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D.M. Thomas on Cornwall, poetry and inspiration

World-renowned Cornish writer DM Thomas talks to Mac Dunlop about the personal tragedies and inspirations which inspired his latest collection of poetry, ‘Dear Shadows’.


MD:    You returned to live in Cornwall both as a child, and later as a professional writer, could you tell us a little about that?

DM:    As a boy I lived in South Downs, Redruth, but the 'family home', where we spent every Sunday, was at Carnkie, in a house next to the Wesleyan chapel which my grandfather had inherited from a mine captain uncle, called Sam Martin. We were “good” Methodists, not in a dogmatic way, but I was greatly influenced by Chapel hymns and the amazing sermons, often spontaneous and very funny.  When the Second World War came, my sister who was 10 years older than me, became a “war bride” and married an Australian. She left with him in 1947, but soon became homesick, and as things weren’t going so well for my father who was a builder, we emigrated to Australia when I was 14.

We were one of many “10 pound “migrants as they were called -10 pound each for the parents and as a child I went free - we had to stay for at least 2 years or pay the money back, but this time my father and I felt homesick, although my mother could have settled, and we came back to Cornwall in ’49.  But those two years in Australia were very important for my development intellectually and emotionally in many different ways, and I came back to Redruth Grammar School with some regret.

MD:    Why did you regret going back to school in Redruth?
DM:    Because it was all boys! I’d just had a few weeks of co-ed education in Australia and I liked it a lot! But back I had to go, and then I had to do National Service, where I was fortunate to learn Russian. After that I went to Oxford and read English, and then I started teaching and writing poetry. First I taught at Teignmouth in Devon, then I got a post at Hereford - where I taught and wrote for the next fifteen years, until regrettably the college was closed.

MD:    Is that when you decide to concentrate on your writing?

DM:    I thought, I’d try writing full time, and I was very lucky in that within a couple of years I’d unexpectedly written a best seller (The White Hotel).  That meant I could at least get by.  But with no college as a kind of centre and friends gone, I felt isolated, like a fish out of water - Hereford is about as far away from the sea as you can get in England! Of course, I’d always come to visit Cornwall, as an “Emmet” as we say, and I’d dreamt about returning. I eventually came back permanently in 1987. 

MD:    Could you explain the “Emmet” reference?

DM:    An  “Emmet” is like an ant, a Cornishman will scathingly refer to the hoards of tourists, as “They Emmets!”.  Another name for it is “Grammarsow” - but that probably needs even more explanation!

MD:    You felt that way even though you were born in Cornwall?

DM:    I’d been away for many years - and most of my family had died over that time, so I often ended up staying in a hotel or renting a cottage. That can give you a sort of half and half feeling, make you feel stranger. I did feel that this was my “home” but in other ways it no longer was. You can never step in the same river twice.

So when I moved back it was with great trepidation. I remember driving down the narrow drive to this very house, and I felt the restriction of the womb enclosing me, so to speak. I even rang my estate agent to ask if my Hereford house had really been sold! I’d have gone straight back, there and then! But I stayed, and now I’m really glad I did.

MD:    Did you delve into your own family history with similar trepidation when you were writing your recent collection “Dear Shadows”?

DM:    I have a great sense of my family’s past, in fact many of the family snapshots are actually from before I was born, such as when my parents had lived in California. My father lived there from 1920 to about 1930.  He came home to Cornwall in 1924 to marry my mother. That’s a kind of romantic story: They married on the morning of Easter Saturday, went to the rugby match at Redruth in the afternoon, then set sail for America in the evening! My father working in one of the early Hollywood film studios.  In fact my older sister is really an American as she was born there. That was the background to our little bungalow my Dad built in the ‘30’s at South Downs, Redruth.  There were always letters arriving from my father’s brothers who were still in America. In fact the Redruth house was called “Beverly” because my parents had lived near Beverly Hills.
So, America was always kind of important in my early life.  I think Cornwall has always had a little outreach to every part of the world.  In some ways Los Angeles seemed more familiar to me than London.  Then our emigration to Australia had a big impact on my life.  So a bit of me was cosmopolitan, and a bit of me was a village boy from Cornwall.

