What is it you love about poetry?
I love the way that poetry can multi-task. A poem can mean different things to different readers and listeners, and it can simultaneously make you say: “Wow! I see things that way” and also “Hey! I’ve never quite seen things that way before.”
I also love the concise, pared down nature of poetry. A poem gives you something in concentrated form, and I like that you then have to do a little bit of work to flesh it out from your own heart and head.
Can you share with us a couple of your poems and the inspiration behind them?
The first one is a recent poem, inspired by nights out alone on mountain tops in remote parts of the Yukon. From time to time I love ‘overnighting’ on hills and on islands, travelling light and staying awake. You can learn a lot about both place and self:
The Mountain Top: Evening and Morning
Dry-grain rock springs the feet like cropped grass
until, with long final strides across bare boiler-plate slabs,
I am dipping my head
in the high mountain sky,
with fifty miles of elbow room
on either side to spare.
Darkness sumps horizon’s light
and invites me
to stay the night,
to drench my scalp
in small hours indigo,
for day’s blazing blue.
Only silver meteor slashes remind me that things move:
constellations, galaxies and lone stars lure my sanity
to ecstatic edge.
Hold on, for morning.
Yet something was there,
heard in slithering scree,
seen in dark shadow-bulks,
scent of pine revealing
a scent not-of-pine,
animal fear on my tongue,
a sense of tense, stealthy touch
deep within, a pulse to each nerve-end
until silent atoms of light cluster,
then thicken into myriad layers,
reclaiming distance and detail.
Azure day’s dip
was potent, heady.
was one rational gulp
The second poem relates to a more earthy and human experience in the same part of the world. It is written in the imagined voice of a woman I saw playing piano in a rough old bar in Dawson City, where a Gold Rush population of fifty thousand has shrunk to somewhere around one thousand souls:
The Westminster Bar, Dawson City: Old Joanna Hits Her Stride
I must be losing my grip,
all fingers and thumbs
from the nights of white rum.
But the ivory keys draw me in,
rounded at the edges, smoothed,
rancid butter coloured enamel
like the horse-toothed
bar-buttresses I serenade tonight.
I yellow in sallow rhythm-light
to accompany the décor.
Smoking Compulsory Here.
Thank heaven for the black notes,
I cannot tell my chromatic,
fingers from the off-whites.
Still, there is a cooling warmth
to the beached bones
of this smoothened keyboard,
salt-scoured by my earthy tunes.
Only my breasts resist
this gorse-hued coarsening,
this mellow tan leathering.
I flaunt a paleness of them tonight
and taunt the limp, curdling drinkers
with my double-barrelhoused,
clotted cream Milk Cow Blues.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?
My poetry has several, often overlapping, themes: the natural world (especially the ‘wild’); love and sex; a humanist, anti-religious vein; satirical humour; music and art; story-telling.
Those are the things that matter to me.
Politics also matters to me (I am a socialist) and I love the idea of politically relevant poetry, but I feel frustrated about my inability (thus far) to write good political verse!
Can you tell us about your first novel Pick Up The Pieces?
Pick Up the Pieces is based on a seven month solo journey I made not long ago, an eventful trip around British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. I decided to turn my experiences into a novel rather than a travelogue.
I created a fictional narrator who was able to describe my journey via her own observations, via access to my journal, and via interviews with people I met. This device allowed me to develop a plot and to have a commentator who is able to describe a bigger picture, whilst also poking fun at me and revealing her own character.
All the events are true, except for the small matter of my own death. It is a mystery story with rebirth as a theme.
The narrator is based on a character in some paintings by the artist Paula Rego. I am very excited at the moment because, following a recent BBC film about her, I managed to make contact with her and she is reading the manuscript.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
One thing I’d change about the world?
Handling POWER is not something that we humans are good at. That applies to individual relationships within families and right through to global politics. Power abuse is the root of sexism, racism and all the other forms of oppression and division.
So I would opt for a sea-change in human awareness of how to relate to others without power abuse.
Who inspires you and why?
My son inspires me.
I was a single parent from when he was 11 months old and we are very close.
His presence in my life has changed me for the better, has taught me loads, and has given me a spinal column to my world that will always be there.
Tell us about one of the best days of your life.
So many “best days” (and nights) to choose from!
I could get lost in making this decision, so I will go with the day when my younger sister and I spent a day walking and reflecting on the death of our mum and dad (they died within a year of each other after quite troubled years). We didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, but we were able to make sense of it all in retrospect, and grow from our talking.
As children we had created a fantasy world of stories and music, mainly led by me as the older child.
On our walk she said to me: “Thank you for my childhood”. I can’t think of anything much better than that!
What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I am reading guide books to the Hebridean Islands. I have visited a few but a recent trip to Berneray, Harris and the Uists has ignited a desire to spend more time there.
I am also re-reading my library of Alice Munro short stories.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
Over the last year or so I have been getting into collage making. It’s something I have had on a backburner for a long time, so I have built up a good collection of images and texts and I am really enjoying a different creative enterprise.
I had an exhibition last summer and am part of a large one in Shrewsbury this month.
Details are on my blog at www.maintenantman.wordpress.com
Other than that I am fantasising wildly about what might happen if Paula Rego (and her film director son) like Pick Up the Pieces. Dream on, Ted!