Tag Archives: poet interviews

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.
 
 
  
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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.
 
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Order When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things.
 
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Discover more about Grace and her collection at:
 
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s Women Rule Writer
 
Rachel Fenton’s Snowlikethought
 
Brandon Wallace’s Julius Speaks

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 …

An interview with Tom Chivers

  
     
Tom Chivers was born in 1983. A writer, editor and promoter, he is Director of live literature organisation Penned in the Margins, Co-Director of London Word Festival and Associate Editor of international journal Tears in the Fence. In 2008 he was the first ever Poet in Residence at The Bishopsgate Institute, London. In September 2009 BBC Radio 4 broadcast his documentary about the poet Barry MacSweeney.
     
His first collection, How To Build A City, was published by Salt in 2009. A sequence of poems, The Terrors, has appeared as a limited edition chapbook from Nine Arches Press, described by Iain Sinclair as ‘dark London history, dredged and interrogated’.
     
Tom, what did you enjoy about studying Medieval English Literature at Oxford?
       
Grappling with medieval literature at university was an extraordinary privilege, but a slog too. I had to learn Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from scratch and even some of the Middle English dialects are pretty demanding. Beowulf, Pearl, Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, most of Chaucer and countless other texts have really nourished my love of language, of eccentricity, humour and the exotic. My final year dissertation was entitled ‘Literary Practice in Late Medieval London’ and certainly extended the depth of my knowledge of and interest in London history. My thesis proposed that the socio-political conditions of the city at that time (1350-1500) created a peculiarly heightened sense of textual anxiety. I think we’re going through something similar now, with the internet, blogging, e-books and the rest.
      
Salt recently published your Crashaw Prize-winning collection, How To Build A City. How did you decide upon the title?
      
How To Build A City is the title of the longest piece in the book, a prose narrative I sometimes refer to as a kind of failed travelogue to the East End. Initially it appeared as an A3 poster pull-out in the underground literary magazine The Edgeless Shape – if I remember correctly, one of the editors, Caleb Klaces, came up with the title during a conversation at his kitchen table!
     
The volume is divided into two parts.  How did you order the poems?
     
With difficulty. I knew I wanted the title piece in the middle, the sequence of fragments ‘Thom, C & I’ at the end, and some short poems at the beginning. The rest just fell into place during the editing process. The first part of the book focuses on the city; the second part is more of a miscellany, with poems set in Israel, Nepal and the Peak District.
        
Tell me about your relationship with London and, in particular, the East End?
      
I was born and raised in South London but have lived in the East End for the past five years. I identify with the city very strongly. I suppose it’s a kind of pride, but not a static, smug sense of belonging but a flawed, fluid impulse to describe the urban environment. Or rather, to evoke and work-out my subjective relationship with that environment. I don’t believe in a poetry that speaks truths or captures a knowable ‘reality’. I am suspicious of those who do. I admire the Futurists, the way they engaged with the speed and ruthless modernity of urbanism. I don’t care much for their decline into low-level Fascism, however.
      
When I first moved to the East End I felt as if I had betrayed my roots south of the river. I know that sounds pompous, but hey … It’s a very strange area. It’s a terminus zone for journeys of exile: French Huguenots, Russian Jews, Bengalis, Somalis. I live on a historic street market, reputedly where cockney rhyming slang was invented. That might sound romantic and sometimes it is, but usually it’s just very loud. I don’t get much sleep.
     
Which local East End haunts would you recommend to a first-time visitor?
     
The whole area around Spitalfields is fascinating, although I would recommend avoiding the rather mawkish Jack the Ripper tours. The tiny alleys off Middlesex Street are worth hunting down, as well as the grand Georgian houses on Fournier, Princelet and Wilkes Streets. Further south, near the Tower of London, is one of the most beautiful and undiscovered buildings in the city: Wilton’s Music Hall. So much of the East End, particularly around the Docks, was destroyed during the Blitz, so it’s a blessing this crumbling gem is still here.
     
Can you briefly describe your chapbook, The Terrors?
      
The Terrors is a sequence of ‘imagined emails’ written to inmates at London’s notorious Newgate Prison between 1700 and 1740. Still with me? Good. The poems steal from various sources including The Newgate Calendar, a popular anthology of prison tales which combines celebrity, voyeurism and moral snobbery with shameless gore. I’ve incorporated some of the tone and language of the original, as well as oblique references to modern places of terror, such as Abu Ghraib and the Big Brother house.
      
