Interview: Chris Powici
The award winning poet and writer talks exclusively to NLP about the his craft and the inspiration he finds in the natural world. The interview includes three of Powici’s poems. His latest collection Somehow This Earth is published by Diehard Books.
When it comes to the after-life
I’ll settle for the Calmac terminal
on a spit of Hebridean rock
after the ferry has sailed.
A lobster boat tugs at its rope
and beyond the pier a gannet rises
from the low swell into the cold cradling waves
and quick air.
All through Scalasaig kitchen windows fill with light
and I imagine vases of pale tap-watered lilies
gleaming down from plate-heavy shelves
on lives of tea and talk, bread and breath;
quiet, island voices, unhurried
as the slap of the tide on the harbour wall
while some ewes graze the shore grass
and an oystercatcher dabs for shrimps
among the mussel shells and bladderwrack
at the rain-drenched edge of the world.
NLP: Who are your heroes (and heroines) of poetry?
CP: There’s too many to mention them all but I admire anyone who takes language and life seriously enough to make poetry out of it, and to go about the making of a poem with care and openness. Back when I was a callow youth with dreams of what a poet and a poem should be I came across Yeats for the first time and felt almost intimidated (as well as impressed) by the precision and sheer artistry of his verse. What chance did I stand? Then, when I was about 18 I bought, on a whim, a selection of Tomas Tranströmer’s poems in a translation from the Swedish by Robin Fulton. Here was modern poetry that intrigued, challenged and in its quietly powerful way moved me and made me think. The voice was personal and very often autobiographical and had something to say about the history, the natural environment and politics. Looking back I guess Tranströmer made me realize that the individual is a part of a more complex matrix of experience. He also showed me that modern poetry didn’t have to look like Yeats and that poetry was more than just a way of communicating; it’s a way of exploring one’s self and the world. It can even be a way of thinking. So if I have to name one hero let it be Tomas Tranströmer.
Your observations of nature, like stalwarts such as Norman MacCaig before you, are succinct and often breathtaking. How would you elaborate on the symbolism and personality of nature in poetry?
I have sort of split mind about this question, but it’s maybe a healthy sort of split or contradiction, as far as making a poem goes. One the one hand I sometimes feel it’s a mistake to think about a poem in terms of symbolism and metaphor, as if the poem was a sort of disguise for saying something else. In one of my poems I wrote that a hare has a ‘dark God-eyed stare’. I didn’t, at the time of seeing the hare or when writing the poem, think there was an alternative truth lurking behind the image. The image was simply my way of capturing the intensity of the experience. From the standpoint of common sense perhaps, the image is a metaphor, but a poem isn’t there to reflect common sense. It asserts its own vision of reality and in that poem’s reality a hare’s stare is ‘god-eyed’.
On the other hand, a poem is a thing made out of words and images, it’s chock full of what Elizabeth Bishop in her wonderful poem ‘The Bight’ called ‘correspondences’. That is to say, we don’t experience the world as a series of disconnected things but that we make sense of experience through making connections. A poem is a way of registering and making connections – between self and other, between the present and the past, between imagination and reality. Metaphor, simile and symbolism are the means of accomplishing this.
Now you’ve made me think about the issue of nature and poetry, and poetry about nature, it seems to me that a poet has to be absorbed by two things that, in their ways are quite different from each other: things and their names. Put another way, a poem needs to do justice to the thing that it’s about, whether that thing is a concrete reality such as a bridge or a mountain, or an emotion or idea. But a poet also has to have regard for language itself, in much the same way that, I imagine, a painter tries to do justice to paint.
