Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Frances Presley on How She Writes a Poem

‘See if the draft poem has thematic and technical substance or throw it away. Subject it to all the tests you can think of.’ 

In September’s instalment of ‘How to write a poem’ Frances Presley shares her lovely and instructive wisdom for approaching a poem:

1. Write a sequence of poems with a theme and a form, such as Neolithic stone settings and visual poetics. It means you don’t have to constantly think about how to write the next poem, but should be flexible enough to allow changes of direction.

2. Be in a landscape. Take with you a pre-determined poetic. See what happens when it is subject to land slips and torrential rain. Abandon conscious control and note what happens around you and inside you.

3. Try ‘blind writing’ which like ‘blind drawing’ focuses on the thing seen rather than the page and allows the lines, the words, to emerge. Use all your senses and remember that the referee with peripheral vision is no use if her brain is blind.

4. Be in a source text. Lift the language of other writers, both good and bad. Look in the archives of forgotten women, such as Exmoor historian Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, for their letters, unpublished manuscripts and diaries. Rewrite and redesign source texts to reveal their concealed meanings.

5. Collaborate with artists, musicians and, for a real challenge, other poets. Through collaboration you create something that is neither one nor the other but a third entity. The best collaboration is simultaneous, non-hierarchical and feminist, as well as an act of love.

6. See if the draft poem has thematic and technical substance or throw it away. Subject it to all the tests you can think of.

Frances seaweed

 

 

Frances Presley is a poet whose writing is widely published. Most of her work up until 2009 can be found in Paravane (Salt, 2004); Myne (Shearsman, 2006) and Lines of Sight (Shearsman, 2009). Since then she has produced An Alphabet for Alina with artist Peterjon Skelt (Five Seasons, 2012) and Halse for Hazel (Shearsman, 2014) which received an Arts Council award, with its companion volume, Sallow (Leafe, 2016). Her work is in the anthologies Infinite Difference (2010), Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (2011) and Out of Everywhere2 (2015). She has translated Salt on the eye: selected poems, by Hanne Bramness (Shearsman, 2007); Outside the Institution: selected poems by Lars Amund Vaage (Shearsman, 2010) and No film in the camera by Hanne Bramness (Shearsman, 2013). She lives in London but also writes in Somerset with the visual poet and performer Tilla Brading. You can also find Frances’ poems in Poetry Wales Spring 2016 Vol 51.3.

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Sallow was published last year by Leafe Press. It continues a long sequence of poems about the languages of trees, Halse for Hazel (Shearsman, 2014), especially those used by women, including local dialect and botanic classification. Halse for Hazel began on the hills of Exmoor and Sallow explores low lying wetland areas, mapping political and environmental pressures. ‘Crack willow’ is a collaborative text with Harriet Tarlo from a walk near her home in Yorkshire. The poems are juxtaposed with images by the artist Irma Irsara.

Sallow, by Frances Presley with images by Irma Irsara, 24pp, published by Open House editions, an imprint of Leafe Press, www.leafepress.com. £4.50 (inc. postage), £6.50 RRP.

‘I found her work a highly pleasant revelation, at once thoroughly alert and judged yet delightfully manic and far-reaching in its wildness, risks and resultant freedoms’ David Morley, Poetry Review

 ‘Presley’s work sleights the relationship between landscape and language, each deploying (or deployed) as markers for the human eye.’ C. Waldrep, Kenyon Review

Sophie McKeand on How She Writes a Poem

‘As the years roll by I feel I am no longer waiting at a dried-up riverside, instead I’m slowly metamorphosing into the river, and that is as much as I can hope for.’

 

Since discovering the mental landscape existed over a decade ago I’ve realised how important it is to cultivate this space when creating. For years if I’d have been asked to look inward I’d have told you there was nothing, just blackness; a void. Now I realise I was looking with my eyes closed – I was never taught how to open them. I don’t think many of us are.

I’ve been thinking, talking and writing a lot about anarchy lately. As I become more deeply involved with the process of creating it teaches me that the very act of dreaming any artform is pure anarchy. Anarchy is the antithesis of ‘doing as you are told’, or being a well-behaved cog in the machine. To create is to be autonomous; to think for yourself; to better understand the self. To truly explore another’s art is to be fully aware of your own ideas and opinions.

A river of inspiration flows through my mental landscape. I have yet to discover her source but nevertheless she sends various objects downstream for me to shape into language. When I first began working in this way I would try to control her direction and speed, or I’d ignore the latest offering if it wasn’t something the ego wanted to write about and wait for the next, or the next-but-two thing to come along. Invariably this just caused a horrific log-jam and I’ve spent months in the past bereft and crying when downriver dried up.

Now I write things as they come and have faith that, even if they’re not meant for the world in the sequence in which they arrive, they’re meant for me in that order. I have endless files of work I’ve not used, or may never use, but it all has to be written so that the thing I do use can materialise, and I learn from every piece written. The subconscious knows this. I think I’m finally grasping what it is to ‘know not-knowing’, to quote Lao Tzu.

When I was younger my grandfather wanted me to write with the right hand and encouraged me away from being my natural left-handed self. He meant well, but it has just left me with terrible left-handed handwriting and a preference for typing work straight onto a MAC or, as I’m doing now, an iPad.

To a very organised writer I must appear horribly unstructured when working. I keep the iPad next to my bed (all social media apps have been removed and the phone remains downstairs), and when feeling balanced I’ll often wake naturally around 5am with the remnants of a dream or beginnings of a poem. Sometimes I don’t write for days, but when I do I have to get it all down quickly and, if I don’t have workshops to get to, will work like this until around 10am then get up and face the day. This is my favourite method of writing but I can write anywhere. I often stop in the middle of the street to write something on my iPhone and I’ve synced the apps so I don’t lose any work. When I’m working on a piece it’s constantly running in the background of my mind – like a film playing in another room. At home, sometimes I don’t start writing until 4/5pm and then I might keep going until 9/10pm. I write in intense bursts of around 5hrs at a time, and try (but often fail) not to let that be disrupted by workshops, emails, social media and life. An early run or evening bike ride are also good for generating ideas.

When I’m facilitating and dreaming workshops and community participatory projects I cannot write the same because then the creative energy, quite rightly, belongs to the community. The river changes course and I’ve handed over a number of ideas, titles, themes and poems to these projects that I might have liked to keep for myself, but that is not the nature of community work. You have to give them everything.

