I'm enjoying trying to come up with some Best of 2011 lists, with the usual agonising decisions about what to leave out and what to include. One collection that will definitely make the poetry list, though, and which I would imagine will figure on many a list by lit journos, bloggers and readers, is Neptune Blue, by Simon Barraclough. I talked to him about it, and poetry in general...
Neptune Blue struck me as being a product of the polar opposite of ‘second collection syndrome’ – it’s absolutely jam-packed with ideas and diverse sources of inspiration. Is that a result of being a very active poet, in terms of doing readings, writing for commissions, organising events, etc?
That’s nice to hear. ‘Second collection syndrome’ sounds ominous. I think there’s truth in what you say: the more involved and engaged I am with events, commissions and other writers the more stimulated I’m likely to be and possibly the more likely I am to come into contact with new ideas or themes. But I’m also quite lucky in that I always seem to have several ideas on the go at once and many projects I’m always trying to find time for. This may not last forever but for now the ideas, subjects and sequences continue to vie for attention.
Following on from what you were saying about having a lot of ideas going on simultaneously, I was wondering about how the book came together (or your first collection, for that matter). Is it a case of identifying what you feel are going to be pretty central poems early on, and then letting the rest of the collection coalesce around them, or is it a more strictly planned process?
The growth of a collection is quite mysterious I think: maybe a bit like how a planet or solar system is formed. There’s a certain amount of matter, dust and poetic gas floating around and then it cools and shrinks and gravity begins to heat all the particles up again. After Los Alamos Mon Amour I got quite a lot of commissions and published 17 of them in the mini-book Bonjour Tetris, which gave me a small core of new poems to work around. So I took 6 or 7 of those for whatever the next book would be and before I knew it I'd started two sequences around the same time: the planet poems and the ___________ Heart poems. The planets was something I realised I’d always wanted to do in response to my love of Holst’s planet suite and the Hearts came out of an odd little dream in which my heart had been replaced by a starfish. It was a very vivid, tactile dream: quite disturbing, and it kicked off a whole chain of odd little poems about Hearts. Finding a title for the book came down to a tussle between the hearts and planets but Neptune Blue won out as I just liked its simple music and Neptune is probably my favourite of the planet poems.
So that was 9 planets (I retain Pluto with a mild touch of irony), 11 Hearts, plus the 7 from Tetris, making up about half of a new book. I then blended in other poems I thought were good enough and loosely related to some of the themes I’d already written and then, as happened towards the end of Los Alamos, I had a bit of a writing spurt that produced around 6 new poems I thought would fit in well. I also wanted one closer to cap off the collection and that came in the form of Sol, my poem written from the point of view of the Sun, looking back from her perspective on all the planets I’d written about earlier.
That final poem has propelled me down another path and since Neptune Blue came out, I’ve written about 20 Sunspot poems and have a crazy plan to write 121 of them. This is to do with the 11-year sunspot cycle. Bit nerdy, but I like to have these buried structures when I write.
I like the astronomical analogy, and I think you've answered my next question, too, about the Heart and Planet poems. You've touched, too, upon the ‘buried structures’ you use in writing sequences or putting together a collection. Within individual poems, form seems to work very much in the same way for you – would that be fair?
I’ve always enjoyed using and reading form but I think I use it less often these days. At least, I don’t think I adhere to a strict form throughout that many single poems unless the subject really demands it. I tend to use form and formal patterns as a kind of underlying skeleton but I’m quite happy to break its rules for certain passages of a poem if the rhythm, rhetoric, line break, appearance on the page demand it.
I think in that respect the new book is freer than Los Alamos was and changes gears more readily within a single poem. It’s an odd analogy but I like to think of the songs of Frank Black and how tracks like I Heard Ramona Sing seem to have two or three intros and then sudden shifts of structure in the verses. In Neptune Blue, I think the poems Earth and SoBe It have a little of this quality I’m grasping at. But I’m maybe not my best reader and may be well off the mark. And then the shorter Heart poems, I’m thinking mainly of Tapestry Heart, seem almost formless. Is there something in this? What do you think?
I think that’s exactly right! I tend to find myself drawing musical analogies a lot when I’m reading poetry, and Frank Black and the Pixies sprang to mind more than once during Neptune Blue. And of course those dynamic shifts create a certain zoom-in, zoom-out effect in places, which works well with the astronomical themes. It brings me back to your writing processes again – do you have any particular rituals, or ideal conditions? I almost always find myself writing in the evening, even if I’ve had a completely clear day.
