Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Two interviews (!) with Richard Harrison

It was a privilege to interview the Canadian poet Richard Harrison prior to his reading in Oxford last week. Richard's latest book, On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood (Wolsak & Wynn, 2016), won the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 2017. The book was also shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize and won the Stephan G. Stephansson Alberta Poetry Prize. Richard's previous five books of poetry include Big Breath of a Wish, poems about his daughter’s acquisition of language, and Hero of the Play, poems in the language of hockey, launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Richard kindly suggested two kinds of interview: one in which he wrote out his answers (and they appear below), and a discussion for our podcast in which we talked around the same questions, with numerous elaborations and interesting digressions! The audio will be available via our website soon. You can also hear Richard reading from his collection here.


NM: In your acknowledgements to this book, you credit your editor, Paul Vermeersch, with helping you develop 'the change in my work my father's life and death deserved to effect in it.' In what ways does this book represent such a change? And why was it necessary for a book about your father to respond in new ways?

RH: Paul did an enormous amount of good for the book and for me over the course of the year or so we were working on it. What I’m thinking of in that comment is the way his suggestion of spreading the poems out on the page the way they are now led me to rework the entire book in the two months prior to publication. I write pretty well all my poems as pure blocks of text — I just write and let the margins set themselves. No line breaks, no verse breaks; it’s the way I get at the purely oral quality of the art form. For a lot of the qualities of the poetry I write, it works. But I got too caught up in that form, and closed around it. The result was a very unattractive block of words. I could read them. I could read them out loud. And I probably am overestimating their difficulty for others because I did get them published, and a couple of them won awards for single published poems. 

But Paul saw that the experience of reading them could be much more welcoming, much more open, and so he suggested this new “mise-en-page” format, which appealed to me because it treated words and lines on the page like actors. So I reworked a few poems and both liked them as visual works and found flaws in their oral aspects because the words weren’t protecting each other in their block any more. As I said, it opened the poems, and then the book, up. It let the reader in. It let the reader, and me, feel the poem through their eyes. And funnily enough, this is the only book of mine I can read without my glasses; the space made the words bigger. 

In terms of my father’s life and death, taking Paul’s advice on this point has let me share my father’s meaning more broadly than I ever have both because it pushed me to make the poems better than they had been, and, from their conversation with me, let them reach others with both my father’s presence — and poetry’s — in a way he would have been happy with. He offered poetry as a way of broadening the world, and this book is the book he couldn’t live to see in part because it couldn’t have been written in his lifetime, and I don’t think I’d have taken such a change as Paul suggested if the book hadn’t meant as much as it did. In a sense, this book is my father’s last lesson, and I think he’d have appreciated both the joke in that and the rightness.

NM: When and how did you realise that the disaster of the Alberta floods and your own personal disaster of the death of your father needed to be intertwined in this book?

RH: The writing about my father’s life — and, later, illness and death — has always been a part of my work. My father’s recitations of Yeats and Thomas, Browning and Shakespeare, were the ground for my love of poetry. In many ways, some that are in the book, and some not, what was exchanged between us in the poems we memorized together was our most profound conversation. And yet much of him remained absent from me. He was one of those soldiers who rarely, if ever, spoke about his war, though it shaped him immensely. I later learned that that approach to personal history was his for everything that pained him. So of course, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure him out, to understand him — and to do so in the language that we shared. 

I didn’t so much choose the floods as choose to accept their effect. In a way I’d describe as both literal and literary, that bank-overflowing river flooded my writing: my archives and much of my poetry collection were on the ground floor of my house, and the water drenched my papers and threatened to destroy my books. Some of the pages of my early work the water re-wrote, smearing the ink so the pages said different things than what I’d written years before. I know a sign when I see one. I’ve taught that art is our answer to what we cannot change. I was thinking about death when I said it; the flood  gave me another unchangeable. And for at least a while, as well as rewriting my past in its own image, it stole away the signs, the proof, of my father’s death, the origin of my definition of the purpose of art. Sometimes art has to bend to the world; it would have been, if not wrong, the denial of a gift not to have put these together.

NM: In 'Gone', you write that 'American literature is about grief spread over space'. Is this a fair way to describe your own book? How did you go about constructing the collection and its order? Did you make a deliberate attempt to steer away from a 'traditional' - perhaps rather depressing! - notion of grief?

