Wayne Holloway-Smith

Photo Credit: Mark Sherratt

Wayne Holloway-Smith is a poet, editor, and tutor. His poems have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Wayne’s pocketbook Beloved, in case you’ve been wondering was published by Donut Press in 2011.

He currently co-edits the online journal Poems in Which and a debut full-length collection Alarum is due from Bloodaxe next month.

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Hi Wayne. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your debut full-length collection Alarum with Bloodaxe. Can you tell us a bit more about it and in what ways you think the collection is a continuation of or departure from Beloved, in case you’ve been wondering?

Hi, thanks. I’m really very happy to be published by Bloodaxe Books. In fact, they were the only ones to whom I sent my manuscript. There’s something impressively pluralistic about their approach to publishing – an importance placed upon the representation of a wide range of voices and interpretations of the world. I’m glad to be allowed to be part of that, and hope the book can make a valid contribution.

I’m not entirely certain what to say about its content. It deals, I guess, with themes I was probably too anxious and uncomfortable to speak about previously – mental health, violence, the working-class background I’m from and the weirdness of its hegemonic conceptions of masculinity. I think these topics, or, at least, the manner in which I attempt to address them is what distinguishes the book from my previous publication Beloved, in case you’ve been wondering.

But, also, time has played a big obvious part. There are five years between the pocketbook I published with Donut Press and this first full collection. A lot has taken place in my life since then, including the leaving behind of particular masks and certain tired character traits – this is reflected in the work I think.

 

 

Congratulations too on the recent tenth issue of Poems in Which. I’m curious what you find to be the most rewarding aspects of editing the journal?

Again, thanks. I love that tenth issue; there’s some incredibly good poetry in it. A lot of what takes place at Poems in Which is down to my co-editors – Alex, Amy, and Rebecca – all of whom are poets I love and are brilliant and funny people, and each of them work very hard to make each issue happen. I’d be lying if I said a large part of my being involved wasn’t for the selfish reason that it gives me an excuse to hang out with and speak to these guys.

Each of us have quite different tastes, poetry-wise, so it’s pretty valuable for me to be exposed to the critical thinking of them all in this respect. Alongside this, it’s a privilege to get to read poetry by writers I perhaps would not have otherwise come across, as well as to promote the work of people I think deserve it. And also to have my own biases challenged.

 

 

You hosted and curated a ‘Literary Salon’ a few years back in which your living room became a stage for some leading poets to share their work with others. Looking back on those gatherings are there any particular highlights that stick in the mind for you, and how well do you think the follow-up anthology Follow the Trail of Moths captured events?

That whole thing was really fun. I had to stop it eventually because the last event had 100 or so people attending, and I couldn’t risk getting kicked out of my flat – the neighbours were complaining quite a bit. Poems can get rowdy. My thought process behind putting these things on was that I was pretty much convinced people who don’t really read poetry, like a lot of my friends and friends’ friends, could really get into it if they had the chance to see/hear some quality stuff. And, I’m happy to say, these events proved me almost exclusively right.

There are loads of incidents which stick in my mind: Mark Waldron filthying-up the stories we were all told as children, Annie Freud gaining a ludicrous amount of attention from hot young men, a dodgy episode it’s best not to discuss happening in my kitchen – apparently on a bin. My budgie, Max Wall (RIP), absolutely loved Inua Ellams.

The anthology Sidekick published (everything they do is awesome) was a nice keepsake, and provided, I hope, a written starting point for those I mentioned who were unfamiliar with poetry, and was made beautiful by the illustrations of Sophie Gainsley.

 

 

I enjoyed reading an interview you did with The Poetry School last year about your course ‘The Poem as A Party Guest‘, which seemed to be something of a reaction against poetry that might be perceived as prescriptive and only interested in conveying its own message and opinion. Can you tell us a bit more about how the course went and did it throw up any surprises along the way?

It’s a weird thing to come out with a ‘stance’ on poetry I think. And weird also to ‘teach’ one. In fact, I’m finding I have less and less of a stance the more I learn. The purpose of this course was to present one, perhaps, off-kilter, way of thinking about writing, which I had been mulling over at the time. But by no means was it meant to be some kind of manifesto, or fully formed system of poetics. I’m suspicious of those – they’re annoying and reductive. The ‘party guest’ tagline was a way of structuring some of the processes of experimentation to which I asked students to commit.

Pretty much everyone did, to my relief, and they all produced something amazing that I was a bit jealous of by the end. I want students to get good, and then, when they do, hate them a little for it.

 

 

What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are especially looking forward to?

Well, Alarum’s being published very soon (unless this whole thing has been one complicated and elaborate ruse to make me look stupid), so, I have to organize a launch. Following that, I plan to expend a great deal of time and energy being anxious, sitting around hoping someone finds something of worth in it.  Also, I’ve written some new things, a lot of new things, actually. I’m excited to see where these go.

 

 

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

It’s the last poem I wrote before the book went to press, and Neil Astley was kind enough to allow me to shift the manuscript around until I found a suitable place for it. I’ve read it live once, for the transatlantic series Poetry Extension, and received, surprisingly, quite a few emails about it from others who have shared the experience it seeks to articulate.

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There is absolutely no way to make this real life interesting

My ostensible father downstairs is sore to the dickens
about everything
no matter: my illness is alright

two fingers up
the throat of itself    nutrients bawling
across the panels of the bathroom
tears backing up in the backs
of its eyes    and desperate    sometimes laughter

As a child my illness had fat thighs and a scar on its lip
that my mother assured me would one day disappear
as a child my illness was trying itself out

holding itself at angles in the mirror
it wanted so much to be the beautiful boy at school
or something very wrapped up and lifted
a wonderful hybrid creature    and dead
almost beneath its blankets
as a child it was wrong in knitwear eating Mars Bars

bowls of ice cream pasta cold beans
bowls of ice cream cold beans Mars Bars

picture this: my illness in a gym
hidden by large men and mirrors
picture this: a field of red flowers

hidden in a field of flowers my illness
dressed in a wide-rimmed straw hat is eating
all the red flowers

Imagine how many surplus
calories you have to eat to gain one pound
said the therapist in her green cardigan

Think back    she said in an attitude of prayer
Allow your inner-child to speak out
she spoke from beneath long orange hair
What is it saying, what do you want to say
Little Illness?

A shadow carefully distinguishes from all of their shadows
when my illness goes with my friends out driving
to the cinema and with popcorn
it is distrustful    of the girl at the counter because maybe
the girl at the counter will give it Coke instead of Diet Coke
when my illness goes with them it waits
til my friends are out of earshot and whispers
to the girl at the counter
I’m diabetic    please don’t get it wrong

I ran for a long time with my illness and smoked
Dear Pillow my illness said I am empty as a packed lunch
Dear Pillow how many calories in a red flower
the pillow never did speak back

cat food a flat mate’s Mars Bars bread
bread from the freezer pasta so much cake
bread from the freezer three types of cheese

The therapist suggests a self-help book for my illness
my friend’s mum buys it    the self-help book
addresses my illness as She
sometimes it just wants to be scooped up
helpless and placed in a bathtub

My illness grew into itself so much that it ran one day
23 miles from my parents to my nan’s house
trucks on a motorway
horns down Sunday lanes
across some shortcut cornfields and arrived
just in time for dinner

my illness is taking all of the red flowers
inside itself so the field is just filled with my illness
my illness taking all of this imagery
into itself until it is outgrowing
the place where it hides
my friends now speeding past in cars
ostensibly my father is downstairs sore to the dickens
about everything

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Ben Wilkinson

ben-wilkinson

Ben Wilkinson is a poet, reviewer, and academic. His poems have appeared in places such as The Guardian, The Spectator, Poetry Review, The Rialto, and The Times Literary Supplement.

