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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to

This interview is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

In conversation with Sasha Dugdale Jamie Osborn
[This conversation took place around the time that Sasha Dugdale was finishing her latest book, Joy, and was preparing to hand over as editor of Modern Poetry in Translation. It was conducted (via email) between northern Spain, Sussex, Brussels and a flight to Moscow.]

Joy starts with a dark stage and a woman speaking. She’s Catherine Blake, wife of William. As the poem develops, memory and care and creation are layered together, and I think there’s an anxiety here that reflects the multiple, uncertain-yet-definite voices of the poem. When Catherine clutches at her body through her clothes, I can’t help feeling that what she is doing anxiously touching at layers of recollection and trying to get a grip on the words searing through her. Maybe one way for the reader to get such a grip is to ask: who’s speaking here?

I was primarily interested in Blake, but found it impossible to write about him directly. His own work is filled with a sort of clarity that needs no explication or dramatic footnoting. However, during my reading and research I found myself increasingly wondering about Catherine, his wife and helpmate. Blake burnt extremely bright and I wondered what living in proximity to that brightness would do to a person. Catherine spent many hours every day working with him in the cottage industry of engraving. She learnt all the considerable skills of an engraver, she worked in difficult conditions, handling the acids, pigments and plates, living daily with the chemical stench of the industry and its privations – and she worked alongside a man whose visionary art and fervent purpose may not have been open to her, a man who appeared to choose poverty and near destitution to fame and wealth. Even if we accept that William was the inspiration and the driving force, Catherine’s part in his art is significant. She was his apprentice, assistant, model, lover and carer for nearly half a century. Blake and Catherine worked so closely together and in such intimate partnership, that her erasure from the ‘mythology’ of Blake seemed worth redressing and her own sense of self in the face of such a powerful artistic ego worth considering.

But of course the poem is also concerned with living with artistic creation, and a sort of creation that is bound up with principle and ethics, and it is concerned also with grief, and the still unthinkable grief of losing a partner. In order to properly grieve you need to have known joy. Without the deep joy Blake and his wife clearly shared there would not be such a deep sense of loss.

The wonder of that brightness is something the reader must share with Catherine, and with the poet perhaps. But are there different kinds of brightness, in the poem and out of it? The way you describe Catherine above is touching and clear, a biographer’s illumination. That’s the kind of light that, in the poem might pick out the clothes Catherine clutches at. But there’s also a heaving, fitful burning that shines through in her words.

I couldn’t write a biography from the outside in, I knew I couldn’t do that for Blake, but I realised I couldn’t do that for Catherine either, because the idea of biographical ‘objectification’ is a troubling one for me. I can talk around it but in fact the idea of writing about another person as if you knew them intimately (as if you even knew your own self that well!) is hard for me. I can almost feel them speaking back, as sometimes happens when I translate and presume too much – interestingly it is the same ‘ethical’ dilemma I feel about translating, something to do with the risk of eclipsing the speaker with your own body. So, in a sense, Catherine Blake’s appeal was that she existed, but nothing much is known about her: a palpable shape, a life, but one I could sneak in and inhabit from the inside. So I wasn’t remotely interested in her clothes, or what she looks like as she speaks. However I couldn’t start to write until I felt my research made me safe, gave me a sense of her life which was ungainsayable. Then I could stop thinking about it and start thinking about an inner life. I was expressing something myself, I was expressing an anxiety about memory and the impossibility of recalling a life of experiences, and also the desperate isolation we feel when we are in proximity to a powerful voice. So she is haunted by my anxieties.

The abundant and complex and not always easy range of voices in Joy is something to take great care with. I’m also thinking of ‘care’ in the senses of curating and of looking after, which I can’t help thinking may be one of the most difficult tasks for a poet. Might one might see a similarity to the work of an editor, or of a translator? Do you think of your roles, as writer, editor, translator, as positions of ‘caring’ or of ‘caring for’ something? Or is ‘care’ entirely the wrong word; is it, in fact, a kind of joy?

I am finding these questions very hard to answer because they probe into something I am almost not ready to acknowledge. The voices in Joy are all my own. But increasingly they are filtered through a net of anxiety. It is a difficult position to write from because the anxiety threatens to stifle the voice. I’d say that Joy marks a change in my work because I have struggled with being a predominantly lyric poet for a long while, but the work I do in editing, some small acts of activism and in being part of an international network of writers means that it is very hard to write without anxiety, with the probing intellect switched off. Writing now means negotiating a new relationship between consciousness and ‘inspiration’, or whatever we call the darkness that poems emerge from. There is more ‘care’ and more mortality, more love for my loved ones and for the republic of letters which I increasingly believe in over all other structures of government. There is also more understanding, less optimism – more honesty, perhaps. I treasure honesty almost more than anything in the poetry I read now. But honesty now takes me to visions and places I don’t want to see or know and I find that a frightening prospect for my future writing. Still, honesty is tempered by love, and perhaps that is the ‘joy’ or ‘care’ you are speaking of.

