perfect place to try out new work, or to make your first stage appearance.

This ethos is as important to poetry as booking decent headline artists. Newcomers soon become regular audience members and performers; it’s how a strong, vibrant scene evolves and I’m delighted to see this emerge instead of an elitist, exclusive, navel-gazing affair. Don’t get me wrong, this inclusive approach can sometime irk, as we all have our own personal tastes, but I’ve loved the majority of headliners.

Back to our headline poet: Jon Compliant wastes no time bouncing on stage in a beanie hat, lager can glued to his right hand, firing expletives in a style reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke. This stage persona is going to put some people off – I doubt that bothers this poet – but it will. He also doesn’t give his poems titles, or at least doesn’t tell the audience what they are, so you find yourself saying afterwards ‘I laughed at the one about…’

What works for me with Jon Compliant, however, is watching his character unfold. In a revelation seemingly at odds with his stage persona, we learn that Carl works in a large financial institution having ‘spent half a decade in a windowless room as a research analyst’. Recently his ‘co-workers’ Googled him, then, ‘grassed him up’ for a poem because the content might have offended some people in management how lovely of them. Cue the audience trying to imagine Carl attending a disciplinary meeting with senior management to explain ‘spoken word’. He’d probably do okay as long as he didn’t take Jon Compliant in with him. This also explains how Carl’s alter ego Jon Compliant was born.

Photo: MMU/the Axis Arts Centre

The offending poem is clearly a crowd favourite. The first time I heard this format was over at Dead Good Poets Society in Liverpool around 2007, this one had the refrain ‘blame x y z, blame a b c, but you can’t blame Thatcher’. It was witty, sharp and political. All poets will use set pieces to structure the work at times; the important thing here is to add something new. Jon Compliant brings his love of music to this with the smart refrain of ‘but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like Massive Attack’. I think about this for a minute. I think he’s probably right. So we get lead-in lines such as:

I knew a grime MC who joined the EDL and said he only wanted peace (true story), and,I know a bloke in senior management who uses actual fucking sense’ (this is the line he got dragged into a meeting about).

The ‘polite but evil’ brigade are clearly the cause of many of the world’s problems, according to Carl, which explains much of his sweary swagger. He is at pains to be their polar opposite. This is cemented with a poem about eating crisps on the quiet coach. Jon finally gets smacked by one of the ‘polite but evil’ brigade for eating crisps loudly on the quiet coach, and this quickly escalates into total anarchy in a kind of butterfly or domino effect, with people across the globe finally standing up and speaking out at actions that wind them up. In this, Jon becomes a kind of reverse-psychology-genius-figure burning at the centre, finishing the poem wittily with the line ‘and that’s why I eat crisps on the quiet coach’.

We see another side to Carl with a new poem set to music about being in a coma in 2007, where his determination to work through the flu landed him in hospital with all vital organs shutting down – in fact, he died for a time. This is a sombre story well told, but elements of the presentation need work: for me, the music was too loud and the timing slightly off, but I’m intrigued to see where this leads as it’s an interesting element to Carl we don’t usually experience on stage. In his defense, he wasn’t supposed to do this slot until Spring next year when, he admitted, this new piece would have been better prepared. I don’t mind that – as artists we are multi-faceted and it’s important to take risks. In this case, Carl is pushing out of his funny/sweary comfort zone and into something more lyrical and philosophical in style, which is great to witness. I’m looking forward to seeing this develop.

To sum up: Jon Compliant is political and hilarious with machine-gun-fast delivery. He’s also starting to push boundaries with style and form. The banter between poems is polished and well judged in a way that belies the brash ‘off-the-cuff’ performance. Carl’s also only been performing for a year, during which time he’s won the Manchester heat of the Superheros of Slam and, in stark contrast, had a judge refuse to score him at One Mic Stand (I don’t know who the judge was so won’t comment here). This speaks volumes about Jon as a poet – you’re not going to watch him perform and say ‘ah, that was nice’. I think he’d tell you to fuck off if you did. But there’s method to the sweary/funny poetry and an underlying philosophy and intelligence that is taking this poet to some interesting places both lyrically and artistically. Definitely one to watch.