Ben has published two pamphlets – The Sparks (tall-lighthouse 2008) and For Real (smith|doorstop 2014) – and has a debut full-length collection forthcoming from Seren Books.

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Hi Ben. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet For Real with smith|doorstop in 2014. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and how you feel they are a continuation of or departure from the poems in your debut The Sparks?

Thanks – it’s a pleasure. Poets might wince when asked to talk about their poems, but I think it does us good to have to explain, and even defend, what we’re up to!

The Sparks was published when I was in my early twenties. It’s basically one step up from juvenilia, with a couple of poems that I think of as having merits beyond that. It was written between 2005 and 2008, during my years as an undergraduate, reading more poetry than my studies allowed. It’s the typical first pamphlet: I’m trying on different styles, tones of voice, subject matter, in the hope that something holds – and most importantly, holds the reader’s attention.

I was only dimly aware of it back then, but I’ve always thought of the poem as a conversation between itself and the reader. Poems have a duty to… entertain is too simple a word, it’s more complicated than that – but they have to meet a reader halfway. They have to deliver on the honest investment a reader puts into them. If someone bores you at a party (and ‘bore’ here covers irritating drunken behaviour and/or attention-seeking, as much as being plain tedious or vanilla), you make your excuses and leave, unless you’re especially polite. The same goes for poems, right?

For Real appeared six years after The Sparks. Douglas Adams said: ‘You live and learn. At any rate, you live’. When the pamphlet came out I wrote a paragraph on the thing for The North magazine, as one of the Poetry Business Competition winners. I talked mainly about the emotional terrain that fed the poems: experiences of depression, both personal and among my family and friends; falling in and out of love; material with wider resonance. To put it rather grandly, I tried to make over an approximation of those experiences into art, into something that tries to tell the truth by working truly; emotional truths, rather than the illusion of a reliable account. That’s what I aimed for anyway – whether or not it worked, the reader decides.

One thing I do think I achieved in For Real over The Sparks was a more direct speaking voice, a more pared-back and authentic use of language. Authenticity is a thorny issue in our postmodern age: you see it in the archness and irony that artists increasingly reach for. If a poem is a performance, how can it say anything with immediate emotional authenticity? It’s an act; the game’s up. But that strikes me as misleading. Everything in life is an act; we’re always performing on some level, often in ways we don’t even fully realise.

So an idealised kind of authenticity is a silly raising of the bar to impossible heights. If a poem speaks to you directly and memorably, makes you think and feel as keenly as if you were having the very best conversation with its speaker over a few pints or a cup of coffee, then to me, that’s authentic. That’s what I want from poems, and for my poems.

 

 

You’ve been open about your struggles with depression in the past and how poetry helped you through it. Indeed, some of your poems like ‘Hound‘ and ‘Days‘ deal with the subject directly. What qualities do you think poetry has that makes it a suitable combatant or suitable refuge against depression?

The first part of my debut collection Way More Than Luck, which is due from Seren Books in early 2018, is given over to poems that deal, directly and obliquely, with this very broad theme and its serious hold on our society. Depression – and mental health problems more generally – are so widespread, it’s frightening. The stigma is disappearing because people are speaking out, and we’re all waking up to the fact that stuff about our modern society is fuelling this epidemic.

You mention ‘Hound’, which featured on the mental health charity Mind’s website, with a piece about my experiences. I wanted to let others know that their struggles are ones that others have felt. It’s difficult to put your faith in anything, even genuine solidarity, when you’re cripplingly depressed, but one thing I found that helped me was reading other people’s stories.

That, and taking up long-distance running. Books and the written word have always nourished me in one way or another, but I can’t commend enough the virtue of doing something – anything – on a regular basis that gets you out and about, heart beating and body moving. It sounds obvious, but I think writers especially forget this kind of thing. We were built to wander the plains for miles on end, not to sit at a desk typing and scrolling through websites for hours at a time…

As to poetry and depression… I’m not sure poems can ever offer a refuge from the black dog. But I think depression often comes about through a narrowing of perspective – a kind of mental claustrophobia – and poems can definitely help in defending us against that awful, creeping sense of feeling totally trapped. Poems transform our way of looking at the world, and that’s what keeps the world vital, and us alive to it.

So there’s the whole increased self-awareness thing going on, too. If reading a good poem is a way of understanding yourself and the world better, then the kind of knowledge poetry offers can help stop you from falling into life’s traps. And because a good poem is memorisable, you can carry the thing around in your head like a charm or spell – a line or two to repeat under your breath when you need it most.

 

 

You’ve also composed a number of football-themed poems, some of which appeared in the Official Liverpool FC Monthly Magazine. I’m curious if you received feedback about them from LFC fans and how important do you think it is that poetry attempts to reach audiences beyond those who read the genre already?

I think it’s vital that poetry reaches audiences outside of its own little universe. There’s an argument that surfaces every once in a while that basically says: poets writing for other poets and scholars and poetry aficionados is kind of inevitable, because anything else involves dumbing down and playing to the floor, a betrayal of artistic integrity and necessary difficulty. The periodic reaction to this comes from poets who want to reconnect poetry with a wider audience: Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s ‘man speaking to men’, right through to some of our better poet-performers today.

I guess the trick is being able to balance the two: integrity/complexity and (for want of a much better word) accessibility. I’ve been to readings where the aloof poet makes seemingly no effort to connect with their audience, content to obfuscate and repeatedly elude; but I’ve also been to spoken-word nights where I’ve had to listen to another immature, self-indulgent performance ‘poem’ about a student house-share or a trip to Eastern Europe (what someone once called ‘poetry as recognition comedy’). The really difficult thing is producing something that succeeds as thought-provoking, challenging, moving art and at the same time is expressed – to paraphrase that smart cookie Einstein – as simply as possible, but not one bit simpler.

Which – ahem – brings me neatly onto the central sequence in my forthcoming collection, a series of poems about the beautiful (and not always so beautiful) game. The plan – if you ever have such a thing in poetry – was not to write about football, but more about everything surrounding football: the culture, the politics, the players and the fans, how the sport is deeply woven into our society, whether we like it or not.

So some of the poems are unlikely praise for a much-maligned game, one that has its roots in working class community spirit but was vilified in the 1980s, a time when the Tory government had its own sinister motives for smearing working class culture. The commercialised and slightly sanitised top-tier of football we have now spawned from that. But the real spirit lives on I think – among the fans especially.

As a Liverpool fan, seeing a poem that draws on my first trip to Anfield as a kid, and another that pays tribute to Kenny Dalglish’s heroic response to the Hillsborough disaster, in the official club magazine, was a weird and wonderful dream. But the response from football fans – not always fans of poetry! – has been properly heartening.

A lot of the poems are variations on the sonnet form, so for readers of Liverpool FC Monthly to tweet their approval and get in touch has been grand. One guy at a reading last year told me he had recently attended former captain Steven Gerrard’s last game, and that my poems had brought a tear to his eye. I can’t really ask for more than that.

 

 

I understand you have put together a reader’s guide to the poetry of Don Paterson more recently as well. Could you tell us a bit more about the book and what it is that draws you to his work?