RH: I like the idea that I was describing (also) my own book in that line. Thank you. I’ll have to think more on that. I’ve always thought of that line as marking a distinction between American writing and Canadian (at least as far as I understand either) through the difference between the road-trip grieving of the couple in that poem, taking the groom’s mother’s ashes across the U.S., and my own domestic grief in my father’s ashes lost in one room in my home and found in another. In terms of writing about what we create to define space and our place in it, it might be true to say that where American writing is about cars, Canadian writing is about houses. Of course, if the line is a fair description of my own book, then my poem knew more than I did. 

The ordering of the book is a good question. This book feels like it grew in layers: three wider ones — the book about poetry and already-established forms of writing; the book about loss, chiefly in terms of my father’s illness and death; the book about the flood — and a slenderer one about love, with that finest one having the last word.

In arranging and interweaving them, I learned a lot (maybe the most) from Canadian novelist Timothy Findley, who was an actor before he wrote prose, about staging and story-telling. As a result, as I alluded to in the first question, I see a book of poems as a kind of play, with a play’s tension between the narrative that drives the characters in one direction and their individual traits and desires that pull them in many. The flood rearranged my house, and much of my city, in that same way. The book was part of that rearrangement and reordering. One thing it did was free me from worrying about the chronological order of the book because after the flood, like all things that came through it, all the poems became equal in a way they hadn’t been before. 

I’m glad you don’t find the grief expressed in the poetry depressing. I don’t want it to be. A few years ago, when I was interviewing him during his  visit to Calgary, Billy Collins said that poetry is sad content in happy form. And I took him to mean the happiness of poetry itself. If art answers death, it must do so with a beauty that elevates us, otherwise it’s no answer, just more death. I also find, over the years, that I subscribe to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as violent emotion recalled in tranquility, though not as I once thought of that definition — as just remembering a feeling without feeling it, the way we are free to laugh, sometimes, at moments we were in a great rage because we remember it from the outside — but as feeling again an emotion that once overwhelmed us but without it overwhelming us. The poem is how we make use of what once ruled us. So grief is still present in the poem, giving it its weight, but there is also the relief of having grieved, which gives it its lightness.

NM: I was really interested in a particular idea in 'The World Made New': 'that terrible excellence' when 'words have no past and in them is the world made new.' Is it possible to wash words completely clean like this? Don't they always hold some trace of history or memory? What kind of poetry has the capacity to make words new?

RH: To wash words completely clean, I don’t think so, though I think that sound poetry, Dadaist and Futurist and concrete poetry, Oulippian approaches are all examples of poetry drawn even more strongly than I am by that ideal. And it’s with that in mind that I read and listen to those forms. 

But I do think it’s an ideal at work even in the poetry that clearly requires words to have history. In a way, those poems, like mine, are trying to trick the words out of their history so that even if they aren’t ahistorical or without a tether to their ordinary meaning, they feelnew, they feel like they’ve been said for the first time. 

I know it’s an illusion, but I love when it happens, when it makes me think of both the meaning of particular words and of them as without meaning at the same time. It happens for me in “This Poem is Alive Because it is Unfinished” where the women taking care of my father in his last weeks say of him, “He’s our favourite,” and I realize that for me, in that moment,  that sentence means exactly the same when its true as when it’s not. If it’s true, it’s a lovely and comforting thing for them to say to me — and I believe it; Dad was a charming man. If it’s false, it’s a lovely and comforting thing for them to say to me — and I believe it; they want to offer me something to hold onto in my imminent loss. And so whether the line is true or not, it does the same work; in fact, it’s poetry, pure poetry in the sense we’re talking about here: it actually does more if it is equally true or false, which is as close as I can get to separating those words from their history (as tied to their truth) and have them mean something new.  

NM: Part of the complexity and power of the book is to be found in its interrogation of what poetry is and what it can do. Did you discover new things about poetry in the writing of this collection?

RH: Thank you. Some of what I’ve mentioned above about art as our answer, and the poem, if only in a line, as finding something more than truth and falsehood, are things I discovered (or discovered what serve as examples for me) in my own work this time around. To return to your first question, I discovered the way the line, as a visual component of the poem, could be used as a test of its aural strength, and that was something I hadn’t been able to make work as well as I wanted to in the past. 

