Dai George

dai-george

Dai George is a poet, writer, and editor. His poems have appeared in places such as The Guardian, Boston Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry, and New Welsh Review.

Dai’s debut collection The Claims Office was published by Seren in 2013 and he currently co-edits the online journal Prac Crit.

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Hi Dai. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your debut book The Claims Office with Seren. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about the poems and how you feel they hang together as a collection?

The short answer to that, prosaically enough, is claiming, or maybe reclamation. I’ve always seen the poem as a place where one can mediate between the various puzzles of identity: who am I, where have I come from, what forces have moulded me and determined my place in the world? Beyond that lies a question that I don’t think enough modern poetry wants or feels equipped to grapple with: what vision for society can the poem imagine?

There’s a poem in The Claims Office called ‘Boys of Leisure’, which elegises the passing of ‘turnstile Britain’. By that I mean the early twentieth-century world of leisure centres, libraries, football stadiums and the like, a world where the good things in life – education, health and recreation – were valued and made accessible. As I wrote the poem I found myself pining for that world, the ruins of which we live amongst today, and wanting to reclaim it. I’m not saying that ‘Boys of Leisure’, or any poem for that matter, could open a public leisure centre. But if you write the poem, the vision that made public leisure centres necessary doesn’t die – well, its death is deferred, at least for the time that the poem is a living part of the language.

I guess I’m saying that The Claims Office is a social book, a political book, and a personal book, in no particular order. Taken together, those epithets might sound unpromising, as if they add up to a book of documentary realism and confessional agit-prop. I hope it isn’t that. Indeed, one of the things about claiming that attracts me is how claims will be disputed; they’re not cut and dried, even to oneself. So it felt like a way in to a poetics of identity that didn’t just peddle complacent certainties.

Haunting the collection is a statement of Aneurin Bevan’s, made famous by the Manic Street Preachers: ‘This is my truth; tell me yours.’ When people hear that, or think about Aneurin Bevan at all, the image is likely to be of a tub-thumping moralist with a waxed side-parting and a three-piece suit, eternally assured of his beliefs. But with that single sentence he articulated one of the great postmodern ideas, allowing the relativity of truth while staking a claim on what it meant to him. If there’s anything good in my book, it’ll catch something of that Bevanite glint.

 

 

I get the impression you’re very engaged with poetics in light of your academic studies, your critical essays and book reviews, and your involvement with Prac Crit. I’m curious how you approach the balancing act of writing impulsively and creatively from the heart versus the more cerebral aspects of being well-versed in poetry theory?

It’s hard, no doubt. I suppose in an ideal world my poetry will be cerebral, and my criticism will be from the heart – and vice versa, of course. But in practice the two get jumbled up and thwart as much as they nourish one another. I wouldn’t write criticism if I didn’t think it was vitally important – there are easier ways to make a living (ha!) and I’m not sure, on balance, how much the personal benefits (exposure, nice feedback, the intrinsic pleasure of doing it) stack up against the time investment, which is significant, even for a short review. So I do it in a possibly misguided attempt to carry forth the torch of William Empson, Marjorie Perloff, Geoffrey Hill, Veronica Forrest-Thomson – all the great critics who have shaped my own enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

It gets in the way of writing poetry, for sure. An article is a discrete task with a set deadline, so when you’ve got one to write it naturally takes over; sadly, when you do, say, half a dozen articles and reviews a year, that side of writing tends to crowd out the space that should be reserved for self-expression and creativity. I’m not sure I’ve got the hang of that balancing act yet – well, I definitely haven’t – but I think the only solution is to be disciplined about the time that gets devoted to writing poetry, to treat it as just as much of a non-negotiable commitment.

Over the last few years, two things have started to structure my life as a critic and lend it the veneer of professional logic. Those are Prac Crit and my PhD at UCL. Prac Crit is a joy. My co-editors (Sarah Howe and Vidyan Ravinthiran) and I have just been bowled over by the response to our website, which continues to attract a really wide and appreciative audience. It’s hard work, albeit sporadic, but well worth it.

The PhD is good because it enables me to practice criticism on a wider scale while underwriting all my other precarious activities. I think I’m one of those mad creatures who’ll actually get on well within academia, if there are still any English departments left by the time I graduate. But while I’ve been scoping out these other sides of the writing life, my poetry writing has definitely taken a hit. I’m about halfway through the manuscript for my second collection, and ideally it would have been quicker in the writing.

 

 

As well as studying in America for a couple of years, you have also mentioned in past interviews how you are drawn to and influenced by American poetry and poets. Do you think there is a transatlantic outlook or sensibility that still pervades your more recent writing?

Yes, and it’s only getting stronger. Looking over that manuscript for the second collection, I see a lot more of Ashbery and Lowell. How those two very different writers combine, within a voice that will still strike most readers as thoroughly Welsh and Dai George-like, isn’t straightforward to explain, but I see it at least.

I’m writing about Ashbery for my PhD, which is on (post)modern poetry and syntax – mainly, though not exclusively, American writers – and I’m trying to make a welcome for that influence in my own writing. It doesn’t come easily, for all the reasons you might be able to guess from what I said in answer to your first question – the notion of staking claims and searching for truth is more or less antithetical to the Ashbery project.

But that’s all the more reason for me to reckon with it. Though I suspect I’ll always write with at least one eye on meaning – propositional, semantic meaning, that is; the effort to get particular words to express a particular thought as best they can – I’m trying to loosen things up. I guess you could say I want to write with a less determined idea of what that final thought will be, to discover what I think along the way.

 

 

I enjoyed your Bruce Springsteen themed poem published across at Poems in Which earlier this year, and I understand you have written other poems exploring your love of music. Can you tell us a bit more and what draws you to it as a subject?

Thanks! You’re very kind to call ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ a Bruce Springsteen themed poem rather than a poem of fear and loathing about the aging process. I’m glad that my veneration for ‘Thunder Road’ came through more strongly than my vanity and angst.

Music is a big deal for me, always has been, and I’m interested in how poetry offers a means to explore my feelings towards it. My first published writing was music criticism, though it’s been a long time since I dabbled in that area. To be honest, the Internet hit me hard; I haven’t been able to recapture the passion and knowledge I had as a teenager when I was reading the music press and choosing which CDs to invest in every week.

The wild west of digital music culture is almost completely alien to me, so I doubt I’d even know enough to write about it as a critic anymore. I only listen to second-hand vinyl now, not because I’m a snob about the format but because its physical obsolescence speaks to me; it captures something crucial in my relationship to the music. My tastes are frozen in amber. I’m still hung up on the same soul, reggae, girl groups and rock ‘n’ roll as I was when I was nineteen, and I don’t know of anyone making music now who could possibly speak to me as Dusty Springfield does, or Aesop Rock.

There’s a big element of unresolved mourning in this slide towards ignorance. My second collection is almost certainly going to be called Karaoke King, with many of the poems exploring themes of belatedness, longing and the anxiety of influence, often in dialogue with my totemic music. Right now I’m working on an autobiographical sequence called, modestly enough, ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, which is really a history of me, filtered through reggae.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?

The Forward Prizes were great, not least because my friend, the wonderful poet Melissa Lee-Houghton, was nominated for best poem with a piece first published on Prac Crit. Obviously it was a shame for us that she didn’t win but we still had a great time, with Sarah and me proudly flying the Prac Crit flag. Vahni Capildeo’s victory in the best collection category felt like another decisive step forward for modern poetry, regardless of the predictable though no less horrid bleating about positive discrimination and political correctness in certain elements of the press.

For me, though, the big story of the year has been the flowering of poets who used to be on the Salt list. There was a very lively and exciting few months back in the summer when Mark Waldron, John McCullough and John Clegg all had launches for brilliant new books in close succession – really felt like something was in the water, not that you’d know it (sadly) from glancing at any of the prize shortlists.

Penned in the Margins deserve particular kudos for enabling this post-Salt transition to take place as cleanly as it has done. They’ve been on fire this year, publishing among other great things my own book of the year, Luke Kennard’s Cain. That’s a phenomenal and unique achievement. It’s just bizarre to me that it hasn’t been shortlisted for any of the major prizes – an indication that we still have a way to go in making sure that the best work is justly recognised, regardless of the size and pedigree of the publishing house behind it (not that Penned in the Margins is short on pedigree by now, but you know what I mean).

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

I’m sharing a poem called ‘The Mercury Mine’. I wrote it for one of the great ‘–oke’ events organised by the poets John Canfield and Alex Bell, where a classic pop artist is singled out for celebration and poets respond with new work inspired by, say, The Smiths or David Bowie and some valiantly intoxicated karaoke renditions of the hits. (As you can imagine, these events couldn’t be more up my street if they tried.)

This year it was the turn of Bob Dylan to be okied, and I came up with this. Dylan is a big figure for me – big – and the poem was inspired by my immersion over the last year in The Cutting Edge, the latest instalment in Dylan’s official ‘Bootleg’ series mopping up all the offcuts and extras over his career. This one was the mother load for me as it covers my favourite Dylan period, the so-called ‘thin wild mercury’ music of his classic trilogy, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. There are six discs altogether, including one devoted wholly to the recording process behind ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and to be honest even I thought it was going to be a curio I listened to once and then filed away. Yet I found myself coming back to The Cutting Edge, time and again, and above all feeling incredibly moved by it.

