August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Katy Evans-Bush by Kirsty Trevarthan
1. How long have you been writing and what made you start?
I read poetry all through my childhood – moved seamlessly on from nursery rhymes, and then wrote all through my teens. I didn’t distinguish, and it puzzled me that I was ‘supposed’ to find it ‘hard’.
As a child I sensed instinctively the importance of language – tone, register, word play, sound, rhythm – in shaping meaning and experience. I knew, in a very unsentimental and quite adult way, that the story’s the thing.
Something happened in my twenties, and I stopped. I tried to write fiction. It was the 80s; I thought you had to be either Don Delillo or Martin Amis, or Kathy Acker. I went back to poetry in my thirties all of a sudden: sitting in this guy’s house I thought: that’s it. I have to write poetry again. NOW.
I’ve never stopped since.
2. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
What I love most is not trying to pretend to be someone I’m not, which I realized I had been doing all my life. What I love is, it enables me to be myself.
It’s a hard lesson! Why did I not just go for it when I was 20? That’s another question, and there are lots of answers.
And by the way, this answer is about ‘being a poet’, not about ‘writing poetry’. Writing poetry is the core. ‘Being a poet’ is what happens when writing poetry (and inhabiting its social manifestations) takes over to the point where it’s so visible that it’s easier just to say you’re a poet than to try to explain things to people.
3. How did you first become published, and how did you get a collection of work together?
First publication: well, the first one was in my school’s magazine when I was 16 or 17, It was a poem called ‘Steerforth’; I’d been reading Gormenghast… The magazine won an award and the page it was on got a special mention from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, which sounded like very big cheese. I found the letter from the school principal recently. It says, ‘Enclosed please find a copy of the actual award. The best awards are for the mind and heart and not material in nature’. So I was warned!
In 2005, a group of us who had been Michael Donaghy’s students and friends put together an anthology of our work, The Like Of It, as a tribute to him: John Stammers wrote the preface and it was published by Baring & Rogerson.
In 2007, I’d been writing for years, and had my blog, and was on the poetry message boards. I liked what Salt was doing at that stage, mixing up the poetry politics with their widening list. This felt like a good fit, and I just did what they tell you to do: I sent a query letter and a sample of about 12 poems. I shortly received a yes letter, and Me and the Dead came out just over a year later.
4. Are there any poets that have particularly influenced your work, if so who and how did they influence it?
I’ve learned an inestimable amount from innumerable poets. At 7 or 8 I read a small poem by Edna St Vincent Millay about her neighbour hanging out the wash. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you can do that?’ It was a surprise to learn that all you need to do, sometimes, is just show the thing to the reader.
In my teens I saturated myself in Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Blake. I couldn’t read Eliot for 20 years because his rhythms and cadences were virtually hardwired into me, and it was too dangerous for my writing even to go near.
My desert island poets all work primarily through language and colour, and are also firmly rooted in life itself. This is the paradox: writers are bookish but must write from life. Louis MacNeice makes a certain kind of very musical, colourful abundance possible. Paul Muldoon makes a certain kind of colourful play possible, and both of them draw out meaning like conjurers with rabbits and scarves. James Merrill is elegantly, conversationally, metrically, and tastefully flawless, and often very funny. Gjertrud Schnackenberg – vastly underrated. Les Murray.
And let’s not forget good old Anonymous, to whom we all owe an incalculable debt, and whom we may – if we’re lucky – one day even be.
But you can take things from anywhere. Poets are too insular. Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer – our three greatest poets, who all lived in times, like ours, of tremendous change – are also the three who invented the largest numbers of words that have stuck with us through time. They were all accustomed in various capacities to writing for other people. Christopher Smart, in his asylum, wrote his huge, mad, teemingly abundant and highly structured ‘Jubilate Agno’ essentially in free verse: he was copying, essentially, the forms of the ancient Aramaic poetry that made up the Bible. Wrest language from anywhere you find it, and breathe life into it!
5. Is there anything in life in particular that inspires you to write?
Words inspire me to write. There’s an anecdote I love, where the painter Degas said to Mallarmé something like, ‘Say, that’s a good idea for a poem.’ Mallarmé replied, ‘Poems aren’t made of ideas. They’re made of words.’
Having said that, I often do want to tell a story. But that can be an onerous burden; the thing is to tell the story in a way that feels meaningful. Even a ‘non-narrative’ poem is a story, and every poem has its own sequence of event.
