Arc coverIn my third interview for In the Booklight, I talk to David Clarke about his poetry collection Arc from Nine Arches Press…

The collection title is a beguiling one: ‘Arc’. Could you say a bit about how you arrived at this title and also the arc of the poem’s ordering into and through sections?

I wish I could give a more coherent answer to this very good question, but the title happened more or less by accident. I think all poets have words they like to use a bit too much, and I did begin to notice as I was writing the collection that the word ‛arc’ was one that kept appearing in my poems. My first instinct was to take it out, but then it came to seem more like a trail of breadcrumbs through the book, appearing occasionally in quite different circumstances. I like the idea of books of poetry having a kind of subterranean network of connections within them (there are others in the collection, I hope) that do not necessarily resolve themselves into a clearly stated theme.

The ‛arc’ of the title comes up in the first poem, ‛Throw’, which is about a boy throwing a ball into the air. For me, that poem is about the act of creating something, throwing it up to see where it will land, which is always an open-ended experiment for me. So, in that sense the ‛arc’ in the title is a metaphor for the whole collection and for writing itself.

The only other thing I can say about the structure of the book is that the various named sections pick up a number of themes that preoccupied me while I was writing the poems. Again, those themes are fairly loosely defined, and there may be poems that do not immediately seem as if they ‛fit’ with the section’s title, but again I wanted to leave the nature of those interconnections open for the reader to construct for themselves.

From a modern-day Orpheus, Superman, Achilles, Lenin, Plato and ‘the Artist’ to everyday “shifty blokes”, “busy mums and doting granddads”, ‘Arc’ is full of characters that are both interesting in themselves and also for the insights revealed through them. Where do you find the heroes/anti-heroes and other people that animate the poems in ‘Arc’?

When I first started writing seriously, a member of a class I went to turned to me one day and said, rather pityingly, ‛You’re really not a nature poet, are you?’ And it’s true, I’m not much inclined to write about the birds or flowers or trees, unless they are telling us something interesting about human beings and their relationships. Basically, people interest me, and things much less so. We are the creatures in this world who make meaning and I am endlessly fascinated by how we go about making those meanings, even if we are self-deluding or dishonest. I guess that’s where many of the characters come in, and they are quite often people I have observed, although in fictional guise. Also, I am very interested in history and love nothing better than chancing upon some unexpected historical fact when I am reading (like Lenin being a fan of music hall during his brief stay in London). As soon as I find out something like that, I know I’m going to have to make a poem out of it.

In ‘Arc’, free verse takes its place alongside poems such as ‘Scott Walker Sonnet’ or rhyming pieces like ‘Dear Superman’ and ‘Reading Habits’. Do these poems come to you wearing their form as lightly and beautifully as they read from the page or do you have to craft them into that subtle shape?

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Photo by Helen Dewbery

I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea of ‛free verse.’ I think every poem has a form that suits it and I don’t like to write poems that don’t have some kind of structure to them (even if it is buried very deep!). However, when I’m using stricter forms, the struggle is, of course, not to let the sense and the overall flow of the poem become overpowered by the formal constraint. I mostly do the earlier part of composition in my head, and quite often I can see the structure of the poem in my mind’s eye, in terms of how it wants to look on the page. The beginning of the poem then frequently sets the tone in terms of rhythm and possibly the rhyme, and then it’s really a matter of being true to that original sound in the head, carrying it through the rest of the poem. There is a fair amount of tinkering that goes on after the early drafts, but by that point the poem generally has its shape.

Although this probably isn’t visible to the reader, I do also write a lot of poems that are produced by means of self-imposed formal strictures, which is an idea associated with writers who are inspired by the Oulipo. For instance, poems like ‛Dear Superman’ or ‛Paysage marin’ are based on a form of my own invention (basically a kind of double Spenserian stanza with the second stanza inverted), but were first generated by pre-determining the rhyme words at the end of each line (basically sticking a pin in a rhyming dictionary). I like this sort of exercise because you never know where you are going to end up! However, it does take a lot of work to get the finished poems sounding like something that transcends the original constraint, otherwise it could be quite a sterile exercise. I wrote quite a number of poems using this technique and threw about 70% of them away in the end.

One of your poems is called ‘Sword-Swallowing for Beginners’, and the part of me wants to ask how many sore throats were involved in the writing of that poem. Jokes aside, where does your poems’ inspiration tend to come from and does research play a big part in your writing process?

Research is something that is part of my professional life and, although there is a satisfaction in gathering and weighing evidence, poetry releases me from the need to tell the truth (or, rather, to reproduce the facts). I can proudly say that I did no research whatsoever for ‛Sword-Swallowing for Beginners’, either practical or theoretical, although no sword-swallower has angrily challenged me at a reading yet. I hope the process isn’t as bad as I imagine!

Joking aside, although a lot of my poems have some basis in fact, I try to put as much distance between the situation that has inspired the poem and the writing process as I can. For me, writing is like a kind of productive daydreaming – some idea or image will get me started, but then I want to see where imagination takes me.

Many of your poems in ‘Arc’ have a wonderfully subtle edge or sting in the tail to them, such as the end of ‘News from Home’ where the ex-wife is carrying on life and “A guest | would think this dent in the sofa | could have been made by any arse.” When you write a poem, do you tend to already have the end in mind, or do these succinct and thought-provoking closing lines actually emerge out of the drafting and re-drafting process?

Opening and closing lines are a real hobby-horse of mine. In fact, I’ll be running a workshop on them in May at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, where I’m also looking forward to reading with you, Sarah. I encounter so many potentially great poems at open mics and even in the pages of magazines that are let down by a ponderous opening or just because they don’t know when to stop.

Although I think there is a danger in making poems that are too much like jokes in terms of their structure, in that they only really exist to carry us to the punchline at the end, I do quite often have a last line as starting point for the writing of a poem. What I’m hoping to do is to make the journey to that last line as interesting and surprising as possible.

I’ve talked about characters, but quite a few of the poems in ‘Arc’ are also set not just in specific locations, such as the greenhouse, shed or music hall, but also in specific cities or areas. What part would you say place plays in the poems in ‘Arc’?

I suppose because it interests me so much to write about people, their situations, and their relationship to the world and to other people, place becomes important. This is where I can’t go along with Larkin’s ‛Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ For me, even the most banal experience is located somewhere specific and conditioned by that environment, even if the location is a humdrum or dreary one. The real locations that get mentioned, like Leeds, London or Swansea, are all places I have lived and, although the poems are not straightforwardly autobiographical, there is something about the specificity of those cities that is inseparable from the experiences they draw on.

Arc coverWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Arc’?

Copies can be ordered direct from Nine Arches Press.

Thank you, David, for such interesting insights into ‘Arc’ and your writing process. And I’m very much looking forward to reading with you at this year’s Cheltenham Poetry Festival in May. (Tuesday, May 10 – 6:30-7:30 at Smokey Joe’s, Cheltenham.)