I guess beforehand I’d assumed that this thin wild mercury tumbled out of Dylan unbidden, like so many conkers from a tree. It has that quicksilver swagger of genius about it. But the full recording sessions offer evidence to the contrary. Over six or so takes of a particular track you can hear him obsess over the details, small or large, that make a song work – or if you’re lucky (if you’re Dylan) make it brilliant.

Rather than dispelling the magic, peeking behind the curtain and hearing the outtakes only served to deepen my love. I’ve had a tough time lately trying to pick up the pieces after a novel I’ve been working on forever was turned down by various publishing houses last year. As I’ve tried to take on board the (very generous) feedback of editors and make that novel stronger through further drafts, it’s been such a solace to have Dylan’s own painstaking drafting process playing on loop in the background.

It shows how even genius requires long hours of thankless labour to get it right, let alone one aspiring first-time author’s historical novel. To articulate that idea, I came up with the metaphorical image of Dylan working a mine. The first line of the second stanza is composed of various tags attached to the song titles on The Cutting Edge, and the italicised phrases about being lost in the rain in Juarez – which you can hear Dylan finessing across separate takes, just as I’ve documented here – are from one of my favourite of his songs, ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’.

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The Mercury Mine

     after Bob Dylan

For anything so thin and wild there must be
graft: long shifts crouching in the seam
at the delicate joint where rock could give
and gush the silver that your genius conspired
to hide. What, you thought this was any old
everyday pact with brilliance – bread delivered
hot and easy from the devil’s van? Nice dream
bakery you got there, pal. Meanwhile the elevator’s
dropping storeys through the pit, carrying the few
who know that mercury’s a hard and dirty trove,
a supper you gotta sing for first, and sing for,
groping, sing for while the blisters needle
hot and weeping on your picking hand.

Take 12. Fragment. False start. Remake.
When you’re lost in Juarez, raining, and it’s
Easter too, and there’s nothing left to do
but hack the syllable till it wedges tight
and you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s
Eastertime too, with a gravity that drops
then fails, the smell of another country’s
road and liquor fogging heavy in your mind,
you’ll know then that you’ve found the place
I mean, the deepest shaft, where you must
go to work, however much you stoop
and hurt, and dig until you strike upon
that metal burning liquid in your palm.

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Isobel Dixon

isobel-dixon

Photo Credit: Jo Kearney

Isobel Dixon is a poet and literary agent. Her published collections include Weather Eye (Carapace 2001), A Fold in the Map (Salt 2007), The Tempest Prognosticator (Salt 2011), and Bearings (Nine Arches Press 2016).

Isobel’s latest pamphlet The Leonids was published by Mariscat Press earlier this summer.

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Hi Isobel. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your new pamphlet The Leonids which focuses on your late mother and family life. Over how long a period were these poems written and when did it become clear to you they were their own thing that needed to be published separately from a full-length collection?

Thank you. I’m so very happy to have The Leonids out with Mariscat. My mother died last year, and I’ve been writing about her since before my first collection Weather Eye, which Carapace published in 2001. The title poem of Weather Eye was dedicated to my parents, Ann and Harwood, and was written as a gift for their 40th wedding anniversary in 1997. My mother plays a central part in the poem and ‘the loving regulation of the burning days’ of my youth, as she closes the house up against the blazing South African sun to preserve the cool night air, then opens up again after dusk.

That’s the first poem in Weather Eye, which was published only in South Africa, and so it was reprised in my first UK-published collection, A Fold in the Map. ‘Plenty’, the first poem in A Fold in the Map is also about her, though the collection revolves around my father’s illness and death. She closes that collection too, in ‘Night Skirmishes’, written after my father died – a poem of uneasy adjustment, ghosts and cockroaches.

In one way or another, these poems featuring my mother are all about thrift and making do, creating and maintaining order, and keeping fear at bay. My mother was at once both fragile and powerful, a determined woman capable of fierce energy, but prone to wearing herself down to sheer exhaustion and collapse as well. She had suffered from depression all her life, particularly post-natal depression after I was born, and was hospitalised for a while when I was a young girl.

I started to write poems exploring this time in-between the poems that went into my first collections, but it didn’t feel right to publish them then. But as with all my poems about family, gradually I showed them to my sisters – I have four fine sisters and their presence is felt in the poems as well. My mother was wholeheartedly positive about A Fold in the Map, because it was so much about my father, and she was also always very direct and open about her depression too.

I showed her the short poem ‘Louder Than Words’, which recalls how she knitted jerseys for her daughters when she was in hospital. She read it and approved, in her way, without undue praise. The family archivist in her liked the idea of a record, I think, of showing people how things were, even the tough things, telling it straight. My mother was never one to flinch.

When I sent a selection of family and nature poems to Mariscat to consider for a pamphlet, Hamish Whyte wrote back and said they’d especially liked the cluster about my mother, and did I have more about her? I did – and was writing more all the time, also about phone calls home, her lively turn of phrase and local gossip gradually changing to her stiller listening face on Skype as Parkinson’s disease slowed her, then took most of her power of speech away.

I told my mother more poems about her had been specially requested by a publisher in Edinburgh and I could tell she was really pleased. I flew to South Africa to visit her every few months, each time knowing it might be the last time I’d see her, and so it was that she died, with her family around her, before The Leonids was published. That changed the shape of the narrative arc, and the pamphlet closes with two poems about the last day of her life, and one written a year after her death. I like to think she would still be pleased if she could read what is on the pages, and hear what people have said about the words. I hope readers who didn’t know her can still feel her strong presence in the poems.

 

 

A number of the poems evoke your childhood in South Africa. As someone who has roots both there and in the UK, I’m curious how much you feel your upbringing has affected your outlook and informed your poetry writing over the years?

The answer above blends into this one of course – the heat, the landscape, a childhood with little money, but many sisters, and a lot of love among the squabbles. By virtue of being about that force of nature, our mother, The Leonids is a very family-focused collection, and if my mother is the stem, my sisters are its branches. The pamphlet is dedicated to them.

We grew up in a rambling old double-storey house with a big garden in a little town called Graaff-Reinet (also proudly described as ‘The Gem of the Karoo’ – and it is a beautiful place).  The house also looms large in poems about my family – my father and mother died in the same room, in the same bed, and my father left the house jointly to his daughters, so we all return and gather there regularly.

It’s like our sixth sister, I sometimes feel – and she too makes her way into the poems. There’s a poem in Weather Eye called ’42 Somerset Street’, which is really more about the garden than the house, but my ‘beloved sisters’ house’ reappears in poems in The Leonids too, including one called ‘The Breathing House.’ It’s a special place, my home magnet.

I do love working in London though and Scotland is my second heartland. My father grew up in Perthshire, a science teacher who was also ordained in the Scottish Episcopal church. He came out to South Africa as a curate to the Cathedral in Umtata (now Mthatha) and to teach science in its mission school, St John’s College. We moved inland for a drier climate because of his asthma, and I love and miss that whole expanse of Eastern Cape landscape – from the hardy Karoo where I grew up, with its wide plains and jagged mountains on the horizons, to the misty green hills around Mthatha, where I was born.

My father often used to say that the Transkei region reminded him of Scotland, and I feel a strong affinity to the Scottish landscape too. A scholarship that enabled me to do my postgraduate study in English in Edinburgh was a dream come true, and the start of a new path into poetry and publishing in Britain, though I didn’t know it back when I arrived in 1993.

A sojourner longer than I’d expected to be, I wrote the poems of Weather Eye and A Fold in the Map out of a desperate longing for family and African nature, my homeland’s vistas and creatures. No matter how many times I return, that oscillation of departure and arrival stirs up the trove of image and memory, each journey a twist of the kaleidoscope. This continental double vision is something I’m grateful for.

I love city life, as long as I can escape it. Nature is everything, and I’m currently working with Scottish artist Douglas Robertson on a project inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers, enjoying the sporadic visits of the snakes and bees and crabs and ant lions of my childhood. The tortoises are a bit slow to show up, but I’m hopeful.

 

 

Congratulations too on the publication of your latest collection Bearings with Nine Arches Press. In what ways do you feel it is a continuation of or departure from your previous collection The Tempest Prognosticator?

I like the word ‘departure’ here, as Bearings is so much about journeys, finding my way through the world, experimenting a bit with poetic form en route. I’m a very happy traveller, like my father, who loved nothing more than planning a trip (especially ‘an overseas trip’) and writing out the ‘Itinerary’ in his distinctive spidery script, making copies for us all. I kept a journal as a girl but not now and the poems are both itinerary and diary: probe, foray, wish list, log.

Some of the poems in Bearings are flashes of narrative from real journeys – to Hiroshima, Egypt, the Occupied West Bank and further afield. The ‘In Which’ quartets interspersed throughout play with form and sound, while some of the poems explore science and ideas – two longer poems ‘Dark Matters’ and ‘Doppelgänger’ were written commissions alongside new musical works by composer Roberto Rusconi. And there are poems that explore political questions, particularly on my country’s apartheid history and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

What The Tempest Prognosticator and Bearings both steer largely clear of is the familial focus of A Fold in the Map and The Leonids, though the family still finds its way into a few poems. My father features in ‘Late Knowledge’, about the Cradock Four – Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli and Fort Calata – who were killed by the South African police. Matthew Goniwe was a teacher like my father, appointed to a couple of the same schools, though they never met.

There was a poem in A Fold in the Map, ‘Shaken from My Sleep’, about the way the apartheid state conscripted (literally) and militarised civilian society, making all white people complicit in the oppression. It took me years to write and ‘Late Knowledge’ was the same, several drafts over more than a decade. Big subjects, inadequate responses, but personally necessary for me.

