voices from front coverIn my seventeenth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Caroline Davies about her poetry collection Voices from Stone and Bronze (Cinnamon Press)…

The collection’s intriguing title perfectly sums up the strongly themed contents developed from/around war memorials and statues. Could you tell us a little about how the collection came together and what was its initial spark of inspiration?

I began writing the poems which became Voices from Stone and Bronze as I was doing the final edits of my previous collection, Convoy. At the same time I’d started to visit the battlefields of the Somme and Arras on writing trips organized by Vanessa Gebbie, and in the company of military historian Jeremy Banning. Initially I wasn’t sure about writing another war-themed book but all it took was that first visit to a battlefield cemetery and walking along the rows and rows of graves of young men to make me want to write about them.

Back home I began noticing war memorials especially the ones which we walk past every day and often don’t look at or consider fully. There is a war memorial outside Euston Station, with four statues whose voices took over my imagination. I also became intrigued by the sculptors who made the memorials and the men, often ex-soldiers, who modelled for them. So there were lots of sparks of inspiration to get me going. I put the collection together as I finished being a mentor to Becky Cherriman who had been working on her first collection, Empires of Clay so all the things we’d discussed about taking the reader on a journey with the poems and finding poems which resonated with each other were in my mind.

“This history is not the whole truth
Only the ground, the archaeology, the archives can reveal
these men in their trench, in their tunnel, on this map,
at the point where history abandoned them.”

(From ‘Peter Barton’s Lessons of History‘)

Reading the collection, I am guessing that a lot of research has gone into its preparation. But I’m wondering what the actual balance of fact and imagination is in the poems and how easy it was to blend the two?

I certainly did lots of reading and plenty of walking round London and other places looking at memorials and walking the battlefields with Jeremy and writing companions like Vanessa. Each poem arose as a result of something catching my attention. Jeremy is used to taking a variety of people to the battlefields but I’m sure I’m probably the first person who wanted to visit, the 41st Division memorial at Flers, because the statue is the twin of the one at the Royal Fusiliers Memorial at Holborn Bar.

I’ll give you an example of the mix between the known and unknown using one of the poems about Charles Sargeant Jagger. I really liked his work as a sculptor and read everything I could find about him, including Jonathan Black’s History of Art PhD thesis. This included extracts from Jagger’s letters during 1915. He was at Gallipoli where he was wounded and he wrote home to his fiancé to tell her in understated terms about what had happened:

“I had just stepped out… into the open when I saw several flashes, not more than 20 yards in front of me… and down I went with a bullet through the right shoulder. Then commenced the very devil of a scrap.

I had… dropped outside my Post and was naturally exposed to all the fire. The Turks hurled bombs and things at us… I had [the] sense to yell at my men to give them raid fire [rapid fire], which they did with a vengeance, and also to chuck bombs and, in about fifteen minutes, we had driven them back. I can tell you it was a narrow thing. Three times, as I lay there, glued to the ground, I felt the scorching air from bombs [exploding nearby] on my face, splinters of stone kept hitting me and my pocket was torn away, by a piece of bomb… although my Corporal had crawled out to me, the firing was so hot that he could not raise his head to bandage me for fifteen minutes or so.”

I had the bare facts about what happened after he left the trench, what it was like being shot at and that it was his Corporal who crawled out into No Man’s Land to reach him but without any emotion. So in my poem, ‘Lieutenant Jagger remembers his Corporal’, I allowed Jagger to reflect sometime later on this act of bravery and more generally on the courage of the men who fought with him.

Most of these poems are in first person, but that first person stepping into a lot of different flesh, stone and bronze skins, including soldiers, their loved ones, the sculptors and the statues themselves. This is quite a feat, given the range of different voices and how close a writer has to get to an individual character to capture their experience in the first person. How easy or hard was this, and were there any particular techniques that you used in this process?