As director of Penned in the Margins, you promote live literature in the city. Is the spoken word scene thriving in London?
     
Yes, thriving and surviving! The last five or six years has seen a genuine revival in interest in spoken word, and a lot of energy has been generated by independent promoters. The extent to which that revival will extend beyond transitory media attention and occasional culture industry buy-in is yet to be decided. But I am personally excited about what is being written, read and performed. I see my role as an instigator of activity and nurturer of talent. I’m in it for the long haul.
     
Penned in the Margins has also published anthologies, Generation Txt and City State: The New London Poetry, as well as full collections by David Caddy, Tamsin Kendrick, Ross Sutherland, Stephanie Leal and Sarah Hesketh.  Does conflict exist between your work as an editor and your own writing?  How compatible are the two?
     
That’s a probing question indeed. Speaking frankly, there are some ways in which my work as an editor/promoter has actually stymied my own creativity. But now I’ve had my first collection published, I feel more justified in carving out time to write. In general I’m concerned with drawing a distinct line between my professional work and my writing, but that line is often blurrier than I’d like. I’m lucky enough to work with writers who inspire and influence me – Iain Sinclair, Ross Sutherland, James Wilkes, et al. Being a poet also helps me edit other people’s work as I hope to bring sensitivity and attention to language to the process.
         
Would you name a few of your favourite poetry collections? Why are they important to you?
    
The Book of Demons by Barry MacSweeney for its passion, dark comedy and jagged edge. Seamus Heaney’s North for the visceral language and for risk. The wildly musical poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins have been an inspiration (as well as Alice Oswald, whose first two books channel that music brilliantly); I connect with the humour of Ashbery and the controlled energy of the New York poets, as well as the relentless innovation of Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, and others. Of more recent volumes, D.S. Marriott’s Hoodoo Voodoo takes some beating for its haunting evocation of the Afro-Diaspora experience. I think Chris McCabe is mining some important veins too.
    
Thank you for your time, Tom.
  
Read more about Tom and How To Build A City here.
    
Follow Tom’s blog, this is yogic.
 
Read more from Tom at the Londonist and Gists and Piths. Tomorrow, he’ll stop by Baroque in Hackney and on Friday he’ll visit Mercy Recommends.

Scottish poet Rob A. Mackenzie interviewed on his De-Cabbage Yourself! tour

 
   
Rob A. Mackenzie was born and brought up in Glasgow.  He received a law degree from Aberdeen University and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology at Edinburgh University.  He wrote over seven hundred songs and doubled on guitar and saxophone for cult art-rock bands Pure Television and Plastic Chicken.  Despite airplay on Radio Scotland and a rash of gigs in tiny Glasgow pubs, he failed miserably to achieve rock stardom.  He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in a Lanarkshire housing scheme, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh with his wife and daughter where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series by night and works as a Church of Scotland minister by day.  His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005.  The Opposite of Cabbage was published this year by Salt Publishing .  His poems, articles and criticism have featured in many literary publications over the last decade or so.  He is an associate editor with Magma magazine. He blogs at Surroundings and at the Magma blog.
    
Rob, will you describe the Glasgow of your childhood?  What were the main social, political and cultural influences of your youth?
    
I lived in the south-west of the city.  Like most boys, I was a football fanatic.  My great uncle took me to games (I maybe won’t mention which team) and I played for my Boys Brigade team until I became a teenager and left the BB.  I was a chess fanatic and played for an under-18 team when I was 12.  I also learned the bagpipe and entered many competitions.  A big change took place when I turned 15 or so.  I dropped the bagpipe in favour of the guitar and started a band.  Glasgow briefly became the centre of everything that was happening in UK music during the 80s.  Indie pop music, particularly the jangly guitar variety, was vital to me.  I sat in my bedroom and listened to The Smiths, Orange Juice and Josef K.  I watched Woody Allen movies and read Graham Greene novels.  I guess I was typical of a certain type of teenager – the kind who wears black clothes and finds solace in Joy Division lyrics.  I might have had better fun hanging around outside the chip shop and going to parties, but it’s too late now.
 
You spent a year in Seoul.  Would you recount something of that experience?
       
