'I Find His Letters Startling for Their Immediacy and Power' - Madeleine Callaghan Discusses the Life and Art of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Posted on June 06, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

To celebrate the release of Shelley's Living Artistry, author Madeleine Callaghan discusses the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the shifting relationship between the poet's art and life. 



Out of all of the Romantic poets, what was it about Shelley in particular that attracted you to writing a book on his life and work?

I chose to write about Shelley because the relationship between his life and his work intrigued me for the complex but compelling relationship between the two. This isn’t to say that other Romantic poets don’t have similar preoccupations, but I find Shelley’s poetry and drama to reveal a serious and self-conscious approach to the question of how the poet and the man co-exist in the work. Throughout Shelley’s career, moral judgements of his worth as a man (often owing to his atheism) had informed the way his work was treated, and continued after his death. When I began working on Shelley, I realised that as much as I wanted to ignore biographical fact in favour of some sort of pursuit of ‘pure’ art, I was doing the poetry a disservice. Shelley was profoundly interested in the ‘I’, the personal self and the poetic self, and this book is an attempt to think about the complexity of how the ‘I’ works in Shelley’s poetry, drama, and letters.


To what extent did the events in Shelley’s life influence his work?

One of the things that became increasingly clear to me was that there was no cause and effect, no simple correlation to be drawn, when considering the poetry and drama. ‘The poet & the man’, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes in July 1821, ‘are two different natures: though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other, & incapable of deciding upon each other’s powers & effects by any reflex act’ (Letters: PBS II, p. 310). Shelley’s subtlety was such that he did not create any protagonists that would operate only as proxies for the poet, but he never feigned complete distance, forcing his readers to think hard about how to understand the relationship between biographical events and the imaginative work in a more universal than specific way: to think about the Shelleyan ‘I’ opens up avenues for thinking about the operations of the self in poetry. Epipsychidion is one of the best examples of this, where what can seem like personal joy and pain is raised into a far more literary and distanced form of expression by his allusions to Dante. But the personal is absolutely significant to the poetry, and what Shelley’s work shows us is the complexity of how life influences art. His work offers no simple model of how life and art interact that we can extrapolate. Instead, we are forced to think anew about how the poet and the man are connected.


Do you believe poetry needs biographical context to be fully understood?

That’s a difficult question, as every poem, or indeed any literary work is unique. I don’t think I can agree because I don’t believe any work can be ‘fully understood’ (as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry insists). I’m also loath to prescribe a single way of reading poetry that pretends as if it were true for every artist. Shakespeare’s work is not damaged by our scant knowledge of his life, and one of the speakers in Yeats’s  ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ says of Keats that ‘His art is happy, but who knows his mind?’ Biographical context and its importance vary from poet to poet. This is why I chose to consider Shelley’s life through the lens of his letters. By setting letters side by side with cognate poems, as one weaves backwards and forwards between the two, I try to reveal Shelley's characteristic ways of ‘writing the self’, and to arrive at a more considered judgement about his achievement in both forms of expression.


Was there anything that you discovered in the letters that was particularly surprising or shocking?

The most striking things were the quality of the letters, the depth of Shelley’s friendships, and the change of how he treated letters from his early to his later years. Shelley’s early letters to Elizabeth Hitchener are wonderfully alive, where his intellect and emotions seem to combine almost to overwhelm a reader. After their connection failed, though, he never seemed to write letters with the same intensity. Keats’s luminous letters are born out of necessity. His surviving brother moved to America; his sister lived too far away to see with any regularity; Fanny Brawne and Keats never lived together. These factors forced Keats to become a letter-writer of such distinction. But Shelley lived with Mary, was in regular communication with stimulating friends, and had long lost contact with his family by the time of his death. His letters do not and cannot reveal the same range simply because they did not need to do so. Yet Shelley’s letters are intimately connected with his poetry, and I find his letters startling for their immediacy and power, and the insights they give into the way he thinks about his art.


As well as the poet’s life influencing their work, do you believe that poetry and art shape the writer?

Absolutely. I have always admired Paul de Man’s insight in ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ that this is the case, and I think the interaction between life and art is deeply enigmatic, for poet as well as critic. Poets are never tied to what is, as art always slips beyond the grasp of any neat critical summary of its power. Auden calls poetry ‘a way of happening, a mouth’, and perhaps that’s the closest we can come to understanding the possibilities of poetry.  


What is meant by the poet participating in the ‘eternal, the infinite and the one’?

