Interview with Robert Saxton
Interviewer: Clare Sims
Published in PN Review, Autumn 2005
CS: There’s a lot of landscape in Manganese, a strong sense of place. But it’s kaleidoscopic, like a jumbled-up slide show. You have poems located in South America, Venice, Surrey, Los Angeles, Tokyo, China, Poole Harbour, Skibo Castle and other places besides, sometimes focusing on particular historical periods. I also detect a generalized feeling for pastoral. Can you talk a bit about your use of landscape?
RS: Well, I think part of the point of writing in the first place is to make experiences available, and of course one can choose to be where one wants to be. I often transpose real-life situations into different settings, quite randomly chosen -- for example, there’s a poem that starts in the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye, about a climber who falls off a mountain, and this is really about the cycling accident I had on a hilly road in Highgate. You’re right about the pastoral -- I’m working on a new collection provisionally entitled Local Honey. But I don’t think I’m inclined to idealize landscape. I can be tongue-in-cheek about it -- for instance, in poems where I’m drawn to Gothic rustic, the landscape of movies, the Hammer horror with its ivy and mist. I like the associations with melodrama. Sometimes I see a setting as somehow both foreign and English simultaneously. ‘The Dragon Gate’, for example, although set in China 2,000 years ago, has something familiarly English about it. It falls within the whole first section in Manganese, entitled ‘Kyoto Spring Breezes’, that deals with our dreams of East and West -- at a very basic level a belief that life might be better in, say, Rio de Janeiro or Los Angeles. At one time I was particularly drawn to Rio, with its two beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana, and ‘The Shambles’ is driven by a wish to get both these names into the single poem. But again I transposed the setting to somewhere else, the Shambles district of York, where I’ve imagined Copacabana as a night club.
CS: You obviously relish sestinas and villanelles, as well as sonnets. The variety of poetic forms, most of them rhyming, is a striking feature of your work. Of the numerous forms you use in Manganese, which are the ones that have lasting appeal for you, and what are the qualities that attract you to these?
RS: Well, I could never imagine myself not writing sestinas or sonnets. Sestinas encourage me to get characters and action into a poem -- I see the sestina as lending itself well to naturalistic narrative, though some people might find this surprising. Sonnets give me the chance to experiment with formal variations. I use rimas dissolutas a lot too -- a form Sylvia Plath favoured, where each stanza rhymes line for line with one or more other stanzas. With this rhyme scheme you can make the decision about form quite late on in the poem, and you can challenge yourself by extending to four, five or more stanzas. In the year 2000, the year I had my cycling accident, there was something else that fed into my poetry, and that was the discovery of a verse form that enabled me to do something different. It was a 3-line stanza where the first and third lines rhyme with each other consonantly, and the third and second lines rhyme conventionally as vowel and final consonant. So the three lines might end cat, dot, cot. It’s a very tight rhyme scheme because, if all the words are monosyllables, the last rhyme word is inevitable -- I mean, there’s no alternative. Of course, there is an alternative, a backstage one as it were, which is to choose an entirely different trio of words in the first place. It does help, I think, to write down lots of three-word permutations and then choose from among them the group that seems to offer the best compositional possibilities depending on the theme. And I found that these strictures would send the mind going off in different directions. There’s a paradox there -- the mind does unexpected things both when it’s detached from any restrictions and when it’s following the most severe of restrictions.
CS: What you describe sounds a bit like doing a crossword puzzle. Why did you find this so appealing?
RS: It was a bit like doing crosswords. I found this way of writing liberating because it opened up possibilities akin to the way the mind works when it’s given no cues -- when it’s following a subconscious logic.And I was writing many of these poems immediately after my accident. I had a lot of time. I was off work and was staying with friends. I’d discovered this verse form a few months before, on holiday in Scotland, and it was good to have the time to work with it properly. And it’s possible that these triplets gave me a way of coming to terms with my accident without confronting too starkly the damage that had been done, and the prospects for future healing. It’s quite difficult to write about an accident that’s happened to oneself -- you either choose self-pity or you find a reason to be optimistic, but there are quite serious creative pitfalls in both those extremes. So I suppose it did become a kind of diversion, experimenting with words, exploring accidental links and choosing pairings that fitted my purpose. It was both an engagement with my feelings about my accident -- in some of the poems, not all -- and a distraction from those feelings.
CS: You talk about the crossword puzzle approach and exploring the accidental links between words, but in fact the atmosphere and the movement of the mind in the poems are strikingly consistent.
