Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Interview with Harriet Tarlo

Harriet Tarlo is the editor of The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman, 2011), a fabulously stimulating introduction to the work of sixteen poets more or less closely concerned with place and landscape. Her own work includes Poems 1990-2003 and Nab. She now teaches English and Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Harriet gave the following very generous and interesting answers to my questions:

TW: Harriet, thanks first of all for this anthology, which I've been exploring slowly. Partly that slowness is just an accident of how my reading happens at the moment, but partly it relates to the nature, and range, of the work you've chosen. Some of it's the sort of work that might get called difficult - at any rate I've been grateful for your introduction which really helps the reader to navigate the different approaches and techniques and ideas which the poets use. I keep having to stop and go away and digest something, or have a go at something myself. It's as much a book of prompts for landscape poetry as a book of landscape poetry itself - prompting further reading and further writing.

HT: I am rather delighted at the idea of you going away and trying things out; it illustrates the way in which good poetry of an exploratory bent demands participation and effort from the reader ... but takes it a step further even. Perhaps some of that will be in your next collection?

I think it will, but probably not in ways that are immediately apparent. Much of the work in the anthology is some distance from my own approach(es), so when I try it out I don't move seamlessly into it but into a strange unknown terrain somewhere in between. I'm stretching the spatial metaphor a little, but I suppose I'm agreeing with you that the work demands participation. I wouldn't want to appropriate techniques anyway, but yes, putting in some effort as a reader (as long as you get something back) tends to stimulate me as a writer.

Actually, I’ve always felt somewhere in between myself – I think many poets do when it comes down to it.

So the introduction really does introduce the work, as well as functioning as a mini-critical essay on the work and a justification for the anthology. It feels carefully judged in terms of tone, positioning, and so on. How much blood was sweated in the writing of it?

Rather a lot of blood actually -- I found it far harder than writing a "straight" academic essay. I wanted it to be subtle enough to do justice to the work, but I didn't want it to be off-puttingly academic. I wanted it to introduce the work, but not over-explain it. I wanted it to be long enough to say something, but not tediously lengthy. I also felt like a position statement for my own ideas and poetry as they have developed over the years, a justification of ideas I have been bandying around. I wanted to mention every poet at least once. Furthermore, it had to do the usual anthologising job of explaining how the book works and why the poets therein were chosen. Choosing was hard too of course. There's some great work out there, but neither Tony (Frazer, the publisher) nor I wanted to have very brief selections from many poets. We wanted decent selections from people we felt had really contributed to this area over the years.

I'm interested in the distinction you make between this work ('radical landscape poetry') and pastoral, which you argue contains at its heart 'the morally and socially-inflected contrast between the cultural/urban and the natural which has... become increasingly outdated.' There's a sleeping dog which I don't want to wake here; I mention it because I agree that pastoral is socially inflected, and while the work in the anthology often is as well, it seems to me to be more consistently interested in the relation between an individual and a landscape, in the lived experience of being somewhere. To put it another way, I think that Marvell could have written 'Upon Appleton House' (a poem I very much admire) without going there - the landscape is mainly used as a language for speaking about society. Whereas it would be absurd to say the same of Mark Goodwin's 'Borrowdale Details', for example - it's a poem about being there as much as it is about the place itself. Is this something which characterises radical landscape poetry, the idea that it's about place-as-experience rather than place-as-object?

Strangely, I have just been re-introduced to 'Upon Appleton House' by a wonderful talk about Marvell given by Elizabeth Cook, a poet and novelist who was a fellow-speaker at the Holt Festival of Nature Writing in Norfolk in February.

I agree, certainly not place-as-object and, yes, often, perhaps always, place-as-experience is part of it, but perhaps the most radical thing is to push beyond that even to try to reach place-as-place, the non-human elements as having existence in their own right and our responsibility even to try to get past just our own experience of that. We are straying into ecopoetic or even eco-critical theory here. Of course it's impossible to actually do this and that is one of the things that has always attracted me to radical work in poetry, its striving beyond itself, ourselves.

