“The world quakes. We are the knife | pressed to its flabby throat.”
(Scare Stories, V. Press, 2017, p.25)
David Clarke was born in Lincolnshire and now lives in Gloucestershire. His first pamphlet, Gaud (Flarestack), won the Michael Marks Award in 2013 and his first collection, Arc (Nine Arches Press), was longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. His most recent pamphlet, Scare Stories, was published by V. Press in 2017.
ML: At the end of June I attended the launch of your new pamphlet Scare Stories (from V. Press) and I must say it was a remarkable event – a theatre and film performance as well as a reading, as you adopted a kind of persona and setting for the reading of the poems, and the readings were accompanied by films – visual interpretations of your poems by film-poets Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery, who work together as Elephant’s Footprint. Can you start by telling us in more detail about the performance – how (and why) it was developed in this way?
DC: As I was writing the Scare Stories sequence, I always had an idea that I might present the poems in some other way than simply on the page. For a while, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website to display the texts, but I’d been impressed with the work that Sarah Leavesley and Ruth Stacey had been doing at V Press and saw that their submission window was open, so ended up submitting the poems there. Once Sarah and Ruth had accepted the poems as a pamphlet, I realised that I still had that urge to give the work another kind of life, but didn’t really know what that might be until Helen and Chaucer approached me at a reading where I performed a couple of the poems from the sequence and suggested that we collaborate. I don’t actually know what Helen and Chaucer imagined at that stage, but I came up with a plan for a performance piece that must have seemed a bit bonkers.
For those who haven’t seen it yet, it takes place in some kind of archive in which a dishevelled employee is rummaging around in the various files, pulling out and reading various texts (some of the Scare Stories poems) while the film running behind him projects images that may or may not be a product of his imagination. I couldn’t tell you exactly where this idea came from, but I think I wanted to find some scenario that reproduced something about the nature of the poems themselves, which combine sometimes rather bleak subject matter with a poetic form that creates a kind of aestheticizing distance between the reader and the events described. The idea of someone reading out these poems in a rather dispassionate way, as we might look at documents in an archive, seemed to fit this. I would also admit that the influence of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is in there somewhere, too.
ML: That’s interesting. Could you tell us a little more about the influence of latter?
DC: For those who don’t know Beckett’s play, it involves a single character on stage who spends most of his time listening to recordings of himself that he has amassed over a longer period of time. In between the playing of the tapes, there is some comic stage business going on. That’s probably a rather superficial summary, but what I took from this was the idea of a single figure on stage who is not speaking, but rather investigating a kind of archive of already existing material. In Scare Stories, these are texts that are read out, however, and the content is not autobiographical for the figure on stage. The other advantage of this approach was that the performance was put together with limited personnel and resources. I’m not an actor, and I can’t remember lines very easily, but I knew that I could perform my own work from the page. This format allowed me to read out the poems, but to do so in a context that would be quite different from a normal poetry reading.
ML: It seems to me that Scare Stories marks a shift in style from your previous publications – in subject, mood, theme, form, vocabulary etc. Would you agree? What would you say about what you were hoping to achieve in the finished sequence, especially in terms of how it relates to your previous writing? And can you tell us more about the process of developing it?
DC: I would see this pamphlet more as a development of certain elements within my work. Although this isn’t always clear to the reader, I work quite a bit with formal constraints as a means of producing work. There are several poems in my first pamphlet and collection that do this, whether the constraint is syllabic, the use of a particular rhyme scheme, or the introduction of random elements that I then have to work around. There are certainly poems in my first pamphlet, Gaud, that echo the mood of Scare Stories, and the constrained form of the rhyming quatrains that make up the poems in the latter was a key part of the experiment. I decided there would be 25 poems using this form and took this as my starting-point.
