Photo by Josh Redman
Simon Barraclough is originally from Yorkshire and has lived in London since 1997. His debut collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour was a Forward Prize finalist in 2008. In 2010 he published a pamphlet of commissioned poems, Bonjour Tetris (Penned in the Margins) and his second full collection Neptune Blue (Salt Publishing) followed in 2011. Simon has collaborated with artists and writers on a number of events and publications including Psycho Poetica (Editor, Sidekick Books 2012) and The Debris Field (with Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe, Sidekick Books 2013). He has contributed regularly to BBC Radio’s The Verb and The Film Programme, as well as to The Long View. In 2014, Simon was writer in residence at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey. His new collection, Sunspots, is out now from Penned In The Margins.
I'll start with the rather obvious question – how long has Sunspots been in the making, and what was the original point of inspiration?
Sunspots has been condensing since the last poem I wrote for Neptune Blue in 2011. Sol is written from the point of view of the Sun looking over the solar system and its wayward, troublesome, offspring. Some kind of switch was flipped in my brain and I quickly wrote around 20 further Sun poems in various styles and I just knew that the next project would be a large-scale treatment of this new obsession. Neptune Blue launched in July and that summer (which I think was a pretty hot one by our standards) had the perfect ambience to deepen and expand my fascination with the subject.
Yes, I wondered whether that had been the beginning of it. Did you envisage it becoming such a wide-ranging collection? One of the pleasures of reading it, for me, was the sheer scope of the subject matter you've brought into it.
That's gratifying to know. I twigged early on that Sunspots would be more focused and more 'epic' than my previous books. The strength of my interest, the symbolic force of the Sun, and the extensive scientific aspects of our local star guaranteed this. Also, the Sun is immense: physically, poetically, and in terms of its importance to us. It may also be the most written about object in human history. This was a huge challenge to me: how to write at length about it and yet, hopefully, keep it interesting, fresh, and enjoyable for readers.
One of the ways you’ve kept things very fresh and enjoyable, I think, is by juxtaposing some very disparate tones – self-consciously poetic, conversational, scientific, and so on. I think that's something you’ve always done in your work, and done well, but here it feels more fully realised than ever. Would you agree?
I certainly hope so. I think as well as using these kinds of juxtapositions, the book has an accumulative effect as themes and voices recur and develop along the loosely plotted arc from the birth to the death of the Sun. It was very important to me to balance tone and length and style without the whole feeling too ordered. or too similar. I remember having conversations with myself along such lines: “I think the book is too light and playful...but hang on, haven’t I just written a poem in which babies are cooked and eaten on the road? OK, maybe that balances the tone a little!” Like the Sun, which is a mass of forces and behaviours we don't fully understand yet, I think the form of the book permitted me to follow many different avenues and develop many themes and yet reverse or alter my approach whenever it struck me as effective.
Were you writing other, occasional poems during the period Sunspots was being put together, or did it become all-consuming?
I did manage to write maybe a third of another possible, unrelated, collection. I've also been working with scientists at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory on work unrelated to the Sun, and some poems came out of that project, along with the expected ‘occasional’ poems. It’s not good for the eyes to stare at the Sun for too long.
How did the scientists react to the presence of a poet in their midst, and to the work you did in response to their own work?
I got the full spectrum of responses. Some ignored me completely, some expressed a wry interest, some came to a few of my sessions, some came to every session, some were very excited to have me there and wrote about two dozen new pieces! Overall, I had a wonderful, committed, and entertaining ‘core’ through the year. I didn’t actually write about their work: I saw my job as mainly getting them to write about their own work. I wrote about my experiences of visiting the lab and I co-wrote the collaborative piece called Observatoratorio. All this work will be available soon in the anthology I've edited called Laboratorio (Sidekick Books).
I’ll look forward to seeing it! Is it something you'd like to do more of? My own brief experience of writing a poem for the William Smith anthology, with the input of geologists, has given me all sorts of ideas for crossovers between poetry and science (not that there really should be any divide to be crossed).
I'd love to go back and do more, or engage with a different discipline or department. Right now I’m looking forward to a little more ‘introvert’ writing time. 2014 was an incredibly ‘extrovert’ year for me, which was wonderful, but I feel a strong need to balance that with a little bit of ‘down time’. I have a deadline for a short story, so I’m going to exploit that for some interiority (cue readings, events and rampant socialising...).
I was going to ask about the ‘public’ side of being a poet, the need to do readings, have an online presence, and so on. It seems to be accepted as a given these days, and I have to say I enjoy that side of things, but is it something you'd prefer to be able to dip in and out of a bit more?
I think I probably have the balance about right most of the time. I like to hide away but it’s not long before I’m itching to get out and about again. Technology has made it easier for us all to have more of a public presence, which takes a lot of the strain out of it. I have some shows coming up based around Sunspots, and I’m going to try and blog more than I do. I’m too retentive when it comes to blogging! I need to loosen up a little. I’m fairly chatty on Twitter, though, although every few days I need to swim back into my cave. I’ve said it many times before, but one of the best parts of being a poet or a writer is meeting people at gigs and events and hearing ‘new’ people read for the first time. For example, this week I read at the inaugural Poetry Pavilion at the London Book Fair, and I really enjoyed the mix of voices and talents.
