Ken Edwards was born in Gibraltar in 1950 and grew up in a flat overlooking Main Street with his mum, dad, and younger sister Lesley. “One of my earliest memories is of being held up by my parents at the window to see the military band marching past on its way to the Convent,” Ken reveals. From a young age Ken immersed himself in drawing and painting, and as soon as he could read and write he produced stories and cartoons. He was considered a bright child at school. He attended Loreto Convent as an infant, then the Irish Christian Brothers’ school at Linewall and, after passing the 11-plus, to the Gibraltar Grammar School, also run by the Brothers.
At the age of 16, having been inspired by one of the Brothers (Brother McGrath), Ken decided he wanted to study English Literature at A Level. “Brother McGrath was unusual in that, despite his name, he was not Irish but English. He was a bit of a maverick, actually. I remember vividly him saying to the class that the first purpose of literature is to give pleasure: ‘If it doesn’t give pleasure, it’s not literature.’ This was tremendously subversive, I knew; a teacher in a Catholic school speaking well of pleasure! But, amazingly, he wasn’t qualified to teach A Level and so English was not offered as an option by the school at that time. So my parents applied for a John Mackintosh scholarship to send me to Prior Park College in Bath – also run by the Brothers! And there I spent perhaps the two most lonely and miserable years of my life, but since there was nothing else to do, I actually studied hard and got good enough A Levels to send me to King’s College London to read English.”
“They were weird and fantastic, but with contemporary settings.”
Once at King’s, Ken went on to co-edit poetry magazine Alembic, which led him to create poetry newsletter Reality Studios, which evolved into his poetry press, Reality Street. “Two other graduates from King’s and I formed a discussion group to talk about contemporary poetry. We met regularly to share what we were writing ourselves and also to discuss the exciting new poetry, associated with the small press movement, that was happening in Britain at the time, outside of mainstream institutions. Influenced by all this, we started a magazine called Alembic, at first to have an outlet for our own poetry, but later to publish work by other poets we got to know. This was way before anything like the internet, yet somehow we managed to make contact with other writers and poets across Britain and in the USA. This experience is documented in my memoir, Wild Metrics (Grand Iota, 2019).”
Later, Ken branched out on his own and started a poetry newsletter, Reality Studios, at first appearing monthly in the form of a dozen mimeographed sheets stapled together, but growing over a period of ten years into an annual printed volume. “In 1993, this turned into an independent poetry press, a partnership at first with another poet friend, Wendy Mulford. We named it Reality Street, and it published between 60-70 books until I wound it up in 2016.”
During the 1970s Ken was also writing short stories, influenced by writers like Kafka: “They were weird and fantastic, but with contemporary settings,” Ken explains. “I suppose today they would be called magic realism. I had some success with these. I even got paid sometimes! One story was selected for an annual anthology, New Stories, funded by the Arts Council of England. As a result, a commissioning editor for Chatto & Windus told me he’d like to see a novel from me. I had no idea how to write a novel, and spent the next few years trying, then finally decided the result was not good enough and binned it. So I missed that boat, but I went on to write better novels from the 1990s onward.”
When I asked Ken what poetry meant to him, he looked back fondly to his schooldays. “Whilst at the Gibraltar Grammar School, one of the lay teachers – the redoubtable Maurice Xiberras, who taught us History and Spanish – introduced us to the poetry of Lorca in Spanish. I was fascinated. When talking about the tremendous Romance de la Guardia Civil Española he warned us boys beforehand that there were some upsetting and gruesome descriptions. I felt I knew that poetic language intimately, and of course I had seen the Guardia Civil with their sinister, shiny black helmets and guns across the frontier in Spain, so I knew what all that was about.” Ken was also learning about the English Romantic poets in English class, and listening to the lyrics of Bob Dylan and The Beatles. “For me, poetry was all those things and more. It’s pleasure in language, first and foremost.”
So how does inspiration find Ken? “All writers get asked how inspiration comes to them. And the answer is that if you sit around waiting for inspiration, nothing will happen. I have a personal rule that I must write something every day, even if I don’t feel inspired. In fact, I have a postcard pinned to the noticeboard next to the computer on which I work, simply saying ‘WRITE!’ Just writing a sentence or a line fulfils that instruction for the day. But I usually find if I write a sentence it will lead to another sentence…”
I was eager to find out what Ken’s favourite piece that he’d written was, and the story behind it. “My favourite piece is always something I’ve done recently. I love the story about the great cellist, Pablo Casals, being asked why, in his nineties, he was still practising his instrument for hours every day. And he answered, ‘Because I feel I’m beginning to get somewhere!’ I’m amazed to find that I’m now in my seventies. I can’t believe it. And I too feel I’m just beginning to get good. So I’ll nominate my most recently published novel, The Grey Area (Grand Iota, 2020). I really started work on that when my wife Elaine and I moved in 2004 from London (where I’d lived for 35 years) to Hastings on the south coast of England. We spent a lot of time walking in the country and along the shore nearby and I wrote reams and reams of observations, which started turning themselves into a mystery novel. The characters and the story just emerged out of the mist. A strange experience.
And what can we expect to see from Ken in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future? “Elaine has been taking these photos on her iPhone every morning when she goes out for a run by the sea. They are quite abstract: close-ups of rust-stained walls, shingle, moss. There is a homeless man who lives down there, near the beach, sleeping in a tent beside a public bench. I’ve taken to imagining his inner life and writing his imaginary story. We’re thinking we might put those pieces of work together one day and create a book with my text and her photographs on facing pages.” Ken writes more prose than poetry these days, but his Collected Poems are soon be published by Shearsman Books: “I’m looking forward with some trepidation to that,” Ken admits. He is also a partner (with a friend in Brighton, Brian Marley) in a new independent publisher, Grand Iota, which publishes new prose (fiction and non-fiction). “I do that purely for the love of it.”
I couldn’t finish the interview without asking Ken to impart some advice to those wishing to follow in his career footsteps. “If you really want to be a creative writer, don’t ever expect to make a living from it. The vast majority of writers, even published writers, don’t. In my case, I went into journalism to make ends meet, most recently working for the NSPCC and the Royal College of Nursing. But I’m retired from that game now, and Elaine, who’s a musician and music teacher, is on the point of retiring, so we’re happy to devote our time to creative pursuits. And maybe we’ll get somewhere!”