a photograph of a thin tree with bright light behind it in a forest

share


Warped Pastoral: Ralf Webb and Sam Buchan-Watts in Conversation

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.

 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— The country setting of your book is a real place, the West Country you grew up in, and also an imaginative landscape ravished by a mental health crisis – a kind of warped pastoral. In ‘Treetops’, the speaker walks a witchy lane whose canopies are gone. In Path Through Wood I wanted to put pressure on the coppice or wooded enclosure as poetry’s idealised space of ‘musing solitude’ (John Clare). It is an exposing space, but also a holding one. Its solitude is also, post-Anthropocene, not tenable – was it ever? – and, as Rotten Days in Late Summer evidences, not always desirable for one’s health. What pulls you back to it? 

A

Ralf Webb

— I love the phrase ‘warped pastoral’. The pastoral and its iconography – dewy meadows, gamboling lambs, etc – is so engrained in our culture, that growing up rurally (assuming you don’t grow up in a country manor, or something) the pastoral is constantly being warped by the reality (and mundanity, and brutality) of rural life: of work, of existing alongside and exploiting nonhuman animals, of social homogeneity… I’m drawn back to the ‘warped pastoral’ for the simple – or infinitely complicated – reason that it is ‘home’. It’s etched into me, and though I’ve left it temporarily, it will keep calling me back.

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— That sense of home in the poems is well achieved for its ambivalence. The rural landscape in your book is an aching, violent, indifferent place – chickens mysteriously drop dead, woods are planted solely for blood sports, a car rolls fatally without a ripple on the landscape, homophobia looms – and yet it is also a place where moments of otherness, specifically queerness, abound covertly, on cigarette breaks between gruelling work shifts, after school, before ‘night slopes in’. There’s the feeling that the country gives cover to those fragile pockets of time, and a particular state of being, what Carol Mavor describes as the ‘betwixt and between’ of boyishness.

A

Ralf Webb

— It gives cover, yes, but also it fuels those moments. What often ‘aches’ in that landscape is a tension between luxuriance and putrescence; flourishment and decay; and yes, life and death. What aches might be that process of transformation – perhaps including the transformation from boyishness to manhood. But the ‘wood’ is something specific… Trees are good company. I think woods ‘contain’ history in an idiosyncratic, perhaps uncanny way: a sort of living archive. As your pair of hallucinatory poems, ‘The Days Go Just Like That’, suggest, where, inside the woods, the ‘you’ of the poem stumbles upon ‘a medieval reenactment in medias res’. There’s that icky, gesticulatory image, too – ‘you may feel / like an arm retreating into an unwelcoming sleeve, / and realise that the woods cannot smother without an opening’. I love these poems so much – they’re poised between dream and realism, folk horror and the quotidian. It seems the woods, here, are an interstitial space?

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— Woodland amplifies a particular state of in-betweenness, and makes it trippy – given how historically and poetically charged it is with myth and significance, and how it tends to accommodate stoned teenagers, who may actually be tripping. Woods are one of the few places a child can experience solitude and feel truly wild or truly lost, which is a little bit like writing. Poetry, for me, has always been a way of fostering a holding or hiding space within language, a need I first – and most acutely – felt as a boy. ‘Trees are good company’, as you say. Living archives is just right: woods archive past affects, states, selves. They etch onto us as we etch onto them. They are also threatening: unlawful burials happen in them. Those two poems you mention, and others in the opening of Path Through Wood, try to account for what happens at the threshold of a wooded enclosure: what kind of membrane is being crossed, in the interior of the wood, and the interior of the self? How does that passage change us?

A

Ralf Webb

— Poetry-as-woods, that could be a philosophy (!) – even including the unlawful burials. Without turning this into a therapy session: why did you feel that need for a hiding space, for solitude, acutely as a child? 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— The simple answer is from men, both in the home and more generally. Boyhood and boyishness are pretty doomed, with masculinity on the horizon. Language was a way of hiding the qualities of boyishness – the playfulness and nonsense, the strange dynamic with the mother, the yet-to-be-determined category of sexuality – that are as fragile as the natural objects and ephemera that boys (even grown-up ones like Joseph Cornell) tend to collect. When I think of the desire now to write poetry, it echoes something about that time: not so much an awakening into literature – I didn’t read all that much till I was an adult – but into language. Path Through Wood attempts to listen to boys whose playing – as in the case of internet activists Aaron Swartz and Lauri Love – makes extraordinary things possible, but also makes them vulnerable. 

