14 issue 13 Mike Loveday 19/2/12
I have ‘split mind’ again
(for Yao Yun)
I fell into the arms of some kindly souls
outside St Barnabas, in the floats and dustbin-vans.
Heathrow was a washroom, without
passport, or cards. My sister’s hands.
Tomorrow, she takes me
to the doctor to see if I have ghosts.
I manage a small class –
my children like my stories.
I sent my painting, framed,
to a well-wisher’s purse.
Pills and pills and pills.
They put a cordon around my words
scrawled on the hotel wall: Wet Paint –
I was strangely happy.
1. Can you tell 14's readers about how this poem 'I have 'split mind' again' came to be? What were the specific triggers behind you writing it? How did it evolve through the drafting process? Was this in any way different from your usual process?
This poem is unusual for me, in that it employs the language and style of a Taiwanese woman to tell her tale. I was struck by the directness of her phrase ‘split mind’ – undressed from its Greek origins – as well as the menace behind being taken somewhere to see if one ‘has ghosts,’ with all that conjures of exorcisms and losing one’s free will.
The balance between direct statement and something darker runs throughout the poem. For example, the idea of ‘kindly souls’ in the first line is undercut by the mention of St Barnabas and milk-floats – one is immediately aware of a disconnect, and apparent danger. What is a woman doing out alone at that hour of the morning?
In terms of drafting, the original (16th December, 2009) was differently ordered, ending:
I was returned to my sister at Heathrow with little fuss
lacking card, mobile, passport.
There was an exhilaration to the surrender.
I wanted to show how, while she felt an exhilaration giving up – coming clean – she also felt exhilaration surrendering to these risks (wandering London in the small hours) in the first place.
In the second draft (25th August, 2010) which to all intents and purposes is the poem as it now stands, the ending emphasises her need to have something to show for herself – her scrawls on the hotel wall, an audience, a readership – and that she has something to lose. Hers is a frail triumph.
The first draft also included an image from World War Two (‘When I married, I was draped in parachute silks. / Now I’m told that was a long time ago.’) I felt this was culturally confusing.
2. Can you tell 14's readers a little about how this poem's style and subject matter relate to the remainder of your work?
I am currently ordering my first book, The Night Sky, which loosely falls into four sections: teaching, travel, relationships and illness. In fact, these themes cross-pollinate, and most of the poems could easily slip category. For example, ‘Cold Remedy’ is literally a list of cures my multinational students shouted out to me when I was ill one morning, scribbled on the whiteboard! I added the line ‘The disembodied devise new ways / to feel their bodies.’ and it was done.
As such, ‘I have ‘split mind’ again’ sits beside other poems about illness – some light-hearted and some surreal, some terse. This one is written in the first person, and leaves a lot of detail to the imagination. Obviously, the other poems about illness and mortality are very different. The most similar is probably ‘Handicap’ which is about my brother playing Jimmy White at an Irish club in Beckenham a decade or so ago. Jon racked up a break of 21 and for a while it looked like a contest, before Jimmy wiped the floor with him. The consequence was that it came during a dark period for him personally, and the experience resolved him to ‘get back in the game.’ I like to believe it was his telling of this anecdote that got him back on his feet. Other poems in that loose group include a ‘found’ poem from a cancer memoir, two personal recollections of an ailing acquaintance, a description of my father’s illness, and an account of being served an omelette by a firm, nurse-like woman in a Prague hotel. The thickness of carpet and the automatic metal blinds were no-nonsense – like having a cold shower, they were good for you.
As mentioned in the poem, this poem still has a ‘Wet Paint’ sign next to it. It seems alive to me, possibly because of the looseness within a form. For example, although it is mainly in couplets, I like the brevity of the sentence ‘My sister’s hands,’ which follows two long lines. It is evocative, there is no verb so we are forced to linger on it. Yet these hands are the same ones which may take her into dangerous circumstances ‘for her own good.’ In terms of sound, there are end rhymes such as ‘dustbin-vans/ hands’ ‘class/ purse’ and lots of ‘s’s as the poem progresses. I like the variation of couplets and single lines – the first one balanced by the second. I think it is important that the last line expressing her happiness should be an individual line.
One of the things that most terrifies me about the treatment of mental illness is when a patient is steered away from an apparently destabilising self-expression. Who knows whether this woman’s feeling of happiness – which comes with the echo of presiding over her own gallery exhibition – will be taken away from her?
3. Geoffrey Hill, Oxford Professor of Poetry and Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, have recently disagreed publically about poetry, including the issue of how accessible or obscure a poem’s language should be. What’s your view on how accessible / obscure a poem should be?