I say I look horribly unstructured but it has taken over a decade to get to the point where the inspiration flows freely, unblocked and untamed. Learning to let go control and allowing the wilderness to take over has been painstakingly difficult because that isn’t who I was. The problem with a new ecosystem taking root and flourishing is accepting that a number of years will be spent in the hinterland as a natural balance slowly evolves.

Am I fully there yet? No.

But as the years roll by I feel I am no longer waiting at a dried-up riverside, instead I’m slowly metamorphosing into the river, and that is as much as I can hope for.

Sophie McKeand is an award-winning poet, TEDx speaker, and the current Young People’s Laureate Wales. She was listed as one of 30 people ‘shaping the Welsh agenda’ over the next 30 years by the Institute for Welsh Affairs, and is a Literature Wales bursary recipient for 2017. Sophie has performed internationally, in Ireland and at the Kolkata Literature Festival, India. Her poetry collection Rebel Sun is published by Parthian Books. Sophie’s poetry can also be found in the Summer 2016 volume 52.1 of Poetry Wales.

www.sophiemckeand.com

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Eric Ngalle Charles on how he writes poetry

‘I write then I revisit until I can relive the memory again exactly as I remember it.’

Eric Ngalle Charles is a Cameroonian born Wales based writer, poet and dramatist. He provides us with a vivid insight into his writing process and how memory inspires and informs his poetry.

‘I have little memory triggers. The other day I saw an insect with very tiny legs, it looked like it was doing press-ups on this huge tree, it took me back in time to when my mother first told me about the antics of the ‘’Molikilikili’’ (preying mantis) and the Ngo’le (millipede) as we sat around the fireside and the August rains pounded the thatch roof of our kitchen.

Two years after my daughter was born I wrote a poem ‘Playing with your white hair’ which was published in my first poetry anthology Between a Mountain and a Sea. As I plaited her hair, the memory carried me all the way to when I was 11 years old growing up in a place called Mundemba in Ndian Division, Cameroon. One of my chores was to search my brother in law’s head for white hair. He was like a father to me, ‘What greater love express from father to son than playing with your white hair’ is a line from the poem. I write then I revisit until I can relive the memory again exactly as I remember it.

I am fascinated by blindness as a metaphor. Ben Okri writes in his book, Famished Road, ‘We are all born blind, some chose to see, some chose to remain blind.’ James Baldwin takes it even further by asking ‘Can blindness be desired? What have those eyes seen to desire to see no more?’ In these post-truth times I guess as a poet we have the duty to ask, ponder this issue of blindness, do we allow the chaotic state of the world to continue? Shall we speak or shall we all retire into a hill in Abertawe. These are the kind of questions my mind asks, these are the things that trigger different memories.

Each poem is as unique as its author. When I was travelling from Swansea to LLandudno, the view, the mountains, the sea inspired Hiraeth, it reminded me so much of home that I wrote the poem ‘Between a Mountain and a Sea’ as a tribute to Wales and at the same time planning my homecoming.

Last but not least, I am fascinated by languages, if I hear people quarrelling, lovers holding hands and speaking, ‘my spirit craves, my mind wonders’ – I want to be under a tree and just drift.’

Eric’s poetry can be found in Poetry Wales volume 52.2 , Winter 2016 issue.

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Emily Blewitt’s ‘How I Write a Poem’

With April comes spring and so does an exciting poetry collection by a fresh new voice. Emily Blewitt shares her thoughts on how to write a poem with us.

‘The poem has to have time to settle before I edit. I have to trust that whatever cul-de-sacs or corners I’ve written myself into, I’ll be able to escape.’

I can write anywhere, more or less, but I must have space: head-space; space on the page. I like to write in notebooks, first. The notebook must be good, but not too good to spoil.

The initial idea niggles, humming in the background. Sometimes, a single line appears first. I take it for a walk, test its stamina. There are lines that haunt. There are texts I read that enable writing because their rhythm is infectious. I see something, or remember something, in a different way because of them. I notice the world and its potential. I witness – look at this, this. This here is true; this is important. It usually happens when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

I handwrite first and then move to the laptop to write through the initial draft. And it is through – there is no way but through. My ideas shift and transform; the trick is not to be disappointed. If I’m lucky, there’ll be a tipping point – a point at which the words take on a momentum of their own, quickly and surprisingly. The words become a poem, and this poem often has very little to do with the original intention of writing a poem. The stabilisers come off; we’re free-wheeling down the hill; it feels like flight. The poem sings. It almost – but not quite – writes itself. Perhaps it gives the impression of writing itself, but I have to run to catch up with it. I do catch up with it.

The poem has to have time to settle before I edit. I have to trust that whatever cul-de-sacs or corners I’ve written myself into, I’ll be able to escape. This calls for faith – though not the religious sort. I have to stop tinkering for a little while, to trust that the poem will find its shape. That I’ll find the balancing point again. It becomes intuitive, to know when to press the thing and when to leave it.

Emily Blewitt was born in Carmarthen, Wales. She studied at Oxford and York, and has a PhD from Cardiff University, where she specialised in poetic representations of pregnancy in nineteenth-century and contemporary women’s writing.  She has published poetry in The Rialto, Ambit, Poetry Wales, The Interpreter’s House, Furies, Hinterland, Brittle Star, and Cheval, and was Highly Commended for best individual poem in the 2016 Forward Prizes. Her debut poetry collection, This Is Not A Rescue, is published by Seren Books. Emily’s poetry featured in spring 2016 issue of Poetry Wales, 51.3.

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Interview: Christopher Meredith

 

For his essay on Poet-Novelists in our Summer 2015 issueDai George interviewed Christopher Meredith at his home in the Black Mountains. We’re delighted to publish the edited transcript of the conversation online.

Christopher Meredith’s first novel Shifts won the Arts Council of Wales Fiction prize and was recently shortlisted for the title of Greatest Welsh Novel of All Time. His second novel, Griffri, was shortlisted for the Book of the Year Award in 1992. His fourth novel, The Book of Idiots, was published to acclaim in 2012. Volumes of poetry include The Meaning of Flight and his most recent collection Air Histories.  http://christophermeredith.webs.com

 

Dai George: How did you come into poetry and fiction?

