Hi Fiona. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your most recent pamphlet Night Letter published last year. Many of the poems seem to reside in a space somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. I’m curious how you feel they hang together as a collection and do you subscribe to the idea that the most vital poetry comes from an unconscious place?
Thank you for asking me! Wasn’t it Michael Longley who said “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there”? Though I wouldn’t go – some things should stay off the map. Not so much a place as water underground, one of those hidden London rivers: sometimes flowing near the surface, other times so far down it might never come back.
The experts say that our unconscious is by far the larger part of us. Many of the best poems feel like the poet’s unconscious, semi-surfaced, speaking to ours. If poems should say the unsayable, be unparaphraseable etc, it’s this beyondness that gives the extra hit. I can remember (though not necessarily describe) the feeling, the echo a good poem leaves behind, but often not its contents.
As for Night Letter most of the poems came wholly or partly from sleep, sleeplessness and dream. I fall asleep easily but wake in the night. Something may come from a phrase scrawled in the dark. Or multiple phrases: I move my thumb down the page so that I don’t write over lines. Then the morning is for pulling out the rest of a first draft. I wish it happened more often – usually I’m just sleepless.
Anyway Nell Nelson of HappenStance noticed the night theme in the group I sent her. Choosing and ordering poems for a manuscript also seems to depend on the unconscious. It can be hard to explain why one poem fits in, or does/doesn’t go with another.
A few of the poems experiment a little with form and layout. I’m thinking of ‘The Embrace’ with its unusual line breaks and spacing which affects how the poem is read, ‘Sleep Sonnet’ which challenges the traditional expectations of the sonnet form, and ‘Heart’ which reads like two poems in conversation with each other. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the drafting of these poems and how long it took you to arrive at their finished forms?
‘The Embrace’ started as a long block of text. “Use lineation to get the emotional dynamic” say my notes from a workshop with Mimi Khalvati. So I did, also to catch the shifts of focus in a dream. More redrafts didn’t change the words much but further loosened spacing and line breaks.
The first two drafts of ‘Sleep Sonnet’ were untitled and not a sonnet, but between them I wrote:
sleep sonnet – turn it sideways
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so I was already thinking of a sonnet lying down in 7 split lines. The pattern of 8+6 syllabics followed. I was reading, thanks to Roddy Lumsden, the American poet Chelsey Minnis who has those poems with very long ellipses broken up by pieces of text – my early drafts used dots. Of course ‘Sleep Sonnet’ isn’t at all like a Chelsey Minnis poem, but somewhere in there is something. It went through various drafts over several years, including after the poem first appeared in Magma.
‘Heart’ began with some of the left-hand lines, with strong rhythm and rhyme. Then lines emerged on the right and evolved into a chopped-up prose sentence. ‘Heart’ came together fairly quickly. But for ages beforehand I knew, each time I hurled myself up the long escalator at London Bridge desperate not to miss a train, that I wanted to write about this. I just didn’t know how until the left-hand lines arrived.
As well as writing poetry, you are active as a reviewer of poetry (indeed you’ve won a Sabotage Award for Best Reviewer). What was it that got you started in this field and do you find yourself unintentionally approaching new books and poets with your reviewer’s hat on, or are you able to switch off quite easily and enjoy them simply as a poetry reader?
Five years ago I decided to start a blog because I was reading and thinking a lot about poetry and discussing it with friends, but none of this in an orderly way. So I thought I’d impose discipline by writing in public, even if hardly anyone read it.
After the blog had been going for a while people started to ask me to do reviews. I’m only blogging once a month now – reviewing and The Rialto take up time. I never have trouble just enjoying books!
You have also worked as an assistant editor at The Rialto for a couple of years now. How has that experience been for you and are there any particular highlights that stick in the mind?
It’s fascinating to read a cross-section of what people are writing today. It can also be exhausting and get in the way of my own writing. But the anticipation – what might be in the next batch of poems? – never seems to fade. It’s addictive. Each discovery of a new and interesting writer is a highlight.
Another was when Abigail Parry and I edited our own pages in The Rialto a couple of summers ago. And another was the piece in issue 81 for which I asked over 30 poets who (if anyone) they read in order to write. Almost everyone replied; their responses were utterly absorbing.
The hinterland of a poetry magazine is quite complex. I sit on the advisory board, got involved in our successful Arts Council bid and am now planning our first ever pamphlet competition – watch out for the launch of this over the coming weeks.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?
After the end of this week there’s almost nothing in my diary until the end of August… bliss. I’m hoping to get some writing and reading done, and catch up on various pieces of work.
Then there’s the Poetry Book Fair in September – a good meeting place after the summer and the best way of finding out what’s being published, who’s publishing it and how. I’m getting together a lunchtime panel discussion on poetry and politics for the fair (should be fun! no lack of subject matter) and some Rialto pamphlet poets will read in the pub that evening.
In October I’m going to Italy with some friends for a writing week – at least that’s the idea, but the countryside is so beautiful I will want to walk too.
Then there’s Poetry in Aldeburgh in November, where we’ll launch the autumn Rialto with a reading. My poetry workshop’s reading is there too. And I’m determined to organise Aldeburgh’s first ever poetry reading in the sea, wind and waves permitting. Only the readers need swim: if you’d like to take part, I suggest a very short poem and a very large towel!
Oh, and like many people I’ve got a first collection manuscript out there. But right now, it’s the rest of August I’m looking forward to. And I’ll enjoy reading your next interview, with Jack Mapanje.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I wrote this when some development (the trial of a Bosnian war criminal?) triggered memories of the conflict in former Yugoslavia, in particular the British government’s approach. I was working in the Foreign Office at the time, in Athens, and saw some of the correspondence; the casual way some of the horrors, in particular the Srebrenica massacre, were reported internally seemed to lack a moral compass.
Not hard to find contemporary Bosnia parallels, alas. It was the absurd yet appropriate diplomat / laundromat rhyme that got me started on a word-chain, and of course the laundromat gives the poem its outline. I find it hard to write coherent political poems amid the multiplicity of non-poetry discourse; concrete poetry is one option.