Friday, July 31, 2009

Open Plan Otherness: An Interview with Claire Crowther

The Clockwork Gift is Claire Crowther's second collection. It's a rich and powerful book from a unique voice. I started off our chat by asking about the poem "Open Plan".

Andrew Philip: Welcome to Tonguefire, Claire. I love the unsettled and unsettling examination of contemporary family life in this poem. What was its genesis?

Claire Crowther: I began to imagine the world of this poem when I went to live in a gated estate. It was an unpleasant feeling and I kept wanting the walls and gates to be taken away. The image of walls being taken down persisted in my head and I wrote a few failed poems about gated communities. Then I simplified it to a home in which a couple are powerless to resist the actions of government and are made vulnerable in a way they don't expect.

AP: How typical is that of your writing process?

CC: It's typical that I think of a scene or action in which I am stuck, fearful and confused - I meditate on such a scene for weeks or months. Gradually I take myself out of the scene and universalise it or bring others in or make myself into another character. At this point I am driven to start writing a poem, or a few lines.

AP: Family life, particularly from the point of view of a grandmother, is a frequent area of exploration in the book. However, it's always dangerous for a reader to assume autobiography. How closely do you draw on your own experience?

CC: In a way I always do but only as a starting point. I have always felt what I write about - that's the genesis of a poem. But the detail varies from my own experience - it could be that I observe other families interacting and freely bring in their details. I never feel I have to stick to any one set of facts - I mingle and match facts I've observed to serve the poem which becomes something different. In the end, there is rarely any autobiography at all - the poem has taken over completely.

AP: You also use and even create myth. How did the set of poems about the thike come about?

CC: I feel very strongly about the way we human beings make ourselves 'other' all the time. We seem to treat people outside our own groups as differently as we treat animals. I wanted a story - or myth - that would express that. I also think animals are interesting because our care and/or use of them is so complicated and so often destructive. But I was also happy to depict a thike as human because I think there is very little difference in our treatment of humans and animals in some circumstances.

AP: Are you done with the thike or will we see more of it in future?

CC: I'm not done with thinking about the thike - but I can never plan for poems so I don't know if any more of these poems will emerge fully finished.

AP: Do you feel able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

CC: I'm working on a series of poems about an imaginary village called Low Village - it serves as a mythical underworld. I lived in a village for twenty two years so, though these poems do not describe that village, many of my feelings about village life are expressed in these poems. They are not realistic poems. The human thike in "Sleeping on a Trampoline" lives there.

AP: The formal variety in The Clockwork Gift is striking. I'm especially interested that you sometimes slip between verse and a prose-poem layout within a single poem. Will you comment on that and on your relationship to the space of the page?

CC: I would like to do more with the space on a page. I love the white expanse and have not yet explored it fully. Alternating prose and verse is another tool to pace a poem and help a reader extract more meaning from a situation. I am still writing poems with that form. I understand that haibun poems use prose as well as verse so I haven't invented it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

August Offer at Salt

This just in from Salt:

In order to keep Salt on track through the wet British summer, we're offering you another special deal throughout August. All Salt books are available from us at 33% discount yet again. That's a third off all Salt titles, and free shipping on orders with a cover price of over £30 or $30. Offer ends 31 August 2009.

Simply enter the coupon code HU693FB2 when in the store to benefit.

As before, all we ask is two things—

1. Buy one book. Or perhaps another one ... go on.
2. Pass it on. Share this offer with everyone who loves gorgeous books and likes a bargain (whilst saving independent literature).

