Hi Lavinia! When we first started discussing your residency – For the Love of Craft: Confessions of a Bibliophile – you spoke about wanting to “defend your aestheticist interests”. So could we start by explaining what those are and why you think they need defending?
Lavinia: I suppose the issue is with beauty and how to accommodate it in my life and writing. I am profoundly moved by beautiful things, growing up with a love for ‘artists of sensation’ like the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, addicted to Japanese washi and Paperchase stationery. Above all, it’s the pleasure of touching, holding and owning. I always react to a book’s physical form, finding a morose cover or ugly typeface deeply saddening. But how superficial that is, caring so much about appearances! There’s a decadence to such ‘art for art’s sake’ kind of thinking, not to mention the indulgence, luxury, enormity of effort, and, often, cost involved. And what does it mean to have books on the shelves you gaze at admiringly but never read?
Such attachment to the physical – or, how William Mitchell put it, “those addicted to the look and feel of tree flakes encased in dead cow” – can seem old-fashioned and obsolete in the face of the rampant technological advances of our age which challenge our conception of what a text is, while scaremongers conspire about ‘the demise of the book’.
Do I need to defend these interests? There’s a side of me which maintains that they can’t be defended or justified – a kind of Platonic acceptance of their existing and being instantly recognisable to me, so that’s that. But why I’m excited about this residency is that it will give me a chance to explore the ramifications of such an aesthetic approach, meeting like-minded people and hopefully uncovering a variety of benefits and wonders in being an aesthetic bibliophile.
What are some of the most beautiful things you own?
Lavinia: I aim to live by William Morris’s fridge-magnet golden rule, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, which means most of my possessions are gorgeous in my eyes. But to pick three: an 1893 edition of Goblin Market illustrated by Laurence Housman, given by my sister; six cheap reproduction prints of Arthur Rackham illustrations to Wagner’s The Ring; an orchid named Drusilla.
‘Craft’ as a word has a rather unique relationship with poetry (and not without its problems). Many poets talk about ‘craft’ in their work, but it can mean various things. What does it mean to you?
Lavinia: Yes, it can mean various things, which is why I’m wary of the definitions that are prescriptive or reductive. Seamus Heaney, for example, compared ‘craft’ unfavourably to ‘technique’, as a kind of skill without soul:
Craft is the skill of making. It wins competitions in the Irish Times or
the New Statesman. It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the
For me, the word encompasses much much more than this, as any peek in the OED portrays. Yes, there’s an emphasis on making and skill, especially the work of the hands (‘handicraft’) but also the heights of technology and creative engineering – ‘aircraft’, ‘spacecraft’. In the residency, I’ll be considering the idea of ‘the craftsman’ (or woman) in today’s world. But my favourite nuance of the word is that relating to the magical and occult (unfortunately the 1996 film with Robin Tunney immediately comes to mind, but let’s ignore that), as well as the sense of artifice and cunning, like crafty Odysseus. ‘Craft’ signifies more than aptitude and a perfunctory handling of materials. It’s something tricksy and imaginative, with room for experiment, erring and mystery. In Edmund de Waal’s words, “Craft is a starting place, a set of possibilities.”
How crafty are you as a person? As someone who clearly loves arts and crafts, why are you then a poet and not a painter or a potter?
Lavinia: As someone who brought a crafts box with me to university and requests stickers for Christmas, I’d say I’m pretty into it. It taps into my recycling instinct to reuse and find creative solutions for materials that attract me. My main outlet is in making multi-textured cards for long-suffering friends – each one a bit like a discrete poem, conducive to playful experiment. However, I find the richest material of all is language: each word with its own history, ambiguity, sound… I loved studying languages at school, getting into their structures and communicative powers. Perhaps my creative instincts are similar, but it is when using the medium of language that I most challenge and surprise myself.
What’s been the biggest surprise or discovery you’ve made in your own writing?
