How has the process of writing and arranging the poems in Neptune Blue compared to that of Los Alamos Mon Amour?
It’s been very different for several reasons. Los Alamos was a debut and took about seven years to come together, to reach that instinctive ‘critical mass’ at which point a book starts to ‘feel’ like a book rather than a growing collection of poems on your hard drive or in a box file or wherever.
Neptune Blue took just under three years. Also, I didn’t know the poems in Los Alamos would be published in book form and I didn’t know that book would be called Los Alamos Mon Amour or have the cover it eventually had. With Neptune Blue I was a little more certain that the book would exist and the title came about eight months ago, as did the cover. I’d say the final 15 poems I wrote for the book were written after I had a title, a cover and an agreement to publish.
Also, while Los Alamos has a sequence of five St. Paul’s sonnets and some overlapping themes, Neptune Blue has two longer cohesive sequences that form a kind of helix, or ‘twin backbone’, which made it easier to arrange. The sequences are the nine planet poems that sit side by side and the 11 ‘_________ Heart’ poems, which are distributed among the other more ‘standalone’ poems.
Did you begin writing the heart poems with the idea of creating a sequence?
Not at all. The first poem was ‘Starfish Heart’, which came directly from a dream and was written down within ten minutes of waking. I dreamt that my heart was a starfish and I could feel its light rubbery limbs tickling over and between my ribs. It was quite a startling, very physical, dream and I didn’t even think about whether it would serve as a poem, I just wrote it down.
A few days later I was reading at an event celebrating food and thought it would be nice to take along something new and I thought maybe this short ‘Starfish Heart’ poem would be a good model. I’m a bit obsessed with pizza, so I worked on the title ‘Pizza Heart’ and then ‘Celeriac Heart’. I chose the latter as, like the human heart, celeriac can be an odd, puzzling thing: ugly beautiful and in need of care and attention.
So then I had three short poems with ‘Heart’ in the title and they were going down well at readings and I thought maybe I should add more. I was going to pick random nouns from the dictionary but in the end the defining nouns chose themselves over the next few months. They were very enjoyable poems to write and in fact I’ve written more since the book’s deadline passed.
Tell me about the planet sequence.
That’s a wide open question. Let me see … My interest in the solar system and all things astronomical goes way back into my childhood. I don’t know what triggered it. Maybe a glimpse of the beauty of Saturn on the BBC’s The Sky at Night or the overwhelming vastness of the Milky Way as scrutinised, on my back, lying in the unlit field in front of my childhood home?
But there was something else as well: Holst’s The Planets. My father was a composer and the house was full of music and on Saturday nights, when my parents went out and my big sister and I had the run of the house, we used to play ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ at full pelt and perform silly little ballets to them. I’ve always thought what a fantastic, coherent project Holst’s was and sometime last year I realised there was nothing stopping me from writing my own planet suite.
I’d already written a poem for the new book called ‘We’ll Always Have CGI Paris’, which begins just outside the galaxy and zooms past our ‘local planets’, so it felt natural to go back and take another look at our neighbours, including the recently demoted Pluto. The first poem I wrote was ‘Jupiter’ and I wanted the poem about the largest planet to be the smallest in the sequence. So I was off to a relatively playful start and I just filled the rest of them in over the following nine months or so. The second poem I finished was ‘Pluto’, which is a one-word poem but, I hope, meaningful and a shade tragic. So this is really the shortest poem in the sequence, not ‘Jupiter’. But is it even a poem? And is Pluto a planet?
Since the Seventies we’ve gone so far and learned so much more thanks to things like the Hubble telescope, which can see 13 billion years back into time and space, and amazing techniques like helioseismology. In an odd way our local planets feel almost quaint now, even though we’re still learning new and important things about them. For that reason I wanted to linger on them a while, get up close, treat them with affection and a little mischief.
I tried to pitch the poems somewhere between fact and fantasy; between the anthropomorphised and the inanimate; the comical and the poignant. I wrote ‘Earth’ last and I was surprised at how tender I felt towards this old muck ball and how much more difficult it was to write because we know so much about it compared to a planet like Neptune. Write what you know? Sometimes that’s the hardest thing of all.
“We gorge on your gorgeousness/ but there’s icy music buried/ in your spiralling grooves.” You’ve dedicated ‘Saturn’ to Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous who took his own life last year…
Mark Linkous was a musician whose work I’ve always loved (I swear I was in love with Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot when it first came out and listened to little else for about a year) and I was very upset when I heard he’d taken his own life. It was the grief a fan feels, nothing like the pain a friend or family member goes through, but it affected me more than such tragic things usually do.
