The Inspiration and Storytelling of And She Was: In Conversation with Sarah Corbett

Posted on July 26, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Natalie Bolderston caught up with Sarah Corbett to discuss the parallels of poetry and cinema and the inspiration and storytelling behind her gripping collection And She Was

 

 

 

And She Was is described as a 'verse novel', as the poems connect to make one continuous narrative. What made you decide to combine the two forms? Did you face any difficulties?

I’ve always had an interest in narrative and storytelling (I’m currently writing a novel) and narrative verse, and in pushing my practice as a poet ...there comes a time when every ambitious poet has to try out the epic! I had the idea for three linked tales or novellas based on a series of recurring dreams some years before starting the book, which was written as part of a PhD in Critical and Creative writing, but attempts to find a narrative prose voice came to nothing. It wasn’t until I read Deryn Rees-Jones’s Quiver that I thought ‘Ah, that’s how I can do it’. As I got deeper into the work (and three books became two) I started to play with aspects of novelistic technique – point of view, voice, tense, time, characterization – alongside aspects of the poem – form, line, image, stanza, page – I was beginning to investigate how far I could push the lyric in the service of narrative and visa versa. The work was written quite quickly in short bursts, then underwent many years of resting, re-writing, development and revision. It took a long time to finish because I wanted to bring the same density to each line, each page and each poem as I would to the briefest lyric poem – and in over seventy pages. In some ways it is one whole poem. In the end I had to trust a great deal to my instincts (for example I reversed the original order of books one and two to create a circular narrative structure), and to the wisdom of the imagination. The opening triptych was written after the main text was finished, and within a couple of days. Deryn asked me if I could write that third book – I couldn’t, it would have taken too long, but the three poems do the double job of summing up the central themes and filling in the ‘gap’ between book 1 (‘The Runner’) and book 2 (‘Pinky’).

 

Your poems feature many arresting and unexpected images, e.g. 'They patched up my hymen, / Made a mouse ear / Of my stomach[.]' How do you maintain the 'element of surprise' when writing?

I write very instinctively – and very much from my visual imagination. As a child I drew obsessively, and wrote and illustrated stories and made little books, so the connection between the felt, the visual and language – the hand-eye-mind connection – has always been very strong for me. I both see and feel and hear the images and am often working through the difficulty of language to reach and express the clarity of that image for the reader. I’ve always done that, so I know when to trust it – you get that raising of the hackles when you know it’s ‘right’. This is also about understanding and viewing language as a system of signs – words create images that then create big pools of meaning that are bigger than what is on the surface. I suppose I get this from always having been interested in dreaming, the unconscious, the ideas of Carl Jung, and of reading poets like Sylvia Plath as I was starting to write as a very young poet. That doesn’t mean to say that I don’t also fall into cliché and tired repetitions just like anyone else, and often need other people to point these out for me! 

 

You state that you are influenced by filmmakers such as David Lynch. How do you think cinema relates to poetry?

I think the relationship between poetry and film is closer than between film and the novel, even though it is the novel that is most often adapted for cinema (i.e. more populist viewing). This relationship is a question of form as much as content and is more evident perhaps with Arthouse or Avant Garde cinema. Both good cinema and good poetry are working through the image as the primary means of conveying experience and meaning (we are being shown, not told) and both take risks with and demand much from the reader/viewer. Both require the reader/viewer to be an active participant in bringing the work – poem or film – to life on the page, the screen, and in the imagination. Both should have the power to affect the reader/viewer on a physical and emotional level in the moment of experiencing the film/poem.

 

I've heard that you were partly inspired Deryn Rees Jones’ book length poem Quiver. How did this influence your writing? Which other writers do you turn to for inspiration?

Deryn’s book pointed out the way – how I could stay with the density and beauty of lyric poetry and how I could trust the reader to go on a narrative journey that was not necessarily written in a straight line. Quiver plays with the murder mystery (which I am somewhat obsessed with!) but is also an ‘epic’ poem underpinned with myth, and deals with love and loss – you could describe And She Was in similar ways; I suppose you could say they are ‘sister texts’, even though our styles, voices and approaches are very different. The other poet whose work had a huge influence on me was Anne Carson and her 1996 ‘verse—novel’ The Autobiography of Red. I remember reading this when I was writing my first book, being overawed by its reach, risk and beauty, but thinking ‘one day I want to do something like this’!

My influences are very broad – but broadly speaking within the English lyric tradition. I’ve already mentioned Plath, but I’ve learnt to handle her with care, she can be a very powerful influence! Amongst the first poets I got to know and love really well at school were Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, and it’s the power and density of their music that has stayed with me and is probably the strongest influence on my ‘style’ of writing – I can usually rely on them if I need a spark to get me working.

