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Vahni Capildeo

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Vahni Capildeo by Zannab Sheikh

Vahni’s website.

1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?

Even when I was two, I scribbled rhymes on my mother’s telephone pad… Trinidad in my day (1970s-1990s) had a strong oral culture, and also a furious faith in education (available only to the privileged before the 1950s). Added to that was my family’s Hindu heritage: hearing my father chant the Ramayana’s beautiful slokas assured me that illiteracy was not our fate, that we were capable of the highest human expressions of art and thought.

2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?

My parents didn’t censor my reading or writing; they gave me free use of a typewriter (remember this is pre-Internet). I naïvely assumed that publication was somehow in my future. I had few pre-1950s book in Trinidad. So at University in England, I imagined simply landing, Bloomsbury-style, somehow among publishers. This didn’t quite happen; though No Traveller Returns indeed depended on a friend’s kind recommendation. I learnt to be independent, investing in excellent advice from The Literary Consultancy, and consulting handbooks. Amazingly, Southfields (David Kinloch and Richard Price) and Poetry Wales (then Robert Minhinnick) took a risk on me.

3. What is your favourite form or mode of poetry (to read/to write/to perform)?

I experience surprising, omnivorous readerly cravings: the writing mind demanding renewal. While some of my poems are unperformable, many-voiced things, I also enjoy doing personæ with dramatic or humorous voices.

4. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?

Refreshing question; thanks! I’m mostly a craftsman. Poetry is something I do; poems, things I make. Perhaps what I most enjoy is when something is done; when I’ve gone as far as I can, as far as my technique is capable of or as far as the material mysteriously lets me.

5. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?

Sometimes a poet’s work engages me intensely, passing through me like a colour; but I won’t necessarily return to it. I return to Anglo-Saxon poetry, Dante, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Martin Carter. I’m blessed with far-flung writer-friends like Nicholas Laughlin, Andre Bagoo, Vivek Narayanan, Sharmistha Mohanty. Knowing they exist creates my context for creation… Mine is the poetry of the unpoetic: everyday interaction, science, history…  Ordinary and specialist terms fuse. The poet distils, but also detects misuses of, language’s power.

6. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?

The day it stops changing is the day to stop writing.  Recently I’ve shown more process in the poem: a room-with-exposed-brickwork approach; untranslated phrases.

7. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?

Do what works! And make yourself unavailable until it works!

8. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?

That’s an interesting question, for practical and artistic reasons. Without a family context, and with variable work patterns, I write where and when I can. Regarding emotion: I’m driven more by form.

9. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?

The writing mind works constantly. The biggest influence is the practical availability of space and time.

10. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?

This has changed, simply because notes accumulate. Recently I found a scrap with a phrase from a 1990s business conversation. That had seemed finished, in the sense of being abandoned. But it started whirring and became a sequence. I distance myself from published texts; one risks revising the same thing forever.

11. Before you publish a poem, do you read it aloud? Give it to someone to read?

Writing is a constant process of muttering. Language’s musicality structures my texts. Commissioned work definitely differs from pure composition. Nobody sees any poem’s earliest stages. Trusted friends (including non-poets) see drafts that have ‘formed’ enough to push back at criticism without collapsing.

12. ‘Titanic’: can you retrace your thought process when writing and/or editing this poem?

This riddling love poem hides the ‘what’ while conveying the ‘how much’. The extreme images are informed by my experience of being knocked down by a car when younger; also by Petrarch’s impossibilia and Puck’s rapid-fire speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

13. ‘A Critic in his Natural Habitat’: how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem? (Great poem by the way!)

This is a dramatic monologue based on a smug young academic who disrespected the lives of authors and sidelined his oppressive, breast-flinging wife. I hated, therefore became him.

14. ‘The Task’: is this poem based on social issues? Do you think poetry like this can make a difference in the 21st century?

This recounts an incident in Florence. Poetry achieves renewable acts of noticing, here noticing power relations. The reader, not poetry itself, makes a difference, by participating in a civilization which makes time for poetry, and the human value that implies.

