Your new collection comprises three sequences of sonnet crowns and an emperor's crown. For the uninitiated can you explain these forms?
There are several distinct types of sonnet crowns. The first is a series of seven thematically or narratively linked sonnets. A Heroic Sonnet Crown is composed of fifteen interlinked sonnets, fourteen of which seem like ordinary examples of the form. The fifteenth is composed of the first lines of the previous fourteen sonnets, laid out in order. The challenge is to plan them in such a way as to make sense as a poem that can stand alone. An Emperor’s Crown is my own elaboration on the Heroic Crown. It is composed of three interlinked Heroic Crowns telling one long, continuous story and embellished with a narrative acrostic. I have taken it even further recently. I just finished a series of seventy-five interlinked double acrostic sonnets in the Heroic Crown pattern. I call the series a Jove’s Crown, I am cleaning it up right now.
Three of the sequences up the ante by featuring an acrostic message running through them which forms its own small poem. Is this restrictive, or does the challenge in fact liberate you?
I thought that it would be a challenge at first, but soon after starting I discovered that it was almost as though the poems were writing themselves. I believe that this tight structure allowed my unconscious to take over in a way that I had not at all foreseen. Words and images suggested themselves, insisted on participating in the poem. It was almost like falling into a trance-state. Towards the end, I was drafting a poem in fifteen minutes- although I did have to do a lot of clean up afterwards. It was as though a chord had been struck within me, opening the door to the underworld.
Throughout the collection, there's a sense of squaring up to the past, of transmogrifying hurt into art. I almost daren't ask: how autobiographical are these poems?
The book is biography. My mother was raped by her grandfather. I spent a few formative years in an orphanage. My father was a minister with the physical strength of a Sampson, a quick temper, and a kind heart. People throw around the phrase ‘grit in the oyster’ as a means of describing the almost alchemical process of transforming pain into art, but I do not think that they really understand what it means. If you’ve ever eaten a raw oyster you know that its flesh is more than sensitive, it is clear, delicate as gossamer, and alive with nerves. A grain of sand is basically a small fragment of glass. It is more than an irritant to the oyster. It is lacerating agony. Given time, because the oyster has no choice, it redeems pain with glorious secretions and its misery becomes a treasure to us. I believe that it is our duty as human beings to do the same with our pain. If we can, our suffering gains meaning.
Imagery of the natural world abounds but it’s nature that’s “red in tooth and claw”, a quote you explicitly reference in Bloodlines. Are you inspired by poets who have a reputation as chroniclers of the natural world (Ted Hughes being the obvious example)?
The shamanistic poetry of Ted Hughes was a definite influence, especially his ‘Crow’ poems, as were the Sweeney poems of our dear departed Seamus Heaney. Robinson Jeffers is a relatively unknown poet in the UK, but he was a tremendous influence on me. His poem ‘Hurt Hawks’ was a formative experience for me. He writes about the hard quality that mercy has when applied to suffering:
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
As you can see, Jeffers also influenced my tendency towards sprawl in my lines.
‘Crown of Thorns’ is your second collection following last year’s ‘A Radiance’. Your third and fourth collections are scheduled for publication in 2014 and 2016. What can you tell us about these forthcoming titles?
‘The Ancient of Days’ is a collection of Sestinas that has been accepted by an American press. I wrote it while teaching at a university in Texas. I rewrote the Bible. Each sestina represents a biblical story. I believe that, in America, religion has been usurped and transformed into a far-right political tool. This was a way, for me, to return it to the richer, more psychologically true medium of myth, separating it from a rabid political context. ‘Persephone in the Underworld’ has been accepted by a Canadian press and it deals heavily in myth. In one series I re-imagined the virgin Mary as the lion-headed Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, as a figure with the underrated nobility of the hyena, and as a plaster statue come to life. I had previously noticed that my experience in the orphanage mirrored the myth of the rape of Persephone - I do believe that everybody who lives enacts a myth, consciously or not - so I wrote the experience in such a way as to highlight the similarities in the story.
You seem to produce high-quality work at a prolific rate. Does this owe to any particular writing discipline?
I work on my poetry for eight hours a day. I spend four hours in the morning reading and writing (I read, on average, one full collection of poetry a day or an anthology every two days) and in the afternoons I edit, read, and in the proper season I make submissions. Because poetry is my vocation I treat it like a full-time job. The pay, of course, could stand improvement.
The acknowledgements page of ‘Crown of Thorns’ mentions some heavy-hitters, including George Szirtes, Menna Elfyn and Helen Ivory. How important has their encouragement and/or mentorship been?
Very. Menna Elfyn was my first teacher in the UK. Eight years ago, when I was twenty-two and starting my masters, she worked with me almost on a daily basis. She is a master of the art and I will always be grateful to her for her encouragement, her gentle, firm fingered skill with the editor’s scalpel and her dedication to teaching. Tiffany Atkinson was also an amazing teacher, a wonderful poet, and a great friend. She was my tutor at Aberystwyth while I earned my PhD. I’ve read George Szirtes’ poetry for years. His poetry is incredible and although our styles are very different it is very good for me to expose myself to, and immerse myself in, poetry that has a different flavour to my own. I will never know how anyone can live with just one taste in their mouths, just reading one genre, style, or form. It would be like trying to live on strawberry ice cream. It would lead to mental flab. I have always been drawn to acrostics, but I had not done very many of them for years before this. When I was in university, over a decade ago, a person I respected said that they were for children and that ‘serious poets’ never messed with them. I felt a yearning desire for acrostics that I suppressed for years until I was reading George’s ‘Bad Machine’ for a review and I discovered that he wrote a few acrostic sonnets! Joy! It was like a blaze of light burst in my brain and I thought ‘Nothing is forbidden to a master’s hand.’ That was it. I tried one, and was hooked. I haven’t actually told George that, and I probably should. I owe him a lot. As for Helen, her skills are unquestionable. The dark mythological edge her work has appeals to me greatly.