 

Are you working on anything new?

I’m just completing my next collection of poems A Perfect Mirror, which will be published by Pavilion next year. The title is taken from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal (she is referring to the lake on a particularly still and beautiful day). The book has evolved over roughly the same period of time as And She Was (hence having two books out quite close together), although there are new poems getting written all the time – and it is a book that has shed many skins along the way. It is a return to the formal lyric with forays into prose poems and exploded lyrics, and is thematically centred on place – mostly the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire where I have lived since 2002 – and in nature. The collection has a ‘dark heart’, with poems of hauntings both real, poetic and of the unconscious, ‘haunted’ by the presiding spirit of Sylvia Plath, whose burial place I can see from my back bedroom, but also by the instability inherent in the landscape (it is a place of cycles and renewals yes, but also of death and uncertainty, floods and disasters). The title poem is being written as part of a collaboration with the landscape painter Zoe Benbow in partnership with Lancaster University and The Wordsworth Trust, and the image of the mirror might refer the reader to Shakespeare’s idea of art as the mirror of nature, or to the more unsettling notion of nature as a mirror to the self.

 

About Sarah Corbett 

Born in 1970, Sarah grew up in North Wales and gained a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing from Manchester University in 2013. Her first collection of poetry 'The Red Wardrobe' (Seren,1998) won the Eric Gregory Award and was shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize and the Forward Best First Collection Prize. She followed with 'The Witch Bag' (Seren, 2002) and 'Other Beasts' (Seren, 2008). She currently lives in the Calder Valley and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing for Lancaster University.

 

 From And She Was

 

Strawberries

 

Leaving you for an hour is a wound

from shoulder to hip. I stagger

like a soldier from the fray,

like a bull from the axe,

but we have to eat.

 

I buy fruit at the market,

home-grown russets,

pitted cox,

the asked-for berries,

and walking home

take a strawberry

from the punnet.

 

This eating is love’s union,

the twin lost when cells

folded and hardened

to a ridge, the fruit

a globe of flesh

that has left the body,

a painted heart

that yields when bitten.

 

Sarah Corbett

 

For more information on And She Was and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.
 
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The Science, Nature and Creativity of Slant Light. In Conversation with Sarah Westcott

Posted on July 12, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

We caught up with Sarah Westcott to discuss the interplay between science and creative writing and the various aspects of life and culture that enrich her poetry collection Slant Light.

 

 

As someone who has studied both biology and creative writing, do you think that scientific methods (e.g. observation and analysis) bear any similarity to poetic composition?

Yes and no in the sense that both involved sustained and careful observation of both the immediately visible and then the less obvious before any conclusions are drawn or ideas expressed.

But no in the sense that when I am writing early drafts of a poem I am drawing on parts of my mind that do not attempt objectivity. Objectivity is of course fundamental to scientific observation and analysis.

Both disciplines are also infused with the kind of curiosity that is unconscious and in-the-moment and then have parallels in the time afterwards when the mind works over and through what it has been looking at.

There is also a sense for me when editing that I must engage my rational, discerning, critical mind to excise and explain and this is very much a mind I recognise from looking down a microscope or under a stone and examining what is there.

 

In some of your poems, such as Bats and The Mariposa Trees, nature seems to speak for itself. How did you go about developing a voice and consciousness for different aspects of the natural world?

Thank you - that is something I am still working on. I think for me it is a question of immersing myself in the landscape and also spending time in the garden standing quietly as the bats flicker above me. Those immersive times which are wordless give me a taste of the language that might suit that species. So for the bats I went for a lot of consonantal, clicking sounding words which reflects the staccato nature of their flight and the echolocation they emit (which I can sometimes still hear).

So it’s a question of listening to (and feeling, as a fellow animal) what is already there and then trying to capture something of that essence in our language.

 

You also work as a journalist. Does this feed into your poetry in any way?

I have been a news reporter for almost twenty years now. In terms of writing, a lot of the news we report is quite complicated and has to be condensed into a few hundred words. So clarity is very important and I think the word-by-word editing skills of weighing up whether a word, phrase or even comma should be there is useful in both areas.

Likewise with rhythm - there is a beat or rhythm in the intros (the first paragraph) of most tabloid news stories  - this may sound fanciful but you do hear it in the sentence as you write it. There is also a degree of word-play.

The other parallel is an awareness of an audience which is strong when I’m writing a news story. We were long ago told to consider: “would this article/angle be of interest to Doris in Doncaster?” And when writing poetry, being able to step back and think “does this actually make sense in its own right” helps my poems hopefully become more understandable.