Thank you for saying that I’ve conveyed a range of voices in the poems. What I’ve learned to do is to wait until I can hear the voice of the poem, be it Sergeant Cox going to a sculptor’s studio to model for a memorial to Francis Derwent Wood reflecting on the men who are coming to him to have masks made to hide their damaged faces. I discovered it is no good trying to rush a poem and attempting to get it down in draft before it is ready to come. You have to wait.

caroline_0435“Your poems rise like ghosts of men.” (‘Gone to War’)

War is obviously quite a difficult and dark setting to be writing in, evoking strong emotions. Though the poems themselves also have their lighter touches, I’m wondering about the impact on you personally, emotionally, in the writing of this collection? And also when you read or perform the poems?

I’m getting used to the poems being received in complete silence and have come to recognise this as an appropriate response to what is portrayed in the poems. At a recent reading on 1st July to remember the start of the Battle of the Somme we ended the reading with two minutes of silence.

In terms of the writing it was me shaping the material, dark though it was at times and choosing what to include. During the battlefield visits I learned about the work with which Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning had been involved at La Boisselle investigating the tunnellers, two of whom are still buried below ground. However I wasn’t able to write about it other than obliquely in the poem about Peter Barton. Perhaps the idea of being trapped was too much. You’ll have to read Memorandum by Vanessa Gebbie for poems about the tunnellers.

The poems which I find the most difficult to read aloud are the ones about my relatives who were killed, my great uncle, Victor Davies and a more distant cousin, Percy Honeybill. So I don’t usually include those in the readings.

There were other aspects of the war which did make me flinch but then I wrote the poems. A couple of the poems are about the gruesome work of recovering the long dead corpses from the battlefield months after they had been killed. I had the testimony of Private j McAuley of the 2nd Border Regiment (he became a pacifist after the war). I felt that if he had been able to steel himself to go through human remains to try to identify the man who had been killed then I shouldn’t shirk my responsibility to bring his words and descriptions to light again.

Giving some of the statues themselves voices creates some wonderful contrasts and perspectives in terms of bringing the past into modern day, our contemporary conflicts and how the world now might seem to soldiers killed in World War I. I’m wondering how and when the idea of actually bringing the statues to life occurred to you? And also, as this is a potentially very tricky perspective to pull off so naturally, what difficulties you may have found in the process and how you overcame them?

It was a long process. I spent a lot of time just sitting near the statues and observing what went on around them particularly with the four statues at Euston. Initially their poem was about how they were created and the unveiling of the memorial in 1921. But because they are still in place and are a part of the London landscape it made sense to relate their stories of how they died and the lives they’d lived to contemporary society.

The Euston Road mob poem took me about a year to write and I confess that they became like real people to me. While I was writing I read The Evil Hours, about PTSD written by David J Morris, a former US marine and poetry by Kevin Powers and Brian Turner. This led to me including a homeless ex-veteran in the poem and allowed my Euston statues to express their feeling about the trauma of war.

The biggest challenge is writing the poems was giving myself permission to write. As with Convoy I sometimes came up against the idea that as someone who hasn’t been involved in a war that I shouldn’t be doing it. But I was sharing drafts with the incredibly supportive members of the workshop group, led by Katy Evans-Bush and with Vanessa Gebbie, whose collection Memorandum, poems for the fallen deals with the similar material.

What question haven’t I asked that these poems would raise their voices in response to? (And what would that response be?)

The issue which the poems grapple with is how should we remember? The answer they would give is that the men should be remembered as individuals and quietly and also authentically. There is a risk, particularly at the moment in the middle of the centenary commemorations of the First World War, of remembrance coming dangerously close to a sanctification of what happened.

voices from front coverWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Voices from Stone and Bronze’?

The book can be ordered from the Cinnamon Press website or if you’d like a copy signed by me then you can order via my blog. It is available from the usual online bookstores too.

Thank you, Caroline, for these fascinating insights into ‘Voices from Stone and Bronze’, and the whole inspiration, research and writing process.

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