 

I later found theoretical accounts that helped clarify the distinctiveness of that experience and its correspondence with poetry, like D. W. Winnicott’s ‘it is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found’, or J. H. Prynne’s persuasive and playful alignment of writing poetry and the figure of the child’s imaginary.

 

On the topic of hiding, I’ve rarely seen anxiety and depression so well articulated in their horrible banality as in your poem ‘Cultural Studies’, which has a kind of talismanic quality in its coupling of vulnerability and control: something to keep close to one’s chest in difficult times. Could you talk a little about the status of care in your writing?

A

Ralf Webb

— There are certain poems where the reader’s experience has been at the forefront of my mind – ‘You Can’t Trust Violence’, for example, which is about the cyclic nature of male violence, male homophobia and misogyny. That poem speaks from the point of view of a young man, who, living under the ever-present threat of violence – and possibly made uneasy by his own conflicted desires – imagines inflicting an act of homophobic violence himself; which he believes would satisfy, or reassure, his father, and a whole line of imaginary ‘fathers’. The language in this poem is particularly visceral, and more than any other poem in the collection I needed to very carefully consider the reader. Usually, however, care isn’t on my mind so much, when writing – maybe that makes me a careless writer. Or perhaps I’m unsure to what extent one can be conscious about the status of care. When writing about potentially more distressing subjects – depression and self-harm, for instance – I hope that the desire to communicate around those things carries with it an implicit care; maybe communication, or communion, which is what poetry so often is, actually can’t succeed without a certain amount of implicit care. Then again, I wonder what care actually means in this context: is it the absence of malice? The presence of empathy? Are the two mutually exclusive? 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— Those are suggestive questions and distinctions. On ties between care and communication, in your poem ‘Treetops’ people are ‘afraid of telephones’, and the operator is a symbol of the alienated state of the contemporary service user, the impersonal infrastructure and ‘terrible communal mesh’ that stands between us. I was energised by your account of John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem (1968) in the Guardian, a public art project which – by connecting callers with poets reading poems directly into their ear – didn’t offer so much a salve to loneliness as a shared loneliness. (Jack Spicer comes to mind: ‘loneliness is necessary for pure poetry’.) Your poem reflects the fact that lots of people in our generation seem afraid to answer their phones: the device is, despite the name, now valued principally for other functions. Are there elements of lyric – of lyric as telephone – you felt similarly uneasy towards in writing?

A

Ralf Webb

— I did a double take when I first heard you read your poem ‘Listening In’– you write ‘the phone call a useful metaphor / for poetry’s one-sided intimacy’, reflecting and refracting ideas I had stewed over when writing that article. It was curious to see friends and poets getting such a kick from Dial-a-Poem. The awkwardness we have around speaking on the phone makes dialing a poem feel somehow transgressive – sad as that may be! There’s a shared loneliness, yes. It’s also unavoidably erotic – a stranger’s breathy voice, reading to you, alone, down the phone. How could it not be? I think the experience of reading lyric poetry might feel a bit like this – there’s a touch of voyeurism, of listening-in, and certainly the lyric’s intimacy is enmeshed with eros. But when writing lyric poetry I’ve never (to my shame?) felt uneasy about the intimacy involved in utilising an ‘I’. There are other things around the personal pronoun, though, which in the past have caused me uneasiness – but never around intimacy, or revealing the ‘apparently personal’ (Sharon Olds). I’m curious about your use of the personal pronoun in Path Through Wood – it sort of hovers in the near-distance, at times vanishing completely, at times coming into perfect, eviscerating focus, as in the extremely affecting ‘A Mess’. How did you approach using the ‘I’ throughout the collection?