I have found in my job that you become immersed in all human life as a reporter - not only speaking to people but also sitting through the court cases and inquests, the weddings, the funerals and any occasions when there are crowds of people mourning or celebrating. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to be in those crowds and talk to people and understand why they are there. As a journalist people sometimes tell you quite intimate thoughts as well.  You’re also party to terrible cases of abuse and also the fragility of life. I think that can only help feed my poetry with a respect and even love for us “naked apes”.

 

You have previously cited Alice Oswald as an influence. What do you value most in her work? Do you have any other literary influences?

I love her use of language to describe the non-human - she manages to make us see creatures, and places almost in a heightened reality without in any way sentimentalising them. For example, writing of a rotted swan as “hurrying away from the plane-crash-mess of her wings” communicates the arched structure of the swan’s frame and also the rigidity and stillness of death and also the way swans ‘run up’ and take off into flight.

My literary influences are everywhere. I am a magpie. I like poems that stretch language to its limits and are not afraid to go beyond.

I really enjoy hybrid work at the moment - recent highlights are Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and also Solar Bones by Mick McCormack.

I am also fascinated by the sounds, music and meaning in registers of language we have at our disposal - particularly the specialist vocabulary you might find in science. At their best they give you a new way of seeing the world and also sound beautiful when defamiliarised.

 

Slant Light features several Anglo-Saxon charms and references to folklore. What is your process for transforming raw material such as this into poetry?

A lot of the charms came about when I was writer-in-residence at a nature reserve and I wanted to write about the properties of the plants growing there - many of them common weeds with medicinal properties.

That lead me into researching the charms which are these rich, song-like poems that seem to operate in the area between early Christianity and paganism. I find that hinterland really exciting. I moved between the old texts and my own new interpretations by translating word-by-word using an online dictionary and a bit of poetic license. A lot of the words are open to interpretation and a lot of them are direct translations. What is exciting is the rhythm of speech is already there in the originals which gave me a powerful sense of reaching into something real. They were, I think, performative and meant to be heard. In that sense, the form of the poems, like line breaks and pauses, fell naturally as breath.

 

About Sarah Westcott

Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in journals including Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Wales and in anthologies including Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt). Sarah grew up in north Devon, on the edge of Exmoor, and has a keen interest in the natural world. She holds a science degree and an MA in poetry from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah lives on the London/Kent borders with her family and, after a spell teaching English abroad, works as a news journalist.

 

For more information on Slant Light and other titles in our Pavilion Poetry series, please visit our website.

 

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'A Handful of Blue Earth' Marilyn Hacker on her translation of the poems of Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Posted on May 26, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Marilyn Hacker has translated several of the works of Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Here to celebrate her latest translation A Handful of Blue Earth, Marilyn discusses the translation process and what inspires her about Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Read on for a poem from A Handful of Blue Earth.

 

A Handful of Blue Earth

 

A Handful of Blue Earth is your translation of the poems written by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. When did you first read these poems and what initially drew you to them?

 This is the sixth book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I have translated since 2000. I had read collections of her poetry in French, and been intrigued by how much implied history there was – history in the macro-historical and in the tale-telling sense –informing them. I was asked, back in 2000,  by an editor to give a reader’s report on an anthology of French and Francophone women’s poetry scheduled for publication. There were a couple of poems of Vénus’ that were so full of howlers of mistranslation – which I signalled to the editor – that I was impelled to re-translate them. Some months later, I met Vénus through a mutual writer friend, and knowing her, knowing the person and the personality behind the work, was another impetus to engage with it.

 

Throughout the collection, there are a range of poetic forms and styles. Is there any particular form that you would say presents a particular challenge as a translator?

There are no actual metrical /rhymed/stanzaic ” fixed poetic forms”  -- either coming from the French (or Arabic) literary canon or invented by the poet – in this book, or in any of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, though there is a difference between the short-lined verse of the “Lady of Syros” and the more surreal prose-poem-like paragraph-stanzas from the “Book of Petitions” , while the long “Mothers and the Mediterranean” poem partakes of both.   The rhythms and the breath of the short-lined poems are quite different from the marvellously meandering sentences of that border on prose. It’s not hard to keep them apart.

There are not as many formal  - in the sense of metrical/syllabic , etc. forms – virtuosos working currently in French poetry as there are in contemporary poetry in English  -- thinking of George Szirtes, Mimi Khalvati, Derek Mahon, Patience Agbabe , for example , though Jacques Roubaud is an exception. I once translated a series of (also surreal ) sequences in decasyllabic dixains  - ten-line stanzas of ten syllables each – by another poet, Marie Etienne, which was surprisingly easy, given how much iambic pentameter I had written myself – and even led me to write something using the same form.

 

Do you have a particular process when translating poetry? 