Speaking of actually being there, a number of poems in the anthology appeal to me particularly because I know the places involved - Peter Riley's 'Shining Cliff', for example, which evokes a place which happens to play a minor but significant role in the private mythology of my childhood, and the extract from Tony Baker's Scrins which takes place in Birchover. On the one hand I feel that I have special access to those poems. On the other, the scene I imagine the Birchover piece taking place in is really Winster, the next village along from Birchover, so right landscape, wrong place. My local knowledge both helps and hinders me. Does it matter that many of these poems are about very localised places and experiences of places which aren't accessible to most readers? Is landscape poetry about giving place to people in a sufficiently vivid way that it's the next best thing to being there?

At its best, I think we see the macro through the micro as one does in ecological thinking actually. The localisation gives an integrity to thinking and to poetry. Perhaps also people can seek the places and are reminded of the places. After the Sheffield Ground Aslant launch, Peter Riley came to talk to students at Sheffield Hallam about Alstonefield, his poem based on walking around that Derbyshire village. I think we all felt slightly ashamed when he asked whether we had been there. We had been reading and thinking about the poem -- I do have it in mind to go there but hadn't got round to it -- how absurd in a way. It's not a big country. But of course we are reminded of our own places by other people’s; we draw parallels all the time in reading. And then again, we might have known the place once, as you did some of the places in the book. I had a rather moving email in a way from someone who had worked in the steel industry at Workington about my Workington poems -- he remembered the tipping of the slag over onto the beach. I of course had never seen it; had used found text from the conversation I had with slag collectors on the beach. But, yes, beyond all that, I do think that landscape poetry can take you to places -- at its best all writing gets you beyond yourself, your experience.

Does it go back to the opposition with pastoral, which seems to be all about using shared, stable ways of talking about shared landscapes, whereas these poetries are about making unstable experiences of landscape available for the first time, without that reliance on convention?

Yes, basically!

Your chosen term 'radical landscape poetry' clearly gestures primarily at formal and stylistic features. But for me there's also an echo of the tradition of political radicalism that was deeply concerned with issues of land ownership and occupation. Political rights in England were always tied to the land through the ideas of the parish and constituency, and the Levellers, Luddites and Chartists seem to me to have been fighting over the way land is occupied. Perhaps all this is tenuous. But is there, do you think, a political radicalism in these poems? Is there a political (perhaps with a small 'p') radicalism in the idea that poems challenge the way we interact with landscape and the world?

Yes, I think there is, very much so, and you are not off the mark at all with your historical references. "Radical" was always meant to imply both form/language and politics/ideology. Later on than the groups you mention of course came John Clare who is an important figure for a fair number of these poets. In fact recently, on the strength of The Ground Aslant, I was invited to join a great new venture of Simon Kovesi's tentatively called the Green Man Arts & Culture Collective. Gathering thoughts for our first symposium, I was surprised myself by how much I found Clare had influenced me, strange as that sounds -- the wonderfully anarchic and metonymic prose writings as much as the poetry (as is often the case with C19 poets). It is not just his uncompromising attitude to form and the way that his observation of nature, especially birds and nests, is so close and so respectful, but also his passionate defence of commonland and resistance to enclosure. There's such a wealth of writing on the English field in Clare and the field is my current obsession. For me it is the place where people and land meet most dynamically --- changing field patterns contain that history of desire, need, exploitation, economics --- and the extraordinarily wide range of aesthetic/emotional appeal (or not) that fields have for us closely corresponds to this human relation to land. Then of course there's the environmental movement and the newly termed "ecopoetics", a much debated term, is a consciously politicised poetry in response to ecological crisis. It's a place where some of these poets are happy to be housed, though not all. I would actually be quite interested (though I can hardly believe I am writing this after all the work of the last one) in compiling an anthology of English ecopoetics. However, Ground Aslant wasn't it -- something wider and narrower in a way. But politics is always there -- it's inevitable in poets who engage seriously with language and, for me, it can't be separated from their use of language and formal experimentation either. That question of whether it is more feasible for defamiliarised language to challenge the status quo, the "mind-forged manacles", has been hotly debated since the early days of modernism. What can I say? I still buy it!