I will always write in both narrative and more free-range modes. The subjects find their own variant forms. So the alternating rhythm between collections like Bearings and The Leonids feels very natural to me.

 

 

I enjoyed the ‘In Which’ sequence which is interspersed throughout the book and reads like a series of vignettes. I’m curious if they began life simply as a desire to write something specifically for the Poems in Which journal, and when did they start to take shape as a larger body of inter-connected poems?

I’m glad you enjoyed these – I’ve enjoyed writing them, and continue to write in this form, I have a couple coming up in publications over the next few months. I began before the Poems in Which journal was launched, though some of the early quartets were published there, a pleasing fit.

I’ve always loved the convention of old novels with chapters headed with a précis title – In Which the Heroine Makes a Big Mistake, etc. – and wanted to play with shape and sound in the stanzas, echoes of phrases, lyric snatches, Dream Song-influenced in form, but not autobiographical, and without an abiding Henry-like presence. Though Berryman’s hero does have a word or two to say along the way.

At one stage I considered giving them an over-arching title, as though they were fragments rescued from some bigger journal, and in one draft I grouped them all together under the heading ‘From The Fractured Log’, but I jettisoned that. I took excellent advice from my workshop group not to include them in Bearings as one solid block, but to scatter them throughout. Someone referred to these as aperitivi, or palate cleansers, an idea I like – the writing feels a bit like that too.

 

 

The book also contains a cosmological sequence ‘Dark Matters’ which was commissioned for the premiere of composer Roberto Rusconi’s De Materia Nigra et Obscura. Can you give a bit of background on how you came to be involved in the project and what it was that drew you to the subject?

I love commissions and collaborations, for the fruitful pressure of the deadlines, and the way you’re stretched to think beyond your own immediate concerns and inclinations. A friend put me in touch with London-based Italian composer Roberto Rusconi, who was looking for a poet to work with in providing complementary text for a couple of commissions.

‘Doppelgänger’ was the first of these, which is also in Bearings, written to accompany his new work De Imago (Materia) Sonora, performed at King’s Place in London by the Kairos Quartett and EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO des SWR, Freiburg. Jack Wake-Walker made a short film of the poem, Döppelganger, without Rusconi’s music, which was shown at the premiere in April 2013.

When he told me about his project De Materia Nigra et Obscura, about dark matter, I leaped at the chance – with a science teacher father and a love of astronomy myself, it was a pleasure to dive into some science reading again. There’s great poetry in the language of cosmology anyway, rich pickings for poets.

If you’re interested and want some insight into the history and politics of the field, I recommend Richard Panek’s The 4-Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Enlightening and entertaining. I read ‘Dark Matters’ at the premiere of Roberto Rusconi’s work, which was performed by Klangforum Wien for ‘Music in the Space-Time Continuum’ at King’s Place in June 2013.

On the science front, right now I’m preparing for an event on poetry and the Periodic Table (I have poems called ‘Mercury’ and ‘Carbon’ in The Leonids, with more to come). And musically, I’m looking forward to working with American composer Stephen Montague on some of the poems in the Birds, Beasts and Flowers project.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

‘My mother’s sad pharaoh face’ is one of a number of poems that came out of my regular phone calls with my mother, but this is the only one included in The Leonids, given pamphlet length restrictions. We’d generally speak once a week over the years I’ve been in the UK, but after my father died we spoke on the phone more frequently, long chatty calls about family, friends and small-town life.

Over the last few years Parkinson’s began to affect her mobility and eventually her speech, and she needed full time care at home, so we switched to Skype and I would call almost every day. The technology was a real blessing, as she could see me and I could watch her eyes and expression when she was finding it hard to say much; though she would still often come out with particularly pithy things to say. She understood what she heard even when she found it hard to speak. This poem is from her last year.

There was a launch for The Leonids in Graaff-Reinet in September, and it was so special to see so many of my mother’s friends and some of her carers there, as well as my sisters. The benefits of community life in a small town. I’m running a ten kilometre race in Havana this month, to raise money for Parkinson’s UK, who do such good work. If anyone is interested, my JustGiving page is here.

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My mother’s sad pharaoh face

My mother’s sad pharaoh face
on Skype. There is no escape
from what its angles say.

Some days she turns it
wearily away, grave profile
of the stubbornly alive.

Some days she gazes straight,
and blinks her thoughts. Lip-mime.
Some days I understand.

Sometimes the words come
rasping out, half lost.
The coast, I think she says.

The cost, the carer helps translate.
Mom, did you say ‘cost’?
The cost, my mother mouths

again, the cost. I see: she means
this talk, the distance, us.
It’s free, I say, cheaper

than the phone, but there’s
the knot between her brows,
that cloud in her eyes.

I know that look, that anxious fog.
Shall I put some music on for you?
my sister asks.

A whisper: No.
I don’t think I can afford it.

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Paul Stephenson

paul-stephenson

Paul Stephenson is a British poet. His poems have appeared in places such as Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto, and The North.

Paul’s debut pamphlet Those People was published by smith|doorstop in 2015 after winning the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. A new pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris was published recently by HappenStance Press.

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Hi Paul. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Your latest pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris examines the aftermath and psychological impact of last year’s Paris attacks. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and the impetus behind them?

I was living in Paris at the time of the terrorist attacks. I didn’t think to write poems in response when it first happened. But a few days later I received an email from Greg Freeman who runs Write Out Loud asking if I had anything to say in response. I didn’t know. Everything was still so raw and, like everybody, I was still trying to process and make sense of it all.

But it set me off and I quickly started taking notes, reading stories, recording my feelings and recording the days, as much for my own diary as anything, so that I could look back. So that’s the impetus, the catalyst, the trigger. The poems seek to chronicle in various shapes and forms, but they were written in the moment so they are not reflecting or analyzing.

 

 

The pamphlet also explores the relationship between the real world and our virtual lives with reference to things like Facebook statuses, Twitter hashtags, the colour-coded alert levels of the Vigipirate, and the veracity of news articles and online posts. I’m curious in what ways you feel poetry is suited to interrogate this 21st century phenomenon and its resulting dilemmas?

That’s a really good question. What can we take to be true? These days we have to read several sources to build a nuanced picture. We can’t rely on one outlet, one station or channel. But even then, we know that this news is controlled, the stories chosen and shaped, the information filtered and framed, depending on who is ‘making the news’, who owns the news media.

There is what happened and there is what is reported to have happened. Of course, this also relates to what is left out or down played, the incidents that are left ignored. So in the midst of the terrorist attacks we were trying to ascertain what was happening, and then why it happened, and whether the information we were passive recipients of was accurate.

Twitter hashtags make people active, give them a voice, enable them to construct the news and direct our attention. I was very much aware that the extreme emotions I felt at the time – of fear, confusion and suspicion (some of which are explored as poems) – were the product of my own consumption of social media. In that sense, some poems derived from indirect experience, some from the direct experience of walking the streets and observing how the city was absorbing the shock. But direct or indirect, both experiences feel authentic and real to me.

I hope poetry manages to interrogate such phenomena. Twitter is already used as a vehicle for poetry and some poets are active and very successful users. A poem as a tweet has an immediacy and a synthesis. It distills and is of the moment. Other poems might, in a similar way to poets being inspired by paintings and sculpture, also respond to Facebook stories or YouTube videos, allow for a textual (re)interpretation of events.

 

 

Your previous pamphlet Those People feels understandably lighter in tone but seems to have a kinship with your Paris poems, in that there is a sense you are interested in people and our relationships with each other. Do you think this is a fair description of one of your preoccupations as a poet?

The first pamphlet is certainly lighter, though there are some complex feelings running beneath some of the humour. Yes, I am certainly interested in people and their role in shaping places and events, and in all of life as a social construction. People make the occasion, are behind the incident, responsible for life and death. Paris was a painful episode with protagonists, heroes and villains, different scenes, various fates and outcomes.

 

 

Some of your poems – ‘An Ear’, ‘Two Tannoys‘, ‘Deathflake‘, ‘Blindfold’ – also experiment with how the layout of the words on the page can directly relate to the subject matter of a poem. Do you subscribe to the idea that the visual experience of reading a poem can be as important as the auditory experience of hearing it read aloud?

You mention poems that have appeared in my two pamphlets and beyond. In these poems I shape poems as an ear, a loudspeaker, a snowflake and a head. I am interested in concrete poetry and the sculptural potential of the poem on the page as a two-dimensional artifact.

Hearing a poem is quite different to reading it, when the poem can work as an image – the shape itself can be an event. The danger is that shape becomes some kind of compensation for an under-performing poem, or else distracts the reader from the essence of the poem. I’d hope that the shape complements the ideas and narrative, maybe even helps reinforce or enable the rhymes and play of line breaks.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?

I was lucky to experience my first Torbay Poetry Festival down in Devon at the end of October and I participated in Poetry in Aldeburgh last week, which all takes place in the pretty Suffolk coastal town, run by volunteers (new dates have already been announced for 3rd-5th November in 2017).  It was a wonderful few days by the sea, spending time with poet friends from my workshop group.