While brevity and concision can achieve universality (my favourite poem ‘Come to the Edge’ by Christopher Logue is eight lines long), I feel the same recoil regarding comparisons of poetry with text messages as I do when I encounter populist over-simplifications of Christianity. Glib church posters which read ‘Give the devil an inch and he will become your ruler’ don’t compare to a line from the King James such as ‘If a sinner entices you do not consent.’ As with the Bible, I feel that poetry is something best read in private, and reflected on.
It’s a shame that the media have concentrated on the disagreement rather than the initiatives Duffy mentions later in the interview: pupils compiling their own poetry anthologies, and individual anthologies of poems about school subjects. I think she’s doing a fantastic job of writing in the public eye too, a difficult trick to pull off. It’s worth noting that for all his reputation as ‘a notorious literary elitist’ (his words), Hill regularly elucidates his references before rereading his poems, which demonstrates his desire to communicate with his audience.
There’s room for both, and great poets often have poems which ‘crossover,’ reaching any reader. Take Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow,’ for example. Is that obscure? Or over-simple? Rather, it’s like clear glass, revealing great depth.
4. You won Templar’s Pamphlet Competition in 2010. How has your poetry life changed since?
Immeasurably. I had the good luck of winning with my earliest poems – an account of working as a night porter in a Yorkshire hotel. I actually took on the job explicitly to write, and Night Porter documents the pointless tasks and adverse circumstances which prevented that from happening. It is written like a play, with a cast of characters and a narrative arc. I have an unpublished stash of them – Hotel Poems II – but I think the job is done. I’m looking forward to my first book being published, so I can clear the decks and work on more ambitious projects.
It’s also led to readings. I have one at the University of Central Lancashire in March, and am part of Templar’s new revolving reading series in London, Worcester and Leeds.
I should also say that winning was a surprise. I entered it as an afterthought, as I had already submitted a pamphlet called The Turn over which I had slaved. When Alex McMillen called me to say my pamphlet was a winner, I had to ask which one. The one I had poured my heart and soul into over the last three months? ‘Not that one,’ he said.
5. Which writers currently influence you most and how? Has this changed over time?
Numerous: Jack Gilbert, Paul Muldoon, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Christopher Logue, Simon Armitage, William Shakespeare, Raymond Carver…
It’s hard to say how I’m influenced by them. I think I aspire towards their lives, in some ways. I admire Gilbert for his spareness, but then he also led a spare life. Likewise, one of Hughes’s letters as a young man describes him waking at six, reading a Shakespeare play out loud before nine, ‘and sometimes half an hour’s Chaucer as well.’ Armitage has a backlog of books waiting to come out… So they lead by example.
I also have to mention Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon and Mark E. Smith when it comes to writers – their lyrics run through my head most of the day. They may be the reason my writing is so sound-led.
The poet who most obsesses me is Simon Armitage. I’ve written several poems in the wake of Seeing Stars, but I’m told the results are nothing like him, probably because he manages to work on so many levels simultaneously. I also admire his projects – Book of Matches, his sequence on the constellations ‘The Whole of the Sky’, retracing Auden and MacNeices’s footsteps, the translations of Middle English. I met up with him on his Pennine walk, too. What an inspired and inspiring idea! I want to live my life by that template – devising interesting projects to immerse myself in …and working hard.
Original opening to Question One
As an E.F.L. teacher, I have witnessed lots of ‘backward’ attitudes to illness. I used to work in a language school in Wiltshire, preparing foreign students for entrance examinations to English colleges. A number of the children had been sent abroad ‘out of sight and mind,’ because they were suffering from something which was taboo in their culture. One Chinese girl would be chivvied along for not turning to the right page as quickly as the others. Only when a cleaner came across her hearing aids in her room did we realise she was deaf.
This poem relates to the Taiwanese poet and painter Yao Yun, with whom I am translating her first collection I Sing, I Dance, I am a Wolf. A few years back, she suffered a schizophrenic episode in London, which left her very vulnerable. Through e-mail, and the treatment of it in her own poetry, I gradually gathered what had happened years after the fact.
Perhaps it is similar to a found poem: I shaped it, guided by the voice.
JotCurious? Susan Muncey 24/2/12
What should our readers know about your background, training and experience to date?
I’m an EFL teacher, which has taken me to Tuscany, Poland and the Czech Republic. As a set of emotional and geographical references, these experiences feed into my writing, and are the basis of my Poetry Map project.
In fact, for a long time the provisional title of my first collection was Boxing the Compass, which means the wind spinning 360° and – figuratively – to change your mind and change it back. I was getting at the fact that travel can change everything external to you, but you can’t escape yourself.
