Claire Trévien was born in 1985 in Brittany. She is a poet, critic and literary translator. Her writing has been published in a wide variety of literary magazines including Under The Radar, Poetry Salzburg Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Warwick Review, Nth Position, and Fuselit. Earlier this year she published an e-chapbook of poetry with Silkworms Ink called Patterns of Decay. She is the editor of Sabotage Reviews and Noises Off. She was the winner of Leaf Book’s 2010 Nano-Fiction Competition.
Mark Burnhope was born in 1982 and studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. His work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset with his partner, four stepchildren, two geckos and a greyhound. The Snowboy (Salt Publishing, 2011) is his first book of poetry.
Mark Burnhope reviews Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery
Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery (Salt Publishing, 2011) is a confident debut. Most striking is its multi-faceted sense of place (or places: it takes us to Brittany, Paris, Warwickshire). Trévien understands that to bring readers into her own territories is about more than painting landscapes, and she takes us far from the pleasantries of the beaten track. As her title suggests, it’s the rusted, broken detritus washed up by the tide which she’s interested in. ‘Belleville’ is more than a tourist’s mooch around town: ‘The market’s skeleton shines/ its claws at night, but in this twilight, only/ songs are shred as the smile of the knife/ cuts ripe pears in half’.
Peopling poems is a difficult thing do convincingly, but relationship is another vital part of Trévien’s sense of place. Her characters and their relationships are not just literary constructs – they flirt, laugh and smoke pot – and the poems are all the more warm and compassionate for it. ‘Novella’ is a formal but mischievous response to Rimbaud’s ‘Roman’:
You can’t be serious when you’re twenty-one
– the evenings flare, a rolled joint behind your ear,
drunk on Wednesdays, university veteran!
You talk in your back yard of us all being queer.
The most effective lyric has an anarchic streak. Trévien never loses sight of that in her observations, which are often poetically sharp and darkly humorous. Take the first tercet of ‘Mère’ (a very fine poem, by the way):
Jean Le Cloirec laid a skeleton on the dock.
That day, the pier was stiff with onlookers
keen to see the ship with its kit off.
My favourite poems here are the ones in which Trévien, like Rimbaud in his Illuminations, clashes tradition and innovation to create unexpected sparks in the language. The first poem, ‘Sing Bird’, is a perfect introduction. It would be trite to describe it in prose, and I can’t reproduce its formatting (it’s rotated to fit a landscape-orientated page, for a start), but let’s just say that it’s a view of birds roosting on telephone wires, an attempt to sing their song lyrically, and a way of peering down on the bustling life of the town with an idiosyncratic bird’s-eye-view: ‘Vile Birds fried to the wires/ Violins played by the jaded weaves of a rainstorm’. All of which is, on the whole, beautiful and ambitious.
Mark Burnhope interviews Claire Trévien
I’m generalising, but a lot of poets are drawing from British and American tradition lately. So the first thing to grab me about Low-tide Lottery was the fact of the French tradition you draw from, Baudelaire (the father of Modernism) and Rimbaud included. Could you tell me something about what attracts you to these writers, and what they’ve given you as a young contemporary poet?
I think one mustn’t underestimate the power of the poets one grows up with! I was raised on the Symbolist poets, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (and Verlaine, though he is absent from this collection, he is also very important to me). I remember memorising their poems for class and I think I will always carry them with me. So, to answer your question, part of the pull is instinctive and nostalgic, but I do also admire their technique, their fluidity, their way of manipulating language. Their music, in particular, is bewitching. There’s something about their way with words and language that I would like to emulate in modern English whether through translation or my own poetry. It’s a bit of a tall order, but I like having unreachable goals.
The first poem in the pamphlet seems to spring from traditional lyric, yet is very playful with form: rotated on the page, for one thing, but also embracing white space, ambiguous syntax and fragments that leave meaning and sense very open. For me, that tension between a respect to lyric tradition and an almost postmodern take on it runs through the whole pamphlet. Would you agree with this, and if so, what led you to this clashing together of styles and wordviews?
What a great observation! I like a good clash. I’m a mongrel, with a foot in two countries that are torn between loving, hating and laughing at each other. Creating hybrid monsters was therefore inevitable. Having said that, I have trouble identifying with both those terms. The word ‘lyrical’ feels foreign to me, perhaps because it has wandered so far from its original purpose, and I’m not sure if I’m cool enough to be postmodern. However, I do think being playful and experimental is an integral part of a writer’s job, as is keeping the ‘heart’ of the poem in sight, so I do agree with the sentiment.
