Chester poet Gill McEvoy has published two (now sold out) pamphlets with HappenStance, Uncertain Days and A Sampler, and two full collections, The Plucking Shed (2010) and Rise (2013), both from Cinnamon. This is the second part of my interview with her, plus a selection of poems from the new collection – the first part of the interview can be found here.
I like that idea of a sort of ongoing sequence, with Nuala popping up again and again in the future. Which brings me on to the subject of future work – do you do any planning of what you're going to write, or tend to let the poems 'come to you', and wait until they start to coalesce around a certain theme?
My first two collections were formed from poems that accumulated but that seemed to belong together. In general I let poems come to me, which so far they've been very generous about doing!
But for a long time now I've had a particular sequence of poems in mind, loosely based on one of the Greek myths. It will be a pamphlet rather than a large collection and it has taken a lot of thought, many drafts, and was the major project I worked on at Hawthornden, although I did use that time also to tidy up the poems in the forthcoming Rise.
For this sequence I have read and re-read every version of the myth I can lay hands on (there are always so many versions of Greek myths, tiny little changes in the story can be worth seizing on), and I've tried it in close parallel to the myth and then, finding that didn't work, tried to ignore the myth altogether and just write the poems that tell the story as it is today.
One thing I would like to do, even if I have to do it at my own expense as a limited small booklet and find someone to illustrate it, is to assemble all the poems I've written about horses, another great love of my life. A handful appeared in The Plucking Shed and one in Rise but there are a good many more.
I have been looking at the kind of books book-binders and textile artists can create – saw some marvellous examples in the Scottish Poetry Library, and more at Ledbury Poetry Festival, also recently in a local exhibition which was a collaboration between poets and textile artists at Frodsham. I would love to produce something along those kind of lines, but my own handwriting is so appalling even I cannot read it. All I could do is create the poems!
I’m also collaborating with a friend, Polly Bolton, a singer and choir leader, to produce a sung/read show based on the lives of three Shropshire women. It is to be called Out of the Land, and the stories cover Molly Morgan who was bigamously married, transported to Australia twice, and thanks to the use of her charm and wit became a wealthy woman. The second is Katherine Moore, whose four children were taken from her and sent off to America on the Mayflower; only one survived. The third is Sarah Burton, whose home cottage was outside any parish boundaries so she was able to conduct a business as a midwife to unmarried mothers. Polly is setting the poems I've created to music, and some of her choir members will join us in the eventual production, which we hope will be spring 2014. It's been very exciting doing this and has involved a good bit of touring round Shropshire to see where the women came from and also researching laws of the time and anything we can find about their lives or life at the time, the 16th and 18th centuries.
So, a pamphlet needing much thought, a sung-and-read show needing a lot of work, and a would-be booklet of horse poems - I must have reached the age of Reason, not Intuition! But I am enjoying it very much.
Can I ask the old question about influences? Who are your main influences?
Influences? Oh Lord, such a hard question! I read very widely, buy more poetry books than I can afford, and love the work of so many poets, but if I must narrow it down, then I relish the sensuous, tactile richness of Keats as shown in Ode to Autumn and St Agnes' Eve, and some of the poetry of Alfred Noyes which enthralled me as a child, especially the rhythmic repetition of lines as in Sherwood, what I call 'chantery'! I discovered with joy the simple directness of Machado, Frost, and Edward Thomas. I also hold dear the mysticism of San Juan de la Cruz, and Kathleen Raine's ability to find the numinous in the humble, remarkably so in her poem Scala Coeli.
When I was ill I clung to Louis MacNeice's poem Snow as if it were a life-raft; indeed I had an article published in Poetry News on how much the poem had truly helped me, and that article led to a short series of poets writing about their own 'poems of significance'. I still greatly enjoy MacNeice's work. His poem Mayfly is a delight where he speaks of the mayflies going 'up and down in the lift' all day just for fun!
Later I came to admire the work of Denise Levertov, Jane Kenyon, Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Eavan Boland, and Derek Mahon (the latter is very unlikely to remember it but we both worked at the Language Centre of Ireland, Dublin, for some months). At the moment I am re-reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and feeling astonished yet again at her sheer power of language and expression.
