“unseen negotiations between the inert and the quick” (Slant, Shearsman Books, 2016, p.43)
Linda Black is an award winning poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection Slant was published by Shearsman books in 2016. Previous collections are Inventory and Root (Shearsman 2008 & 2011), and The Son of a Shoemaker (Hearing Eye, 2012). The last, consisting of collaged prose-poems based on the early life of Hans Christian Andersen plus the author’s pen and ink illustrations, was the subject of an exhibition at The Poetry Society in 2013. She is co-editor of Long Poem Magazine www.longpoemmagazine.org.uk
ML: I’ve recently been re-reading your first two prose poetry collections Inventory (Shearsman Books, 2008) and Root (Shearsman Books, 2011), and finding them both fascinating and distinctive. The prose poems in Inventory seem to focus on relationships with objects as much as relationships with people. Prose poetry as a form seems to be particularly suited to dealing with this. Which writers (or other creative people), were your influences or “permission-givers” in choosing to focus on objects so closely in this book?
LB: ‘Door’, from Inventory is the first prose poem I wrote. I’d been looking at the door thinking, ‘I like this door – I’ve always liked this door’, and I decided to write it down; there followed a meditation on the door. I took it to my seminar group (with Mimi Khalvati) – she told me it was a perfect example of a prose poem. I hadn’t actually read any, nor did I know anything about them. Sometime before, my sons and I made and decorated smallish boxes. I painted the outside of mine with aspects of a house and street, inside were walls of rooms, and on the base my three sleeping children (the last poem in Inventory is about this). One summer I began writing (in prose) about the box – houses, anything that could be contained within a house. I’d previously thought (half seriously) of making an inventory of my possessions – I have quite an archive – and their provenance, and so the two ideas came together. My prose poetry began with objects. Mimi’s feedback was to just write – don’t edit, she said, that will come later. There was my permission.
I didn’t particularly distinguish between people and objects – I wrote about what came to mind, though family poems were important. In 2006, I won the New Writing Ventures Award for poetry with ten prose poems, now in Inventory. I had a couple published in Shearsman Magazine which Sharon Morris suggested I sent to (thanks Sharon!), and was asked by Tony Frazer if I had a collection, so I worked at it. Ordering was tricky – my first attempt had sections but no trajectory, as Mimi pointed out. She brilliantly went on to map what the sections should do: ‘And in the last you should meet the person behind it.’ Once I’d chosen section titles it all fell into place, amazingly following that very trajectory. There is no continuous narrative. In a section called ‘Legs’ I could include a poem about an ironing board, as well as one about my father’s arthritic legs. Objects can be powerful, very telling and for me stir emotions. When I began writing about a chair, a bed, a cushion, for example, I didn’t know where it would lead; I didn’t know my bed would lead to a hole, the yellow chair to my grandmother. ‘Each chair I own is more or less uncomfortable; each dictates to me my thoughts.’ (from ‘A bentwood chair is out in the garden’).
Here’s what I wrote in an article for Magma on the Prose Poem – ‘I am excited by the writings of Virginia Woolf, the delving, the intricacy, the circling of a thought, the rigour and relentlessness of enquiry: extended syntax, variety of sentence structure, perception and acute observation.
I love Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud (Translated by Beverly Bie Brahic CB Editions) and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Ponge mistrusted ideas and ‘took the side of things’ writing as it were from the point of view of the object rather than the subjective lyric self. Stein too writes about objects – takes words off their leash, makes them do something different, making us question how we experience language. Here’s one:
The sudden spoon is the same in no size. The sudden spoon is the wound in the decision.
I’d also like to mention Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. It’s a fantastic, and fantastical, collection of prose poems. Simic draws on his childhood, having spent his first 11 years in Belgrade surviving World War II. Stark, blunt sentences employ a dark humour, reflecting the in-human and surreal nature of such a harrowing experience.
ML: Root (Shearsman Books, 2011), your second full collection reads to me like a study of a shadowy third person character – the self as other, the self as stranger – and a strong yet enigmatic impression forms. Who would you say this person is? Can you tell us a little about how this character emerged in the process of writing the book?
LB: Whereas the container for Inventory is a house, for Root it is the inside of a woman’s head – not a totally consciously decision: something I realized after and used to introduce my readings, after which I would say, ‘might be me, might not be’. There’s more than one character as such and there are poems directly relating to my past and my family. There’s a dark-haired woman who recurs, and the omnipotent Onlooker, who knows ‘her’ well. The poems were written over a period of years. Scott Thurston has said, ‘Writings have their own secret life which escapes the writer, which eludes her or him, and without which the whole endless, sacrificial labour of writing would be worthless.’ The penultimate poem ends with, ‘Here is the essence. Make of it what you will.’
ML: What possibilities do prose poems offer you as a writer that verse poems or short-short stories / flash fictions don’t?