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— Around the time I started writing ‘seriously’ I began to realise the significance of the second person in lyric poetry, its power to situate or an invoke a subject, without fully understanding, at that stage, its political implications. (Implications that were perhaps most powerfully articulated, in 2014, by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and the paradigm shift it offered the lyric.) There is something enabling about the second person: I find the prospect of beginning a poem from scratch to be a quite unnerving prospect, its perceived infinitude. Using the second person was a way of telling myself decisively to do something in language that I did not yet understand. The poems that you mention (‘The Days Just Go Like That’) are examples of this, and the oldest in the book. Later, I began to learn more about lyric and its ability to listen-in forensically: to the self, the unconscious, to what Denise Riley calls ‘the unconscious of language’. This allowed me both to use and dismantle the assumed authority of the ‘I’, and to nail it down, particularly if, in situations where I was, say, uncomfortable or self-conscious, it would scramble to get free.

 

In Path Through Wood the ‘I’ is situated in various legal and ethical frameworks – the byzantine UK asylum process, carceral space – that throw the freedoms of one’s subject position into stark relief. Part of the power of lyric is accepting the unknowability of a ‘you’. (I saw the lyric second person referred to recently in an academic article as a ‘wild spot’.) That becomes particularly significant when society make certain ‘yous’ – through the frameworks I mention – as unknowable and invisible as it can. Take the carceral state in this country: it often seems as though people are cognisant of its horrors only if they know someone who is, for whatever reason, directly involved. The abstracted drip-feed of news articles is not sufficient, the ‘you’ must be an identifiable person. Surely this has fascinating consequences for lyric.

A

Ralf Webb

— I’m very interested in this idea. One instance where you throw the freedom of a poem’s ‘I’ into very stark relief is ‘Sounds Inside’ – the setting of which sees the ‘I’ talking to his friend/housemate, who works as a ‘medical professional at the local prison’, with a radio documentary about music culture in UK prisons playing in the background, as sort of a third interlocutor. The poem is formed of these very, very long lined couplets, which, despite their length, feel claustrophobic, because that ‘I’ is a bit breathless, or distracted, in way which is almost neurotic. Can you talk about the importance of this poem in setting up or expounding upon the book’s investigation into carceral space? 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— In some ways that poem is a test to see exactly how far the utterance, in consisting of one unbroken sentence in overreaching couplets, can sustain the ‘I’ in this particular context. Each couplet of the poem deliberately ends mid-clause to break up the run of interior thought, which trades in distraction. An earlier draft saw the long line collapse into a set of elliptical fragments at the end, a defensive gesture in which I tried to jump behind a screen at the very moment the ‘I’ was meant to be most exposed, given that the proposition of the poem is about my proximity, my stake, my right to feel neurosis and curiosity about such horrors.  

 

I was writing up my PhD on lyric poetry and living – with the aforementioned friend/housemate, who is also a brave and singular writer – at the time a few streets away from HMP Nottingham, one of the most violent prisons in the country. In the top of the house I was cosily studying by lamplight a set of intricate literary devices for listening in modernist poetry, and down the road unimaginable things were routinely happening. Such things are usually kept invisible, but not in this case: inevitably snatches and impressions of that world drifted across the domestic threshold. The prison is a place where the most extreme speech acts – I’m going to kill myself, for example – are meaningless, because the language is used so often, to barter for the most rudimentary things, a walk to the medical unit for a change of scene, some medication. I found this really frightening, and it made poetry’s listening devices seem both damningly inconsequential and newly essential. 

A

Ralf Webb

— To loop this back to your earlier question about care: how did considerations of care relate to your writing around this subject particularly?

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— When I started volunteering, I became fascinated by the context of speech acts. I was offering general advice to asylum seekers and refugees, and before that providing emotional support to asylum seekers who were working on a fresh claim with a pro bono immigration lawyer. In both those instances I had almost no useful information to provide to clients. But I was there not to speak, but to listen, to actively listen. Again, the relation to poetry struck me: the poet as ear. An ear that – as Johnathan Culler and others have suggested – is constituted through address. Care, for me, resides in the ability of poetry to listen as it speaks. 

A

Ralf Webb

— How does ‘Cloud Study’ sit in relation to these themes – I’m interested in it as a study of almost anti-architectural space… 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— That’s a lovely way of putting it. I wanted deliberately to break with some of those very politicised speech acts in the book, the architecture of those interactions. The subject of weather is a part of conversational ambience, particularly in this country: we use it to fill the gaps in speech, it has an extra-meaningful function. To borrow from Peter Riley, weather is also prone to being heavily ‘figurised’, and the sequence is an attempt to find such figure on other levels, invoking the fabulous tradition of cloud-spotting in art and poetry, particularly since Romanticism, by reshaping titles and phrases from others. I’m always amazed when I enter a gallery or museum at how much cloud there is in the permanent collections: it’s always hovering there above the event of the painting or in the distance, offering its own subtle drama. Fleshy, fluffy cloud defining brilliant blue. The process of the writing has been (and still is) accumulative and ongoing, like the process of condensation. 