But if you were to tell me I could keep only one poem to sustain me through life I would choose Denise Levertov's The Unknown. It perfectly describes our restless human longing for that vague 'something else':
"One doesn't want rest, one wants miracles". And when they don't happen
"Beaten you fall asleep... wake to witness...eager furniture, differentiated planes....the windows big and solemn, full of the afterglow...
The awakening is to transformation
word after word."
Isn't that what every poet seeks?
I'd like to repeat exactly what Roy Marshall asked me recently, because it's a fascinating question – one of the strengths of your poems is that they can read and appreciated or enjoyed by a ‘non-poetry’ reading audience. I’d like to relate this to something Don Paterson said in an interview last year, that poetry has a ‘moral obligation to clarity.’ I wondered what, if anything, this phrase might mean to you, and if the concept of clarity is important in your work?
Oh, without doubt my answer would be YES! Clarity is vital if you want a reading public, especially among those who are not themselves poets or dedicated readers of poetry. I'll underline my answer with this anecdote: at an open-mike I read my poem Message to the Well-meaning (from my previous book The Plucking Shed). Afterwards a man came up to me and said "Yes! That poem - it's exactly like that" and I felt so thrilled, the kind of response that's worth more than anything.
I strongly feel it behoves poets to remember they are writing for others; we're human-beings writing to bring alive the world and our experiences for other human-beings, to touch that chord of Yes! in others' hearts. And sometimes we succeed. I'm not a very public poet but I am lucky enough to have a small public of loyal readers who like my work. And that is joyous. If we lose sight of our readers we'll end up in an introspective world of poets reading to poets, which I suspect is a bit like where we are now, and probably why there's a slump in poetry-book buying. We have a duty (and the gift) to "awake" others to "transformation word after word", as in the Denise Levertov poem I quoted earlier in this interview.
Clarity is for me one of the hallmarks of a great poet like George MacKay Brown - through simple recurring images of daffodils, fish, salt, boats, storms, whisky, bread, corn, stars, and evidence of simple belief in the Christian calendar, he takes you with him through the seasons of the Orkney year. Marvellous work. There is a line in his poem Creator which says "He is the Seed locked in the House of Dust". That seed could easily be poetry; the poet's task is to set it free, make it grow.
Lastly, the enduring popularity of a radio programme like Poetry Please says it all. People want to hear tried, tested, and loved poems. Loved is the significant word. Poetry is about the heart, whatever its subject.
Simplicity. Honesty. Clarity.
Wonderful words. Wonderful.
Exorcising the chemotherapy wig
I buried it deep below
my cotton pants and nylon bras.
Wispy hair caressed the gussets, hooks.
In the basket on the wardrobe
it raised the hackles of its fur.
On still nights I would wake
and hear it purr.
In the solid wooden box
it's feelers palped the edges,
picking up my pulse.
In the grate I set a match to it,
watched it jerk and leap,
throw out angry sparks
until it stilled to ash.
Over her thirteen years of life
prolific litters squirmed against
her vast complacent sides.
He'd lean on the wall of her sty
bring her offerings of cabbages,
the incense, myrrh and gold
of beech nuts, acorns.
Shrouded in muslin,
glistening with salt,
her earthly self was turned to flanks
of bacon, ham.
At mealtimes he'd hold her flavour
on his tongue,
stretch out a hand,
as if to scratch once more her bristly back.
The Christmas helter-skelter
She thinks it's a lost lighthouse
Lifted from a coastal rock.
Red and white candy rock,
dropped in the city's square.
Its boards are bare,
no-one's riding it,
no music celebrates
it's strange appearance here.
She puts her small hand,
gloved in knitted snowmen,
into her mother's hand
and shakes her head.
Take it away, she says.
It makes her sad, as if she
should hug the lonely thing,
but how would her arms
reach round it?
Take it away, she says again,
meaning Take me home, Mummy,
take me home.