I wanted to write some kind of tribute to him but couldn’t find the ignition key. I was tinkering with my ‘Saturn’ poem when I came across a lyric of his from ‘Sea of Teeth’ that goes: “Can you feel the rings/ of Saturn on your fingers?” and I realised I could make the Saturn poem the one. And it felt right. So I sent an old bakelite spacecraft to the rings to drop a stylus onto them and listen to Mark’s songs out there, circling forever.
The fact that Holst’s ‘Saturn’ is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Old Age’ and Mark left us at 47 is a painful irony. But the music, for me, and I’m sure many others, is timeless.
Aside from providing a means of exploring themes that might otherwise be too multi-faceted to consider in single poems, how do you think sequences can contribute to the sense of continuity and cohesion in a collection?
A sequence is a juicy bone for the dog of your mind. You can take it into the yard, trap it between your paws and gnaw on it. You can bury it for a while and dig it up to see if it’s still worth a chew and when you’ve nibbled all the meat from it you’re ready to hunt for new quarry.
I never intend to write sequences but they suggest themselves sometimes and it’s interesting to follow them to see where they take you.
In terms of making a book feel more cohesive, yes, I think that effect is inevitable. I don’t think they’re essential but they can keep a collection from feeling like a bolt of material which, at a certain point, you’ve decided is long enough and have guillotined off. A sequence gives you a little extra something to hang on to, almost like a guided tour through a large exhibition.
Neptune Blue has two sequences. This may be something to do with Brecht’s line from Baal: “Vices have their use once you see it as such, stick to two for one will be too much.”
Then again, there are things going on with dogs and birds too … Maybe a book is just a larger sequence; one’s entire output ends up being a sequence of sorts I suppose.
There’s an international flavour to the collection. ‘The Dogs of Trieste’, ‘Due Cinghiali’, ‘St. Francis of the Boston Hilton’, ‘SoBe It’, ‘The Dogs of Sri Lanka’, ‘Mr. English at Home’ and ‘The Remote Island of Schalansky’ are some of the poems set in foreign locales. In what ways do travelling and exploring different cultures nourish your imagination and writing?
All poets are continually on the lookout for ideas, stimuli, strong impressions, connections and spurs to writing. You do this at home and away, so it’s natural that if you travel at all you will end up with some poems taken from those experiences. At the same time I also think it’s important not to travel with the thought, ‘This place will lead to some good poems’. You don’t want to force anything or go anywhere predisposed to writing about some amazing feature you’ve heard or read about already. You need to let the place take you by surprise.
In terms of exploring different cultures, I’m sure I do no more than skim the surface when I travel, so I don’t know how nourishing it’s been in that respect. Oddly enough, the foreign place I travel to most often and know best of all is Rome and I don’t think I’ve written a word about it yet. Maybe I love it too much to subject it to one of my poems. Although I’ve had the title ‘The Dogs of Circus Maximus’ in my thoughts for a while now.
Most of the ‘travel’ poems I’ve written come years after the event. I spent a month or so in Sri Lanka in 2003 and it took about seven years before I wrote anything about it. And the Miami poem took 11 years to see the light of day and was prompted less by memories of the trip than the notes I scrawled inside the dust jacket of Glamorama, which I was reading at the time.
I do remember as a teenager I was very impressed by the exotic place names beneath so many of D.H. Lawrence’s poems. I still want to see Taormina.
A number of commissioned poems appear in Neptune Blue. How do you approach a commission?
There are many things I like about commissions: a new subject is dropped into your lap; you get a guaranteed reading or publication; you get to work with interesting people; and you often get paid!
But the thing I really like about a commissioned poem is the curious way it is both indisputably your own but at the same time it wouldn’t exist if the cuckoo commission hadn’t smuggled it into your nest to hatch and feed. They’re like foundlings for whom you’ve kept a room and a crib spare on the off chance. They’re both random and inevitable somehow.
In terms of approaching the writing of a commission, I’m not sure if I do so in the same manner each time but it’s generally a process of allowing the imagination or the unconscious to start doing some groundwork. Maybe there’s some research to be done, some viewing, some reading of other poems on similar themes. Always on the alert for that trigger idea or image that lets you know it’s possible.
Some are easier than others, of course, and it’s often the ones you think will be relatively easy that prove the most stubborn. I’ve already written about the first atom bomb test and I’m interested in the history of nuclear science, so a poem about the double survivor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should not have been quite as difficult as it turned out to be.
I only had a few days to write it but it was far trickier than I’d expected. This is partly due to the weightiness of the issues involved and my desire to treat Tsutomu Yamaguchi with the respect he deserved.
