Rising to the Surface of Language.

PoetryPoet Anne Stevenson interviewed by Gil Dekel.

Gil Dekel: Can we talk about your creative process of writing? [1]

Anne Stevenson: For me, writing poems is not so much a process as a way of feeling my way in the dark. Lines come to mind; I work them over in my head and then somehow collect a poem out of them. Ideas usually arrive after the lines. For example, the first five stanzas or so of A Lament for the Makers, the longest poem in my latest book, Stone Milk, came to me long before I knew its subject would be an imaginary underworld. Sometimes simply seeing or finding something sets lines going, for instance, picking up a silver napkin ring inherited from my grandmother and noticing that her initials were almost worn away. In New England, when I was growing up, we children were given initialled silver on our birthdays. I began to write about that, but then realised that the poem wanted to go in a different direction. What began as a poem about inheriting my grandmother’s silver became a war poem about inheriting her nightmares and terrors. [2]

Earlier that year, I started another poem set in the Alps when a friend gave me, off the cuff, the phrase ‘Stone Milk’ to describe the glacial rivers – although a more conscious inspiration was the painting of a Himalayan rhododendron forest by a friend, Paul Stangroom, in which the mountains themselves are white as milk. And this painting, in turn, suggested that I might find a use for five loose stanzas that had been floating free in my notebook for months. Before Eden imagines God creating a perfect world, as in this picture, but then breathing life into Adam (ie. creating evil as well as good) when he cannot bear to preside over the silence and loneliness of perfection. [3]

Usually I write first thing in the morning, maybe at 5 or 6. That’s when lines and fresh ideas best come to mind. Later in the day I can do very little. I look at what I’ve scribbled down and it’s just text. [4]

It seems as if you had one big poem in your mind, which you take apart into a few ideas, then make it back into one poem? [5]

Exactly. The process of consciousness is very strange. A poet has to keep a door open to the unconscious almost all the time. But of course if you just let the unconscious free to write at random, you produce nonsense. [6]

What about automatic-writing? [7]

Yeats believed in it, and I am a great believer in Yeats, but I never had the experience of automatic-writing myself. All I have is a sense of lines occurring, and once they have occurred, I mess them around, a bit like a crossword. At that stage you bring the conscious mind to bear on the process. There are times when the conscious mind lets you down, too, and you have to stop. Writing a poem is, in part, knowing when to stop forcing it, admitting, “This isn’t going to work,” and leaving it for a while. You hope something will show up, that the completed idea will eventually appear. Where would it come from? I don’t know. The process is mostly a matter of adjusting the unconscious and conscious mind; setting up a balance of knowing and not knowing. [8]

And you have to be able to recognise when a line is right and when it’s wrong. This is why it’s so hard to teach creative writing. You can teach people to write in metre and rhyme, and how to punctuate, and so on. But the deeper creative process is very mysterious. You don’t have to be a mystic to write poetry, but you have to recognize that a lot is going on in your head and in the world which is much more mysterious than we normally imagine. I don’t use the word spiritual, since it is overused, but it is hard to say what else. After all, there are connections between you, or what you call you, and your experience, and your feelings about things and words, and so forth, that no analytical psychologist can explain. [9]

You mentioned getting ideas early in the morning. [10]

Yes. I often lie in bed for an hour or so, half awake. If a phrase or line appears I rush to my desk to write it down, and then, without getting dressed, work in my study over a cup of tea until I run out of energy. By that time my husband has made me several cups of coffee and eaten his breakfast. [11]

Ideas come in dreams, but also while simply walking down the street, even in the dentist’s chair… anywhere. I have written a poem at the hairdresser’s. Any time will do. But my best writing is done in the early morning. Some people write late at night, but I’m a morning person. Waking from a deep sleep is like rising through a sea of dreams to the surface of language. Recently I wrote a poem describing exactly that, called The Loom. [12]

Perhaps you cannot teach people to be creative, but you could teach people to stop blocking themselves from being creative? [13]

I think that’s true. Years ago, I used to lead creative writing workshops, when I found that, in discussion, writers were over-swayed as much as helped by the group. Individual poems became group-poems, and in the process lost their individuality. A gifted poet has to find his or her own way, and a gift for writing poems is like a gift for music or painting. People who have it, know it. And just as it’s impossible to teach people who do not have a musical ear to play or sing well, so it is impossible to teach people who do not instinctively listen to and love poetry to write it well. [14]