Are there any in particular you’d like to highlight? Who are you reading at the moment?
Everyone at the Poetry Pavilion was good but I particularly enjoyed Sarah Hesketh’s poignant and hard-hitting poems from her book The Hard Word Box. Also, the Latvian poet Kārlis Vērdiņš's arresting, darkly humorous poems were a discovery for me. In terms of reading, I've just finished the pamphlet Don Dreams and I Dream by the US poet Leah Umansky. I guess you could call it a meditation on the cultural impact and political resonance of the TV series Mad Men, particularly its lead character. It's much more fun than my academic description and I’m looking forward to re-reading it. In terms of prose, I’m absolutely loving Fosca by Igino Ugo Tarchetti at the moment.
The Leah Umansky pamphlet sounds great. I'll have to look for the Latvian poet's work, too. Going back to Sunspots, and your creative process, I wondered how you created the framework for the collection – was it a case of writing several of the longer poems first, and then working around them, or more haphazard? I always find myself trying to get a few solid ‘pillars’ in place at the start of putting a collection together, and then seeing what they spark off.
Good question. The book started with an eruption of about 30 short poems and I decided to plough on and edit everything at ‘the end’. As I progressed I became more concerned with balancing and contrasting length, style and form, so the picture became a little clearer. A bit like dust and gas cooling down and drawing together gravitationally. Over time, certain ‘set-piece’ poems began to seem essential to the book: the reverse take on Byron, the ‘Richard II’ soliloquies, the long Christopher Smart homage, the Lolita, the Proust — and I wrote these towards the end of the project. I found that all the thinking, reading, travelling and researching I’d done over the previous few years found its place quite naturally. Other ‘light’ structural features of the book are the move from dawn/birth to sunset/death and a growing melancholy on the part of ‘the Sun’ as it ages and becomes aware of mortality. While it’s perfectly fine to dip into the book, I do think it has an accumulative effect.
Yes, I've dipped in since, but initially read it straight through, and I think it works very well like that – the set-piece poems you mention are terrific. I wonder, too, what it has been like working with Penned In the Margins – Tom seems very good at ensuring that new collections become genuine events, rather than just another book hitting the shelves.
Tom is a fine editor: he really gets stuck in and has great suggestions from lopping whole poems to tweaking a bit of punctuation. We worked together on Bonjour Tetris back in 2010, so I knew we had a good relationship. We had a good tussle over the contents of this book because we had such a lot of material to work with (I think there are 40+ Sunspots that we held back). In terms of Sunspots being ‘more than’ another book on the shelves (I love books on shelves by the way!), I had always planned to create a live event with film, music and songs too and I was lucky enough to get support early on from the Arts Council, the Mullard Space Science Lab, the Royal Observatory. As I write this I’m a couple of days away from our launch event at the Planetarium, which is a very exciting and apt place to launch the book. You’re right about Tom working beyond the parameters of the book with all of Penned in the Margin's touring shows and events and the two of us coming together was bound to result in something more expansive I think. In short, working with Penned has been terrific.
That's good to hear, although not a surprise. One final question, then, to be answered when you've recovered from the excitement of the launch – how did it go?
Well, I've just about come back down to Earth. I feel blessed, as it couldn’t really have gone any better. To have Marek Kukula, Lucie Green and my film-making colleague Jack Wake-Walker discussing poetry and science at the Royal Observatory with a warm crowd and no technical hitches was a genuine thrill and a night I'll remember forever. The discussion, the poems, the songs and the films seemed to go down well and I'm glad that the book is now definitively launched. The event ended pretty much at the moment that the probe Messenger created a new man-made crater on Mercury. I've just noticed that crater and create are almost anagrams of each other.
Three poems from Sunspots
You like to think you’re seeing the same Sun
set, although circumstance has set you both
apart. Look up, connect, triangulate,
count off the minutes and the seconds that
illustrate the parallax of your hearts.
The Sun is not the same. Each second sees
the loss of more mass than you can conceive
and even though your skin and eyes deceive
you to think that this doesn’t matter, it’s
spelling out the end, it’s reminding you
that the energy of love you expend
is so much solar wind, which your dear friend
staves off, because it’s all too much for her.
Your love’s a furbelow. An aurora.
One born to be
stared at, consumed by eyes
that I evolved
from dimmest times of patchy pigment
on some slow-responding stalk
the slime and sloth
that failed to shake off
some barely light-refracting murk,
mistook this chance for progress.
One born to be
beheld by chasm-buried bugs
that felt a particle pass
from warm to cool
and twitched their tiny bulk
from present nook of peril
to a nicer nook of accidental harbour
and cluelessly passed on
to a later slate of same.
One born to be
spied upon and scrutinised
by lucky dimples kneaded into slubs
of epithelial elasticity till they can tell
or think they tell
the angle of approaching threat,
the great and wondrous
One born to be
cabin’d, crib’d, confin’d
within the sluggish jelly
clinging to the cauldron-sides
that conjure up the fevers
and the phantoms they will later
One born to be
made slave of evidence,
doxy of remembrance,
of false witness, of disseminated
hatred and the pixelated
faces weeping tears of blind Hosanna.
are the spin doctors
of the universe,
with the facts,
it’s wise to weigh
than every tale
to this full stop.