LB: I’ve not written short stories, and only one piece which may be flash fiction. I began writing poetry with verse. The layout of the verse poem is to me like a musical score – the visual element being equally as important as the content. I now use double line spacing, plus white spaces instead of punctuation. If the poem doesn’t look right on the page then the lineation isn’t working, yet. The visual shape of the prose poem is also important – wide margins, a block of text justified left and right (my preference). In both forms, I sometimes use run on titles, sometimes with a larger initial cap.
Unlike verse, the prose poem is predicated on the sentence, so no line breaks (which I do love working with). I have fun with lengthier titles, such as, ‘Whether the sun shone providentially (upon Copenhagen) he could not tell’, from The Son of a Shoemaker (Hearing Eye, 2012). The prose poem can travel vast distances in an (often) small and contained space. It may circle around a subject, career off course and take in the scenery, but will continue to serve the central focus ( not that you need always know what that is), obliquely or more directly, creating its own logic. It can encompass many genres/registers, the discontinuous or compressed narrative, the fragmentary or tangential and make associative leaps. I particularly love that the ending, rather than bringing closure, does the opposite and opens out. What is withheld is significant, reverberating into the ether. Like the shadows in a Rembrandt etching. Apart from line endings, all other considerations relating to verse poetry come into play– cadence, rhythm, rhyme etc.
ML: What formative influences (from childhood or adulthood) led you towards becoming a writer?
LB: It was quite accidental – or was it? I’d got divorced and moved home – I had the thought that in my new life maybe I’d try creative writing – it was a whim and I really didn’t take it seriously. I’d write in a small notebook upstairs on buses – a paragraph, perhaps a page – and wonder what they were – would they become part of a greater whole? Poetry never occurred to me. (Now I can see they were possible prose poems.) I told this to someone I met at a party and she said, ‘I teach creative writing.’ She came to see me and I showed her something I’d written based on a dream. She invited me to her workshop. We did a lot of flow writing – she’d place a pile of shoes, say, on the kitchen table and we’d write about that. I found out about Arvon and booked a course – I got a cancellation (the only place available) on a poetry course and thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have chosen poetry.’ That’s when I discovered I was writing it.
As a child I read a lot – I once copied out some of a Noddy story plus illustrations, and I made an anthology (unfinished) covered in silver paper, with games and stories (‘Lost on a desert island’) . I have a collection of old books with many illustrated children’s books, several from childhood; some I have used for collage poems (‘Dissection of the Earthworm’ led to a poem in Inventory). I studied English A Level and loved Keats, Dylan Thomas, Mathew Arnold (The Forsaken Merman), ballads. As an art teacher, I used quotes sometimes (‘Full fathoms five …’) as starting points for the students,and I wrote my ideas in a little notebook. As an artist, my connection with words was in the titling of etchings. I’d choose something with a descriptive element, yet not explanatory: ‘Ribbons’ is on the cover of Root, ‘Legs on a Hill’ on Slant; something I enjoyed and felt was more than an adjunct to the visual. I also wrote a scenario based on two characters emerging from a pantry filled with a conglomerate of oddities (including a jar of fingernails). This I illustrated. Years later it became a prose poem in Inventory; the drawings are in the book, the pantry on the cover.
ML: How does your practice as an artist influence your writing (and / or vice versa)?
LB: Art, from a young age, was my my raison d’etre and I felt I’d been gifted. Writing is the flipside of the same coin. I abandoned art for several years, though did use earlier work for book covers. There’s an ekphrastic poem in Inventory entitled ‘Hook’ – I wrote the image I knew at the time would not become an etching. Here’s a description of my art process –I begin without an idea – I do not need to know the outcome; a clarity of non-intent, following the thread – hand, eye, the internalised visual store – a glimpse, a detail, a fabrication, a digression; mood, sense, emotion. Let us stop here for a while, let us focus. I work as it were subliminally, discovering through the process, the unconscious becoming conscious as ideas came into play; through the detail I discover the whole. This is closely akin to my writing process – I begin, maybe with one or two words or a phrase that appeals, pops in my head. Here’s recent one: ‘Terribility’ (used by James Joyce in Ulysses), which is now the title of a verse poem. Following on: ‘Scrape of day strapped/ for cash raw-boned drained/ of expectancy.’ I had no specific idea – I discover as I progress; I listen for words and yes, sense (my own sense), and go with what comes into my mind. The words must suggest to me their allegiances. Musicality is important – the sound of a word; the initial letter/ rhyme/ rhythm will suggest another word, which doesn’t have to immediately relate. As with my art work, I trust the process and I do not censor. I’ve recently begun working on a manuscript where I am writing about my artworks, also processes, tools, manifestoes, early art books/manuals etc.