A

Ralf Webb

— On process: has that changed at all, for you, over the years? You mention earlier that the prospect of starting a new poem is often unnerving. To put it another way: does it get any easier? 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— John Ashbery has a quote somewhere about being overwhelmed by the white page, its expanse, which feels very relatable. I guess the longer you do it the more evidence you have that it can be done, but when the habit slips it can feel like going back to square one, and it can take a few days for me to build up a rhythm again. Writing got more possible when I realised that the anxiety about what to say – who I am I saying it to, and who am I to say it – should be an inherent part of the work. And realising how intertextual poetry is was integral: that poetry is conversation with other poets means you can lean on them, invite them into the room with you. How do you feel about it?

A

Ralf Webb

— I think I’ve accepted, after 15 years of writing or trying to write poetry, that it is an inherently, eternally mysterious process. For me, it comes in waves or undulations – the rhythm that you mention. Months can go by and I don’t, or can’t, write a single thing. Nothing clicks. Then there’ll be a few months when poems do come, when language feels, I don’t know, tinctured with music and energy and possibility, again, and there’s a hyperactivity around it. It’s like being tuned-in to a different frequency, for a while.

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— I agree. When we’re tuned in, we could be picking up different frequencies of language, or other people. Both the lyric poem and the phone call involve the projection of desire into an open field: there’s a sense of being placed into an intimate dynamic, which might be transgressive, or exposing, or both. This kind of eros is at the forefront in a memorable sequence of sonnets, in your collection, each titled ‘Love Story’. In your book, there is a one-line note for the reader which accompanies the text, indicating that some of the addressees in these poems are men, some women. Could you talk a little about this doubleness, this queerness, across the sonnets and the book itself?

A

Ralf Webb

— That note helps distinguish that each ‘Love Story’ should be read as being addressed to (a) different ‘you(s)’: they do not tell the narrative of the vicissitudes of single relationship. Those poems are about different kinds of love – or, more accurately, they are about different experiences that form part of the whole of love. And we all have different experiences of love – and I really mean love, I don’t mean a kind of normative, one-size fits-all, consummated coupledom – across our lives, with different people, at different times, and each changes us, possibly in profound ways. Eros is a strong current in these poems, for sure – eros as an axis around which both love and hate, sometimes self-hatred, revolve. But there is also amity; and companionship; and, again, communion. 

 

That some of the addressees in the poems are men and some are women is, to me, of both great importance and no importance at all; it is only of importance because we don’t yet live in a world in which one’s sexuality is of little social or interpersonal consequence. Or to put it another way: it is of great importance because we still live in a world in which, socially and culturally, one’s sexual orientation is a huge definer of personal identity. A lot of my poetry has origins in personal experience; because my personal experience around sexuality (and therefore self-identity) has been one of ‘doubleness’, or simply, multiplicity – confusions, contradictions, sets of presumptions or expectations, as well as joy, and pleasure, and elation – this is central in the Love Stories, indeed in much of the whole collection. Incidentally – these confusions or contradictions are often, actually, not one’s own, but come about in response to the confusions of others.

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— I think this is why boyishness so appeals to me, and can be read as a queer state: it is an unflattened state of being, in all its contradictions and conflictions, tinged with the melancholic sense that it cannot last. You’ve articulated something beautiful about an inherent queerness to poetry’s own (formal) binds and expectations. 

A

Ralf Webb

— I’m also wary of the way certain aspects of one’s identity – aspects that might be unfixed, that shift and evolve – can be flattened out, reduced, and used, within the relentlessly bleak nightmare of late capitalism, to ‘sell’ stuff. Whether literal products, as in books, or more slippery ephemera like ‘brand identity’, data, etc. Perhaps there’s some potential arrogance here – an assumption that my relationship, as a writer of poetry, to the literary marketplace is of any importance at all (!) But nevertheless, it really does make me cautious about the language I use to describe myself in relation to my work. How horrible is that? And it’s particularly horrible when it comes to poetry, because, well, poetry being poetry, most of it doesn’t really make a lot of money, you know, so it feels even more absurd that we should need to think about how our selves, like, our actual selves, are being dissolved into the matrix of the marketplace. 