I launched my new pamphlet in a Sunday morning session at the Jubilee Hall, reading alongside Dan Burt and Mona Arshi. The audience response was very encouraging but also emotional. A few French people came up to me to speak and one man was in tears. The poems transported us all back to that horrific night of Friday 13th a year ago

I am looking forward in 2017 to reading at StAnza in St. Andrews, where I understand there will be a focus on contemporary French poetry.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

I have submitted the poem ‘Suspicion’. I tried to capture the paranoia and anxiety we all felt in the streets of Paris in the days that followed, and particularly in places where people congregate. Suspicion in our waking hours, and in our sleep, acknowledging that we all had a specific profile in our head of what suspicious looked like.

Mentioning all the rail stations, there is a Monopoly aspect to the poem, but with the focus on clothing too, I was bringing in a reference to Paris as a city of fashion. I like taking abstract nouns as a starting point and exploring them. I also do it in another poem from the new pamphlet called ‘Fear Is’.

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Suspicion

We wear it about the neck and chest,
taking line seven to Gare de l’Est.

Bad combination, cuffed at the wrist,
it hangs wrong by Gare d’Austerlitz.

We see it blinking in bright blue neon
just next door to Gare de Lyon.

It doesn’t go. We grind and snore.
Clashes beneath Gare du Nord.

It loiters, an accessory, looks bizarre,
a stone’s throw from Gare Saint-Lazare.

We wear it, a mess at Montparnasse.
It wears sweats, a backpack, Adidas.

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Sasha Dugdale

rsz_sasha_dugdale

Sasha Dugdale is an award-winning poet, playwright and translator. Her poetry collections are Notebook (Carcanet 2003), The Estate (Carcanet 2007) and Red House (Carcanet 2011).

Sasha also currently works as editor of acclaimed poetry magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.

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Hi Sasha. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your mpT anthology Centres of Cataclysm with Bloodaxe earlier this year, celebrating fifty years of the magazine. How well do you feel it serves as a snapshot of the publication’s substantial output?

Modern Poetry in Translation was founded in 1965 and so we (David and Helen Constantine and I) read our way through fifty years of published material – and over 7000 poems. The poems we picked for the anthology were certainly ones we felt we couldn’t do without, by writers like Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Kim Hyesoon, Marina Tsvetaeva, Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai and Ma Ei. However, we could have made up another two or three anthologies of the same size and filled them with excellent work.

In the end we decided to give the anthology a conceptual shape which would give a sense to our choices. The shape came to us as we sat reading in a sunlit conservatory in the Constantines’ Oxford home and it was based on the idea of concentric circles or zones moving outwards like a ripple in water. The central and first zone was ‘cataclysm’: war, genocide, repression. The following zones were concerned with flight and migration, the act of translation, and then at the outer reach, protecting and saying the human. This shape also allowed us to place poems with similar concerns, but from vastly different cultures side by side and I am glad of that: the anthology insisted on a common humanity which is all too often denied.

 

 

As a seasoned translator, I’m curious if your working practice tends to be much the same when translating a poem or if it varies depending on the poet you’re working with. For example, did you approach your Tatiana Shcherbina and Elena Shvarts translations in the same way?

I was (and still am) in love with Elena Shvarts’s work, its instability and movement, its streak of purity and its harshness. When I sat down to translate her poems quite often nothing would come of the effort. It required a degree of inspiration, or perhaps just turning the poem over in my mind and waiting until it spoke to me in English words.

I find I follow the same process with all poetry: once that spark has come I work very hard and intensely, but for short bursts of time, and I always try to get a poem furnished out in a first sitting, even if I have to come back and rework it.  Having something, some presence on the page, is useful because, even if it is flawed, having it there means that translation has become the art of the possible.

 

 

Congratulations too on winning a Forward Prize for your poem ‘Joy‘ this year. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis and drafting process of the poem and what it was that drew you to adopt Catherine Blake’s voice?

Joy’ was a sort of commission. A friend of mine Anna Genina was working on a William Blake exhibition in Russia and she invited me to write something on Blake. I was desperate to read Blake properly so I bought the complete works and the Thames and Hudson complete ‘visual’ works and went through it all.

Originally I had wanted to write about a different situation: William Blake lived in neglect and poverty, but he had great pride. At some point later in his life he held an exhibition of his work in his brother’s haberdashers in Soho. His brother wasn’t too pleased by the canvases – they got in the way of his stockings and gloves. I wrote about that to begin with, because it’s funny and poignant, but Blake is so fiercely unbendingly present in his own work it is hard to give him voice as a fictional character.

Catherine on the other hand attracted me more and more. She was there with him every day, working at his side, and she learnt all the skills needed for the physically exhausting cottage industry of engraving. They were very close, psychically and physically and that alone seemed strange and radical at that point in history.

We will never know what Catherine did, what she coloured, or perhaps even drew. We won’t even know the extent to which she affected his art and poetry, so there is a great deal of space for creating her voice. Once I had found it I wrote ‘Joy’ very quickly, and, in doing so, used a great deal of the research I had done to prepare the piece.

 

 

Some of the poems in your last collection – ‘Ten Moons‘, ‘Red House’, ‘Dawn Chorus‘, ‘Moor’ – seem to evoke and stake out new terrains which are as much psychological as they are geographical. Would you agree with this description and what do you feel were the main concerns of the book now that you have some distance from it?

I’m preparing a new collection at the moment and so it is a good time to look back. When I started writing I was very timid, it now seems to me, and I desperately wanted to keep intellectual and sensual lives apart in my writing. I suppose I was uneasy with the idea of a writer’s public voice and perhaps I was also uneasy about the intellectual voice in women’s writing.

I had strange and disparate thoughts, ambitious in their reach, which I would try not to reflect in my writing, because I was fearful of owning them. You can only get a certain way like that without it resulting in a sort of literary schizophrenia.

Red House for me represents the moment when I began to write more freely and to address some of my intellectual concerns in lyric poetry. Because I am a passionate walker and explorer place has always been important to me and I think it carries some of those concerns in my work.

I’m also fascinated by the subjective nature of geography. I wrote a poem more recently called ‘Mappa Mundi’, based on the medieval mappa mundi in Hereford which is peopled by monsters and strange tribes. I applied that subjectivity to my own small area, which I have only ever seen in overlapping static images: my vision of home is not composed of a single rounded steady image but a million tiny mental snapshots, so utterly subjective that they might as well contain one-legged people, or sea monsters.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this past year or are looking forward to in the future?

Last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Modern Poetry in Translation with a series of events and readings. Although it was incredibly hard work keeping it all going (and I am forever thankful to MPT’s tiny team for pulling it off) it was an extraordinary and powerful time of celebration: we had readings by Nikola Madzirov, Ulrike Almust Sandig, Wojciech Bonowicz, Golan Haji, George Szirtes, Elaine Feinstein, Shash Trevett, Jack Mapanje, Brecht song sessions, Assyrian refugee poems, Iranian protest speeches and much more.

We launched Centres of Cataclysm on the banks of the Seine with Fergal Keane and David Constantine’s passionate speeches and we read in the Kings College Chapel and in Oxford and Cambridge. We’ll have a last celebratory anthology event at Poetry East on 10th December – more info can be found here.

We have also just digitalised the powerful first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965. This brilliant poetic snapshot of an era, together with the Modern Poetry in Translation programme, can be viewed across at our website.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

‘Pfingsten in Paterki’ is based on a photograph with the same title taken by a German soldier in Paterki, a village in the Kaluga region of Russia, in 1943 when the Germans occupied that area. The man who took the photo was a German soldier who had been a photographer in peacetime. He took a number of astounding images of village life under occupation which emphasise to me that despite the brutal nature of the occupation and the war, it was still possible to remain human.

The photo was taken on the feast day of Pentecost, ‘Pfingsten’ in German, so it is hard to avoid the religious overtones. Pentecost is a celebration of the moment the Holy Spirit touched the Apostles. There was a wind and a great flame which became many small flames on the Apostles’ heads.

The Apostles spoke in tongues, but they could understand each other perfectly.  I am not a religious person, although I was brought up a Catholic, however the spiritual shape of religion still haunts me. Whether you believe or not, Pentecost is a moment of perfect understanding between humans.

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Pfingsten in Paterki

Tanned faces, frowning in the sun:
a group of girls filmed in headscarves
by an enemy combatant.
You should hate me, he says,
I could kill your menfolk, your boyfriends
and yet you let me take your photograph.
He took it back to his atelier
and hung it in the developing room.

I like their dresses. I like the red and the composition:
sprigged, floral. I like their sincerity
I like the fact they are alive in Kaluga,
flames of spirit, talking like teenagers
in 1943. I like the fact that there were hot days
when the wind came rushing down the dusty road
and a German soldier, holding a Voigtländer
could still speak in tongues.

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John Siddique

john-siddique

Photo Credit: Barry Hobson

John Siddique is a poet, author, and spiritual teacher. His work has appeared in places such as Granta, The Guardian, Poetry Review, and The Rialto.

John’s collections include The Prize (Rialto 2005), Poems from a Northern Soul (Crocus Books 2007), Recital: An Almanac (Salt 2009), and Full Blood (Salt 2011).

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Hi John. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The poems in your most recent collection Full Blood touch on many of the big subjects – love, death, sex, war, identity – and seem to carry a certain spiritual awareness. I’m curious if you view the poems you write as a vehicle for you to make sense of the world?

I’d say you were right on the mark. Poetry at that time was a way for me to see what was real about things, to weigh the soul of a situation, a person, a story. My goal with Full Blood was very similar to something Hemingway once said about his work in a letter to his father that he “wanted to write so the reader felt like they had lived the story, and actually met and been part of the character’s lives.” I wanted to paint pictures in the mind and consciousness of the reader.

