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 interviewed by Keely Laufer
Keely 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!
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 Review. Tilt 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