It happens too often these days that people want to write poems who rarely read it. I mean traditional poetry: Shakespeare, Wordsworth and so forth. Too many students satisfy their creative urge by expressing themselves. OK. But communion is needed as well. And by communion I don’t mean showing off by using a lot of clever, contemporary jargon, I mean working with language, old and new, and feeling it in cadences that make sense. If I couldn’t overhear the rhythms and sounds established by the long, varied tradition of English poetry – say by Donne, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost – I would not be able to hear what I myself have to say. Poems that arise only from a shallow layer of adulterated, contemporary language are rootless. They taste to me, like the mass-produced vegetables grown in chemicals for super-markets. [15]

But don’t you have poems that you wrote when you were, say, four years old? [16]

Not four! I do have a few my mother kept from when I was about 7 or 8. They are ballad like, song-like, all in verse. I had a lyrical ear from the beginning. But I don’t think children’s poems in general sound original. Like mine, they tend to rhyme a lot. Even Shakespeare did not start off with a blank sheet. He was influenced by the immense poetic richness and the dramatic/lyrical conventions of his period. He must have breathed and dreamed in iambic pentameter. There was no time in the past when, to poets, inherited forms were not important. [17]

And apart of rhythm or form that past poetry has to offer us, what about inspiration itself? Where is inspiration coming from? [18]

Listening. And reading aloud a lot. I never write poetry unless I am reading poetry. [19]

Was Blake, with his unique visionary symbolism, working within a tradition? [20]

Sure he was. He was working from a non-conformist religious tradition, first writing lyrics and then narrative poems in the medieval poetic tradition. Dante, too, was traditional, in the tradition of the visionary epic. For me, mythic poems like these are not true, but they’re of extraordinary imaginative importance. I believe being religious or spiritual in any tradition has mainly to do with poetry and language. Every religion that I can think of – Islam, Judaism, Christianity – has produced wonderful poetry. It seems to me such a pity that people make politics (and wars) out of moral and religions matters. All religions teach the value of the spiritual life, which is, in the best sense, imaginary. Ted Hughes would have agreed. Religious imagination does not even contradict science. Discoveries about man’s place in the world, and the world’s in the universe, and the universe’s place among the galaxies – what could be more imaginatively inspiring? Think of the way the tiniest quantum particle fits into any scheme we can imagine of reality! Amazing! Anybody who really understands science must feel spiritual. [21]

When people sometimes ask, ‘Do you believe in God?’, I feel like answering, ‘I believe in Quantum Physics… ’ [22]

Yes. It’s all the same stuff. I wish poets these days were less taken up with politics and more aware of what’s happening in physics. I hate wars, and injustice upsets me no end. But I don’t think poetry is going to solve the problem in Iraq or Afganistan. As for me, I suppose I am trying to come to term with reality on a bigger scale. As you say ‘I believe in Quantum Physics’. That is to me reality. Mind you, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the Theory of Relativity. I’m poor at maths… [23]

Albert Einstein was such a good story teller; there is not much math in some of his books but only wisdom… [24]

Well, I’m sympathetic to Einstein because he was a musician. I was a musician before I was a poet. I played the cello and I still play the piano, but, alas, my deafness means I can hardly hear tonality now. That’s why I like to put music into poetry. Rhythm is so important; I always write by rhythm. I actually prefer music to poetry, if I had to choose. Music, after all, is a language that can move and affect all humanity, irrespective of the Babel tower of words. The same is true also of painting, I suppose. [25]

So, what is the position of words compared with that of music and visuals? [26]

For me, poetry is literally untranslatable. However, it does seem to me transferable. That is, you can transfer the spirit of it from one language to another. We have the King James Bible, for example, full of glorious poetry. And the Bible was “transferred”, shall we say, from Hebrew, Greek and Latin into English. We have Shakespeare as well – that magpie genius of foreign words and stories – who all but reinvented the English language. But I agree that every language is limited. Visions in music and painting are more abstract and therefore maybe closer to reality? [27]

I’m interested in Kandinsky, the painter/musician. There is an exhibition of his work on now in the Tate, and you must go see it. I recently wrote a dream poem in which I tried to use colours like a painter. Let me show you… One of the strangest things about writing poetry is that you do feel a bit mad… I think you have to be a little mad… The poem was called After Kandinsky, until I changed the title to Sea and Sky. Then I changed it again to Completing the Circle. [28]