But as much as I was interested in finding out what poetry was or wasn’t in this collection prior to publishing it, I’ve learned as much if not more in the time since. If I could encapsulate that, it’s to say that when poetry does its work, people respond to it in its language.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

An interview with Shara Lessley


I was really pleased to have the chance to sit down with Shara Lessley recently and talk about her new book The Explosive Expert's Wife (University of Wisconsin Press). I have admired Shara's work for some time (in her collection Two-Headed Nightingale), so I was very interested to see how her themes and style might have evolved in her new work. And this new collection is beautifully crafted - overall as a collection as well as from poem to poem - and formally ambitious, as well as being astutely politically engaged and emotionally rich.

In the podcast interview we began by discussing Shara's poem 'The Clinic Bomber's Mother', which was featured as the Weekly Poem in March. You can read the poem and hear the full interview here.

Monday, 7 May 2018

An interview with Peter Raynard and Richard Skinner

We were delighted to host poets Peter Raynard and Richard Skinner recently. The pair are currently touring the UK (#SmokestackRollercoasterTour) to read from their new books Precarious and The Malvern Aviator, both published by Smokestack Books. A short interview by Niall Munro with Peter and Richard appears below. They will also be reading at Northern Rising (Newcastle) on 14 May, the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye on 2 June, at the Shindig in Leicester (date TBC), the Square Chapel, Halifax (TBC), and at the Swindon Poetry Festival (4 October).

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives. His debut collection, Precarious, was published by Smokestack Books in April 2018. He has also completed a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters at the end of May 2018. You can follow him via Twitter.

NM: Peter, as well as being testament to your own experiences, Precarious gives voice to a huge number of individuals, especially working class voices. Has poetry failed to represent these people fairly? Why?

PR: In Matthew Zapruder’s book, Why Poetry? He argues that poetry doesn’t have the constraint of having to tell a story; it can use character, plot, etc., but it can also do away with them and just paint a picture. Historically, in fiction at least (whether novel, play, or film) portrayals have tended to only show the negative aspects of working class life – as George Orwell said: 'The people who make the wheels go round have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or comic relief.' Although, I do think things have improved more recently, with such novels as Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon, which although a sad tale in parts, tells of the strength and kindness of working class people.

However, free of the constraints of story telling, I feel strongly that poetry has the opportunity to do away with the need to over-dramatise working class lives. The problem is one of perception about what poetry is and which poetry is given most prominence. There are many poets who fairly and strongly represent working class people; Fran Lock, Tim Wells, Steve Ely, Kate Fox, Tony Walsh, Wayne Holloway, Martin Hayes, the Picket Line Poets, and Liz Lochhead and Simon Armitage (of course). But also poets of colour, who wouldn’t necessarily be identified as working class poets because of the way in which the media categorises people, in particular the working class (i.e. white van man and Vicky Pollard). Poets such as Malika Booker, Inua Ellams, Raymond Antrobus, Kayo Chingonyi, Anthony Anaxagourou, in writing of their heritage as well as their experience of living in Britain (as British citizens in many cases), are writing about working class lives.

I don’t think poetry has failed to represent working class people because we have been writing poetry for a long time. However, it is the gatekeepers (publishers, festival organisers, societies), who must widen their view, in order to see that working class life is not just about work, and our relations with it. As important as this is, portraying working class life in cultural terms also shows our creativity, entrepreneurship (in a non-corporate sense), and intellect, which is normally viewed and depicted through a middle class lens.


NM: One of the notable features of 'Tic tacs at the track' is the frequent quotation of betting phrases (which you don't explain), and elsewhere in the collection you often quote words and phrases spoken by the people or characters who appear in your poems. Why are such quotations so important? Does the form of poetry allow this language to be presented in a way that feels right to you?

PR: The vernacular and regional terms are what working class writers do well (although novelists such as Junot Diaz and James Kelman are masters). I admire poets such as William Letford and Mike Jenkins, when writing in ‘Scottish’ and ‘Welsh’ English; it seems most apt to poetry. You don’t need to know what the terms mean to get a sense of scene. I tried to do that with the Tic Tacs poem, for they gave names to their hand signs, and terms for the odds (Burlington Bertie is 100/30 - £30 on gets you a return of £100). Steve Ely uses a lot of old English language to better reflect working class lives of the past. Finally, there is also slang and swearing, which should be more present in poetry as they show the language being used in everyday working class lives. It shouldn’t be gratuitous but when authentic, it can be really powerful.




Richard Skinner has published three novels with Faber & Faber and three books of non-fiction. His previous books of poetry, the light user scheme and Terrace are both published by Smokestack. His work is published in eight languages. He is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. You can read more about Richard’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter.