15. Why do you use a particular verse form, mode or style for ‘Call It Simple: Two Exteriors’?

Less William Carlos Williams’s stepped lines than (1) Abstract: the gap between information and interpretation. (2) Concrete: Trinidad’s coastline. (3) Musical: the poem’s tempo; cf. the cæsura in French alexandrines.

‘Coastal, maybe ghostly,

outside, over there,

that’s where the sea steals on,

the place for eating up’.

16. What is poetry – both in contemporary society, and for you personally?

More than the aesthetic, I’m worried by distribution and marketing issues. Poems and readers need to connect globally more than they do.

17. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?

‘Poetry’ is such a wide term! But extra space around words demands time and concentration. Then language, that thing we can’t escape, shows up, playful, frustrating, speaking the ordinarily unsayable. As an ex-medievalist, I like mixed forms. Any lyric, for example, detaches itself as lyric only against a recollected shimmer of all that is not-lyric (prose; song…), therefore drawing on qualities of what it insistently isn’t.

18. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society that listens less each day?

I write because I must. The instant of writing fuses impulse and craft. (And can we generalize about ‘a society’?) Perhaps — deluged, hypnotized, life-avoidant —we listen more, but concentrate less? Poetry is a form of concentration.

Isobel Dixon

August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Isobel Dixon by Douglas Ward

Isobel’s website.

1. How did you first develop an interest in poetry, and what inspired you to write poetry?

I can’t remember there being a starting point to poetry. It was always there, in nursery rhymes, songs, the Book of Common Prayer – my father was a minister and a science teacher, so I grew up with the cadences of the prayer book and the King James Bible. Hymns too, including one that became part of our South African national anthem, ‘Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika’. My Yorkshire grandfather, who fought in both world wars, would quote swathes of Wilfred Owen and Omar Khayyam and Shakespeare. All that and the many books on the shelves of our household made for fuel enough, but I was also lucky to have good school teachers in English and Afrikaans. In high school it was Afrikaans poets like Antjie Krog and Breyten Breytenbach who seemed to write most urgently about the world I found myself in.

2. How did you get your work recognised? Were there difficulties?

After the odd publication in school and university magazines, the first real step was to sign up for a workshop with South African poet Robert Berold when I went to the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts as an undergraduate. It was the first time that my work was judged by people I didn’t know. After the workshop Robert asked if he could publish ‘Kiewietjie’ and ‘Pearston’ in the journal he edited, New Coin. It felt a momentous step to me. I started writing, completing and sending out poems in a more focused way when I finished studying in Edinburgh and began working in publishing. Maybe it was evading academia, having the example of the writers whose work I represent as an agent, or just that I had more to say by then, but that was when I started to build up a body of work – and rejection slips. One of my proudest possessions is a postcard from the late Alan Ross of the London Magazine, accepting some work – my first British publication.

The breakthrough to a collection came when Gus Ferguson, poet and editor of the South African journal Carapace, suggested I enter the SANLAM poetry competition for a collection by an unpublished poet, which I won with the manuscript of Weather Eye – which Gus then published in his Carapace Books imprint. Another life-changing poet and editor to whom I am very grateful.

3. What poets are you a fan of? Are there any poets you’ve drawn inspiration from?

So many! Surely we draw inspiration from all the poets we love? Here’s an inevitably incomplete list: John Berryman (there’s a veiled tribute to him in my poem ‘So Many Henries’ – I adore his Dream Songs), Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Rodney Jones, Michael Donaghy, Finuala Dowling, Ingrid de Kok, Breyten Breytenbach, Elisabeth Eybers, Eugene Marais (whose nature writing inspired ‘Toktokkie’ and ‘The Inopportune Baboon’).

4. Are there aspects of your life that are particularly influential to your writing?

Like most poets, I’m not picky and am pretty omnivorous about sources. We’re multivalent creatures, latching on to myriad images and ideas. I’m happy to work to kindle whatever opportune spark blows my way. That said, I find myself returning to certain subjects – exploring nature, childhood narratives, and the thrill of cinema.

