Category Archives: interviews

Translator Nicky Harman speaks to Han Dong

Han Dong – London, April 2009

Han Dong – London, April 2009

Han Dong (韩东) was born in 1961 in Nanjing. His parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, taking him with them. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he studied philosophy at Shandong University, subsequently lectured in Xi’an and Nanjing, and finally relinquished teaching in 1993 to make his living as a writer. In the 1980s, Han Dong became an important avant-garde poet, and edited the influential poetry magazine Tamen (Them). He is also known as an essayist, short story writer, blogger and novelist.
He has made several literary tours in the West, visiting Rotterdam, Paris, Brussels, London, Manchester and Edinburgh, and has been writer-in-residence in Gutenberg, Germany and Saint-Nazaire, France. A collection of his poetry in English can be found in A Phone Call from Dalian (Zephyr Press, 2012). A number of poems from this collection, and others, have appeared in translation in poetry magazines and online, for instance as Carol Rumens’ Poem of the Week in The Guardian.

Nicky Harman
lives in the United Kingdom. She translates from Chinese, focusing on fiction, poetry and sometimes literary non-fiction, by authors such as Han Dong, Chen Xiwo, Xinran, Hong Ying, Zhang Ling and Yan Geling. She is a regular contributor to the literary magazines Chutzpah, and Words Without Borders, and also organises translation-focused events, mentors new translators and was one of the judges for the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize 2012. She contributes to the website for translators from Chinese, Paper Republic, and was Translator-in-Residence, London, at the Free Word Centre in 2011. Her home page is here.

A Phone Call from Dalian

Han Dong was a leading light of China’s avant-garde in the 1980s and continues to be an influential poet today. But, 30 years on, the poetry scene in China has changed, and so has he. I was curious about how he sees his work now and eager to delve a bit deeper into his persona as a poet. I interviewed him for Peony Moon.

In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, Han Dong’s family was sent to a remote area of the countryside. Here he grew up, developing an affection for the countryside and its people which still comes through in some of his poems. His parents suffered: his mother was arrested on suspicion of involvement in a counter-revolutionary plot, and his author father struggled to “serve the people”, within a system so seamlessly repressive that Han Dong describes it in Banished: A Novel as “a dog that winds up biting its own tail”. Then came the 1980s and, alongside political and economic reforms, a great explosion of new literature. Han Dong became known as an enthusiastic debunker of everything from ideology and heroics to the elaborate imagery of other avant-garde poets.  An early poem, ‘Of the Wild Goose Pagoda’, which mocks a famous patriotic landmark and ends with a characteristic sting in the tail, became iconic.

Han Dong has been called a ‘colloquial’ (口语), poet, of the ‘ordinary folk’ (民间). But as Maghiel van Crevel says in his Foreword to A Phone Call from Dalian: “the language of this so-called Colloquial Poetry is not the same thing as that spoken in ordinary human traffic … the power of Han Dong’s poetry lies not just in the rejection of formal or bookish language of one kind or another. Positively defined, his usage comes across as measured, focused and controlled. This lends his poetry a quiet confidence and insistence”. And van Crevel goes on: “Several features combine to make Han’s a distinct and influential voice: quotidian themes, purposefully superficial description, colloquial language, literary meta-consciousness and last but not least, his individuality and sophistication in handling these things”.
          The Chicken-seller
          He’s got the knack for killing chickens quick, so
          He became a chicken-seller, that way
          He doesn’t need to kill people. Even though he acts
          Calm and gentle, and never beats his wife
          Taking off his wife’s clothes is like plucking a chicken
          Similar skills always overlap, just as
          Cruelty and kindness are two sides of the same coin
          He plucks, and she leisurely takes the money
          And I feel that therein lies a kind of evil sweetness
Time to give the floor to Han Dong himself. Many of the leading lights of the 1980s and 90s poetry scene have stopped writing altogether. So I began by asking –

Nicky Harman: You’ve been writing poetry for 30 odd years. Why do you go on writing it?

Han Dong: I’ll carry on as long as I’m able – for the reason that poetry, unlike other things in life, is of no practical use. And its very uselessness makes it just a bit important. Of course (I also do it because) I think I do it well and the poetry I write is distinctive. I’ve said in the past that poetry is my homeland. I have a hankering to ‘go home’, and in fact I often do. I hope one day to be able to settle down there and just write poetry, nothing else. That’s the kind of life I’d love to lead.

NH: How do you feel you’ve changed as a poet over the years?

HD: In my early poetry I put a lot of stress on form and language but my poetry has evolved in that respect. I focus now on the content, the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’, partly because I have learnt through experience what form and language to use, partly because I no longer feel form is so important to me. Now my main aim is to create work that is stubbornly, distinctly, my own. Ultimately, poetry is the meeting of language and a particular life lived. There’s a kind of mutual love, a kind of merging. I want my poetry to be reclusive and private, but I’m also groping towards connecting at a deep level with other people.
          Green tree, red fruit
          The green tree was there before I was
          Then I walked past it
          Then ahead of the tree, there were more green trees
          Between the forked branches was the sun

          I looked right at the sun. Just then
          It was like a red fruit
          And so the whole garden became an orchard

          A flurry of footsteps came
          A buzzing of voices debated life
          People’s shadows circled, gathered like gnats
          The evening star, a great cool teardrop

          I am still there
          The red fruit gone
          The green trees dulled
You famously said that, “poetry does not go beyond language” (“诗到语言为止“). Do you still believe that? If not, what do you think are the most important principles of poetry?

HD: When I said that, it was to counter the prevailing view (in China) that “the written word must express a moral view”, and to emphasize the importance of language in poetry. But ultimately this was just another creed and, to that extent, one-sided. I understand poetry in a more rounded way now, not just as in opposition to something else. Poetry is an absolute, or at least an indication of an absolute. Analysing poetry is of limited use. Poetry doesn’t exist in the abstract, only in specific poems, in the writings of a particular poet, and we shouldn’t try to over-explain it. I dream of being able to write poems which need little or no explaining, and can be understood intuitively. Readers don’t need training but poets do, and that training ought to include how to stir people’s hearts.

Han Dong has written many poems about women, from the erotic to the love-lorn. I can’t help noticing there are fewer now, at least of the latter. Could this be because he is a middle-aged, happily-married man? I rather cheekily asked him if he still wrote love poems.

HD: Of course … Ultimately, a good love poem is about more than just love. … I’m continually concerned with human feelings, especially the love between men and women, and that’s a source of inspiration I wouldn’t willingly give up. You’re in love, you break up, you have no one to love or you’re abandoned – and you write about all of those things as they happen. There’s something else: the thing we call ‘love’ is only one way of expressing love between humans. I’ve said in the past that my ‘spiritual home’ is with people who have left or died, with friends, even with pets. That’s where love is, for me. Yes, I will go on writing love poems in the broad sense.

Hmm, I’m not sure I really managed to nail him on that one.

NH: Going back to the years when you first made a name for yourself as a poet, you had a reputation for getting into heated debates about poetry. Are you still so combative? If so, what topics get you fired up?

