You have written a fascinating book called Gifts of Rings and Gold. Can you please tell us about it?
Gifts of Rings and Gold – the title is to do with the position of the letter G. It also refers to the great blossoming of literature with the late middle ages, the end of the age of legends and heroes.
The idea started with Harry Potter. There is a huge industry around the books now; part of that is John Granger, Hogwarts Professor. He produced an ebook examining the Potter books as Rings. He based the concept on Thinking In Circles by social anthropologist Mary Douglas.
The Potter books are written as Rings: the stories end where they begin, at Privet Drive, and in the centre of the book a big event happens which influences beginning and end. The series as a whole is a ring, and each book separately.
But there is also a more elaborate structure, the chiasmus: think of an archway. Its capstone, in the centre, holds it all in place, and each side mirrors the other in the build up to that centre. Some stories are like that, they build up to the big event, and then retreat from it with the same steps, but changed.
The chiasmus can occur simply as a line, a paragraph, but it has not been recognised, it can determine the structure of the whole.
A chiasmic story, by implication, deals as much with the consequences, as with the build-up to the main event; in our books, the main event is the end event.
So I looked at the oldest texts (I’ve always collected books) from Ancient Egypt: The Tale of Sinuhe, and it works. It works too, in Gilgamesh. I am no classical or biblical scholar, so I left that next time-segment to Mary Douglas.
So, where did J K Rowling learn the structure? She was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings. They are full of these structures. Where did Tolkien learn it? He was a big authority on Beowulf, which is also full of rings.
The Bible spread it around the world. Some Islamic texts have very elaborate forms.
You find it as a general structure in Milton, Tennyson’s In Memorium, even The Great Gatsby.
Next I tried to find out how it was passed on. And why was it used? It’s suggested it was a mnemonic: you know the opening, so you know the end, and something of the middle. So, was it a part of the Art of Memory?
I have left suggestions, hints, so readers could explore for themselves.
You are also a poet. What is it about poetry that you love?
Love it? Sometimes I hate it. People try to railroad it into easy systems; it saves having to go through the doldrums when you can’t write. But that’s a cop-out: the doldrums give the eventual poem its impetus or change of direction. What is it about poetry? I have wracked my brains over the years, and I’m no nearer. All I can say is: it’s what some people do.
Could you share with us a couple of your poems?
Do you have an app for melancholy?
I asked the store guy,
or a rap? the DJ
– I want to regain what I have lost
Do you know the next turning on the right,
I asked the bus driver,
or on the left, the taxi driver,
that looks the most familiar
in the evening light?
You don’t need apps for that,
You’re a natch.
RETURN TO THE ISLANDS
It was the fourth day out, the tide had been slow,
the wind down; to make up time they rowed
and that night rested. The air was changing;
I smelt flowers. The sky to the West deepening.
The watch slept, only the tarpaulin awake;
sleepy at first, ‘till the big drops broke.
Then all was uproar: scrambling, shouting;
I was, ah, back in the woodland, distinguishing
scents of violet, marsh marigold, hemlock;
and the catch-at-the-heart of wild garlick.
Wild garlick. And for that moment off guard
the sea sneaked long feelers in, then hurrahed
meeting sweet rain; and the nails jumped their post,
the caulking crumbled; wind took what was lost.
If any of me should return, let it be where
wild garlick grows down to the shore.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?
Um. I’ve been told I range too wide; a book must have set parameters. I can see that, but I’m a contrarian. Different aspects of how poems have been written throughout time become dominant as we go on. I always try to read back, and widely in translation. We’re stuck with being people, so we have to write people-things. Sometimes the best writing happens when you put your certainties aside, including current ideas and dominant thinking. Also, see next question.
Who inspires you as a poet?
Trying not to be personal but universal, only to surprise the personal in the universal. Sometimes a response to a current little idiocy can become something huge and revealing. My education was as a mature student; I found I had a knack for history. I don’t mean dates, kings and queens, battles – for me history has always been people in their time. Now we have off-shoots like the History of Mentalities, which is truly fascinating.
You are part of a very talented, creative family, as your wife Lavinia and your son Alex are also writers. Do you inspire each other? What has writing taught you as a family, do you think?
I suppose it is a unique and very creative atmosphere. The challenge to appreciate and understand the dynamics of very different writing styles can be wonderful and make you a flexible reader, and hopefully as a person.
Have you any books or collections of poetry that you can recommend to any budding poets or writers?
No, probably not. But whatever writers do, do not stick to here and now.
Read deep, read wide, read and think, read and wonder, read outside your known fields.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
On a personal level I’d want to be well again: I have ME/Chronic Fatigue whatsit.
On the universal level to hurry up the next wave of compassion and human-ness.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve had a break (see below), and so rush to catch up. I particularly like Canadian writer Karen Solie. She takes risks, has intelligence, cares about animals, the world, and is caustic on occasion. I like writers who reach out to greater things.
Mark Waldron has a great use of language – but… well, he’s a copywriter. John Stammers’ early work has a lyric quality of intelligence, light and colour I admire.
Dutch poet Rutger Kopland intrigues me, as does Danish poet Inger Christensen.
What is your creative space like?
I suppose it’s solely in my head, and undecipherable notebooks. I rarely work straight onto the screen. I’ve been to groups, on courses, did a Writing MA, and learned never to let anything ‘out of the house’ without being properly dressed. No matter if the courses demand a piece written for next week, the chances of anything you’d put your name to by then are slim: it’s your own work, make them wait.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
I was doing an online course to help me get work, and was loathing the whole subject. My response was to write a prose skit on it. The story took over. This gave me an appetite.
I’m just putting the finishing touches to a huge modern story based on the Gilgamesh tale. I’d like to have it published, if it’s good enough. This is a new venture for me. I’ll see where it goes. Still no work, though.