Closely Shielded Secrets

The Ambulance Box tour bus nears the end of its journey this week as I pull into Switzerland and the blog of poet, academic and musician Andrew Shields. Andrew is a tough questioner! But I enjoyed it. Click here to read his questions to me about Scots and German, my poetics and lists.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spreading the Sodium

The Bookseller is reporting good news on the Salt front: the press has managed to raise enough money to keep going through 2009 -- as long, that is, as it achieves its budgeted sales for the rest of the year, which is far from a given. Which means all sales and efforts such as this week's benefit reading in Edinburgh are still necessities. There's an exciting diversification programme at Salt too, about which the link above gives a tantalising glimpse. Please help to keep this vibrant and innovative publisher afloat not only for today's readers and writers but for the future.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Out of the Salty Blue

Kevin Cadwallender, editor of Red Squirrel Scotland, has organised an Edinburgh benefit reading for Salt. It's at Out of the Blue arts centre, Dalmeny Street on Thursday July 30th at 7 pm. Poets include JL Williams, Rob A Mackenzie, Colin Donati, Kevin Cadwallender, James Oates, Anita Govan, Steve Urwin, Alistair Robinson and others TBC, all giving their time and raising their voices to raise money for Salt Publishing. Entry is free but donations to the cause are welcome and expected.

I can't be there, sadly. If you can be there, go; if you can spread the word, do. It is important that we keep publishers like Salt afloat.

Open Plan

I'll be interviewing another Shearsman poet, Claire Crowther, here on Friday 31 July. The following poem comes from her marvellous new collection The Clockwork Gift.

Open Plan

They took the walls away without warning.
The roof floated, a miraculous over of shelter.
We were caught out. We cooled quickly. A sty?

My hands made paws? My lover stamped in the open.
Who took the decision? Editorials argued
about iconoclasm. We’d had a tradition

of opening the inside but obscuring doors.
But doorlessness isn’t just trailing ivy
over a letterbox or bricking the front

to look like the side. Our family walls were all sides.
The trick was to show passers-by a gleam of room.
One of our walls had had an exquisite trompe l’oeil

library. No stranger could find a way in
and no one knew how we had done it, which book
the idea came from. Every unwalled home

can’t be called a ruin. I missed the rally.
Thousands met in a park — that seems so ironic.
Were they protesting about their gazebos?

My bed is a perfect copy of straw, comfortable.
I hold you as close as when we were walled in,
though nearer the pavement, though clearer to them.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Flint, Rime, Paint: An Interview with Siriol Troup

Siriol Troup's Beneath the Rime, her second full collection of poetry, was published earlier this year by the wonderful Shearsman Press. I first met Siriol when we read together at StAnza 2006, along with Richard Price, and was only too pleased when asked to take part in her virtual book tour.

Andrew Philip: It's a pleasure to have you here. at Tonguefire, Siriol. Will you tell a little about how and when you started to write poetry?

Siriol Troup: I had a wonderful English teacher, Miss Flint, who encouraged us all to read and write poetry. Once a term, each house was given a theme to write about and the best efforts were pinned up on the ‘Literary Board’. Other girls would pay me to write poems for them – sometimes there were half a dozen of my poems on the board, each under a different name. After I left school I had little time for poetry – raising four children took a fair amount of my time! – until 2001 when I abandoned work on yet another terrible novel and returned to writing poetry.

AP: The real and imagined journeys in Beneath the Rime cover a lot of ground in place and time. It seems a very European book in that France, Germany, Spain and Rome are recurrent settings, although we also get a bit of America. That breadth of view is refreshing in British poetry. Will you comment on this? Do you see yourself as primarily a British or European poet?

ST: My father was in the army so most of my childhood and teenage years were spent abroad, I then read French and German at Oxford, returned to teach French Literature there for a few years, went on to learn Italian and Spanish, and, more recently, I’ve been learning a bit of ancient Greek and Norwegian – so European languages and literature have always been part of my everyday vocabulary, and I suppose that’s why I’d like to see myself as a European, rather than British, poet. In fact, taking a quick look at the piles on my desk and my bedside table, I’d say I read a lot more in foreign languages (both poetry and prose) than I do in English! The French settings in Beneath the Rime are in fact Belgian: I spent summer holidays living with a family in Brabant who kept rabbits and became the background for a set of five poems in the book, the first of which is “Country Living”.