HD: I’ve always enjoyed a good argument, but I’ve also regarded that as a failing. In fact, I really hate that side of myself. Intense, aggressive debate only ends in defeat or victory, so it leaves me feeling empty. I almost always win the argument, which makes it more difficult for me to curb that tendency. The reality is that where poetry is concerned, the only meaningful things are serious thought and careful listening to others. Discussion should be based on an exchange of ideas, where everyone gets a chance to say what they think and makes an effort to understand the opposing side.
          Wood work
          The wood workers lie at work in the sawdust
          Their workshop has no door, no windows and no walls.
          Just a shack with blonde rush matting on three sides.
          Just sunlight, sawdust, wood and
          The shaped hafts of every kind of farm tool
          No door, no windows, benches or doorsill
          No lathe. This wood work has done away with wood work
          Sawdust has covered up the mud floor
What do you feel about the translation of your poetry? I once asked you which of two possible titles I should use: Wood worker, the person who does it, or Wood work, the process. (The Chinese could mean either.) You said you didn’t mind, I could choose whichever I liked. Would you be as laissez-faire about translation if you were fluent in English?

HD: Translations are authentic creations in their own right; the original is only the spiritual source and the basis for the translation. Especially with poetry, when you translate from one language into another, you create something other. For a poem to work in another language, it needs to be completely transformed. Its magic, its inspiration, depends on the translator. Poets aim to ‘translate’ life and give it a meaningful existence in language; translators have the same aim. So, first-rate poetry can become second-rate in translation and vice versa, depending on the translator’s ability and sensitivity. I’m there to respond to the translator and I’m happy to discuss anything which is relevant to the original work, but this is just a way of stimulating the process and doesn’t mean I want to control it. If your poems don’t stand up to translation into another language, then why should the translator continue to be loyal to the original? If those poems can shine in another language, then why worry if they have departed from the original?

Ultimately my aim as a poet is to create good things, not things that are good for my reputation. And all good things can stimulate and ‘give birth’ to further good things. Even in the original language, a poem only becomes complete when it is read, when it arouses feelings, and when the poem combines with those feelings. To have vitality, a poem needs to transform, stimulate, adapt, combine and give birth to something new.

And there we left our discussion. But let the poems speak from themselves. And, yes, there really is one about his dog:
          Overcoming loneliness
          My small dog was shut in the flat
          The neighbours opposite kept one
          Shut in their flat too
          The two dogs yapped through the barrier of two doors
          They could hear each other, and sometimes met on the landing
          They were boy dog and girl dog but didn’t mate
          We all know dogs like to lay-about in packs, but these two were no pals
          You could say hostility was
          Stronger than friendship
          More help in overcoming loneliness
          The end came when their dog died, but my dog
          Kept up the yapping
          An imaginary enemy may well be better than a real one
          At overcoming loneliness.
Han Dong’s poems ‘can stand their ground in any contemporary world literary canon’, World Literature Today.
All the poems except ‘Overcoming loneliness appear’ in A Phone Call from Dalian  (Zephyr Press, 2012).

Trévien and Burnhope in conversation

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.
What’s next?
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.
What’s next?
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.

McCready and Downie in conversation

Fellow Scots, friends, poets and bloggers Marion McCready and Morgan Downie review and interview each other on their recent poetry collections. Both are published by Calder Wood Press

Marion McCready

Marion McCready was born on the Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll, where she currently lives with her husband and two young children. She studied at Glasgow University and her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Vintage Sea (Calder Wood Press, 2011) is her first pamphlet. Marion blogs at

morgan downie

morgan downie is a poet, short story writer, artist and passionate mountain biker. he was not born in orkney but grew up there and describes himself as an orcadian by formation. he has had a long and varied career in healthcare. stone and sea (calder wood press, 2010) is his first full length collection. morgan blogs at