Since Full Blood that basic movement is still there in my writing, but I always try to shift my gaze from book to book. Writing and reading has taken me on such an adventure through this life. I count it as a blessing. It has taken down barriers and connected me to the lives of others, to the extent I now see how much our global troubles arise from the basic delusion that we are somehow separate from others and the world around us.

 

 

The book contains a powerful set of two list poems ‘One Hundred’ which reference the war dead on the British side and Afghan side of the 21st century conflict in Afghanistan. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis and motivation behind them?

These two poems got quite a bit of attention when the book came out, I’m pleased to say. I’ve been very lucky that my poems seem to find real people and hold meaning for them. It’s not something you can plan. All a poet can do is work as honestly as possible.

At the time of writing, I simply listed the names of the last two hundred people killed on the so called ‘sides’ in Afghanistan. I had travelled through the country as a child and remember it even now as one of the most beautiful places I‘ve been to; I wrote the poem ‘Kabul’ in the same book to illustrate the beauty I saw when I travelled there.

The news only serves us certain images, which it wouldn’t be a stretch to call propaganda. It’s just that we tend to believe our propaganda over others. During this period the Blair government moved to make it illegal to protest in Parliament Square and to publicly speak aloud the names of the dead with any sympathy if they were considered enemy combatants. There was a move to label such a thing as treason.

When I looked at the list of names I just saw lives lost and that many of the names on my Afghani list were young children or family members at a wedding party. This moved me greatly.

I mixed in the names with some landscape writing to break things up a bit in the poems. These lines were drawn from found text on a British soldier’s blog about the beauty he saw all around him in this place that we only get to see filled with sand, rubble and tanks.

 

 

As well as writing poetry for adults, you have published a poetry book for children and have worked with children in workshops and schools encouraging them to engage with poetry. What is it that motivates you to get young people involved with poetry, and do you have to get yourself in a different frame of mind to write a children’s poem versus an adult poem?

No, I don’t have any different mindset when it comes to children’s writing really. I love writing for young people. My goal is pretty much the same as what you might call my adult work: to meet the subject, and through whatever ability I have as a writer, be transparent enough to place it down on the page so that it might live in the heart when it is read.

If there is any difference at all, it’s that I may vary my vocabulary and the musical choices in my delivery, but the soul remains the same. Children deserve the very best writing and my motivation is as simple as that. I don’t know what the drive is for any other writer, but as a lifelong reader myself, I just want the good stuff that shows me the world, and allows me space to see my own face reflected back as a part of all things.

 

 

I understand you worked on a commission recently as part of an event at the Ilkley Literature Festival called ‘The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade‘. Can you tell us a a bit more about the event and the resulting poems that arose from the commission?

It has been a very exciting project. Alchemy, who commissioned pieces from myself and others like Simon Armitage and Imtiaz Dharker, always give me so much room to explore things that it allows me to bring myself to the work fully.

I have a completed manuscript for a new book, but I’m without a publisher at the moment. So, in lieu of that body of work getting out there, I feel very grateful to have commissions like this to keep things going.

During research for the project I was lucky enough to discover a signed copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in Leeds Library. This sparked off a new poem called ‘Emissary’, which is one of those poems that kind of hums with its own life while you are writing it. I was certainly a channel for this piece, rather than the writer. Calliope must have been happy with me that day.

I also got to finally write a poem that has been sketched out in my notebook for at least a decade, which was about the ghost of my Irish great-grandfather who died at the Battle of St. Quentin in World War One.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?

I’m not really in the poetry world much these days, and I don’t have any interest in prizes and fame and so on. If I’m honest I found twenty years of being on the ‘circuit’, as it were, quite a lonely experience.

My work as a meditation teacher is a much more nourishing home for me now, although it hasn’t taken me away from literature completely. Some of my closest friends still are volumes of poetry.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

I’ve selected a new poem called ‘Rebellion’. The story was told to me by a friend who watched the scene in the poem unfold in front of her, before she moved to become the protagonist herself. For me it’s a picture of everyday human love, longing and beauty, and I wrote it down to record the gift of it, and to make it available for others to read.

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Rebellion

In the aroma of coffee, surrounded
by Greek and Arab voices, sits a man
whose life has piled the stones upon him.
No one sees him, and he looks at no one.

Large hands take pink paper and a small
‘nail file’ tool from his backpack.

Folding in on himself, he does not reach
for coffee or water. He does not
look up or around.

Folding in on himself. No one sees
his engineer’s fingers move delicately,
precisely, as if he were playing a Bach prelude.

Folding in, scoring, folding out.
Eventually he places a perfect origami rose
on the table, puts on his coat and pack, then leaves.

Amongst her books and her eavesdropping of
the glossolalia of the coffee crowd,
sits a woman pretending to read,
folding in on herself.

All her life those who have loved her
have called her flower. Closing her study book
as the tears fall, she goes to the man’s empty place
to take the rose as a gift for herself.

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SJ Fowler

sj-fowler

SJ Fowler is a poet, artist, and editor. His books include Red Museum (KF&S Press 2011), Fights (Veer Books 2011), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA Press 2011), The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner (Eyewear 2014), and {Enthusiasm} (Test Centre 2015).

He is also a curator of The Enemies Project and works as an editor at 3:AM magazine.

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Hi Steven. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection {Enthusiasm} last year. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it compares to The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner?

Hello, thanks to you for asking. I’ll have to equivocate a fair bit, but generally speaking {Enthusiasm} is in one way quite a formalist book, in that it’s trying to emphasise how much the meaning in poetry is a meeting of subject and object.

The reader has an enormous role to play in the meaning of a poem through their endless, idiosyncratic individual experience of language and its impossibly intricate potential in their minds and memories. I really wanted people to feel like they had to engage with their own subjective reading of each poem more forcefully, as the poems are pretty consistently, structurally and semantically, frenetic.

In another way, thematically, the book is about death, hence the beautiful cover that the publisher Test Centre sourced for it from the Wellcome archives. It’s different from The Rottweiler’s Guide…, not only because every book I publish is different from the last, which seems intuitive to me, but also because The Rottweiler’s Guide… was more about love.

 

 

You’re a poet who seems to thrive on working with others, as evidenced by your recent KFS publications House of Mouse and 1000 Proverbs. I’m curious if there were any differences in your working approach to these collaborations with Prudence Chamberlain and Tom Jenks, and do you feel that mixing up your process is vital to your poetry writing?

I do thrive upon working with others. I find it generative as a poet, but also it’s a form of immediate pedagogy, and I think because I suspect myself to be principally anti-social and misanthropic, it’s a way of continually leaving my comfort zone in order to continue growing as a human being.

The processes with Prue and Tom were different, as I would say every one of my collaborations has been, in that people inevitably vary in the ways they like to work, even in the speed of their replies to emails for example.

Tom and I fired off quick responses to each other, the nature of the work being one line pseudo-proverbs, while Prue and I wrote over a longer time, exchanging large chunks, meeting, editing and working on the material until it became one text where both of us had lost our initial input to the other. It is about circumstance as well as preference, often. Both are brilliant poets and I learned so much from having the chance to write with them.

I feel like my process evolving is something I aspire to, yes. I would like it to always be so. It has a negative effect in practical terms, as many people who might read or discover your work will not be able to put their finger on what it is you’re doing as you lack one clear, consumable aesthetic or motivation. But that can be a benefit in many ways too, depending on what you’re after.

 

 

Perhaps the best example of your collaborative spirit is your involvement with The Enemies Project, which has quickly grown into an international phenomenon. What for you have been the most memorable moments of the project and how do you hope it will develop in the future?

That’s generous, thanks. It has been a pleasure to curate. The project has allowed me to discover, collaborate and learn from poets and artists I would never have met otherwise. It has also allowed me to promote many whose work has been considered too ‘difficult’ to be supported, which I’m proud of, and with the big Camarade events, where the atmosphere is so friendly and the work so intense, and the tours, where I’ve shared vans and trains with cohorts of writers all over the world, I feel like I’ve proven that groundbreaking literary and avant-garde work can be generated without snobbery, hierarchy and pomposity.

In terms of the future, I never want the project to have utopian goals – one can only end up disappointed – so I’m going event to event, making sure I still enjoy it, often responding to the ideas of my co-curators. Next year we’ll have another six or seven international projects, European Poetry Night, the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, a cinema and poetry programme, stuff like that.

 

 

You also work in an editorial capacity for 3:AM magazine. Do you think the proliferation of online poetry magazines and digital platforms for contemporary poetry in recent years signals a sea change in how readers consume poetry, and what would your response be to crticics who argue that online content like this is ephemeral?

I think critics who might suggest that would be of a certain generation that don’t spend most of their leisure time online, as almost everyone in the western world, under the age of forty, tends to do. I think this isn’t really an issue of online magazines, but of the internet itself.

Profoundly undersold in the literary world, it isn’t an alternative to the book, a ‘platform’ or whatever people say – it is a fundamental revolution in human culture, a global, unregulated communications mainframe, a nervous system for civilisation. The internet also happens to be made up of language, the same material as poetry.

I think it has changed poetry for the better. People already forget how much power some once had, just a few decades ago, by controlling what could be read and defining in that process what was supposedly, objectively, good. Ultimately it’s not a question of how readers consume poetry but how poetry adapts to being, like almost everything else, swept up in the technological revolution.

 

 

I understand you have a new artpoem book coming out next year with Stranger Press too entitled I fear my best work behind me featuring illustrations, logograms, and asemic writing. Do you subscribe to the notion that breaking down semantics in this way is an exercise in examining and questioning what exactly constitutes a poem?