AP: You make frequent use of the dramatic monologue, sometimes even in non-human voices, such as the elephants in “Nox Elephantorum” and “Caged Elephants”. What attracts you to that approach? What do you consider to be its advantages and disadvantages?

ST: I like the freedom of being able to use a voice that’s not my own. Perhaps it’s something to do with being a linguist, always using someone else’s language. Finding another voice – human, animal or mineral (there’s a poem in my first book, Drowning up the Blue End, written from the point of view of Samuel Pepys’s gall stone) – lets you inhabit a different world, a different time, gives you a chance to see things from other, possibly more interesting, points of view. At its worst, dramatic monologue can simply be a frustrating mask, a cover-up that’s pretentious or annoying, but at its best, it’s a way of approaching the truth obliquely that can be liberating and illuminating, for both writer and reader – think of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, or Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride”.

AP: The third section of the book explores imaginatively the circumstances of Velázquez’s court portraits of the Infanta María Teresa and Mariana of Austria. I’m interested in the writing of this sequence. Did the poems arise out of reading you had already done or did you research the background with the intention of writing about it? Did you conceive it as a sequence or did it simply grow into one?

ST: I’ve been passionate about Velázquez since I was a teenager – one of the first art books I ever read was a Phaidon book with colour plates of some of his most famous portraits, including ones of Philip IV of Spain and his children Baltasar Carlos and Margarita, though oddly enough none of María Teresa herself. Since then I’ve read a lot about Velázquez and seen more of his paintings in galleries and exhibitions, most recently in the National Gallery exhibition in 2006, where I stood for a long while in front of the portrait of María Teresa aged about fourteen, wearing a wig decorated with ribbons in the shape of butterflies.

I was intrigued by the unusually intimate relationship that might – must! – have developed between artist and sitter over the years during which Velázquez was court painter and the Infanta was growing up, approaching marriageable age – even more intrigued by the fact that, as Chamberlain of the Royal Palace, Velázquez actually helped organize her wedding to Louis XIV of France and was so exhausted by the ceremonies that he died only two months later, leaving her to an unfaithful husband, children who all, apart from one, died in infancy, and a country that hated her.

I did a lot of background research about the Infanta and also about Velázquez and his painting techniques, always intending that what I wrote would form a sequence with a narrative thread, though I didn’t realise until quite far into my research that the poems would be in the Infanta’s voice. Once I’d done the reading and found her voice, I wrote very quickly – it was hard knowing when to stop, even harder leaving her behind and moving on to other subjects.

AP: That’s a long gestation, if the interest goes back to your teens. Do you generally find it takes considerable time for poems to germinate or do you tend to work quite quickly?

ST: Once I have an idea for a poem, I usually write the first draft quite quickly, but it can then take me months, even years, to finish it. There’s a poem in my first book which I wrote during take-off on a flight from Newcastle to London, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. I like to leave poems alone for a long while before coming back to them, then I can see more clearly what needs to be done and be ruthless about doing it.

AP: Beneath the Rime is a beautifully produced book. What attracted you to Shearsman and how did you find working with Tony Frazer?

ST: I’d already been impressed by Shearsman’s list (which includes César Vallejo, Gael Turnbull, Fernando Pessoa, Lutz Seiler...) and seen Tony in action at some of the Shearsman readings at the Swedenborg Hall in London. He’s passionate about all kinds of poetry and, for me, a big attraction was his interest in and enormous knowledge about German poetry, which he also translates. As a publisher, he’s perceptive, efficient, approachable, decisive – everything you could hope for. The cover for Beneath the Rime is all down to him. When the first image we looked at turned out to have been used elsewhere, he immediately put together five new covers for me to choose from, any one of which would have been a pleasure to use.

AP: How does it feel to be on your second collection? Is it harder work or easier than your first?