It was a great experience, from 1989 to 1990.  I studied Korean liberation theology, taught English, and generally had a great time meeting people and travelling around a country many people would never think of going to.  I loved the food, the friendliness of the people, the clamour of the city, the maccoli houses (maccoli is a Korean alcoholic drink, made from rice, more like beer than wine) and the beauty of the countryside.  The country was a still a little unstable, despite 1988’s democratic election, and there were protests daily on the streets.  The college where I was studying was shut down for two months due to student unrest.  There was often tear gas in the air and I learned to carry a hanky around with me to cover my nose and eyes, just in case.  But people, especially young people, seemed positive about the future and were excited over the new freedoms.  They wanted to talk all the time about politics, the west, and Korean identity.  When I returned to Scotland, people seemed really jaded and cynical in comparison, and I often wonder whether Koreans have become similarly cynical over the last twenty years or not.
     
Later, you moved to Turin for five years.  Has living in other countries, among different cultures and languages, affected your writing and the way you see the world?  Has moving around the world been beneficial for you?
     
That’s hard to know.  I’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve had living abroad.  It’s widened my social and cultural experience, helped me understand what it’s like to live as a foreigner, and introduced me to some great people.  It also, perhaps, gives me a particular perspective on Scotland.  I can look at how things are done here and compare it to other places.  I’ve no excuses when I’m small-minded.  Of course, there are strengths to living in the same place for an entire life as well.
 
You’re the organiser of Poetry at the Great Grog in Edinburgh.  Tell me about the history and some of the highlights of the reading series.  How does a Great Grog poetry evening unfold?
      
It began when Scottish poet, Roddy Lumsden, who lives in London, asked me to organise a venue for him to read in during a trip to Edinburgh.  I found the Great Grog Bar and decided afterwards that I could do it more often.  It’s now developed into a monthly series – three or four poets read each time.  The event has recently moved from the Great Grog to the Jekyll & Hyde Bar, which suits the readings better, and the event is now called ‘Poetry at the…’.  Poets read for 15 to 20 minutes with a short break after each reading.  There are no gimmicks, no bells and whistles – just quality poems.  As organiser, I wouldn’t want to pick out highlights.  I’m grateful to everyone who has read.  Really, there have been no poor readings at all and I hope that continues.
    
The Guardian is currently running a series called Writers’ Rooms.  Will you describe your creative space?
    
My office is chaotic.  I don’t have enough space on my bookcase.  Books and CDs are spread all over the place in no particular order.  In one corner is my computer, where I tend to write.  At another wall, there’s a desk, which is rarely free from clutter.  That’s dominated by my day job – notes, admin, forms to fill in, stuff I need to read for professional reasons.  Copies of The Opposite of Cabbage lie morosely in a box on the floor.  Pictures drawn by my seven-year-old daughter adorn the walls.  A naked bulb hangs from the ceiling.  There are no curtains or blinds at the window, which overlooks my neighbour’s garden.  As I write this, their washing is being soaked by a sudden downpour…
      
How transformative has fatherhood been for you?  Has it made you feel differently about yourself?  Has it changed your outlook on life?
    
I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how much becoming a parent changes a life.  Everything begins to revolve around your children.  This is made more complicated for my wife and I because my daughter is autistic.  She is extremely intelligent, with unbelievable memory, sight, hearing etc, but she also has real difficulties, especially in social situations.  One thing I realised quickly was how few resources are directed to the condition compared to many other disabilities.  We spend a lot of time agitating for support and help, often being met with official indifference and excuses.  We get the feeling that countries such as Australia and (to an extent) the USA are far more geared up to deal with autism, although I could be wrong.
    
I don’t feel that children and young people are valued much in the UK at the best of times compared to, for example, Italy.  I doubt I would have been as aware of this if I hadn’t been a parent.  And is the UK the only country in the world where it’s actually cool to be apathetic?  I think that’s because deliberate apathy is only a short step from helplessness.  Having a child means I can’t afford to be apathetic.
      
Could you name a few of your favourite books?  Why are they important to you?
     
I’ll stick to five, otherwise I could go on forever.  Tomorrow, I’d probably choose different books.  In no particular order:
    
Harmonium by Wallace Stevens:  His debut collection from 1921.  It’s like a foundation for me when I come to write. Nothing has been easily won or thoughtlessly written.  I return to this collection periodically to remind myself what poetry can be.
    
The Truth of Poetry by Michael Hamburger:  on one level, an international overview of 20th century poetry but, on another, an uncompromising and visionary view of what poetry has been and could be.  Warning: this book may change the way you see every poem you read or write.
    