I really don’t think I have any rituals. I tend to write at my desk at home, looking out over London (I’m on the 10th floor and am treated to spectacular skies and sunsets almost every day), although I can write in cafes and at airports when I need to. So I suppose the place I write is fairly constant. I can write at any time of day. I love the idea of writing through the night but I’m usually too tired to be effective if it’s really late.
I make notes in longhand but I can only write poems on my computer these days. At some point in the last 10 years my imagination became more comfortable with a keyboard than a pen. It doesn’t help that my handwriting looks quite nice but is 80% illegible to me. Most ideas now go straight into a long .txt file, which gets saved and copied here and there in case I lose my laptop. I used to like writing in pencil because it felt freer and more flexible than pen and now I find the format-less text file is the pencil to Word’s pen, if that makes sense. I don’t write every day and I have no set hours but I do think about writing almost all the time (I imagine that’s the case with you and most poets too)?
I read something about James Joyce when I was a teenager that really affected me. I used to fuss about stationery: the right pen and notebook and so on but then I read how Joyce would write on anything with anything: crayons, bits of torn up paper, whatever was available, and from then on I dropped all notions of ‘the right tools’ or ‘the right ambience’.
Yes, I think I’ve gradually gone towards the same sort of system – Notepad to Word with some occasional scribblings by hand. Ever since I learned shorthand in my mid-20s, though, my handwriting’s been so appalling that I can rarely read it back properly. I identify with what you say about thinking about writing all the time. How does that fit in with your day job(s)? I’m conscious of being very lucky in having a job that involves a lot of time on my own, and in which I’m writing anyway (so I can hammer away at the keyboard writing a poem or notes for one while people think I’m typing up a report).
Well for the last seven years I’ve worked either freelance or part-time, so I have quite a lot of time and space for writing. Doesn’t mean I use the time well, of course, but I do my best. Writing is too solitary an activity, so I like to mix it up with events and collaborations as much as I can. Even when I’m working though, I often have one of those text files open where I can ‘jot’ down ideas and scraps of poetry when they hit.
Going back to Neptune Blue, the Heart poems were a highlight for me, I think partly because they manage to be both extremely playful, and at times, extremely dark. Is that opposition, or balance, something you consciously strive for?
Well, I’m always happy when people think that I’ve achieved that kind of balance. It’s clearly important to me to combine the light and the dark, the painful and the comical. I have an entirely savoury tooth when it comes to food and I think it’s safe to say I have the same when it comes to literature. Samuel Beckett has always been a touchstone for me but it’s his laugh-out-loud moments (often provoked by comic hyperbole, such as when Mrs. Rooney in All That Fall struggles to get into a car and declaims: “Christ what a planet!”) that I love every bit as much as the ditches of despair.
Perhaps I’m also reacting to the cliché that ‘poetry is all hearts and flowers’. Even if that were the case, who’s to say those flowers and hearts can’t be twisted, painful, funny, fascinating, surprising? I’m not saying mine are, but one tries. And what is more complex, more sunny and yet more benighted than the poor old human heart?
Absolutely. I think another reason they work is the way they blur the lyric "I" so well – you’re never sure as a reader whether you’re dealing with a multiplicity of hearts, and voices, or the many different facets of one. And I guess that goes hand in hand with the light and dark. Would that be fair?
I think so. When I wrote them I wasn’t sure about those things either. The ‘characters’ of the hearts in question grew out of the imagery and language and developed along their own paths, somehow. They seemed to have their own, speedy, particle-momentum. I think that’s why they’re quite short. There’s a bit of me in each of them but a large proportion of each feels alien to me too. That’s it: they’re alien hearts.
Your Italophilia is a thread that keeps resurfacing in the collection, too. Can you tell me a bit about how that developed (I speak as someone rapidly developing Hispanophilia)?
Ah, enjoy your new philia. I’ve had mine for many years now and I think I can trace it as far back as hearing Rossini in the cot. Something like that, to be dangerously (and probably mendaciously) romantic. Funny you mention this, as I tend to think it’s less obvious in Neptune than it is in Los Alamos but I could be wrong. It amuses me that, being such an Italophile, so many French words and French references creep into the poems and into my titles.