It isn’t going too far to say that there’s an element of the religious/spiritual about how I think and feel about nature. The poem’s language has to reflect this aspect of experience but the danger is that it becomes swamped in pretentious abstractions and sounds heavy and dull. I like it when a poem seems to generate its own blend of diction, reflecting a sense of the marvellous and astonishing irrupting into the mundane. In this respect, I guess I’ve been influenced by, among others, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, A.R Ammons. Since you mention MacCaig I love how his poetry is aware of the distinction between the name and the thing but draws imagination and energy from the tension between the two. His poetry has an amazingly light touch on this question of how the ‘exchange’ between mind and world is part of his everyday reality. In ‘An Ordinary Day’ he writes ‘and my mind observed to me,/or I to it, how ordinary/extraordinary things are or//how extraordinary ordinary/things are, like the nature of the mind/and the process of observing.’
lollops down dry
brown tractor ruts
almost to the gate
and just sits there
all bristle and haunch
king of the grass
and all this gorse-bright earth
giving me its dark
May we return to the hare? NLP has a particular affinity with these creatures and their ancient (and pagan) totemic power. How much religion (or spirituality) do you personally find in the wider symbolism of the hare’s “god-eyed stare”?
As I mentioned earlier, this particular line feels to me like a direct statement of a kind of reality, or of how that reality feels. I wasn’t consciously trying to impose a kind of symbolism on the hare, though no doubt much of what we absorb of our culture ends up as ‘second nature’ I suppose my poetry is underwritten by a kind of pantheism though I’m reluctant to attach too many ‘ism’s to poems. It seems to me that poems more often than not disrupt our usual categories of thought.
As for hares themselves I’m aware of some of their mythic associations but their sheer physicality is also astonishing. They’re not really like rabbits at all; when they move they’re more like horses or deer – all that power, all that grace.
Nature also has an ambiguous power in your poetry. What can you tell us of the electrifying “bitch of a river/ high on snowmelt and March rain/ she’s been tearing this town apart/ for a thousand years”? It made NLP’s heart beat faster.
I think NLP may well know the river in question – The Allan Water as it flows through Dunblane. What struck me, and still does, is the juxtaposition of the cathedral with the river – stasis and movement held in balance and throwing light on one another. I cannot help but think that in building the cathedral by the river the architect felt something of the sacredness of the presence of water. Also, of course, I was using sexual imagery and gendering nature in, I guess, a fairly predictable way except instead of ‘Mother Nature’ you get, with poem, ‘Bitch Nature’. But then wantonness has its appeal as well as the maternal aspect of nature, and a river in spate does feel very wanton. And of course water is never one thing; it moves, it flows, it changes; it threatens and it promises life.
Much of your poetry is incredibly physical, especially ‘Lapwings at Sheriffmuir’. How do you achieve this spiralling and visceral form to your poetry and indeed what can you tell us about your attitude to poetic structure in general?
I feel as if I’m still learning about structure. I don’t follow a particular formal approach but I have certain ‘lights’ to go by. For instance, a line should be interesting in its own right in terms of the sounds it makes (including rhythm) but also in terms of its imagery. An abstract phrase has to be very good indeed to take up a whole line. I like to end a line on a strong physical sort of word such as verb or noun, sometimes an adjective. Very rarely will I end a line on a grammatical sort of word such as ‘the’ or ‘with’.
‘Lapwings at Sheriffmuir’ is a rare poem for me in that the shape of the poem on the page imitates content. In other words it’s a tall, steep-looking looking poem because that’s how lapwings tumble through the air in the breeding season.
Physicality in poetry is immensely important. At a formal level the very sounds of words, as well as a poem’s rhythms and silences, have a palpable effect. The Australian poet Les Murray has written very persuasively on this subject, saying that if a poem does its work well it engenders a state of alertness in the reader. I also want to describe physical detail well because it’s through the very materiality of existence that we come across essence. I don’t mean this in a narrowly existentialist sort of way. Rather it’s the feel of the world that excites me – how it looks, smells, touches, tastes and the noise it makes. All these things strike me as very much more interesting than things like ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ when divorced from their anchorage in the messy, tangible stuff of life. After all, what does a soul, taken by itself, smell or taste like? Nothing much I reckon. But if I describe what my soul responds to it might come alive on the page. For this reason I think it’s more important for poem to have soul than be about soul directly. Sometimes I have the feeling that if there is such a thing as a soul, it exists as the product of multifarious material connections between body and world and mind.