Black Sea by Neal Ascherson:  ostensibly a chronicle of the history, culture and people of the Black Sea region, this fascinating book delves into deep questions of human identity.  Ascherson shows how past events in this region resonate powerfully in the present day.  It’s also terrific writing.
    
Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders:  I appreciate heavyweight, well written, impeccably researched theology, and this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read.  The book questions and revises received opinion but, unlike populist books on Christianity, knows what it’s talking about.
     
Selected Poems by Michael Hofmann:  can’t recommend this book of poems enough.  One of the best poets of the 20th century’s tail-end?  I think so.
     
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Read more about The Opposite of Cabbage.
    
Visit Rob’s blog, Surroundings.
    
If you haven’t been following Rob’s book tour and want to catch up on his interviews, do check out his previous hosts.  
    
Rob’s next tour stop is Nic Sebastian’s Very Like A Whale on
10 August 2009.  See you there.

Pascale Petit’s The Treekeeper’s Tale

Pascale Petit has an interesting interview on her new blog.  Romanian MA student, Oana-Teodora Ionesco, interviews the French/Welsh poet about her latest collection, The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008).
    
On her blog, Pascale has also posted photographs and accounts of her trips to Venezuela’s Lost World as well as an article about translating Yang Lian’s ‘The Valley and the End: A Story’.
    
For fans of Frida Kahlo, Pascale’s fifth collection, What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, is to be published in June 2010.
    
Read the interview by Oana-Teodora Ionescu here.
    
Visit Pascale’s blog and website.

Rob A. Mackenzie’s De-Cabbage Yourself! Tour

On 3 August 2009, Peony Moon is thrilled to be hosting Rob Mackenzie’s De-Cabbage Yourself! Tour. Rob’s collection, The Opposite of Cabbage, was published this year by Salt Publishing. 
 
Here’s what Bernadine Evaristo has to say about the volume:
  
“Rob A. Mackenzie’s vibrant, kaleidoscopic poetry displays a playful, witty and fertile imagination. But sometimes, just sometimes, it dips into a deep reflection on the frailty of our mortality such as in the exquisite poem, ‘In the Last Few Seconds’, which took my breath away.”
 
Read Barbara Smith’s review of The Opposite of Cabbage here.
   
The tour has already stopped at three destinations, so to catch up with Rob’s interviews take a look at the following blogs:
  
Nic Sebastian: Very Like A Whale
Marion McCready: Poetry in Progress
Ivy Alvarez: Dumbfoundry
  
The next stop on 22 June 2009 will be Nicolette Bethel’s Scavella’s Blogsphere.
  
For full tour details take a look at the De-Cabbage Yourself! Cyclone page and to read more about Rob and The Opposite of Cabbage visit his Salt author page. Do visit Rob’s blog, Surroundings, too.
 
See you on 3 August!

Roddy Lumsden interview: Poetry, Kate and me

 
“Of all the things one might expect to discuss over coffee with a Scottish (male) poet, couture dresses are not among them.  But then not many Scottish (male) poets have spent time on a fashion shoot with Kate Moss.
  
Roddy Lumsden, however, was asked by top photographer Nick Knight to be a kind of poet-in-residence while he shot Moss in statement couture dresses for New York’s V Magazine.  London-based Lumsden was to write several poems for Knight’s website, picking up on the theme of the shoot – wild flowers.  One of them, “Bloom”, would be read by Moss herself.”
 
Read Susan Mansfield’s interview with Roddy Lumsden in The Scotsman here.

Ouroboros Review, Issue Two: An interview and poems

The second issue of poetry and art journal, ouroboros review, is now online and includes an interview with me and a few poems. 
 
 
Here’s a brief extract from the interview:
   
It’s hard to say how living in South Africa has influenced my writing.  I find it difficult to think of “influences”; so many things combine to create voice and writing style.  If anything, I’d say direct influences have been contemporary Northern hemisphere poets:  American, Canadian and English.  In my early twenties, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s work, and I adored Erica Jong’s chutzpah.
  
I admire the poetry of Louise Glück, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Pascale Petit, Vicki Feaver, Mary Oliver, Ted Hughes, T S Eliot, Mark Doty, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Derek Walcott, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, William Carlos Williams, Billy Collins and many more.  There are some wonderful South African poets:  Isobel Dixon, Rustum Kozain, Kelwyn Sole, Karen Press, Finuala Dowling, Joan Metelerkamp, Fiona Zerbst and Gabeba Baderoon, among others.