ST: It feels great to have my second collection out, but it was definitely harder work than my first. The more I write – and the more I read – the more I realise how far I fall short.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Transatlantic Hutter

If a disadvantage of touring virtually is that you don't get long stretches of reading time on trains or planes, one advantage is certainly the ability to skip back and forth over huge stretches of ocean and land as if you had a little nut tree. Accordingly, this week finds me back in the USA at Jilly Dybka's Poetry Hut blog. Click here to read about the connections between poetry, grief and chocolate cake.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nox Elephantorum

I'll be interviewing the poet Siriol Troup here on Tonguefire on Friday, 24 July. The following poem comes from her new collection, Beneath the Rime.

Nox Elephantorum
– Elephant Night at the Coliseum

Climb the railings by moonlight – you’ll find us
on our knees in the ring, turning tricks
under the sky’s black awning. Such eloquent
desolation: the rime of ivory on tufa,
a breeze down the stairwells, the whiff
of dung and pozzolana. We have only
a few hours each night, but they are very long.

How shall we entertain you? Walk the tightrope
backwards? Toss stray cats in the air, watch them
break as they fall? For Germanicus
we danced the graveyard shuffle, our big feet
tender as pincushions, a crimson ellipsis
on the sand. The people roared, the vultures
lunged and hissed over the bleachers.

Let me be your guide. Once there were
statues, frescoes, trapdoors, marble seats, sails
flying through cloud. The butchery defied
imagination: bulls, bears, crocodiles,
tigers and giraffes – an alphabet of beasts
slaughtered ad libitum, carousels
of blood. Listen, you can hear the skirl

of tusks along the colonnades.
I had a mother once. These ears are for
remembering: the feverish sea, psoriasis
of salt on skin, the subterranean
cells, the bite of chains. Now, in the centre
of the herd, we place the ones who cannot
die, shading them with the bark of our hides,

with memories of acacias rooted in heat-
haze. They weep like rocks, piteously, below
the range of human hearing. In summer
the moths come, creamy as baobab flowers,
wings like gauze on their wounds. How many
of us lie buried in this vanished world?
Step closer, let me show you the little paths

that wind among the ruins. The travertine vaults.
The drains gathering water from the hills of Rome.
The Vestals sat here. Here’s the spot where tongues
of lightning set fire to the upper floors. Here
twenty elephants were killed, but not before
we’d raised our trunks to heaven, causing the crowd
to rain down curses on Pompey. And here

you stand with your guidebook, staring at things
you cannot see. Soon it will be dawn.
You’ll leave with our dust on your feet, our breath
on your neck, our tears on your dry cheeks.
Will you remember how we died? How little
we asked of the gods? How the moon tonight
was encompassed by a light unknown in your land?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Extra Tour Date!

Unoccupied as I am and have been, I've added another date to the Ambulance Box virtual tour: on 5 August, I'll be at fellow Salt poet Anne Berkeley's blog Squared.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Spark Plugs, Squirrels and Slams

Others may be going on a summer holiday, but here at Tonguefire the Ambulance Box virtual tour bus keeps chugging along. It's a remarkable engine, managing to pull me over the Atlantic and back in a week with barely a dampened spark plug to speak of.

Today, it pulls into Cadwallender, the eponymous blog of Edinburgh-based poet and editor Kevin Cadwallender, whose Dances With Vowels: New and Selected Poems came out on Smokestack last month. Kevin asks me 10 rather intriguing questions. Where else would Adrian Mitchell, Willam Dunbar, John Ashberry, Ian Hamilton Finlay and slam be likely to turn up in the same post?

Next week, it's another hop over the pond for a few questions at Jilly Dybka's Poetry Hut blog. Chug, chug!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Words are Wild

Just finished reading Shira Wolosky's The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem, which I borrowed from the Scottish Poetry Library. Good book, I thought; one I'd certainly recommend as a general overview of poetic form and rhetoric. I might well buy a copy for reference. Only once or twice did really think she'd missed something or got it slightly wrong about a poem, but she knows a lot more than I do. But I was amused by the following sentence, which closes a brief assessment of Poe and is the book's only comment on poetry in a language other than English:

Such poems [those that "try to block the process of signification altogether"] remain, however, rather extreme cases, although they are wildly influential in France.