On a critical and scholarly level, I suppose you could simplify my interest in Don Paterson’s work as essentially based on his cultural importance. His poetry has garnered tons of critical praise/interest and has won pretty much every major poetry prize going, but on top of that, he’s long edited a major contemporary publishing list at Picador/Pan Macmillan, as well as writing some influential ars poetica essays.

So when a deranged part of me came to the idea that I’d quite like to write a PhD thesis on contemporary poetry and poetics, and particularly on a major figure within that sphere, he seemed the obvious candidate. Whatever you make of his poetry and his poetry-related activities, you can’t really imagine the landscape of British poetry since the early 1990s without him; I’d argue his influence across the board has been more profound and pervasive than that of any other of that generation, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy included.

I remember one critic – by no means entirely enamoured by his work – saying that where most contemporary poets are the warm-up act, Don Paterson is the main gig. Personally, I find his poems more frequently entertaining, enviable, infuriating, moving and challenging than any other contemporary poet’s. Aside an almost flawless technique – the musicality of his poems make them pretty intoxicating – if poetry is about holding apparent opposites in tension and letting the sparks fly (and I think it is), he does that exceptionally well.

The reader’s guide – which I’m hoping to finish before too long, to be published thereafter as part of The Writers and Their Work series by Northcote House in conjunction with The British Council – will be an accessible chronological trip through Paterson’s work to date, starting with his debut Nil Nil through to his latest collection 40 Sonnets, dipping into his critical writings and aphorisms along the way, contextualising the kinds of questions his work asks, about our postmodern age, culture, identity, language, poetry and art.

The plan wasn’t to rehash my thesis, but to draw selectively on all of that painstaking research to offer some close, hopefully entertaining and insightful readings of his poems, some of which are surely the major ones of our age: I’m thinking ‘An Elliptical Stylus’, ‘A Private Bottling’, ‘Two Trees’, ‘Rain’. For fans of his work, it should hopefully make for enjoyable and challenging reading; for scholars and others, it will also illustrate and argue his significance.

 

 

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

I returned recently from Seoul, South Korea, on the back of a British Council-led collaborative project: a ‘sonnet exchange’ as part of the global Shakespeare Lives! 2016 programme. From start to finish, the whole thing has been an absolutely unforgettable, amazing experience. I was paired with a Korean graphic illustrator, Sung Goo Won, and together we were tasked with producing a new response, textual and visual, to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Despite being at two removes from one another, artistically and linguistically, with the help of a translator over Skype video calls we managed to produce something we’re both proud of – proof that a shared emotional response to great art can bring together a bard from four centuries back, a Yorkshire-based writer, and a Korean cartoonist. I consider that a decisive middle-finger to the culture of xenophobia and hate that is swirling in parts of our political life right now.

Sung Goo blogged about the whole thing, showcasing his amazing illustrations and our final sonnet storyboard. It was a privilege to fly out to Seoul and participate in a roundtable discussion on the collaboration, with our counterparts, a Korean poet by the name of Beo Son, and the UK graphic novelist Mark Stafford. After two 12 hour flights inside a week, a 9 hour time difference, and a last night of hitting the soju pretty hard, I think the jet-lag has just about subsided.

 

 

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

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Nesh’. It was initially sparked off by a discussion with the poet Kayo Chingonyi. Kayo came into the University of Bolton to give some of my students a frankly brilliant workshop, and part of that involved writing a poem about a word or phrase that was particular to your cultural heritage; something that wouldn’t readily translate into mainstream culture.

I went away and thought about the word ‘nesh’, which is a dialect word from the English Midlands/North of England meaning, by my definition at least, ‘given to feeling the cold’. It’s more generally used to describe someone a bit soft or wet behind the ears, i.e. the kind of person, roundly mocked in these parts, who might consider wearing a coat in a month without an ‘r’ in it. I was a sensitive kid, it has to be said.

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Nesh

Not cold but given to feeling the cold,
a slip of a boy waiting
for the number 12
as a summer breeze floats in,
suddenly shivering. Or the way

my mum used to tell my brother
and me to take our coats off
even though we’d soon be out again:
“You’ll not feel the benefit!” she’d scold,
sagely, and who were we to argue?

Nesh is for those of us who sense
someone walking over our grave,
who need the perfect
imprecision of the poem, made
from language’s shoddy array,

to get us through the day.
Look at you, sat on the doorstep
having forgotten your keys again,
the slightest chill biting
at your neck. I’d give you my coat

if you weren’t fifteen years dead.

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Tamar Yoseloff

tamar-yoseloff

Tamar Yoseloff is a poet, editor, and tutor. She has published five collections of poetry – Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press 1998), Barnard’s Star (Enitharmon 2004), Fetch (Salt 2007), The City with Horns (Salt 2011), and A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems (Seren 2015).

Tamar is also a co-founder of publishing imprint Hercules Editions.

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Hi Tamar. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on A Formula for Night: New and Selected Poems. I imagine putting together a selected poems must feel a bit like an exercise in taking stock. I’m curious what it was like re-visiting the older poems and if your relationship with them has changed now that you have some distance from the work?

Thanks for the invitation. Having a new and selected is indeed a strange experience. A fellow poet (who is around the same age as I am) congratulated me on my ‘half a tombstone’. It did feel as if I was being firmly placed as ‘mid-career’ with all the associated baggage, but at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to revisit work I had all but forgotten.

Some poems felt familiar, and I remembered the occasion behind writing, the process of bringing them to a finished state; others were alien, and it seemed that a different person had created them. In the end it was fairly easy to decide which poems I still liked and which I didn’t want to see in print again, and I took advice from other poet friends and from Amy Wack, my editor at Seren (there are a couple of poems included that I would have consigned to the bin if not for her – I won’t say which).

 

 

The book also features twenty seven new poems. Can you tell us about these more recent pieces and in what ways you feel they are a continuation of or departure from the poems in your last collection The City with Horns?

One recent review suggested my new poems are a bit sexier and edgier, but I felt edgier taking on the mantle of Jackson Pollock in The City with Horns. I swear more now, which feels partly like a reaction to middle age and the way the world is going, but also because the ‘I’ in my poems has shifted from me to other voices and other characters.

I’m rhyming more too – someone said that painters get more colourful with age, so maybe that’s what happens with rhyme, you regress to the nursery. But I think my rhyme is a bit edgier too, in that I like the closer music you get with what Kay Ryan calls ‘recombinant rhyme’— embedded internal rhyme. However, the themes and concerns are the same – I’m not getting any lighter!

 

 

I understand you worked as a programme coordinator at The Poetry School in the first half of the noughties. Are there any highlights or memories that stick in the mind from that period?

I’m still involved with The Poetry School as a core tutor, and I have recently started teaching on their new MA degree (in conjunction with Newcastle University). They are a great organisation, and one which is very close to my heart.

The best memories from my days of programming for the School are the visiting poets I had the opportunity to meet and the events they ran for us. I remember extraordinary workshops and masterclasses from Paul Muldoon, the late CK Williams, Mark Doty, Jorie Graham, Eavan Boland, Thomas Lynch and Sharon Olds.

To sit in a room with any of them and to listen to them talk about poetry and how they write poems was an enormous privilege.

 

 

You also co-founded Hercules Editions with Vici MacDonald. You have since published a small but prestigious output from the likes of Sean O’Brien, Claire Crowther, Hannah Lowe, and Sue Rose. Can you tell us a bit more about these projects and how much editorial input there tends to be from yourself and Vici?