So I don’t know. It’s a coalescing of colour, sound, incident, feeling, echo, layers, people, resonance, mood, all together into a snatch of phraseology, maybe, and then it can often come together very fast.
6. The poetry in your book Me and the Dead seems to be mostly in free verse, is there a reason that you write predominantly in that style?
The book is teeming with form, but it plays with it. ‘The Crash’ and ‘East Ten’ are in a tetrameter version of blank verse, for example. There is lots of straight blank verse, lots of poems with loosely iambic ‘spines’, and some more tightly iambic – as per ‘The Only Reader’ and ‘The Master and the Future’.
‘Our Passion’ is a sonnet in couplets, and ‘The Life Mask’ is a sonnet in alexandrines… ‘The Huge Husband’ is a sonnet in free verse.
But you’re right, the structures are quite loose in a lot of it. I think there was a lot of personal content, a lot of narrative, there were a lot of actual stories – so I wanted to allow things to be expressed in a natural, or pretty natural, way.
7. Your poems in Me and the Dead are very emotional. I particularly like “The crash (a love letter)”. Are these poems based on some of your life experiences and if so is there a reason that you are so open?
‘The Crash’ is indeed based on a real story. I was a bit traumatised by that event. I wanted to write about it but had no idea who to approach it. In the end – thinking I was writing notes towards a poem, to clear my head and work it out – I told myself, ‘Just say what happened.’ When I got to the end I realised it was the poem, and shaped it into this loose metre that seemed to express the jumbledness of it, and also a slight sarcastic edge I was feeling. I think this is a really good mantra for writing any kind of narrative poem.
And why am I open? No idea. There are too many people hiding too many things already in the world. In some cases, like that one, saying what happened is a way of just choosing life. It’s also more interesting.
8. Some of your poetry in Egg Printing Explained seems to be about longing and missing something. Do you find that you moving from America to England at 19 still effects on your work today?
The move from the US to here did affect my writing, at least at first – but not in that way. It was more about vocabulary, which lexicon do I have access to, what slang, what’s my personal philology? I wasn’t sure which ‘self’ to occupy. This does create a sense of displacement, no matter how at home you feel where you are; there is always something over there that you can’t get to touch. If I went there, then I’d be cut off from here. In some ways, which I couldn’t have anticipated at 19, this has become the big central fact of my life. But I’ve been living in London well over half my life now, and I can’t teleport myself back to somewhere I left decades ago. There’s a Welsh word, ‘hiraeth’, which seems to fit. There are a few poems that deal directly with this, but only a few. The Hudson River one. ‘The Dive’ and ‘The Cave’ both address how helpless and far away I felt when a school friend’s brother killed himself.
‘Away’, along with lots of the poems in Egg Printing Explained, is about a relationship breakup (and we are still close, which is a sort of hiraeth of its own).
9. Do you have any favourite poems that you have written? If so which ones and why are they your favourite?
‘Freefall’, in Egg Printing Explained, I do love. I was very unnerved by the death of the American poet Craig Arnold, which coincided with this awful relationship breakup, and the poem weaves those two things together. It’s very deeply felt.
‘Fretwork’ is one I felt was very successful, with its kind of primary images of detachment. And it draws on my childhood immersion in the Tudors, though I’ve got one bit of history wrong!
The ‘Oscar & Henry’ sequence opened something out for me, it made things start happening in a different way, & even now I’m not sure why.
10. What would you say to people who think that poetry is a dying art form?
‘Don’t be silly.’
And then I’d say, if you’re someone who is worried about art forms dying out, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself in the skills and techniques of art, and it’s your job to prevent at least one of them from dying.
I think people who want to write have a duty to the art form, as well as to themselves – and also to the reader. Poetic technique is the accumulated wealth of centuries – millennia – of writers and thinkers making discoveries about how language and our brains work together. Language is our treasure; art is all that remains of some civilisations and it is the first documentation we have from our own species, besides bones. Poetry won’t die until we do. We’ve had it since we were human and maybe since before then, and we do well to take it seriously, play with it, use it, keep it alive, let it help keep us alive. And by the way, there’s poetry in lots of things. I love memes with poetry in computer code. Code is poetry and Form is love.
11. What advice would you give to a poet who is just starting out in the industry?
I’d say read everything. Write everything. If a poem feels scary when you write it, you’re onto something. Learn the technique. Love the language. Learn to punctuate. Don’t be afraid of old poems. Don’t be afraid of new poems. Remember a poem being rejected is just a practical thing, not about you. Keep going. It’s about the work. And above all, have fun.