No 8 - Summer 1997
Interview with Lavinia Greenlaw
Lavinia Greenlaw was born in London in 1962. She worked in publishing and arts administration before becoming a full-time writer. Her first full-length collection of poems, Night Photograph (Faber, 1993), was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. Her second collection, A World Where News Travelled Slowly, is due from Faber in November. This interview with Tim Kendall took place by post during June 1997.
TK: To begin with the fundamentals: how would you describe your writing methods, from the idea for a poem right up to the finished product?
LG: The possibility of a poem is accompanied for me by a physical sensation. It is a feeling of capacity, concentration, acuity and speed - for this brief time, I can get the plates spinning or the balls in the air and keep them there. Usually, this happens when it is impossible to sit down and write, as if it is a wheel set in motion only when all other wheels are in motion.
My husband thinks I’m unusual in that I think in ideas and then find words for them. This is mostly true. The notion for a poem can arrive fully formed in my head but I struggle to articulate it, even to myself. Geology comes to mind: a process of gradual, imperceptible shifts; something painfully and heavily taking shape, falling into place.
Some of the ideas I start with need to make connections before they become possible or even interesting as poems. While working in the Science Museum, I wanted to write about the voracious collecting habit of Henry Wellcome. What I attempted was really dry until I came across a picture of a cellar crammed with artefacts in the Tintin book Red Rackham’s Treasure and confined the poem to one room.
Once, I wanted to write about an ice storm but bored myself with description. As I sat reading in this snowbound house on the Delaware River, the landscape linked itself to the book in my hands - the poems of Anna Akhmatova, who had her own ice age (and her own ice poem, written for Mandelstam, ‘Voronezh’). She, not the weather, became the subject, described through the detail, clarity and reflectiveness of the ice.
Occasionally, it is a word that starts me off. Phrases can sit around for years and then come alive, again through a chance connection. One word can pull a poem together. “Tryst”, with its roots in “trust” and echo of “triste”, bound opposing emotions; “cadastre”, being archaic and obsolete, defined the feudal, Dark Ages atmosphere of a poem about domestic accounting and the public display of power.
Otherwise, I use a notebook and cross a great deal out. I cannot compose on screen or in my head, only with a pen in my hand. Putting a poem onto a computer creates a useful distance but can also persuade me it’s finished just because it looks it.
TK: I’ve heard that you revise your work up to the last minute. Do you adhere to Valéry’s notion - that a poem is never finished, only abandoned?
LG: I have been revising my new book up until the last minute. It is a recent habit and one that I hope will pass. I like things to be light and oblique, and often resist fixity and conclusion. But I don’t agree with Valéry about abandonment. “Finished” is wrong because you don’t tick off a list or complete a set of instructions or nail everything down and walk away. “Abandoned” is not right either. Perhaps you have to decide that a poem has been pushed around and left to itself in the right amounts; that it has found its level, and that the way it will alter or go on growing is by being read, not worked on further. I don’t like to think I will resort to redecorating my earlier work.
TK: Would you say something about the origins of your first full-length collection, Night Photograph. You published two pamphlets before that, didn’t you?
LG: Night Photograph was written over five years, in my twenties. Some of the poems appeared first in two pamphlets: The Cost of Getting Lost in Space (Turret Books, 1991) and Love from a Foreign City (Slow Dancer Press, 1992). I am glad that the process of publishing a collection was a gradual one, that I had a chance to try things out, to play with arrangements, to let some poems go.
TK: How does Night Photograph seem to you now? Are there things you’d drop, things you’d do differently?
LG: It’s as if the picture people have of me is one I left behind a long time ago. Some of the earliest poems in it have a heaviness I now dislike, too much narrative; others surprise and please me if I don’t see them for a long time. Some of the book has a fierceness and innocence that I have mislaid, perhaps lost.
TK: Some of your poems have recently been included in Bloodaxe’s Making for Planet Alice. What purpose do you think women’s anthologies serve today?
LG: Making for Planet Alice is a subtle, intelligent and surprising anthology, so I am pleased to be in it. If such books serve any purpose now it must be to counter the idea that there is any such thing as a “woman poet”. Elizabeth Bishop said “I’d rather be called ‘the 16th poet’ with no reference to my sex, than one of four women - even if the other three are pretty good...” The point is it’s not the point, or shouldn’t be, but sometimes is anyway and for the wrong reasons. The femininity of poets like Bishop and Akhmatova (who hated being called a “poetess” too) is vital to their work. I do not aspire to be a male poet any more than they did.
TK: Plath is obviously an important - often a dangerous - influence for many writers. And yet she doesn’t seem to be a presence in your work. Is she a poet you admire?
