I have decided to repost this interview on the publication of my collection On Light & Carbon with the novelist Shauna Gilligan from autumn 2013. Shauna has reconstructed her website since then so the link to this very worthwhile conversation is no longer available. Shauna is an author of great courage and curiosity and I urge you to visit her new site A Girl's Writing is Never Done. So here is our chat. I was particularly pleased to talk about the long centrepiece poem in the book 'Timepieces'. Hope you find it interesting.
- Noel, congratulations on your second poetry collection On Carbon & Light. This first question has two parts – tell me a little about the title and cover, they are both intriguing and, in what way do you feel your second collection links to your first, which was nominated for the Strong Award?
Well, I had the title for a poem called ‘On Light & Carbon’ for maybe ten years. I imagined it would be a kind of technical poem about photosynthesis and while it would crop up every now and then, I never managed to write it. When I started this collection in summer 2010, I finally approached it and the poem that resulted was totally different than one I envisaged, written in counterpoint and a naïve voice. That said, photosynthesis still made it in there. It struck me as I went on with the book and wrote quite a few science poems about light, as well as another about carbon, that this would be a good title for the whole book. In a way, the poem also poses the central question of the collection, as it moves between religious notions of the nature of life and scientific ones that sometimes seem to override those. So, it may seem like a strange title, but it suits somehow. The cover idea really came from talking to an artist friend and he had planned to do the cover image by organically imposing the equation for photosynthesis onto actual leaves. In the end, we didn’t get around to it, but when I spoke to Mike at Ward Wood about the cover, I suggested we try to do something along those lines. So the leaves in sunlight and the equation came from that discussion. I think it’s quite striking.
To answer the second part of the question, this book connects in some ways to In the Library of Lost Objects, exploring the intimate dramas of life against the backdrop of science. Here though, I’ve replaced Natural History with human history and anthropology, for the most part, also exploring the role and meaning of myth and art in all this. So there is some cross-over, but I feel the tone is less lyrical and more metaphysical. I’ve also tried to push deeper into certain scientific ideas, but hopefully in a way that I bring the reader with me – whether they know much about science or not. That was part of the challenge.
- What was your general approach to writing poems in the book?
In the Library of Lost Objects had taken a long time to write as I often wrote fragments of poems and would add a bit and then leave it for months and then add something more. It was a very slow process, though oddly the three longer poems were written quite quickly in a kind of sprint over three or four days, and didn’t change that much after that. So, with this collection, it struck me to try that approach and see what might come out of it. One thing I found was when an idea or mood came it would immediately seem to suggest a title, but I also quickly realized I had to write a few lines down. This acted as a kind of key and a way back into the poem. Then, often the next day, I just riffed on the idea and wrote fragments down in a notebook. At a certain point, when I felt a poem was beginning to suggest itself, I would move all this onto the computer and generally very quickly find the shape and structure for the piece. I would then try to complete a decent draft on that day. Working this fast somehow led to the poems being not over-thought and often the results took me by surprise. I discovered that once I started this process, other ideas presented themselves and I would gather momentum. So I wrote like this for, say, three months at a time and would then stand back. Over three such (intense) spells of writing over a three year period, I produced the poems in the book – and a good deal more, I should add, that just didn’t quite fit the themes that came through most strongly over that time.
- I am interested, in particular, in ‘Timepieces’. Tell me about the genesis of this epic?
You know, there are a lot of poems about love or death or other subjects (I’ve written about them myself, of course) but very few about friendship, which is a bit odd when you consider the importance of friends in our lives. So this piece is about a friendship my dad struck up with a labourer at Dublin Bus, then known as CIE, where he worked in the late 70s. This man, PJ, turned out to be a respected amateur antiquarian and coin collector and drew my dad into his interests and they formed a great friendship through this, going to coin fares at the weekend or PJ coming over to teach my dad Ogham, which I explore in one section. Another crucial element to the poem is my perspective. It is really an initiation into both the adult world of male friendship, as well as how it awoke in me the excitement of the imagined past. I think it’s ultimately saying something about the power of art – both in terms of my dad and PJs story and my attempt to tell it.