(p 193, emphasis mine.)

Dear me, whatever will those French folk think of doing next?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Duffy, Hughes, Eliot and Translation

This week, Carol Ann Duffy launched her new poetry prize: the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for

the most exciting contribution to poetry in that year.

It's a generous gesture from the new laureate, though questions have been asked about whether we need another poetry award. The test will be the shortlists: if they copy those of the other prizes, the Ted Hughes Award will be pointless; if they're as broad as the outlined criteria, it could be worthwhile:

Eligible works include, but are not limited to, poetry collections (for adults or children), individual published poems, radio poems, verse translations, verse dramas, libretti, film poems, and public poetry pieces.

It's particularly encouraging that translations will be in the running. Translation is an art largely unsung in the UK. Indeed, the rules for the TS Eliot Prize stipulate:

Books which contain more than twenty percent (20%) translations (including versions, imitations or any poetry inspired by the work of one or more other writers) will not be eligible. Percentages should be calculated on the total number of lines of poetry in a book.

A translation award could too easily reinforce the ghettoisation of translated poetry but, by including it along with untranslated work, I sincerely hope Duffy's new prize helps to raise the status of translating in the British poetry scene.

Reviews Bubbling Up

The first print review of The Ambulance Box is in! It's part of a piece in Magma 44, where Rosie Shepperd reviews it alongside Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (Carcanet) and River Wolton’s The Purpose of Your Visit (Smith/Doorstop Books). The review is thorough and extremely positive. Here's a headline quote:

delights readers with a dance through images and words that express powerful visionary and and spiritual experiences.

The issue also contains reviews of several friends' books: Ben Wilkinson reviews Rob A Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage enthusiastically alongside no lesser names than Mark Doty and John Agard; there's a mixed review of Lorraine Mariner's fresh quirky and moving Furniture that nonetheless includes some high praise indeed; and another fine poet, Claire Crowther, provides a very positive review of Polly Clark's Farewell My Lovely.

Click the cover image above to go to the page for this issue of the magazine, though you can't read the review online. It's a great encouragement to be reviewed so warmly in such a good publication.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Bridging the Pond

My Cyclone virtual book tour skips over the Atlantic today to stop in Ojai, California at poet Robert Peake's blog. Thanks to the wonders of Skype and Robert's technical know-how, you can see and hear us discuss the surprises of publication; language; the music of poetry; the importance of the page; and grief and hope. You can also hear me read "Berlin/Berlin/Berlin" and "Pedestrian" from The Ambulance Box.

The whole 35-minute interview is available to view at Robert's post. The lip sync is a bit out in places, but I hope you take as much pleasure in hearing the interview as I took in speaking to him. Alternatively, you could view the five self-contained sections of video if you don't have time to digest it in a oner or simply play the audio of the full chat. Take time to explore Robert's intelligent, sensitive blog too.

Next week, I'm back on virtual home ground when I stop at Kevin Cadwallender's blog.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"The Night" Today

My choice of classic poem has just gone up on the Scottish Poetry Library's Reading Room site. Click here to read my thoughts on Henry Vaughan's "The Night". Don't omit to browse the growing wealth of previous choices too.

Founded and Boxed

Just back online after my trip to London for the Lemon Monkey reading (a fanstastic evening of which more anon) and a brief computer hiatus enforced by redecorating. All of which leaves me with two tour stops to catch up on.

First of all, on Monday, as Rob Mackenzie and I sped southwards on the not yet renationalised east coast mainline, Ivy Alvarez posted her interview with me on Dumbfoundry. Swing by to read about Biblical imagery and myth, the distancing or solidary effect of using Scots and how much distance I put between myself and the floor when I first saw copies of my book.

Today, I'm at Mark Calder's blog Boxolgies for some political and theological blether. Read my thoughts on language as power and resistance, the necessity of saying the impossible to say, and how I would review my own poetry*.

*Little do you know what you're letting yourself in for when you ask folk for these questions!

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