Marion on morgan’s work
stone and sea is a beautiful exploration of land and folk memory written with emotional intensity and precision. Morgan speaks with the confidence of a natural storyteller as he draws the reader gently into the rhythm of lives lived and shaped by the landscape around them. The back cover says his poems are “held together by a clear spiritual feeling for people and places”. 
A favourite poem of mine in the collection is ‘the weaver’ with its precise language, simple yet affecting imagery (“a darting fish/ in the half moons/ of her hands”), and a rather wonderful ending where “the fabric/ spills from her /like the tide” which, rather than closing the poem off, opens it out to inhabit the landscape in the reader’s imagination. 
Morgan paints serene landscapes succinctly with words: “here a whalebone/ the vertebra/ juts from the sand/ like a sail” (‘beachcombing’). “i slept in the skull/ of a dead boat /the skeletal hull/ splintered into/ the setting sun/ netting dreams” (‘beached’). And from ‘painting the sand at uig’, “cloudscape, the bone memory/ of western sand/ the windblown skeletons of urchins,/ aimless as tumbleweed”. 
Morgan and I both have a connection to the Outer Hebrides, I having been born there and Morgan having lived there for a number of years.
Another favourite in the collection is ‘huisinis’ (pronounced hoo-shi-nish). It exhibits Morgan’s instinctual rhythm in language which compliments his preference for short lines, both of which act as a driving energy pushing the reader on through the poem. When I went on holiday to the Outer Hebrides last year I passed by Huisinis, on the Isle of Harris, and thought of Morgan’s poem and how language, place names, can conjure up a familiarity, a connection to a place. I had never been to Huisinis but just seeing the place name and hearing in my head the wonderful, gentle echo of it repeated at the end of this poem made me realise that Morgan’s poem had already connected me to the place. 
the language like birds
wind-driven, light boned
white fragments tossed
above the mean glottals
of the exposed schists
softer in the machair
the whispering of grasses
experts at survival
in conditions of desiccation
in summer the corncrake
insistent, sharp as
the incline of the clisham
as desolate, as beautiful
as scarp in blue water
the rhythm of the peat
the blunt bite of spade
down through layers
thick as dictionaries
and out, out
to the empty sea
bare of boats
precentor to echoes
a hundred words
for wave and wind
gone now, songs
sung in the bones
of the whaling station
where is this place
they ask
huisinis we say
an exhalation
gentle as a lullaby
to the tired ear
Marion interviews morgan
You bring an intensity to your poems which is partly due your preference for short lines and continuous enjambment. Is this mainly instinctual on your part, or is it, for want of a better phrase, part of a winning writing formula for your work?
i’m not so sure it’s a winning formula – people seem to take issue with ‘long skinny poems’! i had to go back and have a look the poems i wrote in my teens and it seems i’ve always written in something like this format so there must be a strong instinctual element in it. equally though there’s the element of writing what i want to read. i have memories of looking at skinny poems (i wish i could remember which ones) and thinking how uncluttered the page looked, how much precedence the writer was giving to the individual words.
put another way, i remember a musician talking about how he wanted his music to sound like a drum kit falling down stairs. i like that. not only do you have the stave quality of the stairs but there’s that random element of falling and sound. when i’m writing it’s the same. the words go where the words go, the line length is its own form. as a reader i see it as an invitation, like going for a walk. you’re free to make your own interpretations, your own associations. i guess this reflects some of the literary theory i’ve absorbed over the years. 
I’d imagine the first thing most people notice about stone and sea is your decision not to use capitalisation and your limited use of punctuation throughout the entire collection. Was this a consciously theoretical/political decision, a rebellion of sorts against the acceptable ‘rules’ of language or current poetry, or is it part of a more personal poetics?
i think the thing, along with the long skinny poem, that most people comment on (almost before they’ve read the poems!) is that i don’t use capitals and i’m scant on the use of punctuation. would it be too prosaic to suggest that when it comes to typing i’m just too lazy to use the shift key? 
i did once use capitals (again, it’s great to have notebooks so you can look back in time and wince/see what you did back in the day). i used to use them at the start of every line but i remember getting negative feedback from some magazine many years ago that this was ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘wasn’t done’. maybe that was when it started to change or maybe i just wanted to make the poetry distinct from the prose.
so, from a chronological perspective i suppose it could be viewed as reactionary but for me it seems much more like an aesthetic choice. we take a lot of time thinking about where we put these wee black marks, how we arrange them in the context of one another so it seems that the notion of the negative space around them should be equally important and really, to be honest, fundamental in terms of poetry. the white page is both a framing device and a substrate in terms of its physicality but there’s also that notion of space, space to stop a while, space to think, roll the words around a bit, sound them out loud, a bit like having a seat on a summer’s day, looking out at the landscape and becoming the view.
I know you read a lot of poetry and you read widely but who do you return to again and again as your staple poet and who has had the greatest influence on your work?
in terms of influence i don’t really have many ‘go to’ poets. i would definitely cite various works of non-fiction as a means of thinking my way into an approach. off the top of my head i’d want to be putting my hand on the likes of simon schama’s landscape and memory, anything by marina warner and gaston bachelard’s poetics of space.
i tend to like poems that aren’t written in english, preferably in a bilingual edition so that i can feel the weight of the original on my tongue. german’s great for this, particularly if you’re scottish because you can really get around the sounds. so it’s more particular books than actual writers that have influenced me – i have a feeling there’s some sort of poetic heresy in there!
while my gaelic is atrocious i very much like poetry in gaelic. aonghas macneacail and meg bateman are two names that spring immediately to mind, and the an leabhar mor is a book i wouldn’t like to be without. i was very taken by robert lowell’s imitations, which opened up a whole world of translation/interpretation/ transliteration for me. if i’m stuck i’ll still return to the introduction. whitman, obviously. i went through a verlaine phase for a while and he may well be the only poet i can still manage to recite from memory. homer and the sagas from when i was wee. paul celan’s collected poems (the hamburger translation) would have to be a desert island book. he’s just so fierce, so out there, that reading him is the closest i can get to some form of transcendental experience. henrik nordbrandt it seems to me is someone who doesn’t get read enough. on the home front, and similarly, at least in this country, not widely enough read, is kenneth white, particularly for the concept of the waybook which i think has niggled away in the back of my mind ever since i read travels in the drifting dawn.
You’ve published short stories as well as poetry and your poems, such as your sequence on St. Columba, definitely demonstrate your storytelling ability. What is it about the people in your poems that inspires you to write about them? 
when i was wee and living up north i spent a lot of time in myths and sagas whether it was homer or norse folklore. norse folklore had so much relevance because i could physically place the narrative into the landscape. i could go to the beach where magnus was killed. i could go to the pillar in the cathedral where his bones were. the dividing line between story and ‘reality’ was very fine to a boy!
i guess when i’m writing about a particular character or element in a story (stone and sea starts with the western isles myth about god and the jewels) it’s not so much the character or the myth but the experience of being in a moment that could be applicable to a particular character or situation, a phenomenological approach if you like. in that way, talking about the columba poem, i get to not only think a bit about columba but also that notion of being silent in a boat, looking up at the sky, waiting for landfall, all of those things at once. 
You use, at times, almost scientific terminology in your poems, I’m thinking of ‘formations’ here. Is this related to your background of studying and working in a medical environment? 
for me as a poet this works at a couple of levels. in the first instance i’ve spent a lot of time with a friend who’s a geologist so his interpretation of the landscape, his way of seeing, is very different and that heteroglossality is of primary concern. equally, however, it’s just the language. without wanting to get all heideggerian the idea that the moment of language is what we exist in is fascinating for me. it doesn’t really matter whether it’s geology, medical terminology, painting or whatever i just love using the words. when i use something like monestial turquoise in one of my painting poems for example – it may be the reader doesn’t paint, doesn’t know what that is but once that word-door has been opened there’s no going back. it’s synaesthesic for me, the word as spell. it’s not to ignore the language of men argument just that what i’m interested in using is the language of this man. not to do so, to use the language i live in, would feel like a betrayal.
Not only do you write stories and poems but you also paint and create all sorts of artworks. How do these activities inform your poetry, if at all?
i don’t really see any separation between poetry and the other things i do. it would be easy to make a division, to say that this is creative and that is not, but in truth there’s as much satisfaction for me in making jam from berries i’ve grown in my garden as there is in making a poem or a painting. in fact, in some ways, because of the transitoriness of the jam, it’s superior, it can’t be recaptured.
cycling could be thought of as just some form of physical battering, an acceptable form of self harm, but that’s not to accept the meditative element of it. i think it feeds directly into a creative effort even if it gets tricky to write a haibun in the middle of climbing a hill! what it teaches me is to take the time to stop, to look.
i was very taken with the idea of the temporary autonomous zone back in the day and still have an affection for those notions. i think an open minded approach to different forms of creativity and what constitutes creativity itself is essential. it leads you down different thought paths, evolves different techniques, approaches and reveals previously unknown influences. it’s one of the the reasons i’m always ready to jump into collaborative work, there’s always that element of the magical mystery tour. beyond that i’m really not that bothered, it’s only the work that’s important. everything else is gravy! but i do like that sense of not knowing what comes next, where the path will lead. for me, that’s a joy.
What are your current writing projects? 
there’s a photo book coming out, with any luck later this year, the follow up to stone and sea is almost done, there’s a book of short stories and … and … there’s always an and. i’m not brilliant at finishing. part of it is that i don’t much like the editing process and while i’ll easily hold my hand up as a procrastinator of some ability that’s not really it either. i like the feel of being in the midst of something, that there remains a potentiality that mitigates against an end point. i suppose there’s that thing that a completed work is like a child that you have to let go, to let it do its own thing in the world but there’s also that other part in which completion feels like a form of death. i feel this is changing these days, maybe it’s my day job. we feel, too often, that there’s always time but the reality is there really isn’t. to that end i don’t really have any writing projects, any more than i have a breathing project! it seems a wonderful privilege in this short life to put pen to paper, brush in paint, to make something out of less than air. for me that’s what it should be about, weaving stories, patterning words, divining up some sort of magic.
morgan on Marion’s work