Voicebox runs on the second Monday of every month, 7pm, at UnDegUn in Wrexham, north Wales.


Photo: Andy Garside

Launch of Rock Life: 17 Poems from the Welsh Valleys by Gemma June Howell (Nos Da, Cardiff, 20/11/15)


-Reviewed by Renn Hubbuck-Melly

As I stepped down into the basement venue of Nos Da, a broken floorboard bounced under my foot with a squeaky creak. There was a smell of chips in the air, and people were gathered around the stage at the back of the room. Laz Lazarus was reading his ever vivid and rich poetry beneath a violet light. Just as I got my drink at the bar and set my bags down, Lazarus voiced his last line.  

It was the launch of Gemma June Howell’s book ‘Rock Life’. She has written a collection of seventeen poems inspired by life in the Valleys in Wales, all based on an estate called ‘the Rock’. As I sipped, Howell sprang up onto the stage, excitement brimming on her features.  This event had been organised by her and you could see that she was pleased it had finally come to fruition.

Another invited reader, J Brookes, shared some of the poems in his newly released book, ‘Book’. These were musical, poignant and full of resonant lines such as ‘nothing’s old and tired beneath the sun.’

Now it was time for Howell to read from ‘Rock Life’. People settled into their red velvet seats and we all waited for the poet to begin. Standing almost directly under a disco ball, Howell gave us some background and explained how the collection came about. Speaking of it as a ‘labour of love’, the poet told us she had been writing the collection since 2008. Nigel Jenkins, former director of creative writing at Swansea University, championed her to write these poems. They reflect the realities of life in the Welsh Valleys, and its challenges.


The first poem she read was ‘Rude Boy Ruminations’, about a young man living in the house forged by ‘his grandfather. A miner who’d slogged to make his country great’. The poem recalls a time when the house once had dignity but has since become a ‘wasteland’, a place where the young man spends his days smoking cannabis and drinking. As the opening poem of the collection and this performance, it captured a desolation that has bled into all areas of Valleys life; these old mining towns, which once gave working class people a chance to build their own lives, have now become barren and ineffectual.

Howell uses colloquial language and a strong Welsh Valleys dialect in both the written and the spoken versions of her poems. Her use of voice really accentuates the authenticity of her characters. Before she read out the next poem, ‘Benefit Fraud’, Howell explained that she ‘published this collection of poems because no one else would’, and perhaps this poem would explain why that might be. ‘Benefit Fraud’ is a first person monologue in the voice of a man who’s on state benefit. He repeats the word ‘bollucks’ many times throughout at an accusation that he hasn’t paid the right amount of money. After arguing his innocence, he proclaims that ‘yewuh the fucken fraudstuz butt, no’mee.’ Howell draws on the stigma attached to being on benefits in this poem, and further emphasises this by saying that she believes this might be why people have refused to publish her work.

‘Another Bun in the Oven’, which has also appeared in a Bloodaxe collection, is unashamedly crude and candid. It depicts a woman who enjoys mouthing off, and who talks about how the father of her unborn baby is ‘shaggen round’ and ‘dizunt giva shit’ about his child. ‘Jobseeker’s Disagreement’ depicts the life a person who is unemployed. The mundanity of being jobless is stressed, with the repetition of the line ‘stuck in iss coun-sull flat all day’. The character talks of how they were banned from the job centre because, apparently, they were heard to say that ‘this is wank’. As a result, they ended up ‘livin off thuh food bank.’

These poems play with unreliable narrators and the reader is never sure what to believe. Of course, injustices happen, but it’s not always clear who is to blame. The same ideas and themes weave throughout these poems, which describe the repetitive and static lives of some in the Valleys. Many characters are on the dole and in revolt against a system which both gives them an income but also keeps them down. We sympathise with these characters and come to understand their struggles.

Howell has a warm presence on stage; she is informal and treats the audience as if we are close friends. At one point, she even says: ‘I keep forgetting you are all here, [I] feel like I’m in my bedroom’. Her presence is open and unguarded. After a big swig of lager, she put down ‘Rock Life’ and finished her set with a short story from her other published title ‘Inside the Treacle Well’.