In the end I drew on my knowledge of the Manhattan Project and its key players and mixed in a little of John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic with its stunning setting of Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ (‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’). But the poem really grew from the phrase, “the luckiest of luckless men” and the image of the skin togas, of citizens, city dwellers reduced to this hapless state.
The poem originally had a different ending, which wasn’t working, so I told the producer at Radio 3 that I didn’t want to air the poem as it didn’t do the subject justice. They understood but suggested that all I did was lop off that finale. I did and suddenly it seemed to work. Another case of trimming to improve.
A commission like ‘Incorrigibly Plural’ was just terrific fun to write, once I realised there was comedy to be had in privatising snowfall and inventing ridiculous franchise names for clouds.
Do you enjoy exploring different forms?
Years ago I used to practice form for the sake of experience and to test myself. It’s good to become familiar with rules and restrictions and to submit your urge to express to the pressures of formal rules. I enjoy sonnets, there’s a villanelle in Bonjour Tetris and some formal quatrains, rhyming couplets here and there in the new book too.
These days I think I work more instinctively. I let formal patterning season a poem if I feel the music or the narrative or the accumulating sounds respond to it. Neptune Blue contains my first and so far only prose poem: ‘The Remote Island of Schalansky’. I chose the form as I wanted to be free of line breaks entirely for one poem and to concentrate on the internal patterns needed to lift it from being merely prose to something approaching poetry.
I’m no expert on the form but I’d like to explore it more. It suited the homage to Judith Schalansky’s wonderful prose work Atlas of Remote Islands as it mirrors her style and form to some degree. I love reading about the intricacies and rigours of forms though but these days I allow myself to play with them a little more loosely.
In his Paris Review interview with Clive Wilmer, Thom Gunn said: “Sometimes when I haven’t written in some time, I really decide I’m going to work toward getting the requisite fever, and this would involve, oh, reading a few favorite poets intensively: Hardy, for example, John Donne, Herbert, Basil Bunting—any one of a number of my favorites. I try to get their tunes going in my head so I get a tune of my own.” Which poets would you read?
That’s a great question. I have poetry books all over the place and pick them up at random to read one or two as I’m moving about. Most recently I’ve been dipping into a collected Auden, Chris McCabe’s The Hutton Inquiry, and some Valerio Magrelli.
In terms of reading certain poets to ‘get the requisite fever’, I often dive back into Berryman’s The Dream Songs and I never like to be too far away from a collected Edwin Morgan. I think it was Morgan’s brilliant and frequent sequences that convinced me I should develop mine for this book.
When I was writing ‘Being a Woman You Will’, I had a mass of ideas but no form or structure and I felt that reading some James Dickey (which I hadn’t done for years) would help, and it did. I needed something with a light narrative pulse, a whiff of Americana and a kind of steeliness. I think he helped me find that.
There are so many, it’s hard to know when to stop. Clampitt for her serene, luscious playground of vocabulary; Ashbery to ward away too much neat, contained lyricism; and the background radiation in my head is always full of Shakespeare, Beckett, Milton and countless others. I’ve also just realised that there’s a touch of Rebecca Elson in the planet poems too. And I haven’t read her in years. But some voices go in and just … stick.
I’d love to hear about Psycho Poetica and your ideas for the next project.
Psycho Poetica is a poetic recreation (or ‘faithful distortion’ as I like to call it) of Hitchcock’s classic thriller, written and performed by 12 poets accompanied by a rather unconventional string quartet (one violin and three cellos). I gave each poet a slice of the film to write a new poem about and Oli Barrett of Bleeding Heart Narrative and Petrels composed the music, which pays deft homage to Bernard Herrmann’s original score. The piece is performed in sequence without titles or introductions to the poems and each poem has its own mini score. It’s quite an intense experience.
I’ve always loved Hitchcock and Los Alamos actually contains a short poem called ‘Psycho’ but the 50th anniversary of the film’s release gave me the impetus to mount something more ambitious and collaborative. We performed the piece at the British Film Institute, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Latitude Festival and the Royal Festival Hall. We have another performance coming up at Stanza in 2012 as well, although it will be a ‘light’ version featuring only three readers and pre-recorded music.
I’m now working with Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe, who both took part in Psycho Poetica, to develop a multi-media show commemorating the centenary of the loss of the Titanic in April 2012. The hour-long show will feature poetry, live music and film and we hope we’ll be able to take it to several key venues and cities with links to the construction and loss of the ship.
Read four poems from Neptune Blue.
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