Tuesday, May 21, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jeremy Clarke

Jeremy Clarke is a British/Canadian poet. He has lived and worked in North America, Europe and the Middle East. A former poet in residence at Eton College, he currently lives in London. The book, Stone Hours, brings together twenty five years of his work.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Publication of my first book didn't change my life. It was certainly pleasing to have something of mine venture into the world, but I saw it as a first adventure, and simply got on with continuing to try to write.

That first book is very different to what I went on to write. It was a record of a particular episode in my life - an experiment in country living. Since then, I have not written about 'me' so much as I have attempted to offer a particular vision of the world.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

It was a relief in some ways to realise that what I was writing (indeed, how I saw) was best suited to poetry not prose. Poetry is not simply chopped-up prose. It is infinitely more complex. A line of poetry, rightly, takes an age to do, get right.

Sound, rhythm, balance, how it feels in the mouth and in the ear, how a line relates to the previous line and the one following, how the whole looks on the page... There is so much going on, so much to consider.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

A few notes yes, but really very few. I've learned that the more notes I make, the less likely I have something to say. Having some general outline or idea is all one really needs to get started.  One learns the 'thing' as you go. I have a quote on my bookshelf, 'Make something. The idea will come afterwards'. It's attributed to Rodin, but it predates him I think. Ted Hughes said something similar, re an idea, 'Just open its mouth and stick your head in'.  A comment from Philip Pullman is exactly right, 'It's not about working with ideas, but about working when you don't have them'.  Yes, you need the germ of an idea, an initial subject, something you want to explore, but you have to be brave enough to actually explore. To go off and try to find, figure something out. Writing is not about being 'ready' to tell others what you know, it's about admitting that you don't know, and being willing to put in the work of the finding out. The process takes an age. As it should. Why should some deep mystery suddenly and simply reveal itself to you. Why shouldn't it require some lengthy (and at times frustrating) investigation.

I recall many years ago a story about the mathematician Andrew Wiles, who solved Fermat's Last Theorem. Every day, for seven years, he went up to this attic study in the hope of finding a solution.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I never think in terms of a single poem. If I have an idea it is always for a 'project'. Which is usually a series of poems, or prose proems, that will contribute to the understanding of the subject I want to investigate.  My book, Stone Hours, is many sections of these standalone pieces. Each section contributes, in some fundamental way, to the 'idea' of the whole. I never think to write a poem about how I 'feel', or about some event that happened in my life. As I said earlier, I have a particular vision, and it has really nothing to do with me. It is not about me (as just about everything in the world isn't).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I don't do many readings. I have in the past done a few, and when I was poet in residence at Eton I gave several readings for the school. But I did not 'read' in the usual way. I would spend weeks memorising a series of poems or a single long poem, and then give it from memory, in a kind of performance. Not acting it out as it were, just inhabiting the text and putting it across as if I were living through it in that moment.  It's a lot of work to do this (and a bit of a high wire act on the day), but it is so much more interesting and rewarding for the audience than watching someone stand there and read from a book or a page. I find readings of that sort incredibly boring, and kind of lazy. The writer should 'know' the work. I want someone who is there listening to the text to really 'feel' it. Indeed, for us both to be sharing that experience together.  

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Stone Hours posits the urban world as a kind of New Jerusalem. As the 'holy city'.

Which doesn't need to be understood in a religious sense (though it can be), but simply that the city is a place of wonder. Within the length of a footstep there is something (indeed hundreds of things) worthy of our attention. I am not so naive to think that there are not problems, suffering, injustices, ugly realities within the urban experience, but I am wanting to show that, if we regard the whole differently, if we lived a little differently in it, it would be transformed (and as a consequence, we would be transformed also).

Perspective is everything. If we were told that every place was holy ground, how newly lit would the city appear to be, and how different our experience of it.

Someone who read an early version of Stone Hours commented, 'The church is outside'. I thought that was the right interpretation of the work. If we went about our lives with this thought in mind, we would indeed inhabit a different world (and how much better would we interact and treat each other in this 'new world').

