Thoughts among the noise: talking poetry with Rachel Stirling

Earlier this year I talked with writer and reviewer Rachel Stirling about the writing and reading of poetry. The conversation appeared on Rachel’s blog in June, so I’m reposting here now on mine.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Rachel Stirling can be found online at http://stirlingwriter.com/

Follow Rachel on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Stirlingwriter

My poetry blog is online here.

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
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Sex, money and morality: Thomas Middleton’s A Trick To Catch The Old One

Trick posterFew people would disagree that Shakespeare’s shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning to stage Middleton’s rarely performed 1608 comedy A Trick To Catch The Old One at the Rose Theatre this May.

Jenny kindly agreed to take time out from rehearsals to discuss the play, the production and Middleton’s reputation generally.

For those who don’t know about Mercurius, could you give me some background to the company and its aims?
After 20 years as a director, being given plays to direct, I had a list of my own choice of plays I wanted to direct and the only solution seemed to be to start my own company. So I set up Mercurius in 2012, launching the company with a collection of Chekhov’s Vaudeville sketches translated and adapted by Michael Frayn at the Brockley Jack. This was successful enough for us to transfer it to Jermyn Street Theatre in 2013 and return there with it, as a co-production with Jermyn Street, in January 2014. In between Mercurius also produced Moliere’s School for Wives in a great modern version by Neil Bartlett at The White Bear in 2013 which received two Offie (Off West End Award) nominations for Best Director for myself and Best Actor for the lead Tom Barratt. A Trick to Catch the Old One is the fifth outing for Mercurius and our first time at The Rose Playhouse which is a fascinating venue, being performed in and amongst the foundations of the 1587 Philip Henslowe playhouse.

What attracted you to A Trick To Catch The Old One?
I specialised in Renaissance Theatre at university and did my thesis on Thomas Middleton so I’ve always been fascinated by his very modern, satirical take on life and his vibrant language. I particularly like his city comedies and edited A Trick to Catch the Old One some years ago for the National Theatre Studio, workshopping it for an in-house performance with some of the National Theatre company which was a great experience and made me determined to direct a fully staged version one day. It’s taken a while but I was delighted to revisit the play and my edited version.

Can you tell me something about the production?
I have made some pretty drastic cuts to the text. Partly to reduce the size of the company and cut down on potentially confusing doubling and partly to reduce the length of the play, this version runs at 1 hour 25 minutes without an interval. The cuts have removed the subplot involving Dampit and Gulf (which is a shame as the play shows arguably the first alcoholic on stage) and the peripheral characters of Lucre’s wife and Hoard’s niece’s suitors and the battle to net her. In cutting it the play does lose a little of its texture but it focuses much more clearly on the wild central plot to pass the Courtesan off as a rich widow as it spins out of Witgood’s control. I’ve updated the play to the modern age but placed it in the late 1940s during the days of rationing and desperate black market dealings to bring out the power of money and the gullibility of those who pursue it running through society in an age when so many were in a desperate scramble to survive and prosper.

What attracted you to the space at The Rose?
There are some very interesting performance spaces in London but The Rose really does hold a trump card. I like the simplicity of the wooden three sided stage that means the production has to be plainly staged, allowing the power of the story and the experiences of the characters to be the central focus. I also like the intense atmosphere of the dark underground flooded ruins, it feels unlike any other stage space. But above everything is the very moving sense of creating something amongst the foundations of Philip Henslowe’s 1587 playhouse. It is hard not to feel the baton being passed down the generations of theatre when you see something at The Rose on the very site where so many of our greatest plays were first performed.