5. Does it irritate you when someone misinterprets your work?

Yes. Even positive reviewers and readers can get details wrong. I wouldn’t correct readers’ views though, unless there’s some terrible travesty. Let the interpreter be.

6. In the case of  ‘Certus Incertus’, can you retrace your thought process when writing? What did you intend to convey?

I don’t like to unravel process, nor explain too much. But I had a terrible stammer as a young girl and the poem was both an exorcism of old embarrassments and a celebration of the written word, which was always something of a salvation to me.

7. What did you aim to achieve through the use of such strong language in your poem ‘Meet My Father’?

I wanted to convey the powerful feelings of helplessness and love felt by those who care for loved ones who are diminished and despairing.

8. What inspired you to write ‘Vision’?

Vivid memories of our family garden, all senses on summer alert, alive to sight and scent. The visual tricks of twilight. At the back of my mind there must have been D. H. Lawrence too. Who knows how these things coalesce?

9. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?

Much. I’m not adept at other art forms, but do love to experiment with an interplay of forms, and enjoy setting up collaborations, working with other poets, musicians, and film-makers. Like The Debris Field, our recent multi-poet multi-media show about RMS Titanic, devised and produced with Simon Barraclough and Chris McCabe, with music from Oli Barrett and film by Jack Wake-Walker.

10. Finally, what advice would you give young writers hoping to write poetry?

Read as much poetry as possible, widely and adventurously.

Keep a notebook and raid it regularly.  Don’t let those tadpole ideas slip by – you never know what leaping creatures they might become, given time and care. Stretch yourself; sharpen your craft by finding a good workshop or course. It can be immensely useful if you can find a regular group to meet with, though it can be hard finding the right combination You want constructive criticism, not comfortable praise or competitive venom. There are also online options available. Groups are not for everybody, but however you do it, seek feedback that helps you grow.

Read and submit to journals, take rejection in your stride, keep careful records and keep on submitting. Believe in your work, but don’t let your ego lead it.

Poets are different, so do whatever works for you. The only essentials are to keep reading, keep writing.

Abi Curtis

August 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Interview with Abi Curtis by Francesca D’Aiuto

Abi’s website.

1. Did you always want to be a poet? When did you know you wanted to be? When did you start calling yourself a poet?

I always enjoyed writing as a child, and carried on as I got older. I mostly wrote fiction, but got more into poetry when I took an MA at Exeter University with the poet Andy Brown. I became very interested in the possibilities of poetic form at that point, and I was introduced to lots of contemporary poets. I don’t call myself a ‘poet’ as I don’t see being a poet as an identity. I see it as an activity. It’s not a profession as such to me – my job is being a university lecturer.

2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?

It takes a while and lots of rejections. And of course I still get lots of rejections from magazines etc. It really helped me to do an MA because I learned about how to present work to magazines and journals. It’s really important to read contemporary poetry if you want to write it and be published. You become part of a community, in a sense. I started getting published in small magazines and in anthologies at first. I was then really lucky to win an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors for poets under 30. This helped a lot. Then I published a pamphlet with Tall Lighthouse who began running the Pilot Series, again for young poets. The editor was Roddy Lumsden, who has really supported me since that point. After this, I entered Salt Publishing’s Crashaw Prize and was lucky enough to be one of the winners. The prize was publication of a full collection. I’m now publishing my second collection with them (July 2012). So, competitions have been great for me. I also can’t praise independent publishers enough when it comes to supporting poetry.

3. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?

There are a lot, and it changes all the time. I really love Alice Oswald, and I have read all of her work. She does something very new and fresh with language. I also admire Jo Shapcott. Mark Waldron is great because his work is funny and affecting, and Antony Dunn, whose work is really polished, clever and subtle. I think Ted Hughes’ work is amazing. He was able to capture things to their core. Great poems give the reader an experience, rather than a sense of being distanced from a closed-off object.

4. Does it irritate you when people misinterpret your poetry?

No. I’m sure my poetry is not for everyone. People who like it gain different things from it. Once it’s out there in the world, you can’t be too precious about it.