Lapwings at Sheriffmuir
that the sheer split
of their love-
dives could end
the wet grass
of the killing
that they could aim
themselves at death
intent as suicides
and at the last
to the low moor
on this grave
One of NLP’s favourite Powici poems is ‘Genesis’ – “Something was beating at the inside/ of his head, so wild so strange/ he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think” – it suggests, ironically, the power of the poet trumping for once the power of nature. Has NLP missed the point?
I guess this goes back to Wordsworth and his line in ‘Tintern Abbey’ about ‘the mighty world Of eye, and ear, — both what they half create, And what perceive.’ The poet, in fact any human being, is really a perceiver and a maker at the same time. We draw on the world but also, I think, give the world a kind of coherence and shape through art. The speaker in my poem ‘Genesis’ feels as much in thrall to the process of creation as in control of it so I wouldn’t say he trumps nature. If I have a sort of poetical article of faith it is that poems make the word anew, they refresh our vision of it. I suspect this is what’s happening to the speaker in ‘Genesis’ but in his case it’s a feeling that borders on madness- something I hope I’ve avoided so far!
You also have a healthy regard for death, or certainly the historic (even anonymous or lost) dead of Scotland. Is this a studied theme?
Probably just me getting on a bit! To be serious(ish) I read Robert Pogue Harrison’s ‘The Dominion of The Dead’ which is a great book on the role that memorialisations of various kinds play in culture. I was especially struck by his insight that the first permanent human structures weren’t houses but cairns and other sorts of grave marker. It’s made me think more about graveyards as reassuring as well somewhat disturbing spaces. I prefer the ones that are a bit overgrown but not entirely given to weeds – as if we’ve struck a sort of bargain with the earth.
Your point is a good one though. I have become more interested in death as a theme but not, I hope, morbidly so. I’m interested in how death links us to the world, to its other human and non-human inhabitants. I’m currently in the process of writing a poem which contains the line ’Nothing lasts, everything belongs.’ This comes pretty close to how I feel about death – and life.
You accentuate the miniscule to suggest the universal – not a bad poetic trait. What other traits would you suggest budding poets take up?
Lists of rules can be self-defeating. To my mind the best advice is to read lots of poetry, especially modern poetry and when you come across someone who really grabs you read deeply. The big mistake is thinking that originality lies in ignoring other voices. Not so. If you try that approach what usually happens is you end up writing poems which sound like fourth-hand versions of Byron or Wordsworth as this is the kind of poetry, because of the education system etc, that permeates without our noticing it. By all means read Byron and Wordsworth but read living poets too as well as recently dead ones. Also don’t just write – say the words aloud. Poetry is about sound as well as ink.
What does the future hold for Chris Powici the poet, and poetry in Scotland?
Recently I’ve taken up editing Northwords Now which is a huge thrill as it means a lot of really good poems (and stories) are coming my way. Also it feels right at this time. Having been writing and teaching for a good few years now, I feel like I’m completing a sort of circle. Of course I’m still writing poems as well. When I first started writing poetry I got frustrated if the poems were taking too long to finish. I wanted the end product quickly. Now I relish the process of composition. In fact I feel a mite uneasy if I haven’t got a poem brewing.
I remain very excited by literature and though fearful about what Cameron et al are going to do to the arts, have immense faith that good writing is going to bubble up from all kinds of unexpected places. My ‘hero’ Thomas Tranströmer once wrote something to the effect that ‘poems are active mediations; they want to wake us up, not put us to sleep’. I’ve a strong feeling that in Scotland and elsewhere there are a lot of voices wanting to do precisely that.
As well as writing poetry, and occasional fiction, Chris Powici teaches English and Creative Writing for The Open University, The University of Stirling, and in the local community. His poetry focuses on different aspects of the ‘human’ and ‘natural’ environments, and has featured in various magazines as well as been broadcast on Radio 4’s Poetry Please.
A selection of his poems, Somehow This Earth, was published in 2009 by Diehard. In January 2010 he was appointed editor of Northwords Now, one of Scotland’s leading literary magazines.
When not writing or teaching he may often be found experiencing the various environments of Scotland by foot or mountain bike.
Andrew Faraday Giles is Literary Editor of New Linear Perspectives.