The most obvious way in which the anthology is 'radical' is with regard to form. You refer to 'a degree of formal experimentation', and it seems to me that most of the poems are what we would call 'experimental' or 'innovative'. (And let's ignore the fruitless debates to be had about the applicability of all these categorising terms.) Can you say something about the forms in use? I'm particularly interested in the idea of 'open field' writing, not least because it seems to have a pleasingly literal application. And also perhaps something about linear vs non-linear? I do see clearly that 'linear' could be used to describe a formally traditional poem, and that this might not be the best or only way to write about landscape. But some of the poems do seem to me to be basically linear in form (such as Carol Watts' fabulous 'Zeta Landsacpes'). And, taking things literally again, I can't help thinking of walking in a landscape being fundamentally linear (plotting the route on a map) - for me the experience of being in and moving through a landscape may be archetypally linear.

Interesting and I couldn't agree and disagree more with different bits of what you say here! Yes, I am seduced by the idea of Open Field writing being organically appropriate to this work and it's the "tradition of the new" that I grew up in via the Americans (Duncan, Olson, Fraser, DuPlessis) and later British exponents (Caddel, O'Sullivan, Presley). It's there in the poetry and poetics from Olson’s

“Projective Verse” (1950): “We now enter, actually, the large area of the whole poem, into the FIELD, if you like, where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other” and, later when he argues that “all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring”. It’s more than a metaphor, though it’s that too. I have written about this “field poetics” in a recent essay for Placing Poetry, a book edited by your colleague at Northumbria, Ian Davidson, and Zoe Skoulding – it is out with Rodopi soon I think. In terms of poetry, for me the more dynamic, open form style of writing, which makes use of the whole page-space to create, is particularly suited to reflecting on and engaging with the spatial, be it the openness of a field, moorland, cliff or hillside, those spaces in which we see human and non-human elements at work as on a canvas in the open air. Here, poets might even attempt to embody the vast, complex, inter-related network of vegetation, insect and animal life that such a space contains, and to reflect intelligently upon it.

“Linear” – well, it depends how you take it and your comments have certainly made me think about it again, especially regarding maps. Indeed, the work of Carol Watts and others in the anthology is not written in open form, but I don’t see it as linear either in the sense that, broadly speaking, the trajectory of the poem does not follow a cause and effect, or other logical/conventional/narrative, structure (beginning, middle, end) but is a much more circular, exploratory affair. In fact, in Carol’s case, she has invented her own prime numbers structure which is something that seems to me have been at the heart of experimental writing practice for decades – see Surrealist games, Oulipo etc, but also individual experiments such as Richard Caddel’s Ground, one of my favourite poems and one which uses a re-playing/spatialising of a found piece of text as its structure. Ultimately the writers in Ground Aslant all work in the free verse tradition that allows for the invention of independent new structures in poetry. All contemporary poets, wherever they may cast themselves or be cast on the traditional-experimental spectrum (and I agree that those debates can become tedious) are influenced by that vers libre revolution it seems to me. But, I am thinking here more about linear as used in the narratological sense where it is almost always “non-linear” in fact!

But then again, linear, as in it involves lines, is of course relevant to both poems in The Ground Aslant and maps – fields too of course in their enclosed nature (fields, walls) and in their plough-lines/planting lines. In poetry and the field, even the most open form/field poetry, the line is always there, even if only by its (relative) absence (the word “poetry” immediately demands it and won’t let it go): And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE?, says Olson in “Projective Verse”. There is so much one can do with the line, just like any discipline. My own writing deals in line fragments. I have relatively recently discovered Leslie Scalapino’s work and in a poem I admire she uses a long line right-justified which slips over the edge in a suggestive drift. So, I don’t see a clear divide between “open form” and “linear” poetry, and not only because I have these two ways of reading the word “linear” in my head at once. Walking though to me is really not linear – I can’t see it that way. The map is a flattened landscape, made to fit a page. Walking (even if worked out on a map, which I seldom do) is not flat (especially in Yorkshire!) – it is full of drift and wandering, diversion and going around and about, rather than directly, crossing fields, moors, gates, walls, not just walking along the line of them.


Anonymous Institute for Advanced Study, U of M said...

Another interview with Harriet Tarlow, this one talking about recent collaborative work with Judith Tucker.

10:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home