The Night Sky – the name I settled on – follows my pamphlet Night Porter, which won the Templar Pamphlet and Collection Prize in 2010. I am currently taking an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths University, and it only struck me recently that Night Porter, which documents life in a Yorkshire hotel, is a form of life-writing. I see it as a play with a cast of characters and a narrative arc as much as a sequence of poems.
2) Why did you decide to become a writer?
Good teaching and a lack of confidence – I was taught English by Jan Piggott at Dulwich College, which left me with a discriminating mind, but an inability to articulate my thoughts vocally. If you distrust your own voice, you might do a lot of listening and try putting things down on paper. It was discovering teaching in 2003 which gave me a role within which I had no option but to communicate effectively and take charge. Robert Frost talks about having the same experience.
3) What makes you really curious?
There comes a time at the start of most terms when I teach the phrase ‘to take an interest’, and emphasise the fact that you have to actively take that first step yourself. If you are bored, then that is a comment on you. You get what you give.
I know things that warrant my curiosity when I see them. It might be the signature of the artist (be it film, music, photography, art, architecture) evident in the contrast of an image with music, or an unusual stress, that makes me open my eyes and ears. I’m also drawn to things I don’t fully understand. It’s instructive to watch films in foreign languages. I suppose I want to be exposed to things.
In terms of poetry, it’s when a poem has an effect on me and I can’t initially work out why. The kind of hypnosis of a line like this from ‘Winter Trees’ ‘The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve’ (Sylvia Plath).
4) Who is your ideal reader of your work?
Well, I’m a night owl, so speaking personally, I am at my most attentive in the small hours, past the point anyone would reasonably ring the bell or call me. It’s like my ears and eyes prick up after that time, and I can concentrate.
I am especially interested in reaching people who wouldn’t usually think poetry appeals to them. So in that respect, I view any reader as a potential ideal reader.
I read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy while recovering from an operation. I would come round, read, take pain-killers and black out. Then I would wake, pick up the book and read, take painkillers and black out again. Reading those books was a mystical experience.
5) Tell us a bit about your approach to your work and your inspiration
My long-standing approach is write, write, write – shape it afterwards. Maybe I’m turning to honing my work more now, instead of simply beginning another poem.
I got into language and a sense of voice through music – Bob Dylan, The Fall, old folk songs – and know about 100 songs to perform. As a result, my writing is often sound-led, and I have to backtrack to make things clear to the reader.
I keep a notebook in which I jot down phrases, words, quotes and ideas.
6) What is your greatest achievement to date?
I’m hoping to publish my first full collection within the next year, which will be the summation of about eight years’ work. Apart from that, it’s my experiences and friendships I most value. A few years ago, when I was unemployed for a period, I told myself that while I didn’t have much to show for my years, the sum of my experiences and interests to that point gave me a unique perspective. Writing is good in that way – what might be termed negative experiences can be grist to the mill.
I’m good at throwing myself into positions which might later seem to be madness. For example, performing four songs by Bob Dylan at the Latitude Poetry tent when I had never previously used a microphone and my previous biggest audience had been a room of four people.
A throwback to my days on the dole is that I am able to survive without much – hot buttered toast and black tea are underrated.
7) Where are your favourite places in London, the world?
I like remote places, and long walks, and miss the countryside keenly. My girlfriend’s parents live on Exmoor, and we go stir crazy if we can’t get away there for a while. I love the sea.
There are places in the world which I think back to, often as pivotal moments. Sitting on a piece of driftwood in Maremma national park facing the isle of Elba is one. Stood on a promontory in Tuscany as water splashed about me on a map carved into the stone listing the four winds Eurus, Boreas, Zephyr and Auster is another. I took my bearings and faced England and realised how far I was from home.
In London, I like cinemas before or after the credits roll. On the continent it’s the image of an English pub which calls to me when surrounded by nothing but brightly-lit bars.
8) Who would you most like to sit next to at dinner (absolutely anyone dead or alive)
I’d opt for Ted Hughes, since I have missed him by the barest whisker. Friends of mine have seen him read. It would be in the countryside – Devon or Yorkshire – and involve lots of walking: initially to reach the cottage, where home cooked food would be served, before we explored a cellar, and walked it off afterwards. Laureate’s sherry. A cheeseboard. Whiskey. We’d probably get the Ouija board out, too.
9) What are your plans for the future – or your dream project/commission?
I’m thinking a lot more in terms of projects recently – collaborations with artists in different media. I’m also working on a translation of work by a Taiwanese poet.
In the long-term I want to complete my MA to the best of my ability before moving somewhere with sun and open space.
10) Anything else we should know about you or that you'd like to say?
I’m just beginning to bring my mind to bear.
There is an abridged version of this interview (with photos by Harry Man) online