NM: Richard, your new collection, The Malvern Aviator, thrives on examples of unknowing, doubt, and strangeness. Why are these such important concerns for you to write about?

RS: I’m not sure I know the answer to that. As Flaubert said, ‘We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.’ I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I believe very strongly in that idea. Poems arrive, mostly unexpectedly, and the place they come from is unknown. ‘Black Water Side’ is a good case in point. I sat down one day and wrote that poem in one go. I read back through it and was amazed. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant. Still don’t. Those are the best kind of poems for me.

NM: In the poem 'The Malvern Aviator', wearing your father's watch allows you to feel secure, grounded. How do you explain (if you do) that connection to your father through the watch. Can poetry also serve as a way of grounding you?

RS: ‘The Malvern Aviator’ is dedicated to Richie McCaffery because it was reading his collection ‘Cairn’ that taught me that small objects of no real value can have tremendous significance—mythical status even—for someone. My father gave me his watch on the day I last saw my English grandmother alive, so there’s a connection there forever. The Surrealists placed a great deal of importance on the near-sacredness of everyday objects and the mental processes they trigger and I guess that’s what the poem is tapping into.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

An interview with poet and critic Yvonne Reddick

Poet and critic Yvonne Reddick recently visited Oxford Brookes to speak about her academic work on Ted Hughes and to give a poetry reading alongside Shara Lessley. Yvonne kindly agreed to answer a few questions from Poetry Centre Director Niall Munro about her Mslexia-prize winning pamphlet Translating Mountains.

Yvonne was born in Glasgow and grew up in Aberdeen, Berkshire and Kuwait. She won a Northern Writer's Award for poetry in 2016 and received a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2017. Her poems have appeared in magazines such as PN ReviewStand and The North, and been translated into Greek and Swedish. She lives in Manchester and works as an academic researcher and lecturer. Her book Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. Her thirdMslexia-prize winning pamphlet published by Seren, Translating Mountains, features elegies to her father and a friend who both died in mountaineering accidents. One of her poems has been seen by an audience of 3.5 million at the 2015 Blackpool Illuminations, as part of the Blackpool Poems project, and with artist Diana Zwibach, Yvonne Reddick co-curates the art and poetry exhibition Deerhart, which has toured to galleries in Cambridge, Preston and Edinburgh. After being commended in the 2017 National Poetry Competition, Yvonne was also announced as the winner of the inaugural Peggy Poole Award, a new talent development scheme for poets based in the North West of England. You can read more about Yvonne’s work on these pages, and follow her on Twitter.

NM: This pamphlet was partly born out of loss - after the death of your father whilst climbing in the Scottish Highlands and your friend whilst mountaineering in the Andes. Given the grief that must be associated with them, did you have any second thoughts about making mountains such a central focus in your work?

YR: No, I had no hesitation. Mountains have longer-held associations for me that are very positive. I haven't stopped hillwalking since my dad died; I've just become more cautious.

NM: One of the notable features of the pamphlet is your use of languages other than English to describe your encounters with mountains and geology, and I was particularly struck by your evocative use of Gaelic (in poems like 'At the Corrie of the Birds' and 'Translating Mountains from the Gaelic'). What is the connection for you between language and mountains? Can such encounters also go beyond language? If so, how do you present them?

YR: The connection between language and mountains is in their names. Place-names are endlessly fascinating, but they also archive traces of hidden histories. Walking areas of the Highlands where not many people speak Gaelic, I can't help but think of the time when it was more widely spoken. You see ruined and abandoned buildings (such as the ones at Steall near Ben Nevis), but the guidebooks don't mention who used to live there, nor why they left. In a different context, discussing Irish Gaelic, Seamus Heaney wrote that '[t]he whole of the Irish landscape, […] is a manuscript which we have lost the skill to read' (in his Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978, p. 132). I expect I was influenced by his method of unearthing the origins of places, and using this to think about questions of dispossession and cultural erosion. It's an important issue in Scotland at the moment: the Cairngorms National Park has published a leaflet about the translations of place-names, to help people to reconnect with the hills, and poets such as Alec Finlay also translate place-names. I don't speak Gaelic, and have always been a bit self-conscious about it; but I know French well, and the place-names near where my Swiss and French relatives lived are a bit easier for me to interpret and pronounce. I don't think that many encounters in the mountains can go beyond language if you're going to express them in a poem, but you can certainly try! Robert Macfarlane has written that he often just says 'Wow' when he's out mountaineering, in his 2015 article for The Guardian, 'The Word-Hoard'.