MD:    In your introduction to Dear Shadows, you say that these poems were actually a return to poetic form for you?

DM:    I’d written novels since about 1978, and I found it quite difficult to combine writing poetry with writing prose. Coming back to poetry was enormously difficult - in Dear Shadows the poems are very prose like, they’re stark and simple, I don’t attempt any flights of the imagination.  I tried to treat the poems almost like a photograph; this is how it was, this is what happened.  It was a transition back to verse for me.

MD:    You also bring the personal into the verse, you seem to have found a voice that you are comfortable with….

DM:    I feel that poetry is the most elemental of the written arts, and I’m happy to explore my feelings, and my experiences.  The poems in “Dear Shadows” are more elegiac, and the title itself is a quotation from W.B. Yeats.  “Not Saying Everything” is another very personal collection, it contains poems inspired by Denise, who was at first my mistress then later became my second wife. These two latest volumes, are probably my most personal, and that is deliberate.

MD:    Whose poetic voices have inspired you?

DM:    Well I mentioned Yeats, a great poet who also wrote very openly about sex: “For love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement, for nothing can be whole or sole that has not been rent!” It’s very strong stuff and an inspiration to not be afraid and just put it out there. Robert Frost, the American poet, for his truth to life, and his integrity in writing.  There’s the Celtic writers generally, for their mystical sense of the closeness between the realms of life and death, and male and female. Charles Causley, a wonderful Cornish poet, and friend.  Also Russian writers, like Boris Pasternak, when Doctor Zhivago came out with poems at the end I thought, “I’d like to be able to combine fiction writing and poetry”. To some extent I think I’ve been able to do that.


  Holding her, he has glimpsed at last
the soft white body; no more than that yet:
she is seasick; and will be, till the last day
of the voyage.  He will never truly penetrate,
to his life’s end, her winter greatcoat.
Though they’ll go on singing love-songs, each to each.
excerpt from ‘Snapshot 1’, Dear Shadows


  In the field behind ‘Beverly’,
the tiny bungalow he’s built after-work,
two miles from the family home, nestling under
Carn Brea just above my head
he is teaching me – not rugby,
which he has never played – but pride:
in our team, our race,
our class.
excerpt from ‘Snapshot 9’, Dear Shadows

MD:    Here in your study you’ve got a lovely view over the town of Truro, do you get inspiration simply from being in the land your birth?

DM:    Yes, although - in the way of most Celts - I probably wrote more about Cornwall when I was outside of it! It’s a good environment for a writer, I can’t think of one better.  Surrounded by the books I love, and the family pictures, I get a sort of  “numinous” feeling - that’s the only way I can put it - an almost holy feeling when I come in here.  I am with something that has been created over the years, the house itself is 250 years old, and that too gives a feeling of something good and solid…like Cornish granite!

MD:    There are three main chapters in your collection “Dear Shadows”.  The poems in the second section seem to come from a very painful place.

DM:    Well my second wife, Denise, died in 1998 of cancer.  She was only 53 and we had a young son in his late teens who was very devoted to his mother, and it was all incredibly painful. There is a photo I took of her in 1967 at Connamara, in Northern Ireland. Actually I also collected all the poems I wrote about Denise into one book, called “Not Saying Everything”.

“And if I slept for a couple of hours,
in the guest-room with the door locked,
I‘d be rushed out of sleep by your bursting in
shouting ‘And another thing!...’

But now you’ve walked out on me;
and I haven’t said everything.”
-extract from Coitus Interruptus, Dear Shadows, pg 57


MD:    Is controversy something that you’ve courted, or encouraged?

DM:    I don’t seek it, no. I just think well I’ve written something as good as I can make it. Obviously with a few poems, I know there are one or two people who will be upset…but I don’t court it …“The White Hotel” did extremely well, and it got rave responses, but it also got brick-bats. I also wrote a memoir called “Memories and Hallucinations” around the mid 80’s.  I was in a depression - I couldn’t write novels and I couldn’t write poems.

MD:    Because of the break up with your first wife?

