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Interview with Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald is a British poet who lives in Devon with her family. Newspaper profiles will inevitably mention the fact that after studying classics at Oxford she worked as a gardener. In fairness, her time working as a gardener was hugely important to her poetic development.

 

Oswald speaks passionately about her engagement with the land, hard work, plants and natural rhythms, but takes issue with labels such as ‘nature poet’. From her first collection of poems (The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile, Faber, 1996) to her most recent (Memorial, Faber, 2011) Oswald has been acclaimed, won prizes and consistently sounded unlike anyone else. She has written multi-voice poems of British rivers (Dart and Sleepwalk on the Severn) weaving oral history, drama and social documentary. She has written quiet, tender but unsentimental poems about parenthood and love. She has written bracingly violent poems about war and death. Oswald has worked on anthologies including selections of Thomas Wyatt and Ted Hughes. She has collaborated with artists, musicians and playwrights and increasingly works away from the conventions of the printed book.

 

Alice Oswald seems genuinely uninterested in celebrity poet status, whilst grateful for the support that prizes offer, and has been unafraid to distance herself from causes or trends she finds disquieting. Her ninety-minute long recitals of Memorial received standing ovations. Rather than being tempted to exploit or over-extend the acclaim those performances generated, Oswald is keen to be back at work on various new projects. The defining characteristic of her poetry, as well as her conversation, is honesty.

 

Q

The White Review

— It’s a slightly preposterous first question, or only question, but as a reader and re-reader of your poems over the years I wanted to ask very straightforwardly what you are doing?

A

Alice Oswald

— Now? Or Generally?

Q

The White Review

— Both, but let’s start with now. In relation to the ‘dry stone walling with words’ of your early work, or the ‘aiming for translucence’ in your devastating recent Iliad poem Memorial.

A

Alice Oswald

— I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. I had a certain amount of post-traumatic stress after Memorial. It was a haunting thing to do. But in the autumn, I started re-reading the Odyssey, and I can’t help beginning to think how one might translate it. Something very different from Memorial, certainly.

Q

The White Review

— Irreverent?

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes. Exploring. A kind of ballad version, totally disloyal to the text. Because it’s so much a poem about the sea, I’m interested in its dislocated way of working. I’m intrigued by American poetry at the moment, and somehow (and I can’t do it, so I’m fascinated) they manage to fit thinking into poetry. For me poetry is about making a whole thing that has a life of its own, and then it gets moving outside of itself. But the Americans have this extraordinary capacity to think within a poem, to channel the essay. I really want to find out how to do that.

Q

The White Review

— Could you name some American poets who typify that thinking in the line? I read an interview with a young poet recently who talked about her ‘permission givers’. Who are the permission givers in this context?

A

Alice Oswald

— Ashbery always sounds as if he’s thinking, even when you can’t quite get at the thoughts. Jorie Graham uses those expanding and compressing lines, which defeat the eyes and jumble the body’s rhythms so that your mind sort of breaks open. Dickinson actually exposes the pauses in the brain. They all seem to articulate indecision, as if the poem was writing itself in an unfinished moment. I find that quite invigorating.

 

Poetry has this close relationship with tradition, so it’s interesting that the English language has two poetries, one of which (the American) is determined to escape its tradition. It’s like an open window in the work-room. Whenever I sit down to write, I have to think through certain questions about form – am I or am I not going to write a sonnet? If I don’t count syllables how do I communicate a tune? If I rhyme, whose voice am I putting on? And sometimes the whiff of America through the window gives me permission to ignore those questions. And then sometimes that permission can become a tyranny. Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara for example are quite pressurising and impatient with their invitations to freedom.

Q

The White Review

— Is British poetry, by comparison, stripped, or less idea-heavy?

A

Alice Oswald

— It’s impossible to generalise, and of course there are very many brilliant people writing poems, but if one is allowed to make ignorant un-backed-up statements…

Q

The White Review

— Please!

A

Alice Oswald

— British poets might put thoughts into their poems, but they pour them in as if the poem is a container and the thought drops in. Something about the American line just incorporates thinking.

Q

The White Review

— Particularly the new school of American poets you might class as Ashberian, are all busy, busy in the line thinking and over-thinking, frenetic, and it’s often labelled or received as a kind of nerd-lit, but it’s unavoidably Whitman’s lineage isn’t it?

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes. It’s odd because I’ve sort of set myself up against that because I’m so in love with what Homer does. He just transmits life. No mediation. He describes a leaf and you don’t get a description of a leaf, you get a proper leaf. That’s always been my principle. You’ve got to make something living, and thinking isn’t living.

Q

The White Review

— But that’s kind of wishful thinking too, isn’t it? Because when Homer’s leaf gets to you it is so heavily annotated by the text’s journey, so the question is can you reinstate the journey into the leaf without losing the pure poetry of describing the leaf?

A

Alice Oswald

— That’s a lovely way of putting it, but I feel that with Homer, and I don’t feel it with any other poet (beyond flashes of it in, say, Hughes, or Clare or folk poetry), it really does feel as if something – and it’s a lazy word, but – magical has happened. Beyond cleverness, beyond annotation.