  
 
Issue two also contains Collin Kelley’s interview with Vanessa Daou, poetry by Iain Britton, Allan Peterson, Rebecca Gethin, Robin Reagler, Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, Paul Stevens, Dustin Brookshire, Carolee Sherwood, Deb Scott, Jill Crammond Wickham – and that’s just the beginning.  The eye-catching cover art of the full moon over Atlanta is the work of talented photographer, Meg Pearlstein.
 
Indefatigable editors, Jo Hemmant and Christine Swint, have once again done a sterling job.  The journal is beautifully laid out and produced. 
 
Read it here.

Shaindel Beers: “On the hood of a Cutlass Supreme” Tour

Shaindel Beers’ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.  She is currently a professor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and also serves as Poetry Editor of ContraryA Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing, 2009) is her first poetry collection.  She is working on her second collection, The Children’s War.
   
 
Shaindel, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
  
I’m not sure what a “normal” upbringing is in America, given our melting pot reputation, but I always felt I had it a bit odd.  My father’s background is Russian-Jewish, and he’s from Brooklyn, and my mother’s heritage is from nearly all of the countries of the British Isles, and she’s from a farming family.  So, I grew up in a very rural, farm town of fewer than two thousand people with a father who wasn’t like any of the other fathers I knew (not a farmer or a factory worker), and my siblings and I (with the exception of my sister Adria) all had traditional Jewish names – Shaindel, Aaron, and Avram.
 
I’m pretty sure like a lot of writers, I was a “weird kid”.  I was always making up stories and either writing them down or acting them out.  I had an imaginary world I would go to in the backyard, and the way to get there was to swing in the chair swing on my swing set and sing a magical song.  I won’t give the lyrics away, but I will tell you that the plant-life was blue and the sky was magenta.  I was also addicted to reading because it was another easy way to escape real life.  When the local library had the summer book club, I would check out a stack of books I couldn’t see over each time we went to the library, and the library was a popular summer destination because it was a free public place with air conditioning.
 
Will you describe the Argos of your childhood?  What were the main social, political and cultural influences of your youth?
 
The Argos of my childhood was probably much stranger than I realised at the time.  From the outside, and for a time, it was quite idyllic.  I would play at the park across the street from my house, where my mom could see me from the kitchen window, or my father and I would practice batting, catching, and throwing in the backyard.  If I was at my grandparents’ farm, I would ride my bike all day or I would go horseback riding with my friends who lived near my grandparents.
 
In 1984 and 1986, there were two murders that have still gone unsolved to this day, and they had a great influence on my childhood.  My mother became very protective, especially because the 1986 murder was of an eleven year old girl who was staying home from school with the flu.  I write about this in an essay which will be published in the spring issue of Contrary.  It’s an essay on what it was like to read a “true crime” novel, when I had known the victim.  Basically, my childhood went from being very idyllic to extremely repressive.
 
I think most of the influences of my youth were things that helped me rebel against the narrow scope of a rural town that was overwhelmingly Republican and oppressively religious, at least back then.  I listened to whatever music my friends listened to (and whatever was in at the time).  Some of these bands will date me and be really embarrassing, but a lot of time was spent listening to The Smiths, The Cure, and then a lot of Guns ‘N Roses and those sorts of “hair bands”.  I vividly remember reading Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla one day in in-school suspension, and that seemed pivotal.  I mean, what’s more rebellious than a lesbian vampire novella from 1872 (or reading it in in-school suspension)?
 
But regardless of how I tried to rebel, there was always something oddly Indiana about everything.  For instance, one of my high school boyfriend’s grandparents were Amish, and when he and I were together in our world, we were high schoolers getting into trouble (I think we actually met in detention) and listening to angst-ridden teenage music, and then when we visited his grandparents, we unloaded hay at an auction yard and visited their gigantic Belgian plow horse and looked at quilt patterns with his grandma.
    
When did your passion for words develop?
  
I’m sure very early, but I don’t know how early.  I know that before I could write by myself I would tell my mom stories and make her write them down.  When I was sorting some things years ago, I came across a slip of paper with something about a cat and a rat written in crayon on it, and I asked my mom what it was, and she told me I would make her write stories like that all the time.
 
