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A virtual audience with celebrated poet Damian Walford Davies

Posted by: Richard Martin - 03 October 2023 - Activities & Sports - Read time: 5 minutes

This is the third year that Damian Walford Davies has generously made himself available via Teams to discuss his poetical cycle Witch.

The webinar took place after school on 25th September in Queen’s Gate assembly hall. The 49 poems detail a sequence of events unfolding in an East Anglian village in the tumultuous 1640s with a false accusation being made against a peasant woman and her subsequent execution.

Damian and I discussed issues emerging from the collection, then Damian read from the collection and then the floor was thrown open to students to ask searching questions. This format has led to MPW students being privy to information not elsewhere documented. For example, I suggested to Damian a couple of years ago that I couldn’t read one of the poems (in which a father obliges his son to dress up in New Model Army style armour) without being reminded of that sequence in The Graduate (1967) when the character played by Dustin Hoffman is wearing a frogman outfit at the request of his parents. It turned out that Damian had been thinking of this very sequence. The stand-out question this year was asked by a student who wanted to know whether Damian might have had a misspent youth reading 2000 A.D. Far from being affronted by the question (!) Damian confirmed that the words of the witch finder, ‘Know the law? I am its very instrument’ borrow from Judge Dredd’s catchphrase in that comic: ‘I am the law’. The dystopic world depicted in 2000 AD in which law has become tyrannical is not so different from the world of the 1640s. The poet’s conscious anachronisms lead to a poetical cycle that has absolute integrity since far from being in quest of an ersatz (or imitation) authenticity, Damian acknowledges where he and the reader are situated.

In the first session we had with Damian, he identified these 14 line, free verse poems as ‘starved sonnets’ and this year he confided in us that he had toyed with the idea of borrowing the name of an East Anglian village for his fictional location (Damian’s specialism turns out to be cartography’s relation to literature.) ‘Eye’ had been the name mooted and the focus in the collection on optics makes this an intriguing choice.  Occasionally, I have made observations on Damian’s techniques (of which he was not consciously aware) and I hope thus that the sessions are almost as fruitful to him as they are undeniably to us.

Damian’s new poetical cycle about an Italian cyclist who won the Tour de France twice, in two separate decades seems a far cry from witch-hunting in the 1640s, but Gino Bartali worked undercover to rescue Jews from Nazi oppression, so a common thread is discernible in this poet’s work.  I would like to encourage all readers of this article to invest in a copy of Viva Bartali by Damian Walford Davies. I thank him on behalf of the college for giving so freely of his time.