Q

The White Review

— Alchemical.

A

Alice Oswald

— I think it is. Of course you can theorise, or deconstruct, or show how it has passed through the ages, but there is some bizarre vital force that takes you by surprise.

Q

The White Review

— Your poems have it.

A

Alice Oswald

— Well, thanks, but they may lose it now that I’m pondering the American line!

Q

The White Review

— Do you interrogate the links between you and these others? I have felt that it isn’t quite good enough to recognise a connection; the links are only fruitful if they’re picked apart and listened to. So, Hughes. If I think of Hughes, which I do probably daily, the imagery is dry-hand physicality, violence, crushing, shaping, but it’s basically penetrative, an act of aggression surface to surface… Do you have a shaman thing?

A

Alice Oswald

— I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. I’m fascinated by it.

Q

The White Review

— But he was very presumptuous.

A

Alice Oswald

— He was allowed to be. He’d earned it.

Q

The White Review

— It was beautifully unfashionable, wasn’t it? The horoscopes and the ancient symbols. These days, certainly, we would really punish a poet for those opinions. I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways outside.

A

Alice Oswald

— Absolutely.

Q

The White Review

— Well, can I ask you that? What do you think we allow poets to be?

A

Alice Oswald

— We allow them to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold. I mean you get told you’re a nature poet, so you really have to behave like one. You must be sitting under that tree looking wistful…

 

I have quite a problem with the nature poet label, mostly because it might become a name I could wear comfortably and never have to face the confusions that spring up between poems. I’m not a nature poet, but I admit, I do love the company of plants. They are so expressive and patient. There’s an estuary walk which I do almost every day at different times according to the tide (sometimes I have to do it at night), which gives me a very intimate idea of the lives of plants. I can watch every movement of the gesture of a leaf uncurling through a week. I’m addicted to this slow performance. It reminds me that the human perspective is partial. So in that sense, nature poetry is just another kind of metaphysical poetry and is exactly what I like. But I think the best nature poets are Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture. How can you categorise that?

Q

The White Review

— Can we talk about Memorial? I saw you recite the whole poem in Edinburgh, and – as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing – it was a shattering physical and emotional experience, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Certainly it was a million miles from a poetry reading. I was frightened by it.

A

Alice Oswald

— Well, it still terrifies me. It’s very horrible to do. Before I do it I have this feeling of pressure. This line of soldiers queuing up that has to move through my head. I have every muscle tensed. It’s a disaster if I think of other things. I have grids in my head; the tapping of my foot, my clenched hand, they are making visual grids. It’s a safe prison that I have to keep myself in. I actually think of squares of rhythm. In a sense I take no responsibility for what happens in a performance of Memorial. It is shocking because the Iliad is shocking because it is real.

Q

The White Review

— So it’s not like acting?

A

Alice Oswald

— I’m very interested in acting, in the discipline, but I am not acting the poem, because I don’t have a protective mechanism, it is just passing through me.

Q

The White Review

— Do you know Marina Abramović’s work? Editor’s Note: TWR describes The Artist is Present (2010), Rhythm 0 (1974) and Imponderabilia (with Ulay, 1974).]

A

Alice Oswald

— That’s amazing. I love that. That’s something I’m more and more interested in. There’s so much talk of digital this and digital that but there is still nothing like the physical fact of a human offering you something.

Q

The White Review

— And the urgency of the encounter is growing and growing the further we engage with certain forms electronically?

A

Alice Oswald

— It does still work, the human. If you scratch away at modernity it’s only about a centimetre thick. There is something extraordinarily alive and ancient that people recognise when a human is there.

Q

The White Review

— We are desperate to be moved, deeper than language.

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes, it hasn’t been forgotten, or if it has, then poetry can quickly wake it up again. The rhythms of poems travel instantly into that pre-literate part of the mind. I originally took to reading my poems out loud because I found people didn’t read the tunes properly on the page. A tune (to me) is a tension – its ending is stretched from its beginning and you can’t cut it without losing that tension. But I’ve heard people reading poems slackly like loose rubber bands and that’s one of the reasons I almost can’t bear to put poems in books any more. But this is quite different from being an oral poet in the Homeric sense. The Iliad for example was composed in performance, not just performed orally with a text in the background. That’s not something I could ever do but in fact I’m happy to be a hybrid, somewhere between the two traditions.

Q

The White Review

— Will you keep performing Memorial? There are great risks, presumably, to you and the poem?

A

Alice Oswald

— It’s tricky. I’m trying to say no. The poem needs to present itself as a voice, but I don’t want to do it too often.

Q

The White Review

— It’s a trauma. You’ve described it as such. If a trauma becomes a performance piece, worst case scenario a party trick, the emotional function is damaged.

A

Alice Oswald

— I quite agree.

Q

The White Review

— On that note, can you give me any clues as to how and why and in what fashion you arrive back at Odysseus? Would you make it modern, as Memorial is iconographically modern?

