August 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
Interview with Frances Presley by Matilde Christensen.
1. You state that your defining moment in poetry was when you read “Lustra” by Pound, what was so special about that collection?
The savage humour, I think, and possibly the arrogance – often a product of his insecurity, which he expresses through epigram from Latin poets; the impoverished poet in London mocking the rich, before Pound’s politics took a turn for the sinister; his sympathy with women, tempered by his underlying sense of male supremacy. Above all, his declaration, which I accepted, of reinventing modern poetry and abandoning the archaisms of late Victorian verse. That was allied to the theory and practice of Imagism, and the most famous poem of all ‘In a Station of the Metro’. It was a borrowing from the Japanese haiku, redefined as an ‘intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’. What I can’t fully explain is the sheer excitement that all this generated, the sense that Lustra conveys so well, that this kind of poetry is the only way to write, both to produce the best possible form and to make the most incisive comment on and observation of the modern world.
2. What, would you say, is your main source of inspiration, and how do you “activate” it (if you find this possible) when preparing to write a poem?
I think my sources of inspiration have changed over the years, but also, I suppose, it’s poetry that inspires poetry, so sources of inspiration are often due to particular modes of writing. Also at one time poems were more occasional, and in that sense spontaneous, whereas later I would be writing with a particular theme in mind. Some of my recent landscape writing is based either on the immediate experience of a place where I go to write, or by a textual source. In ‘Stone settings’, for instance, the original inspiration was a book on archaeology on Exmoor, which I made direct use of in some of the poems, and then visits to the actual sites.
3. You have been concerned with French poetry and translated Norwegian poetry, how was your experience with working with poetry in a second language? Have you written any poetry in a second language?
I do enjoy studying, and hearing poetry in another language. French was my main foreign language for many years, and I was writing about French poetry and almost thinking in French, when I was living in Switzerland. I never really got very far in writing poetry in French. I haven’t done much translation and I admire those who do. Translating from Norwegian makes me very conscious of the amazing resources of the English language and how many choices we can make in our polyglot tongue. Although I don’t write poetry in a foreign language I do incorporate other languages into my poetry, particularly French and Dutch.
4. You are very politically engaged, why have you chosen poetry as a medium to express your political point of view?
Obviously feminism informs all my writing, and for many years I was also involved in anti-racism projects. I lived through very dark times during the Thatcher years, the rolling back of the welfare state and the continuation of that agenda to the present day. The nadir of Thatcherism is included in some of the early poems in the collection ‘Hula Hoop’. The Paravane sequence (2004) begins with the events of 9/11, partly because I was involved in a poetry forum (How2) with women who had direct experience of the events. This led to my exploration of a comparable experience in London of the IRA bombings. I was also working for a community health organisation that was abolished by New Labour and a lot of that experience found its way into ‘Paravane’, as the boundaries between politics and poetry were increasingly hard to maintain.
5. I very much enjoy your playful language for instaqnce in poems such as “Underwriters” and “9/2”. How does your style unfold itself during your writing?
I suppose that when you have been writing for some time you learn to trust more to the language, and become more available to its possibilities. That also has to do with using less censorship of your thought process, having more confidence in where it takes you and allowing for improvisation. ‘Underwriters’ and ‘9/2’ were both preconceived in the sense that they were part of a series of journeys I made to the IRA bombsites, ten years after the event, but as I made that journey I tried to be as open as possible both to what I observed and the language that I heard, and where it might lead. For instance, I was at the Lloyds Building and thinking about ‘underwriters’ and how, especially in 2001-2, what shadowy figures they were. They are literally ‘under written’. The equally shadowy world of guilds in the City of London is seen through a newly commissioned stained glass window asserting the historical and military significance of the Worshipful Company of Longbows.
6. When reading your poems, I found “Ground O” to be my favourite. I am very curious about your writing process; could you tell me the story and process behind this particular poem?
I’m glad you liked ‘Ground O’. It was one of my favourites at the time I was performing from that sequence. It was written in response to a film made shortly after the bombing of the twin towers and the early stages of demolition which had many striking images, a kind of abstract art which reminded me of Franz Kline. I was also working with sound at the time, the sound on the film track and also listening to a friend, Mary Herivel, who’s a professional pianist, improvising at the keyboard. The poem is what I would call controlled improvisation, trying to remain as open as possible to the images and sounds. Form and theme coincide in the slenderness and fragility of the structures, both architectural and human.
7. I am also very interested in the way you link visual art and poetry together. Can you elaborate on your use of visual art in your writing?
I went from having a strong interest in the visual arts, and especially women artists, and writing about the work, to developing my own visual poetics, in terms of the design and layout of the page.
8. At this day, do you identify yourself more as a poet than a librarian or a publisher, and what has it meant for you to be able to have your poetry published?
Definitely a poet. There’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing your first book in print. To begin with I published with friends in a small press, and then, having sent out manuscripts, it was good to get comments from editors, some of whom liked my work enough to publish it. I’m very grateful to all of them! It gives the work more credibility, as well as the chance to reach a wider audience.