I do, and I’m excited about it. Stranger Press is a really good press to work with, Christopher Stephenson does a grand job. I fear my best work behind me is primarily illustrated artworks, brutalist, child-like, comical paintings or abstracts, each with their own handwritten poem built into the work.

Just the fact that the poems are handwritten, often in coloured ink, might, in some people’s minds, make them visual art, rather than poetry. A lot of my work in this area is about my own curiosity. I can’t resist the idea that if I do something as banal as handwrite a poem, rather than print it, in a book, its meaning will change to readers exponentially and be considered experimental.

Context is absolutely equal to content, and yet the common understanding or perception of poetry at the moment, in the UK at least, is entirely focused on the content. Generally we have the same book, paper, font, letter size, language etc. But on that page the white space has meaning, the place of the abstract marking we’ve ascribed meaning to, has import. The logical conclusion of this basic realisation, which permeates all other arts (think film-editing, material and composition in painting etc) is that the poet has the potential to interrogate the context of their language.

So the book explores how image affects language, how they are interconnected, dead space, handwriting and its own aesthetic meaning, and so on. This is old stuff, I know that. I’m deeply interested in poets like Henri Michaux or the CoBrA group, and I’m aware they covered this fifty years ago or more. But it’s exciting to me and hopefully the book has more of a sense of humour than my answer.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

This is from an upcoming collection called The Guide to Being Bear Aware, due out in 2017 with Shearsman Books. I’ve spent the last year or two really rereading poets for the first time, as I only started to read poetry in 2009. I had never looked at it before then. So I’m looping back and rediscovering the world poetry that actually brought me into the field in the first place – poets like Mayakovsky, Esenin, Herbert, Rozewicz, Cesaire, Ekelof, Seferis, Sachs

It’s meant my writing has taken on a more conversational tone, maybe a softer tone, accidentally, perhaps ironising the first person, rather than avoiding it as I have done in the past. It’s also a book that’s trying to reflect on the Anthropocene – our relationship to language, consciousness and animals.

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The Tradition

                      This is how I lost the tournament with my face
                            -Zbigniew Herbert

The trouble with double vision
is that I lose it
right at the moment when it comes in handy.
As though it were friend
whom you remember is dead.
A strange profession, athlete,
where you are more than your work,
and more out of work than in.
Sadness moans
every time a ball is struck
or some other distraction takes place
in physical space.
Not exactly an arrest
but restraining.

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Clare Pollard

clare-pollard

Photo Credit: Richard Henson

Clare Pollard is a poet, writer, editor, and tutor. Her collections include The Heavy-Petting Zoo (Bloodaxe 1998), Bedtime (Bloodaxe 2002), Look, Clare! Look! (Bloodaxe 2005), Changeling (Bloodaxe 2011), and Ovid’s Heroines (Bloodaxe 2013).

As well as being a poet, Clare has written plays for both the stage and radio. A new poetry collection entitled Incarnation is forthcoming from Bloodaxe in early 2017.

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Hi Clare. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You have a new book coming out next year with Bloodaxe called Incarnation. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you feel the poems hang together as a collection?

My last book, Changeling, used old ballads and folktales as a starting point, and I hugely enjoyed researching and reworking such uncanny source material. For Incarnation I began with the idea of reworking religious stories instead. I’m agnostic but was brought up Christian and the first narratives I remember are those of the nativity, the ark, Moses in his basket, Jonah in the whale – I wanted to revisit their strangeness. And since my last book I’ve travelled in India, Turkey and Jordan, and read the Ramayana and the Quran and some Sufi spiritual poetry, so there were other religious texts I was interested in exploring.

Then about a third of the way into the collection I had my first child, and so Incarnation became my book about that experience too. But I hope it’s not what people expect when they hear that; it’s not poems about my baby being a perfect miracle or anything. It’s political. I’m interested in looking at the discourse around pregnancy and motherhood. I think the poetry of parenthood should be treated seriously as a genre – the best of it wrestles with life and death; the viscerality of our animal bodies; the responsibility of making a human being. And that feeds back into the religion thing – what are the stories we tell our children to make sense of the world? How do we teach them about goodness or tell them about death?

 

 

You’ve also successfully toured a live poetry show Ovid’s Heroines these past couple years, which brings to life your translation of the Heroides by Ovid. I’m curious what challenges you faced putting together the show as it is a more sustained and intense performance than an ordinary poetry reading?

I’ve been very lucky to work with Julia Bird at Jaybird, who has put together many dazzling live literature shows. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsals with a director, which was very intense, and I’ve had to learn large stretches of the text by heart which has been fairly nerve-wracking. But it’s been great fun too.

We put together a soundtrack of contemporary strong female voices to act as a counterpoint to Ovid’s women – Amy Winehouse, Joni Mitchell, Anna Calvi, PJ Harvey. I get a tingle of anticipation whenever I hear any of them sing now.

And the set and the lighting are so pretty and subtle. I’m a bit of a frustrated actress, and I’ve written for theatre before, so a part of me has definitely relished the opportunity to cut loose and be dramatic. I mean, Medea is a dream role. I really go for it during Medea.

 

 

You’ve supported new and emerging writers in the past through your co-editing role in the Voice Recognition anthology and your involvement with the inaugural Hippocrates Prize for Young Poets. Do you think there are more opportunities now for younger poets living in a digital age compared to when you started out as a young poet yourself?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been involved with lots of other things too – I was on the panel for the first Faber New Poets and the most recent Next Generation promotion, and I’ve done mentoring for Arvon and New Writing North, and I teach on the Poetry School/Newcastle University poetry MA.

It’s a great time to be an emerging poet, with lots of opportunities to develop and a thriving pamphlet culture that makes it possible to try things out (one of my mentees, James Giddings, recently won the Templar pamphlet award for his wonderful Everything is Scripted).

Poetry has always had a DIY culture, and it’s also easier than ever to self-publish something lovely, or set up a magazine with just a WordPress account. I think poetry suits the internet – poems are short enough to blog, tweet, photograph or make into a YouTube video. So it feels poetry is cool and exciting again, and I like that – when I was a teenager in Bolton and into poetry I felt like a lonely geek.

There is a downside though. It’s much, much more difficult now to make money. Social media has brought with it the expectation you’ll give away your work for free and promote it yourself too. Or pay even, for the privilege of writing. As a writer, you’re increasingly expected to feel ‘lucky’ and ‘grateful’ for any platform you are offered at all.

The majority of the contemporary poetry industry, insofar as it has a business model, is based on extracting money from writers, not giving it to them. Every year, I have to work harder to make a comparable living. Corporations like Amazon have driven royalty percentages down. No one expects magazines to pay anymore.

And then I look at my accounts and festivals, for example, were paying me £150 when I started 20 years ago, and that’s still what some of the big ones are paying now. I don’t blame the festivals particularly – they have lots of other pressures – but if a young poet wants to make a living it’s tougher than ever. Like with most jobs, I guess.

 

 

I understand you recently guest-edited Issue 8 of The Butcher’s Dog poetry magazine. How did you find the experience and were there any particular poems in the submissions pile that struck you or impressed you?

It was terrific fun working with Sophie F Baker and Amy Mackelden again, both of whom I tutored for New Writing North (The Butcher’s Dog came out of their mentoring group). They are both extremely talented, and we had surprisingly similar tastes – I think our selection has a lot of zing and sex and pop culture! Judging anonymous submissions was really enjoyable actually, there was none of the usual anxiety about rejecting people you know, or cringing at cover letters. It’s liberating to just really engage with the work poem by poem.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year?

I had my second baby in May, so I’ve been a bit out of the loop. I’ve really enjoyed some of my Ovid dates though – we had an amazing one in a Manchester synagogue, alongside a truly bizarre ‘Live soap opera noise poem’ version of my translation of Ovid’s Medea by Serafina Steer and Natalie Sharp, including Wiccan dancing, a flame-eyed bull and Kibbo Kift style robes!

And I was part of a fabulous Alice in Wonderland event at the British Library, organised by the Ekphrasis team – Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie – for the 150th anniversary. I’m an Alice nut, so that felt special.

I went to the Forward Prizes reading last month too. I know Malika Booker from my days as a tutor alongside her at the City Lit and I thought she did an amazing job as chair. The individual poems, in particular, were knockout – Melissa Lee-Houghton’s ‘i am very precious’ and Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Joy’ would both be amongst the top poems of any year.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

It’s called ‘The Reef’ and is the second poem in Incarnation. It’s about when I was in Jordan. I’d conceived my son but hadn’t realised yet. Snorkelling for me is one of life’s great pleasures, I can spend hours out there – it makes me think of adventure and otherness and freedom – and my husband and I have often stayed in cheap, mosquito-ridden beach huts in places where we know there’s a good reef. Anyway that turned out to be the last time I snorkelled. He got me some beautiful reef identification books that year for my birthday, and in a way it just felt like taunting me with the end of my carefree travels!

