Sheenagh Pugh is a poet, novelist, and translator. She has published over a dozen volumes of poetry and has previously been nominated for the Whitbread Prize and T S Eliot Prize, and won the Bridport Prize and Cardiff International Poetry Prize.
Sheenagh’s latest collection Short Days, Long Shadows was published by Seren in 2014.
Hi Sheenagh. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your most recent collection Short Days, Long Shadows. For the uninitiated how would you describe the book and, now you have some distance from the poems, what do you feel are its main concerns?
Oh, that’d be mortality again. My daughter is always complaining that my poems are too death-obsessed and that I should change the record. Hence the title, and the whole ‘Walker’ sequence.
But it was also the first book I wrote after moving from Cardiff to Shetland and it was partly about saying goodbye to one place – a city – and coming to live in a very rural setting where landscape mattered more to me than it ever had before. The poem ‘Big Sky’ is about that.
A few of the poems in the book – ‘Medals’, ‘Terra Nova’, and ‘Travelling with Ashes’ – concern your late father and allude to his life as a seaman and his services in WW2. I’m curious how quickly these came together and did writing about such a personal subject and wanting to commemorate his life make you obsess over the poems more than you usually would?
He died in 2008, and I don’t think I wrote them any more quickly or slowly than usual. The four ‘Medals’ poems probably came quicker than most because writing sequences improves my work rate; one idea leads on to another. I had to do some research though, because like many war survivors he hardly ever spoke of it.
Luckily I had an ex-student, Jeremy Konsbruck, who I knew was a mine of information on WW2 and he was very helpful; for instance in explaining how a sailor came to have an Africa Star, which was more usual for army men. One of the advantages of teaching students is that they all know more than you do about something or other.
Another poem – ‘Walsingham’s Men’ – explores the world of Elizabethan espionage through a trio of historical characters and seems to be a happy marriage of content and form in its use of ‘disguised’ sestinas. Could you tell us a bit more about the impetus behind this poem and what it was that drew you to write about the subject?
I had been trying to write a sestina for years and failing miserably because, although the form itself was no problem, I couldn’t see a good reason to use it. Then I read some by Paul Henry which disguised the form by putting line and verse breaks in unexpected places.
I was also reading a biography of Walsingham at the time and was fascinated, as I always am, by the idea of disguise and people assuming a new identity. For the first time I could see how, if I used Paul’s technique of disguising the form, it would marry with the theme and actually have a point. So suddenly I had three sestinas.
I get the impression the poem ‘Sometimes‘ has become an albatross around your neck. You have distanced yourself from it in the past and expressed your unease at how it has been appropriated and altered in ways you hadn’t intended. I’m curious what your thoughts are on how much a poem no longer belongs to a poet once it has entered into the public sphere?
It belongs to me in the sense that I can choose not to let it be reproduced in contexts I don’t like; also that when I see someone not just reproducing it without permission but impertinently altering what I chose to write – e.g. by centring it on the page, or changing “man” to “person” for PC reasons and thereby ruining the scansion, I will contact them and ask them to either print it as is or take it down.
That’s my privilege because otherwise someone might think it’s me who doesn’t know how to scan, or formulate poems on a page. But I can’t control how people read a poem, once it’s in print; that’s their right. I do have a right to an opinion on it, though. It surprises me when people write and say they are “cross” because I have said I don’t like the poem. I suppose they take it as a criticism of their taste, which to some degree it is, but so what? One is allowed to criticise.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I took a keen interest in the outcome of the poetry section of the Wales Arts Council’s Book of the Year prizes, because two of my friends, Philip Gross and Paul Henry, were on the shortlist. In the event Philip won and I felt both pleased for him and disappointed for Paul, so you can’t win, really…
Getting to events generally means flying to the mainland, so it doesn’t happen very often. Shetland has in past years had a literature festival in the autumn, WordPlay, but it looks as if council cutbacks may have scuppered it for this year.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I was travelling across Canada by train recently and at one stage changing time zones every day or so. It got a bit disorienting; I was feeling tired or awake at the wrong time and it occurred to me to try to write a sequence about my reactions to Canada (which I love) via the four time zones – Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific.
The different verse forms are, I hope, reflecting how I saw different places: the formal sonnet for Montreal, the literally endless terza rima for the apparently endless plains and roads of Manitoba, the unrhymed couplets for Jasper, a place too elemental to fit into any more formal constraints, and the mirror form for Vancouver, which is such a meeting-place of different cultures.
1. Eastern Time
They built a gracious habitation,
but it looked back, looked eastward.
The old-world houses, the boulevards
named for kings and saints, the kind
of life they’d gladly left behind
for the new, for chance, elbow room,
a space where history and custom
were theirs to make. Yet they were nostalgic
for a world of Protestant versus Catholic,
French fighting English, aristos flaunting money,
mansion vaults in the very cemetery –
we may both be dead but you’re still poor –
How long does it take, I wonder,
to let go, to prefer the unknown?
2. Central Time
Somewhere in Manitoba
God knows where this is:
nowhere different from ten miles
back or forward. Fields like skies,
flat green or gold the fill
of a window, a sightline.
It’s all a matter of scale;
nothing wrong with green
in little, but maxed-out
it goes beyond human,
like the road, dead straight,
that marches further
than eyes can follow. The thought
of walking that road, never
a bend or hill, knowing always
what’s next… They’ve a saying here:
watch your dog run away
for three days – though where to
is a question, and why,
in this vastness where somehow
hours and days become words
and there’s nowhere to go.
3. Mountain Time
Jasper, Alberta: Canada Day
Fossils from ocean’s floor
embedded in the mountains
that rose so slowly, slower even
than the Athabasca Glacier
inching toward the Arctic.
How long does water take
to scoop a hollow in limestone;
how many centuries go
to a full-grown pine? Today the mayor
spoke of difference, celebrating
the variety of humans
in his small town surrounded
by immensity. In the shadow
of so much time, doomed lives
leave marks on rock, chip away
at ice, make moments count.
4. Pacific Time
Vancouver, British Columbia
Go far enough west,
you end up east:
the city by the Pacific
tastes of miso and lemongrass.
sound on streets whose signs
are painted in characters.
In the park, Arden’s forest
takes shape with a cast
of all the world’s actors.
Palms among pines,
a confusion of scents:
salt, patchouli, grass.
A port’s a place of traffic,
of meeting. East:
so close, so nearly west.