Vici and I started Hercules to publish our own collaboration, Formerly. We didn’t have plans to continue, but we never expected Formerly to do as well as it did (it was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and is now in its second printing) and so we were convinced that there was a niche for what we were doing – combining poetry and visual material.

We don’t really have an editorial policy – we just go for projects we like; I handle the words and Vici handles the images. But we like to involve our authors as much as we can in the process, and to ask writers who interest us to provide introductory essays. So the press is really about collaboration, over different genres, but also between people engaging in a subject together and making a book from it.

 

 

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

My favourite event in the poetry calendar is the Free Verse book fair. I actually went there straight off the plane from Alicante this year – it’s such an important way of keeping up with new presses and publications. I usually end up buying too many books! Hercules is now a regular exhibitor, so it’s great to be a more active part of it.

I also attended the Poetry in Aldeburgh festival last month. It was so sad when the Poetry Trust closed its doors, but an amazing group of volunteers have kept things going this year, and brought the festival back to Aldeburgh – a very popular move locally (I spend a lot of time in that part of the world).

I did a reading with two of my wonderful Poetry School students, Anna-May Laugher and Sandra Galton, and also launched a new anthology of poems inspired by the South Lookout Tower, which is an Aldeburgh landmark.

 

 

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

This is one of the poems from the new anthology Lookout: Poetry from Aldeburgh Beach. I wrote it in April 2013, when I had a residency in the tower; it was very grey and wet, and so the bleakness made it into all of the poems I wrote over that stay. I grew up not far from the seaside in New Jersey, and I’ve probably always favoured the coast out of season – places have more character when it’s raining.

 

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The rain

arrives and is queen, her great ermine of cloud
issuing the rule of water. We obey her,
worship by raising bright canopies.

Her reign is long and prosperous in the greening
of the land, the flowing of rivers.
We are anointed, cleansed.

The sky carries her dark warnings, her weapons;
the earth releases its hidden subjects,
stems blossoming in her name.

She declaims against the frivolous sun; no good
can come in a world at play. We must suffer
and love it. We must work for joy.

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Mimi Khalvati

mimi-khalvati

Photo Credit: Caroline Forbes

Mimi Khalvati is an award-winning poet, editor and tutor. She has published eight poetry collections, most recently The Weather Wheel with Carcanet in 2014.

Mimi was also an original founder of The Poetry School and has previously been a poet-in-residence for The Royal Mail.

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Hi Mimi. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your most recent book The Weather Wheel. Can you tell us a bit more about the collection and why you decided to use a sixteen line couplet form for the poems?

When I first started writing The Weather Wheel, I had nothing more in mind than to write some poems taking the day’s weather as the starting point and then let them spin off in their own directions. This action of ‘spinning’ was in my mind and with it an image of something like a spinning top or catherine wheel. Later, I discovered there is such a thing as an actual weather wheel used in primary schools – a circle divided into segments in which children draw some element of the day’s weather – a cloud, an umbrella, a sun.  Later, Martin Parker designed the book’s cover for me to represent this.

So I realised that, given such a variety of subject matter and tone, I needed a form to unify the poems and invite them to be read as a sequence, without being sequential. Early drafts were all short, tended to use a long line and had some kind of turn two-thirds of the way through. While wanting to avoid the sonnet – though the Meredithian sonnet is 16 lines – I wanted to find a frame to contain the fluidity while allowing the poems to segue into each other. In retrospect, I think the form is a kind of marriage between the sonnet and the ghazal, though here the couplets helped me to drain weight out of the poems, leaving them to float in space.

While I was writing the book, my mother died and poems for her punctuate each of the six sections, or segments.

 

 

You’ve mentioned in the past when you work with fixed form, metre and rhyme that the content, subjects and meanings of your poems become almost secondary. Do you find it easier to write poems in a strict form versus a free verse form and does your drafting process differ depending on what form you’re working with?

Whether I’m writing in a metrical form or in free verse, I rarely have a particular subject in mind. Or if I do, I just take it as the station I’m starting from, without prefiguring the journey, with no destination in mind. I’ve always been lumbered with a sense of ‘having nothing to say’ and so I write the poem to discover if I do or don’t. If it turns out that the poem has something to say and I’ve listened hard enough to hear it, it’s always a reassurance and a surprise.

Writing in strict forms is immeasurably more difficult than in free verse. And my drafting process differs radically. In the first instance, I write slowly, line by line, trying to get it ‘right’ as a I go, so that by the time I have finished, there will be little redrafting or editing. If there’s even half a line I’m unhappy with, it might take forever to ‘fix’ and many, many drafts. So I try to avoid tangles by smoothing them out in the first place and not moving on until I have. But writing slowly, while paradoxically trying to maintain energy and momentum, the free flow that always yields the best lines, is difficult.

In free verse, I often write my first drafts in prose, very fast, and keep going until I feel I’ve found the ending, that closing cadence and sense of discovery that comes with a last line. Then, sometimes working backwards, I use very large scissors, cut and paste, try to ‘divine’ the form, rewrite if necessary, before I use the very small ones.

 

 

You have written a number of ghazals over the years as well. I’m curious what makes you keep returning to the form – do you see it as a way or re-engaging with your Persian heritage or does it hold some other attraction?

Very sadly, I don’t feel I have true access to my Persian literary heritage since I can only read the poetry in translation, but certainly there is a sense of connection there or at least a deep desire for connection, for being carried over from one shore to another, for translation itself.

But I am fascinated by different aesthetic and cultural values: how can we “make English behave outside its aesthetic habits” as Agha Shahid Ali asks, in writing English ghazals? Our fear of sentimentality, of sweetness, rapture, ecstasy – being over the top – of the panegyric’s unironic rhetoric of praise, can all be challenged while also questioning our formal habits – such as disguising form, avoiding full rhyme and repetition, subverting expectation rather than fulfilling it, relying on imagery, going in fear of the abstract, etc.

I enjoy formal challenges and find the ghazal the most difficult, not only technically but also in trying to transgress our aesthetic values while still hoping to write a poem valid as an English poem, and not just as some sort of exotic import.

 

 

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

The last few months have been hectic, but wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed working with writers on courses and retreats in Loutro, Crete; in Almassera, Spain – at Christopher North’s Old Olive Press; with Ian Duhig at Lumb Bank; with Second Light in Evesham and The Complete Works in Ipswich; and with Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al-Sayegh, I was among a very lucky and lovely group of poets who attended Poesi-o-Rama, a poetry festival in Malmo, Sweden; I read at Winchester Festival and judged their first poetry competition …… so I am really looking forward to a quiet time over Christmas and the New Year and time, miraculous time, to work on some new poems.

It’s too soon to say much about the new work, but I am working on a series of sonnets, each of which explores an aspect of what I think of as ‘the Void’. You mentioned my Persian heritage, and I the absence of it, and that, including the loss of my first language, my culture, family and family history, have left gaps in my life which are forming the fabric of new poems. Increasingly, there are huge numbers of people in the world who find themselves with this kind of ‘void’ behind them. So I am thinking about this, not in terms of litanies of loss, but in terms of shaping identity and finding positive values that help one shape a life.

 

 

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

Many years ago my publisher Michael Schmidt rather mysteriously said to me on the phone “You should be living under the vine.” Finding myself in Spain many years later, at the end of summer and dreading another winter in London, I found myself answering him.