Video 1: Anne reads her poem Completing the Circle, Sep 2006. [29]

That’s beautiful! [30]

You think that’s beautiful? [31]

I do. [32]

Well, I am in a puzzle about the poem. It was written in memory of a writer friend who died, and I wanted to paint it with memories of colours and shapes in dreams. The Kandinsky exhibition gave me the images, but I was not sure whether they should refer to dreaming or to dying. I asked my husband, who said dying is a lot stronger. Yet if I say dreaming, the poem seems to make more sense, don’t you think? [33]

It does, I agree with you. [34]

I should probably change it to dreaming. [35]

Some people believe that dying and dreaming is the same thing… [36]

Yes. I was trying to suggest that in this poem. Maybe there is something in an after-life. But I am not sure I believe that. Only in memory does personality survive. [37]

It is said that life is like a room. Birth is one door to that room and death is another door. So, you are born into life and die back to life… [38]

Now, that’s Quantum Physics… the idea of coming and going in and out of life doesn’t bother me at all. The idea of Heaven and Hell is of course childish. But I don’t know if in Judaism there is the idea of Heaven and Hell? [39]

No, I think there isn’t. In Kaballah’s teaching, Heaven is simply a state of changing one’s mind. [40]

It seems to me that primitive peoples invent the mythologies they need. The bearing that myth has on reality is the same whatever the myth is. It always puzzles me that people go to war to defend their myths but end up fighting for power. Without power you can’t protect yourself. So you fight to win, and that could be how cults of power and energy came to be embedded in Christianity – through Lucifer who used power and energy to corrupt the weaker ideal of peace. That’s what happens incidentally, at the end of the poem Before Eden when God, in a sense, becomes Lucifer. [41]

Let’s go back to Inheriting my Grandmother’s Nightmare, about my grandmother who lived with us in New Haven during the war. My father was a philosophy professor and my mother, an enthusiastic hostess. She especially enjoyed arranging dinner parties for visiting academics, artists, poets and so forth. My grandmother, who never touched alcohol, thought wine was the work of the devil. But at these parties everybody, of course, got a little drank, and grandmother was thrust aside and ignored. I always felt guilty about her, about my childish treatment of her. And now I am a grandmother myself, I can identify with her. I hardly understand my grandchildren… they live in a world of mobile phones, televisions, i-pods, computers. How can I help resenting the wholly materialistic world they are going up in? [42]

I want to say something about rhymes. Looking for a rhyme often gives me an idea of how to go on with a poem. I say to myself, “I want a rhyme here and there”… and again, “I want the rhymes to be heard but not to be obvious.” Like avoiding obvious ta Tam ta Tam ta Tam rhythms in my poems, I want to avoid obvious rhymes while structuring the work around them. This is one of the blockages that makes poetry so difficult to write these days. Eighteenth-century poets had it easy, writing in heroic couples. The Romantics had it easy, writing odes and sonnets. But today if you go back and write in the styles of the nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth centuries, you risk writing pastiche. The challenge is to use old traditions to make something new, original. Each generation that passes finds it more difficult to use set forms – to put, as it were, new wine in old bottles. And yet, without bottles of some shape, the wine, the poetry, the art of whatever kind, spills out and disappears forever. [43]

Do you write on the computer? [44]

At a certain point I put a draft on the word processor. The word processor is hypnotic… for good and evil. After looking at the screen sometimes the right word appears out of the blue. At other times I have to take it off the screen and put it back on the paper. Back to pencil… [45]

When I find new lines or ideas I put them in a little notebook. Nobody could make anything of these jottings; they sound like nonsense even to me, sometimes. But I usually root poems eventually in these scribbles. [46]

True poetry is usually ambiguous. It is like a pebble dropped into a pool. If it’s a real poem, the ripples spread out into a full circle. But there’s rarely anything definite or finite about what it means, and that is why poetry is so fascinating. A poem should be clear and ambiguous as well. If the poem is left completely ambiguous you get no pleasure from it. But if it’s completely clear, you might as well say what you have to say in prose. [47]

Now, I have prepared some sandwiches, do you have cheese? [48]

I love cheese. [49]

» Further intreviews with poets and artists…

26 July 2008.
Interview held in London, UK, September 2006, and via email correspondence July 2008.

Anne’s website.

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