ML: What does your typical working day look like? (do you have any special writer’s routines, habits, perks)
LB: I have the wonderful habit of procrastination – I’ll just do this and then … I admire those who can get up in the morning and get started straight away (I’m writing this reply at 8pm) and do berate myself. I was pleased to read an article recently about a new book by Alex Pang, claiming that time not taxing the mind is equally as important, with four hour’s thinking brain work being enough for a day (as with Einstein and Darwin!). That made me feel better. I used to wish I had continuous time to devote to writing, but that for me would be counterproductive. Apart from artwork and writing, as an editor there are many poems to read for Long Poem Magazine (http://www.longpoemmagazine.org.uk/ ) and that takes a concerted period. I don’t have a routine. However, things do get done. For writing I go up to my study at the top of the house where the light is brighter, and I like that. In the summer, I like to do gardening for a break. Sometimes I go to cafes with my lap top (which unfortunately I can’t do with art work). I tend to work up to getting down to work.
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?
LB: Rather than deliberate for ages trying to find the perfect erudite book, full of wisdom, I’m going to go with Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, a book that has stayed with me since childhood. ‘On and on he sped’ is the title of one of the illustrations in my childhood copy – I loved those words. It would probably be the 1913 version illustrated by W Heath Robinson. The tales have of course their own wisdom – they are in turns tender, emotional, severe, dark, humorous – in them you will find injustice, poverty, optimism, resilience. Tales fitting for the woods, to read around the camp fire, and to continue the oral tradition fairy tales arose from. There’d be lessons to be learnt and much to discuss – certainly from a feminist perspective. Maybe they would divert us from reality and help us survive. My third collection, The Son of a Shoemaker is based on the early life of HCA – his birth, his childhood, his curiosity, his sensitivity, his ambition; his desire to better himself and be accepted into society. These prose poems are collaged from a fictionalized biography written in 1943 for children. I’ve subverted the syntax, though changed no words, apart from the occasional tense and adding the odd word (a, the etc.).
ML: It would be interesting to hear your views on the language in Son of a Shoemaker – the sentences seem to push at boundaries even more than your previous prose poems, for example using ‘literary collage’ of found text and often employing incomplete sentences, seemingly with intention to disrupt or defamiliarise the reading experience…
LB: When I first came across the Andersen biography (in a charity shop), I thought I couldn’t use it because the language didn’t interest me enough – but then I began playing, selecting bits of text, magpie like – a word, a phrase that took my fancy, then combining them into a kind of narrative, following the trajectory of his life from his birth up to the threshold of his becoming a renowned writer ( the book continues but I decided to stop there ), and at the same time making them read fluidly, though not conventionally. This isn’t ‘literary collage’ as such – it’s the same technique used in visual art – cutting up parts of other things and reassembling them to create an altogether new whole. I didn’t have any specific intention in mind re the reader. I was having fun playing with language and meaning , using disjunctures and juxtapositions – seemingly illogical sentences could make their own sense. I had worked with collage before in both prose and verse ( the latter are in my most recent collection Slant). Using other people’s words can be liberating; by taking a break from the constraints of your own mind, you are free to play, to make connections. It takes you out of yourself (as they say up North).
ML: What new developments in prose poetry in the UK do you see – recently and going forward? How is the prose poetry landscape different vs. 5, 10, or 20 years ago?
LB: Well, the prose poem competition is certainly a new development! In 2002 Nikki Santilli published Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature. In 2005 the American Journal Sentence featured ‘The Prose Poem in Britain’, with poems from 24 contemporary British poets, of whom only four are women. In her introduction to this, Santilli points out the lack of a platform for prose poetry in the UK, and also of critical discussion. She identified most practitioners as being more experimental in their approaches – it could be difficult to place prose poems with publishers.
In 2011 Cinnamon Press published the first anthology of contemporary British prose poetry, This Line Is Not For Turning, edited by Jane Monson. As Monson says in her intro, it had been accepted in France and America for decades and was then relatively new in the UK. Now, more journals are publishing prose poetry – some have been doing so for some time (Shearsman Magazine, Tears in the Fence) – and more poets writing it, though there can be the ‘I’m writing a prose poem’ consciousness. Hopefully one comes across fewer reviews beginning with a discussion of the form rather than the poems. I do remember reading an article in a well-known journal, titled ‘Is prose poetry poetry?’, giving as it were the opposing point of view – it came after a positive and informed review of a book of prose poems.
The Penguin Books website is currently advertising The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, due from Jeremy Noel-Todd in 2018. The blurb names three contemporary female prize winning poets: Claudia Rankin, Sarah Howe and Vahni Capildeo. Here’s more: ‘ The last decades have seen an explosion of the prose poem. More and more writers are turning to this peculiarly rich and flexible form’; ‘ one of the most original and genre-changing anthologies to be published for some years’, whilst admitting that ‘it remains, for many contemporary readers, something of a mystery.’ There you go – acceptance!
Books by Linda Black