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Under The Vine

Yes, I should be living under the vine,
dapple at my feet and the sweet dry dust

singing of drought, of heat.  Look at the pile
of rubble round the roots, curled dry leaves,

little ant homes I can’t see.  Look at
the flower fallen in the dirt, flake yellow,

listen to the wasps, the bees.  And the vine
above me, the vine that smells of nothing,

yields nothing but the music of its name,
the memory of some long-forgotten terrace.

Yes, under a flock of swallows that repeat
– because we have to believe it – the end,

the end, nearly the end of a summer
so long it knows neither month nor week.

Yes, I should keep my happiness hidden,
under the vine, from those who envy it.

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Ruby Robinson

ruby-robinson

Ruby Robinson is a British poet. Her poems have appeared in places such as The Poetry Review, Poetry, The Sunday Times, And Other Poems, and Antiphon.

Ruby’s debut collection Every Little Sound was published by Pavilion Poetry earlier this year and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the T S Eliot Prize for Best Collection.

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Hi Ruby. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your debut collection Every Little Sound. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how long it took for the poems to come together and cohere as a collection?

Thank you, it’s my pleasure. I wrote the poems during two phases: from 2008 to 2010 and from the end of 2012 to 2015. For some of this time I was enrolled on the MA Writing programme at Sheffield Hallam. I wasn’t thinking about publication; writing poems was something else, something I wanted to develop as my preferred method of articulation.

Deryn Rees-Jones, the editor of Pavilion Poetry, nurtured the idea of putting the poems into a collection and I learnt a great deal from her in the process. I wrote the long poem ‘Apology’ in July 2015 and this poem became the central focus of the collection.

 

 

Congratulations too on your awards nomination at this year’s Forward Prizes. How was the experience and were there any other poets or books on the shortlists that you particularly enjoyed?

Thanks! It was an intense experience and a great honour. The highlights were meeting so many interesting people and performing on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. I am enjoying all the other books and poems very much.

For me, the most powerful performance on the night was Melissa Lee-Houghton reading ‘i am very precious’. She has a way of communicating at a real, raw and visceral level while maintaining a commanding performative presence.

Harry Giles has such an infectious energy and bubbling passion for life and poetry and words; it was a pleasure to meet him. Tiphanie Yanique’s work is powerfully engaging and her reading of ‘Dangerous Things’, the opening poem from Wife was particularly so; hard-hitting and necessary.

Vahni Capildeo is inordinately stimulating to listen to, even just for five minutes. Measures of Expatriation is faithful to her rigorous intellect and linguistic expertise; the poems inspire deep concentration on the concepts of identity and belonging, boundaries and marginalisation. It is a book to be enjoyed and studied, a book to learn from.

 

 

The epigraph at the start of your book mentions the phenomenon of ‘internal gain’ and heightened hearing abilities in times of threat, danger or intense concentration. Do you subscribe to the idea that ‘listening’ is a crucial part of the poet’s role – be it listening to the music of the poem, listening to what it is the poem wants to say, listening to feedback from others etc?

I think listening is vital for humanity. The advantages of listening in the role of the poet are secondary to the immense value of listening in the role of the human being. By ‘listening’ I mean accepting and validating another person’s experience and frame of reference, rather than the literal, audiological definition. Sounds, where one has the capacity to detect them, can be an intense conduit of emotion too and certainly I feel that sound is important in poetry, yes.

 

 

I understand you contributed to the Millstone Grit anthology earlier this year, produced in association with Sheffield Hallam University and Antiphon magazine. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and your involvement?

Millstone Grit is an anthology of poetry written by staff, students and alumni of Sheffield Hallam University. It was edited by Rosemary Badcoe, Noel Williams, and Carolyn Waudby and is the first book publication from Antiphon Press. Noel recently retired from his role as a professor at the University and this project was a sort of swansong for him. I think they’ve done a great job and I was really pleased to be asked to contribute a couple of poems.

 

 

What have been your poetry highlights of 2016 and are there any dates in the coming year you are looking forward to?

I went to the Wolverhampton launch of Roy McFarlane’s debut collection Beginning With Your Last Breath in October. Roy is known for his wonderful collaborations and he had invited other artists to perform with him at his launch.

Aside from Roy’s performances, which are always sincere and captivating, I was really moved by a collaborative performance by the pianist Reis Taylor Dixon and poet Phil Simpson. I would highly recommend listening to this piece; every time I hear it I have tears in my eyes. It is featured as a hidden track on Reis’s album Words Unspoken.

Roy and I met earlier in the year at a Linklater method voice coaching workshop, run in association with Ledbury Poetry Festival. This workshop was a big highlight for me this year. I learnt so much about myself as someone writing and performing poetry and I met some wonderful people.

Next year kicks off with the T S Eliot Prize readings and ceremony, so I’ll be looking forward to meeting the others on the list whom I’ve not yet met, and hearing all the performances.

 

 

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

‘Internal Gain’ is the title poem from Every Little Sound. It explores the feeling of intensified sensory experience when under physical or emotional threat. For me this poem is a kind of touchstone for the collection, a reminder of both the beauty of paying attention and the reality of living with heightened sensory awareness as a natural consequence of trauma.

I think the poem exists somewhere on this arc of tension as a voice for exposing truths in their painful, beautiful complexity.

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Internal Gain

One ear on the Conversation downstairs,
the other catching
echoes of planets slowly creaking
in their dark celestial closets,

a leopard was upon me warmly on my bed,
breathing as any human would.

My room was vibrating with electricity sockets
and light beams
and I could hear every little sound
my mouth made.

Outside my window
a butterfly, miniscule on a roof tile
rubbed its wings together
excruciatingly.

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Helen Tookey

helen-tookey

Photo Credit: Jenny Halse

Helen Tookey is a poet, writer, editor, and scholar. Her poems have been appeared in places such as Best British Poetry 2013 (Salt 2013), The Forward Book of Poetry 2015 (Forward Worldwide 2015), and New Poetries VI (Carcanet 2016).

Helen’s debut full-length collection Missel-Child was published by Carcanet in 2014 and a new pamphlet In The Glasshouse by HappenStance Press earlier this year.

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Hi Helen. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet In The Glasshouse with HappenStance. Many of the poems seem to deal with geography and landscape, and our relationship to it. Do you think this is a fair description of the pamphlet’s concerns?

Thank you! Yes, that’s definitely one main strand in the pamphlet. I seem to come back and back to the question of how we relate to and connect to the natural world (Rilke is a touchstone for me here), and often when I’m writing about specific places (for instance in the poems ‘Rheidol Valley’ or ‘Sudley Field, Dusk’) that’s the question that’s driving the writing.

But I also write quite often either about dreamed places, or places that I’ve never been to (including Japan and America), and that often seems to be about exploring the ways that we build up associations, sometimes just with the sound of a word or a place-name, the ways that we create imaginary landscapes for ourselves.

I was aware to some extent of the threads and connections across the various poems when I was putting them together, but I was lucky to have a really brilliant editor – Nell Nelson at HappenStance – who helped it all to come into focus and enabled the pamphlet to find its final shape.

 

 

Congratulations too on your debut collection Missel-Child with Carcanet. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and what the editing process of putting together your first full-length manuscript was like?

Putting a first collection together was a really interesting process because it enabled me to see what I was actually trying to explore in my writing, and to identify connections that I hadn’t previously seen among disparate poems. Michael Schmidt at Carcanet helped me a great deal with that process of selecting and shaping and ordering. There was, again, a lot about place and landscape in the book.

