‘I’m working more now than I have in years’ – A South Welsh poet on life after lockdown

Local poet Johnny Giles
Johnny Giles is a stalwart of the Cardiff poetry scene

Local poet Johnny Giles on how he got through mental health problems and writer’s block to resume his creative practice after lockdown 

Johnny Giles, 29, from Cardiff, is a fixture of South Welsh poetry slams and competitions, has been published multiple times, had a book out from a small local press, and typically writes and performs as much as he can. Then Covid-19 happened, upending his creative process and his social life in one fell swoop – as well as plunging him into depression. 

A page from Johnny Giles' notebook
A page from Johnny Giles’ notebook

Tall at 6 ft 4in, yet seemingly diffident and faltering at times, Johnny becomes expansive and self-assured when talking about his writing. He writes about “everything and anything” including mental health, war, politics and episodes from his personal life. 

His actual writing – the physical scribble – is something to behold; his notebooks are works of art in their own right. Columns of poems, songs, names and gnomic fragments of tiny text take up almost every part of the dog-eared pages. Densely allusive, occasionally silly yet intensely serious, his poems sometimes seem to channel equal parts Dylan Thomas and John Cooper Clarke.

A portrait of the artist as a young man

Between puffs on his cigarette, Johnny says of his writing, “It’s always been a crutch for me.” Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Aspergers as a teenager, he describes himself as introverted and admits, “I can  be quite an obsessive person.”

I can be quite an obsessive person

He says that writing, performing and going to poetry events around Cardiff and South Wales has provided him with a “Good outlet to push myself- to know that anxiety doesn’t have to hold me back” – as well as broadening his social circle.

While Johnny says that the coronavirus pandemic “didn’t seem quite real” at first, it had a massive effect on his mental health once the full impact of events set in. “I’m quite used to having my own company, so in theory, I thought it would be easy,” Johnny says. But lockdown had the opposite effect, driving him to a point he describes as “lonelier than I’d ever been.”

As well as dealing with his own mental health, Johnny had concerns for his family. Living with his mother – diagnosed during lockdown with a chronic lung condition and diabetes – he was worried that he would present a risk just by being there. “I didn’t want to be the guy who killed off their own mother!” he says. 

Poet Johnny Giles Reading in Cardiff
Johnny has regularly performed In Cardiff

Initially, Johnny went through an intense period of writer’s block: “For a while, it stifled my creative process. The obvious thing would be to have written about it [coronavirus restrictions], but I didn’t want to be the ten-thousandth person writing about something which is everywhere.” Eventually, he began recording his thoughts in his kitchen, stream-of-consciousness style; he credits this with making his writing more “meditative,” getting him back into his creative practice. 

After the lockdown, Johnny says “It made me appreciate things more.” He plans to publish a book based on song lyrics called Word Music, with a tentative release date in the new year. He’s back to performing now; after feeling “a bit rusty” at first, he recently got to the finals of the annual Swansea Poetry Slam. It’s a far cry from lockdown, when performance opportunities were scant: “Before restrictions were lifted, I even borrowed a microphone from a busker just so I could perform,” he says. “Now, I’m working more than I have in years.” 

Johnny Giles’ favourite South Welsh poets now:

Mab Jones

“She has so much range – she can do serious and humorous,  page-based poetry and performance poetry equally well.” https://mabjones.com/

Des Manny

“His political work is second to none on the Welsh scene at the moment. He’s got a book out: Sod’em and Tomorrow, on waterloo press.”

Zaru Johnson

“His stuff can be quite surreal – Inspired by the beats and hip hop in equal measure. Winner of the John Tripp award a few years back.” https://about.me/zarujonson

Gareth Twamley

“Part of the South Wales super-group called The Pride. Works as well with music as it does with spoken word.” Watch an interview here.

Listen to the audio version of this article to hear Johnny perform readings of two of his poems.