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Read All About It: 'Ex Libris' by David Hughes (ed. Antony Dunn)

A tremendous collection of poetry published posthumously by Valley Press this month. In his lifetime, writer and educator David Hughes submitted just a few of his poems for publication and only on a very rare occasion: for the first time, his poems will be brought together in Ex Libris, edited by Antony Dunn, writer, poet, and Hughes’ friend.

Hughes taught English at St. Peter’s School in York, which was where he and the editor of this collection first crossed paths; from speaking to Dunn in the interview below, it is clear that he had a great influence on his students. Dunn is now a published poet with three collections of poetry.

Hughes wrote over 200 poems throughout his life. As is the case for many writers, putting his experiences into words seemed to be a therapeutic way for Hughes to process the aftermath of two pivotal events which shaped and influenced the majority of his poems. The first was watching a friend and colleague die tragically in a mountaineering accident. The second was being attacked by a troubled young friend who was later imprisoned for the assault. This made for exquisitely detailed and expressive writing, bringing the reader closer to the experiences.

The collection is an astonishing achievement; Hughes may not have been widely-published as a poet in his lifetime but perhaps with this new collection, his name will take a place amongst well-known poetic voices in the UK.

What stood out to you about David Hughes’ poetry while editing the collection?

It was a year after David died that his family passed me all his papers, poems, and correspondence from his computer. Many of the poems I knew already but there were many more I’d never seen.

My original plan for the poems wasn’t necessarily to publish a collection – I wanted to make sure his family had a definitive copy of a final version of every poem that he’d written. As I worked my way through that process, it became very clear that there was a book waiting to be shaped from the best of the poems.

What really stood out, I think, was how they grouped themselves together so coherently – the poems written in the aftermath of the death of his friend and colleague Barry Daniels in a mountaineering accident; the poems written during the imprisonment of his young friend who had been arrested for cutting David’s throat; the war poems; the landscape poems.

It’s not that his range of interests is narrow, but the poems address some ideas repeatedly in different ways. It’s really striking, for example, how international historical events cast a strange light over so many of his own personal experiences. These are poems which are really rich in learning and knowledge although they wear that very lightly.

How did he influence your own writing?

David was the first real influence on my poetry-writing but it was him rather than his poems that influenced me. He was an English teacher at my school, though he never taught me formally. When I was fifteen, I’d written scores and scores of lyrics for a pop band, and somehow they came into David’s possession. He was kind enough to write comments on them all – really constructive ones – which amounted to a plea for me to adopt a more technical approach and see if what I was writing might turn into poems. And it did.

He was a very astute, patient guide as I started writing, and he had confidence in what I was doing, even when I didn’t, which was an invaluable experience. He introduced me to poetry outside the classroom – Ted Hughes and Edward Thomas in particular – and showed me that I could really love poems. And most importantly of all, I think, he let me experience how reading poems and writing poems were two halves of the same thing.

What sort of response would you hope for this collection to receive?

Well, there’s one obvious answer to that – the kind of response that I received from Brian Patten (“a wonderful collection of poems”) and Helen Mort (“poetry of generous precision, grace and gratitude”) when advance copies were sent out.

David published very few poems during his lifetime and I’m conscious that there’s not a big national fanbase waiting for this collection. So I hope people discover this ‘new’ voice and feel that it’s one that really belongs in the firmament of poetry published in the UK.

By the way, it’s worth saying that Jamie McGarry at Valley Press has made a very beautiful artefact of this book – it’s a lovely thing to handle!

Ex Libris is out now and available to order on our website.