5. What do you think about free verse vs. verse forms?

I think that there’s a misconception about the ‘freeness’ of free verse. It needs to be controlled in all sorts of subtle ways for it to work. So I guess I’m saying there is no such thing as free verse! But I love form, actually, I think it can be liberating creatively. Solving the ‘puzzle’ of a form and working with it to create content can lead to all sorts of wonderful unexpected effects. Writing a poem should be a challenge, and the tension in the challenge is what creates the energy of the poem.

6. What advice would you give to young writers to encourage them to write poetry?

Try to write regularly, practising makes you better at most things and poetry is no exception. Read lots of contemporary poetry – journals such as Magma are very accessible and give a good range of what is out there. Enter competitions and send things to journals, and don’t worry about rejection, don’t take it personally. Read and perform your work at poetry nights. It gets you in touch with your local poetic community, and that’s the kind of environment that poets make their fans.

7. Do you think poetry is a dying art?

Not at all. People will always want to read and write poems. You just need to look at how many poetry nights there is each week in cities like London and Bristol. It might not be huge numbers of people, but there are lots of people writing and reading poems.  Younger people seem to be especially enthusiastic at the moment. Check out the Salt Book of Younger Poets, for example, Or the Foyle Young Poets Award. I think poetry is thriving.

8. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in any other literary or art form?

I don’t think it’s a question of what, but how. Poetry expresses things differently. Perhaps it pays more attention to the music of language, to the materiality of words themselves. But that’s not to say other forms of writing cannot do these things.

9. Bruise: Can you retrace your thought process when writing and/ or editing this poem?

It came from a real life experience. I did fall over and I had a massive bruise on my thigh. It was completely black. I thought it would be good to turn that negative experience into something creative. I was interested in how the bruise gradually changed colour, and started the poem exploring the imagery of that. The ending was an unexpected part of the composition process; it came from that complete concentration on the subject matter. That’s the wonderful thing about the writing process – letting it surprise you.

10. What is poetry-both in contemporary society and for your personally?

Poetry has all sorts of potentially subversive power, but lots of writing does. I think it is especially interested in the possibilities of language. For myself, I enjoy writing poetry because I enjoy playing around with language – with imagery, rhythm, form. I like the idea of capturing something through language, or of creating something new – an experience for the reader.

Andrea Brady

August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Andrea Brady by Elena Juan Ruiz

Staff Page – Queen Mary, University of London.

1. What is poetry for you?

Poetry is a vast repertoire of historical and immediate practices, of freedom attributed to constraint, the limitless bounty of language enacted and retracted through the choices of practitioners driven by accident, sensuality, intellect, ethics and sound to constant repetition of the urge to create the one necessary and unrepeatable thing.

2. When and why did you start writing poetry? Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?

I started writing as soon as I started singing and rhyming, so from the beginning.  My first poem, according to family history, was a set of heroic couplets on the Lebanese hostage crisis (I was six).  The political orientation has been inescapable.  I had an ancient uncle, an Augustinian priest, who smoked cigars and celebrated the mass at my grandmother’s dining table, who was a poet — he wrote several self-published books of wistful lyricism, in which beautiful women and Madonnas got mixed up.  I wanted to be a poet but not like him.  I wrote to escape the embittering limits of my social and material life, and to try to fix on paper the feeling of transcendence I could get by looking at a plane emerge from a roiling cloud, or a ballroom of ice dripping inside a box hedge, outside my squalid house.

he poets who have most influenced me come from either side of a gross and unnecessary historic divide.  In school we stopped with modernism; Eliot was the climax of literary seriousness, and there’s a shook geranium in at least one of my juvenile poems.  Dickinson was desirably strange.  None of the teachers at my repressive all-girls Catholic school read or understood Dylan Thomas, so he was a fierce alternative priest.  The metaphysical poets, which later I actually came to understand.  In New York, studying at Columbia, Kenneth Koch gave me the newly published Collected of Frank O’Hara.  Since then, the work of my luminous contemporaries.