i’ve met marion a few times now. i’d hazard a guess that i’d recognise her in a busy street, but these poems – i know them. so i’m happy to not be watching the dauphiné, putting the tv off and welcoming these upon my eyes like someone i’ve been waiting to visit and take into my house. i can’t remember the last time i read a pamphlet from cover to cover but i did with this, a wee smile with each recognised face.
i don’t know these places, who or what is burnie mackinnon, the gantocks or the captayannis and, to be honest, i don’t care. i like their shapes, the feel of them as i say their names – if nothing else this is a collection that deserves to be read out loud by somebody scottish! – and i love the fine detail, the small changes where i can see that marion has (finally!) decided this is the finished article. yes, i say, i see what you did there.
from my own perspective i like the later poems. not that there’s any indication of which these are but i know and for me these are where i find marion’s voice at her most confident and, collected like this, they give me a great sense of anticipation for what she does next (sad that it’s always about what comes next!). there is great language here and when i read it i get the same sensation as i do when i look up words in foreign language dictionaries, taking the familiar and transforming it on my tongue. i can’t be doing much with questions of meaning, it’s all about the feel and vintage sea feels great.
Autumn trees
Autumn trees are effigies
burning in the streets.
They lose their leaves, their wings,
into every corner, crevice,
upturned hand.
These falling prayers,
these harvest psalms.
The bloodied skins of them
shirring the ground.
Harbingers. Little deaths,
they harp at my feet
words begging to be said,
words begging to be freed:
two men shall be in a field,
one shall be taken, the other one left
morgan interviews Marion
you’ve just completed a close reading of sylvia plath. how much do you find she influences you and has the process of close reading affected your approach to writing, technical or otherwise?
In a sense I’ve never not closely read Sylvia Plath’s work. Plath’s Collected Poems was the first poetry collection I ever purchased by an individual poet and her imagery, intensity of language and surprising juxtapositions make her a constant inspiration to me of how language can be forged to create experiences in themselves rather than simply be the recording or the re-telling of an experience. I guess this is something I aim towards achieving, in my own way, in my poems.
we’ve both recently expressed a liking for the ‘darksome browns’ of gerald manley hopkins. for you, what comes first, the image or the words?
The image, definitely. When first reading a poem I tend to skim the words and focus on the images. It takes a few readings for me to focus on what the poem is actually about. I’m a very image-orientated reader. It’s not uncommon for me to wonder which film a picture in my mind comes from only to remember that it comes from a book. One of the things I love most about poetry is how condensed language can create a series of powerful, impacting images in such a short space. For me, it’s normally an image and the symbolism that it entails that sparks the inspiration for a poem.
as i read vintage sea i’m struck by the notion of you walking, being engaged with your local environment. how important is the notion of locality to you?
That’s exactly how many of the Vintage Sea poems came to be written. Because I can’t drive I do a lot of walking and many of the images in my poems are drawn from my local landscape. Locality is important to me only in the sense that writing about the specific is the only way to write genuinely about the universal, although this sounds contradictory. It’s also a case of write what you know. I remember reading somewhere that until you conquer your own landscape in writing you can’t hope to write about anywhere else. It’s a thought that’s always stuck with me. 
i described the environment in your poems as a ‘transformational landscape’. to what extent do story/myth and myth-making form part of your writing process? (i’m thinking here about the likes of ‘brenhilda’ or ‘captayannis’) 
Myth, and in many ways nature, are for me vehicles for exploring and to some extent de-personalising experiences in order to write about them. In ‘Captayannis’ for instance I write about a miscarriage I had a number of years ago. I found I could only objectify it and therefore write about it using the shipwreck as a distancing mechanism. Ted Hughes wrote “a feeling is always looking for a metaphor of itself in which it can reveal itself unrecognised” (Letters of Ted Hughes). I use myth and local stories in this sense as metaphors for exploring my own feelings and experiences. 
initially i recall your reluctance with regard to publicly reading your poetry. now that you’re getting into it do you find it has changed the way you look at the vintage sea poems and has it affected your approach to writing new poems?
The awareness that comes with reading poetry aloud and in public came before I wrote the Vintage Sea poems and had a fairly large impact on the writing of these poems even though I myself hadn’t read publicly until last year. I think in some ways the poems I’m writing now have a less obvious emphasis on sound though sonic qualities are, and always will be, an integral driving part of the writing process for me. I’m interested in pushing other poetry ‘tools’ to the fore in order to expand my writing. 
what next?
Read, read, read. I’ve currently banned myself from reading my old favourite poets – Plath, Eliot and Akhmatova  – in order to read other poetry wider and deeper. I’ve noticed how easy it is to slip into the comfort of reading and re-reading favourite poets and poems. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved with my Vintage Sea poems but I’m also ready to move on from them and hopefully improve and expand my writing. Part of the pleasure of writing poetry for me is the continual intellectual and emotional challenge. I’m hoping that focusing on some different poets for a lengthy period will open up my writing to new influences and expand and challenge it. This of course means lots of experimentation and inevitable failure which is always a little intimidating! At the moment I’m focusing mainly on the poetry of Durs Grünbein and Claire Crowther and thoroughly enjoying it.
Order Vintage Sea and stone and sea from Calder Wood Press.
Visit Marion’s blog.
Visit Morgan’s blog.

Simon Barraclough on poetry and planets

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
Pre-order Neptune Blue here, here or here.
Visit Simon’s website.

A conversation with Grace Wells

Grace Wells

Grace Wells was born in London in 1968. Formerly an independent television producer, she moved to Ireland in 1991. Her first book, Gyrfalcon (2002), a novel for children, won the Ellis Dillion Best Newcomer Bisto Award, and was an International White Ravens’ Choice. Other publications for children include Ice-Dreams (2008) and One World, Our World (2009). Her short stories and poetry have been published widely and broadcast. She reviews Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, is a freelance arts administrator, and teaches creative writing. When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things (Dedalus Press, 2010) is her first collection of poems.