The subject matter of the pamphlet emerged from the mood of the summer of 2016, the summer of Brexit and Trump. I felt increasingly alienated from a society that seemed to be experiencing a paroxysm of anger and unreason, while the refugee crisis and the war in Syria continued on Europe’s doorstep. At the same time, that atmosphere seemed hard to escape. I wanted to process it somehow, but I am not a great fan of those poems you hear and read about things that people see on the TV and think are awful. Those things very often are awful, but I fail to see what writing a poem that points this out will achieve. It seems to me that poetry like this just treats the reader as an idiot who can’t work that out on their own.
I suppose what I was aiming for in Scare Stories (whether successfully or not is for others to judge) was to create a kind of imaginative space where all of these images of contemporary crisis could be distilled without offering the reader any easy way out in terms of (potentially self-gratifying) empathy. I would also say that the scenarios in the poems are not simply reflections of particular events from that summer. What fascinates me about our particular historical moment is the dominance of images of catastrophe in our popular media, and these have all been spun into the mix in the process of writing the poems. In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin suggests that humanity’s ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’ That idea was certainly in my mind when I was writing these texts.
ML: That’s a striking final point – effectively that contemporary society might be relishing in its own catastrophe?
DC: Like a lot of what Benjamin says, this evocative statement is open to a variety of interpretations. Applied to the contemporary situation, it might mean that we have become so distanced by the mass media from what will destroy us that we can no longer perceive it as an existential threat, taking pleasure in its spectacular representation, which distracts us from reality. Equally, I have certainly felt that there is some part of our culture that relishes the notion of a release from the bonds of Western civilization through some cataclysm (think of survivalists in the US or those who sign up to fight for Islamic State). There’s a poem about this in my collection, Arc, as it happens: called ‘You Explain to Me Your Plans for Surviving the End of Civilization as We Know It’.
ML: Which writers or other artists (whether predecessors or contemporaries) were the influences or “permission-givers” behind Scare Stories, and in what ways?
DC: This may seem like an odd starting-point, but the inspiration for the form of Scare Stories came from Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’. In terms of the approach to rhyme, I’d say Paul Muldoon had more than a little influence. So, it’s quite an eclectic mix!
I’ve had some interesting responses to the pamphlet in terms of where readers situate the work in terms of tradition and experiment. Because of the tight formal construction and the rhyming, it looks on the face of it to be a fairly traditional piece, but I hope it is doing some fairly untraditional things with those elements. I tend to reject the distinction between these different categories in any case. I think every poem is (or should be) an experiment and that these experiments can be made with whatever materials you have to hand. For me personally, experimenting with established poetic form and bending it to my own purposes, making it into something new, is more exciting than throwing tradition overboard.
ML: Can you be more specific / explicit about the formal influence of ‘In Memoriam’? And can you pin down in words for us what it is in Paul Muldoon’s rhyming that you were inspired by?
DC: In ‘In Memoriam’, Tennyson uses a four-line stanzas in tetrameter (so, four-beat lines), rhymed abba. Although I’ve played a bit fast and loose with this at times, I discovered that writing according to this form produces a kind of compressed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. This suits Tennyson’s subject (mourning), and also my very different themes. The form is arguably less apparent when the poems are performed, as I use more enjambment than Tennyson does; in other words, his rhymes tend more often to come at the end of a sentence or clause, whereas my rhymes appear more often mid-sentence.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Muldoon’s rhyming is ‘zany’. He rhymes unusual words to sometimes comical effect, breaks words in two at the end of a line to force a rhyme, or varies the meter of lines to hit the rhyming words. All of this, of course, smacks of ‘bad’ rhyme, in that it draws attention to itself and appears to be rhyming for the sake of rhyming (absolutely forbidden in poetry workshops these days!). It has different effects in different poems, but it seems to me to be a kind of cheeky wink to the reader (‘Am I really getting away with this?’), while simultaneously making a music that is Muldoon’s and his alone. I’m not comparing myself in any way, but I suppose the inspiration here is more to do with the boldness of the approach to rhyme, the willingness to take risks, and the ironic flourish of it all.