In an early letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, Shelley wrote: ‘I have considered it in every possible light & reason tells me that death is the boundary of the life of man. Yet I feel, I believe the direct contrary. The senses are the only inlets of knowledge, & there is an inward sense that has persuaded me of this’ (Letters: PBS I. p. 150). Afterlife and eternity were a career-long fascination for Shelley, and he was keen not to be consigned to mortal, ephemeral life, but to write for futurity with an eye to eternity. For Shelley, as for Plato, eternity is defined as far different from the everlastingness of the sempiternal. It is an elsewhere unknowable to mortals, but one that remains vital to humanity, and Shelley, though unable to experience it, would not simply ignore it. This is part of the challenge of Shelley’s poetry, not only to the reader, but also to himself.


How much was Shelley influenced by the society around him?

I’m not sure I’d use the phrase ‘influenced by’. I’d prefer to call it ‘responsive to’. Like everyone, Shelley was a product of the society in which he lived, but what is striking is how far he attempted to behave as more than simply that. Shelley wasn’t content to think only of the present tense in which he lived, but he desperately wanted to improve it in his eyes by trying to inspire people to reject the conditions in which they lived. The Mask of Anarchy, Queen Mab, and so many other great poems are clearly attempting to speak to an audience, but they are more than reactive. For Shelley, the poet moved between being a prophet and a legislator, or to rephrase, between having their eyes trained on the world beyond or an improved version of this one and working to change society. The privilege, for anyone reading Shelley, is to see a poet deeply invested in the world even as he aims to get beyond it, because this tension is what creates some of his most magnificent poetry.


For more information on Shelley's Living Artistry, please visit our website.

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'My Dark Horses' an interview with Jodie Hollander

Posted on April 28, 2017 by Heather Gallagher
To celebrate the release of her latest collection, Sophie Hewitt is in conversation with Jodie Hollander, delving into the influences and inspiration behind My Dark Horses. Read on for a poem from Jodie's collection, entitled 'A Box', and see where you can catch her UK readings this May.

My Dark Horses


Can you tell us how you came to choose My Dark Horses as the title for your collection?

Anyone familiar with my work knows that my poetry isn’t afraid to face darkness and dysfunction. When I wrote the poem, My Dark Horses, it instantly felt like I hit upon a theme central to the collection, so it wasn’t long after that I wanted to make it the title poem. I love the symbolism that the title portrays, and I feel that it prepares the reader for what’s to come.


Many of your poems have the subtitle of After Rimbaud. What is the significance of this?

During a wonderful residency in France, I started working on new book of poems that engage with and respond to Rimbaud’s collection, Illuminations. My translation of certain lines in Rimbaud’s work inspired a whole new series of ideas for me. At first, I thought this work would be part of a separate collection, but I found the ideas were grappling with similar themes as the poems in My Dark Horses. As I look at them now, I’m pleased with the different aesthetic that they bring to the book. I still hope to compile a collection made up exclusively of Rimbaud response poems.


Many of the poems contain references to classical music, whether it’s about classical instruments or specific pieces. How much of an influence has classical music had on your poetry? Do you think that music in important in writing poetry?

Music was everywhere during my childhood. My mother, father, sister and brother are all professional classical musicians, and a typical dinner conversation usually centered on the Bach Double Concerto, or the final movement of a Paganini piece. All three of us children were required to take classical music lessons. While my sister and brother quickly emerged as virtuoso talents, I found myself working twice as hard yet progressing at half their speed – so I convinced my parents to let me quit music lessons. This was a huge relief, but being the only non-musician in the family meant I was often left out of family discussions and music-centered events. I don’t think any of this was purposeful on the part of my family, they were all just infatuated with classical music, and I had other interests. Looking back on it now, I think this time was really when my poetic sensibility began to develop. I spent a lot of time alone, taking long walks or lying under the piano and observing the family practice sessions. These early observations stayed imprinted in my mind and later found their way into my poems.

To your second question, Duke Ellington said it best: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I think music is the single most important element in writing good poems. In my mind, poetry exists somewhere in between music and prose. Good poetry is pleasing to the ear, and therefore, the music is part of the meaning of the poem. This is also why I love reading metrical poetry, and why I’m working on mastering the craft myself. Without music, I feel that a poem is just prose organized in a different way.


Family appears to be the main theme running throughout the collection. What has drawn you to write about family in your poetry?

So much happened to me during my childhood, that I felt I had a story that needed to be told. That being said, I don’t think we necessarily get to choose our subject matter. If I did have a choice I’d probably write about climate change or some hot political topic. Instead, I write about what’s on offer – what comes to me. I’m hoping that my next book will be about something different, but for me, the muse must approve.


Your poems confront difficult issues such as grief and loss but have been described as containing a ‘tough humour’ (Brackenbury). Why did you decide to include this underlying humour in many of your poems?

