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Poetry in Aldeburgh Residency: Ben Rogers interviews… Holly Corfield Carr

As soon as we talk about ‘chance’ we’ve already stationed part of the writing process outside ourselves. We decide on names for this other part, like ‘found’ or ‘inspiration’ or something else, but we are always just writing back to what we have already recognised, writing back to ourselves, collaborating with the back of our heads.

Ben Rogers is our Poetry in Aldeburgh Poet-in-Residence. In the run-up to the festival, he’s posting interviews and poems from the poets performing at the festival as well as prompts to get you writing. Here he talks to the acclaimed site-specific poet Holly Corfield Carr. To see Holly’s poem of the day, and Ben’s writing prompt click here


Your poem ‘The afternoon is setting’ has been made into a short film by Corinne Silva and is part of the ‘Beginning to See the Light’ Jaybird Live Literature project which will appear at the Aldeburgh festival.  How did the idea for the poem come about and how did the collaboration work?


‘Beginning to See the Light’ was originally commissioned by Jaybird Live Literature and the Poetry Society for National Poetry Day Live which takes place in October so the whole show tracks a full day and night of autumnal light, from high noon to car headlight, full moon to fluorescent strip. I was invited to respond to light in the late afternoon and also to the hours after midnight which became a second poem that I had to perform while the audience and I sat in complete darkness.

I wanted to try to write the poem in those same two hours that happen inside the poem so this meant returning to the poem at the same time each day. For both my poems, but especially in ‘The afternoon is setting’, this process crowded different versions of that one hour of light on top of one another. I ended up with a kind of long exposure but perhaps the shaky sort that accidentally includes the shadows of passers-by or my own clumsy thumb over the lens.

Seeing the filmpoem was a kind of revelation but not a collaboration as such. We all recorded the poems and Corinne returned with the films shot in those same slots of light. For my poem, Corinne has transposed the burn-in of brake lights on the M32 flyover across to London and the quietness of the sun setting between the buildings, night arriving over a floodlit football pitch. After spending so many cramped hours in stationary traffic watching the last of the light slide off my dashboard, it was a relief to see Corinne’s film. It was like getting out the car and seeing my poem from the outside.

Now the show is on tour, I hope something of Aldeburgh’s seaside Novembery light might bounce off the poems, which will be a mixture of classics and new commissions by Raymond Antrobus, Malika Booker, Jane Draycott, Caleb Klaces, Richard Price and me.

You have previously worked on a book about chance called the very last time.  How valuable do you think chance procedure is as an aid to the creative process and how often do you use it?


I don’t often use chance or aleatory writing exercises, like, say, cut-up techniques, to generate work but I do think all writing is just a loose version of these kinds of exercises. As soon as we talk about ‘chance’ we’ve already stationed part of the writing process outside ourselves. We decide on names for this other part, like ‘found’ or ‘inspiration’ or something else, but we are always just writing back to what we have already recognised, writing back to ourselves, collaborating with the back of our heads. And as much as chance, the very last time was a project about faith and compulsion. I worked on the book with the artist Lawrence Epps and we selected contributors by sending them a gold-painted ceramic coin. One side of the coin was stamped ‘yes’, the other ‘no’ and we invited writers to flip the coin before responding to us. We invited them to write about gambling but what we got back was almost always, in some ways, about writing.

You’ve said in a previous interview with the Poetry School that creating your poem ‘AFT’ on Matilda the passenger ferry was “the most fun project” you’ve done.  Can you tell us a bit about how the text was arranged around the boat, and what made the project fun?


I wrote the poem while listening to the sea shanties of the Bristol sailor Stanley Slade, which were recorded by Peter Kennedy in 1950 and are now held in the British Library’s sound archive. I wanted the length of Slade’s halyards to measure out the breath of the poem and, on the page, you can quickly see the heave-ho of the shortening and lengthening lines. But, on board Matilda, I knew the poem wouldn’t be visible all at once like it is on the page and so each couplet is also measured to fit the widths of Matilda’s thirteen aft windows, which get smaller and smaller towards the back, centering on a little hatch of two narrow windows. The whole poem runs around the boat like a rope and each couplet sits in the frame of its window, changing with the changing view. The fun for me was in trying to match the specificity of the boat’s measurements to the resonances of the site and the historical context of Bristol’s Floating Harbour. The fun for everyone else arrived with the May bank holiday when ‘Aft’ was installed in bright vinyl lettering onto Matilda’s windows and was almost immediately and enthusiastically ‘edited’ by a hen party who stole all the letter Ls to use as their tiny, sticky L-Plates. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this and even after the poem was restored, bits of it continued to be rearranged, some of it stuck to the lapels and foreheads of commuters and children riding the boat to get around the city, parts of the poem disappearing into the city.

You have previously been a poet-in-residence at the Bristol Poetry Institute. How did that go and what did you do as poet-in-residence?


I’ve been poet-in-residence in an abandoned ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent, in a guard tower in County Antrim and at contemporary art centre Spike Island. In Stoke, there were foxes sleeping in the disused kilns. In the Curfew Tower, I was rapidly absorbed into village life and was even persuaded to attend violin lessons in the backroom of the pub so I could join in during the Friday night sessions. At Spike Island, I worked from an artist’s studio, sharing my space with video artists and sculptors. Whenever I take up a residency, I really try to live onsite and write through that place for the time I’m there. At the Bristol Poetry Institute, the residency allowed me to teach seminars and meet one-to-one with student poets. So I didn’t set up camp in the classroom but the hours of the class became a site of really valuable conversations for both me and the students. We wrote poems by lantern light and I set up a tiny, temporary pond in the seminar room so my students could write a flotilla of poems on paper boats. And it’s a total joy to see so many of my BPI students continue to write and win recognition for their work.

Water and the sea appear recurrently in your work and you are one of the featured poets in the new Emma Press Anthology of The Sea.  What does the sea represent to you, and if you had to pick where is your favourite stretch of coast? 


After viewing John Akomfrah’s video work ‘Vertigo Sea’ earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about that line in Derek Walcott’s ‘The Sea is History’ where he describes the sea as ‘that grey vault’. It’s a space where we collectively and often selectively dump memories and materials and people and ‘Vertigo Sea’ explores that very movingly. I’ve been writing about oil slicks at sea and that mirrored surface or shallow skin that features in both my poems included in the Emma Press Anthology of the Sea. So I’m grimly fascinated by the sea and it certainly isn’t a glamorous stretch of coast but I’ve been writing on various locations across the muddy waters of the Bristol Channel. Recently, I’ve been visiting Watchet to look for fossils. My pockets are full of devil’s toenails and ammonites from my last trip there. And from Watchet you can see the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm and, further on, the little skimmed pebble of Denny Island which marks the sea border between England and Wales and which I once saw turn into a giant floating egg and hover away over the Severn Bridge. If you don’t believe me, I recorded the entire event in my poem north fifty one thirty one thirty three by west two forty six fifty one – and we all know poems tell the best truths (slightly slant).

Holly Corfield Carr is a poet and writer based in Bristol and Cambridge, UK.

Holly received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2012 and was the winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize in 2015. Her writing is published in magazines, artists’ books and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 as well as appearing on board a passenger ferryan eighteenth-century crystal grotto, a floating islandin total darknessHackneya museum, in a car parkby the riverlibrariesformer factoriespublic toiletsgalleries and at dinner.

Holly is currently a PhD student at the University of Cambridge where she is researching contemporary site-specific writing practices and sculpture. Her research interests include caves, quarries and talking mountains. This year she is also working as a 2016/17 Visiting Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

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