Christopher Meredith: It’s hard to remember. I think in my teens I started to write some poetry, none of which survives, thank God – the world has been spared – and I also wrote some songs. Interestingly, I saw the songs and the poetry as being pretty separate from one another. And not a lot of fiction. When I was in university I remember reading Joyce, and I remember thinking, in that way that you do when you’re 18 or 19, that poetry was finished. I decided I was going to write fiction, and I started with short stories. I wrote half a dozen unfinished short stories, partly under the influence of Joyce and an American writer called James Leo Herlihy. What I noticed about their short stories is how worked they are – without being pat, how complete they are – and that’s what I wanted to do in the fiction that I started to write. And it was tremendously hard work. I didn’t write a lot, and I don’t think most of it was any good, but I learned an enormous amount. Much of that stuff feeds into what you do when you write a poem as well.

When I was in my 20s, a little bit later, I actually went back to poetry, partly because after various interludes and various other bits of work, I became a schoolteacher. I was put in a position where I was forced to stand up in front of classrooms full of adolescents and talk about poetry, and it made me look at poetry again, harder – including poems I didn’t much care for in some cases, though I had to be an advocate for them. Often it just seems like drudgery while you’re doing it, but what you discover is that you learn how to read attentively. A lot of that process is learning to read. My friend Jeremy Hooker is one of those people who’re good at teaching people how to read attentively, so that you see connections, interplays and patterns of imagery in texts, whether they’re intentional or unintentional. It’s like listening to music, learning how to hear the notes.

In terms of making a work cohere, there’s not a distinction between whether it’s a poem or a piece of prose fiction. To me, then, it seemed natural to work in ‘both codes’. Also, if you’ve got a day job, poetry is more amenable to get composed and get published. It was even then. So then I was writing poetry, though prose was always lurking in the background. Not short stories – I never really got good enough with my attempts at that, though I continued to try occasionally. I had a bit of success with poetry, when my first little book of poems came out in 1984, and as I’m sure you know, Dai, you feel you can die a contented man, that moment you first get the book inside your hands. It’s a wonderful moment.

At the same time, the early 80s were a grim time, politically. The poetry I was writing then, I’d defend a lot of it now, but it wasn’t connecting enough with other stuff, in the world.

 

DG: Politically?

CM: In the broadest sense. In one sense, everything’s political. You know, I had a friend then who was in prison without coming to trial. Those were grim times. The early 80s were much, much harsher than anyone remembers. Nobody was starving, quite, but they were politically tough times – a time of political fear. I was aware of that, and I just wanted to do something that would get away from me in the writing. The thing, then, that turned into Shifts – which had been lurking – got written.

 

‘Got written’, but while you were working full-time in Brecon High School. A lot of labour must have gone into it.

I’ve tried to add up how long it took. It was hopeless really. By the time that little book of poems came out, I did have – I don’t know how much, maybe 15-20,000 words of stuff. But that had been years of working at it in a desultory way. I made a decision, having published the book of poems, that I needed to do something more – something less personal. I think good writing has a kind of impersonal quality.

I decided to work on it every day. That’s how it got written. My rule was ‘you will write one sentence’ – even if it’s just a sentence. I think one day I did cheat, I just put three asterisks along the page to separate one section from another, but once I made that decision the draft was finished in about eight months, even with a job and a young family.

 

When did you carve out that time during the day?

I just made the space, you know. I mean, it was often in the evening – I don’t know if I’d have the energy to do it now, frankly. I used to have a little ritual on a Monday, when I’d go to my local library. I got in the car and I drove very slowly, with great pleasure in driving six miles on an empty road, till I got to the library and I had one hour where I would work, and I made myself work for that hour. Then I drove back. Routines, you know? I remember the poet Gavin Ewart being interviewed. Journalists tend to assume that poets are people who wear flowery scarves and prance through fields of flowers, and he was having one of those interviews. The journalist goes, ‘How do you become a poet?’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s just a sort of habit.’ I remember thinking, that’s a pathetic answer – but now I can see it as a great virtue.

 

Have you ever approached writing poetry with anything like that deliberate ritual?

Not in the same way that I would write a sentence of the novel every day, or Browning – I think it was Browning – would write a poem. But there have been occasions where, yeah, you do work at it. I found it very helpful recently to have a couple of month-long residencies in Finland and Slovenia, and the great thing about those is that people actually expect you to write something. The rest of the time nobody gives a toss whether you write something or not. But there, people are watching you and expecting you to write, and that’s good! Because it makes you work. Occasions like that, I have actually got up in the morning and worked at poems, and you can. You can do that.

So even there, there’s not much of a distinction. With a novel, there’s just a lot of it, so you need to keep going, even on the days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.

 

Do you feel you can work on fiction when the muse isn’t there, in a way that’s harder with poetry?

I don’t know. You do have to keep working on the days that you don’t want to. The thing that’s asking to be written may not be asking to be written on that particular day. The question may have been asked some months ago. There are days when you have to be like a printmaker. You’ve made drafts of the piece, and today you’re just going through the drudgery of cutting this plate and moving it there, putting it through the machine and seeing how it goes. There’s a bit of you that becomes a slave to that other bit. You’d go crazy if you expected the muse to touch you every single day – or maybe some people do.

For the most recent novel, The Book of Idiots, I had very little time – I had a little bit of time away from my work in the University and I thought: I’m going to do this. I worked every day, I wrote a lot every day, I wrote more than I thought I had every day, and by my standards I wrote a first draft in a very short period of time. I can’t possibly have felt possessed by whatever it is that possesses you every day, you know? I’d be dead. There are some days when it feels humdrum.

 

I’d like to talk about Air Histories and Shifts, as those are the two books of yours that I’ve read within the last year. Your first novel and your latest poetry collection, and I’ve actually been struck by how – though in different genres, and at different ends of your career to date – you’re still covering a lot of similar territory, in terms of reckoning with your home patch, these mountains, a terroir.

 Yeah – that’s depressing, isn’t it?

 

No, I think it shows that you’re the sort of writer others might want to write about in future, because you have a topography, a mythos. I just wonder if your investigations into place in the two genres – in those two books, if you want – how they’re different, how they’re the same, whether things circulate.

