In the Kingdom of Shadows coverIn my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Sue Burge about her poetry collection In the Kingdom of Shadows (Live Canon)…

“It all starts here,
among the gravestones,
names like promises…”
(‘The Storyteller’s Journey’)

‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ flows beautifully from poem to poem, from start to end, with linkings through words and ideas. It also has a sequence (‘A Short History of Birds’) spread across the whole book, and is laid out in four sections. Some of the poems too explicitly reference journeys and trails, such as the beautiful lines, “She breathes a vapour trail of longing | onto each cold, dark pane”(‘Windowgazer’) and “shining a path back | to the wombneck of the harbour” (‘after Alfred Wallis…’). How did the collection start and how did you arrive at this carefully crafted structure and flow across it?

The collection was initially called “Moments of Sleeping and Waking” which is the title of the poem I wrote about staying in Asta Nielsen’s house (she was a famous silent movie star) in Berlin. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of liminality, the spaces between experiences where we wait, sleep, travel. The collection initially had four sections – Bones, Dolls, Stories, Sleeping and Waking. Thanks to my two brilliant mentors, Heidi Williamson and Maura Dooley, it gradually transformed into the current format so it has kept the basic themes of the four sections but they are less rigid so the poems are able to have a more fluid dialogue with each other, calling up the ideas I’m interested in poetically – conjuring liminal spaces, cinematic space, what lies beneath in terms of psycho-geography and past lives, women’s voices, marginalised art, loss, storytelling, the Gothic etc

As the collection title might imply, death is a recurring theme and a beautiful, moving, haunting presence across the collection – as in life. Animals and children also play important roles in many of the poems, which include a taxidermist’s apprentice, dead sheep, broken eggs and the graveyard as:

“We are part
of an underground bestiary,
where worms unfurl,
where earwigs uncurl,
to feast on our untold tales.”
(‘The Storyteller’s Journey’)

What lead you to choose these themes, or did they choose you?

Probably a bit of both! I’m very interested in what shapes us and how childhood events and traumas create an adult but with a child hidden inside (or not so hidden!). I think many of my poems reference this. I walk a great deal and am always struck by the number of dead animals and evidence of predation one sees on country walks. I guess we constantly walk with death, but often don’t acknowledge it. I am fascinated by early, silent films and the idea that everyone on screen in these films is dead, we are seeing living ghosts, shades on screen. I teach a course on Gothic cinema where often the boundaries between life and death are blurred and that has been a big influence. Back in 2016/2017 I was involved in a project with the Poetry School and the Cinema Museum where ten poets wrote responses to the documentary film “Battle of the Somme” which was shot on location in 1916, a quite extraordinary film. It was a huge hit in 1916 as many audience members went to see if they could spot their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands etc for the last time… I find this such a profound and moving thought. I’m honestly not a miserable, doom-ridden person but that kind of experience stays with me and informs my work.

My earlier quotes and questions lead me into thinking about narrative and the use of history and story both explicitly and implicitly in ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’. Poem titles include ‘A Short History of Birds’, ‘Legends of Suffolk’, ‘Hansel goes to Disneyworld’, ‘The Truth About Happily Ever After’… and elements of personal narrative, witnessing events and stepping into the shoes of historical figures thread through and across the collection. How interconnected are ‘history’ and ‘story’ for you?

Oh very connected! I did an MA at the University of East Anglia called Studies in Fiction and became fascinated with how narratives unfold and how they repeat themselves constantly, there are no new plots under the sun after all. I very much enjoy stepping into the shoes of historical figures and enjoy how poetry allows one to be speculative and imaginative without getting too bogged down in historical fact/accuracy although that should, of course, also inform the work. I did a wonderful workshop at the Foundling Museum with Tammy Yoseloff which led to the poem “Rock-a-bye-baby”. I wrote a sequence (not in the collection) called “What Became of the Prostitute’s Hair” inspired by a Grayson Perry exhibition which had Victorian tapestries sewn with human hair. I’ve also written a poem about Fanny Burney’s mastectomy in the nineteenth century (without anaesthetic). I find it really easy to step into historical shoes, everything they experienced we still experience today. The emotions are the same whichever historical period you choose and I guess that’s where my personal experience and feeling of witnessing comes through and into my characters. I was a town guide in King’s Lynn for many years and, although the buildings were wonderful, what I enjoyed most of all was uncovering the personal stories behind the town, the social history. And fairytales, well, aren’t they just our psychological fears and concerns transformed into stories?

