Next term, John Wedgwood Clarke will be teaching The Poetry of Rubbish, a five-session course in Exeter. Harriet David, an Oxford masters student who spent a week researching at The Poetry School, spoke to John about the course.
Harriet: Hi John. You spent two years as poet in residence at two Yorkshire rubbish sites; your most recent book was the 2017 Landfill, and your upcoming course with the Poetry School is The Poetry of Rubbish. What drew you to the dump?
John: My eye was always caught by the bin lorries and earth-movers crawling over our dump as I drove past it on the bypass. With the gulls following on behind, they seemed like tractors ploughing a crazy field. Beyond the plastic bag strewn fence I sensed there was a place of great ecological energy, a fertile and exciting place from which to view our consumer culture and identify our behaviour as a species.
Once I gained access to the dump, the scale of it made me shudder, but also thrilled me. It was depressing and inspiring by turns. We can see the full mess we’ve made of things. We can see the mechanisms of commodification and branding coming apart. The dump cannot be packaged. There’s a hideous beauty to it; a banal intensity that wakes you up and makes you feel very mortal: is this all we are? It’s like a crematorium: there’s something sad and melancholy about the relentless processing of our lives, the processing of time. And of course, our waste doesn’t disappear, it’s on its way to becoming geology, on its way to the many ‘shadow sites’ in this country and elsewhere, where it’s processed. Our beautiful landscapes, our national parks, depend on the dump for their continued existence in the state we like them to be. I wanted to, as Val Plumwood puts it, ‘honour’ a place on which we depend.
One of the functions of art, an idea that particularly fascinated Modernist poets, was the idea of defamiliarising our experience of things, of making the ordinary strange through looking at it from a different perspective. When, after a heavy spring shower of rain, I saw a row of cookers set out on hard-standing gleaming with raindrops and heard the larks singing over rubble in the distance, I thought they were intensely beautiful in their strangeness.
Harriet: Could you tell us a bit about what you have planned for the course?
John: We’ll be thinking about rubbish in a number of ways, starting with the simple idea that the journey of ‘civilisation’ has been, and continues to be, away from the dump. We don’t want to see it, we don’t live near it, but someone has to deal with it, someone has to live near it. In that sense, rubbish is political. And I’m not alone in this interest: many writers, visual artists and thinkers have been fascinated by rubbish.
We’ll begin with the near at hand. We’ll begin with our own relationship to waste, exploring the everyday traces we leave behind and the more emotive things we’ve owned that have ended up in the dump. Through this we’ll build up a shadow of ourselves in waste; a signature of waste. Key areas we’ll move on to consider may be:
- Rubbish as stuff in the wrong place;
- Rubbish as resource and origin: the dump as a site of transformations and myths;
- The global impact of our waste and our position as a species within the global ecosystem;
- The language of rubbish and dirt; disposable language; rubbish as insult;
- The shopping mall and the dump; rubbish and our culture of consumption.
Each session will involve a poem, a provocation and an exercise. There’ll also be time in each session to hear work that’s been produced in previous sessions. By the end of it we’ll have looked at a range of different voices and techniques.
Harriet: You were a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence with the Marine Biology Department at the University of Hull: could you talk a little about how this informed your writing?
John: I like to learn. I like to listen. I like to know the names of things. The more precise the naming the stranger and richer the world becomes. I attended aquatic taxonomy classes and discovered the utter strangeness of the arrangement of internal and external organs of so many familiar aquatic organisms. Who knew a squid has three hearts? Who knew the limpet changes sex halfway through its life? Who knew the lugworm has about four minutes each year in which to achieve fertilisation to ensure the continuation of its species and the organisms that feed on it? I certainly didn’t until I took up my residency.
Scientists and poets, of a certain kind, evolve their respective ways of naming the constantly-changing world in ways that are both attentive and provisional. When they do this effectively, they make the world strange again, something we can’t take for granted. So, to borrow W. C. Williams ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ for a moment, so much depends on the language that names hidden organisms that in turn sustain life as we know it on this planet. These revelatory names are dense with material implications: I don’t think you can detach the idea of poetry from the complex systems that allow us to exist as a species. If you like, we need to see the organism and ecosystem as a poem we’re always learning to read.
