Sam Buchan-Watts’s Path Through Wood, published in October 2021, begins where you would think: in a coppice, where branches tick and greenery fidgets. My own debut collection, Rotten Days in Late Summer was published the same year. This is an ‘in-conversation’ between the two of us, about our poems, their overlaps and intersections. Both are books about adolescent hallucinations, about love, loss and desire, about getting lost in woods and trolleyed in fields. They are about seeing lawlessness in the landscape, and a subsequent indoctrination into the ‘laws’ of manhood.
The phrase ‘warped pastoral’, coined by Sam, describes the poems’ often shared mise-en-scène. It becomes a funhouse mirror reflecting and distorting the state of boyishness in both collections. As a half-wild, half-built environment, the warped pastoral also gives cover for – even cultivates – ‘boyishness’. And boyishness is figured in the poems as an interstitial state, not of innocence, but of flux, fluidity, play and possibility, briefly glimpsed in a glade through smoke-haze and thick foliage, just before the trees are all cut down.
This conversation took place last winter, in that period of the pandemic when time was becoming unstuck yet remained globulous and sludge-like. Appropriately, it unfolded at a slow pace, via email, over a period of months. Exchanges of this kind are less like conversations and more like experiments in collaborative criticism. It’s an odd genre. Each interlocutor has the privilege (or curse) of being able to self-edit as they go. The questions and answers are therefore more articulated than they would be in real-time conversation. At least, one has more time to formulate and consider a question and response.
The slowness of such an exchange also underscores the possibility of attending to your interlocutor to the fullest, if staggered, extent, and to actually listen to your own responses and reflections as they occur and shift. It’s not reactionary or quick-fire. As such, it reflects something that we discuss about the poet-reader relationship: principles of consideration, care and carefulness within the context of lyric poetry.
For me, central to our exchange was the joint admission of poetry’s ‘not-knowing’: the essential difficulty of determining what poetry is and how it can happen: a riddle with no answer, a mystery with no revelation, a deep walk into the woods.