Michelle McGrane's third collection, The Suitable Girl (Pindrop Press), was one of the highlights of the last few months for me, a strong, unified piece of work whose poems utilise a wealth of evocative detail to build their many layers. I got the chance to talk to her about it and poetry more generally just ahead of the Cape Town launch of the book, and she also shared a couple of the poems from the collection.
The Suitable Girl feels like a very unified piece of work – was it conceived that way, or did you find your writing leading in a certain direction?
I’d written a few persona poems when The Suitable Girl, the title of a previous poem, kept reappearing and waving at me from the wings, trying to catch my attention. At that stage I knew that I wanted to explore the idea of societal expectations in relation to women and I thought that the irony in the title might work for a collection of poems about ‘unsuitable’ women, women who had strayed from the paths of convention. Once this consciously became the bridging theme it was relatively easy to continue in the direction I’d envisioned the collection taking, although in the three years of writing The Suitable Girl I removed and added poems to the extent that only a couple of the earliest survived.
With a project like this, then, do you actively research the personae involved, or is it a case of accumulating knowledge about them over a long period of time to the point that you have to write the poem?
I try to discover as much as I can about the character and the period through biographies, novels, films, art and the Internet. The more I immerse myself in the character’s life and surroundings, the easier I find writing the poem. In a way, I imagine it might be similar to preparing for an acting role where you need to become the character in order to portray her. As a hoarder of miscellany, I find research endlessly fascinating, sometimes to the point where I have to steer myself back to the poem before I lose sight of it.
Could you tell us a little bit about your writing processes? Do you revise and redraft a lot? And do you have any particular conditions/rituals that need to be in place before you can write?
Until I have some idea of where the poem is heading and what form it’s taking I tend to draft in longhand on lined paper with a Pilot Fineliner. There’s something very seductive and satisfying about making loops and curls in black ink on clean white paper (and for me, the finer the pen tip the better).
When the poem is sufficiently shaped I transfer it onto my computer where I continue drafting and editing. In the early stages of a poem’s creation I need to be alone and I work best in silence. I’ve always envied poets who are able to write while listening to music but I find music distracting.
I don’t carry a notebook so occasionally when I’m at a café or restaurant I’ll write notes or a couple of lines on receipts and tickets found in my wallet; I tear pages out of my spiral bound logbook and scribble while I’m waiting for the traffic lights to turn green on my way to work.
Do you keep all the drafts of a work, even once you've started writing onto the computer? I heard Paul Farley talk about this recently, and he was saying that he keeps printouts of every draft. I sort of envy that, but I'd be terrified of being buried beneath a wall of paper.
An environmentally friendly alternative to keeping printouts of every draft might be to save them in a folder on a memory stick but, no, I don't keep every draft.
I can honestly say I've never read a poetry collection that's made me quite as hungry as The Suitable Girl did! It's a very sensuous book generally, but especially where taste and smell are concerned, and I thought you used them both very evocatively in a way many poets ignore. Are they always such a focus of your poetry?
Well, it depends what the poem requires. Thirteen Ways with Figs, Bertha Mason Speaks and The Remise of Marie Antoinette, aged 14 are more sensuous than the poems about my father's death. I think the senses provide a direct route to the reader's imagination and that by invoking them he or she can be transported from the comfort and familiarity of an armchair to undiscovered worlds.
Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses (Vintage, 1990) is a book I'd recommend to writers of all genres. She suggests that "Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu … reach far beyond us. They're an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on earth."
Moving away from the collection a minute, I wondered what your opinions are (as a very web-savvy poet, and one who's able to look at the UK scene from the outside) on the way the internet is changing poetry. My own experience is almost wholly positive - I think the internet has exposed me to the writing of poets I'd never have come across otherwise - but I wonder too whether it's breaking down some of the tribal divides that used to exist.
I think the Internet has opened up the world to poets not only in terms of having the opportunity to read work one might never have come across and being able to interact with writers living on other continents but because of the news, resources and information at one's fingertips. I really don't feel qualified to comment on tribal divides except to say that from what I've observed the virtual community is accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection and shows an interest in poetry.
It's probably the question poets get tired of being asked, but are there any particular poets you constantly return to for inspiration?
Louise Glück and Margaret Atwood.
Do you enjoy the whole process of getting out there to do readings to promote a book, and do you find the audience response feeding back into your next project? And is there any prospect of any UK readings somewhere down the line?
It’s encouraging and humbling when people attend readings and I particularly appreciate when, at the end of an evening, someone takes the time to tell me why a certain poem means something to them. Still, I’m always more comfortable at my desk than in the limelight. As years go by, being the centre of attention seems less important, less real to me, than creating and writing.
I have good friends in England so, at this stage, I’d say the prospect of a few UK readings down the line is fairly good. I’ll keep you posted.
Finally, I was free to disappear
the day my husband
brought the young brush cherry home.
He settled her on the stand
between the firethorn and crab apple,
then mended the mossy wooden fence
along the property boundaries.
I knew she was different
by her tapering trunk,
glossy, red foliage,
heavy lower branches
and well-distributed roots.
Oh, she was ornamental enough.
He’d always had an eye for potential.
Through the bedroom curtain,
I watched her peel twenty years off his age.
He couldn’t keep the smile from his face,
spent the evening kneeling in the garden,
singing green heart notes
to her sprouting, elliptic leaves.
No more fingering,
pinching, pruning, bleeding,
every branch and twig wired,
brown and flexible, bent to the shape
of his fingers and thumbs.
Waking in the early morning, I left him
wrapped in dreams of sweet, red flesh,
the sunlight glinting off my node scars.
The Escape Artist
In our three-month acquaintance, Faolán was known throughout circus rings as the Lord of the Fleas. Faolán means ‘little wolf’. He was a hairy wee beastie. Agile, a born entertainer and ambitious to boot. Nothing short of global domination would satisfy the Lilliputian star. From tenth generation Saratov Circus stock on his paternal side, his mother was Muirne Mac Nessa, the Irish siphonaptera racing champion. People journeyed from as far as Argentina and the Macau Peninsula to marvel at his mesmerising chariot act, dazzling tightrope performance, virtuoso cannon routine and death-defying fire dance.
There was no one to blame but myself when he ran off with the ringmaster’s silver weimaraner. I should have suspected something was amiss. He stopped feeding when the laughing, long-haired bitch sashayed past his trailer, refused to turn cartwheels as I greeted him from behind the magnifying glass. Now, I’m training aerial silk artistes. Of course, it’s not the same. My heart’s no longer in the hyperbole. Does he miss the good times, he spotlight, the smell of roast chestnuts and candyfloss, the cheering crowds? I sleep with his gold-trimmed tophat and tails, his diminutive whip, in a snuffbox beside my bed.
Michelle McGrane lives in Johannesburg and blogs at Peony Moon. Her collection The Suitable Girl is published by Pindrop Press in the UK and Modjaji Books in South Africa.