 

I’m curious about your experience of having a collection published. I’ve found it to be a… disembodying experience… which sort of implies that the writing of poetry is a heavily somatic process. 

Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— It’s certainly a revealing process: the poems look different, by dint of the fact that they’re published. Much like how you don’t spot any errors in a piece until you’ve hit ‘send’. I agree with you entirely that writing is physical, it’s amazing how knackering and exhilarating it can be. The marketplace of poetry is disembodying, yes – partly because, as you say, to speak of it as such is a bit of a contradiction in terms – does it have to be? Perhaps the poet also looks different from the vantage point of publication. The self being ‘dissolved into the matrix of the marketplace’ sounds like a very intriguing basis for a political lyric poem! One way to overcome the commodifying reaches of the marketplace might be to dramatise this problem in poems.

 

On the subject of bodies, I am struck by the decision to render Rotten Days in Late Summer’s moving sequence about the loss of a father in the (quite uncommon) first person plural, ‘we’. This enables the speaker to explore the myth, memory and superstition of grief as they are made collectively. In doing so, the poem powerfully reinforces the new absence of that single ‘him’. Such positions are not stable, just as in life: the ‘we’ eventually overwhelms, alienating ‘us from each other’. And yet something has been achieved. This very well embodies how alienating and unpredictable grief can be. How did you negotiate distance – from difficult experiences, from people – as a quality in the book? 

A

Ralf Webb

— ‘Diagnostics’ was the most difficult sequence to write – both emotionally, though I didn’t actually clock until later on just how painful it had been, but also formally; in terms of structure. For a long time I was almost literally running around in circles with it: I found myself, within the poem, arguing for or reifying thoughtless ideas around fate and determinism… I was asserting – because part of me wanted, still wants, to believe – that my dad was always necessarily going to get sick and die this way; that it was bound to happen; it had already been written. This kind of folk philosophy, or, I don’t know, maybe lowkey neo-protestant belief in one’s lot, one’s fate, one’s punishment – it makes things easier, in a way, it gives you a way to make sense of things. But it also serves to trap you in potentially damaging ways of thinking and living: why try for happiness, or contentment, if you’re bound to lose? Anyway, ‘Diagnostics’ finally clicked when I realised that I was replicating this fatalism within the poem, and that the poem should instead attempt to diagnose it. As you say, the ‘we’ is a purposefully… not slippery, but perhaps… authoritatively generic pronoun. The first person plural became something of a doorway into a wider – even if imagined, even if assumed or inferred or psychically-transmitted – range of experiences and reactions to his death, to our grief. It enabled me to encounter my grief in different ways; reflected or refracted back to me. Yet its genericness or lack of specificity meant I could speak through others in the family without speaking directly on their behalf. 
Q

Sam Buchan-Watts

— I think ‘authoritative genericness’ a good philosophy for life, for care: better encountering the self through the doorway of the ‘we’, yes! 
A

Ralf Webb

 

share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's debut collection of poems, Rotten Days in Late Summer, was published by Penguin in 2021, and was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

Sam Buchan-Watts is the author of Faber New Poets 15 and co-editor, with Lavinia Singer, of Try To Be Better (Prototype, 2019), a creative-critical engagement with W. S. Graham. He is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ Award for Poetry (2019). In 2018 he undertook a fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art and he is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. Path Through Wood (Prototype, 2021) is his first full collection.

READ NEXT

feature

Issue No. 7

Bracketing the World: Reading Poetry through Neuroscience

James Wilkes

feature

Issue No. 7

The anechoic chamber at University College London has the clutter of a space shared by many people: styrofoam cups,...

fiction

May 2016

See Inside for Holiday Special

Joanna Quinn

fiction

May 2016

We are not tourists. We are journalists. We fly out from Heathrow, Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle to foreign airports...

fiction

October 2012

Girl on a Bridge

Wayne Holloway

fiction

October 2012

Pirajoux… The middle of a hot endless summer, driving on the A39 through an as always empty central France,...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required