Sue Burge author photoFollowing from the earlier questions, what are your sources of inspiration and influences, both for this particular collection and also in your poetry in general?

Apart from my interest in film, history and narratives such as folk tales and fairytales, I suppose another major source of inspiration would be exhibitions. I devour them! The sequence “A Short History of Birds” in the collection was inspired by a fascinating exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum on birds in art. There were a lot of stuffed birds throughout the displays and I started to look at the idea of taxidermy more closely. It’s yet another example of transformation and the history of taxidermy is bizarre, to say the least! The poem in the collection about the Ibeji dolls of the Yoruba came from my time as a guide at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich which has a strong focus on world art. Travel is another big influence. I don’t do much long-haul travel now but I’ve written a lot about the countries I’ve visited. “Day of the Dead” was inspired by the markets I visited on frequent work trips to Mexico. I’m currently working on my second collection and have a sequence on Carmen (the Bizet opera heroine) – a previous visit to Seville really helped me to capture a sense of heat, street culture and eroticism (I hope!). Probably the biggest influence is reading other poets. I bore all my students with J K Rowling’s three tips to aspiring writers – read, read, read… I think it’s so important to immerse yourself in the genre you write in and beyond. Reading sparks my imagination, makes me look at the world differently, helps me to see how other writers craft their words and how they use structure and form. I also attend as many poetry workshops and courses as I can. They are always so stimulating and it’s great to meet fellow poets and bounce ideas around a community of like-minded people. I love the Poetry School’s on-line courses, particularly now I’m based in North Norfolk. They really help me to stay in touch with new ideas and provide contact with a wide range of poets.

You’re a film lecturer and there’s a filmic quality to many of these poems – they’re very visual and the details included, like film cuts perhaps, feel very carefully crafted, precise, important and sharply focused. The gloves in ‘Marigold’ is just one example. ‘Gothic’ also explicitly evokes film in its striking closing stanza:

“And me, caught in the projector’s dancing beam,
lips parted, wanting it
dark, dark, dark.”

What do you feel are the similarities and differences between poetry and film, both in how they work and the effects and experiences that they can create?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about more and more as I’ve been teaching some poetry courses called “Inspired by Film” where I’ve been using film clips to help participants generate new work.

One big similarity between film and poetry is its careful, deliberate structure. Sometimes a poem can even look like a strip of film on the page with its neat stanzas and stanza breaks. Deciding where to break a stanza or a line, how to create flow between different stanzas or aspects of the poem, where to put cuts so it’s more precise and dramatic – all these are considerations for film-makers too, particularly at the editing stage. I suppose when I say “film” in this context I mean arthouse, independent films which tend to be more challenging and thought-provoking whereas commercial films tend to be more for entertainment, a bit more surface, a bit more Hallmark card in terms of poetry?!

Film uses close ups, long shots, establishing shots and poetry does this very well too – going from the general to the specific and focusing down in almost painful extreme close-ups at times. Poetry is a lens through which we see the world. Christopher Isherwood famously said his way of viewing the world made him like a camera. Poets are close observers and can take you into a self-contained and believable world in just one short poem. I believe reading a poem should be like coming out of a good film, stepping from the dark into the light – not quite believing you aren’t still in that created world, but also with the feeling that there will be an interesting aftertaste for a long time to come and that the viewer/reader would like to see/read the film/poem again and again to discover more layers.