Lavinia: The possibilities that performance brings. One of my poems, Buried Treasure, plays upon the echoes of the past in our modern day language by squeezing Old English words in lines between the main narrative that chime sonically with the Modern English words (just as old ruins lurk in the shadows of our contemporary landscapes). For example,
a menacing chill sinks
The ‘buried’ words are different kinds of treasure or things which might be buried; here, menescilling is a “moon-shaped ornament” and sinc is “treasure/riches”. I was mystified how to perform this, until I thought of creating an echo by recording the Old English words on my phone, to then play in sync with my live reciting. A challenge to orchestrate! But I think moments like that, realising what possibilities there are in conveying ideas beyond traditional methods, are particularly surprising and fun.
Do you embrace technology? Or are you adverse to it?
Lavinia: Erm… The embrace certainly wouldn’t be one of my usual enthusiastic bear-hugs! Part of the problem is dealing with my own shortcomings – a lack of understanding and time spent tinkering and experimenting. ‘The new’ in its streamlined glitzy sleekness doesn’t immediately appeal to my sensibilities. Give me the charm of ramshackle clutter! There is also a side of me which is apprehensive of where it’s all leading, what insidious, unpredictable effects might be waiting for us – cf. Daedalus and Frankenstein. The fact that for this residency I’ve turned from the technological sense of ‘digital’ to the physical human ‘digit’ says a lot.
And yet, they needn’t be antagonistic. John Randle at the Whittington Press put it well when he said how grateful he was for the Internet, specifically email, for quickening up admin/correspondence, and thereby giving more time for printing work. And, of course, the book is itself a jubilant invention! Technology enables; I just have to remind myself every now and then to be open to change and learning new skills. “He that wil wynne he muste laboure and aventure.” – William Caxton.
What’s your favourite paint colour name?
Lavinia: I like the ringing sensuousness of ‘vermilion’, ‘periwinkle’ for chuckle-value, and, for the colour of paint itself, ‘emerald’.
When did you first get into writing poetry?
Lavinia: I’ve always written in various forms, but it was during first term at university that everything crystallised. We were studying the Victorians, but could choose which individuals to focus on each week. I feel sorry for my poor tutorial partner as my only interest was in the poets (but we must study Swinburne!) – a moment which opened my eyes to what I was particularly passionate about in literature. From then, I could eagerly launch into every kind of poetry society, workshop, reading, club that was going, and poems were all I’d want to write.
What are you working on at the moment?
Lavinia: Everything is gearing up to the beginning of my PhD, which starts in October. I’ll be working on my own poems as well as a supporting body of research: exploring the parallels between poetry and visual art, thinking about image-making and process. This digital residency therefore is the perfect preparation!
You’re also the editor of Oxford Poetry. What are your top three editing tips?
Lavinia: 1. Think about your publication and how it’s different. My co-editor and I inherited a spectacularly ugly design, which gave us the chance to reinvent the magazine and its look. Being over a century-old, it was important for us to look back and celebrate its beginnings as a handsome dark blue hardback with paper label. Sadly this would be too costly to revive, so we stuck to a matt-laminated 300gsm-thick cover in Oxford blue. Each issue has a different spine and ‘inner leaves’ design at the front and back, created by different contemporary artists we’ve commissioned. This means we’ve worked with some brilliant artists – Hannah Bagshawe, Mika Ross-Southall, Hannah Lees, Nancy Campbell – and the magazine embraces the old and new, standing out on the shelves.
2. Work in a collaborative spirit. We read everything that comes to us, and whittle a shortlist down through a series of editorial rounds. This ensures you return to work with fresh eyes, and gives a chance to defend your choices against a disbelieving colleague. Ultimately there will be compromise as all editors have individual tastes and interests – be they “aestheticist” or otherwise!
3. Be kind. It helps being a writer oneself, to know all too well the other side of those rejection messages. Yes some submissions seem ludicrous or sent in jest, but the majority are people’s babies on which they’ve worked and given a part of themselves to. A short, considerate response to each doesn’t take long but means a lot.
And finally, what was the last thing you bought just because you liked the cover?
Lavinia: Urania by Ruth Pitter (The Cresset Press, 1950). Yum.
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