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.