Helen Dunmore is a poet, novelist, and children’s writer. She has published ten collections of poetry, most recently The Malarkey (Bloodaxe 2012), and has previously been nominated for the T S Eliot Prize and won the National Poetry Competition.
Helen’s next collection Inside the Wave will be published by Bloodaxe in 2017.
Hi Helen. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You have a new poetry collection due out with Bloodaxe next year called Inside the Wave. Can you give us flavour of what to expect from these new poems and how you think they compare to The Malarkey?
Inside the Wave will be my first collection for five years. The poems in it are strongly connected to one another. They are about the places and moments where the human world meets the underworld, and that extraordinary territory which we can only penetrate when life begins to give way to death. This is the territory which I now inhabit, because of serious illness, and although it’s a harsh terrain it is also lit up by its own intensity and luminosity. You don’t know what it is like until you go there, as we all shall in time.
The sea has always been central to my work and in this collection the long sea-borne journey of the Odyssey has also inspired me. I have always loved the story of Elpenor, one of the youngest of Odysseus’ men, and not one of the cleverest or bravest. He dies when he is ‘heavy with wine’ and, missing his footing, tumbles from the roof of Circe’s house. His neck is shattered and he dies just as the men are about to depart, so that his corpse is left unburied and unmourned, in Circe’s hall.
For me the death of Elpenor sums up the waste and tragedy of war better than any of the heroic deaths at Troy. A young man, perhaps rather foolish, perhaps not highly valued by his companions, loses his life in a drunken accident far from home. The encounter between Elpenor’s ghost and Odysseus in the following book of the Odyssey is spine-tingling.
In my collection I have written about Elpenor and also about the way Odysseus and his men could never fully belong back in the human world, even after they had reached Ithaca. Odysseus goes down to the sea’s edge, as I often do, and stares at the inside of the waves as they swell and topple on the shore. He no longer belongs either to land or to sea; the world of the dead is so much part of him that he can never fully absorb himself in the world of the living.
It was a great surprise and a great delight. I had entered the competition at the last moment and had no expectations. It meant that when my collection The Malarkey came out it got much more attention than it would have done otherwise.
The collection also contains a couple of prose poems – ”Writ in Water’ and ‘Taken in Shadows’, – which reference the last days of John Keats as seen through the eyes of Joseph Severn, and a flight of fancy where a portrait of John Donne comes to life. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of these poems and the inspiration behind them?
I think they are short stories rather than prose poems, although it’s so hard to define these genres. I belong to a poetry reading group, and recently we had a session on prose poems. Despite much discussion and research, we still couldn’t quite define the genre.
‘Writ in Water’ came from judging a children’s poetry competition at the Keats House in Rome. I had the chance to go into the room where Keats died when the house was closed to the public, and it was a very charged and moving experience. I have always loved Keats’ poetry and his letters.
I wrote from the point of view of Severn because he was such a true, staunch friend to Keats, and Keats had almost as great a genius for friendship as he had for poetry.
‘Taken in Shadows’ explores the poet as celebrity. That portrait of Donne is so seductive … Generations of young women imagine themselves the object of his gaze, and I also wanted to play with the idea of ‘his wife doesn’t understand him’. The story is comic, really – but I do seriously think it’s a bad idea to fetishise a dead poet.
As well as being a poet, you have a parallel career as a successful novelist and children’s writer. I’m curious what your writing practice tends to be like and if you compose much poetry when you’re in the middle of writing a novel? And do you find the concerns of your various projects tend to bleed into one another?
I write poetry by ear, and often compose a first draft in my head. Clearly this doesn’t happen with an entire novel, although certain passages of dialogue might come in the same way. With poetry I listen as I go from draft to draft, to test the music of the poem. I’m sure that if I could look at my work from outside I would see so much connection between one piece of writing and another, whatever the form – but I’m inside the wave, too.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
This is a poem called ‘Counting Backwards’, taken from my new collection, and it is about the surprising opportunities offered by anaesthesia. The poem exists on the borderline between consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and what is imagined or hallucinated.
The experience the poem describes probably lasted less than a second.
Untroubled, the anaesthetist
Potters with his cannula
As the waterfall in the ante-room
Grows steadily louder,
All of them are cool with it
And just keep on working
No wonder they wear Wellingtons –
I want to ask them
But it seems stupid, naive,
Basalt, I think, the rock
Where the white stream leaps.
Imagine living at such volume
Next door to a waterfall
Stepping in and out of the noise
In their funny clothes.
But you can get used to anything
Like the anaesthetist
Counting to himself
Backwards, all wrong.