It wasn’t in my mind to compare what was going on in Air Histories with what was going on in my first novel, at any point.

 

What about ‘Birth Myth’ in Air Histories, where you have the social texture and you’re talking about the town? 

The thing that tickled me there was how we hear the stories of our own births in the same way that we hear myths. In a sense, we weren’t there – we don’t remember any of it, and I use the phrase ‘infant amnesia’ in the poem. I was interested in that idea, that the story of our own birth is as impersonal as the story of the childhood of Hercules. It has a mythic quality because your parents tell you these stories – you know, ‘When you were born, you had a pee and then you went to sleep.’ The casual remark from somebody in the labour ward becomes set as a bit of narrative. I was interested in the way that happens, and in the way that as individuals we assume we’re the centres of our own universe, though really we’re not. [Laughs.]

The first half’s to do with all the famous birth myths, and how they’re a bit ridiculous really, and then in the second half I bring it to a particular story from when I was a babe in arms. Just to juxtapose those two myths, so that you’ve got a woman walking up Market Street in Tredegar with a baby in her arms, towards Saron Chapel on a snowy day – that’s set against all that myth stuff. I don’t know what the conclusion is. Well, the conclusion is that ordinary experience is important. The self-aggrandising stuff is funny but you know, an ordinary woman walking down the street in 1954 – to me it’s an extraordinary image, with all that whiteness.

 

And poetry gives you that chance to look into yourself and your own history? Even as you poke fun at your history, or at least the sense that it’s reliable history.

Yeah… though I’m not so interested in myself.

 

Put another way, then, would you write prose about yourself?

Only slant, I think. I’m not actually interested in confession or expressing myself – you know, expressing my self specifically. Lots of things do interest me. I’m interested in the relationship between how people spend their lives and their sense of themselves, and I think novels are brilliant at tapping into that. I don’t know if this is a banal idea or not, but I think of novels as like a Venn diagram. There are three circles: there’s the self – and I don’t mean my self; I mean the individual – then there are other selves, so the community or society, and then there’s everything else. The intuition of much 20th century literature, that we are utterly alone and trapped within ourselves – cosmic loneliness, if you like – is a very compelling way of looking at us. But then we do live in communities, societies, towns and families and so on – generations that interrelate, with the memory of past people and the thought of future people. It moves through time as well as space. And we do sit in a bigger picture of historical process, political structures and the big natural, ecological processes – that’s the third circle. I think the novel is brilliant at exploring between those spheres.

One of the reasons why the novel is so important – as I see it, and as I’ve tried to write it on occasion – is the way point of view evolves, maybe in a way that’s different to poetry.

 

There’s a vector of space and time that’s difficult to get into the moment of a poem.

I think that’s really important. Novels at their best can suggest and deal with process. It’s not just event. The distinction between event and process is a knotty one, and it’s a question in my third novel, Sidereal Time: do we have a particle or a wave theory of matter? The idea being that event is a particle and process is a wave. In novels, I’m not sure you can necessarily arrive at any answers, but you can explore how people live and move and change.

 

Does poetry enable more abstract thought? The word ‘mountain’ runs through Air Histories as a totem, activating all sorts of associations, but in a novel, if you talk about a character walking up a mountain, it’s a particular geographical mountain…

I don’t know if ‘abstract’ is the word. Generalisation, maybe, and it tends to be a boo word – ‘don’t generalise!’ we say, and I tend to be wary of generalisations. But the way you can isolate words on the page in poetry, and their ability to resonate… I suppose you could say their ability to generalise, and to refer more widely than to just what’s on the page, that can happen more readily in poems. I mean, there are a few very naturalistic poems in that collection, like ‘The record keepers’ and that poem about Torres the guitar maker, little short stories really, in poetry.

But with the other poems, a word that comes to mind is ‘gnomic’. Like ‘What Earth Thought’, which was a bit of a windfall. I’m one of those people who thought, ‘What’s the point in a sestina? Only a masochistic idiot would subject themselves to doing one, or a genius who could actually make it work.’ It’s so constrictive, how do you do it? Until I came across this extraordinary thing, where some researchers reckoned, through various techniques, that they’d worked out the proto language from which most European languages had arisen. It was spoken in Anatolia 9000 years ago or something. They came up with the ‘Dyen list’, which is a vocabulary of 200 words you’re likely to find in any language. So they look at the word for ‘stone’ across 50 languages, with a deep understanding of how sounds evolve and so on, and they find out how one word is related to another.

 

And it’s a natural occasion for a sestina, where the cage of the language limits you to a certain number of words.

Yes, and in a sestina the pattern of the words becomes, in a complicated way, rhythmic – or repetitive, anyway – like seasons, years, trying to scratch a living out of subsistence agriculture. Trying to get them to say complicated things with a limited vocabulary.

 

It would be hard to imagine a work of fiction set in that time, wouldn’t it? Because so much of that life would be inaccessible to our imaginations.

I think that over the course of a few pages in a poem it’s doable, but it would be much harder in a novel. The trouble with trying to sustain it for any longer is that it could get very wearing.

 

Well, they were tedious times – being a subsistence farmer 9000 years ago.

Yeah, and you may want to have a boring character in your novel, but you don’t want to have a boring novel.

 

I was looking at ‘Ridge’. The last lines of that are ‘The sky goes home, resolves to silence in the white noise of living air.’ There’s a reason why that’s a poetic utterance and would be hard to pull off as the end to one of those sections in Shifts, for instance. It wouldn’t be in the vocabularies of the characters – it would sort of come out of nowhere…

There might be a novel in which that type of language will work. In that particular case [‘Ridge’], you know, there’s a thread of music in the book – the title of the book refers as much to the idea of a tune as to the actual air. The idea of poetry, actually, is contained in that. Air is important. That poem ends on air, and the whole poem ‘Ridge’ looks at the ridge of the mountain as if it’s a line of notes, scored against the sky.

 

And air, by definition, is something that’s hard to particularise. I suppose you could talk about the smoggy air in Mexico City, or the clear air up in Brecon – but it’s by nature a very ethereal thing.

