Friday, 5 June 2009

In Conversation with Anne Caldwell

The latest in my terribly informal series of conversations (Melvyn Bragg really need not worry) is with Anne Caldwell, author of Slug Language, a pamphlet published by Happenstance Press.

Sarah: I found Slug Language a wonderfully quiet book about our interaction with the natural world, recurring images of water, valleys and wind reinforced our smallness in the face of these elements. I was curious, therefore, as to the choice of the title poem, when it is one of the few in which the human presence is magnified. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking?

Anne: I thought a lot about the title and it went through several changes. In the end, I think the unusual combination of 'slug' and 'language', and the fact that the poem is about the nature of writing and sex swung it for me. I think writing does not come from the head, but somewhere lower - not even the heart! I did not want a 'lady poet' flowerery title if you know what I mean.

Sarah: I'm going to be awkward here, Anne, and say, no, I don't know exactly what you mean! Could you expand a little on this?

Anne: I had thought about calling the collection 'Longing is Opened By the Wind - which is one of the other poems in the collection, but response from other reader was that it sounded a bit like a 'lady poet' flowery title - i.e A little bit whimsical for a collection.

Sarah: There are a few poems in the collection that rework archetypal and traditional folk/fairy tales. What has been the significance of these to your poetry writing over the years?

Anne: Many writers plunder this heritage in their work, and I hope I have my own take on this material. I find myths fascinating, but have not related particularly to classical Greek stories. Folk and fairy tales are more subversive and lodge deep within us, so to use them as a basis for writing seems very fruitful to me. I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. As a feminist, I also like the idea of taking a fairy tale and twisting it, or looking at it from a different perspective. This is an obvious strand in a lot of women's writing, but for me I think I am attracted to making the idea of a story very visceral, very rooted in the physical world and the experience of our bodies. I also love the thread of violence that sits at the base of many fairy tales - Cinderella's sisters chopping their toes off to fit the slipper, or the wolf being slit open in Red Riding Hood. I think this thread speaks to us about our nightmares and fears and how they can hover just on the edge of everyday life.

Sarah: How much do you feel poetry 'hovers on the edge of everyday life'? I'm wondering about a crossover here.

Anne: I am not sure that I completely understand what you are asking me here, Sarah, but I do think that poetry is found on the edge of ordinary life, often just out of range, or just under our everyday perception. Fairy tales do this as well I think -opening doors to danger, scare, love, fear etc. Areas of life that we do our best to avoid most of the time. I am also a great believer in making 'every day things extraordinary', like many other poets who write today. I don't think there is any such thing as an original idea, but I do think every writer can have an original take on the familiar. Larkin does this very well in my opinion.

Sarah: As a writer and lover of the natural world, myself, I'm interested in your views on the importance and status of 'eco'poetry in these days of increasing changes of our environment. What do you feel about this as a genre and where do you place your own work in this context?

Anne: It is another area that fascinates me, Sarah. Although I do not like labels. Poets have always written in response to the natural world, but because that world is now in crisis this new label seems to have emerged. I have been reading a lot of non-fiction this year, such as work by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane and this has inspired me to think through my own response to this subject matter - in prose and in poetry. I think such writing needs to explore 'eco' issues, but not head on. A lateral approach seems to give writing more of an imaginative rather than didactic feel to the work and more room/space to breathe. There is a lovely poem by Jean Sprackland in the poetry book, 'Feeling the Pressure' (edited by Paul Munden) that explores the inside of a greenhouse but also gets you thinking about greenhouse gases. In the Bloodaxe anthology - 'Earth Shattering' I really responded to John Burnside's poem 'Swimming in the Flood'. (There seems to be a lot of flooding in my own work because I live in an area prone to this threat!). I think if the label 'Eco' brings in a newer, younger audience to poetry then it will serve a good purpose. If it limits what people can write about in relation to the natural world then it will not be so helpful. My son is suffering from 'Eco' fatigue at the moment because it is over done as a theme at school.

Sarah: How do you think we can avoid such fatigue in poetry?

Anne: I think it is very difficult, but avoiding being didactic, or preaching can help. Illuminating the natural world and giving people a way to connect with it can also help. I know poets have been doing that for centuries but I think the need is now more urgent. I was listening to the radio today about an environmentalist/sculptor called Sebastian Brockley who is creating a memorial to extinct species in a circular sculpture on the isle of Portland - what a fantastic idea to also write about!

Sarah: Thank you, Anne, for taking the time to answer my questions and in giving leads to more writers to make connections with. There's a review here for Slug Language

FX applause

1 comment:

The Bookaholic said...

Interesting interview...thank you for the kind words on our blog!