declare-coverIn my twentieth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Geraldine Clarkson about her poetry pamphlet Declare (Shearsman Books)…

‘Declare’ is a strong, bold word for a title and this is a distinctive and bold pamphlet. Could you tell us about how this grouping of poems came together and also about the choice of ‘Declare’ as the title poem?

Thank you! Some of these poems were very new at the time of compiling the chapbook, and it was exciting and satisfying to see them fly straight into print! About 6 of the poems had been collected together for my Primers submission (Primers was the Nine Arches Press and Poetry School initiative culminating in an anthology which I was lucky enough to be a part of last year), so there is a kernel of poems which formed in that way. Other poems go a lot further back: there’s the first prose poem I ever wrote—in response to being given a postcard of Salvador Dalí’s ‘Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra’, as a writing prompt, by the wonderful poet Carrie Etter! Others won prizes in competitions last year – the Poetry London, Ambit, and Ver Poets competitions—and the Ware Sonnet competition the previous year. And others had been published in various journals over the past few years. So, in short, they came from different phases and places in my writing life, but when they were collected together, with the help of poet friends, I could see that there were clear and overlapping themes. For various reasons, I didn’t start my writing life until relatively recently, and there were other life events which caused me to delay seeking publication even then, and so the title Declare felt like a good title with which to break my silence! The title poem ‘Declare’ seems to me to be about ‘beginnings’, and it seemed appropriate in that sense, also.

Reading ‘Declare’, I’m struck by many wonderful characteristics, perhaps first and foremost by how alive it is with sound (and language), both playfully, with delight and with more serious linguistic intention. How does sound work for you in terms of tackling new inspiration and in the redrafting stages?

Oh, I think the sound always comes first! I sometimes wake with the first line of a poem in my head, and the sounds are there, in the main, as part of the initial composition. Some refining might go on during redrafting but the sound/ music, feels like it is part of such meaning as there is, rather than simply supporting or emphasising it. As well as the surface texture, however, I’m interested in the root-weight and etymology of the language; how sometimes there’s harmony, and sometimes times tension, between the two layers.

The pamphlet is also rich with allusion and strong female characters. Could you say something both about how important these two elements are to you, and also more generally about where you find inspiration?

I love the fact that the female characters seem strong. I grew up in quite a male environment – lots of brothers! – but also with plenty of dominant women characters around, relatives and friends, and between the two I think I often found it hard to hear my own voice. Maybe I’m reclaiming that now via poetry. Inspiration comes often from dreams, maybe things which have been suppressed… You’ve drawn my attention to allusions, but again perhaps it’s unconscious… I’d started writing the poems about Dorothy Wordsworth, and Alice Liddell (‘Before the Match’ and ‘UNDERLAND’, respectively), before I realised who I was writing about, so they were quite instinctive in that sense, imaginative re-creations. The poem ‘Declare’, itself, was written as a response to a commission to write a ‘Christmas poem’, which for me conjured up Christmas-card images, and those classical religious paintings, incorporating the famous ‘golden section’ of aesthetics. The archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, are the first two ‘joyful mysteries’ of the Catholic rosary, both richly represented in art. The subsequent poem was my attempt to find my own angle on, and way into, those two stories.

Another feature that I very much enjoyed is the sense in some of the poems of being simultaneously in the present day but also at some point in the historic past. There is almost an other-worldness close to legend feel to, for example, ‘Leaving Glawdom by night –’. Are time and history a conscious focus or interest for you when you write? (And how and why/why not?)

Not consciously, but maybe there’s that sense in which the past informs the present, for all of us, and as I come to terms with segments of my life which I don’t think I fully experienced at the time, I think that past, present, and future can almost coincide, in a kind of enduring present… I think possibly that what I write comes out differently for having been suppressed, there’s more of a pressure to it, perhaps—and, when it does emerge, it’s maybe colliding with a different world from the one in which the material was laid down – in the manner of geological layers, perhaps!

Quasi-myths and legends are perhaps a good way to access and process experiences which seem ‘too much’ to face head-on.

Photo by Patrick Tanner

Photo by Patrick Tanner

Following directly on from my previous question, your biography mentions years spent in monastic life. Could you give us a taste of what that was like and how it influences your poetry and writing process now?

It was a very simple life. Part of the time was spent in Peru, living in community alongside local people in a shanty town, where basic realities like water and food (and snakes and scorpions!) were a daily preoccupation. There was a certain amount of discipline and deprivation and, for instance, I wasn’t allowed access to literature or to write creatively for a number of years (at one low point I remember writing in the dark at night and destroying what I’d written in the morning – the act of writing seemed to fulfil a psychological need, the process seeming more important than the product – and maybe that is still the case, to some extent). It was in other ways a very ‘real’ existence, with little scope for distraction, there was a rhythm of work, manual and intellectual, and prayer. As with all institutionalised lifestyles, it was prone to its own particular pitfalls and perversions, and I found it hard to overcome the sense of ‘unfreedom’ which the various disciplines evoked in me, personally. Such ascetic disciplines are intended ultimately to free you up, but if you get snagged on the scaffolding then it doesn’t ‘work’! I still appreciate the potential beauties and value of that way of life. Since I started writing, I have derived such satisfaction from being able to explore and express creativity in a more untrammelled way, that publication seems subordinate to that. It is a total privilege and joy to have appreciative readers. At the same time I’d hope never to abandon that sense of creative play amidst the more public and business-like side of writing.

What question haven’t I asked about the pamphlet that it would like to declare now?

Maybe: What is the connection between the cover image and the collection?

I wanted something which might link in with the ‘annunciation’ of the title poem, and my publisher came up with this detail from ‘The Annunciation’ by the wonderful Early Netherlandish artist, Jan van Eyck, whose work I didn’t know very well at the time, but have been discovering since. His work is atmospheric and textural, intricate in light and shade… I felt that this particular detail suited the collection perfectly, as it homes in on the encounter at the heart of the painting. I always think of the idea of encounter as being at the heart of the Catholic notion of sacrament, and ‘encounter leading to relationship’ seems for me to be the most meaningful aspect of life and faith.

declare-coverWhere can people get hold of ‘Declare’?

Well, I’ll be doing a number of readings at festivals and bookshops in the coming months (details/ contact via Twitter @GBClarkson) and would love to meet anyone who manages to come along to any of those, and it’s also in stock at the London Review Bookshop and—perhaps easiest!—it’s available online from the Shearsman Books website.

Thanks for your very engaging questions, Sarah, I really appreciated them! (Though I do also think that the poems know best!:))

Thank you, Geraldine, for these fascinating insights into some of the background to ‘Declare’ and your writing processes.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.