Siriol Troup comes from a Welsh family, but was born in Hong Kong and spent most of her childhood and teenage years abroad, in Africa, Germany, Holland and Iran. She read French and German at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and later returned there to teach 19th and 20th century French Literature.
Beneath the Rime, from Shearsman, is her second collection of poems, following Drowning Up The Blue End, which was published in 2004 by Bluechrome. I interviewed her by email about the book and her writing in general. Read on to see the results, plus a couple of sample poems...
Could you tell me a little bit about your path to publishing your first collection?
I wrote a lot of poetry as a teenager but stopped when I went to university, and didn’t return to writing until after I’d had my four children. I was in the middle of trying to write yet another (terrible) novel, when a frozen shoulder left me unable to sit at a desk or computer for any length of time without being in agony. So I started writing poems again, mainly because they were shorter than novels and I could work on them at odd moments during the day. I sent some off to competitions, won a few prizes, which was very encouraging, and in 2002, I won the Poetry Monthly Booklet Competition, for which the prize was publication of a pamphlet of 25 poems (Moss) – which used up virtually everything I’d written since getting the frozen shoulder. A year or so later, Bluechrome wrote to ask if they could publish a first collection and in 2004 they published Drowning Up The Blue End.
Your own background is very cosmopolitan. How far has that helped you take a rather more oblique and original approach than your average British poet?
I suppose the main advantage of my background – living abroad and, more particularly, studying languages and European literature – is that my reading has been (and still is) very varied and I’ve always had to pay a lot of attention to semantics – the roots of individual words, their context, their connections, the cultural baggage they contain, the ghosts behind them. I once spent a whole afternoon listening to academics and translators discuss the difficulties of translating the German word unheimlich – that’s the sort of thing I find fascinating. I gave my husband the 20-volume OED for Christmas and almost wish I hadn’t – it’s such a distraction.
Many of the poems in the new collection are written in different personas – animal as well as human. Is this a way of tackling subject matter that might be more difficult to approach from a more obviously personal point of view?
Using different personas probably comes from my background in languages. I’ve got used to putting on voices, inhabiting minds other than my own. Getting under the skin of an elephant in the Coliseum or a dog hauling sledges to the North Pole opens up a whole world of possibilities, which is liberating for me as a writer and, I hope, for the reader too. It’s got to be more interesting than always droning on about myself. And as you suggest, it’s a way of approaching difficult subject matter more obliquely – death, sex, politics of gender, the sort of issues that might sound strident or pretentious if expressed in my own voice.
I particularly enjoyed the Infanta poems. Do you approach a sequence like that with a clear idea of how it will be structured, or is it more a case of worrying away at the same itch because you're continually drawn back to it?
Worrying away at an itch describes it perfectly. I’d done a lot of research on the Infanta and her family, and on Velázquez and his painting techniques, and I knew I wanted the sequence to have a loose narrative structure, but I had no idea how many poems I’d need (or be able) to write. I wrote about a dozen, then stopped and went on to other things. But I found I couldn’t get the Infanta out of my head, so I went back and wrote some more. From time to time, I still play around with a couple of poems I left out of the final sequence.
Tell us a little about your writing process – I liked very much the fact that, despite the strong narrative threads in many of the poems, you always allowed language to take centre stage. That seems to me to require a very difficult balancing act between careful crafting and spontaneity.
When I first have an idea for a poem, I try to sit on it for a few days before I start writing. The first draft usually comes quite quickly, then I put it away and come back to it later – weeks or even months later, if possible, so that I can look at it objectively and see what works and what doesn’t work. I rewrite obsessively, often going through dozens of drafts, but I try not to leave the original draft too far behind because those first sparks, although they’re often clumsily or ponderously expressed, are what give a poem its energy. A handful of poems in Beneath The Rime came fairly quickly – Detachment, Caged Elephants, Wall and some of the Infanta poems, for example – but the majority took me years to finish. Even now, I’m still working on poems I started six or seven years ago.
What was the process of publishing with Shearsman like? Was there a lot of editorial guidance?
Publishing with Shearsman has been wonderful. I can’t imagine a better experience. To give you an example: when Tony Frazer took Beneath The Rime, he told me he needed to trim the number of pages in the MS, and he pointed out five possible candidates for exclusion, though he was happy to hear appeals in their favour. If he’d chosen what I considered the best poems in the book, I would have questioned not only my own judgement, but more importantly, his – but the poems he picked out were precisely the ones I had reservations about myself. Throughout the process, he’s been responsive and insightful without ever being overbearing. His cover designs are brilliant, and his commitment to poetry from all over the world is really inspiring.
Monday to Friday we’re alone with the rabbits,
Madame and I. Up at dawn with the smell
of wet straw and piss-a-bed, the piebald does
spaced out on ammonia behind the wire.
I slip the bolts, hear them jolt as I enter,
a skitter of hearts and toenails, whiskery hysterics.
Madame smacks my wrist: speak to them gently,
reward them when they come.
She calls them each by name, nuzzles and smooches,
nibbles their loose fur, their dippy tails –
mes biches, mes pucelles, mes allumeuses.
I clean their water-bowls and disinfect their beds.
On Sunday, she blocks her ears and weeps
into the casserole. Monsieur lays down his fork
and strokes her hand, then tucks in with relish,
slurping the thick juice until it trickles down his chin.
I take the afternoon off, light a candle
to St. Gertrude, let a boy in the market-place
stick his fist up my skirt.
The night I leave, I fill the bowls with foxgloves,
ivy, corn-lilies, creeping butterweed.
Push my fingers through the mesh.
Watch them come to me like whores.
Thirst and Slake
End of summer: the earth crackling like bark,
every layer peeled back, keening for rain.
How long it goes on – this see-saw
of dust and water, thirst and slake;
the leafing and unleafing of the trees.
No wind tonight. The moths hang
in the dark like flowers waiting to drop.
What pleasure to feel the whisper
of the mosquito! – his sly harpoon,
the itch of blood and hide, the flooding
of proteins and saliva; to know there will be
nights like this – rich-scented, wanton
with favours; the rustle of limbs
before the rains begin.