3. Which advices would you give to people who write and love poetry?  Do you think someone can live from writing poetry?

I would advise them to read writing of all kinds with fanatical attention and hunger.  Not to assume that they can be a writer simply because their own experiences and passions have been interesting to them.  That feeling is much less important to poetry than language and form.  And to get a day job.  No one I know of who lives from writing poetry writes good poetry.  It may have been possible, once, before we all floated so grossly high on the bubble of economic fantasy, when squats were easy to come by and hold and ground rents were cheap, but not now.

4. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?

I began by self-publishing.  Keston Sutherland and I set up the press Barque.  Jeremy Prynne did the photocopying for us in the Gonville and Caius library late at night (we brought pistachios).  We borrowed a long-arm stapler from the Robinson College library.  We published our own work, the work of our friends and people we admired.  We attended everyone else’s readings, and listened hard.  We contributed to a thriving economy of small-press and little-magazine of tremendous historic significance and never doubted that there were ways of being a public writer which did not require commercial success.

5. Your poems have been translated to Finnish, Spanish and French. Did you get in touch with those translators? What do you think about poetry being translated?

The process is exciting to me, and forces me to reveal some of the duplicities and buried meanings of the work to the translator, though generally I respect their ability and desire to work autonomously and to create a new poem through collaboration with my absent self, in the text.

6. Which method do you use for writing poetry? Do you start from a prose version or from a rough poem? At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?

I would never start with a prose poem because form, prosody, lineation and line breaks are among the most powerful instruments in the development of the poem’s thinking: they condition and shift the meaning as it’s being made.  I usually spend time collecting langauge in notebooks and on my phone, thinking about possibilities in small fragments, and begin the poem when these have reached saturation point.  I also do a great deal of scholarly research, in an effort to escape the self-valuing laziness which feels (to me) entailed on the occasional poem.  I revise and revise and revise over long periods of time, usually opening the poem up, aerating it and making it more determinedly legible.  It can be difficult to know when that process is finished, to stop before the poem has been made so porous it collapses or floats away,

7. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?

This movement toward research and away from the instantaneous celebration of narcissistic poetic sensuality.  With two small children, a full time job and limited childcare, I am lucky if I write at all — and can only make sure I do by seizing any moment, even with people in the room banging small electronic toolbenches.  I can’t be precious about mood.

8. Which of your works would you recommend to someone as the first reading?

Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination is a long poem, based on scholarly research and with a passionate political investment in using poetry as an agent of change (changed thinking, changed attachments, changed relations to the objects of our desires).  On the publisher’s website, links are provided to all the source texts.  A new reader of my work could therefore see for herself how I work with sources, transform and select them.  There is also a note on the text which elaborates on its conception.  A new book due out this year, Mutability, combines very easily legible prose notes with poems (the poems arise from the occasions described in the prose).  It’s a series of ‘scripts for infancy’, and feels to me dangerously lucid.

9. You were born in the US, but you live since a long time in the UK. Does this fact affect your poetry? Do you see your home country from a different point of view?

My national orientation is fundamentally political and not poetic.

10. In your poems ‘Damaged Good’ and ‘Dream Vacation’ there is no rhyme. Do you think rhyme still has an important role in English contemporaneous poetry?

Yes, it can, and there has been a kind of resurgence of rhyme among some of my contemporaries recently.  The goal of that work seems to be to make use of all the resources of language, and to commit to a kind of prosodic subjection rather than to revel in the potentially corruptive liberties of free verse: where prosodic freedom is taken as a corollary for the freedom of the (Western, white, male) consumer to revel in his privileges to have everything.  In my view this tendency (toward rhyme) should be considered alongside two other recent poetic movements: flarf and conceptualism.  Rhyme is however not what I’m currently doing.

Andy Brown

August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Andy Brown by John Miller

Andy’s website.

1. What was the first poem you read? How did it affect you?

The first poems I chose to read for myself – that is, poems I wanted to read rather than ones I was told to read by a teacher – were by Shelley. They changed my world. I still have bits of Prometheus Unbound by heart. I was so in love with them I wrote music so I could sing the poems as songs. This was when I was at University. I also read Auden at that time – all the early work, which I devoured. At the same time I also read Hughes properly for the first time.