Harriet: In your course description, you position the ‘midden’ as ‘memory and warning’, and there’s a sharp sense of the monitory about many poems in Landfill – ‘Above 8’, for instance, where we’re told that ‘If the sea’s pH drops below eight the love songs / of worms over millions of years are silenced’. Do you see it as a poet’s responsibility to remember, and to warn?
John: Sometimes, yes. In relation to the various impacts of global warning, I think we do have an obligation. But our job is to disrupt, make strange and draw attention to the hidden impact of global warming so that readers are encouraged to re-evaluate their way of thinking about the world, and perhaps their behaviour. Although I am pessimistic about our ability to change. For this change to happen, the reader must discover the warnings for themselves. Preaching will do no good. However, sometimes guidance is needed. There’s a fine balance to be achieved between the simple statement you quote and the more complex field of evidence that this long sequence about ocean acidification and our fossil-fuel dependency presents.
The principle must always be that the reader discovers ideas themselves through the action of the poem. It’s a tricky balance, but when I found out about those aquatic worms I felt they needed to go in. So in answer to your question, yes, we should be involved in remembering and warning, in recovering and revealing, but we need to do so in a way that makes the reader’s act of discovering the impetus for action.
Harriet: ‘I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art’, wrote Philip Larkin. Do you see preservation as the business of poetry?
John: No, for me it’s about remaking, about finding new ways to approach and reconfigure the irrecoverable moment. I don’t want to preserve things but to make a place in which people might find new things or see old things they’ve lost in a new way. In that sense, the dump is a good image for this. I’m not sure how seriously we should take this sweeping simplification from Larkin: its sometimes useful in thinking about his work, but it feels ultimately reductive, particularly so when we remember how much he loved jazz.
Harriet: You’ve been involved in a number of cross-disciplinary projects: working with sound artist Rob MacKay, for instance. Could you tell us something about what it’s like to collaborate across disciplines?
John: Collaboration offers the privilege of accelerated induction into a subject or way of making that can surprise you into new directions.
For me, it’s a holiday from my usual preoccupations. In a genuine collaboration, it’s a sort of dance in which the lead keeps changing until you’re not sure who is running the show and don’t care. Sometimes it can just be about finding someone to play with. Someone prepared to mess about until something catches, until some rhythm enters the work and you know you’re on track. Rob, who I’ve worked with before, has a tendency to perform the landscape he’s recording — he’ll listen to a stream or wave and try to get it in his mouth. In unguarded moments (moments that all collaborations need) he’ll babble it to himself as a way of understanding the thing he’s recording. I love that, and it makes me laugh. But it also reminds me of something fundamental. We want to take the world into ourselves in all its strangeness. Children do this all the time as they play. It’s about wanting to become something other through acts of vocalisation. And this reminds me that poetry can grow out of that desire to perform a place or emotion, to try to become it, to collaborate with it, and in failing to become it, find a compensatory shape of meaning in a form of language that embodies that desire.
Harriet: What can we expect from your new poetry project, Blowhole?
John: I think it’s going to explore the relationship between natural ‘musical’ landscape formations like blowholes, and the human voice, sound production in other organisms, and wind-activated instruments.
Bringing these non-human and human elements together in a poetic sequence will hopefully allow for a meditation on voice, presence and performance. It’ll also position the human voice within the context of other species’ systems of communication, weaving it into the non-speaking ecosystems upon which the voice depends, which it can illuminate or obscure.
There’s an autobiographical element too. I was brought up in St. Ives, Cornwall, as a Methodist, and with a worldview that had a distinctly Transcendentalist quality. I remember being told by a lay preacher that no artist could equal the beauty of a birds nest. God’s creation was the ultimate work of art. So I was always on the lookout, until the age of ten or so, for signs and wonders in the landscape that might contain messages. While the immanent presences may have faded from the world, I still feel the kind of wonder George Oppen described as ‘the pure joy of the mineral fact’ when I tune my words and perception to the world as it occurs.
I’m hoping to collaborate with scientists working in the fields of animal communication, the human voice and eco-acoustics. The rhythmic sound of the blowhole I found last summer at Kynance Cove made me think of the bellows of organs and harmoniums. It made me think of chapel choirs and the tradition of Cornish carols and Wesley’s hymns —influences I’d like to return to, but not as religious praise. I’m toying with the idea of composing contemporary hymns to aquatic organisms and un-human sonic effects found around West Cornwall, but we’ll see. Maybe this is all just so much forced air.