DM:    The breakup, the children had left home, that kind of mid life thing. I also started missing my communal life at the college, the teaching – you make friends in an organization, and a writer’s life can be very lonely. Denise and I hadn’t started living together yet, and all sorts of feelings and reasons come into it, arising out of life situations, some are endogenous - they just sort of come.  Eventually I saw an Analyst, and I thought, well, if I can’t write anything imaginative or creative I’ll start setting down my memoirs. I was very honest, more honest than most writers I think, and that got a lot of flak. I remember being at the Groucho Club in London, and a well known journalist said “Oh I love your work, but my word!  You’re getting some stick aren’t you?” I suppose that - living down in Cornwall - I wasn’t very aware of it.  But you know “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”.

MD:    In the introduction you talk about returning to the poetic form, after a long period of writing prose, and translations - the biography of Solzhenitsyn, for example - they sound like they were jobs rather than labours of love.

DM:    Actually not the translations. I’ll only translate a Russian poet if I love them, that’s a labour of love. The biography of Solzhenitsyn, was a huge effort and I needed the money, but it just wasn’t me to be doing a lot of scholarly research, and that was really hard work. That was also when Denise was dying, so I was creatively and emotionally exhausted around that time - the end of the 90's.

MD:    There is quite a long gap between your last published collection of poetry (1981/82) and Dear Shadows (2004).

DM:    Yes, although there was a collection of selected poems between called “The Puberty Tree”. I was still writing a novel a year or thereabouts until the Solzhenitsyn biography. At that time, I thought that I wouldn’t go back to poetry at all, but I’m glad I did, and now I sort of feel I won’t write novels again, they’re a lot of hard work. I enjoy the miniature art of a poem, it might be only eight lines, a triolet* or something, and it can take all day, or it might take only an hour, and I can just enjoy myself.
*a poem of eight lines, typically of eight syllables each, and structured so that the first line recurs as the fourth and seventh and the second as the eighth.

MD:    There are some poems in “The Puberty Tree” where you take on the voice of characters, the Letters between Sigmund and Anna Freud for example…

DM:    It’s a form of mimicry in a way, if you hear a voice it almost helps to be able to limit yourself to what he or she might say. I use that in poems and dramatic monologues.  Particularly Freud. I write in his voice for a long section in “The White Hotel”.

MD:    Going back to your introduction, you talk about using poetic forms to bring out the voice that had hidden for so long beneath your prose writing.

DM:    I think I used the structures of formal poetry almost as a defense. I don’t feel that my poetry is verbally very rich, I don’t think I have that gift, and I’m still influenced by all the prose I wrote, so if I write using the form of say a “sestina”**– and I’ve done quite a few of those - then that’s the poetry side of it, and within that I can be fairly prosaic. But I’m also fascinated by these forms. Yeats talked about the “fascination of what’s difficult”.  Just as some people like doing the Times crossword.  Give me a complicated form and I’ll think “Oh, I’ll have a go at that!”
I think that writing is an attempt to find form and meaning in the chaos of experience, Like death, you wonder what’s it all about, and you don’t know, but if you can write about it then writing about it is your own little attempt to impose order on chaos.

**a poem with six stanzas of six lines and a final triplet, all stanzas having the same six words at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern, finally all six words appear again in a closing three-line stanza.

MD:    Lastly, does the Cornish landscape itself have a “voice” for you?

DM:    Yes!  The landscape that speaks to me most strongly is the Mine ruins, if one goes to Carnkie where I grew up – back then you could still hear the stamps beating away although the mines had closed down. 

Of course now its nature trails and so on, which is fine as it means they’ll be preserved. I think of the landscape as having both a masculine and a feminine character. There is the rugged side of it – Bodmin Moor, the coast - and then places like the Fal Estuary, and the Fowey, where the landscape is lush and fertile. That’s the Yin and the Yang of Cornwall.


Portraits of DM Thomas by Mac Dunlop

Black and White images are from DM Thomas’s private collection and appear by permission

“Dear Shadows” is published by Fal Publications,

To find out more about D.M. Thomas, visit his online blog at:

Other publications:
The Puberty Tree, published by Bloodaxe Books, 1992.
Not Saying Everything, published by Bluechrome Publishing, 2006