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Poetry in Aldeburgh: Ben Rogers interviews… Geraldine Clarkson

“The boundaries can be a little porous, and spoonfuls of poetry can be stirred into daily life…”

In your poem ‘RILT’ a character asserts “I have […] a right to walk this way”.  How important is the spirit of rebellion or being allowed to break rules when you write poetry?


I’d never thought of it as a spirit of rebellion! But that probably fits, as I’ve spent a lot of my life being obedient – including institutionally, having spent several years in a monastery, where obedience was part of the fabric of life. With poetry, however—which I’d never expected to write—I initially felt at a disadvantage in that I didn’t ‘know the rules’, which cast a pall of insecurity over everything, and encouraged me to attend workshops to try and pin down those rules… There is the truism that you need to know what the rules are even if (and perhaps especially if) you end up breaking them. I still feel that uncertainty, to some extent, but there’s probably an innate rebelliousness, also, which may manifest itself in my poems.

You have previously said that George Eliot is one of your heroes.  What do you admire in her as a writer?


I’m not exactly an expert on GE, but her—magnificently architectural!— novels, some of which I read as a child, and some as an adult, did impress me deeply… One abiding impression is her use of ‘alternative destinies’ – dramatic variants on the characters’ choices, embodied in other characters who have actually followed through on a different choice, with different consequences, so that the resulting stories, or destinies, play out in parallel. She’s working out and enacting her philosophy through the narrative. She’s a formidable and elegant stylist, also.

In your recent interview on Proms Late with Radio 3 you mentioned Walter Pater saying “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”.  Are you able to recommend any music that you have found particularly powerful and say why you like it?


I envy the way that music can communicate directly, without needing the currency of the words which we depend on, and perhaps become over-familiar with, day by day. (The same goes for painting and sculpture!) I feel almost as if I am emerging from a self-imposed fast from music and the other arts – an odd position to be in, as that’s probably the area which feels most natural to me, but maybe a privileged position, also, for a writer, as it’s all there fresh and to be discovered… The Proms Poetry initiatives have inspired me to start exploring classical music for the first time. I became emotionally attached to Holst’s The Planets, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor—the expressiveness of both, encompassing elegy, comedy, reverie, capriciousness, drama and narrative—when I tried writing on these and other pieces. On a different part of the spectrum, or plectrum, Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win caused me to revisit some of his songs— but in the case of lyrics, the fusion of the melody with the associative charge of the words can direct and govern the total effect… I’m considering a listening (as well as a reading & art-appreciating) binge to educate myself a bit more, so maybe ask me again in a little while…

What kind of background noise do you prefer when writing your own poetry?


White noise seems really productive for me! Or train noises – at one point I was writing all my poems on the train! The random human busyness and desultory conversations of public spaces are quite soothing, too. But if I’m at home it will be silence (punctuated by street noises, traffic flow, and household hums)… When I’ve tried writing to music, as I did for the Proms poems, something quite different and interesting emerges, but in general, since I’m trying to react against a habit of not ‘allowing’ myself, perhaps, to enjoy artistic pursuits, it feels more peaceful and wholehearted to focus either on the music or on the writing.

When talking about the poem ‘Love Cow’ for the Poetry Review/ Poetry Society you mentioned that the opening lines came to you as you woke from sleep. Can you tell us a bit about the relationship between dreams and your poetry process?


A very close relationship. I’ve been editing, rather than writing creatively, for a good few months now— with the Nine Arches Press Primers, followed by two pamphlets—so I’m going back to a time before that, but so many of my poems have come from/fed back into/interacted with dreams. On two or three occasions, I’ve read and admired a poem during a dream and then on waking realised with a small shock that it wasn’t actually a pre-existing poem and so I’ve tried to retrieve and reconstruct it in my waking state!

You have a poem displayed in one of the public toilets in the Shetlands, as part of the ‘Bards in the Bog’ initiative.  How important do you think it is that poetry appears in public places?


Very important, I think. Page poetry is often seen to have only niche appeal, and to be a kind of acquired taste. I like the idea of poetry being gifted back to everyday life, where it originates. There are lots of interesting projects going on in this area – some of your previous Aldeburgh guests have mentioned these e.g. the fascinating site-specific projects of Holly Corfield Carr.  And I was lucky enough to have a poem on one of Chrissy Williams’ batches of cupcakes as part of her edible Poetry Digest! At a local festival, I took part in a commissioned piece performed between courses to diners in a restaurant. Poems on public buildings, public transport, in hospitals, waiting rooms, gardens and parks, galleries and museums… all seem worthwhile ventures…

Themed magazines also – like Rebecca WattsCycle Lifestyle –and the themed anthologies of The Emma Press, and others, can extend the reach of poetry.

Collaborations, too… I was very happy to be invited to do a collaboration with the Southern Cone Quintet with whom I read at the Proms, and there’s been a wonderful proliferation of collaborations in recent years between poets and musicians, artists, sculptors, dramatists, dancers, producers, which is energising … Glyn Maxwell’s work… the Live Canon theatre group… the super poetry shows put on by JayBird Live Literature (directed by the Poetry School’s Julia Bird), Penned in the Margins, and Jonathan Davidson (Midland Creative Projects)…. Also relevant are all the works which are potential nominees for, and past winners of, the annual Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.  So the boundaries can be a little porous, and spoonfuls of poetry can be stirred into daily life…

Geraldine Clarkson has had poems published in various UK and international magazines and anthologies, including The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt, 2014), Furies (For Books’ Sake, 2014), The Emma Press Anthology of Dance (Emma Press, 2015), and The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear, 2015). She was selected as one of 4 poets for the Poetry School & Nine Arches Press Primers I project and was commended in the 2015 National Poetry Competition. Her latest pamphlet, Declare (Shearsman), was Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2016.

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