I think it’s a very important word because of its apparent emptiness. Again, it’s in the sound of the word – it’s the most onomatopoeic of words without you even realising it. There’s no consonant – it’s all vowel. It’s like a breath, more so than the word ‘breath’, because with that you’ve got a ‘b’. But ‘air’… it’s the sound of air escaping. I liked the contrast between that and ‘histories’, which is a much flintier sort of a word. It’s got the hiss and the hardness of the ‘t’ sound, apart from the idea of story and fact, and the idea of multiple ways of looking at what fact is – ‘histories’, you know, not ‘history’. I like the tension between the two words.

 

It comes in ‘The record keepers’, doesn’t it? Not quite ‘air histories’, but it says ‘they wrote the history of air’. The idea of air in this poem, then, is as something that’s antithetical to history. It’s something that comes to the fore when nothing’s happening in the world, during this weird four-year ‘interregnum’, when nothing’s going on.

There’s this extraordinary entry in a medieval Welsh chronicle. It just says, ‘Then there were four years when there was no history.’ It’s the epigraph to my poem, though I cheated a bit by cutting off the end – I think the original says ‘no history worth recording’. But it’s a very startling moment in the record. Chronicles are strange things, a mixture of bits and pieces. They don’t explain how one event connects with another. That to me makes them more interesting, as a novelist, than historians who actually shape the narrative.

There’s that, and I was out on my bike one day, on a little lane in the foothills of the Beacons here, and I stopped and looked over a farm gate at a field. There were hundreds of butterflies fluttering in the barley. I stood there and watched for a long time. I’m interested in the idea that official records – what we take to be the big processes that govern the way we live – are very tidied-up narratives. There’s all this stuff that doesn’t get in there. A lot of the time, I suspect, the real history is butterflies stunting over some barley in the field. ‘The history of air’ is all the history that doesn’t get nailed down.

 

It seems to be a poem that’s almost a death wish for the novel – that the real meaning is here in the stuff that’s generally thought ephemeral…

Except – no, I don’t know. Again, I think the novel can get at those qualities in experience that are missed out in histories. Once I talked to somebody about the possibility of making a film of Shifts, but he said, ‘What would the soundtrack be? I’ve been looking at 1977, and punk was just starting to happen then…’ I just thought, that’s not relevant, you know? That’s newsreel stuff. That’s not relevant to those characters.

 

So Jack doesn’t have a record collection?

Well, he has nothing when he turns up. They would have music, but the funny thing is that when you put the soundtrack on, it makes it seem an archive rather than something that’s happening now – something that’s the now of then. With a novel, you can create a sense of ‘now’, but you have to be very smart about the way you use historical markers. The opening of Shifts has a character get out of a black Viva with a loose exhaust, and he’s wearing flared trousers. I put the flared trousers in because by the time I was writing the novel, flared trousers were a historical detail. People had stopped wearing flared trousers by the mid-80s, the time I was writing that sentence, though most people were still wearing them till the early 80s. There’s a certain newsreel version of history, that in 1977 everyone stopped wearing flares and had safety pins, drainpipe trousers and spiky hair. No! Some kids in some towns started doing that. There’s this very slow process going on that the newsreel doesn’t admit – it shows you sudden changes, events. I think the novel can be cleverer than the histories at getting at the butterflies in the field – in the way that poetry can.

 

One of the little premises of my piece is that there’s a term ‘the poet-novelist’ that’s in some ways a bit of a pejorative. Because the novels that would be turned out by such a character might not be very readable, or very compulsively readable anyway – not the sort of novel that makes you turn the page. The characters all have thoughts and attitudes but nothing much happens.

I think there are novelists who write that way, and we might all be better off if they were poets.

 

It’s hard, though, to think of poet-novelists who write these sorts of page-turning, compulsive novels.

I’ve never been too troubled by the distinction, but I wonder if there’s a complex going on. Because ‘poetry’ is the sort of word, in some people’s minds, which is all connotation and no denotation. It can either mean ‘great’, as when a football commentator says ‘that shot was sheer poetry’, or it’s an utter condemnation, like that great line in Blackadder where Flashheart says, ‘I’ve had enough of this war, the blood, the suffering, the killing – all the bloody poetry!’ There’s that pejorative sense in which we use ‘poetry’ to mean airy-fairy vagueness. I was in a meeting once with filmmakers, and I realised that when they said ‘poetic films’ they meant ‘films that don’t have any narrative content’. It was actually another word for vague. I wonder if that’s tainting how some people see the phrase ‘poet-novelist’.

 

From my own experience navigating the economic realities of being a writer, a publisher knowing that you’re a poet is unlikely to be selling point. They’re going to think that you’re committed to literary craft and nicely honed sentences, ahead of writing the sort of story that people are going to want to read.

It’s a bit sad isn’t it, if publishers aren’t interested in literary craft and well-honed sentences? They don’t really mean ‘well-honed sentences’, in that case, do they – they mean ‘precious’ or ‘overworked’ or ‘fey’. There’s a value judgement going on in that. A ‘well-honed sentence’ can be Orwell at his best. He’s got that line, the opening of an essay called ‘Marrakesh’, which goes something like, ‘When the corpse was carried past my table, the flies left my dinner. They came back a moment later.’ That’s just great! That’s what well honed is. The problem is that when someone says ‘we’re not interested in well-honed sentences’, what they mean is ‘that’s a bit precious’. It’s just prejudice.

Poems and novels are different, and we’ve delineated some of the things that the novel is good at that poems are perhaps less good at. But in the process of making these things – poems or novels – I don’t make any distinction. I’m just making it the best way I can and getting the thing to cohere. I was once asked to speak on the subject of poetry and prose, and I said that in a way, creative prose is the most demanding sort of poetry to write. The formal constraint is huge: fill the page and keep on going – that’s a very difficult formal constraint. That’s just turning the argument upside-down – poets have big advantages because they can make the shape on the page much more easily than a prose writer can.

 

At an intuitive level, there’s a sense that poems ought to be the accessible things because they’re short. Yet I’m amazed by the bright, literate people I talk to who just don’t read it because they feel that they can’t get into it. 

On the other hand, when I’m giving a reading, it’s much easier on the whole to read poems. Doesn’t matter who the audience is – it’s easier for them too.

 

Prose readings can be really turgid, can’t they?