Grace, in an interview with Angela France in Iota magazine (Issue 85), George Szirtes says: “Poems are a feeling waiting for a first line.” How do poems come to you?
I agree with Szirtes, the entry of a new poem into my world is often preceded by a sort of tingling feeling, a kind of heightened awareness that seems to be seeking form within a poem. These days I’ve started to think that poems come to particular poets for reasons of resonance, something in the world that hasn’t been articulated, and needs to be, resonates against a particular person, and the energetic hum between the subject and the poet results in the poem.
I associate that type of calling with a creative freedom that’s only possible when the duties of the quotidian world have backed off a bit. Often I’m teaching, or just scrambling around in life, and poems have to be born more pragmatically. In class I give writing exercises, which I take myself. A lot of my work has been produced that way. Of course I’ve set tasks that interest me (or have already begun calling), so I have a bit of a head-start, but I think there’s quite a balance between inspiration and of perspiration. Also I’m a prose writer, I work in a large notebook and carry a small one in my bag. I write an amount of free prose most days. Often I’ll be writing in a rather random, trance-like way and poems can be born within the prose. Then I whittle away the excess of words to find the clean bones of a poem within.
Where is your favourite place for writing?
My writing career has been entirely peripatetic. For the first time ever I have a study, but it’s still too new to be favorite: I’m only just out of the boxes. For years my writing self was homeless. I scribbled in cafes, on trains, at the kitchen table. My first children’s book was written in a freezing cold house, in a hat and gloves, at my feet the world’s most nauseous carpet pattern. My first official writing space was a little shed at the bottom of the garden. No phone, no interruptions. It was bliss, but damp, so paper curled and wilted if you left it there over night. Still, in summer, with the flower beds at my back, and my meadow stretching beneath the window, it is paradise and still my favorite place to work.
What is the physical act of writing like for you? Do you write first drafts in longhand or type them directly onto your computer?
I used never to write anything directly into a computer. I believe in the hand and the pen (I’m almost fanatical about this). With the hand there’s a kind of curl like the beginning of a spiral which moves from the heart, through the lungs, along the arm, to the hand, as the pen moves you spiral deeper into serious matter, unwinding into the subconscious.
I write second and third drafts out by hand, re-writing the whole poem as I go. I’ve found it helpful; you sink deeper into the poem.
Working with a computer is about brain energy, it’s faster, more electric. It engenders a ‘clever’, sharper, almost cruel mood. Sometimes when I’m reviewing I’ll just work on the laptop, but I’m wary of the kind of writing it produces, there’s enough of that ‘look at me I’m so clever’ writing in our culture without my adding to it.
Do you find each poem suggests its form as it emerges?
No, not really. Form is often the last thing to make itself known. Form often changes as the poem develops. I think I’m more guided by the words, the meaning, the sounds, then form last of all. This probably mirrors something about myself; I’m not fond of the formal, of routines, of convention. I’m more open to the rebellious, the anarchic, it’s almost as if I see form and have to question it instantly, or run from it swiftly. But with poetry there is always a sense of relief when the form does make itself known. Even the anarchist has to live somewhere; form is a poem’s skin, like its home.
When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things is in five parts: ‘Love in all its forms’, ‘The Princess and the Fox’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘The New Life’ and ‘In Such a City’. I’d love to hear a little about your arrangement process.
The arrangement really wrote itself as such. The poems are very autobiographical, even if I take on other voices or invade other characters, I’ve mostly written about my own experience. Of course poetry writing isn’t linear, the poems didn’t come to me in the order they are placed in the book; but their arrangement allows for a more natural narrative. I did try sending the work to one publisher with the poems in a completely random order, but the manuscript was rejected and I’m not surprised, the collection really asked for the structure it has now.
‘Love in All its forms’ is a kind of introduction. Then the poems (and the poet) decline into the experiences explored in ‘The Princess & The Fox’. ‘Pioneer’ is about recovery from that time. ‘The New Life’ is about the redemptive power of love. But it didn’t seem right to end the collection there, this isn’t Hollywood. The last section, ‘In Such a City’ is concerned with where I am now, where the world is; how I sit with the terrible beauty and chaos all around us.
Would you give me your thoughts on the roles of literature, storytelling and writing in the healing process?
One of my lines is “The only medicine is words”. I fundamentally recognize that literature and storytelling are very ancient forms of human medicine. Fictional tragedy resonates with us because human tragedy is all around us. Life imitates art and art imitates life. As a species we are bound up with words, whether it is through literature or song. As an audience we take the dramatic journey too, and somehow, in an almost shamanic way, the process heals us. Certainly gives us the faith to continue.
The act of writing is similar but different. Natalie Goldberg wrote, “writing is not therapy”. But I disagree, writing is therapy and an excellent one at that. But just because someone writes something therapeutic or cathartic, it doesn’t mean it belongs in the world as a published piece. It isn’t enough to just spew it out. Craft, intelligence and art need to be applied. These disciplines are rigorous, they take years to learn.
Ultimately our ability to take a difficult life situation, write about it and transform that writing into something palatable and effective is probably the most healing achievement of all. The creation of art is the most profound way to restore human dignity.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think there is still a need for feminism?
Yes on both counts. Yes I’m a feminist, yes there is a pressing and urgent need for a new wave of feminist energy. The situation is complicated. As with most things, there is the internal and the external: the self and the culture. For my self, feminism is about many things, a primary one being my ability to be capable, to change a tire, to use power tools, to handle a chain-saw when I have to. But there are also deeper, more distressing and urgent matters of the psyche that I have to address. What does it mean to be female? When faced with difficulties, personal or global, how should I behave as a woman? Where is my female god? How can I temper vulnerability and strength? Where I am safe to be wild? How can I use my anger to bring about change?
Women are still not equal in the house of power. We are not in government. We don’t make decisions for the world. We have token figures in place, nothing more. Violence against women is endemic. Our culture permits us to be sexually devalued. Female-defined sexuality and spirituality are still unvoiced. To have these forces unarticulated is very dangerous to a woman’s sense of identity. Sensuality and spirituality are elements very close to our core beings. Without access to vibrant sexual and spiritual debate and positive visual references in both areas, girls grow up without any sense of wholeness. We lack any sense of core female strength. Without a sense of wholeness and strength, we are easily pushed aside, undermined or over-ruled.
We see the consequences of that everywhere. War, crime, environmental destruction are not female impulses, yet they surround us. I often think it is female passivity colluding with male aggression that makes the world the way it is. If women protested, acted, went on strike en masse, then things would change over-night. But it doesn’t happen. It seems to me the feminist debate has been internalized: while there is an increased sense of female equality in the world, there is also a greater sense that women are alone, succeeding and failing with the dramas of feminism in isolation. Now each woman has to be her own feminist priest and congregation. I feel my task, as a writer, is to enter our areas of absence, female spirituality and female sensuality, and throw a torch into their darkness. Maybe it will be of some help.
But I’m also a realist. As the mother of a teenage daughter, sometimes all I can do is watch her being swept into the make-up–high-heel–thong-wearing mêlée. I am daily reminded that I have failed and succeeded as a feminist. But I’m grateful, this is a legacy I inherited from women who fought all the way through the 1900’s. This ordinary ability to fail as a feminist is a luxury that many of the world’s women still don’t have. So yes, there is much work to do.
What prompted you to write ‘For Everything Which is Infinite’?
Well, it is something of a ‘found’ poem. Everything in it happened. My then ‘new’ partner, Richard, brought me to Venice, Italy. The whole trip was very healing; Venice is a maze of beauty. I had wandered deep into it, when suddenly, looking up, I chanced to see through a lit window a woman drawing a playing card from a fan some invisible hand held toward her. As I watched, she drew out an ace. The poem is about luck, it’s a celebration of my great good luck, even though I’ve lived a difficult life, I still feel I pulled the ace.
Tell me about your wonderfully evocative poem, ‘Aşure’. How did you discover that Aşure “is the Turkish name given to the last dessert Mrs. Noah made before boarding the ark”?
Again this poem is to do with the great good luck of meeting Richard, who is passionate about Istanbul and Turkey as a whole. Early in our courtship he brought me to that amazing city. In the restaurants there, they have dishes of Aşure lined-up on the dessert counter. It is a strange, jelly-like dish full of “stuff”, you have to stare, there are raisins, chick peas, lentils, nuts … I don’t know who invented it, but everyone seems to know that this is the dish Mrs Noah made that last night before the rains came. Because she was emptying her cupboards one final time it contains an amount of everything.
I was struck by the whole idea, it really entranced me and seemed to speak to me because plenty and bereavement seem to converge in that dish. It was like a little mirror to our own situation because all new love affairs are tempered by the threat or fear of loss, of losing the other person. I think my fear of loss got entangled with Mrs Noah’s more real loss. Plenty and bereavement converge in our relationship and in the poem, where the domestic acts as an ideal vessel to convey the bittersweet nature of love.
Would you name five of your favourite poems? Why are they important to you?
I consider this an impossible task! We could talk all day about great poems. Still, I’ll try to name some important ones. First I’d say Raymond Carver’s ‘Lemonade’. I left school loathing poetry, thinking it was unintelligible torture. Then some years later someone showed me ‘Lemonade’. It changed everything. This poem opened up the entire world of poetry; even, eventually, leading me back to the unintelligible torturous stuff with a more generous eye. It’s an amazing poem, beautifully crafted, well told. It’s about a boy who drowns in the river and how his father can’t heal. I love it still, decades later.
Also, soon after ‘Lemonade’, I discovered, Annie Cameron, whose work I admire greatly. I love ‘Sea Fair, Powell River’, which is a very elegant, outspoken poem. In the queue for food at the county fair, Cameron’s lesbian lover suddenly starts “hollering” about child abuse. The man in front of them, who is evidently guilty, turns redder and redder. Soon another woman, “in a voice nearly choked/ silent by conditioning” joins in, then another and another until the whole queue has something to say on the matter, one old woman going on about how it was “back on the farm in Saskatchewan”, where “you took a tom cat and shoved him head first into an old gumboot”. It’s a brilliant piece of political poetry.
I also love Coleman Barks translation of Rumi’s ‘The Guest House’, which is a great poem for moody types to keep near to hand. It’s a poem I’ve cherished for years.
I think Mary Oliver’s poems ‘Wild Geese’ and ‘The journey’ are somewhere in the top ten too. I blow hot and cold about Oliver, but these two pieces have done more for poetry and for ordinary people’s lives than many others have managed in centuries. I think that’s what poetry should be about, the ability to touch lives and affect change. I have huge respect for Oliver on that account.
The final poem I’ll mention is Paula Meehan’s ‘Troika’, which is a much more recent find. In this account of her growing up in tenement Dublin, Ireland, she combines beautiful language, exquisite craft, searing honesty and tremendous art. The lines shock, draw the breath and ultimately heal. It’s an act of total generosity, and a hugely powerful poem. You finish it in awe of the poet and poetry. I could go on about favoured poems all day, but I think I’ve said enough. I love poetry, I just hope there are enough days ahead for all the poems out there.
Thank you for your time, Grace, and all the very best with your collection.
Thank you too! Thanks so much for having me here on Peony Moon; I loved your questions. Best wishes for your own life and work.
Order When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things.
Discover more about Grace and her collection at:
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s Women Rule Writer
Rachel Fenton’s Snowlikethought
Brandon Wallace’s Julius Speaks

