We caught up with Cahal Dallat, current poet/musician in residence at Cyprus Well whom we are sponsoring in partnership with our friends at The Charles Causley Trust. We found out more about his work so far and his recent event at The 2017 Charles Causley Festival.
You’ve been in post as Cyprus Well’s poet/ musician in residence for just over a month now. Can you give a us a ‘day in the life’ at Cyprus Well and tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing so far?
My ‘routine day’? Well, there hasn’t been one so far, though there are those things I try to do daily: like crossing the Tamar and walking half-an-hour to the first cluster of Devon villages on the old road behind the A30’s roar, as I see Charles Causley’s inheritance as jointly Cornwall-and-Devon. But with so many other directions to walk/explore, town and castle, back road to St Thomas Hamlet where Charles spent his first years by St Thomas’ Water, and all the Launceston locations that crop up in his poems… And I spend thinking time daily in the garden, weather permitting, and it has been generously permitting to date.
I rise at six (always have done), perhaps to walk before Launceston’s rush-hour, catching birdsong in the Kensey Valley, though sometimes that pilgrimage is left until the day’s heat has settled; often simply to write, with a view across the valley’s May/June morning brightness and an uncluttered mindscape; or maybe it’s to re-write music-scores because a teacher’s messaged the night before to say we now have a trumpeter in tomorrow’s session and I’m hurriedly thinking muted jazz horn for Charles’s Ballad of the Breadman? Or paso doble fanfare for the exiled Castillian queen in Katharine of Aragon?
Which begins to answer what I’ve been doing, what the actual project involves: writing new settings for Charles’ poems, some v. 16c echoing the sometimes ‘Elizabethan’ mood, and, for more contemporary poems, new compositions in 20c styles and musical genres – those he’d have been familiar with from his dance-band-piano days and from his ongoing interest in jazz, blues and popular music. And working with music students in three colleges locally to create performances of the new settings at Launceston Castle and at Wadebridge’s Cornwall Folk Festival on Thu 24 Aug, Charles’s birth-centenary: a way of looking at his poetry of the past hundred years through the shifting musical fashions of that century (and several earlier centuries).
So, apart from daily observances, I fill my time easily with: music workshops in schools; research in Charles’s archive at Exeter; conversations with Causley Trustees, local councillors, historians, booksellers, writers, neighbours, friends, folk and classical musicians, Festival organisers, Cornwall Music Service Trust, poetry groups, with Jim Causley, a distant cousin and great (and greatly informative) folk singer and musician, and with all the Causley enthusiasts, advocates, critics and supporters who’ve made the Causley Festival such compulsive attendance! Plus e-mail exchanges with poets and academics who’ve written to me since I’ve started here – or to whom I’ve written on various Causley-related quests. Busy and constantly varied days.
As a London-based poet, what drew you to the Causley residency particularly?
The real attraction was Charles Causley’s poetry and its musical potential which I’d first explored way back.
And yes, I’m London based, but I grew up in a Launceston-sized town (Ballycastle, County Antrim), where my father, like Charles Causley, had stayed in the town he was born in, taught in the town’s school, played in its dance-bands, and was both deeply engaged with the town’s past – local history, place-names, legends, characters – and committed to realising the potential of all those who passed through the school system. So I understand Charles Causley’s life at a number of levels.
When I’m in the market square, especially at half-past-eight or nine in the morning as shops are opening and people are heading into work, it’s Ballycastle all over again, all very familiar and easy to adapt to.
One of the focuses of your residency is creating new settings for Causley’s work. As a poet/ musician can you comment on the relationship between poetry and music and how this impacts upon your interpretation of Causley’s work?
To revisit some of what I said at the Saturday evening festival event/recital I gave at Launceston Town Hall with my wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe… As well as readings, talks and workshops, Anne-Marie and I have been doing poetry-and-music performances at venues, festivals, and universities (here and in Ireland and US) for some years, often on the intersections between literature and Irish or Ulster-Scots airs, ballads, dance tunes. And Anne-Marie, in running London’s Troubadour poetry, has always woven music into those Poetry Mondays as well as pioneering one-off fusion events, with poets reading against an improvised music background.
All of that goes back, for us, to a ceilidh culture where everyone had a contribution, music, song, poem ‘recital’ or story, and my first teenage experiences of poetry ‘off the page’ were a John Hewitt reading alongside a Celtic harper, and a Seamus Heaney evening along with folk-singer Davy Hammond and jazz-poet Michael Longley. So it wasn’t long before I was setting Yeats’s more obviously musical poems, and Charles Causley’s, to music with a small jazz/folk group.
And Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan had as much to do with my first writing poetry as did Seamus Heaney, Wallace Stevens, Anna Akhmatova…
But despite Yeats use of the term singing school I don’t think poems are songs or vice-versa. And I don’t get into the ‘Dylan is better than Keats’ argument which is based on a category error. So I’m not automatically in favour of all settings of poems to either folk music or ‘composed’ music. Where the form and structure make the setting-to-music obvious, there’s a danger of the poem’s riches and subtleties – linguistic, rhythmical, verbal – being swamped by the music’s persuasiveness. Sometimes it’s more effective to read a poem – even where it has that strong ‘song’ tendency – against a musical background than to ‘make a song of it’.
But apart from music helping promote the poems, the critical test is whether the music connects with, or adds a dimension to, the meaning of the poem, which means every task of setting a poem, or composing new music for a poem, means starting with a deep understanding of the poem and its contexts.
Do you have any advice for poets considering a residency of this kind- what would you say are the major benefits to your work?
If your project involves understanding more about a poet’s work (and not all residencies have those aims), then prepare to be overwhelmed in a case such as that of Charles Causley where a place, its history, its life and its people (many of whom remember him) are deeply embedded in the work. Five weeks in and I’m still learning, will still be learning when I leave, but it’s totally absorbing, and impossible to say no to yet another meeting, conversation, event, e-mail exchange, and the sum total of the books, records and sheet music in the Cyprus Well house alone would warrant more time than I have here. The major benefit is absorption in a writers’ work and life, not just in terms of informing the music I’m writing/arranging, but in terms of one’s ongoing thoughts on the writer’s life, the poet’s life, the poet’s obligations and opportunities.
If you had to choose, which of Charles Causley’s poems would you say is your favourite and why?
I tend to change my mind on this one from day to day! But just today I’ve been taking Launceston College students through a new piece I’ve written for a poem called School at Four O’Clock. Which has, in our collaborated version, vocals, piano, guitar, tenor and alto sax: plangent, full of ninths and major-sevenths and thus very 1950s/60s – and with a soaring middle-eight.
The scene it conjures up – the tableau our arrangement and playing have to do justice to – has a tired schoolteacher (in some teen opera perhaps) with his raincoat on, and his briefcase on the edge of the desk, pausing – ready for home – to think about school, corridor chaos, the kids themselves, their social contexts, their futures…
The composition is Sondheim-like, almost recitative, conversational, as Charles’ reflections, in the poem, fill an absence I feel, where not enough poets write about work, perhaps because few of them are involved in the kind of routine work that Charles did as a schoolteacher while becoming and remaining a poet of national and international stature. Yet if poets are to address what thousands of people feel, in classrooms, staffrooms, offices, factories, why can’t work be a fit subject? Not Charles Causley the children’s poet, war poet, Cornish poet, religious poet, but Charles Causley the late 20c realist, Charles Causley in the dayjob.
Thank you Cahal!
Find out more about Cahal’s residency here