I know that you have lived in Brittany, England and Paris, and your pamphlet has a bilingual element, with French place names and phrases interspersed throughout. Is sense of place important to you? What does having lived in two different countries give to your writing?
Yes, definitely, I am fascinated by places and the way stories shape landscape. Walking down a path, I can’t help but wonder what arguments, what discussions led to it being such a way, what happened to alter it bit by bit, what accidents and incidents took place on it. In a poem like ‘Beg an Dorchenn’ for instance I am particularly interested in the way prehistory, WW2 and surfer culture can cohabit in a single space. I primarily wrote in French until I was fourteen (though I‘ve always spoken English and taught myself to read it at a young age) so the shock of suddenly writing creatively in a language that was mine but not mine has had an impact on the way I write today, I think. Even when I think I am writing very plainly, there’s often something about that transfer that gives me away, a strangeness that no one can entirely pinpoint. I was once told that French is driven by nouns and that that’s something I persist in, even though I write in English. That’s the low-tide lottery in a way, you don’t pick what you’re originally given but it’s up to you as to whether you see it as trash or treasure.
You deal with relationship a fair bit, to the land and sea but also love relationships. To what extent are your poems autobiographical? Is your lyrical ‘I’ yourself? Does it matter?
Several are indeed to some degree autobiographical and it’s been an interesting experience having my family read them who recognise events, people, and so forth. However, I do take liberties with the events, and it often worries me to think my close ones might feel misconstrued. I changed a person’s name in one of the poems actually, as I feared it might hurt them. I would say that my lyrical ‘I’ is an enhanced version of me and in some cases not me at all! Sorry, that’s not a terribly helpful answer, is it? But I am working on some poems at the moment that further play with the notion of ‘I’ so that’s something I’m going to continue exploring.
I’m aware that you have also translated poems, as well as working as editor for Sabotage, which reviews pamphlets and performance events. Do you think of these tasks as entirely separate from writing poems, or do they feed into each other? How?
I definitely think they can feed into writing poetry. Generally, after translating poetry, I find that my next poetic effort is heavily influenced either by the style of the translated poem, or from an idea I got during the process. Likewise, reviewing can lead one to read outside of familiar authors and therefore to new interesting ideas. They’re both very useful when feeling uninspired.
Well, I’m still writing poems and rather enjoying the direction they’re taking. For now, I’m going to enjoy sharing this pamphlet with as many people as I can and organise poetry events in my hometown of Beaconsfield. I’m attempting to translate the pamphlet into French, which is proving to be a slow process, so that I can share it with non-English speaking friends and family. I think the dream eventually would be to have a bilingual edition of the pamphlet … I also have an overwhelming amount of ideas for Sabotage, so I just hope I find the time to put them in action.
Claire Trévien reviews Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy
The Snowboy is an inventive collection that explores disability, storytelling, the act of finding a voice with erudition and heart. Throughout the collection, we are challenged to alter our perceptions of familiar literature (Notre Dame de Paris, Moby Dick, and Pinocchio) as well as our relationship to space. Mark negotiates us through these masks and changes deftly: this is an inclusive collection and Mark is a generous poet. In ‘Dream Invertebration’, for instance, we get a real sense of the wheelchair as a body part. The wheelchair’s separation from the protagonist in a dream leads to him to walk ‘on one paw like a cirque-du-freak performer’. Using metamorphosis as a way to explore disability, it is also a surprisingly disturbing poem on the nature of perception and intention.
Mark has a particular talent for manipulating noise. One of my favourite poems in his pamphlet, ‘To My Familiar, Queequeg’, is a tightly constructed echo-machine, with wrecks of sounds answering each other: ‘Our ink speaks/ in skin: spins tale/ of speared fins;’ that reminds me of dróttkvætts, those Old Norse alliterative verses.
There is no sense of clashing voices in the pamphlet, in spite of the different styles and forms employed. Instead, one gets a sense of forms fitting snugly to their purpose. The sea makes a guest appearance in several of the poems. I particularly enjoyed ‘Our Jonah of Boscombe Pier’, an imaginative take on the Jonah tale (Leviathan’s crash-mat spine, almost/ plugged the blowhole with a boot).
All in all, The Snowboy is a powerful collection of thoroughly individual poems, all bound together by the same warm wit. A remarkable debut.
Claire Trévien interviews Mark Burnhope
Some of these poems read like prayers and I know you’ve studied theology. Would you say that faith and religion are an intrinsic part of your poetic practice?