A conversation with Richard Fox

Richard Fox

Born in 1975 in Cape Town, Richard Fox graduated with a BA from the University of Johannesburg, with majors in English and Philosophy. 876, Richard’s poetry collection, is published by Third Word Publishing. His poetry has been published in New Coin, Carapace, Botsotso, Green Dragon, Glass Jars Among Trees (Jacana) and Donga. Richard lives in Melville, Johannesburg, where he is a Bookdealers’ manager and the owner of Tshirt Terrorist.
Richard, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
My grandparents were of Polish, Afrikaans, British and German descent. My mother grew up in Cape Town while my father travelled extensively around southern Africa with his parents before they settled in Cape Town.
As a child I was well-adjusted and inquisitive. Unruly in the manner of most children, perhaps. I have very fond memories of Kraaifontein in the Cape Town southern suburbs.
You’ve lived in Kraaifontein, Durbanville, Belville, Roodepoort and Krugersdorp. During your childhood, how did your surroundings impact on you? Was moving from Cape Town to Johannesburg a beneficial experience?
Kraaifontein was a small suburb. I grew up on Selbourne Street. As children we spent our time jamming between each other’s backyards.
Moving to Johannesburg was huge. It was here that I encountered the veldt. For me it was a revelation. Where we stayed in Roodekranz, one stretch of veldt led to another, eventually to the Roodekranz Botanical Garden, and further to what is now the Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden. Across the fences were endless stretches of untamed grassland and koppies. This is what I remember most from this period, exploring these landscapes. Later, in Krugersdorp, I would walk out beyond the houses, return and write for hours. For all the natural beauty of the Cape, it is the highveldt that captured me.
Was your home full of books? What did you read as a child?
Both my parents read avidly and there were always books around. I spent a lot of time in local libraries. I developed a penchant for horror, science fiction and fantasy. Before that, the usual suspects: The Hardy Boys, Biggles, Willard Price, ghost stories, adventure stories.
Did you enjoy school?
Tremendously. I was a total clown, always getting into trouble. I attended a convent until standard five and have memories of getting caned by the nuns. I enjoyed Science and Maths, but English came naturally to me.
When we came to Jo’burg, I was enrolled in West Ridge High School and honed my skills in anarchy and petty debauchery. In my senior year, I cut loose and came close to being expelled. I did get suspended with a mate. My parents were not impressed.
When did you start writing?
I was 16. We got a household PC. I had written some stuff in longhand before then, but the PC suited me. It was a little 386. After the 386 there was a 486. Then came an old Mitaki laptop, a beauty. It was my father’s old work laptop. It used to shock me slightly if I used it for too long.
Who was your introduction to poetry?
When I was seven, I remember reading a collection of ghost stories. One of the stories featured a quote. I’m sure it was Coleridge:
          Here lies the Devil
          Ask no other name
          Well, but you mean Lord?
          Hush! We mean the same.