As Shakespeare and many other great artists have taught us, life is a mixture of both tragedy and comedy. I think the best works of art in any medium find a way to embrace both of these conditions. In my own poems, I often see the irony or even hypocrisy in many of the situations I describe, and sometimes that can be expressed through a kind of humour. I wish more contemporary poetry used humour, as I feel it’s a wonderful quality in poetry; it offsets some of the darkness, and really deepens the experience of the poem.


Below is 'The Box' from Jodie Hollander's latest collection My Dark Horses


A Box


All those years

of trying to understand

which of this is her,

which of this is me?

Getting at the truth

was always so confusing

amidst her craziness;

how to separate?

And though the shrink said

Put her in a box

I never quite could


until that Saturday

when the doorbell rang:

and there stood a man

thin and bedraggled,

dripping in the rain.

He held a clipboard,

a small warped box,

containing my mother

or rather her remains.

Sign here, he said,

and handed me the box.


Funny how this came

surprisingly unbidden,

though I’ve often wondered

if in a weak moment

I didn’t wish for this.

But now that it’s here

what am I to do

except to hold it close,

feel its roughness

up against my cheek,

smell that terrible smell

of factory cardboard

now finally between us.


Jodie Hollander

Jodie Hollander was raised in a family of classical musicians. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, The Rialto, Verse Daily, The Warwick Review, The Manchester Review, Australia’s Best Poems, 2011, and Australia’s Best Poems of 2015. Her debut pamphlet, The Humane Society, was released with Tall-Lighthouse in 2012. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa, and was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship in 2015.


You can find Jodie at the following events around the UK this May:

May 9: Pavilion Poetry Book Launch and reading with Nuar Alsadir and Marilyn Hacker
May 10: Reading and presentation at the Liverpool Athenaeum
May 11: Reading at York Central Library with Nuar Alasdir and Ruby Robinson
May 13: Reading at The Bookcase, Hebden Bridge Yorkshire
May 16: Reading at Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Oxford with Ben Parker and Harry Man
May 17: Lunchtime Reading at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford with Jane Spiro
May 18: Daunt Books, Cheapside, London with Sarah Westcott and Susan Wicks
May 21: Torriano Meeting House, London with Sarah Westcott and Sarah Corbett
May 23: CB1 Poetry, CB2 Cafe, Cambridge Reading with Sarah Howe
May 24: Pighog Poetry Reading, Nightingale Room, Brighton
May 25: Words and Ears, Swan Hotel, Bradford on Avon
May 26: Reading at Keats House, Hampstead, London
May 28: Reading at Octavo’s Books, Cardiff with Christina Thatcher


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In conversation with Nuar Alsadir on 'Fourth Person Singular'

Posted on April 21, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

To celebrate the release of Pavilion Poetry's three new collections for 2017, and in the run up to the official launch, we have a series of exciting interviews to share with you. This week, Natalie Bolderston is in conversation with poet, writer, and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir, on her brand new collection Fourth Person Singular

 Fourth Person Singular


1) Could you explain the title of your collection, Fourth Person Singular?

There was a period during which I was trying to figure out what kind of speaker to use in my poems. I was grappling with the recognition that even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed—as is all speech—to a second person, whether circumscribed or implied. I spent the bulk of my waking hours trying to work out this problem until one night, during sleep, my dream voice said, “The fourth person singular exists in the fourth dimension.” I woke up and immediately began attempting to decode that fragment by researching the fourth dimension (I have a background in neuroscience, so the task was not as daunting as it may have otherwise been). Amazingly, through the lens of four-dimensional space-time, it is possible to grasp the meaning of the fourth person singular. There’s a lyric essay in my book that explains what I came up with.


2) In that essay, you discuss physics, with particular focus on four-dimensional space-time. What are the challenges of this?

I suppose the biggest challenge would be that the ideas might seem too difficult, alien, causing the reader to disconnect. But that’s always a concern with science and math, which are often shrouded with so many associations of impenetrability that it can be difficult to step back and allow the beauty to come through—as one might be more able or willing to do with a complex piece of music. 


3) Can you tell us a bit about how your background as a psychoanalyst feeds into your writing?

I am endlessly fascinated by the mind, how it draws associations, redacts, displaces, represses, moves. The most useful sessions occur when the analysand does not have an agenda or subject and allows themselves to simply free-associate. In doing so, the mind will invariably come upon something significant that the analyst will ideally recognize, point out, so that it can be explored. That free association is similar to improvisation in dance. The improvisation is necessary to figure out how the body is organized and moves, but eventually certain gestures will stand out, demand interrogation, and become the basis of the choreography of a piece. The choreography may appear improvised because of where it originated, but is, in fact, carefully crafted.  I hope my writing similarly retains that free associative, improvisational impulse even as the choreography of the book is consciously set.


4) Throughout the book, you make use of a range of poetic forms and intertextual references. As a writer, do you have any particular influences – literary or otherwise?