Style is another aspect of film which often comes into poetry. There’s a film called “Russian Ark” which is all in one take, and I’ve noticed recently quite a few poems are being written in just one sentence which is a lovely parallel of the long take, absorbing experience in one elongated in-breath… I’m very interested in experimental film. It’s often fragmented, non-chronological and subverts traditional techniques. For example, David Lynch’s films will often disconnect from the viewer in surprising ways, playing with time, transforming character, inserting another genre. It seems to me to be the poetic equivalent of deciding how to push the boundaries of the page, how to stretch language, break the mould of conventional meaning. The sonnet form is often used by contemporary poets in very experimental ways, broken apart and reconstructed.

Poetry also has a visual, narrative quality which is often very cinematic and can evoke atmosphere well with a few chosen words and images. I hope I evoke the Gothic with my choice of words in “In the Kingdom of Shadows”, and also expressionism with my focus on light and shade. Film noir is a great one to play with, I love creating poetry which has a rainy, gritty, urban feel!

I think film probably has a stronger focus on character and narrative arc than poetry does, poetry evokes the essence of things, conveys emotion, mood and perhaps makes the reader work a little harder than the viewer at times. Overall, both film and poetry are trying to convey something important to the viewer/reader, to communicate meaning in fresh and innovative ways.

“Now I practise daily.
At the local pool I swim
drowsy, dreamy lengths
until the ends of my hair
start to turn green.”

“One morning as I brush my hair
with long, slow, strokes,
Tangled in the greeny gold
are tiny shells, a seagull feather,
a wisp of salty seaweed.”

The two stanzas above from different places in your poem ‘Sirens’ make me think about transformation. This can also be found in other poems in ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’, from the poem ‘Bonemeal’ to the lighter ‘The Chandelier Competition’. Could you talk about the role and importance of transformation in poems in the collection? And also your thoughts about the transformative nature and powers of poetry itself?

I suppose I’ve always been interested in transformation. I love fairytales and how the hero or heroine is often unaware of their true identity or power. I like the idea that we can all become something else, and indeed we do transform throughout our lives, constantly taking on new roles. But I equally like the idea that we can dream ourselves into something completely other, exploring hidden selves, psychological selves, alternative selves. In poetry we can adopt alter egos and go exploring. Poetry transforms experience, it makes the ordinary extraordinary, makes the reader see something familiar from a fresh perspective. I think poets are alchemists, using words to create a series of transformative moments. Good poetry has the power to transport the reader into different worlds and often has a triggering quality – as we read, we make associations and understand ourselves more deeply. Often if I’m stuck when writing, I’ll read a few poems by other poets from my neverending stack of poetry books. This often sends my mind in different directions and the subconscious triggers mean that I can often juxtapose two ideas I wouldn’t have thought of putting together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not plagiarism, more like having a discussion with a poetic friend and coming out the other side with fresh eyes.

What question haven’t I asked that I should have asked, and what’s the answer?

Maybe whether The Kingdom of Shadows is typical of my poetry? It is and it isn’t. I quite often try really hard and really consciously not to write in a cinematic way, not to constantly reference films in my head. Of course, that never works! My debut pamphlet, Lumière (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is a celebration of Paris’s cinematic legacy as well as my personal relationship with the city. My new collection focuses on different themes (dance and the AIDS crisis) and a new pamphlet, due out soon, looks at my relationship with the sea and also explores illness. The way I’m tackling these subjects, however, is still very much in my particular voice with undercurrents of my abiding interests, although I think I’m pushing the page more and writing less often in neat stanzas now. For some reason Russian film keeps sneaking into my poems at the moment!

In the Kingdom of Shadows coverHow can people get hold of a copy of ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’?

You can contact me through my website www.sueburge.uk if you would like a signed copy or you can buy direct from the publishers (Live Canon) at http://www.livecanon.co.uk/publications.

I’d love to hear what people think of the collection!

 

Thank you, Sue, for these wonderful insights into ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ and the inspirations and influences, filmic qualities and transformations in your work.

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