No…I often find myself reading a poem in French and “recreating” it in English, and that’s the impulse to translate it. If there’s a book of translations to complete, the process is less meandering than that.

 

This poetry collection deals with a variety of themes such as exile, warfare and female relationships. Is there any motif in particular that stands out to you as the defining theme of the collection?

Oddly, the only relationship between women I noticed in this collection was that of the daughter who “becomes” the pre-Cycladic statue to her mother. It’s a subject that has been primary in my own work, and an intense ,conflicted mother/ daughter relationship is central to another book of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s that I translated , Nettles, published by Graywolf Press in the U.S. in 2008.  Exile and expatriation, though, are themes that run through all this poet’s work  - quoting from “The Book of Petitions”:

How can you weep in a language no longer your own

what can you call walls not imbued with your sweat  

In both the “Lady of Syros” and “The Book of Petitions,” death itself is seen as a kind of exile or expatriation  - which, paradoxically, makes it seem less final and inexorable: exiles sometimes return.  Whereas the state of war evoked in “The Mothers and the Mediterranean” seems almost more permanent than death – and I think it was the persistent murderous state of war now in Syria, in Iraq, that brought the civil war in Lebanon so urgently back to the poet’s imagination…as well as the city of Beirut, where she grew up, very specifically evoked in that sequence.

 

Would you say that reading and translating Vénus’ poems has influenced your own poetry? 

I’ve translated extensively from the work of about ten French or Francophone poets in the last going-on-twenty years, and there has been, intentionally or inadvertently, dialogue with several of them in my own work.  Here is a glosa, a Spanish form in which the poet takes 4 lines from a poem by another poet, and composes 4 ten line stanzas, each ending with one of those four lines in turn  -- this was written elaborating on four lines of the poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata that is given in its entirety, following.

 

GLOSE

 The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow

But  nothing consoled her

Who is the night among all nights ? she asked the owl

But the owl doesn’t think, the owl knows

Vénus Khoury-Ghata : “Borderland”

 

Dumb heat, not snow, sheathes Paris in July

and sheathes suburban Washington.

Planes rip through the fabric of a frayed

afternoon torn open

by words no afterwards will clarify.

Knowing what happened, no one will know.

We had a friend ;  she had a young  son.

There was exile, its weight on a day.

There was the heart’s ice, its insistent glow.

The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow.

 

Trope upon silvered trope, of what might a mirror

remind her : copper, black silk , the eloquence

intelligence gives eyes ?  Reflected terror

that conscripted all intelligence.

I am a great way off and cannot come nearer.

I do not know what the night or the mirror told her

or the sense of the words she wrote when nothing made sense,

or if they made a sense that seemed clearer and clearer.

The child raised his arms to be lifted, to be held, to hold her,

but nothing consoled her.

 

Put the morning away in the murk of myth :

not the unthinkable, but Radha’s dance

breaking her bangles, imploring the dark god with

metered and musical lamentations,

repeated measures meant to distance death

suggest a redemptive spiral for the soul

(child, child bleeding to death, no second chance)

 in the containment of despair and wrath

within the peopled descent of the ritual.

 

(Who is the night of all nights she asked the owl.)

 

No dark god was there, and no god of light .

There are women and men, cruel or fallible.

No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right

moment ; some Someone was unavailable.

The morning which paled from an uneventful night

would have been ordinary, except that she chose.

Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle

flying overhead , read fate into its flight.

We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,

but the owl doesn’t think; the owl knows.

 Vénus Khoury-Ghata

 

From “Nettles

 it should have been beautiful and it was merely sad

gardens departed this life more slowly than men

we would eat our sorrow down to the last drop then

belch it in splinters in the face of the cold

the sun’s spirit kept the sun from warming us

a sun that eventually ran dry        from so much concentration

It was elsewhere

it was a very long time ago

tired of calling us the mother left the earth to enter the earth

seen from above she looked like a pebble

seen from below she looked like a flaking pine-cone

sometimes she wept    in sobs that made the foliage tremble

life, we cried out to her, is a straight line of noises

death an empty circle

outside there is winter

the death of a sparrow has blackened the snow

But     nothing consoled her

who is the night among all nights? she asked the owl

but the owl doesn’t think

the owl knows

 Translated by Marilyn Hacker

(from Names, W.W. Norton and Co., 2010)

 

Marilyn Hacker is the author of thirteen books of poems, including A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015), Names (Norton, 2010), Essays on Departure (Carcanet, 2006), an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (Michigan, 2010), and fourteen collections of translations of French and Francophone poets including Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Habib Tengour and Rachida Madani. DiaspoRenga, a collaborative sequence written with the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi, was published by Holland Park Press in 2014. She lives in Paris.

 

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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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