There were also quite a lot of poems drawing on dreams or childhood memories, often circling around an unsettling feeling of narratives playing out around you that you don’t quite understand. I grew up in the suburbs and I always had this sense of secrets, of things being repressed, remaining unspoken but you somehow knew they were there. I would say that’s a preoccupation in my writing.

 

 

Some of your poems use collage as a technique for creating something new – such as borrowing text from a thread on an online forum (‘Hollow Meadows’), Virginia Woolf’s diaries (‘Katherine’), dictionary entries (‘Miss Yamada Has Gotten Married’), and a department of Environment pamphlet (‘At the Castle’). Could you tell us a bit more about these poems and your drafting process for turning prose like this into poetry?

Yes, I really enjoy using found text as a source for poems. For me, it’s a way of getting hold of types of language that I wouldn’t be able to generate for myself; so for instance it might be the slightly off-key language of a translation, or the very formal language of an older text, or a guidebook or a textbook, something factual or informative that can become evocative or eerie or unsettling in the context of a poem.

Sometimes I collage things together from different sources (such as ‘Hollow Meadows’), but probably more often I use some sort of fragmentation, extraction and rearrangement process based on a single source text (as in ‘Katherine’). It’s partly about trying to bypass your own censoring, to allow a certain amount of chance and free association; but of course there’s always a process of selection and arrangement at work as well.

So again, I think it’s interesting to notice the things that strike you in other texts and to try to think about why they do. The ‘Katherine’ poem is built around the line ‘And the doll on the bed, which I detest’ – which struck me as bizarre and disturbing and therefore worth exploring.

 

 

You also collaborated with Sharron Kraus to set some of your poetry to original music, which was released as a CD/booklet earlier this year by Wounded Wolf Press. What was the genesis of the project and in what ways did it meet or exceed your expectations?

Sharron and I have known each other since we met at Sheffield University in the late 1980s so it was absolutely brilliant to collaborate with her on the CD, If You Put Out Your Hand. It came about because we were asked by a mutual friend if we’d like to do a gig at Bishop’s House in Sheffield, combining poetry and music.

Sharron picked some of my poems which she liked and felt she could respond to musically, and we performed them, me reading the poems and Sharron playing dulcimer and recorders. Then we thought it would be great to record them as tracks so that we could develop them a bit further, put more layers in and so on; so that’s what we did.

Sharron approached Wounded Wolf because they specialise in this type of poetry/music collaboration and they produed a beautiful CD and booklet for us. It was fascinating for me seeing how Sharron would respond intuitively to the poems, based much more on feeling than on conceptual understanding –  we’ve written about the process in the CD booklet. We’re planning to do some more live events based on the project.

 

 

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

I’ve found Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake very thought-provoking. She seems to me to be willing to try all kinds of things in grappling with that fundamental question ‘how can I say what it is like, this being-in-the-world’…

I always really enjoy the Poetry Book Fair; it’s a chance to meet up with lots of people and find out about all kinds of things going on, especially in the world of very small presses. This year I was particularly after books that occupy the poetry/weird prose territory (because that’s what I’m finding myself writing), and I bought some very interesting things from Shearsman, including Donna Stonecipher’s Model City, which I love.

In terms of forthcoming books I am looking forward to the debut collection from Judith Willson. It is called Crossing the Mirror Line and will be published by Carcanet in October 2017. Judith was one of the contributors to New Poetries VI which I co-edited with Michael Schmidt; I’ve seen her collection coming together in manuscript form and I think it’s brilliant.

 

 

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

‘Glasshouse’ was first published in The Compass magazine earlier this summer and is the opening poem of my new pamphlet. It works, I hope, as a kind of key or a touchstone to a lot of the themes and ideas that thread through the various poems.

It had its origins in a number of different things. One was an exhibition, also titled Glasshouse, by the artist Niamh O’Malley at the Bluecoat in Liverpool last year. Another was a story told to me by a friend. He worked on an art project that involved asking people about their secret wishes or fantasies, and one very respectable woman admitted to having always had fantasies about smashing glass. So they took her to the Pilkington’s factory in St Helens and she was let loose smashing vast sheets of glass…

I was fascinated by this, and the whole idea of shattering glass became a symbol – people wanting to break out of their own habitual selves and lives, which could be very freeing, but could also be destructive. The poem is about various things but fundamentally it’s about that tension between wanting or needing to change things about yourself or your life, but also the dangers and difficulties associated with that.

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Glasshouse

in the glasshouse we are all listeners
we all make confessions
the air alive as rain whispers tell us
tell us

what I have always wanted

(she hesitates)

what I have always wanted

is the destruction of glass
hanging an instant in perfect balance
and then the consequence: everything falling
exploded beyond thought of repair

what I have always wanted

(laughter angles from glass walls)

is the power of a forbidden word
is to run and run in sheeting rain
is an act so irrevocable it takes away my name

and afterwards I shall be changed through and through
and I shall walk quietly back into my life
and no one will know the language in which to speak to me
and that act will never be repeated
but will always have taken place
and the glass will hang always in its perfect instant
complete still but fractured utterly

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Susan Wicks

Susan Wicks

Photo Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Susan Wicks is an award-winning poet, novelist, and translator. She has published seven collections of poetry and has previously been shortlisted in the T S Eliot and Forward Prizes as well as being named one of the inaugural New Generation Poets.

Susan’s latest poetry collection The Months was published with Bloodaxe earlier this year.

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Hi Susan. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection The Months with Bloodaxe. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it hangs together as a collection?

Thank you. It’s good to be asked to talk about The Months, though for me, as for many poets, books tend to grow organically rather than as a rationally programmed project. But the themes of this new book are all to do with time, in one way or another – the sort of time that can open out or squash itself together like a concertina when we’ve accidentally turned our backs. So the poems range in subject from time as an agent of age, loss and illness to time as slow, almost imperceptible change, time as joker, time as reversible, time as ultimately cyclic.

With a few poems near the middle of the collection – ‘Boeuf Miroton’ and ‘Winter Saffron’ in particular – I felt that something different was starting to happen: a door had been left open to a more domestic, more intimate area of experience which was even richer than I had remembered. And I wanted to explore what was beyond that door. The long central poem, ‘The Months’ was the result.

 

 

The eponymous central sequence documents two mother and daughter pregnancies separated by thirty four years. I’m curious how long it took for these poems to come together and what challenges you faced given that the timelines are interweaved and in dialogue with each other?

I started working on this long poem in spring 2013, from diaries, one from 1978 and one newer, trying to save just enough concrete detail to convey the ordinary texture of a woman’s life. I tried to listen to what I had and give it the shape it seemed to be asking for – and by about midsummer I had a first draft.

It took me another two years’ work before I could consider it the basis of a new collection. Even then, I agonised for several months over the ending, determined to make it low-key and truthful, but at the same time aware that I was in danger of excluding or foreclosing something – until in summer 2015, I think, I had what came to be the final version.

For me, there were several challenges. The first was to make the poem feel genuinely inclusive while not allowing the narrative structure to slide out of control. The second was to remain firmly inside the mother’s viewpoint. I needed to be honest, in the widest sense – and yet still to make it a poem. That was the one preoccupation that really never went away.

Once I had decided to structure the poem month by month and intercut the two stories, the timelines wrote themselves. The narrative arc isn’t something I was creating artificially – it’s the natural mind-set of anyone who thinks about a pregnancy: everything is naturally turned towards the future. And yet the present goes on happening, and complicates everything!