NM: In 'Above the Northeast Shoulder' (recently featured as the Poetry Centre's Weekly Poem), you set the speaker (a cautious, methodical climber) alongside a risk-taker who flirts with frostbite and seems more intent on writing their poems than keeping warm. Do you think the speaker in that poem envies the risk-taker? Would they like to harness some of that nerveless creative energy?

YR: I set out to write about a flirtation between a high-altitude mountaineer and death. The ghostly risk-taker in that poem was designed to suggest a lethal case of summit-fever. I'd seen her driven attitude as more dangerous than enviable, although there's definitely room for your interpretation as well: many of my poems deal with impossible envies and identifications.

NM: Frequently in these poems (like 'Sorrows of the Deer', 'Madness Lake' or 'Cristaux de Roche') you make strong associations between the body (sometimes human, sometimes animal) and the mountains and rocks themselves. Why? Do such connections humanise a landscape that might otherwise be daunting? Or do they force us to consider the scale of our own bodies? Or something else?

YR: Our own mortality makes the materiality of our bodies clear: one day, all of us will be ash, or earth. While some people would probably find that idea bleak, others might find comfort in the thought that matter can't be destroyed, only changed into different forms: 'Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change', as Shakespeare puts it. That's the thought that is behind the last line of my poem 'Solo': 'Your breath, becoming cloud.' 

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Weighing the landscape: a review of Jos Smith's Subterranea (Arc Publications, 2016)

Jennifer Wong reviews Jos Smith's first book.

Incisive and philosophical, Smith’s debut poetry collection, Subterranea, is concerned not so much with painting the natural landscape as with questioning our responsibility for it, as he interrogates the delicate ecological balance and the relevance of cultural geography in the contemporary world.

In ‘Landscape interrupted’, Smith traces the movement of a deer in a land endangered by ‘ionizing radiations’. A native inhabitant of that land, the deer no longer feels safe. The interrupted syntax and the uneven number of lines in each stanza suggest that the entire ecological environment is on the brink of collapse, where the dark habitat of the deer remains a territory ‘to be derived / from the economic development’. 

Other than the power of his evocative imagery, Smith’s work reveals great sensitivity for language, and makes us reflect how hard it is to nail down with satisfaction the history and legacy of the land. A vast bog deep in the heart of Dartmoor, Grimpen Mire is a place of wild beauty, a name that immediately recalls Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s major detective Sherlock Holmes classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Smith depicts and measures the land by the people’s livelihood in the countryside, where they overcome ‘hail-bitten days, herding, nutting, tired / to the bone from milking out a harder life than this’. At the same time, he believes in the regenerative power of Nature, its ‘legacy of care / keeping family after family, keeping us, alive.’

Some of his more experimental poems in the collection, such as ’Tiresias at the Galway Institute for Environment, Marine and Energy’, offers a way to understand the cost involved in industrialisation or the progress of civilisation’: 

They are shucking the skin of an ocean,
leaving it to play across the panel-beaten west, 
for this, a trickle of data, a current roping in, 
pulse by pulse, across the sea-floor toward them.

In his poem, Tiresias, the blind prophet from Greek mythology, appears only to ask the king to ‘pay up’ in order to meet the imminent need for ‘real money’, totally oblivious of what it may cost the environment and its inhabitants.

In ‘Parish Map’, a woman presses buttercup petals onto the map to register her own encounter with the land, adding annotations ‘in pen and ink’ on the map in response to her neighbours’ stories and memories. At the same time, she fears that the arrival of a new Tesco would replace ‘an image of the hill [that] means so much to her’. The act of pinning down one’s memories and evolving relationship with the land becomes an intimate way of mapping the place and of articulating one’s history of lived experiences.

Through meticulous imagery and a nuanced language, Smith’s work interrogates the delicate balance inherent in the natural environment, suggesting the real, lurking ecological threat caused  by men, while at the same time conveys his belief in the forgiving, transformative power of nature. For him, the environment is a nourishing source of comfort and constancy, but it is also perpetually changing and renewing itself despite human influence or, at times, interference.

Born and raised in Hong Kong and currently in the UK, Jennifer Wong is a writer, researcher, and translator. She is soon to complete her critical/creative PhD at Oxford Brookes.