I started studying Italian seriously about six years ago after years and years of procrastinating and buying books like Italian in your Lunchtime or Italian Without Italian and all the other quick-fixes that never work. So I hired a private tutor to come to my home twice a week for about 14 months and since then I’ve taken courses, hired a second tutor occasionally, and tend to study a little every day. And I mainly go to Italy when I travel.
I remember going to Venice in 2003 and only knowing about five words of Italian and being really frustrated and angry with myself. I vowed then I wouldn’t return until I’d put some work in and so my next trip was to Turin in 2005 after three months of quite intense study. It’s inevitable that it should creep into my writing, I suppose, and it’s only going to get worse as I’m preparing to do some translating this year. I just love the country and the people, the climate, the food and the culture but I’m not starry eyed about it. I’m aware of the darker aspects of Italy and I hear plenty about them from my Italian friends, believe me. In a funny way, I think the ‘worse’ Italy becomes, the more friends it needs. Maybe that goes for all countries, all people.
And of course Italian is a wonderfully musical language and being able to read old and new poets, while still difficult at times, is a joy and perhaps helps me with my writing? Not sure.
Ah, you’ve pre-empted my next question – I was going to ask if you had the urge to translate. Which poets are you going to be working on?
Through a series of happy coincidences I came to befriend the novelist and poet Giuliano Dego and was surprised that his epic historical-satirical poem La Storia in Rima hasn’t been translated into English yet. We’ve agreed that I will make a start on Canto I (there are 10 in total) and, with some input from him, we’ll see how I get on.
It presents many challenges of course, primarily because it’s written in ottava rima (Giuliano has published a fine translation of Canto I of Don Juan and is a huge fan of Byron) and there just aren’t as many rhymes available in English as there are in Italian. But we’re agreed that the new version must have its own English poetry and not follow the original too slavishly. I’ve got so much on that I think the process will be a slow one. But probably all the better for that. Italy is the country of the slow food movement after all...
Your last answer tied in with something I’ve been thinking about a lot this week – how long I take to (a) write a poem, and (b) revise it and send it out to a mag. I’ve been making a conscious effort to be much slower in this, with the result that new poems seem to be arriving ‘complete’ (but not ‘finished’). The danger, I suppose, is that it might stifle any embryonic poems that really demand to be spontaneous, and of the moment. Any thoughts on this?
While the translating is incredibly slow, I find I’m writing new material quite quickly. For that reason I’m just letting it flow for now and I’m going to go back and revise it all carefully later. I think I’m going to have a whole focused book to work on, which is unusual and should be an interesting experience in terms of shaping, organising and setting up currents and patterns within it. So I think I’m being spontaneous with a view to being more methodical later. Best of both worlds? Having my cake and editing it? Then again, a couple of the Heart poems in Neptune must have taken minutes to write, while SoBe It was started 11 years ago...each poem has its own needs I suppose.
Other than the translations, do you have any pet projects, any books within you that you desperately want to write? I’ve been surprised (though probably shouldn't have been) by how many poets have.
Oh, well this Sun book has become one of them for me and my research is taking my mind on a rich and varied journey. I’ve always wanted to write a long poetic account of the loss of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 and even went as far as applying for a grant to support research but wasn’t lucky that time around. I’ve tinkered with a book along the lines of How Laurel and Hardy Can Change Your Life and there’s another much cherished prose project I’m not even going to mention! Superstition.
I’ll ask the same thing that I asked Mark Burnhope recently – which one thing would you do to enthuse schoolkids about poetry (it can be as little as exposing them to a particular poem)?
That’s a good question. Over the last few years I’ve tried all kinds of techniques to get schoolchildren excited about reading and writing poetry. I don’t think one poem or method has been uniquely successful but I do find that some kind of interactive, ludic approach works well. By which I mean things like composing poems according to randomly generated or brainstormed ‘rules’ for each line; physically chopping up a sonnet into 14 lines and asking groups to try and reconstitute the poem ‘correctly’ (many fruitful discussions about form and meaning arise from the ‘incorrect’ versions produced); working with short syllabic forms, such as haiku or Fibonaccis.