I’m very aware when giving a prose reading that you have to choose the passage carefully. There’s the problem of taking it out of context when it’s a novel, too, which is a whole other issue. But what it shows is that we don’t read poetry enough with an imagined voice – why else should it be so much easier to understand at a reading? I think one of the great pleasures of reading novels and short stories is that sense of privacy. It’s all about what’s going on between your temples – you don’t even necessarily hear it in your own voice. What exactly happens? Do you hear a voice when you read? As I understand it we’re evolved for spoken language, so reading and writing are utterly unnatural. We’ve invented it. There’s something very strange going on when you read silently.

 

And prose is a wonderful mechanism for delivering that experience.

I must admit, in recent years I’ve gone back to feeling that reading can thrill me. I love the intensity of that relationship between the look of the words on the page and what’s going on in your mind – it’s all in that tiny circle between your head and the page, you know? I love that. Having spent my life looking at texts, of course I get sick of it in certain circumstances – you do a pro job, and read well for work purposes and all of that, but recently I’ve gone back to getting that sort of pleasure out of it. Maybe it’s harder for people to get that with poems. Maybe because poems nowadays are short things on the whole, that works against it on the page. That sense of immersion is less possible.

 

Do you have any favourite poet-novelists? Here’s a little thought experiment: we could probably think of poets we love who’ve also dabbled in fiction, and vice versa, but it’s harder to think of someone who’s equally strong in both fields.

I wonder if that’s the economic nature of things, as you were hinting. The ‘market’, whatever that is, generally likes people to do one thing reliably.

Maybe it is unusual to do both things well, but for your thought experiment there are writers you’d be unfair to call ‘dabblers’ in one or other of the forms. Thomas Hardy has to be a major example. In Welsh you’d have to consider Caradog Prichard. He was a poet, made a good living as a journalist – in his second language mainly – and apart from his big novel, Un Nos Ola Leuad, his autobiography, Afal Drwg Adda, is better crafted and more novel-like than a great many things calling themselves novels out there. I’ve often fancied translating it. I don’t know other languages to judge, but Goethe’s got to be on the list hasn’t he? George Mackay Brown comes to mind among poet-novelists. Magnus is pretty interesting, I think, though not perfect. Glyn Jones’s Island of Apples is a masterpiece in my opinion, probably more significant than any of his poetry. Sheenagh Pugh’s written a couple of good novels which maybe aren’t as well known as they should be because she’s so well known as a poet. And among novelist-poets there’s maybe Margaret Atwood and Helen Dunmore. D.H. Lawrence is unignorable. Wrote too much too fast, sometimes badly. He published a collection called Look! We Have Come Through! and his supposed friend Russell said I’m very glad to hear they’ve come through but I don’t see why we should watch. One of the sharpest ever bits of criticism. But of course Lawrence, whatever you make of what he had to say, was often brilliant in both forms, and others.

We may see a tension, some sort of opposition between poetry and prose, but to see them as actual opposites is lazy thinking. The onlooker may feel a tension when a musician turns from playing the piano to playing a guitar or something. But for the musician there’s more a sense of cohesion than opposition between the instruments. When it works, the tension between them is creative rather than obstructive. It’s all making the air vibrate in the end.

 

Dai George’s first collection of poems The Claims Office was published by Seren in 2013. His full piece on poet-novelists is published in the Summer 2015 issue of Poetry Wales. He’s getting there with his historical novel.

An Interview with Rosalind Hudis

 

Topography

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
Elizabeth Bishop – The Map

 

She can’t read but likes to crackle her fingers
over the surface of a map she has opened
batted and flattened into position beside me.

She wants to draw along the contours
of a story that flows out from her key place:
New York, home of Friends the Sitcom.

She thumbs it dead centre of everything,
even though her chosen terrain
hovers between bog-wastes

and Llandovery. I read somewhere
that ancient cartographers planted Jerusalem
at the kernel of every chart, the steady state

in a swelling floret of land mass,
tiny, angle-conflicted and garrisoned
with roofs, like an ageing mother

who always got taken along and always
had something to say about the menu.
My role is path-finder not giver

of the habitual view. When I trace
a meek thread and call it ditch, she storms
at me, no, that’s where Ross kissed Rachel;

she means: lead me, lead me there
into the heart of this pale green valley of paper
in safety, go where I go, without history

getting between the lines.
Bishop was right – it’s how you colour it
and on this webbing of routes across the earth

that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.

 Ros Hudis

 

Ros Hudis interviewed by Keely Laufer

 

Tilt - coverKeely Laufer: Congratulations on your first collection Tilt, I thoroughly enjoyed your reading at the Art Centre bookshop in Aberystwyth. The natural landscapes play an important role in your poems. How specific is your use of the natural landscape tied to Wales and the local area?

Rosalind Hudis: Some of the poems do relate closely to walks I’ve made in the local area. Walking and writing are often reciprocal activities for me, and are grounded in a very concrete relationship with place. Though that relationship contains my awareness of time and process reflected in the landscape – natural processes, but also historical and industrial, and beyond that a more ‘metaphysical’ exploration of our relationship to place. The landscapes in the poems are specific and are shaped by specific events, or individuals, but they are also metaphors for more universal dramas.

KL: The sense of nature as metaphor for life events seems as much inspired by the traditions of past nature poets as the contemporary involvement of the first person ‘I’. Two poems that demonstrated this were ‘Photograph': ‘I am the snow’, and ‘Ultrasound': ‘The sonographer/ calls and calls again/ for the same/ echoes, interrogates my belly/ as if it could roll open/ and confess./ But what I want to confess to, is’. How do you feel about the terms ‘nature poetry’ and ‘confessional poetry’ in relation to your collection?

RH: That’s an excellent observation, very well put. I’m going to answer it with a certain amount of caution! I wouldn’t, for example, consider my poems allied to particular categories like ‘nature poetry’ or ‘confessional poetry’ in a normative way, but they certainly speak to and invoke these traditions (we can probably, now speak of the ‘tradition’ of confessional poetry stemming from its original application to writers like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton). The two poems you quote are from a sequence about my daughter, Ruth’s birth and the heart surgery she underwent as a baby. In this sense they are ‘life writing’ so the ‘I’ is foregrounded – the focus is on personal experience, however, the expression of intense personal emotion tends to be under the surface, rising up at turning points in the poems that are partly linked to the momentum of form. The poem ‘Photograph’ roughly corresponds to sonnet form, and that phrase ‘I am the snow’ corresponds to the moment of loosening and catharsis typical of the Petrarchan sonnet. You could say it’s a moment when the intenser tropes of confessional poetry signal a shift in the narrative. That kind of freedom to slip around between modes is something I’m trying to develop in my work. You could also say it’s an instance of ‘pathetic fallacy’, but again, using that trope to signal an intense crisis moment where image, emotion and material reality seem to merge before the poem shifts somewhere else.

