Photo credit: Adrian Bullers | Interview by Zoë Brigley
The Roman poet Horace was right to recommend holding back your work for several years before publishing it. You get a better sense of its value…
Cape Ann, Massachusetts
We have trampled those delicate eggs of the night, the sea urchins, fragments of a dream extravagance caught when the moon went off and the sea turned over. Now, attending to the Dry Salvages, they drift before my eyes as rock music slumps across the bay like polythene. In the bladderwrack at my feet, oil, aerosol, syringe and one whole lightbulb. Tonight the moon, a Beethoven CD, will inspire our child’s first poem – I like the way it shines over the sea that’s because it’s me – and I have picked a small and perfect urchin, remembering when I was small the one my parents brought home from the seaside made into a lamp.
The epigraph of the poem suggests it was written in or about Cape Ann, MA. Could you tell us a bit more about the importance of this particular place?
This is in fact a poem from some decades ago that I’d quite forgotten about. It never fitted in to any of my earlier collections and it hasn’t been published before. I suddenly remembered its (non-digital) existence when I was helping Kevin Gardner compile my American ‘Selected’ which will be out in 2023 (The Interpretation of Owls: Poems 1977-2022, Baylor UP). It goes back to when I attended a very dull education conference in Gloucester, Massachusetts during a Fulbright Exchange year. Our daughter was only four so we drove up from New Jersey and tried to make a holiday of the visit in between the seminars. It was wonderful to spend time beside what Americans call the ocean. For us it was the dear old sea. I especially enjoyed exploring the coastline that had been so important to T.S.Eliot, imagining that I might even spot those ‘Dry Salvages’ (title of one of his Four Quartets) on the horizon. What I remember in particular was a beach made up almost entirely of sea urchin shells, and the fact that the atmosphere of the place did indeed prompt Katie’s first poem quoted here.
I really enjoyed your use of the quatrain and short line and breaks across stanzas in this poem. Could you say a bit about that?
From what I recall of my earlier working methods, there would have been quite a few drafts. I don’t often write a poem straight off, though occasionally I will return to something like the first version after going through several alternatives. This may even have been one of those, because it does retain a kind of informality and freshness. At that time I was rather drawn to unrhymed, short-lined quatrains – probably because I was rereading Robert Lowell, and maybe unconsciously (or consciously) paying homage to his own New England pieces, such as the opening poem to For the Union Dead. In fact I have just discovered a picture postcard from Gloucester tucked inside my copy of that collection, so I evidently took it with me on the trip, and the more I read my poem the more Lowellesque it feels. Line breaks and stanza breaks are crucial in such skeletal structures and I seem to have made the most of them in ‘Sea Urchins’. I am impressed by the way the younger Greening kept a light touch, which doesn’t come so easily now. There are one or two bold decisions I might not have risked these days – that repetition of ‘small’, for instance. But the Roman poet Horace was right to recommend holding back your work for several years before publishing it. You get a better sense of its value, and it’s much safer than indulging the impulse to post a new poem online. The only danger is that everyday things tend to date. It’s true of details in many of Lowell’s poems too, but that ‘Moonlight Sonata’ CD in mine is a bit of an anachronism.
This poem seems to me to speak volumes about place and how we interact with nature in childhood and as adults. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I’m a poet of place, undeniably. But everyone knows how nature can draw children and parents together, illuminating the world and indeed their relationships – which is why that memory of my parents’ sea-urchin lamp makes an effective final image. I’ve no idea where they got it. Certainly our annual seaside visit was precious to me when I was a boy living in suburban London. A compartment in a steam train to the Welsh coast was unbelievably exciting. But taking our own first child to Gloucester and finding all those exotic sea urchins on a moonlit evening brought an extra magic to the American ‘shore’ – especially as Katie proved herself open to creative inspiration even at that age (she still is). The word ‘urchin’ is fortuitous, since it conjures something feral but historical, and is also the kind of sardonic term I’d have used to tease my children. Nevertheless, even then I clearly wanted to highlight some environmental issues. And perhaps there was even a memory of meeting someone in Egypt a few years before who had been severely poisoned by eating sea urchin. We do indeed poison and trample on the delicate beauties of this world. When we were based in New Jersey, there was a great deal of concern about drug debris washing up on the Jersey beaches (Cal Flyn has written brilliantly about this in the Paterson section of her recent Islands of Abandonment) so I was attuned to the dangers of beachcombing, especially with a 4-year-old. It strikes me now, incidentally, that this poem also has something of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads – those elusive quatrains recording exchanges with children who can ‘see into the life of things’. I’m pleased to have rediscovered it.