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

In my view, the role of the artist is to pass on some particular insight or way of seeing. At his or her best, the artist offers a fresh interpretation or understanding of the world, and our place within it.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. You need an outside eye to coldly look at what it is you've done. How you have done it, how you have presented it or laid it out. You need an objective view and viewpoint. In this way, the editor becomes the first reader, and you need a good first reader before it goes out to all the other readers. A good first reader is one that appreciates your vision, understands your intent and intention and is genuinely sensitive to what you are attempting to do. Crucially, they must set aside their particular preferences and prejudices and attend to what you have done with an entirely open mind.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Probably what I said earlier, 'Make something, the idea will come afterwards'. I recently wrote down a quote from Jordan Peterson directly onto my wall, 'Less than your best hurts everything'. I think that's marvellous. A way to live daily, whatever we do. And something a priest casually said to me at a book launch, as people came in (or didn't), 'Don't worry about numbers, Christ never did.' The truth is of course, so many people (ie, everyone) can, in any moment, say something unexpectedly brilliant or essential. We must always be open and ready to listen, and learn. From everyone. Everyone has something to teach us. So often our prejudices get in the way. To our detriment.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I try to work every day. It doesn't always work out like that, but it is rare if I don't at least try. If I am not constantly trying to do what I think I should be doing, I feel that I am being neglectful, disrespectful of my purpose (as far as my purpose can be understood).

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I am always 'stalled'. I don't believe I ever have 'inspiration' as such, just, hopefully, the seed of an idea. I then have to suffer the not knowing anything and try to figure out what I am supposed to do with it. And that comes purely by continually 'attempting'. I constantly read, mostly modern poetry, and that both feeds and keeps me going. Coming across the odd jewel that has been produced by someone else, often sparks some new discovery in my own searching.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I probably think more about sounds than smells. The urban landscape is so full of them, and every one is telling a story, is an event (as every smell is too, of course).  The best ones are the faintest, the most insignificant. The subtlest things are always the most interesting. The quietest sound, the slightest movement, the faintest smell... They all beckon. Try following just one on its journey, from origin to end, for a true adventure.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Just about everything supports the work, often without your knowing it (at least not at the time). Every hardly noticed, incidental detail that you see or hear and choose to not bother remembering, feeds your vision and your voice. Stand on one patch of pavement and look and listen - there are more mysteries waiting there to be attended to and understood than you could possibly deal with in a single lifetime.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

As I said, I read a lot of modern poetry, the poets too numerous to mention. The gold standards of the past I certainly have on my shelf, and of them, if I have to pick out the most supportive, I would say Dante (The Divine Comedy), if simply for the size of his ambition. As a sustained work of the imagination, it is almost beyond belief. Of course, one can't consider Dante without Milton coming also to mind. Milton wrote Paradise Lost when he was blind. Dictating it from 'memory' to his daughters. Realising this, one really has no business complaining about one's supposed difficulties in trying to write.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

If you mean artistically, I'm not sure. I used to worry about having nothing new to go to once I'd finished a particular text, but something always popped up soon after. Having just now produced such a large, collected work in Stone Hours, I'm slightly less worried. I mean, it is possible to write too much. It is as important to know when to stop as when to keep going. Both require discipline.  Having said that, one must always remain open to a 'prompt'. If something is asking to be explored, one has a duty to get on and find it. Another quote on my wall is from Pasternak, 'Don't give way to drowsiness, poet. You are the pledge we give eternity, and so a slave to every second.'

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I've done many things both before and after I was writing. I was an EMT (emergency medical technician) with ambulance services for some years. I've worked in the fitness industry, as a personal trainer and club manager in many places. If writing had not been constantly calling, I imagine I would have remained in one of those industries. Most likely the former. Making a difference to someone's life (or saving a life) is unequivocally satisfying. Indeed, it is a reason to be alive...

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I believe an artist is someone who answers a call. There is something that is 'asking' to be done. Something inside you requires that you respond to some 'impulse'. The responding to the call is of course a conscious decision, but the call is not.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

 I recently re-read Elizabeth Smart's, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. Really quite a marvel of poetic 'prose'. It is a shame it was published as a novel. If it had been published as poetry, and laid out as such (it was published by Editions Poetry London in 1945), I believe it would be considered a poetry masterpiece.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I'm trying to complete a short sonnet sequence. The idea for which I wish had come earlier, because it absolutely belongs in the Stone Hours book. Really quite annoying!  Well, it will join its friends in the next edition...

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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