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: http://theclaudiusapp.com/1-updates-critchley.html 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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