That’ll depend on what I’m working on at the time. Speaking of this pamphlet, yes, I’ve worked with the influence of several poets who are, more or less, part of a religious (‘Christian’) tradition: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Blake, Hopkins, R.S. Thomas … But I’m conscious of where we’re at culturally: a secular, some say postmodern context in which no view can claim a monopoly on knowledge (and neither should it, especially within the shaky realms of metaphysics). So, faith is a lens, for me, through which I look at themes, imagery, language, wit … everything. I’m interested in poetry as prayer, icon for contemplation, vessel for incarnation – all that stuff – but my poems aren’t really personal or devotional. They’re not prayers or worship songs as a private dialogue between me and God. Even if that’s a reason for writing something, which it is once or twice, I can’t assume a reader wants anything to do with it; they want craft, stuff to make them think, a bit of mischievous fun, and readability. A lot of them don’t want God.
The other lens I write through is disability, and when disability clashes with faith – and it does clash, especially in the Evangelical/Charismatic tradition, with its obsession with ‘healing the sick’ – there is prejudice. Faith and disability provide a way to talk about these prejudices which affect us all, and which the Christian tradition has so often propagated. I’m hoping that I have a ‘religious poetry’ (if you like) which is immediately inclusive, and embraces frustration, pain, doubt, agnosticism. The last poem in the pamphlet is a long poem (for me) in which I let it all hang out; a Hopkins-inspired praise poem, a ‘reluctant psalm’ of God’s handiwork in nature, and the inevitable decay which is an inherent part of it, whether by The Fall or just by good old Ecclesiastes meaninglessness. I’ve exuberantly gone over the top. There are jokes, and everything gets a bit Dylan Thomas, when dead fishermen start walking around. I hope that the irony, almost insincerity, is clear. It could be seen as a blatantly ‘Christian’ poem (though it’s too unsure to be a traditional creed; bullet-point creeds are always problematic). It offsets the darker and more agnostic aspects of the pamphlet, but I hope that it also bookends the first poem, and leaves the reader on a high note, whether or not they side religiously.
There’s a concern for the body and its extensions running through the collection, with several featuring your wheelchair. I think my favourite though is ‘Dream Invertebration’ where your body undergoes a drastic transformation in the mind of your loved one. I know you’ve been thinking about the possibility of a poetry movement centred around disability, what are your thoughts on it now? Are these poems, in a way, an attempt at a manifesto?
Speaking of ‘Dream Invertebration’, I do have in mind the ideas of metamorphosis and transformation – sort of – but I’m playing around with the validity and usefulness of those, especially with regards to the physically disabled body. There’s some scepticism there. On one level, the process of metamorphosis holds a great deal of metaphorical possibility for poetry about the disabled body. On another though, we are real and physical bodies, and for all our flights of fancy, the frustration of bodily limitations can’t be ignored. So for me, those flights of fancy and surreal mutations are sometimes satirical.
Alas, I’m not sure I can claim to be writing a new manifesto. I know that disability isn’t represented enough in contemporary UK poetry (and if I can call anyone out of the woodwork, I’d welcome that), but there is something of a manifesto already being written by a fledgling ‘movement’ (if you want to call it that) based largely in America. Some have called it crip poetry. They’re seeking to give disability a bigger voice in contemporary poetry, but also – like with queer poetry – to redress tradition, take back and redefine vocabulary from the bottom up, rather than the top down (‘crip’ itself being the most obvious example, which is short for ‘cripple’, and now a term of endearment, tomfoolery and identification more than insult). I’m in two minds about whether I’d want to be identified with any tightly defined movement. But crip poetry defines itself by the Social Model of Disability, rather than the Medical Model that so narrowly focussed on physical difference and impairment. The Social Model says that it’s society which disables us – through ignorance, discrimination, prejudice, lack of access to services, jobs, buildings – and that if those barriers weren’t there, the word ‘disability’ would be obsolete. We’d all be accepted as equals. So disablement is all in the mind. I side with that, and it certainly makes its way into my poetry in terms of subject-matter and aesthetics. Also, poets who choose to affiliate themselves with crip poetry tend to have a hero-worship thing going on for Larry Eigner, a Black Mountain poet who had cerebral palsy, and used his physicality less as a subject, more in the nuts and bolts of craft and aesthetics. I share that enthusiasm for Eigner. For those reasons, I don’t mind the tag crip poet. It’s a little bit edgy, which is nice, even though when push comes to shove, it’s all about the writing.
There’s a real concern with space, and limits, and geography – and reflecting that, the shapes of the poems each shift accordingly. Which comes first to you: the words or the shape of the poem?