I think it’s that preoccupation with ordinary daily life that’s holding the poem together – that and the dreams and thread of myth. It’s a cliché, but you could say that deciding to have a child is the beginning of a sort of journey – one that involves relinquishing control and takes you inevitably into the unknown.

 

 

Another poem in the new book – ‘Southwards’ – acknowledges a debt to Primo Levi’s memoir The Truce and describes a night train journey through Europe. What was it about his book that sparked this particular poem?

In the old edition I have, The Truce is printed with If This is a Man, and in the past I’ve read them together. When I re-read The Truce it struck me as particularly poignant and understated, less obviously tragic and hard-hitting than its better known companion, but perhaps in the end even more suggestive. My found poem uses Levi’s own translated words, sometimes re-ordered, with repetitions, and rather few additions. It’s a small thing – but I felt I was making my own humble acknowledgement.

 

 

You also published a pamphlet with Stonewood Press last year called Lace, in collaboration with the artist Elizabeth Clayman. Can you tell us about the genesis of this project and the resulting poems?

Lace is based on a shared project Elizabeth Clayman and I worked on a number of years ago now. The original idea was the brainchild of Lizzy herself and another visual artist, Ellen Montelius, who, under the auspices of our local museum, decided to involve a group of eight women artists, four of them writers.

We were given the freedom of the museum’s ‘hidden’ collections – wearing cotton gloves and delving in drawers in the basement for whatever we might find inspiring. We each made our choices and the objects were brought up into daylight for us to sketch or make notes on and create something of our own.

At that point the names were put in a hat and each artist’s or writer’s work was passed on to one working in the other medium and used as a second starting-point. Lizzy was making charcoal drawings of fragments of old lace, and I was taking the drawings I found most suggestive and writing a sequence of poems.

For both of us, I think, it was a slow, meditative process – and for both of us it held some personal significance: for me the lace became a kind of lace curtain. My thinking and dreaming took on the shape of a woman looking out through that curtain and writing about the images the lace seemed to hold.

 

 

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

Well, Aldeburgh last November was extremely memorable! The audience reaction to my reading with the French poet, Valérie Rouzeau, was wonderful.

This year the best thing on my own calendar has been two recent very fruitful writing residencies, at Cove Park in Scotland and at the Virginia Centre’s small French outpost in Auvillar, on the Garonne.

I’m also really looking forward to the publication of two first full collections – Jodie Hollander’s, from Pavilion in the spring, and Mara Bergman’s, from Arc next autumn.

 

 

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

The poem I’m submitting is called ‘Bike-path’. It’s from The Months, and it is concerned with the theme of time, as you see. I wrote it in spring 2011, when I was a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. MacDowell is a place where you can finally see the wood for the trees – and smell the wood-smoke as well!

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Bike-path

It could take the best part of your life
to find a path like this
protected from the public thoroughfare by rocks,
meandering along between old trees
beside a river, skirting warehouses,
over a plank bridge.

Sometimes you almost gave up
and stopped to read the map,
tracing your route from fold
to fraying fold – not these wheel-trap surfaces
broken and scored by ice
as if some beast had dragged its claws across.

But now you keep on going till it joins a street
of condos, little kids on bikes,
and suddenly it’s hard to keep your face straight
as this small boy explains
the signage of the three-way intersection
and what it means.

This is the scenic way: all sense of where you were
is lost. Though in fact it’s not that far
from anywhere. And look,
you got to see those birds,
these greening leaves, this butterfly that flutters up
like blackened paper to your handlebars.

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Simon Barraclough

rsz_simon_barraclough

Photo Credit: Jamie Ryan

Simon Barraclough is a poet, writer, and editor. His debut full-length collection Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt 2008) was shortlisted in the Forward Prizes for Best First Collection.

Simon’s other publications include Bonjour Tetris (Penned in the Margins 2010), Neptune Blue (Salt 2011), and The Debris Field (Sidekick Books 2013). His latest collection Sunspots was published by Penned in the Margins last year.

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Hi Simon. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection Sunspots with Penned in the Margins. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about the book and where its genesis began?

Thanks. The book is a long meditation on our neighbourhood star, the most important object in all our lives. I say meditation, but it’s also an impersonation and a playground of ideas: most of the book is written from the Sun’s point of view and it is often female, sometimes male, sometimes neuter, sometimes a deity, sometimes playful and sometimes extremely wrathful and scathing.

The book encompasses science, art, theology, my love-life, linguistic games, a ransacking of literature and art history, and lots more. It began when I wrote the final poem in my previous book Neptune Blue, which ends on a poem called ‘Sol’, written from the point of view of the Sun. This voice really intrigued me and it threw some kind of trip-switch, hurling me into a four-year obsession with our local star. I think it unleashed something in my psyche that was primed to pounce and it also gave me a wonderfully open structure to write the next book and to draw all my aesthetic impulses together.

 

 

There is a playful and experimental element to the collection – lyrical poems, couplets, sonnets, concrete poems, erasure poems, list poems – but all the time the sense of a loose narrative thread when reading it from start to finish. How much tinkering was involved in reaching the finished sequence and was there material that didn’t make it into the final book?

All in all I wrote about 130 untitled poems (some were just one-liners that didn’t see the light of day. Here’s one: ‘Does my prominence look big in this?’) and we whittled it down to about 80.

I had set myself a numerical goal: 121 poems about the Sun. This came from multiplying the 11-year solar cycle from minimum to maximum by itself to come up with a solar-based number that would give me enough space to explore everything I had in mind or might discover.

Sensibly, working with the brilliant Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins, we trimmed and shaped and hardened the sequence. I’m very glad I wrote all those poems but even happier that we held some back.

 

 

As well as being a conventional poetry collection, Sunspots is also a multimedia stage show which you toured in collaboration with Oliver Barrett and Jack-Wake Walker. As a poet who seems to relish taking poems off the written page and presenting them in new and innovative ways, do you think the old definitions of poetry are becoming increasingly blurred in our digital age?

I think the field is certainly very rich and open to cross-pollination and collaboration at the moment. There are more places to perform (real and virtual) than ever and all kinds of new technologies to make some aspects of producing art ‘easier’ (I’m thinking mainly of music software programmes and arranging tools, which have helped me).

But I may be looking out from my involved bubble (we know how that can go in 2016) and I’m sure there are hosts of readers who are happy with more conventional forms (the 42-page slim volume from a ‘trusted’ name published by a ‘trusted’ house) and of course there are plenty of people who only embrace poetry at memorials, celebrations, or after terrible news.

I like writing most of all and the written word can lead to anything: poems, stories, novels, songs, plays, operas, cures, cities, spaceships, whole new civilisations. It can also lead to as many negative outcomes.

 

 

I get the impression both the book and the show were a big part of your life for a number of years. I’m curious if you have an inkling where your poetry writing might be headed next and do you think you envisage another project where you focus again on a single subject so intensely?

It certainly dominated 2011–2016, filling it with research, travel, conversations with scientists, writing, and touring. I’m currently working on two pieces for theatre: a single-hander for an actor friend of mine, and a larger piece, which I’m writing with a playwright I met online. These are quite focused projects, as you can imagine.

In and around this I’m writing stories and a collection of miscellaneous poems is ‘automatically’ happening in the background. I don’t know if they will coalesce into any kind of theme yet. I think after Neptune Blue, The Debris Field, and Sunspots I’m enjoying the slightly worrying freedom of writing poems ‘outside the dome’ of a programme.

 

 

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

I’m very much looking forward to Chrissy Williams’s first full collection Bear, due from Bloodaxe in 2017.