I must have read it a thousand times, and it’s stayed with me all these years, even if I can’t be sure that it was Coleridge. I haven’t been able to find it again.
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?
Stephen King got me interested in the physical, emotional and psychological act of writing. I was very young, 11, and here was someone who could make a story dance, and his mind was dark. I loved that. Palahniuk is another writer whose work I admire. Hemingway. I always cry when I read Hemingway. There are others. Mark Z. Danielewski. Jeff Noon. Bukowski. Fante.
In the ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound wrote: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music”. Has music influenced you? Have any musicians influenced you?
My poetry seems to lend itself more to music than to literature. Perhaps it’s my vocal style. I write performance pieces, poems meant for recital. Many musicians have piqued my interest, inspired my work, including Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Two musicians deserving particular mention for their influence are Maynard James Keenan of Tool and Michelle Breeze of Fetish. Keenan I’ve never met, Michelle I have, but both came along at the right time and pulled the rug out from under me. Keenan’s lyrics, as a backing, as an accompaniment, scored, if you will, many poems that made their way into 876. At this time, I fell for Michelle Breeze, the front of one of South Africa’s supergroups of the 90’s, whom I met at a Johannesburg gig. Michelle became, for a time, my muse. Or a representation of the muse. I am wary of attaching titles to something I still don’t completely understand, either the concept of a muse, or Michelle’s role as muse during an intensely prolific period.
You studied English and Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. Did university benefit you?
University was crucial to my creative development. Initially, I enrolled for a BSc (Physics) at Wits. It was the wrong move and I lasted five months. I didn’t want to spend every afternoon in a lab doing tickertape experiments. I realised halfway through a Maths lecture that I wanted to write, so I dropped out. RAU, in 1995, with its traditionally Afrikaans campus, its conservative structure, was perfect for a hell-raising hooligan.
Dr Dirk Klopper, the head of the English Department at the time, referred me to Robert Berold, the then editor of New Coin, and my first poem was published in 1997. That was ‘Losst’, followed by one of my favourite poems, ‘Paper boat’.
How do ideas for poems come to you?
I think a poem builds in me. There’s a window period where I know I have to write something. I can feel it working its way loose, in a series of images maybe, or words and thoughts that link together. I don’t always have a clear picture of what the poem is going to be about, but I can feel the presence of something that wishes to be said, that I have experienced. My job is to make sure I am sitting behind the computer during that window of opportunity. Sometimes I sit down without knowing how I am meant to start, and before I know it the poem is complete, and the words seem to have always been written in that particular way. I’m not sure if that makes sense, the poem writing itself and myself getting dragged along, but that’s how it feels.
Would you describe your collection, 876?
876 is part creative footprint (an impression of what I have written over the past ten years), part autopsy (a retrospective look at what I did before I started Tshirt Terrorist). I conceptualised a series of images, a spoofed computer game, with the intention of compiling my first book of verse using these images. Robert Berold received a copy of the design brief and agreed to publish it through Deep South. I couldn’t complete it so ended up settling for the text only version, which became knows as 876. Then, I stopped writing and lost interest in publishing a collection. In the years following, I withdrew 876 from Deep South. I put it aside until 2007, when I felt enough time had passed for me to approach the manuscript from a different angle, hence my feeling that it is something of an autopsy.
What is the numerological significance of the title?
One possible interpretation of 876 is a downward spiral. The concept of spiralling inward on a journey of self discovery. I’ve always been fascinated by numerology and 876 represents a beautiful and pristine sequence of numbers. Beyond that I can’t say. It developed over a number of years for many reasons. There’s too much number theory and magical thinking here for me to accurately pin it down.
How did you go about arranging the poems in the volume?
I started out with a manuscript of 100 poems, to which I added and subtracted pieces. Once I had decided on the poems, I spread the entire collection on the floor of my study over a weekend and I picked up certain poems until I felt I had a couple of segments that seemed to fit. Finally, I gave the whole lot to Eva, my partner. She really helped. I needed a fresh perspective on the poems and their relation to each other.
Can you tell me about the colour plate at the front of the book?
The image is linked to the 876 sequence. It describes a galaxy of stars – a 6 over 9 spiral – with the two ‘numbers’ overlapping, creating a circular middle space occupied by an eye. The image came to me as a drug induced vision. Then, in 2006, I came across the visuals taken by NASA’s Cassini probe of Saturn and I was like: “There’s my eye”. There is a giant storm on Saturn that swirls around the South Pole. The centre of the storm is a huge eye. I heard about the Lucifer Project, a conspiracy theory that states NASA plans to crash their Cassini probe containing a plutonium-based propulsion system through the eye into the planet, detonating the plutonium and igniting Saturn into a Giant Solar Sun. I took the eye and hired an artist to superimpose it over a galaxy design.
Tell me about the process of writing your long poem, ‘PRESS DRUK’.
I had just returned from the 2001 Grahamstown Festival. (I first went to the festival in 1999 when Robert Berold invited me. I had just broken my femur and had written ‘Visitors Welcome’, a poem about my stay in Helen Joseph Hospital. Robert agreed to publish it. He said I should come down to meet some poets. So I went. On the train. On crutches. I had a blast.) In 2001, I took the train down again and it turned out to be a bizarre journey. Grahamstown was great, but it was the train ride that stuck. On my return to Jo’burg I gave it a week then sat down and churned out this eight page monster. There were recommendations from poets and editors that it needed editing, but after writing it in one session where it came out one word at a time, like hammer blows, I found that hard to do. I eventually succumbed and rewrote certain lines about the cop from Noupoort, which were a bit clumsy.
What feelings would you like readers to take away after having read your book?
I would like them to feel they’ve encountered original work, poetry that doesn’t follow a worn, washed-out routine. I want readers to arrive without expectation. How they leave is up to the poetry.
Where has 876 been distributed and how could one get hold of a copy?
876 is distributed by Bacchus Books and available through selective Exclusive Books stores around the country. A few copies are available through Bookdealers of Bedfordview in the Bedford Centre. Thorold’s Books in Harrison Street also has a few copies. Anyone struggling to get hold of it can contact me at
How do you prepare for a performance?
Preparing for a performance requires a few minutes of quiet. I find a corner of the garden, a field, a deserted corridor, anywhere with no people, and I recite the work repeatedly, in a hurried whisper. During a performance I try to focus on people. Most of the time all I can see are the bright lights. I’m sure I must look headlight struck.
Tell me about Tshirt Terrorist and your t-shirt designs.
I think the t-shirt designs are drawn from the same creative pool as poetry. The ideas, when they come, feel like poems. Multimedia poetry. But it’s so much harder than writing mostly because I outsource the process, directing and managing to get the results I feel best fit my intentions. I’m an agitator. I tend to upset people by twisting things to mean what I want them to. Tshirt Terrorist allows me to continue to be my subversive self while striking out for a broader market than my poetry permitted. I tend to do a lot of work with freelance designers, but the ideas are conceptually my own.
I still write, but less frequently, and with less expectation. I realised I needed to do something else or I would begin to unravel against the lack of certainty in my creative work. In 2003, I ended up in hospital after a particularly nasty motorcycle accident. When I came out I had a rough time of it. I had lost my mode of transport and spent about a year on crutches. If it wasn’t for Eva I’m not sure what I would have done. Eva and I had just moved in together and she pulled me through. I owe much of my success to her ability to hold both of us together during this period. The t-shirt ideas started flowing, a trickle at first, then with more urgency. It’s not as easy as it seems, but I seem to be pointing in the right direction.
You can buy my t-shirts online at

Cocktail hour with Liz Gallagher

Liz Gallagher by Vladi Valido

Liz Gallagher was born and brought up in Donegal, Ireland. She has been living in Gran Canary Island for the past 14 years. She has an Education degree and a Computer Science degree. She is at present doing research for her doctoral studies. She began writing about five years ago and has won a variety of awards in both Ireland and the US: Inclusion in the Best New Poets 2007 Anthology (Meridian Press, Virginia University), First Prize in The Listowel Writers’ Single Poem Competition 2009 and she was selected by Poetry Ireland for their 2009 Introductions Series in recognition of her status as an emerging poet.

The Wrong Miracle (Salt Modern Poets, 2009)

Liz, welcome to Johannesburg and cocktail hour at peony moon.  It’s been a heady experience following The Maximus Miracle Tour.
I hope something on the menu tickles your taste buds.  We have Absinthe, Acapulco Sunrises, Alabama Slammers, Alchemist’s Punch, Banshees, Barry Whites, Bitches Brew, Fuzzy Navels, Beijing Mules, Blueberry Martinis, Screwdrivers, Sex on the Beach, Singapore Slings and, of course, Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters.
Hi Michelle, it is wonderful to be here in South Africa.  It’s my first time and I know it will be an experience to remember.  Thanks so much for having me and for preparing such an interesting cocktail menu.  Some of these drinks are just too irresistible, so I shan’t even try.  Thanks, Michelle, all of my cocktails I love shaken but not stirred.

A favourite 'living on the edge' house along Las Palmas promenade

I see you have your photo album tucked under your arm.  Tell me something about your life in the Canary Islands.
Well, we live in the country in a protected valley.  We have a little tumbledown farm that we are looking after and renovating very slowly!  We both work as English Teachers in the Aula de Idiomas in Las Palmas University in the afternoons which is nice as we avoid all rush hour traffic to the city.  The light and spring-like weather practically all the time make it a very pleasant place to live.  The Canarian people are very sociable and outgoing and thus there are always things happening on the island from WOMAD  to the Las Palmas International Film Festival and of course there are always local festivals of song and dance to celebrate grape picking, olive picking, almond picking, water festivals, mud festivals … literally you name it, and they have a festival for it.
It is nice having the mornings free as I either write or study for an hour or two and then go to the farm with our dogs.  The quietness and sense of calm in the country contrasts with the very energetic busy atmosphere of the villages and cities.  All in all, it is a nice place to live in and it lends itself very well to hibernating and escaping the world which suits me fine, at times. I feel very lucky to be here and remind myself not to take it for granted.