2. Have you always enjoyed writing poetry? Did you do much of it in school?

I didn’t write any poetry at school as far as I can remember. I must have, I suppose, when I was much younger, but I didn’t start writing poems properly until after I’d left University. I used to write a lot of music, and songs, and when the bands I played with dispersed I was still left writing lyrics. “These things are really poems” – that’s what I remember saying to myself.

3. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?

I moved to a new city, Exeter, in 1994 and went to an open mic at the Arts Centre. I read a few poems out and someone came up to speak to me about what I’d done. She said I should go to Plymouth to join in with the poetry scene there. So every fortnight thereafter I drove to Plymouth to talk poetry with the folks there. One of them – Tim Allen – was editing a little magazine called Terrible Work. He really liked what I was doing and published my first poem. It just took off from there really. Nothing happens in a vacuum – you have to be involved and engaged for the publishing/public side of your poetry to take off.

4. When writing poetry, is there a particular mode/form of poetry that you feel most comfortable with?

I’m essentially a lyric poet. Sometimes that means traditional lyric form; sometimes free lyric; sometimes ‘experimental’ as in the techniques of the OuLiPo. But it’s always lyric of some sort.

5. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?

You come to realise that there are many sides to writing. The actual writing bit I do anywhere; in notebooks, on trains, on my computer, scraps on the backs of envelopes or agendas from boring meetings. That stuff just gets written down and stored. Eventually I’ll type it all up into a big document and start thinking about what to do with it.  I very rarely just sit down to write a single poem. I tend to work on all that material at once and start dividing it up, seeing what goes with what, cutting, shaping and adding more. It’s a very physical and tangible activity for me. Eventually, once I’ve turned that initial written stuff into a group of poems, I can start editing. That’s a very different activity. I think I like that the best – it’s the bit I’m best at. That’s when form, and shape, and structure, and music and image come into it for me. And emotion. I build emotion in. I’ve very rarely just sat down to write a ‘strongly emotional’ poem – that’s just not me.

6. Do you face difficulties in transferring an initial idea for a poem/collection of poems into a final piece?

As Hemingway said, the difficult thing is getting the words right. That’s funny. But No, if it’s not a pleasure, or it’s not working, I ditch it and do something else.

7. How long does it usually take you to write a poem? What sort of drafting/editing process do you go through, if any at all?

Twice as long as when it’s half finished. Some poems take days, some take weeks, some take months… but as I said before, I’m usually writing/editing many at once, so it never feels like “This poem has taken me two weeks to write”. I don’t think I could do it if I was just devising, writing and editing each poem, one by one, in sequence.

8. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?

Writing is about writing is about writing is about writing. It’s also about rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. The most important thing is that it is about reading and reading and reading and re-reading etc…  You must read everything you can.

9. How did you bring all the ideas together for you book The Fool and The Physician?

A year of thorough research and non-stop reading and writing. What they call ‘a creative flurry’.

10. Are you able to find as much time as you would like to write poetry with commitments working at Exeter University?

I get a ‘research day’ every week; the holidays are long; and every 4 years there’s the joy of a sabbatical. I’m just finishing one now. I’ve read tons, written tons, thought very hard, and worked with gusto and pleasure. What’s not to love? It’s the best job in the world.

11. When you have collaborated with artists and musicians, how has your poetry been affected?

Collaboration is a way of entering into dialogue with the world and the work of others. It opens your own work up to all sorts of developments and challenges. I’ve worked with musicians, sculptors, painters, filmmakers; all sorts. When it clicks, it’s intensely rewarding.

12. What is poetry – both in contemporary society, and for you personally?

In society, poetry has fallen from the most highly esteemed art to the most undervalued art. That’s intensely liberating, and challenging at the same time. For me, personally? I love enthusiasts – they make my life richer. Poetry for me is a way of joining in with the enthusiasts.

Emily Critchley

August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Emily Critchley by Momina Chowdry

Staff Page – University of Greenwich

1. Was poetry something you always wanted to do? And when did you start calling yourself a poet? 

I have been writing poetry almost since I could write, so it’s never been something I’ve wanted to do so much as something I’ve never not done. Then again, I’ve never been able to introduce myself as a ‘poet’; the posture strikes me as embarrassing – which is probably unfair on the rare occasion when it’s true. I prefer to call myself an academic, lecturer or experimental writer.