But there was also something about the poetry of the names that made me think of the otherness of pregnancy; the strange, fluid, shifting otherness of the pregnant body. And it’s a poem about climate change in a way too. Having children has definitely heightened my panic about our planet. I read articles about the bleaching of corals obsessively – I’m terrified that when my children are my age there may be no reef left to snorkel…  The diminishment of the world. That’s the greatest sin. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

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The Reef

Pregnant already, I launch
my body into the Red Sea.
Cleavage, differentiation.
The mask lets in a slosh and
salt sears nostrils as I gasp,
dip, hook eyefuls of black
or cabbage, slopes of fire,
lion, parrot and angel, sard-
-ines flickering like lashes
against glare, bleach blue,
barred butterflies, a sea-
star in the Japanese garden’s
surgical green, octopus fuss
over fronds, reticulate gold.
Implantation, zona hatching.
I listen to the earfuls of
wet heart, amongst polyps,
veinwebs, worm, thicklip,
feet kicking, wounding
coral that loosens its pink
gametes to snowstorm up
like winter’s opposite like
the human embryo, merry
clownfish, still gill-slitted,
swishing in me later as I
unwrap the guide to tropical
fish, a birthday gift, travel
pornography as freedoms
dissolve or ebb from me,
who once raced reef sharks
with women in burqinis,
who was once chased for
white meat through black
and fan by men’s lust
to touch a mythical beast.
Small sulcus or groove
forms above eye and below.
I paddle through pages,
dip, see squishy skulls
of moon jellies breathing
like ultrasounds, phantom,
flatworm, fringe, sourcream
scales, cowrie, clitoral
fingerlings, moray’s startle
of eyes locked in fear at her
own mouth, needles, violet
rhinophores, moonsnail
drag of mantleskirt, kimono,
the ray a loose shadow,
speckle, puffer and lavender
in the unimaginable water,
simmering and acidified
in this translucent second
but still so full of world that
a flung face can shatter
a palest turquoise rinsing
through to skyfuls of sun.

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Jay Bernard

jay-bernard

Jay Bernard is a poet, writer, and film programmer. Her published pamphlets are Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (tall-lighthouse 2008), English Breakfast (Math Paper Press 2013), and The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink Sweat & Tears Press 2016).

Jay’s poems have also been collected in The Salt Book of Younger Poets (Salt 2011) and Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe 2014).

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Hi Jay. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet The Red and Yellow Nothing which features the Arthurian knight Sir Morien and weaves a tale exploring race, gender, and identity. Can you tell us about the genesis of the project and what it was that drew you to write about this character?

I really enjoy a blog called Medieval POC. One day I was reading it, and I came across a post about Morien. Having studied English and medieval literature at university, I knew that there was a strong black presence in medieval literature and art, but I’d never explored it as a subject.

Coming across Morien chimed with a burgeoning interest in the Black Arts Movement and the Caribbean Arts Movement, here in the UK, and in politics. I wanted to write something about blackness that wasn’t tragic, but still spoke to the situation we are currently in. The paradoxical nature of now: the way you can be erased, snuffed out, disfigured, distorted, while being privy to the remarkable insight that is only possible from the margins.

I thought that writing about black characters in a world before the construct of race as we currently know it would be a liberating move. I thought it might open up a contemplative space less weighted by the ballast of the media, and American media in particular. We are always expected to view ourselves in a certain way – and I wanted to present and view Morien completely differently.

 

 

There’s a melting pot of influences evident in the sequence – Jessie Weston’s translation of the original medieval Morien poem, the melodies of the Child Ballads, the poetry of William Dunbar, and the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar. Was this intertextuality a conscious decision to try and create a dialogue with the past and forge something new?

Yes. I was consciously ramming things up against each other. The Red and Yellow Nothing is very much an experiment. I know there are parts that are more successful than others. But the point wasn’t to create something smooth. It was to take everything I have in my head, and put it together, and see what else I could do. A total departure from English Breakfast and definitely from Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl. When I was writing those books, I wasn’t aware of blackness as a mode of enquiry or as proximity to death or as something I was thinking very deeply about.

 

 

I understand you took your poetry to audiences across the pond earlier this year as part of the ‘Breaking Ground: Black British Writers US tour’ organised by Speaking Volumes. I’m curious what similarities and differences (if any) you’ve noticed between UK and US poetry audiences?

Those who are interested in this kind of work will be interested whatever side of the pond they are on. But I know that a lot of the allusions I make, and the general aesthetic, won’t fly in a typical American context. When we were reading at UC Davis, I decided not to read one of the poems I’d included in my set, because I knew it just wouldn’t work. But I did read Poem II, and I think that was enough. More generally, I don’t know. People are basically the same.

 

 

You also participated in ‘The Complete Works II’ project a few years ago where you were mentored by Kei Miller and which culminated in Bloodaxe’s Ten: The New Wave. Can you tell us a bit more about this experience and your selection process for the poems that eventually appeared in the anthology?

I think the reading we all did at the Southbank was one of the best I’ve participated in. I thought a lot about who I am, what I’m writing, who I’m talking to. It feels like a lifetime ago. A while later, I realised that I was never going to be part of any scene or world or group, really. Which is a very valuable thing to understand, but then you’ve also got to learn to be at peace with that knowledge, and I don’t think the Arts Council funds a programme for that.

The poems in the anthology were chosen by Karen McCarthy-Woolf, not me. I think they make sense as a selection. I am especially glad ‘Fake Beach’ made the cut, because it’s a very intimate poem for me. I first read it on radio with Joelle Taylor and a group of rappers and we had a discussion about the taboo sexual undertone when a parent really goes for it when hitting their child.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?

I was very sad to have missed the Forward Prizes this year. I read Measures of Expatriation while away from London, and found it extremely expansive, very deep. I loved Say Something Back – I learned a lot from Riley’s very clever wordplay – and at one point I had to stop reading Considering the Women and look away for a bit. Would have been good to hear everyone. It was a really good line-up.

I am looking forward to the event I’m doing at the British Library on December 3rd. Linton Kwesi Johnson is hosting it, and I’m presenting some of the work I produced during my residency at the George Padmore Institute.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

Poem X is near the end of the pamphlet. The whole structure of the book is that Morien is wandering around a kind of pre-story universe, which is non-linear, mutable, shifting etc. In this poem, he detaches from his own face, essentially moves backwards in his own mind and finds an expanse there, finds that he can kind of swim around the inside of his own head and see the chinks of light from the outside world through his nostrils and eyes, which I liken to a chandelier. But I also wanted to explore the idea of Morien as completely abstracted – not a physical thing anymore, but a kind of rule. It’s a fun thought, to be expanded on.

_____________________________

X:

          Dusk: shadow and form change place –
          Morien walks backwards from his face
          his lips part –
          he swims backwards from the slot –
                                   his mouth
                     a fairy shrimp afloat
                                                       beneath
          the ovals         of his eyes
                     pearl nostrils
                                                glass bones shivering
                                   in his ear
          his face, his sex, is dark,
                                   gone,
                                   each orifice
                     pieces
                                   of a chandelier
                     every colour –
          chemicream, gin-coloured vectors
                                                see through quantities of green
                     peach-thought foam and
                                                mouth coloured mousse –

                                                At swim, a Morien,
          backstroking round his face
                                                       at swim,
                     s/he has ceased to be a thing,
                                   but a rule – a how or why,
                                                a reason,
                                   a what things are
                                                governed by.

_____________________________

Charlotte Gann

charlotte-gann

Charlotte Gann is a poet and writer. Her poems have appeared in places such as The Rialto, The North, and Magma, and her pamphlet The Long Woman (Pighog 2011) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award.

Charlotte’s debut full-length collection Noir has been published recently by HappenStance Press.

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Hi Charlotte. Congratulations on your debut full-length collection Noir. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it expands upon the themes of your pamphlet The Long Woman?

Thank you. A handful of poems from The Long Woman also make their appearance in Noir – so the seeds were there. I think what happened between the one and the other – apart from a lot of new writing – was finding the shape – an ‘envelope’.

In 2014, thanks to a small Arts Council award, I spent a fruitful time working on the collection with John O’Donoghue. By then I had written a lot of the poems, and pulled them into a draft collection. These shared an atmosphere – which remains – of rising black water, and a ‘sunken dream’ quality. This was also the point I first alighted on the title Noir, which then stuck, and really helped.

It was important to me to find an envelope – and the concept of ‘noir’ provided that. It felt right because the book does explore sadness and darkness – the underbelly, the less acknowledged; conditions under which exploitation can and does occur. But I’m not trying to burden anyone. Maybe, more, shine a light.

This then was the manuscript with which I arrived at Nell Nelson’s door at HappenStance. Working with Nell has been an education. She’s a brilliant editor, and constantly illuminating – as well as irreverently funny.

 

 

Reading the book, there is a sense you are well-versed in film noir and many of the poems have a cinematic feel. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in the genre and are there any specific examples that have influenced you?

I do love film, always have, and remember ‘studying’ film noir – among other genres; ‘genre’ was a word I learnt there! – at an after-school club at secondary school. (I also remember climbing those stairs, excited and afraid, to watch Psycho.)

So, yes, films have always been there. And in workshops I kept hearing the same two adjectives applied to my work: filmic, and dark.

My collection does nod to a few iconic movies, if obliquely – among them, Blue Velvet and the third film in the Red Riding trilogy. None from earlier – but maybe the spirit of noir remains essentially unaltered from its roots in the 1940s:

 

‘A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident…’

 

It’s this essential subversiveness I think I’m drawn to: its willingness to cross the line and speak its truth, however unpopular – like Spencer Tracy turning up in Bad Day at Black Rock, or Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night. These are my kind of heroes.

 

 

The collection is interspersed with a sequence of seven poems entitled ‘Dream’, which have an uncanny and nightmarish quality to them. What was the impetus behind these poems and are they wholly imagined or partly inspired by dreams you’ve had yourself in the past?