I’m very glad you noticed that. Yes, the poems are all very different shapes, and I’ve taken some liberties with line-breaks for various reasons (there are deliberately nervous, jagged, ‘unbalanced’ enjambments that I hope support the subjects of the poems). That’s one of the things I’ve drawn from experimental poetries like the Black Mountain poet, Larry Eigner, and newer ones like Tim Atkins, Ira Lightman, Lisa Jarnot, Stephen Nelson, being aware of this slightly frightening fact that one has to veer away from workshop rules in order to make the medium the message.
I just like so many different kinds of poem, from so many different styles, that I don’t see the point in narrowing that down. I want to reflect everything which catches my eye. ‘Jack of all trades’ is at the back of my mind, but that’s a risk I’m prepared to take. I’d like to think that the range of shapes and approaches says something about wanting diversity in the world, and hating prejudice of any kind. If that means the baby (consistency) goes out with the bathwater (monotony), so be it. To answer your actual question, though: I might come up with a line to start a poem, but unless a shape starts to suggest itself, there’s no point writing the poem yet. I don’t think in single images very easily, and it’s hazardous to think first about subject: sitting down and thinking ‘Right, I’m going to write a poem about X’ never goes well. So, I suppose it’s finding a general impression of a shape, however vague, then thinking in terms of lines and rhythms (rhythm is important to me, being a drummer, even if that rhythm is consciously shaky – the breaking of established rhythm at various points is important to me too), and then individual words and images. I don’t go into those obsessively until I’ve written the first draft. After that, I’m fairly obsessive about making tweaks. I’ve killed plenty of poems by being over-obsessive, so losing the original life and impulse …
If you had to name one creative influence on your writing, who or what would it be?
Well, it’s very difficult to name just one. I’ve tried to draw together all the poetic streams that I’ve enjoyed reading through the years: pastoral/landscape, poetries broadly called ‘religious’, and the difficult social commentary and deadpan satire of ‘anti-poetries’ like Zbigniew Herbert’s. But there’s very little contemporary poetry I’ve found which speaks from within a disabled perspective, and that’s where I’ve had to grab influences wherever I can find them. The collection which spurred me on to try and collate everything under the general umbrella of ‘disability’ (and encompassing myth, stereotype, discrimination, prejudice, and loss) was Laurie Clements Lambeth’s Veil and Burn. There was no soap-boxing, and so much love, tenderness, and regard for the reader. This collection proved that disability poetry could be done with equal attention to blatant honesty, subtlety and sensitivity.
You have some fantastic titles – do you spend hours agonizing over them (as I do!) or do they spring quite organically?
I’m so glad you like my crazy titles. Actually, two of them were shortened at the last minute because they seemed just a little over the top. I do like my elaborate titles; they can do a lot heavy lifting, and a good example of that might be ‘Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest’, which warns the reader that I’m about to show them a wheelchair transforming into some kind of monolithic landscape structure; the Cripple of the North, or some kind of Gammy-legged Wicker Man. They can also provide a useful sense of irony straight away, meaning that a reader doesn’t have to go into big subjects with the fear that I’m shooting my mouth off; maybe I’m just inviting them to think through, even laugh at, a scene, or a message (‘Milo Won’t Go in the Water’ and ‘The Man Upstairs Drafts a Letter to the Councils’ both flirt with ‘the message’, but end up laughing at the whole idea that a poet can instruct anyone on this stuff). Why are some of my titles so long? I just like long titles. Musicians have been doing it for a long time (Alanis Morrisette for one), as have novelists. And Matt Nunn does it, which makes it okay.
I have a pamphlet to sell, thanks to the marvellous Salt. I’m reading from that in Oxford and London as part of the Salt Modern Voices Tour (all the dates can be found on my blog, and I think yours too, is that right?). Other plans: well, I’m going to review more books, just because I love it, and it assists my own development: looking closely, working to reassess opinions and form new ones. I have two possible creative projects in mind, and I don’t want to jinx them by talking about them. But one is something around an invented form I’ve been playing with, the zennet (‘The Well and the Ceiling Rose’ is one). The other idea, and the most likely to take shape in the fairly near future, is a closer exploration of Larry Eigner’s application of Black Mountain aesthetics, which The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press has expressed an interest in, if I can make it good enough. Of course, now that I’ve told you all that, I’m not sure how much of it will get done.
Order Claire Trévien’s Low-Tide Lottery (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Read ‘1789’ and ‘Belleville’ from Low-Tide Lottery.
Order Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy (Salt Publishing, 2011).
Read ‘To My Familiar, Queequeg’ and ‘To My Best-kept, Quasimodo’
from The Snowboy.
Visit Claire’s website.
Visit Mark’s blog.