2. How do you see your work different from other contemporary poets?

I am constantly influenced by my contemporaries, not to mention older poets. Listening to and at the same time attempting to contemporize the harsh rhythms and elastic diction of sixteenth and seventeenth century English verse may be the most idiosyncratic element of my work. For example, I’m currently  ‘translating’ the complete sonnets of Shakespeare.

3. To what extent has your education played a role in aiding you in your poetry (in terms of skill and choice of subjects/experience)?

This is a hard question to answer, since I’ve spent the majority of my life being a quite independent learner, albeit within educational institutions. The local infants’ and junior schools I attended were big on writing poems and stories. However, my secondary school, a state grammar, was much less creative. At this point I remember going  ‘underground’ with my interest in poetry since it wasn’t really on the syllabus. I read the Norton Anthology of Poetry many times over in the school library; this introduced me to modern American verse. I came down on the side of the Americans early on and committed poems by E .E. Cummings, Robert Creeley and Ezra Pound to memory. British poets like Denise Riley, Tom Raworth and Peter Riley were not featured in the Norton, and I didn’t get to know of these serious omissions till my post-graduate days at Cambridge.

Oxford University gave me an excellent, chronological grounding in literature, but here the writing of The Movement – and its local equivalent: Martian – was the only contemporary poetry spoken about; American poetry was again not on the syllabus (though analysing an E.E. Cummings poem at interview secured my place.) Nonetheless, I kept writing poetry independently. It was while I was studying for my MA at Bristol in Modern and Contemporary Poetry I rediscovered my love of American poets and chose to specialise in them.

It was exciting at Cambridge finally to discover a whole community of poets, writing experimentally and politically in ways I’d always been interested in, though the camaraderie came at a price: cliquiness and male homosociality dominate the poetry scene there, and seem to get renewed with each generation.

4. Gaining a PHD in American woman’s poetry, do your classify yourself to be a feminist writer, if so what are your main concerns in this aspect?

I do and I’ve written about this at length here: and elsewhere. My PhD was mainly about the male-dominated cliquiness of the U.S. Language movement – which turns out to have been an interesting reflection of the Cambridge scene – and how male coteries tend to exclude ‘others’: not only women, but anyone who thinks and acts differently, anyone who isn’t a ‘WHM’ (white male heterosexual) in the terms of the poet Ron Silliman. You can be other than a WMH and still get accepted by these cliques, provided you toe the party political line, which, amongst avant garde poetry circles, is a kind of Marxism – though I’m still not sure how this works in the context of living and lecturing, or reading for a PhD in hyper-bourgeois places like Cambridge.

5. Your form and structure of writing is unique, (e.g. “Road Accident”, “Waiting”, “Hamburger Landing” etc.) what is the purpose of creating such a form? 

Well, there is no one ‘form’ that I use. To quote Gertrude Stein: ‘Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same.’

Sometimes the reasons behind my formal choices are clearer than at other times. For instance, I started writing the Luke Sonnets because of that form’s traditional associations with love. But the content of each poem requires its own form, and I’d have to take you back through every word of those poems to remember why they came out the way they did. Poems have their own logic, which can’t be assumed to be the same logic as other genres of writing; this will include a mixture of exploiting white spaces – for rhythms or semantic breakages – highlighting certain words, drawing the eye towards certain patterns, and generally trying to underline (or undercut) the content of the poem.

6. How difficult was it to publish and get you work heard?

I wrote off to poetry magazines and journals as a teenager and was lucky enough to be published early on. I’ve also been winning prizes and giving readings for quite a while too which is obviously a good way to get your work out. I’ve always been very independent and worked hard. My biggest difficulties came immediately after I left Cambridge; I realised the internal conformity of the scene there had led to writers’ block, which lasted for almost two years. But you have to learn not to internalize negativity and to write for others – not just your worst critics. It’s amazing how work and word spread of their own accord once you have a couple of books in the world. The Internet is obviously the most important means for any young poet these days.

7. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection?

I tend to have been reading something particularly inspiring as a prompt to rhythm or form, then all the latent thoughts and emotions I have been saving up, even without knowing, come rushing to the surface and my hands do the rest. That’s not to say it’s an easy process. It requires an almost meditative state. I have to be at home, alone, and in total silence: at a point where my intelligence and my intuition, or whatever you want to call it, are in sync. I find it very difficult to write long hand – which is too slow and requires too much of me as the medium somehow. The speed and impersonality of my fingers flying over the computer keyboard is just right.

8. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?

Doubts, complications and inequalities – to misquote Rosmarie Waldrop – are what inspire me most. In writing I suppose I’m trying to put a shape to understanding how to think, feel and act, and how to establish an ethical relation to the other. I feel that relationship to the other (including but not limited to future readers for example) to be very intimate, though; it’s not like I write for a large public – otherwise I’d have to change my style significantly! And I don’t have much time for writers who seem to put all their ethical and political work into their poetry, rather than their relationships with people in real life.

At the same time I believe in the un-sureness (hence doubts and complications – rather than moral or political certitudes) that comes through the solitude of writing. Denise Riley has a wonderful book on this subject called The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony. I am not referring here to fashionable postmodernist ideas on fragmentation or centrelessness, or even moral relativism. I mean a kind of ethical mobility: being able to judge each different situation on its own merits, rather than having a pre-fixed belief structure (such as Marxism) against which to measure everything.

9. “Perhaps other reasons”: how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem?

The poem wrote itself really. The only conscious control I had was in making it blank verse, although a few of the lines wobble into hexameter. But then the poem is about wobbling: the excitement / insecurities of lust. As if the speaker were a (live) victim of taxidermy: being strung up, or, then again, played like an instrument, or a bird balancing precariously on a perch, trying to make music. A lot of my poetry contains speakers who morph into birds and animals. I wonder if this is an attempt to ungender them – just take them out of the whole political arena altogether.

10. Do you have a particular theme that runs throughout your poetry?  (e.g. the “Cat Gut” in “Perhaps other reasons” and also “from the sonnets”)?

Tristan Tzara wrote that no matter what you do, your poems will resemble you (even chance poems like cut ups). Human politics, from the domestic to the worldly, provides the most consistent themes in my work. As far as motifs are concerned, I tend to metaphorize people as birds and animals and even objects (violins or Lego pieces). I would really like to be a nature poet, but I think I would tend to anthropomorphize everything.

11. As a contemporary writer, have you ever made up a word in a poem?

I honestly can’t remember. Probably I’ve only hyphenated words that aren’t normally juxtaposed. I’m all for it either way. Bernadette Mayer’s great line: ‘Work your ass off to change the language and don’t ever get famous’ hangs in my office for a reason.

12. In your ‘Sonnets for Luke’ can you retrace your thought process and your aims when writing and or editing this poem? And also why you chose to contemporise this form?

It’s too large a collection, containing too many different thought processes. I can say that it started as a set of ‘abstract’ communications (to an ex-boyfriend) and became a more general meditation on all the potential cruelty of love when it doesn’t work: ‘where romance doesn’t fit or isn’t apt’. The sonnet is the traditional form for this subject. Stylistically, Ted Berrigan, John Berryman, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian and the brilliant sonnets gathered together by Jeff Hilson in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets were influential.

13. What is poetry – both in contemporary society, and for you personally?

I hope I’ve gone some way to explaining what poetry is for me in my other answers. I’m afraid that most people in Britain today probably view it simply as emotional decoration, rather than a way of ethically thinking through and listening to others which, at its best, it is.

14. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society that listens less each day?

Probably because I’m experiencing this trend in reverse, i.e., the more I write and publish, the more I get asked for new work. So as long as people continue to ask me for work, I’ll continue to share it. Though, even if I wasn’t, I’d never stop writing altogether.

15. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them into poetry?

Read everything: literature, art, music, film… The best writers are the best readers and you can’t be original until you know what’s been done already.

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