RS: Yes, I think the reason for that is that in making choices of words I’m following my temperament in terms of the kind of atmosphere I want to create or the kind of theme that preoccupies me. These triplets are quite laborious to put together, and the requirements of the form force you to range broadly in search of suitable images and connections. But of course as a reader you’re not aware of all that filtering. In this connection I was conscious of something that Harold Bloom said about Emily Dickinson: he said he admired her speed of thought. She’s a writer he feels he can’t keep up with. I think one of the tools the poet uses that’s perhaps unique to poetry is that you can give the impression of speed of thought but actually you might have spent many hours on a just a few lines. It’s a sleight of hand, a trick, and it can operate well when you’re using imagery freely. I suppose if anyone had said that these poems reminded them a little of Emily Dickinson I would have been very pleased, but nobody has. But having written however many it is of these triplet poems, it seems like something I shouldn’t be doing any more.
CS: Why not?
RS: It feels like lingering by the lake instead of pressing on through the forest.
CS: You see it as a developmental phase in your writing?
RS: Yes. I’m still writing them occasionally, but always with a sense that they’re approaching their sell-by date. It’s all bound up with how I feel about formal tightness generally. It’s not that I want to escape from it but I’d like to see what life is like outside it. But having said that, I could never turn my back on rhyme completely -- in poem after poem, I mean. In an interview recently in Magma magazine Don Paterson was talking about rhyme and he said that in lines that are close together you might as well use half-rhyme rather than full rhyme, because half-rhymes close to each other will be stronger than full rhymes separated by five or six lines. I don’t agree with this at all because it’s making the assumption that rhyme works by sound, and if you can’t hear the rhyme, then it isn’t working successfully. But rhyme in poems can be like the glue that has been used to put a broken pot back together. It’s structurally important but you’re not aware of it. A lot of the rhyming poems in Manganese have inaudible rhyme. I wouldn’t mind at all if someone didn’t notice the rhymes, in fact I might think of this as a mark of success. Recently, though, I’ve been using rhyme that’s more obvious, rhyme you can hear, often combined with rhythms that are more obvious and more regular. The other thing that’s new for me is exploring nonsense more, in both rhyming and unrhyming poems.
CS: And your interest in nonsense is part of these attempts you’ve been talking about, to liberate yourself from approaches that have become outmoded for you?
RS: Yes. It’s that and a feeling that Ashbery delivers something that I like very much as a reader, but he withholds some of the potential pleasures of nonsense as well. Perhaps, for me, he chips away too much at language itself: ‘We see us as we truly behave.’ I prefer to keep language, and experience generally, more intact. There’s actually a strand of nonsense in Manganese, but it’s gentle. For instance, in ‘Ipanema Dreamer’, when I talk about ‘choice cuts of fish’ being available in my ideal nightclub, I know that in fact no one would ever speak of cuts of fish, only cuts of meat. Then one line runs, ‘There’s a crèche for the underaged,’ but everyone knows a crèche is for toddlers, not for underaged drinkers. And so on. Recently I’ve been giving the nonsense more of the centre-stage. It’s occurred to me that there might be some connection here with my mother, who died in January . She suffered from dementia. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s or anything extreme, but there was a time with her, actually it was some years ago, when we could communicate in nonsense. She would rhyme pointlessly, and sometimes I would join in with her. And a few of our conversations consisted of just a series of rhymes. Even though her mental faculties were quite severely impaired, my mother was incredibly positive in her nursing home -- there were times when she really thought she hadn’t a care in the world. So perhaps I’ve come to see links between loss of rational control and positive feelings, or at least ways in which unreason can be shared -- which isn’t to suggest that there’s anything at all liberating about dementia.
CS: I know you work for a publisher with a mind/body/spirit list, and thinking also about the poems you referred to earlier that look to the East, I wonder if there’s a certain orientalism in your interest in nonsense, in that you’re creating textures with words that lead the mind towards an opening that isn’t a fixed meaning?
RS: Yes, good question. I probably do. I think complete abstraction isn’t possible but a poem can have as much, or as little, relation to reality as, say, a Howard Hodgkin painting has to a landscape. Certainly, I don’t mind at all if the reader, having read something like ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’, which creates an elaborate pattern around games of chess, with each end-word to the line representing a chess-piece and all the thirty-two chess-pieces arranged in their correct order, says ‘Wait a minute! Does this poem actually say anything or is it just a funny little engine, ticking over? A kind of installation?’ But then I hope that even the poems whose patternings and distortions lift them away from the real world refract something recognizable -- even if only a feeling of regret, or the underlying sadness in things.
CS: And there are other poems in Manganese that seem completely transparent, aren’t there? How do these relate to what you call the triplets and the other more inward-looking poems?
RS: Yes, there are poems that are straightforward narratives, usually rhyming. Some of them are about historical figures, like Baden-Powell and Gilbert White. I think of these plain narratives as being at one end of a line, with the more inward poems at the other end, and this line runs through the book, like a washing line on which the poems are hanging out to dry. But the thing that struck me, while putting the collection together, is that the words ‘opaque’ and ‘transparent’ are often misapplied, because what could be more opaque than someone else’s life, especially when all we see of them is their actions -- like Nijinsky’s in ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’ -- while the poems that show the mind making its strange connections, weaving away mysteriously and dealing with emotions, surely have a kind of transparency?