Saturday, 20 February 2010

In Conversation with Chris Kinsey

Another in my infrequent series of conversations.

This time with the poet, Chris Kinsey, whose second collection, Cure for a Crooked Smile, touched my doggy heart.

SH There's a shift from the urban poems of Kung Fu Lullabies to the natural world of Cure for a Crooked Smile. How would you describe your development from the first to second collection?

CK Your identification of a shift is very apparent in the selection for Cure for a Crooked Smile, but, in effect, it’s accidental. I’m still mining both lodes. I’m very engaged with people in my small home town and also very concerned with the natural world. By the time I got up the nerve to send out to publishers I had an overwhelming number of poems to sift through.

One afternoon when I was staying with the poet Christine Evans on Bardsey Island, she said, “Spread your poems out on the kitchen table and just start grouping and selecting.” Her table stopped me from dithering. (Her fisherman husband and son wouldn’t have been impressed by a trawl of undifferentiated poems for supper.) I decided to split the spiky people poems from those more concerned with the natural world. Andy Croft at Smokestack Books has accepted the former under the forthcoming title, Swarf, and his main note with the acceptance, was that there are, “far too many poems”.

I’m not the best at working out development or performance indicators and cannot proceed very well by increments or goals. I compose more from sense impressions and feelings than intellect or theory. I like Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as, “A fresh look and a fresh listen.”

Every poem is a fresh start too, and sets its own challenge; I rise to that as best as I can. When selecting for a collection, I look for both connections and contrasts – I dislike monotony.

SH The poem, Blue Skies Thinking shows how you play humour and fantasy against the sharply realised details of the physical world. "I love a good hoar" is a fabulous first line to a visceral poem. How do you approach nature in actuality and in writing about it?

CK My default setting is to go out and spend time in some not very cultivated place; usually a riverbank, often a wood, or a beach, mountain or bog. As soon as I could walk I was off, out of our street and up-river, squishing about in rushes and silt or slithering on stones. I’ve never grown out of it. As a student at Bretton Hall, now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I walked round the lake every day. For the last 25 years I’ve walked dogs beside the Severn. I don’t have any designs on nature. I don’t go with lenses, checklists, or special kit other than good waterproofs. I’m delighted by what presents itself, especially birds and creatures. I like to experience all weathers apart from sultry heat and notice seasonal changes: migrations, flowerings, fruitions.

Writing about what I’ve seen, heard, felt and smelled is as ‘natural’ or habitual as cleaning my teeth. I think it was one of my mum’s regrets that, even when I was as young as two, she wasn’t usually well enough to come with me. She expected me to come back and recount my experiences and helped me to identify what I’d seen. At primary school I was only really good at finding things for the nature table and a fluky boxing jab. By the age of nine I was giving up on my original ambition to become a cowboy and telling people who really pressed the question that I wanted to be a naturalist.

In secondary school, I was excited by the Gerard Manley Hopkins poems I was given to read in assemblies, but the big ignition came from Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist – no one had ever described the sense of frogspawn so vividly. I borrowed more Heaney and then Ted Hughes from libraries.

Wordsworth was part of my A-level course and I was encouraged to read Dorothy Wordsworth too. I’ve kept journals ever since. My way in to any kind of writing is to start by describing the light and what I’ve seen on a walk or can see out of the window. These are useful for my bi-monthly Nature Diary which Cambria publishes.

SH As I read this collection it seems to me that there is much energy and vigour in your view of nature, with people seemingly secondary; I wonder how you feel about this response?

CK I’m still inspired by people. For the last two years I’ve worked part time in a Pupil Referral Unit and been moved to write about students and given their permission to publish, but those poems are lined up for Swarf. People are often in my thoughts when I’m out experiencing the natural world e.g. End-of-year-chorus and Nightshades, many poems carry dedications to friends. The title poem along with the others in the Appointments with Hades quartet is about some childhood horrors.

SH You clearly relish writing in free verse. What, do you think this offers your subject matter?

CK Existence – in a word. I’m usually chasing physical sensations, fleeting experiences and spontaneity. I love exact imagery and natural (well, if a little heightened) sounds and rhythms. As you noted, I love to play, but freestyle. I’m not very interested in patterns, decoration, puzzles or games with rules. Some people find strict forms fun, but I tend to react badly to any sense of captivity or artificiality. I loathe most villanelles because obsessive repetition hijacks meaning. I agree with Frank O’Hara, “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up!’”

SH The final poem, Recipe for a greyhound, contains the line "Make your mind a boundless park." I know you rescue greyhounds. Can you pinpoint their influence on your poetry?

CK They’re perfect accomplices, so alert and alive. They find the world intrinsically interesting and don’t expect me to indulge any obsessive compulsive tendencies like throwing balls or sticks. They hunt squirrels whilst I hunt images. They’ve taught me to watch movements and interpret later so I see many more small birds, particularly kingfishers, than I used to. I saw the tree creeper in 'The Morning After the Clocks go Back' because I followed the gaze of my bitch Tango. (She’s the one on the book cover.) When we’ve had the stimulation of an outing we like to lie around watching replays on the ‘dream drive’. Hounds are very peaceful companions – affectionate but not needy. I admire their grace and elegance and speed.

Oh yes. And an opportunity for one last picture.

Chris, Thank you.

If you're interested in either of Chris's books, you can find more information from Ragged Raven Press.

Or go and hear her read at the Chipping Campden Literature Festival, in May this year.

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