After a break, the event continued with some musical acts. Beatbox Hann, who runs many of the beatbox events in Wales, including the Welsh Beatbox Championships, wowed everyone with his fast-paced, multi-layered music. There was an amazing vituosity to the sounds created, not just by his mouth, but also a bass which resonated throughout the room. He was joined by a young rapper, Chew, who gave us a frank piece about the government and his personal life. His rap included lines like ‘I’ve lost so many to suicide and drugs’, sharing a similar unapologetic attitude to Howell and a committment to expressing the truth about his experiences. Chew and Hann’s partnership worked well on stage and their energy filled the room.

The final performer was Geraint Rhys from Swansea whose music has been described as ‘political pop’. It was just him and a guitar, and his songs explored the problems faced by ‘the lost generation’ today. All the songs had similar themes, asking questions such as ‘where do we stand?’ and, in another, ‘what’s become of us?’ With his last song he encouraged people to come up on stage and dance, which they did, one of them being Howell, and the event ended with a sense of fun and several very wiggly hips!

This event was more than a launch for a collection of poems – it was a celebration. Howell’s performance was direct and honest, and she gives voice to a group of people who are usually unseen or misrepresented. It was refreshing to hear those Valleys accents, and to get to know characters who feel abandoned and are seen as being outside of society. They still have their own way of life; their own language. Many of the acts shared this sentiment. It was only fitting that after her thanks to all the acts and to the audience for coming along that Howell invited everyone to join her for a drink. And, we did.


Bethany W Pope appearing at The Cellar Bards (31/10/14)

-Reviewed by Carly Holmes

Bethany W Pope

For our Halloween gathering, The Cellar Bards thought that Bethany W Pope would make a perfect guest, dealing as she does, in much of her work, with the unsettling depths and truths that define us as human creatures, in our lives as well as our deaths.

I’d seen Bethany read her work at a couple of different events over the past year and thought that her performance style – a disarming mix of intimacy and joyful enthusiasm for words – would suit The Cellar Bards evening and crowd, where the emphasis is on celebrating writing in all of its forms and incarnations.

Bethany’s most recent poetry collection, Undisturbed Circles, hadn’t yet been formally launched and so the evening served as an unofficial launch night for it. She introduced the volume and explained something of the form she’d used in the writing of it. Her technical descriptions of double acrostic sonnet crowns were fascinating, and she went on to illustrate her descriptions by reading samples from the collection. ‘Fox Cycle’ was particularly, beautifully, intricate and made me wish that I had something on paper in front of me, a visual anchor for her words as she read them aloud.

The evening was divided into two halves, with each of Bethany’s slots being followed by an open mic session and separated by a break, when the audience were able to chat with her. There was a lot of interest in the poetic styles and forms she used in each of her collections and she was as engaging and informative off the stage as she had been on it. This poet’s passion for her subject, and expert knowledge of it, spread through the audience like a contagion and by the end of the break I had received several requests from people, who had been undecided about participating, to be added to the final open mic slot so that they could read out their own work.

I was already familiar with Bethany’s two previous collections, Crown of Thorns and A Radiance, and had been looking forward to her reading from them. Each poem has a fascinating back-story and from my memories of her previous performances, Bethany is generous in sharing these stories with the audience. This occasion was no different and no less enjoyable, with Bethany inserting a compelling narrative frame around each poem, demonstrating her skills as a prose writer and storyteller as well as a poet. She held the audience through poem after poem, and after the final open mic slot had ended, way beyond our usual finish time, she continued, with grace and enthusiasm, to talk to those members of the audience who hadn’t yet had a chance to speak to her.

In my role as host with The Cellar Bards I meet a lot of different writers, and I haven’t yet had reason to regret any of the bookings I’ve made. On the whole, us writers are a humble and pleasant bunch. Bethany W Pope, in her professionalism and her passion, both as a human being and as a writer, was a true delight and a guest the Bards will remember for a long time.