It was Nell who designated these poems ‘Dreams’. I’m glad she did. But of course the train of the book dips in and out of dream, in and out of conscious and ‘unconscious’ material. Dreams go about their business here, and I think noirish film also operates in a subterranean world where things are starker but simpler.

Of course, this can go for poetry too. If we could describe these things in other ways, we would. Some of the dreams in the book were based on real dreams, some not. The first tries to capture a recurring dream I’m sure I’m not the only one to have!

Anxiety is a big theme of the book. I try to find, for myself, a language or way to distil that struggle. Perhaps my favourite novel is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. Here, stress and isolation have a very particular impact:

 

‘It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world.’

 

In the last section of Noir, things lighten. Nell felt strongly – and I agreed – that the book needed to ‘go’ somewhere else to close. The final ‘Dream’ – number VII, which does chronicle a real dream – I hope suggests movement. Different people read this poem different ways though – as for all work. I like that too.

 

 

A couple of the poems – ‘Private Eye’ and ‘The Letter’ – are more experimental with their typography and layout. The first incorporates dictionary definitions and IPA symbols while the latter mimics the layout of a formal letter. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of these poems and how quickly it took you to arrive at their finished forms?

Oddly, this question makes me think of origami… Or at least of this quote by Michael Maltby:

 

‘A bit like origami, it may take an extremely complex series of folds, creases, and tucks before any worthwhile poetic shape can be achieved. In the meantime, quite a lot of paper is likely to end up in the basket.’

 

I tried various forms in both these cases – but the poems only found their impetus, for me, in these versions.

‘Private Eye’ started out pretty much as the finished shape you see. The sense of explosion on the page was pivotal and freeing – and I stuck with it in the end because it also, for me, felt in keeping with the ‘world’ of the poem. (I was thinking at the time of a summer spent on Orkney – in part reimagining a neighbourhood of physically far-flung houses as an emotionally ‘exploded’ street… )

The dictionary definitions are the glue in this poem. Without them there’s nothing but scattered remnants. And they also bring some small comfort – at least to the poem’s protagonist.

‘The Letter’ happened the other way round. I wrote it first in a more conventional form – in stanzas. The poem felt flabby – and yet I found myself weirdly unwilling to hack it back as I normally might. I let it be and then, later, stumbled on its letter shape. Suddenly, the script fitted.

I also liked including the solid object, or ‘prop’, of the letter here, on the page. The letter, the literal container, for me, ‘holds’ the emotion of the poem – which I think is then allowed to be rawer and arguably less stymied than elsewhere in the book.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year?

JO Morgan’s Interference Pattern is the book I’ve returned to most.

I’m on the organising committee of a writers’ cooperative where I’ve particularly enjoyed recent readings from visitors Jemma Borg and Mara Bergman and, this month, Marion Tracy reading from Dreaming of Our Better Selves.

I also participate in two regular writing groups. One is hosted by Clare Best, who has been the best of allies. The other is run by Mimi Khalvati – in a room above Lewes bus station, where we share our work to the accompaniment of the wheezing buses. These are my favourite Saturdays.

Working with Nell Nelson in the run-up to publication of Noir has been my year’s undoubted highlight.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

It’s the title poem of the book – and I think rather different from the rest. I guess the ‘auditorium’ here could be interpreted as both cinema and self. Maybe I’m questioning what I’m up to in the book.

‘Noir’ is also the opening poem of the final section – ‘Eleventh Hour’ – and follows immediately on from one possible ‘ending’. For me, then, there is a dramatic pause at that point: the biggest in the book. ‘Noir’ is the poem that then follows.

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Noir

I only ever catch a moon-thin glimpse
of the projectionist’s face as I wander down
my lonely aisle, glance back, before

he whips his curtain shut. In this deserted
auditorium, I park my own blunt
calf of body – let it sink, groaning,

into a rising trough of darkness. This is our
windowless home. Behind my head, nothing
but deep thick folds of milky black,

while my eyes, live though furtive creatures,
dart across the nuance of the piece
worn thin like hallway carpet. Inside this

bobbing car is where I touch the hidden seam –
as the last reel rolls, heroes rise before
the kiss – where my life and the darkness meet.

_____________________________

Matthew Stewart

matthew-stewart-2

Matthew Stewart is a poet and poetry blogger. His poems have appeared in publications such as Ambit, The Rialto, New Walk, and Under The Radar.

Matthew has published two pamphlets – Inventing Truth (HappenStance 2011) and Tasting Notes (HappenStance 2012) – and a full-length collection is due from Eyewear Publishing in 2017.

_____________________________

Hi Matthew. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Reading your poetry, there is a sense you are a proponent of the short lyric form. I’m curious if your composition process tends to involve longer first drafts that are subsequently pared back, and how much tinkering and revising is involved in getting the poems ‘right’ when the language is so condensed and every word counts?

From the first draft onwards, my poems already tend to be short. In fact, rather than shrinking, they sometimes grow slightly, draft on draft, as extra layers emerge over months.

I always start my poems off in my A4 notebook, using a pen so that nothing can be rubbed out. When I reach “a first final draft”, I type it up on my computer and print it out. These records are crucial to my writing process. If I wrote directly on to a screen, I’d lose all the blind alleys and red herrings that I often later pillage for other lines in the poem, juggling the components until they fall into place. The physical act of marking a blank page, meanwhile, is also significant. There’s no delete key in my notebook!

Once the poem’s printed out and placed in a folder, that’s far from the end of the process. I’ll read the poem a few more times over the next few days, but then I’ll force myself to put it away and slowly fall out of love with it.

After a couple of months have gone by, I’ll look through the poem once more. That’s when previously unnoticed faults tend to show up. I’ll try to sort them out back in my notebook, often referring again to those records of my first set of notes, before typing up “a second final draft” and stashing it for a further period. And so on and so forth.

This process continues until there comes a point where I go back to the poem and feel no more changes are necessary. On a few occasions, this occurs quickly, but it usually takes at least a year from start to finish.

 

 

You published a pamphlet in 2012 called Tasting Notes which used the back labels of bottles of wine as a springboard for half a dozen related poems. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of the project and in what ways (if any) you feel they complemented each other?

In my day job, I’m the blender and export manager for the Spanish wine co-operative Viñaoliva, selling their wine all over the world. I write the back labels, brochures and website copy, as well as, of course, the tasting notes.

My editor at HappenStance Press, Helena Nelson, suggested I should also write about my job in my verse. I was leery at first, due to the cheesy connotations of verse about Bacchus, etc,  but then I realised I could have a lot of poetry fun with wine jargon. I started writing poems that played advertising copy off against the wines’ real story, and Tasting Notes was born.

Moreover, I’m convinced that poetry benefits from a tie-in with the physical world. Such tie-ins not only cast a new light on verse for lovers of the genre, but they also gain new readers for it, people who thought poems could bring little to their lives beyond weddings and funerals.

That was the driving force behind Tasting Notes: many copies were sold at wine trade fairs or tastings, while we launched the pamphlet at the Poetry Book Fair in London together with Spanish tapas and a whole Ibérico ham on the bone.

 

 

Your poem ‘Villalejo’ won first prize in the National Library of Scotland’s ‘To home and beyond‘ poetry competition in 2014. What was the inspiration behind this poem, and did you get a chance to see the ‘Voices from the Commonwealth’ display it subsequently featured in?

I wasn’t able to make it up to Edinburgh that summer, but the most rewarding aspect of this prize was the knowledge that my verse was involved in another physical tie-in via the context of the exhibition, thus reaching new readers.

Villalejo is the name of an invented town, an amalgam of several spots down here in deepest Extremadura where I live. As such, it features implicitly or explicitly in much of my recent poetry, often as a counterpoint to my childhood in the UK.

In fact, this poem has developed into a two-hander in my full collection manuscript, and is now titled ‘From Farnham to Villalejo’. More and more, I’m bringing my short poems together in groups and sequences to complement and build on each other.

 

 

I understand your debut full-length collection is due to be published with Eyewear next year. Can you tell us a bit more about the collection and how it develops and continues the themes of your previous pamphlets?

For any full collection, the ordering of poems is difficult and crucial. For a set of so many short pieces, the challenge is even greater.

In my first full collection, which has taken over twenty years to complete, themes and storylines are now more layered and complex than in my pamphlets, while I’ve also developed and nuanced my use of syllabics so as to play with aural expectations and create richer effects that weave their way from poem to poem.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?

My main problem at the moment is that I’m giving few readings because I haven’t got any pamphlets left. Both Inventing Truth and Tasting Notes sold out a fair time ago!

During the rest of 2016, I’ll be arranging readings for next year to promote my full collection (always open to offers!), while working away on my Rogue Strands blog like always. I’ve got a number of very interesting and intriguing titles on my desk awaiting a review right now.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

‘Making paella with David’ portrays a shared father-and-son act. Its thematic tension lies in the implicit awareness that this intimacy is the inevitable precursor to distance. The son’s autonomy is becoming evident and cannot be avoided. The father forces himself to hold back instead of intervening as his child uses a knife.

The poem first appeared under a slightly different guise in Inventing Truth, but this is a new version from my full-length manuscript.

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Making paella with David

I watch his fingers learning how
to shell langoustines, exploring
their cartoon-alien faces
and train-track bellies. He giggles
at calamari tentacles,
snaps the glassy spines in half.

Just now he slung an apron on
and told me he’d help. Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It’s time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.

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