I also spent a memorable day driving a Tesla electric sports car from Stonehenge to The Shard. You can see a short film about it here. It’s an example of the weird and wonderful things that poetry writing can lead to.

 

 

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

I’m sending you ‘Ceasefire Heart’, which I wrote after Neptune Blue (which contains a ‘— Heart’ sequence I’m still adding to) and before Sunspots. It feels even more relevant at the moment. The personal, political, and playful.

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Ceasefire Heart

The exquisite suspense:
hostilities suspended,
my sense of right and wrong
pǝpuǝdn.

I suppose I want you to prosper,
I wish you autonomy free of youandme
but see how my finger hovers . . .

Defcon One.
Deaf to your cons at long
last.

I’ve hidden my uncivil heart
in civilian locations.

I dare you:
break it.

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Kerry Hardie

rsz_kerry_hardie

Kerry Hardie is an award-winning poet and writer. Her collections include A Furious Place (Gallery Press 1996), Cry for the Hot Belly (Gallery Press 2000), The Sky Didn’t Fall (Gallery Press 2003), The Silence Came Close (Gallery Press 2006), Only This Room (Gallery Press 2009), and The Ash and the Oak and the Wild Cherry Tree (Gallery Press 2012).

Kerry’s latest collection The Zebra Stood in the Night was published by Bloodaxe in 2014.

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Hi Kerry. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection The Zebra Stood in the Night with Bloodaxe. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it hangs together as a collection?

The book is a sort of record that came out of a time of intense emotional compression caused by the sudden death of my youngest brother at the age of 46. I was, by coincidence, in the process of changing editors, so moving from Gallery to Bloodaxe was a bit like putting on a different coat for a different season.

Neil Astley had seen the essay I’d written about grief and he suggested using it, which meant that the whole book could be unambiguous in its intention to speak of mortality. For this reason the first poem, ‘Conditioning’, is about the uselessness of trying to insure against a future which is necessarily fatal, and the last poem, ‘Suns’, is about our inability to see our lives while we are still inside them.

 

 

Reading the poems there is a sense you are able to extract epiphanies from specific experiences – whether it be observing the behaviour of a slug (‘Sealed Vessel’), leaves falling from a tree (‘Leaf-fall’), laundry drying in the wind (‘Washing’), or a line of light on a lake (‘Reflection’). Do you subscribe to the idea that in order to arrive somewhere new in a poem, you must use something known or familiar as a starting point?

Not always but often. I may be looking at something familiar in a sort of absent, wondering way, and this very abstraction means that it unwinds in front of the inner eye as well as the outer one and leads me to a place that is enclosed in the initial observation but is not the same place. This is exactly what happens in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’—one of my earliest journeys into the marvel of what a poem can do.

There are also more abstract poems in that book, poems in which the ‘something known and familiar’ is inverted or pushed aside in order to see the emptiness at its core; and there are also narrative poems, which is a genre I am increasingly interested in.

 

 

A couple of the poems – ‘Vacances’ and ‘At The Musée Cluny’ – are ekphrastic responses to a painting and head sculptures. I’m curious if there are any areas of the fine arts that particularly inspire you or influence the way you approach and think about your own poetry craft?

I know a lot of artists and my husband is an artist as well as a writer, so I am used to being with people who have an intense visual awareness. And yes, it has often struck me that the writing of a poem and the painting of a picture or the making of a sculpture are similar in that there is a defined statement involved, a combination of vision and skill, that has clear borders within existing reality, although the resonances may continue beyond this reality.

With a novel the process is completely different, you have to sustain a whole range of ideas and inventions that must cohere into one extended form. Also a novel takes me years, and develops alongside the life I live while I am engaged on it. It is more like an orchestral piece, while a poem is more like a single song or air [or picture] that can, in some cases, make up a longer work.

Recently I wrote a poem in response to a spoken resumé outlined to me by the composer Barry Guy. He used this poem as the basis on which he developed his much more abstract and powerful orchestral piece which he called ‘The Blue Shroud‘. In this case the poem was the skeleton but the living breathing thing was his composition. Sometimes it is the other way round.

I very much like working with musicians as well as with artists. It is like accessing some sort of psychic internet, so that the work accumulates a power that is greater than either the words or the music by themselves. I found this working with the musicians David Power and Ciarán Somers, when we were putting together the radio piece ‘To Find a Heathen Place and Sound a Bell‘ that was broadcast by RTE last autumn.

 

 

The book closes with an essay and sequence of poems about your brother dying suddenly at a young age and the impact of its aftermath on yourself and his family. Can you tell us a bit more about how long it took to complete these poems, and were they more difficult to compose given their deeply personal subject matter?

My brother died very suddenly when he was making a short film in Delhi. His partner wanted a cremation in accordance with the Hindu tradition, and the arrangements were made with surprising ease and nobody said anything about not burying a Christian. The ceremony itself was both moving and appropriate, though it was also very raw because we actually saw his body burn. Also there was no padding—no family and friends, nothing familiar or comforting or irritating or tedious.

Afterwards we took the children to a park and fed the monkeys. Then there was the whole business of having to physically get both his family [the children were very young] and his ashes back to Ireland. I think the circumstances meant that I was both inside the experience and outside of it. And all the time I was talking to him, so in the poems I go on talking, because a relationship doesn’t just break off because one of you is physically dead.

These poems took about two years to write because I think that the sudden and totally unexpected death of someone very close is a bit like a depth charge going off in your psychic being and the shock waves go on permeating everything you do for at least the next couple of years, probably far more. Undoubtedly far more. Thinking about it now, I feel that you do not ‘get over’ an important death, but you may get round it.

Yes, they were hard to write in the sense that they were painful, but they were also curiously effortless. They seemed to appear on the page without much interference from me. They are really a record of the process of moving away from the first unbearable grief and regaining some sort of ‘normality’. This necessarily involves a double loss, because to be normal you have to become less acutely aware of the person for whom you grieve.

And I wanted to write something that spoke to everyone, because everyone has loss and everyone has pain and I didn’t want to ‘claim’ pain for myself but to touch on the universal. That is why the essay is appropriate. That is also why there is the poem about the Dresden dead placed right in the middle of the sequence; I simply made use of an image which I had carried in my head for a long time and which came to me when I was trying to write about the oddness of the body remaining when the person has gone.

 

 

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

I have been to almost nothing this year, I haven’t even done any readings, I’ve been trying to finish a novel which I have been writing for far too long. Fortunately poetry doesn’t depend on events and the two highlights of my reading must be Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Boys of The Bluehill and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I’ve also greatly enjoyed Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music and Elaine Feeney’s Where’s Katie?

I look forward to reading Joan Margarit’s new book [translated by Anna Crowe] and to the possibility of hearing them read together once more. Joan’s warmth contrasts dramatically with the hopelessness of much of his subject matter, and perfectly complements Anna’s lively but very slightly acid delivery of her wonderful translations.

 

 

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

I’ve submitted a new poem called ‘Enemies’. It is about the habit of pain that we inflict on each other. It is a habit of individuals, and of nations. I hope it is as painful to read as it was to write.

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Enemies

When they are together now
they pick up stones.
They place them on their eyes and on their mouths.

Sometimes they choose
the small, flat, slatey ones from the damp sand.
Sometimes the round ones, smoothed by heaving seas.

There’s salt on them,
salt on the wind, salt on their blood-salt lips
that lick the stones and suck them so they gleam.

This is the salve they give, one to the other.

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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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