It’s interesting that you mention a change in your work. Do you think it is a positive change, even if the reasons for it may be worrying? If by ‘the probing intellect’ you mean a kind of thought that is both provoked by and insists on the urgency of activism, no matter how small, and of supporting an international network of writers, then that should be a good thing. In the end, it is about honesty, and what you say about that strikes me as more inclusive and more modest and more difficult than many of the well-known comments (Shelley, Auden) about what poetry achieves or does.

I think honesty is a good thing in art, but a hard thing, because it is strange and seems unnatural. We have become so used to artifice and repeated and enjoyable tropes that it is easy for a relatively skilled writer who has regard for what others might say or think, to write a pastiche of what a real thought should be (facility is a terrible thing, and yet a writer mostly has it: it is the ease she first enjoyed when she came to writing and then spent a lifetime trying to discard). And in fact the deal between reality and artifice is the one we are all negotiating, so it is easy to cheat on our own selves. To add to that complication, honesty mostly isn’t intellectual, but felt truth. I think the most honest writing is where the instinct writes and the intellect refrains from moderation and shaping. As a more lyric poet I have always been drawn to shaping devices and forms but now I have a sense that I must write differently. If not now, then when?

You are quite right about poetics. I feel very strongly that Keats is important in his poetics, but Auden and Shelley are less vital to me. When I read now about poetry I try to pick a fight in my head with the text, because I want to be able to assert my own poetics rather than being deferential, I want my poetics to be proofed by contact with the views of other poets. I have to work hard to assert myself because I am crippled by deferential silence and nagging doubt. I like and embrace the poetics of women poets like Louise Glück, because I understand where they have come from, but I have to arm myself doubly against them, because they are so recognisable and could easily subsume me.

A while ago I was devastated to learn that I wasn’t a man. It was while I was reading Keats’s letters. I was enjoying them so much, I kept imagining myself talking to Keats, and then something dropped from my eyes and I saw that it would not be possible to be Keats’s friend and chat to him about poetics. The best (the closest) relationship I could hope for was to be his, or any other poet’s, muse. I don’t want to be anyone’s muse because the muse is silent. For a long while it didn’t bother me, but it bothers me terribly now, not least because I am complicit, I carry within myself the negative photographic image of a muse, mother, daughter, lover, wife. I am easy to silence, I don’t put up resistance. So you could say that writing Catherine Blake was a form of redress, an acknowledgement of silence, a slow assumption of equality. By the end of the monologue she understands her importance, she sees the angel.

Your poem ‘Cutting Apples’ describes thoughts as soldiers assailing ‘absence, which so hates to be considered / It throws the thoughts back out like thieves / And bolts the door behind them.’ Absence is the core of the poem (and some might say the same goes for translation, though I am not sure about that, personally). The way your writing speaks to loss or to absence is both worldly and almost dreamlike; can you explain that? And can editorial work speak similarly?

Some of the poems in Joy are concerned with loss of faith and the oncoming of grief. I don’t mean that in a literal and religious way: I didn’t write them as a conscious attempt to deal with these emotions, in fact I mostly only realise the truth of the poem when it is on the page. ‘Cutting Apples’ was a case in point. I hadn’t written anything for a long while so I was genuinely writing down the experience of peeling and cutting up a mound of apples for the sake of writing something plainly and without effect, and the rest of the poem sprouted unbidden from this exercise. Writing can’t grapple with absence, nothing can, it is the absolute zero, the vacuum where nothing exists, but it can take on our own struggle to comprehend it and ‘Cutting Apples’ is a sort of ‘real-time’ grappling with absence. Editorial work is different, because it is more intellectually active, and all about caring for the existing work of another, tending it – although perhaps what you imply is right: this care is in itself a way of negotiating the void.

When I talked about Joy to a friend of mine he insisted that we never actually feel absence in itself - like you say, it’s the absolute zero – but what we experience, rather, is the strangely continued presence of someone or something no longer there. Making sense of that may require a repetitive, half-mindless, half-careful process, an unwilled practice. Do you think that’s true? And do you think the practice of ‘tending’ may be the opposite of ‘cutting’, or are they on one level the same?

Yes, I think grief and absence are best expressed by numb repetition, which is why the villanelle is such a beautiful vessel for grief. I don’t think we are consoled by our own expressions of grief in poetry: other people may be. This is because when we write or compose we are not grieving the absence, we are actively and positive building a structure for others to grieve in. In that poem (‘Cutting Apples’), although the imagery is of violence, of cutting, and the bloody battle between thought and absence, the violence is positive somehow: it is a vital sign, although the fight is essentially pointless and inequal, the narrative slips, it can’t get a foothold, it is losing.

MPT maybe takes a different approach to ‘absence’. In a memorable editorial to MPT in the summer of 2015, you wrote of how ‘the censor’s ██████’ has historically attempted to make itself felt on poetry, and continues to do so. At the same time, you implicitly acknowledge that in our current times in the West we are lucky enough not to ██████. In an editorial just after Trump’s election, you write that we must all decide ‘Whether we give up our peaceful lives to be activists, or whether we protest by asserting our right to peaceful lives.’ Is it naive to ask if there’s a change of emphasis in the later piece? ‘It is not possible to write in a vacuum’, you say, in the 2016 editorial; what then do we make of the absence that so attracts and repels in Joy and which is, one might feel, a vortex, if not a vacuum?

