Interview #1 Vona Groarke
Your seventh collection of poems Double Negative just came out with Gallery, congratulations! While ‘A-Z’ is in that collection, the other poems that feature in bath magg 1 aren’t. How do you choose which poems to include in a collection, and which to leave out? And how do these unpublished poems sit in relation to the poems in Double Negative?
Double Negative, more than most of my books, has a spine of connection running through it that is to do with answering back (and maybe even finding some sort of redress for) the acuities and quandaries of a life. There’s a certain tone throughout that teeters between resistance and acceptance, between a negative and a positive response. Given that all this Big Stuff is knocking about there, I tried really hard to write an enjoyable book, one that wouldn’t slide off into the ponderous or trite. Anything that had the whiff of either got excised, to leave what I hope is a reasonably funny book, that also holds its nerve. I might use those poems again, but then again, they might just get slipped into the very big file of uncollected poems I have somewhere. You know how in school photographs, most of the children are looking at the camera, good boys and girls, and there’s always one kid pulling a face or squinting or who’s just been pinched? That’s the poems I drag to the other file. They’re not bad poems, necessarily, (though they might be), but the effect they offer may not be an altogether pleasing or amusing one. Their offered flaw tends to dominate the picture which might not be fair to the other children who have tied their ribbons neatly and smiled as told to do.
Double Negative contains an embedded sequence of poems (the ‘Against’ poems). ‘Overcoats’, featured in bath magg 1, is also a sequence. What draws you to working in sequences?
I don’t know that I am drawn, particularly: I never know it’ll be a sequence until it is. But yes, I will always want to tinker with what’s shared and what’s discrete. I’m not much of a public person, so the idea of having poems play with other poems, nicely or naughtily, appeals to me. My poems should have the chance sometimes to do what I cannot, right? It’s only fair. They shouldn’t have to be saddled, exclusively, with the hindrance of me.
In Double Negative and the poems here, I get such a tangible sense of location, be it the Blue Mountains of New South Wales or the motorways around Manchester. Real, lived-in environments are ever-present across your body of work. Can you talk a little about the role place plays in prompting your poems?
Some poems declare their co-ordinates more than others, yes, but every poem has to start somewhere. And every one of mine has a landscape at its back, even if it’s not always easy to discern. But I can see it, and the poem is aware of it. Call it a framing device. And isn’t place a way we practise to take us out of ourselves? Scene-shifting is role-play. And role-play has play in it, which has to be a good thing. (As does place: play-ce, if you squint a little.)
Is there a poem by another poet that you wish you’d written?
Often! It’s what keeps me going, the discovery of the pure poem, (the poem that is careful, smart, sensitive, self-aware but not egotistical, more interested in linguistic risk than in throwing pre-cut shapes) amongst the heap of poetry dung. The pure poem might be the one where you can’t quite see how it’s done what it’s done. I’m all for that. I could spend a thousand hours unpicking a Bishop poem to try to understand its effect. So determinedly neutral on the surface – grey, even – and yet with fathoms of wild colour underneath. Whenever I read a good poem, I wish I’d written it. So I do what any sensible person does- try to make it squeal its secrets so I can copy them. Ha!
If you weren’t a poet what would you be?
Oh, an architect, making rooms of what you can hold in your hand. Or a good, old-fashioned seamstress, lining up seams, stitching them together. Or a hairdresser, cutting and styling. Or a printer, composing words.You see the problem? It’s all metaphor. I’m not fit for the literal world and I don’t quite believe in it. I don’t know how anyone does, to be honest: the literal always strikes me as a missed opportunity.
What is your pet peeve about your own writing?
I don’t have one. I can’t imagine my life without writing. It’s excitement, play, rigour, structure and exercise, and I’m just glad it shows up when I ask it to. Which isn’t to say it’s not confounding and bothersome too, of course it is, but I wouldn’t want to start slighting it, in case it would take umbrage, get the hump.
What was the last book you read?
Words in Air, the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It kept me going during a long summer of house repairs and physical graft. A bit sneaky, but it did feel as though I were in on the correspondence, somehow, listening to lives I could recognise a corner of (whether through my knowledge of their lives or poems, or my exercising their same craft) just enough to feel involved. They’re great company, those two; she’s the more stylish but he’s the more affectionate. And I love how they amuse each other, and go to good lengths to. The last poetry collection I read was Deryn Rees-Jones’ new collection, Erato, a forcefield book, a fierce and beautiful thing.
Many of the poets in bath magg 1 are working towards a first collection, is there a special piece of advice that you received when you were starting out in poetry?
Take your time, edit carefully, don’t grab at anything, be it publication or poems. And keep only the corner of one eye on ‘the poetry business’; all else for the poems. And whenever anyone tells you poems should be something or other, (political / apolitical; rhyming / free verse; celebratory / protesting), or can only be written by someone or other, you should probably throw a milkshake at them or, if you abhor the waste of milk, simply know them for egotists and walk, quickly, away.