KL: You mention that the freedom to glide between modes is something that you’re trying to develop further in your own work, so how might you consider yourself developing this in relation to further progressing form and narrative in your poetry after Tilt?

RH: Well. I’m too much of an anarchist to espouse any one particular poetic doctrine or movement, but I think the Americans particularly have thrown wide the concept of what poetry embraces and to a certain extent we have to be sophisticated beings who recognise the plurality of textual modes in our culture, and the plurality of selfhood. ‘I’ has many guises and it is not predicated on a confessional model, but I think this can lead to linguistic game playing that’s divorced from a relationship to lived experience, that empirically demonstrates theory but lacks emotional investment. It’s ultimately solipsistic.

The issue, for me, is how to write a poetry that takes that plurality on board but stays connected to ‘lived experience’ in an urgent and concrete way. And it has ultimately to be a site of pleasure and engagement for the reader. I also believe that traditional poetic forms (as opposed to language) carry deep rhythmic and structural resonances that we can utilise in powerful ways, even as we ironise them. Because of this, I’m experimenting with poems that use montage or intercut narratives or rhetorical forms of address, and that use different poetic modes as ‘sites of experience’ within the greater narrative. These are implicitly ironised by what surrounds them, but not undermined. I suppose this is that horrible word ‘polyvalent’ –  polyphonic is better!

Ros HudisKL: The plans for your writing following this collection sound very exciting, so I am keen to ask, how have contemporary poets influenced your writing?

RH: I admire a large number of contemporary poets, all very different, and it can be difficult to pinpoint influence, because in a way, you learn from everyone you read. But among British poets, Alice Oswald has been very significant for me, particularly her collection Dart, where she tells the story of the River Dart polyphonically from a variety of voices and perspectives. It was a big leap forward from her previous neatly contained lyric poems and it showed the possibilities of combining all kinds of ‘textual modes’ and motifs – of course the shape of the river and its movement through time and history, as well as the qualities of water itself, are a natural metaphor for this approach. The poem slides from one of kind of ‘I’ narrative to the next, but for the time you are in the company of that particular ‘I’ you are passing through a fully committed to poetic world as you would be in a traditional lyric poem. The containing consciousness of the poem is a medium only, and it allows you to feel all the different voices as co-existing even though they also represent a progression through time and space.

Robert Minhinnick has had an influence. I think he’s one of the major poets of our time. His tonal range is extraordinary but it’s always underpinned by his engagement with environmental and political questions. His long poems and sequences are like habitats in their own right. I go back time and again to the poetry of Robin Robertson if nothing else, to renew my sense of how to write poetic narrative. And I’ve recently discovered the Canadian poet, Anne Carson, and think that will be an influential journey.

I’m also pulled to the work of several contemporary American poets, particularly the ones who are innovative in technique and global in their concerns. Carolyn Forché is one, and she describes her aspirations for her recent writing as ‘a symphony of utterance, not representational but presentational’. Another recent influence has been Philip Fried. I want to learn from his use of multiple registers, such as the juxtaposing of modern warfare jargonese with classical modes and parody, as he does in his amazing sixth collection Interrogating Water and Other Poems.

KL: How would you describe your process of writing poetic narrative, and why do you feel that you need you renew your sense of what that is?

RH: To date my process has tended to reflect a single narrator (‘I’ or other) unfolding a particular story, and reflecting on/evoking stages in the narrative. I’d like to open that up to suggest different voices or perspectives to bring in more cinematic techniques of flashback and flash forward used in found poetry. It’s got something to do with witnessing as well as ‘confessing’ and gives the reader more than one relationship to the subject matter. Part of my next collection has to do with how we use art, and an aesthetic sensibility in times of crisis such as war. I’m experimenting with incorporating or adapting fragments from historic journals and documentary writing as an element of that.

KL: Which poem do you think best encapsulates your process to date, including the content of our conversation?

RH: Probably the poem that I referred to earlier, ‘Photograph’. It recalls a highly emotional episode of the morning that our daughter had her heart operation. I use loose sonnet form to structure that memory into a narrative, but try to let the emotional aspects remain tangible. I also worked with imagery that has, I hope, resonance beyond that immediate situation. I suppose landscape is there in the ‘blue forest’, a fairytale-like visual metaphor for the drama that’s unfolding, and this poem counterpoints different moments in time. 

KL: At the beginning of our interview, you said that some of the poems are influenced and relate closely to walks that you’ve made in the local area. As a writer who is living and published in Wales, but not born in Wales, how do you identify as a Welsh writer?

RH: Another very good question! A phrase that sometimes gets used to describe Wales-located writing is ‘writing out of Wales’. For me, that’s much more apt. I’ve lived in Wales a long time, and write ‘out of’ my experience of living in this particular environment, but I’m not ethnically Welsh. My background is very mixed and includes Russian/Polish Jewish. I’m bound to have a different relationship to Wales, and different priorities thematically than someone who was born and brought up here. But I sometimes feel that rural Wales touches a genetic chord – there’s some kind of transferred, cross-generational memory of rural Poland. That’s probably a bit fanciful! The next collection will probably have far more to do with Russia!

 

Rosalind Hudis is a freelance poet and writer and editor, living near Tregaron in West Wales. She completed an MA in Creative and Script Writing at Trinity St David’s, Lampeter, and is currently undertaking a PhD at Aberystwyth University. A 2013 awardee of a New Writers Bursary from LiteratureWales, she has won several  prizes for her poetry and been widely published in journals. Her debut pamphlet Terra Ignota, was published by Rack Press in 2013, and her first full collection, Tilt  by Cinnamon Press in 2014. She is working on a second collection of poems and a first collection of stories. Rosalind also co-edits the online literary journal The Lampeter ReviewTilt is reviewed in the Spring 2015 issue of Poetry Wales.