I think there has been a slow evolution in my own thinking about the world. I work with Russian and Ukrainian writers a great deal, and everything we have experienced over the last year has been experienced by them at a higher level and for much longer: the rise in xenophobia, extremism, a nasty parochial nationalism carried into our countries’ political life, a polluted media stream, propaganda, lies. I’ve watched their responses and learnt from them. I’ve been made humble by their bravery and acceptance of loss, and how they are ahead of us in their understanding of the writer’s role in a politically fraught age. Most of all I have learnt from them that bitterness at what is wrong eats us up and cynicism breaks the heart. That does not mean turning away from activism or protest, but accepting that we must stand for what we believe even if it seems a matter of indifference to others. Times have changed. I am not a lover of conflict or argument, so I need to put my sense of the world into my writing and that dilemma I outlined in the editorial in 2016 is constantly in my mind. Translation is one way in which I can fill the void – it is an act of sympathy for the voice of another.

When I wrote about ‘not writing in a vacuum’ in the editorial I was referring to the wrong idea that poetry is a pure art, and that there is ‘political poetry’ and ‘non-political poetry’. I was making the point that we all write within our social structures, our national and international histories and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. However, how to use that awareness when writing? When I write I try to push away all the pressing things. To return to your thoughts about the shift from lyric, I am very occupied by this problem of how to integrate the two parts, the conscious intellectual thought process and the lyric impulse which seems best when (as Keats says) it doesn’t ‘have a palpable design upon us’. I wonder if the answer is that the enmeshing of these two elements happens at a pre-textual level, and then we write from that new position. I don’t want to seem certain or prescriptive about this because I am feeling my way. I am reluctant to say anything about writing poetry which makes it sound any easier than it is.

MPT has responded to those challenges, of loss, of political situations, not only by asserting the right to a peaceful life, but by asserting the right to and the vitality of variety. And the more I read of your own work, the more I come to believe the same applies there. There’s a dynamic between a kind of flux or dance and a countervailing insistent-ness within each poem. Is that something you’re very conscious of as an editor and as a writer?

MPT has a long tradition of vitality and variety and previous editors Daniel Weissbort, Ted Hughes, David and Helen Constantine were exemplary in their commitment to bringing new poetry into English. That spirit was already there, and it is something I feel strongly about and willingly continued. Joy is a particular collection in that I wrote it over the period when I was editing MPT and I had little time for my own work. As a result I think the collection is a series of ‘un-tranquil recollections’, rather than a collection which is knit together by theme and a sense of continuity. I am glad you feel single poems have integrity because more than anything I struggle for integrity. For any linguist integrity of voice and spirit is a difficult concept because we learn language by parroting others, and so we speak with the voices of others, their turns of phrase and successful linguists are uniquely sympathetic in my experience. You could say that all language is learnt in this way – through sympathy – even the mother tongue, but for those who pursue other languages at a high level it is a palpable ‘evil’, we mistrust our every utterance, know that originality of expression is impossible.

I absolutely agree with you about the value of integrity. And I certainly feel the un-tranquillity of Joy and in a different way of MPT is a necessary and inspiring response to our political times. Might it also be a struggle for a kind of pre-lapsarian language? Your description of language-learning as being at least in part founded on ‘evil’ is striking, and makes me think of a fallen state.

I am very grateful to you, Jamie! I am anxious about any notions of pre-lapsarian language, because such notions are essentially conservative. I think I was using ‘evil’ here in the sense of ‘necessary evil’, and I am not really entirely sure that sympathy and originality of expression are on different sides of the scales. I don’t know any other way to learn language and a sense of complicity and ‘fallenness’ are perhaps inevitable if you live in this flawed world and you are curious about it. But increasingly I see that the only way to remain human in such a world is to maintain that almost naively simple love, solidarity and friendship for those who have touched you and you touch.

Coming back to Joy and a question that probably has to be asked: is it a poem? It’s set out as a piece for the stage, complete with stage directions. I find much of your writing as mysterious as it is compelling. For example, Catherine speaks of Satan appearing with ‘a round sad face like a waterwheel and seemed tired and full of pity’. Might it help if the audience could see Catherine’s own face as she speaks? Or do you insist on the poem being in, as the final stage direction has it, ‘darkness’?

Joy is not really dramatic, and I am not a dramatic writer. It takes its shape from language, rather than the dynamic between characters. The imagery owes a great deal to Blake, I was really steeped in the images and the language when I wrote it and when I wrote I mostly had either a particular image in my head, or a generic Blakean image. But Blake’s images are interesting because they aren’t apart from the thinking and the writing. They are full of a truth, but it isn’t the truth of physical appearance, or even individual psychology. Often they look like beautiful cartoons, graphic illustrations, or the sort of pictures a child draws when the essential function is to indicate, rather than describe. And in the longer poems where images are not all illustrated we are required to guess at the visual accompaniment. This is how I imagined this piece and its relationship to image and colour.

This interview is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to
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