The poetic forms reflect the shape of the gestures or thoughts propelled by that free associative, improvisational impulse I just mentioned. As for influences, I’m really more of a thinker than a reader. When I read, I like reading poetry, aphorisms, philosophy, theory—texts that I can read very little of and then think about, off-page, for hours. As I turn over phrases, images or ideas in my mind, I invariably alter them. In the book, I’ve used the altered forms—representing my Franz Kafka, or my André Breton—and have then provided the correct version in the notes. All of the texts I reference in my book are important to me, but I’d have to say the greatest influence on my writing is quotidian experience. I’m probably as inspired by what happens on the subway as I am by what happens within texts. There’s a great line in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, “I’ve been around the world several times and now only banality still interests me… I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.” Virginia Woolf has that relentlessness, as does Larry David, Tracey Emin. I can think of many contemporary poets whom I’d consider bounty hunters in that same way.


5) In one of your lyric essays, you reveal the process behind creating your 'night fragments': waking up at 3:15 a.m. each night, and writing down whatever was at the top of your mind. Do you have any other processes or rituals that help you to write?

Marianne Moore once wrote, “We must have the courage of our peculiarities.” That precept guides my process. I’m open to letting my peculiarities reveal themselves, and to exploring whatever sense of shame that revelation might evoke. In psychoanalysis, there’s no subject matter or material that is higher or lower than any other. I approach poetry in a similar way. 


6) The collection features striking illustrations, photographs and references to visual artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Marlene Dumas. How do you think poetry relates to or complements visual art?

I’ve always wished my poems could be experienced as art installations, so that the reader could enter and experience them without the linear unfolding created by reading across and down the page. I’ve tried to disrupt that linear unfolding somewhat with simultaneous texts, but the dimensional limitations of the page are unavoidable. The mind doesn’t have thoughts, see images, hear, smell, perceive in tidy succession—that cacophonous chaos, which visual arts often capture so vividly, is exciting to me.


Click here to read an excerpt from Fourth Person Singular featured in Granta 


Nuar Alsadir Photo by Grace Yu (c)

Nuar Alsadir is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Grand Street, the Kenyon Review, tender, Poetry London and Poetry Review; and a collection of her poems, More Shadow Than Bird, was published by Salt in 2012. She is on the faculty at New York University, and works as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. Her latest collection Fourth Person Singular can be found here



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    Romantic Reconfigurations – Three key titles lined up to launch the series

    Posted on March 23, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

    Here at Liverpool University Press, we are excited to announce three forthcoming books in our brand new series:

     Romantic Reconfigurations: Studies in Literature and Culture 1780‒1850. 

    Presenting ground-breaking approaches to the period in which Romantic writing was produced and consumed, the series will launch this autumn with Women’s Literary Networks and Romanticism: "A Tribe of Authoresses", edited by Andrew O. Winckles & Angela Rehbein.



    Following in Spring 2018 will be Deirdre Coleman’s Henry Smeathman, Flycatcher: Natural History, Slavery and Empire in the late Eighteenth Century and Seth Reno’s Amorous Aesthetics: Intellectual Love in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, 1788–1853.


    Tim Fulford and Alan Vardy, Series Editors, are delighted that the series gets under way with three fascinating books, each of them a reconfiguration of Romanticism: Winckles and Rehbein demonstrate the pervasive influence of women’s literary networks and rethink the notion of authorship in the period; Coleman recovers the story of one of the many marginal knowledge-producers whose writings shaped the Romantic encounter with colonialism; Reno, presenting new research into eighteenth-century psychological theory, offers a new genealogy of one of Romanticism’s central, and most vexed, concepts.


    For more information, please visit the series page on our website.
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    Pavilion Poetry Open for Submissions

    Posted on December 27, 2016 by Heather Gallagher


    Pavilion Poetry is open for submissions


    We are delighted to announce submissions to our award-winning Pavilion Poetry series are being accepted during January 2017 for first full length collections only. If you are interested in working with our series editor, Professor Deryn Rees-Jones (Professor of Poetry at University of Liverpool and Next Generation Poet 2005) and being published alongside Mona Arshi (Forward Prize winner for Best First Collection 2015) and Ruby Robinson (shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2016), then please send a covering letter, your writing CV (detailing where you have previously published and any awards/prizes won), a collection of your poetry and a stamped self-addressed envelope to:


    Alison Welsby, Editorial Director

    Pavilion Poetry submissions

    Liverpool University Press

    4 Cambridge Street

    Liverpool L69 7ZU



    Only postal submissions will be accepted and they must be received at the above address between 1st – 31st January 2017. Due to the number of submissions expected, we are unable to offer feedback, however we will try and notify you of our decision by the end of March.


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