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes, oh yes. More so. I’m in mosaic mode now, translating, inventing. If I do tackle the Odyssey, it’ll be much lighter and crazier than Memorial, I think. It’ll infuriate classicists. After all, it is the most amazing love poem. When Odysseus comes back and Penelope doesn’t know who he is and despite herself starts falling in love, with a beggar, with her own husband, not knowing it’s him. It’s just extraordinary.

Q

The White Review

— And the ripple-like disturbance of his arrival back. It is chemical, like a raisin fizzing wildly in coke, or whatever the kitchen experiment is. And I don’t want you to give too much away, but would there be gods in it?

A

Alice Oswald

— I’ve always been in love with Athene. I once had a wonderful dream that I was in a train and Athene was running along, keeping up with me. I love her beautiful non-relationship with Odysseus.

Q

The White Review

— The gamesmanship of testing, and forgiving, when they’re not even lovers, is extraordinary. Would you speak a bit about collaboration?

A

Alice Oswald

— Of course. It’s always been my feeling that one mind isn’t enough for a poem. I like to talk about ideas with people. And I really do regard my poems as not my own. That’s not just a false modesty. They come from working with other people. I’ve worked with gardeners. I’ve worked with a trumpeter. He taught me a lot about the gaps in poems and what they are doing. I like that tension between silence and music, or words. And the person I most collaborate with is a typographer who lives near here, called Kevin Mount. He’s a really interesting person, a hidden genius. He’s brilliant at understanding how a poem wants to be set on a page.

 

I feel a poem needs not to assume it will be read. It has to have the energy to create its own necessity. Poems shouldn’t operate within an expectation of poems being passed around. So I get very stuck on the question: why should a poem begin? Why should anything ever start speaking when silence is always more appropriate? This makes me suspicious of the impulse to write themed collections, because I think they dishonestly do away with the struggle against silence. A themed collection can just go on and on saying ‘and one more thing, and one more thing…’ (I’ve written them often enough myself so I know the temptations). What I want to do now is to find a way to raise the status of the single poem – the poem on the tube for example or the poem scribbled on a slip of paper, the poem without any context except itself. I remember at school being given ‘Go, lovely rose’ by Edmund Waller – it was just photocopied on a sheet of A4 and seemed to have floated to me on its own from the seventeenth century. I was really impressed by the strength of the poem’s pattern, which meant that it didn’t need to be in a book or a century, it just supported itself. Of course an oral poem, the Odyssey for example, doesn’t even have the A4 paper, it only has the breath. That would really make the poet concentrate. I’m interested in how one might restore that kind of pressure to a modern poet – take away all the props and categories and let the poems fend for themselves. I think we’d all write much better under those conditions…

Q

The White Review

— Yes. I feel, knowing that we share opinions on it, that we ought naturally to arrive at Crow, now.

A

Alice Oswald

Crow. It’s probably one of my favourite books, ever.

Q

The White Review

— I’m dangerously obsessed with it. I’m always fiddling about with Crow ideas. Crow analysing Ted, attacking Eliot, waging weird wars on poetry, vandalising the text, the twentieth century, myth. Crow being naughty.

A

Alice Oswald

— He’s a scrounger. It’s the most extraordinary… I don’t even know if it’s a poem really. It’s an odd thing. And it was odd for him, it stopped very suddenly.

Q

The White Review

— He says, ‘That’s what I tried to do,’ always speaking of it as unresolved and unfinished.

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes, and I love the fact that it is so enigmatically fragmentary. Broken off. That’s all you have and it makes people so angry! I remember doing a talk about Ted Hughes and all the questions were ‘How can you like Crow?’ It’s not considered very cultivated. Not to be passed round a drawing room.

Q

The White Review

— I heard a very famous poet call it an embarrassment, a disaster, and dated! It’s the least dated, I think, of his writings. For me it’s a staggering act of generosity and danger and starting again.

A

Alice Oswald

— Yes. And he says that, he says the thing about if you burnt down the library, the language that would be left. I love that. The courage of that.

Q

The White Review

— When everything is in tatters, burnt, spoilt. Civilization, family, personhood in ruins, there’s a beautiful dark, clever animal picking through the ruins finding things that shine.

A

Alice Oswald

— And have you seen that photograph of him, with Peter Brook in Persepolis or somewhere? He looks just like a crow. It’s really odd.

Q

The White Review

— Yes. For me at least the full possibility of the lesson is there, between Crow and River. I could lie down between those two collections forever. I root myself there as a reader. Perhaps as an English person too. In rage as much as peace.
A

Alice Oswald

— He provides both. For me it’s the aliveness. The lines, when they are beautiful are so beautiful. Untouchable. And when they are ugly, Crow-lines, they are extraordinarily powerful. And this is what I find in the Iliad and the Odyssey, too. Extremes I hover between where something alive has been created, beyond literature.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


 Max Porter is a senior editor at Granta Books and Portobello Books.




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