Claire Crowther on The Clockwork Gift
Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift is published by Shearsman. It's her second collection, the first, Stretch of Closures, having been shortlisted for the Jerwood/Aldeburgh Best First Collection prize in 2007. She also published a pamphlet, Glass Harmonica, with Flarestack in 2003. Her work has received plenty of praise, and it's not hard to see why – it's original, unsettling, charming stuff. The Clockwork Gift examines the figure of the grandmother, the older woman in contemporary culture and the fallible faculty of memory.
I interviewed Claire as part of her virtual tour (the previous leg, at Matt Merritt's Polyolbion blog, is well worth looking at); questions and answers are below.
The book's focus on grandmothers seems to me original. Were you conscious when writing the poems of working in relatively empty territory? Can you say something about your precursors in this territory?
I began the project thinking there were very few grandmother poems. As I researched, I found lots. Many poets include one in an early collection. Or when a grandmother dies, there might be an elegy. I made an anthology for my own use. These poems may be about a real grandmother or an imagined one or a literary forebear. There is a marvellous one by Geoffrey Hill in 'Mercian Hymns' that begins:
Brooding, on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera,
––I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose
––childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the
However, very few full collections focus on grandmothers. Anne Stevenson has one, a brilliant collection called Granny Scarecrow.
You deal with the grandmother from both her point of view and from the point of view of grandchildren. The former gives her a voice but the latter makes her less accessible than ever. She becomes an ambivalent, powerful, elusive figure – was it your intention that the book should create a figure who ultimately escapes it?
I think that's well put. The major point I felt about the grandmother figure is that she is almost invisible – we invent her to suit ourselves. So, as soon as you think you've captured her, you realise you have lost her again or replaced her with some aspect of yourself. Also, I like widening the range of point of view, even within a single poem. In people's experience, granny is often the figure who provides your first experience of death. That's powerful and ambivalent.
You seem pessimistic about history and memory – the one can't be reclaimed, the other can't be trusted. But you try anyway?
I feel there is no personal reality you can fully claim – only a set of claims you prioritise as you wish, differently at different stages of life. And as a member of a group, you can agree with a dominant set of 'facts'. It's one job for the poet to expose the fragility of claims to facts. So that may account for the pessimistic mood you've picked up on. Also, there is a sense of loss in the book, not for any one grandmother but for Utopia – the state we can never have but think we know and certainly deserve! That's what I was trying to describe in 'Experience', a poem about 'the woman let off Death Row'.
Can you say something about the landscapes – urban, rural, coastal – which the poems inhabit?
I have lived for many years in an urban setting but also lived for 22 years in a small village. In a way, I see those settings as converging – suburbia is not quite, but almost, the setting I am imagining. It reflects my formative experiences. I grew up in a sprawling estate built after the war – on one side it touched the edge of a large city, on the other it touched the countryside. I could walk between the two landscapes. 'The Virginity of Decay' and 'Summerhouse' melt urban and rural landscapes together.
The texture of your verse is noticeably strange. It feels both contemporary and other-worldly. What reading, poetic or non-poetic, has informed your style?
Some writers who have influenced my style are Lorine Niedecker, a modernist yet pastoral early twentieth-century poet, Geoffrey Hill, Selima Hill and the traditional poetry of the Indian North Americas (through, among other writings, a collection edited by Jerome Rothenberg). All those influences are strong but indirect. I read huge amounts of every kind of writing. There's almost nothing I can't read with pleasure.
And can you say something about your approach to lineation? You use three- and two-line stanzas quite a lot, but also patterns of indentation and of very short lines contrasting with longer lines. Do you agonise over this kind of thing, or does it fall into place more or less intuitively?
Every poem is different. I dream of writing a collection of sonnets. Every poem groans and moans through several versions while I find the lineation that suits it best. It's the sound I'm after matching with the lineation. If that seems mechanical, it probably is, a bit. So it's not an intuitive process. I speak the lines over and over, change their position, length, over and over. In the end, there seems to arise a strong substance like bread dough that gradually sinks into a final form. That's how I experience the process of writing a poem – not rising but sinking!
Finally, what next? What are you writing now?