ML: Is Scare Stories part of a longer work? Are you working on a second full collection to follow Arc (Nine Arches Press, 2015) and if so, what can you say about the (other) material in it?
DC: I increasingly write sequences of poems, although sometimes only parts of a sequence end up being something I want to publish. I did toy with the idea of making Scare Stories longer, even as long as 100 poems, but I think that the reader will be grateful that I scaled this down. I don’t think it would work over the course of a whole book, but the pamphlet format is perfect for what I wanted to do.
I am currently developing a second full collection and I have gone back and forth with myself about whether I would include Scare Stories. Currently, my view is that these poems won’t be included. That has a lot to do with thematic focus. I’m increasingly writing about the question of Europe and European history, but again more in relation to Europe as a space of the imagination. I don’t intend it to be an anti-Brexit rant, but more an exploration of how we (the British) have come to see ourselves in relation to ‘the continent’. Well, that’s the plan at the moment, anyway.
ML: This sounds intriguing about Europe. How would you say your academic interests feed into this?
DC: I did a modern languages degree and lived and worked in Germany for a little while. I also completed a PhD in German literature. In the late 1980s, when I was finishing my schooling, there was much talk about the opening up of European borders and the opportunities that Europeanization would bring. Those years between the Single European Act in 1987 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 where formative ones for me, and also coincided with the end of the Cold War. There was a spirit of optimism about European integration on the whole. It’s said that a lot of older people who voted for Brexit were nostalgic for their pre-EEC youth in the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t know to what extent this is true, but I recognise in myself a nostalgia for a particular idea of Europe that now seems to be fading away, at least in this country.
ML: What formative influences (from childhood or adulthood) led you towards becoming a writer?
DC: I wish I could construct a clear narrative about that, but I would probably say that I have always had a particular relationship to language. I think I was a mimic as a child. I would pick up on words adults used and then use them myself without really knowing what was meant, just for the sound or for the novelty of it. I still do that sometimes. Later I learned foreign languages but always had a feeling that all languages are in some way foreign, that all speaking is somehow performing in a medium that doesn’t really belong to me or over which I don’t really have much control. I’ve always been wary of the notion of self-expression. I’m expressing something, but not necessarily my ‘self’, whether in a poem or in any other use of language.
ML: The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?
DC: I think I would probably have to answer that question in two ways. If we really are living under such a terrible dictatorship, then I would have to say that the poems that Bertolt Brecht wrote from the beginning of his exile from the Third Reich to the end of his life in communist-run East Germany would be the ones to save (let’s assume there’s a handy volume containing all of these). They are a document of a poet writing in a time of crisis and asking what that might mean – so I think they would be useful under the circumstances.
Less pragmatically, if we are talking about the poems I’d want to see saved on their own merit, then I would be taking Anthony Thwaite’s edition of The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin with me. These are the first poems I got excited by and I will never tire of them.
ML: What in your opinion does a writer need in her / his everyday life and environment to flourish?
DC: I have no real adversity in my life, so there’s never been anything stopping me. Having said that, I didn’t start writing seriously until my late 30s. I suppose I reached a point where I had enough confidence as an individual that I thought I could try and that it wouldn’t matter if I failed. I’m not sure what the criteria would be for saying I’d been successful, but I’ve had things published that I’m happy with, so that will do.
I can’t speak for what other people might need to flourish as a writer. I’ve certainly witnessed friends and acquaintances produce wonderful work in very challenging personal circumstances. Historically, of course, poets have continued to write even under the most brutal dictatorships. I think that, if you really have to write, there is ultimately little that can stop you.
ML: If someone said you can’t put your creativity into writing, you have to do something else, what would it be?
DC: I suppose I would finally learn to play the piano, for which I have no natural aptitude.
You can purchase Scare Stories here:
David’s Blog: http://athingforpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/
Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery’s poetry film work: https://elephantsfootprint.com/