Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A conversation with Simon Barraclough

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
caught between
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
half-blind stumblings
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
christen ‘mind’.

One born to be
focused, imprismed,
made slave of evidence,
doxy of remembrance,
of false witness, of disseminated
hatred and the pixelated
faces weeping tears of blind Hosanna.
Deliver me.


Neutron stars
are the spin doctors
of the universe,
never neutral,
fairly frugal
with the facts,
it’s wise to weigh
their words:
one syllable
is denser
than every tale
that occurred
shrunk down
to this full stop.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

An interview with Jane Commane

Over at his blog, Roy Marshall has an excellent interview with Jane Commane, my publisher at Nine Arches Press - an awful lot of interesting stuff in there.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

It goes with the territory

It's that time of year when birds are busy attracting mates, raising young, and all the time defending their territories against intruders. A couple of evenings this week I've been reminded what a full-time job for them that must be.

First, the male Curlew out of a pair that breed a few miles from my house. As I watched him, probing for food close to where his mate is, I think, sitting on eggs, he suddenly decided that a Carrion Crow was wandering too close to her. Corvids, of course, do take eggs and young, although I think this one was feeding on invertebrates and had inadvertently strayed. The Curlew took off, then swooped at him twice, causing him to beat a hasty retreat. Presumably encouraged by this, the Curlew then did the same to the other half-dozen Carrion Crows scattered around the very large field, none of whom were anywhere near, and all of whom seemed to be feeding well.

Last night, I was watching the Peregrines in a local quarry. After the male had passed food to the female, he spotted a Buzzard soaring over, and quickly flew up for a look. After gaining a height advantage of 30-40 feet, he flipped onto his back, briefly, then folded up and dropped like a stone. The Buzzard took evasive action, although the Peregrine was clearly not making a full-blooded attack, instead raking the Buzzard with one talon and dislodging two or three small feathers. The Buzzard then flapped away as fast as his wings would take him, and dignity would allow.

Shindig: Jo Bell, Jonathan Davidson, and Crystal Voices launch

We've probably become a bit blasé, in Leicester, about having a great regular poetry reading/open mic night to go to. For years now, the Nine Arches Press/Crystal Clear Creators events have been presenting a mixture of well-known faces and newcomers, plus all shades in-between.

Monday night was a chance to reflect on that, and to thank the Crystal Clear Creators part of the team behind it - Jonathan and Maria Taylor - for all their hard work.

As usual, the open mic slots were varied and excellent, one of my particular favourites being the short story from (I think), Guy Gresham.

Jo Bell read from her just-launched Nine Arches collection Kithand as usual was perfectly paced, giving the audience the chance to savour every nuance of her poems, which as usual deal with all aspects of life, love, sex, canals, and ducks. This book has been a long time in coming, but it's well worth the wait.

Jonathan Davidson's last collection, Early Train, was a favourite of mine, and his new book Humfrey Coningsby (Valley Press) looks like going the same way - I'm a sucker for poetry with a historical theme anyway, but this is really top-class stuff, playing with the whole idea of historical 'truth'.

The second half of the night included the launch of Crystal Voices, an anthology celebrating 10 years of Crystal Clear Creators. It features the following very fine poets, many of whom read - Alan Baker, Kathleen Bell, Rebecca Bird, Julie Boden, Alison Brackenbury, Will Buckingham, Jane Commane, Caroline Cook, Nichola Deane, Kate Delamere, Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke, Angela France, Mark Goodwin, Sarah James, Charles Lauder, Jr., Emma Lee, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Carol Leeming, Siobhan Logan, John Lucas, David McCormack, Sue Mackrell, Martin Malone, Roy Marshall, Jessica Mayhew, Andrew "Mulletproof" Graves, Simon Perril, Alexandros Plasatis, D. A. Prince, Robert Richardson, Victoria Smith, Jayne Stanton, Hannah Stevens, Matthew Stewart, Aly Stoneman, Jonathan Taylor, Pam Thompson, Lydia Towsey, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Claire Walker, Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson, Rory Waterman. Oh, and me too - I read my featured poem, Hometowns of Unwitting Love Objects.