We also didn’t have a lot of money – so little, in fact, that how my family lived is still a little bit of a mystery to me, but I’ve never asked my parents about it – but when we got those Scholastic Book Club order forms at school, my mom let me buy whatever books I wanted.  Other students would always laugh at how many books I got.
 
My mother wrote a local history book (one of those sold in county historical museums) when I was about seven, and I used to research with her by going to graveyards and copying down names and birthdates and death dates and “proofreading” pages of the book.  I doubt I was actually proofreading, but she let me pretend I was.  She also completed her Master’s degree sometime around this point, so I remember her always researching and typing (on an electric typewriter) and showing me how things worked – like changing the ribbon or using correction tape.  Thank G-d for computers!
 
My father always had some massive book from the library with him wherever he went, so I guess this was what I grew up thinking adults did.  My parents, despite whatever other flaws they had, were probably the best intellectual role models I could have had in the time and place I grew up.
 
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?

Wow.  This is a hard question.  I had the great fortune of studying with Richard (Rick) Jackson at Vermont College, and his views on associative poetry changed the way I write immensely.  He told me to read everything I was interested in, especially nonfiction, and to include all of that in my poetry – landscape, philosophy, physics etc.  I’m afraid I’m sort of a fickle reader; nearly any book I like that I’ve just read is my “favourite”.  But some books and writers that stand out are If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which changed the way I think about writing.  One of my friends told me it would, and I thought he was exaggerating, but it really did.  It made me not take linearity so seriously.  Why tell things in order?  I was so blown away when things wrapped up in the end, that I actually hugged the book.  I didn’t want to let it get away.  Cosmicomics, also by Calvino, taught me to think outside of the boundaries, too.  In that story collection, there are characters that are molecules, nebular dust, all types of possibilities.

Anne Carson’s poetry does something that I want to accomplish, but I can’t even put into words what that is.  “The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony and God, in which she interweaves Emily Bronte’s life with the speaker’s (I’m assuming her own) is amazing.  There is something about the economy of emotion which is almost like an out of body experience.  I think that Louise Gluck does something similar in a lot of her work.  There is some sort of elegance in talking about such emotionally-charged events in a detached way that it almost becomes more emotional for the reader because of the absence of emotion in the writer.  It is almost as if the reader’s emotion does the work because the writer leaves out a piece of the puzzle.
 
Anne Sexton has always seemed brave to me.  Just writing a poem entitled, “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife”, is brave, let alone what it says in the poem.  And she’s always surprising with images, especially in that poem, “I have been momentary. / A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor” and that heartbreaking ending, “As for me, I am a watercolor. / I wash off.”  I think any woman, regardless of her romantic history, feels that ending.
 
Would you name a few of your favourite books?  Why are they important to you?

I’ve already named several, but let’s see …  When someone asks about favourite books, I generally think of prose.  For some reason, it’s hard to come up with favourite poetry collections, but I have favourite poems and poets.  As far as favourite books, it’s been a long time since I read it, but Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter sticks with me.  I think it’s because each character is so beautifully tragic because they are so fully human.  Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America is a gorgeous short story collection.  The one time I can remember simultaneously laughing and crying while reading was the story “People Like That Are the Only People Here”.  And I love what Lorrie Moore does with alternate stories and characterisation in Anagrams.
 
Another thing I like that writers do is when they rework previous works – like retellings of myth, fairy tale, or Shakespeare’s plays.  I recently read David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle which is a retelling of Hamlet in mid-twentieth century rural Wisconsin and found that really interesting.  I really enjoyed Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, in which she uses the figures of Odysseus and Penelope to explore the breakdown of (presumably) her own marriage.  I guess in the same vein, we could add Kate Daniels’ The Niobe Poems, where she takes the grieving mythological mother and transforms her into a farm wife whose son drowned in a river; Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, where she takes the myth of Herakles and Geryon and turns it into a teenage same-sex love story, and, of course, Anne Sexton’s Transformations.  I think these stand out to me because there is a plot that holds the collection together, and the story holds up rather than individual poems or images staying in my memory.

I guess that was a roundabout way of answering, but I got to it.
  
*
  
Shaindel’s next virtual tour stop is Brandon Wallace’s blog, Julius Speaks, on 11 March.  Don’t miss it.
  
All “On the hood of a Cutlass Supreme” tour dates are here.
  
Order A Brief History of Time here.