Astero...In my eighth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Claire Trévien about her poetry collection Astéronymes from Penned in the Margins…

I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve been asked, but could you say a little about the collection’s title, ‘Astéronymes’, and how the title and collection came into being?

It’s a good question as it’s a pretty obscure word! I came across it a few years ago when I was working as a research editor at the Voltaire Foundation. It’s a technique that Voltaire uses a fair amount, where he’d blank out a person’s names with stars. A bit like me saying ‘I am being interviewed by S**’. The word is a combination of ‘name’ and ‘star’, and it felt increasingly appropriate to me as the collection developed, as so much of it is about friendship, and hidden history, and archives.

It took me a while to create something that would feel different to The Shipwrecked House, this new collection only really started to click around December 2014. What’s funny is that my go-to answer back in 2013 to the interview question ‘what are you working on next?’ was that I was working on a response to Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. While that didn’t happen, I’m quite pleased that a trace from that time stayed, and that the concept was germinating already.

One of many things that I love about these poems is the striking images, unusual combinations and startling juxtapositions, such as “rain faxes | the dead long after we don’t”, “corridor breath”, “eyes uncorked”… (‘Confirmation Bias’). Where does your inspiration come from?

Gosh, I’m not sure, I always find that a difficult question to answer, because writing poetry is not a very conscious thing (editing is another matter entirely). I don’t think inspiration is singular; it’s what happens when different factors collide at once.

‘Confirmation bias’ is, for instance, the result of both a specific visit to my neighbourhood dolmens in Brittany, and the brewing of various thoughts both external and internal to that visit. Which is a pretentious way of saying that I was reading at the time an interview with centenarian Jessie Gallan in which she said that the secret to longevity is to stay single.

The poem ‘Expiry Date’ opens with the lines: “Some places rehearse the same | landscape over and over…” Could you tell us a little about the part that landscape, place, and Arran in particular, play in ‘Astéronymes’?

It’s funny, I’ve never thought of myself as a nature poet at all, but I’ve somehow accidentally created a collection where place is a character. Poets like David Atwooll have shown me that nature poetry doesn’t have to be dull and uniform – I was reading his Ground Work when I was on Arran so I have no doubt it helped me. I would never just write about landscape for the sake of it unless there was something about it that pulled to me, a story, a nugget of history, something that happened or could happen there.

The collection is not settled in just one place, there’s quite a few set in New York, a sequence based on Arran, several from Brittany, a few in Shetland, and several in the UK. What often ties them together are the human links I have brought or made in those places. My friend, the photographer Alex Boyd, showed me around Arran for instance, so some of the poems from that sequence emerged from our discussions but also the moments where I was forced to think, and forced myself to write, while he was changing lenses.

Photo credit: Bristi Chowdhury

Photo credit: Brist Chowdhury

There is a wonderful line in ‘Track Changes’ about “how weather bottled |its feelings for too long and must empty the scrabble bag | on the board” and it seems to me that there is a real love of language and its possibilities in this collection. Which comes first for you – the words or the experience/feelings?

Another tough question! I don’t think they can be separate. Poetry often comes from trying to work out how to translate an experience/feelings to someone else, so I’d say it has to happen that way around. Having words without a body is like hanging clothes on a rack rather than wearing them.

‘Azahara’ is one of the poems in ‘Astéronymes’ with a strong experimental and political element. Is all language political in some way? And do you think the experimental and the political in poetry are particularly strongly linked, such as by their energy and their potential for simultaneous disruption and restructuring?

Yes, I think all language is political, and all poetry is political. When poets try to not be political in their poetry, that is a political act. Politics are not some separate optional entity, they are entwined with our culture, with our lives. We’re not always necessarily aware when writing that we’re being political though, poems are not necessarily consciously political, but if you are writing contemporary poetry, then you are going to be putting your foot into that pie. Fifty years from now, your poems might not be deemed to have artistic value anymore, but historians will still find it a useful trace of the time, and that includes politics.

As to your other question, I think poetry has the potential to disrupt brains, and experimental poetry more so as it doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to and forces you to reassess your position and your definitions.

What haven’t I asked about the collection that is particularly important to you, as a person and/or as the poet?

Perhaps the curation slant – there’s a series of imaginary museum poems, two poems in the form of an index, a fake catalogue entry, and more in Astéronymes. In many ways these are a logical format for me to process experiences through, as they were, and are, part of my work life, and manipulating them to a different end felt right.

My favourite kinds of poems are ones where the form and the content fuse. By form, I mean not just the shape, or the constraints imposed on the poem, but also the material with which it’s created. I can’t seem to get enough of that, and so that’s probably why I strive towards that collision in my own work.

Astero...Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘Astéronymes’?
Directly from the Penned in the Margins website would be best!

Thank you, Claire, for these absolutely fascinating insights into ‘Astéronymes’ and your writing process.