Man Imitating Nature

Would you describe your writing process, Liz.
I usually write early in the morning and quite often take part in daily writing challenges with fellow poets to help get motivated.  I normally get inspired by a line or phrase and go where that takes me.  I sometimes write in white text into the screen for a timed period of maybe anything from ten minutes to 30 minutes.  This usually takes the form of what I like to call ‘mental-rioting’ as explained in TFE’s interview:
“The idea of writing in white font is to temporarily avoid Ms. Inner Critic who is usually on 24/7 duty casting an eye on what has been written, she will have her time to do that in the next re-drafting stage but for the tentative beginnings of a poem, I like to give free reign to whatever is in my head.  The first draft usually contains the absolute bones of where the poem is going and where it has landed.  I usually leave the first draft aside for a few weeks and then return to it to view it anew.  My revision usually deals with cutting excess and such like and tweaking here and there by substituting words and phrases but the basic thought and sentiment of the poem remain the same.”

The Three Wise Men on Canteras Beach, Las Palmas

The royalties from The Wrong Miracle sales are going to Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity).  Tell me about the support services Sands offers to those affected by the death of a baby.  How can people get involved?
Sands have a website here.  There are so many different ways to support Sands.  On their website, they outline some very practical ways, and they say the following:
“The death of a baby is a devastating experience.  The effects of grief can be overwhelming, and in the early hours and days parents can be left feeling dazed, disorientated, isolated and exhausted.  It can be hard to take in information, to make decisions or to imagine how you are going to cope.  At Sands there are people who understand what it’s like because many of us have been through this experience ourselves, and we are here to offer support and information when you need it.
Early moments of loss  There are choices you can make about what happens to your baby and to you in the early hours and days of their death.  These decisions, whether they involve keeping momentos of your baby or decisions about naming your baby, can have an impact on how you will feel about this time in years to come.  You may want to talk to someone or read about the feelings of other parents who have been through the same experience.
Important practical information   There are some things that you may have to do after your baby dies including registering your baby’s death and deciding about a post mortem and funeral. In this section we also include information about your post-natal check as well as any benefits you may be eligible for.
A bereavement journey  We understand that the death of a baby is not a one-off event but an emotional journey, that affects every aspect of your life. In this section we look at issues such as going home and back to work, thinking about a new baby, and remembering your baby in the years to come.
Family and friends  As well as supporting mothers and fathers, we are also here to help other members of your family, especially other children you may have and grandparents. Many people may be touched by your baby’s death, whether they be close friends or relations, and all are welcome to contact us for support and information.
Second trimester loss  Your baby may have died during its 2nd trimester. The death of a baby can happen to any one of us at any stage and Sands aims to provide support no matter what your situation.
Talk to someone  You may want to talk to someone who can listen to how you feel or can help you think through what you want to do.  You can do this by calling our national helpline or by exchanging experiences via our forum.  It may help to hear the stories of other bereaved parents in our personal experiences section, from our list of publications, or indeed from the various articles and media which have covered the issue of baby loss. We have a network of over 90 local groups around the UK and you may want to find out whether there is one close to you, or indeed you may prefer to find other support links – listed here in alphabetical order.”
Michelle, you asked how people can become involved. Here are a few of the ways:
Becoming a member
Getting involved with fundraising
Raising awareness
Thanks very much for asking about Sands, Michelle.  It’s great to have an opportunity to highlight what they do. 
Thanks also for being a great hostess and having me on your blog.  The cocktails added to the festive spirit.  I’ll be taking note of a few of the recipes to host a similar occasion when I get back to the Canaries.  I have enjoyed the experience.  Happy Festive Season to you and yours, Michelle, and lots of best wishes for the New Year.
Thank you for your whirlwind visit, Liz.  All the best for the rest of The Maximus Miracle Tour and I look forward to keeping in touch next year.

Cacti burst

Cocktails and Miracles

Make a date to join the charming Liz Gallagher, author of The Wrong Miracle (Salt Modern Poets, 2009), for cocktail hour (or the whole day) on 17 December 2009.
The Maximus Miracle Tour is now well under way. If you need to catch up with what’s been happening, here are Liz’s tour dates and hosts:
28 October 2009 – Event Museum, Arlene Ang
5 November 2009 – The Art of Breathing, Brenda Nixon
12 November 2009 – Women Rule Writer, Nuala Ní Chonchúir
19 November 2009 – The People’s Lost Republic of EEjit
3 December 2009 – More about the Song, Rambling with Rachel Fox
10 December 2009 – Savvy Verse & Wit, Serena M. Agusto-Cox
14 December 2009 – Savvy Verse & Wit, Serene M. Agusto-Cox II
17 December 2009 – Cocktails at peony moon
2 January 2010 – Theory of Iconic Realism, Jeanne Iris Lakatos
11 January 2010 – The Truth about Lies, Jim Murdoch
Liz will be chatting about her life in the Canary Islands and her writing process. She’ll also tell us a little more about Sands: Stillbirth & neonatal death charity, the organisation which is receiving the royalties from sales of The Wrong Miracle.
In the meantime, here’s what people having been saying about
The Wrong Miracle:
“Liz Gallagher’s poems seize us from the first line and tug us along, startled and exhilarated by the tumbling originality of her words.”
– Laurie Smith, Magma
“Whether about an untranslated paragraph on shooting ducks or breakfast cereals, Picasso and a sexual snap, Liz Gallagher’s poems are proof that everyday movements generate power and magic. The Wrong Miracle is the work of a master illusionist – a fusion of the surreal and the domestic, the strategic and the spontaneous – where perception is challenged and subtly reinvented.”
– Arlene Ang, The Pedestal Magazine
“These are poems that may surprise: sprinkled with humour and vivid word pictures. The verbal twists take you by a friendly matter-of-fact hand to show you other truths. Liz Gallagher owns a true poet’s eye for detail paired with a flair for oddly compelling juxtaposition. Her poetry wants to show you this other thing it has found, like a cat displaying its catch. (as in her poem) ‘Just look what the cat dragged in’.”
– Barry Harris, Tipton Poetry Journal
“Long lines with suprising phrases and rushing, tumbling images mark the narrative trend of Liz Gallagher’s poetry. The poems lean into the strength of these narratives, rely upon the poet’s willing experimentation with varietal voice, and in so doing, create a distinctive diction – one with instrospective vision that bubbles out of earthy perception, like a choice mineral spring.”
– Eve Anthony Hanninen, poet, writer, artist & editor
of The Centrifugal Eye
Liz blogs at Musings.
Order your copy of The Wrong Miracle here.

‘Augusta Fabergé’ in Ouroboros Review

ouroboros four

Cover art by Jennifer Delaney

I’m very pleased to have a new poem, ‘Augusta Fabergé’, included in the fourth issue of ouroboros review alongside wonderful work by fellow bloggers: Sophie Mayer, Annie Clarkson, Matt Merritt, Arlene Ang and Deb Scott, among many others.
Collin Kelley conducts an absorbing and candid interview with Cecilia Woloch, author of Sacrifice, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, Late, Narcissus and Carpathia (BOA Editions, 2009), while Louisa Adjoa Parker asks important questions about black and minority ethnic publishing in the United Kingdom.
This issue also contains arresting visual art by Jennifer Delaney, Tammy Ho Lai-ming, Julie E. Bloemeke, Deb Scott and Jéanpaul Ferro.
Read it here.

Horizon Review: Issue Three

I’m very pleased to have two poems and an interview with 
Pascale Petit in the third issue of online literary journal,
Horizon Review
The issue is filled with good writing:  poetry, fiction, reviews,
interviews and articles.
Read more here …