Photo Credit: Ahren Warner
Hi Mark. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your new collection Meanwhile, Trees with Bloodaxe. Can you tell us a bit about it and, now that you’ve had time to live with the collection, how you think it compares with The Brand New Dark and The Itchy Sea?
I never know how my books compare with each other. I feel as though I write until I have enough poems for a book and then just carry on writing until I have enough for the next one and so on. Afterwards I can look back and go, oh, that’s what I was concerned about at that time, but there’s no conscious decision to change direction, so far at least.
I did at one point think I might try to write Meanwhile, Trees as a themed book. I’m not sure why I got that idea into my head, I think perhaps I had a vague sense that themes were becoming fashionable at that point. Anyway it didn’t work out and I’m relieved it didn’t. The vestiges of it survive in a section of poems about the character called Manning.
A number of your poems have recurring characters in them – I’m thinking specifically of Marcie and Manning. I’m curious what the impetus was behind creating these characters and placing them in the situations you do?
I once said in an interview that the characters I invent are all versions of myself in disguise, so I might be dressed up as a dog or a woman or a hyrdrofoil or whatever, and in those costumes I might be able to sidle up to myself and catch myself off guard. I think that is still how I see it.
I certainly seek out the sense of having caught myself out, and that seems to happen only if I use invented characters in my poems – or overtly invented personae. I don’t think it could happen if I wrote a straightforward poem about my own life.
Someone once asked me if a particular poem I’d written was a metaphor for something and I thought, actually everything I write (maybe everything I say) is a metaphor for something, it’s just I don’t usually know what that is until the poem’s finished, and sometimes I never know. I think that’s what I mean by tricking or ambushing myself.
My unconscious reveals itself to me in the stories I unconsciously choose to tell. I think I’d feel egg-bound if I couldn’t get those stories out (I believe egg-bound is when a chicken can’t lay its eggs – didn’t Larkin say writing poems is like laying eggs?)
You’ve mentioned in the past your poetry is perhaps a reaction to the increasing artifice and commodification of life as perpetuated by the advertising business. I’m curious in what ways you think poetry is best equipped to redress this imbalance?
I don’t think I want to pull the whole blame for the current condition of the Western World onto advertising, but I suppose I do want poetry to tell it like it is. Advertising only tells it like it isn’t. This is a serious issue for me, perhaps the most serious issue of all.
Capitalism has obviously failed to give us any real freedom to be ourselves, in fact it’s generated a peculiar sterile environment, nothing tastes or looks or sounds or feels right anymore, and worse, I have absolutely no faith in any of the alternatives.
Obviously I don’t actually think poetry has a hope of redressing the imbalance, and I’m not sure I think of that as being its job. I feel as though I’m like a tethered goat in the jungle offering up pathetic little bleats of fear. That’s what my books are.
You collaborated with Rebecca Perry recently on a project in which you wrote each other ‘poetry postcards’ back and forth. Did working in this way throw up any particular challenges or surprises you weren’t expecting?
The biggest surprise was how quickly and easily I felt we were able to have a kind of dialogue between the two characters we invented for the exchange.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to?
I also have a bunch of new books to read which have been published in the last month or so – John Clegg’s new collection Holy Toledo!, Luke Kennard’s Cain, as well as pamphlets by Alison Winch and Ben Rogers.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s a poem from my new book about Manning. I’ve written a bunch of poems about him in Meanwhile, Trees. He exists in different historical periods in different poems and sometimes in the same poem.
In this one he’s a WWI pilot, or at least he’s dressed up as one, I think there’s a bit of Biggles in him in this poem as well as all sorts of other associations. I think of him as being very evidently cooked-up, which chimes with me because I think of myself as being evidently cooked-up too.
I also think that, like me, he knows it.
The Stage is Set
Some weak, decrepit wind once sloughed off
a dismal place
and made of the yawns
of the wretched old men who once lived there
comes to a sorry halt over the land and expires disturbing nothing.
Manning pulls the damaged machine out of its dive
just above the blind and dopey trees that panic only once
the danger’s passed.
He hears himself laugh
like a mad Hun
and the washed skies lie all about him
thinned with the dreamt-up blood of angels.
Manning, his aircraft,
the flapping fabric of its torn wing,
the trees and the sky are all one and the same.
They each smell exactly of breath.
They are made of the same
finely patterned material,
part hard, part nothing,
of which every concocted thing is made.
Manning is most likely a poet. To his lovers he says things like:
I am rinsed through passion, my darling;
absolved, ruined; absolved, ruined.
He tries to gain height now,
he means to pull up and up
towards a cloud that looks exactly like a cauliflower
or an old woman striking a lofty attitude and lighting a pipe.
Once inside the cloud
he’ll continue to climb, using it as cover
as he hungrily re-gathers the potential
energy of altitude.
But though the aircraft’s wings judder as though buffeted
the propeller only grasps hopelessly, pitifully over and over,
like the hands of desperate children,
at the completely meatless air.
Back in the officers’ mess
where I’ve put him
(I own him very much
as some people own bees),
Manning lights a thin cigar as a joke
and smiles at me
between puffs and bouts of coughing, daring me to allude to it.
The cigar is only a smokescreen though,
its smoke stands in for a hopeless ghost, all airs and graces.