Penelope Shuttle has lived in Cornwall since 1970, is the widow of the poet Peter Redgrove, and has a grown-up daughter Zoe, who works in the field of sustainable energy.
Her first collection of poems, The Orchard Upstairs (1981), was followed by six other books from Oxford University Press, The Child-Stealer (1983), The Lion from Rio (1986), Adventures with My Horse (1988), Taxing the Rain (1994), Building a City for Jamie (1996) and Selected Poems 1980–1996 (1998), then A Leaf Out of His Book (1999) from Oxford Poets/Carcanet, and Redgrove’s Wife (2006) and Sandgrain and Hourglass (2010) from Bloodaxe Books. Redgrove’s Wife was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize and the T S Eliot Prize in 2006. Sandgrain and Hourglass is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest book, Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), is drawn from ten collections published over three decades plus a new collection, Unsent.
First published as a novelist, her fiction includes All the Usual Hours of Sleeping (1969), Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree (1973) and Rainsplitter in the Zodiac Garden (1977).
With Peter Redgrove, she is co-author of The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman (1978) and Alchemy for Women: Personal Transformation Through Dreams and the Female Cycle (1995), as well as a collection of poems, The Hermaphrodite Album (1973), and two novels, The Terrors of Dr Treviles: A Romance (1974) and The Glass Cottage: A Nautical Romance (1976).
Shuttle’s work is widely anthologised and can be heard on the Poetry Archive website. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and her poem ‘Outgrown’ was used recently in a radio and television commercial. She has been a judge for many poetry competitions, is a Hawthornden Fellow, and a tutor for the Poetry School. She is current Chair of the Falmouth Poetry Group, one of the longest-running poetry workshops in the country.
“Adventurous, searching, interested in the luminous instant of reality that dwells in the perpetual now of the poem, Penelope Shuttle is a poet who clearly shares Picasso’s view that ‘If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the point of doing it?
If a poet’s work is her personal experience of the universe then this book takes us deep into that Shuttle-verse …”
’ … but I don’t really know how poetry gets to be written.
There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a
great deal of hard work.’
– Elizabeth Bishop, from Letter to Miss Pierson
Although my New and Selected Poems stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how poems get themselves written, as ruefully noted above by Elizabeth Bishop.
Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry; before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.
But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-shaping and learning further meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive is also an exciting challenge.
It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-and-again poem, as all poets know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s radar is switched on all the time.
Here’s some background. I published my first full collection of poems in 1980, when I was thirty three years old. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and my editor there, Jacqueline Simms, created a wonderful and unique stable of poets, including Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy, Hugo Williams and Fleur Adcock, to name but a few. By 1998 I had published six collections with OUP, and in that year my first Selected Poems appeared. In 1999 OUP’s superb poetry list was shut-down by The Press, in an act of unparalleled cultural vandalism. The poets dispersed, and continued to play highly-significant roles in the life of poetry in the United Kingdom and beyond, winning numerous prizes such as the Forward Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, and the Griffin Prize. But nothing to me in my publishing life has been sadder than that wilful destruction of a living poetry list.
My 1998 Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In a review in the TSL, Gerard Woodward said: ‘Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject-matter and the breadth of her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-maker. One senses that she has her life perfectly in tune with her poetry, so that it registers the slightest variation in her state of being. In this sense, the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love that can be traced through these poems collocate into the drama of a life lived in the full flood of being’.
I published a seventh collection in 1999, A Leaf Out Of His Book, with OxfordPoets/Carcanet. They also took over the distribution of my OUP books, including the Selected Poems, which went out of print a few years later.
There was a considerable gap before my eighth collection, Redgrove’s Wife, appeared from Bloodaxe Books in 2006. This was due to the death of my husband, poet Peter Redgrove, in 2003, after some years of ill-health. Redgrove’s Wife contained a number of elegies for Peter, and for my late father Jack Shuttle, who had also died in 2003. This collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot Prize. A ninth collection, Sandgrain and Hourglass, appeared (also from Bloodaxe, 2010, Poetry Book Society Recommendation), again containing elegies for Peter, Dad, and my friend, artist, musician and poet Linda Helen Smith who died in 2008.
I’m most grateful to Bloodaxe Books for their generous and sustaining support over the past six years, and for publishing in October 2012 Unsent, which contains all the poems from my OUP 1998 Selected Poems, with further selections from the three subsequent collections.
It also contains a volume of sixty-two new poems entitled Unsent. Whereas I had tempered my two previous volumes of elegies (Redgrove’s Wife and Sandgrain and Hourglass) with poems covering a wide range of other topics, Unsent is a book of elegies. I wished to include this volume in my New and Selected Poems to create a triptych of elegies. They seemed to fit naturally together. One theme which emerges in this third volume is the question – how long do you continue writing and publishing elegies? And I try to find and suggest some answers. I felt that to publish Unsent as a stand-alone collection would be asking too much of a reader, an overwhelm. There comes a time (and this is delineated in these poems) when I must cease ‘to weep on the world’s shoulder’.
Cloud to Cloud
When I couldn’t
bear another day,
for dear life –
no two skies alike
made plain to me
where my thoughts began
and where they ended
I saw the witch Kikimora
and her white Cat
scudding from cloud to cloud
on the world’s shoulder!
spat out her good advice
Your Three Hats
Your three woollen hats
found such pleasure in covering
your bald head.
King Solomon could have found
no more faithful servants.
Your retinue of Musto hats
that while two could be lost
somewhere in the house
one would always be available
at the drop of a …
to take its rightful place
on your crown.
I hope that this new collection of elegies can be read, seen, experienced as part of my life story in poetry, a continuum where ‘the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love’ of my earlier poems are carried on into the narratives of loss, bereavement, and renewal of self.
Now I catch myself thinking of this book as a time machine. It travels me back to the poems of my first collection, when I was a young woman and a new mother, and it fast-forwards me through the rich and complex years with Peter, our shared life as poets, the ups and downs, the landscapes of Cornwall ever-present …. as in this poem about Mylor, a creekside village close to the town of Falmouth where we spent our years together and where I still live.
The Well at Mylor
the water of the well
bears the armour of the light,
it hides and escapes
and stays still
under its hood of rock
amid a galore of graves
and green leaves,
spring of fresh water
beside the sea,
a find, a treasure,
but the essential source,
from its work of sole sustenance,
living among memories
of former fame,
a saint’s hand dipping in
like a taper unquenched,
coins splashing down
for reverence, not luck,
from time to time,
secret and quick,
prefer their ritual
out of doors,
water understands this,
and loves the brow
fanned with its body
for reasons the water easily guesses,
for it is the one who blesses,
freely it runs
its long unceremonious
through my fingers,
and on my lips
blood-hint at the periphery,
pell-mell mint at the heart.
I’m sure I’ll continue to write elegies, for they are a way of continuing to talk to Peter, to Dad, to Linda … but I don’t plan to publish any more elegies. (Though, as the old song has it, never say never!). The poems in Unsent have been a process of release and re-awakening to possibilities for me though language, rhythm and experience. They have liberated me into whatever new kinds of poems I’ll be writing next. Those poem-drafts are already beginning, taking me to new places and opening new doors. What else are poems for?
Order Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) here or here.
Visit Penelope’s Bloodaxe Books author page.
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