So, I wanted this poem to be, in a sense, a kind of intimate epic, playing the ‘everyday’ notion of friendship against seemingly grand historical backdrops, such as Viking Dublin, or Imperial Rome. I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘Epic’, which centres on a dispute between two farmers over a land boundary and how Homer’s ghosts whispers to him “I made the Iliad from such / A local row...”. This sentiment is central to the poem and is echoed in the final lines of the Viking section where my dad and PJ had found a Viking child’s leather shoe in the waste ground where the city council were dumping the soil removed from the Wood Quay site as they dug the foundations for new civic offices:
It was to me as this frail object found, opened
a clearing in my mind: the prow of a longship
approached from the horizon with its cargo
of stories. I leaned down close and listened.
So the events are first real-life ones, made epic in the telling – even if the language, in this case, is not what you might expect in an ‘epic’. So it is a narrative poem, certainly, but a fractured narrative reflecting the nature of memory, both personal and collective.
- Tell me about the writing of ‘Timepieces’ – did it evolve as you wrote it or did the idea come to you as a whole? I’m particularly interested in the back and forth of memory, imagined and real.
Well, this was the one poem in the collection not written in the way I describe above. For a start it’s a long piece of 300 lines, so that put it on a different footing. In a way, the approach was similar to two long poems in sections from my first collection. I tried to come at the subject matter in a non-linear way and attack it from several angles, with jumps in perspective across sections. I found the shape of the poem came quite quickly, say within three or four weeks. This poem does something similar to those earlier long pieces, creating a fractured narrative of sorts that moves backwards and forward in time – both in the historical settings and the timeframe of the friendship itself. So its jumps and shimmies about us, mixing the history and the story of the friendship.
But by attempting to create this intimacy between the local and the historical, I also tried to use a quite casual, yet intimate, tone and the nature of the poetry had to reflect that. So much of the poem is written in a relaxed conversational and invitational voice. So is that poetry or prose? Some would say the latter, but I’d argue that I’m using a – let’s call it – flat-footed line, where the rhythm isn’t strident (for the most part) and the music of the piece is quiet and muted, though certainly poetry, I would argue. The challenge of rewriting this kind of ‘casual’ line, is that it is extremely tricky to get just right and, indeed, for it not to drift into prose. So, it actually took a long time to achieve that effect, massaging the music rather than imposing it. That really was quite a challenge. The other major issue was that with such rich subject-matter, there was so much more detail I included early on but had to cut in rewriting so that the poem didn’t get weighed down with too much narrative information. It’s long, but I knew I needed to keep it moving also. So, it took time to get that balance right also.
- When you were placing ‘Timepieces’ in On Carbon & Light, why did you place it where you did and did the editorial process effect how you put the collection together.
At about the mid-way point in writing the collection I had a lot of poems and started gathering them into some kind of coherent collection, which gave writing after that point a clearer focus. ‘Timepieces’ was actually one of the last poems to be written and accounts for nearly a quarter of the entire collection. So where I placed it was important. Rather like the poem itself, the narrative of the whole book shifts around in time, though generally drifts forward. The opening section deals with my university years studying physics, a time of both intellectual and emotional excitement. So the opening thirteen or so poems explore this part of my life. Then I shift back in time with two pieces about family and then ‘Timepieces’, which takes us basically to the mid-point of the collection. As I said earlier, this collection is less lyrical than my first and more metaphysical, but I realized this poem grounds the book. It is key in that sense, so I wanted that grounding at that juncture in the collection, before moving into the second half of the book, which mostly deals with hitting forty and the questions that asks of you, both personally and philosophically. It strikes me now, that a lot of the collection deals in different types of initiatory experience – those key moments of transition, and insight, in life. So perhaps that connects much of the material.
Thanks so much, Shauna, for asking such interesting questions. It was especially nice to get to talk at length about ‘Timepieces’. I really hope you, and others will enjoy that poem and the collection as a whole when it comes out in the coming weeks.