Middleton seems to be slowly receiving his due as a writer for the stage. What do you think is distinctive about his work?
I liked Middleton from when I first came across him for his very modern attitude to life and human relationships. He uses very direct language with little poetry and few similes. His city comedies in particular really do hold a clear mirror up to the everyday audience of his, and our, time. Alongside Jonson he presented vice and immorality on stage in order to comment on what was happening in society, but unlike Jonson’s more obvious use of grotesques he pursues a much more naturalistic, ironic tone. He never applauds immorality but neither does he roundly condemn it, in Women Beware Women Leantio explains his behaviour by claiming “though sin be death, I had died if I had not sinned”. Middleton seems to understand the difficulties and complications of life.

What challenges have you found in staging A Trick To Catch The Old One?
The joy of a Middleton play is how clear the language is, how naturalistic and believable the characters are and how modern the dilemmas that fox them so the challenges in staging it are no more difficult than with a modern play. The only real challenge is making sure we tell the story clearly enough so the audience can follow the twists and turns of the various fiendish plots.

Why do you think Middleton – and A Trick… in particular – has been neglected for so long?
Middleton was viewed suspiciously for many years because of his down-to-earth, direct approach to the way people live their lives. His serious plays were neglected because they had no grand sweeping sense of tragedy and the profound importance of what was happening to the characters. The Revenger’s Tragedy had its first production in centuries as late as 1966 because it was seen as too farcical to be taken seriously. But this is precisely why I like Middleton, he is almost Chekhovian in his acknowledgement of how ridiculous life can be and how something tragic to the person involved can seem unimportant farce to an onlooker. His comedies suffer similarly in not carrying a message about how we should judge the characters but simply presents them and their lives as normal.

For those who don’t know the play, what have they been missing?
Firstly the play is very funny. The plot is incredibly inventive and subverts lots of our expectations of how people will behave and what will be the outcome. It is satirical and ironic but contains at its heart a real warmth towards its characters, they’re conning each other viciously but in the end they are family and neighbours; however outrageously the characters behave it is hard to end up hating any of them.

The play is – very broadly – about the scrabble for status and financial security in a dog-eat-dog world of debt and deceit. Everyone is complicit; no-one is innocent. The Victorians, in particular, thought the play amoral. Is that your take on it too?
Middleton was seen as very immoral for a long time because he didn’t write messages of moral indignation into his plays and openly condemns no-one, he has no righteous characters who act as spokesmen for morality. His characters are realistic and drawn from the world the audience would know well, there are none of the stock comic characters of the time, the stage-usurer or greedy father/uncle are shown as real people here. At the end of the play bad behaviour goes unpunished and the revealing of foolishness is merely accidental, not done in order to bring anyone to a realisation of their folly. It would be easy to see this as Middleton embracing immorality and celebrating greed however his ironic detachment and dispassionate presentation of vice allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The very realism of the characters brings home to the audience the acceptance of vice as normal and leads to powerful satire, arguably a more successful way of conveying a message than open indignation.

How difficult are the play’s sexual politics for contemporary audiences?
The women are seen as commodities to be chased for financial gain in the play, which could be uncomfortable if they weren’t very strong characters in their own right. The Courtesan revels in the power her supposed wealth gives her over her suitors and is as much, if not more, in control of the wild plots to get Witgood’s money and land back, she is in places the one driving Witgood on. Even Hoard’s Niece, chased by so many of the characters as a golden prize, sees a chance to use Hoard’s feast as her wedding dinner and seizes it to save money. The women use the only possession they have, their availability for marriage and sex, to give them real control over their destiny. Each of the characters use all means at their disposal to prosper, and at the end the women and men in the various marriages seem like well matched equals.

What are your ambitions for Mercurius?
At the moment I’m just really enjoying the chance to direct those plays on my list that have built up. In the near future I’m hoping to revive the production of School for Wives, possibly at Jermyn Street Theatre, and direct another Middleton City comedy. In the longer term I’d like to be able to get proper funding for Mercurius, either through subsidy or private sponsorship, to be able to extend our creative vision and be more artistically adventurous, something that needs a bigger budget than we have at present!

A Trick To Catch The Old One runs at the Rose Playhouse from 6th to 24th May. Please click here for more information and to book tickets.