LG: Plath has been both important and dangerous. She was one of the first poets I came across by myself, at about sixteen, and her rage, unease and charisma disturbed me. I thought I would spill myself all over the page when I started to write, so someone who did just that, however expertly, was to be avoided. Lowell was far more attractive because his handling of autobiography is so scaldingly detached. (Like many poets I love, he does something I could never do.) It has taken me years to see through Plath’s nakedness and into the heart of her work, to admire the crackle (cackle?) of her voice. I read her more and more.
TK: Bishop you’ve acknowledged as an influence. What inspires you about her work?
LG: Bishop’s acknowledgement of the mechanics of perception: she herself cited the Baroque model of “not the thought, but the mind thinking”. Her observations are so patient and particular, but full of excitement, engagement, the active nature of looking. I am drawn to her landscapes and how they become action not backdrop. She is clear, disturbed and determined: “All the untidy activity continues,/ awful but cheerful”.
TK: Who are the contemporary poets you read?
LG: Among others... Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Selima Hill, Don Paterson, Michael Hofmann, Kathleen Jamie, Les Murray.
TK: You’ve written some criticism, of poetry and of fiction. Is there a relationship between this work and your poetry?
LG: Only an indirect one in that reading and having to think about it, help writing.
TK: Do you see yourself ever publishing books of criticism?
LG: I’ve never thought about it. Such criticism as I’ve written doesn’t strike me as meriting a book.
TK: Travel and science seem to be common themes throughout your work - and I suppose the space poems marry these themes. But I notice, especially in the title poem of your new collection, there is a nostalgia for a slower, less technologically advanced age, or at least, an overwhelming recognition of modern dangers. Is it fair to say your poetry explores this ambivalence?
LG: It’s not really nostalgia, just a reluctance to forget how much we can neither see nor understand. So much is fallible and variable, both a good and a bad thing. ‘A World Where News Travelled Slowly’ looks at the history of communication. I have to admit it is shamelessly nostalgic but then it is also a love poem. The physical effort of the rider on horseback, the letter written on rough paper with unstable ink, are more in keeping with the way we talk and listen to each other than the regulated mechanisms of telegraph or the invisible smoothness of fibre optics.
TK: You must be sick of being asked about the role of science in your work, so it’s not a subject I want to dwell on. But I’m interested in the way science seems to have elbowed out all trace of theology. Does religion have a place in your work?
LG: The main difficulty with Night Photograph has been the “poetry about science” tag. I grew up in a family of scientists and have long been fascinated by time and space, so this is a natural source of metaphor for me. I only became conscious of how much science there is in the book when it was pointed out. Since then, I have resisted science like hell. It is mostly too seductive, incomprehensible and exciting to be anything other than borrowed. My poems from the Science Museum are more about museums than science; or treat observation and discovery as utterly romantic pursuits.
Your query about religion is interesting. I have never believed in a god and have always been troubled by death. Strangely, looking at the stars and planets, sensing the true scale of things, comforts me. Not because it suggests some grand cosmic scheme; just the opposite. Gods and miracles and acts of faith crop up in my new book a lot. Maybe I got tired of being rational and provisional, and wanted to risk absolute faith in what can never be proved.
TK: One aspect of Night Photograph which particularly intrigues me is its tone: level-headed, impersonal and almost detached at times. I think of a poem like ‘Linear, Parallel, Constant’, where the speaker’s car is passed by “a trio of missiles” and her reaction is to marvel at their “mathematical beauty”. By contrast your new poems come across as more engaged, more openly emotional. Is that a conscious decision?
LG: I’m glad you sensed this as it is what I have hoped for. I didn’t make a conscious decision to loosen up. I just wanted to push myself towards the surface and retain more of the emotion that goes into the writing in the finished poem.
TK: Perhaps we might end with a few comments, by way of introduction, about ‘No Particular Horse’.
LG: One of my favourite objects in the Science Museum was a papier-mâché anatomical model of a horse made in 1875. Horses are useful and beautiful, exploited and mythologised. Here was a naked horse without character or meaning, which I then set out to provide. I remembered primitive equestrian sculptures, such as those by the Etruscans, the best of which bear so little resemblance to the actual animal that you can sense the artist’s struggle to understand their subject. Auto-mythology came from my childhood love of horses, the days spent planning adventures, memorising different breeds and chanting their names. The epigraph from the Stoic Xenophanes was a gruff reminder of what we offer ourselves. Robert Musil convinced me that in the age of the jet plane, part of ourselves still travels on horseback, because “the Seven League Boots were more beautiful than a motor car”. Horses populate our dreams. A Lyle Lovett song was important, too: “How much is that saddle and a straight-shooting gun? Which way does that old pony run?” The presiding spirit was Weldon Kees’s ‘The Umbrella’, with its telescopic zoom through the history to the immediate presence of the subject.
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