Keely Laufer is finishing her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, specialising in poetry. She has had poems published in various anthologies such as MA anthologies with the university, ‘The Wait’, in support of Cancer Research, and in recently in The Lampeter Review, issue 11. She is currently a Student Ambassador for Poetry Wales. @KeelyCelia

An interview with Tiffany Atkinson

Tiffany Atkinson

To mark Poetry Wales‘s historic 50th volume we’ll be posting a series of interviews, poems, articles and reviews here on the PW blog over the coming months. Here PW editor Nia Davies speaks to Tiffany Atkinson whose third collection So Many Moving Parts was published earlier this year by Bloodaxe. She’ll be reading at our 50th Volume launch at Poetry International on Sunday 20th July at 6pm at London’s South Bank Centre. To begin the interview, here’s a poem from Tiffany’s So Many Moving Parts.

 

 

Paternoster

God is big between the fingers,
bevelled like a cherry seed. First
it goes Mary / space / Mary / space/
Mary / space / Mary / space / Mary /space /

GOD, and when you touch this bead
a flash in his eye pulls you in
and you drift like a spaceman.
Either side Our Lady listens softly

growing lilies from her sad eyes. So
I put up my hand and said God is a mineral
Mary is vegetable and Jesus the Lamb
which is all of things, and a scientific

way to think of it, but Sister Joan
said not exactly, child. I didn’t say
the paternoster is a diamond though, it
sizzles in your fingers like a diamond

feeling fiercer than it wants, or Mary
has flowers for eyes and Jesus well Jesus
did nothing but bleed his whole life; or
the space between each bead is where

you feel your hand, your weird hand
reaching in the dark like something not
yours but applied to you like names
or school reports, and sometimes

from chapel you meet yourself going
back in, a repetitive self like a little bead
pulled by the weight of the rest
asking what am I, what am I, that my

breath moves slowly in the soft dark
and I wait for god to choose, to give me
weight, the mineral pureness that’ll
turn my many sides to him and dazzle.

 

Nia Davies: Your personal iconography seems to be rich in hands and chickens. In this new book So Many Moving Parts you give us a hen extravaganza in ‘La Poulette Grise’. And you ironically name this ‘an IVF lullaby’. There are also a number poems featuring hands. What is it about hens and hands? Have you worked out why they fascinate you?

Tiffany Atkinson: Yes, this has been brought to my attention! I think the chickens in La Poulette Grise are the only ones in SMMP: La Poulet Gris really is the name of a French lullaby – someone sent an arrangement of it to me and it was such a haunting little song. I borrowed the structure of the poem from it; it seems to be describing natural cycles, and fertility was much on my mind at the time, and hens are obvious symbols for that. I wanted to allude to that cyclical pattern and its hopes and fears, with the final stanza which implies the bombshell of conception. It’s rather obvious probably, but I was happy to be up front about that.

Hands are a bit of an obsession and they naturally crop up quite frequently in my writing: I should probably watch that now that I am aware of it. They are a ready metonym for writers to use aren’t they? But I am genuinely fascinated by their expressiveness and ingenuity, and by hands as a point of connection between people.

 

ND: Aberystwyth is one of a few strong backdrops in this book (another is Paris) – students, farmers, rain, etc – it’s a unusual place isn’t it? How has it shaped you and your writing?

TA: So Many Moving Parts contains a lot of fairly straightforwardly observational poems so they reflect the places I spent most time in while writing. I especially enjoyed the contrasts between rural Aberystwyth and Paris, and the sense of estrangement the latter gave me. Aberystwyth has an interesting population – students and academics, farmers, artists, tourists, people seeking rural peace, and quite an active alternative community; and all in a small town which feels quite remote from any urban centre. I am affectionate towards and frustrated by this in equal measure! I expect this comes through in my writing, since local detail is so important to me.

 

ND: Many of your poems across all three of your books are funny. They seem to laugh at poetry and the self – recgonising the absurdity of these things. Our hands, for example, when we start to look at them as if they aren’t our own become strange wiggling things, but they essential for everything. I find this inversion of seriousness in your poetry actually very reinvigorating as I think it unearths an emotional life flowing under or within the current of language. Somehow by not taking poetry seriously it becomes even more important. Do you think that you have to loose the serious ernest belief in poetry in order to make it comic, and thus more serious and essential?

TA: That’s interesting. I don’t set out to be comic but I like that you find some of the poems funny. I do take poetry seriously but I try not to take myself too seriously in it. Or something about writing a poem has this effect, revealing just how silly and absurd the self can be.  I also think there is something to be taken seriously about comedy, especially the uncomfortable, embarrassing kind – a point that Freud of course made much better.

 

ND: You once said you tied yourself to the desk to write much of SMMP. Why do you think this process works for you?

TA: Ah that is because I am so very easily distracted, and very fidgety. Actually tying myself to my chair reminds me that I need to sit there for more than five minutes without making a cup of tea or checking email or doing some photocopying or whatever. It was a desperate measure but it did work, to a degree. I am not proud of this! But I find writing quite hard. Satisfying and sometimes thrilling, but hard.

 

ND: How was writing your third book? How does it compare to your earlier work, what do you think has changed and why?

TA: After my second collection (Catulla et al) I found it hard to let go of the quite flamboyant Catulla persona that made up most of it, which is maybe why the poems in SMMP mostly avoid thrown voices and have, by comparison, an undramatic or quiet quality. Oddly, this too felt experimental, although it probably doesn’t appear so. I deliberately tried not to dramatise everything, because I had got into that habit by thinking like Catulla. I do feel that it’s important to have a change of gear between books in case you end up getting too comfortable, and certain sets of habits do start to emerge in collections.  Discomfort (see above!) seems to be an important part of my writing process.

 

ND:  What’s your favourite run in and around Aberystwyth?

TA: What a lovely question! Anything coastal and hilly, especially in dramatic weather, is fantastic. But there is also a quieter, and flatter, long route out along the river and bridle path to Tregaron which is so beautiful at this time of year. Next time you are in Aber we could run it together!

So Many Moving Parts is reviewed by Sarah Howe in the Summer 2014 issue of Poetry Wales.

The book is published by Bloodaxe. You can order a copy via the Bloodaxe website.

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