I once presented a class with Giles Goodland’s excellent poem ‘The Bees’ and after reading it together a few times I asked everyone to circle bits of the language that ‘disturbed’ them in some way, be it through pleasure, confusion, rhythm, imagery, nonsensical moments or any other reason, and we ended up having a fascinating discussion about what the poem was doing and how. It was great to hear one kid shoot down a complex metaphor as meaningless only to be challenged by another who had grasped why the metaphor was in fact perfect.
Reading one’s own work and answering questions about how and why you wrote such and such a line can work well too. It helps to demystify the writing process and bring it into the realm of the possible for the students. But for any of this to work, if I had my way, I would issue a wholesale ban on sing-song rhythmic, rhyming poetry in TV adverts. They’re everywhere at the moment and they’re the equivalent of high-fat, high-salt, processed, fast food to my mind. I’ve seen so many good ideas in class ruined by the tyranny of sing-song rhyme and the absurdities of syntax and sense it frequently produces. And I’m not against rhyme at all, when used well. Or a bit of fast food once in a while. But sometimes it feels that this is the only kind of ‘poetry’ that exists outside of educational institutions.
When I was a schoolboy, it was a couple of poems by Hughes and Auden that blew me away. And all it took was to be presented with the work and given time to read, re-read and think about it. Sometimes you just need to present a great poem to a class. One, some, and maybe all will get it.
I like that idea of getting them to reconstruct poems, but I think you also touch on an even more important point about being given the time to read, re-read and think. So I wonder if you think that poetry’s compact nature, the fact that it can be slotted into the gaps in everyday life, is its secret weapon in the battle to grab attention?
Hmm, that would seem logical wouldn’t it? Although a good lyric poem is a bit like the Tardis. It’s much bigger inside than it looks and you can squeeze through its door never to be seen again as you wander its corridors and chambers. People often claim they have no time to read (poetry, or at all) and I routinely say that it takes a minute or two to read a poem. But it’s not about the real time of reading, it’s the time the mind, the ears, the breath take to savour and explore it fully.
And that’s just lyric poetry; once you’re onto Paradise Lost or The Changing Light at Sandover you can’t appeal to brevity or quick digestibility any more. The thing is to recalibrate life so we all have a little more time and space to read and think. Sounds idealistic. Probably is. Having said all that, dwelling on a Dream Song over lunch is a good start. Eighteen lines, one hour: not a bad ratio.
To buy Neptune Blue, click here.
If I fall in love, and I think I will,
I may have to leave Miami first.
Who wuz it now wiv whom I wuz in wuv?
All those charter boats, art deco sunsets
and waitresses I tried to hit upon
in Biscayne des-per-a-tion
cling to the windshield of my Flydrive mind.
Crawling through your tome, Bret Easton,
trying to pretend the week apart to make up both our minds
had not made up her mind the very second she suggested it.
Angler of occluded hopes, those sunburnt optimisms.
Block them, factor 451.
Are you going out in those shorts in this cold?
I've got a fishing trip. Have read my Benchley and my Junger,
got the hunger for a day's sea breeze,
some finny kills, the macho tackle,
accessories, success stories. I get no bites.
But the skipper and a baby blue shark
connect; on deck the Lindy Hop of death.
Swiss army knife of evolution, trying
all his blades, his tools, his gizmos,
carving esses in the air, winding down.
That mournful mouth. Turn your frown upside down.
The hatch to the hold's yanked open and our shark,
still twitching's kicked on down, takes the longest time
first mouthed to be last swallowed,
blue-green baubled gobsmacker.
Without the lunar counterweight,
the grave embrace's tidal tug,
we'd pop our dislocated poles
and shudder like a shook snow globe
and every shook snow globe on Earth
would synchronise and stormy flakes
would regulate themselves and lovely chaos
might abate. And then where would we be?
Somewhere someone's daughter asks,
'If the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?'
This is the planet of daughters and sons,
the noisy neighbour, noise polluter,
party thrower, troublemaker,
incubator, hibernator, estivator, terminator.
Such sights. Where to start? Where will it all end?
Deep in the belly of the old star mother?
The blown red placenta, the giving one's all.
You're so blue
you probably think that Jarman's Blue
is about you.
You're the source of all blue,
of Edwin Morgan's 'Little Blue Blue',
Earth blue held up to you
is muck ball brown and grass stain green,
our oceans but a drop,
a dust of moth,
a mote of you.