Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Interview with Rosie Shepperd

I'm hoping to do a series of interviews with writers, chosen for no better reason than that I like them, and this is the first.

After 15 years in the financial markets, Rosie Shepperd studied Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, and is currently working on an MPhil in Poetry at the University of Glamorgan. She has had poems published in magazines such as Magma and The Rialto and won the 2007 Writer's Inc. Bursary. She also made the shortlist for the Manchester Poetry Prize with the poems online here

What I love about her poems is their exuberant playing with words and space, their way of using humour to say something dead serious, and their capacity to surprise, using umpteen voices while somehow always sounding like Rosie. If I had to choose one word to describe her voice, it would be the 19th-century coinage "slantendicular" - not just quirky but somehow subverting the norm, so that the aslant becomes the perpendicular.

SHEENAGH: Your titles are often very eyecatching and thought-provoking. Sometimes when a poet goes in for quirky titles, it turns out the title is the most original thing about the poem; what's unusual about yours is that they deliver on their promise! Does a title ever come first, and spark the poem, or do they emerge from the poems?

ROSIE: I think they do emerge from the poems as they'll always be the last thing I write. Sometimes when a few (usually) images or words stick in my mind, there's an echo that says, "this means more to you than just (say) pastry or cold snaps in the weather. In the case of "I Love You, Sheila Mackenzie!" I wanted to write a poem that started with "Apparently" but then the title stood out to me as the declaration by the chartered accountant as he parachuted down to Sevenoaks' Cricket Ground.

When I start to explore an image, the idiom of the poem and its title usually comes very fast or sometimes at the same time as the image. It's like the image and the emotion are linked (by a voice) almost at once, so that I'll start to write about the image with a particular emotional backdrop that (feels like it) has very little to do with me, and everything to do with the voice of the poem.

So in "The Embolism suffered by Edward's father (during a sudden cold snap)" the whole poem immediately started off with the metaphor "fast release carbs" releasing suburban commuters and their feelings about sex and death.

Quite often the title of the poem will contain something that I can't say in the poem. So "Edward" doesn't appear in the poem, and yet we know that the (possibly adulterous) man lying dead at West Byfleet station, IS someone's father. It's one of the few poems where one specific person is not named in his own identity.

Sometimes, if the emotions in a poem show themselves too early, I'll whip them out and put them on one side, so that they don't control (too tightly) the direction of the poem. I might end up with a list then and they'll usually be one in that list that is still alive at the end, to be brought back in as the title.

SHEENAGH I sense a long back-story in so many of your poems; these people clearly have lives outside the lyric moment. Some poets fight shy of narrative, I suppose in case it sounds too prosy, but for you it's clearly important. Could you talk a little about how you use narrative in poetry?

ROSIE: To me, narrative and the metaphor or conceit overlap. I can start off with three or four "stories" and then find them whizzing off in different directions, rather like finding a few images and then seeing where they go. My stories never end up being about what I had originally expected and I've certainly stopped expecting them to!

SHEENAGH I find it quite hard to detect influences in your poems. I know some of the poets you admire, but the poets we admire the most don't necessarily influence the way we write, and your voice seems very much your own. Can you detect any other writers who have helped to form it?

ROSIE: I enjoy playing around with a syllabic association between words and have always been a big Muldoon fan. The way he makes connections and allows his reader to form associations between words and images that they have not previously seen. His poem Sushi is one of my favourite food poems and curiously led me to poets like Frederick Seidel, who uses highly specific materialist images to depict explicit emotion.

Archness is a quality I really admire. Few people can do it really well, but the US poet, Liane Strauss, is one of the finest “Archery Queens”. As with physical white space, archness allows spaces for knowledge or the inference of knowledge to creep in between the words. Michael Donaghy was also a master of this, and combined the best of successful imagery, word-play and a real precision and wit. I often wonder if his biggest joke was that he knew what he was trying to express, but found it more enjoyable if others found something else! He doesn't pack in his words - his poems have a wonderful air and mobility that is rare. On this last point, I wish I knew what happened to Rosemary Tonks as she has an arch idiom that is strong but not at all sessile.

Other poets I return to when I need air are Charles Boyle, James Dicky, Randell Jarrell, Mark Strand, Tom Lux, Stephen Dobyns. To me these poets encapsulate Robert Lowell's plea "why not just say what happened?" Because I think and (a lot of the time, talk) in metaphors, this quest for clarity is a really good mantra for me. In their own way WCW and CK Williams are masters of clarity and so too is Les Murray.

Perhaps the poet I tend to return to is Raymond Carver. Most emphatically a narrative poet, he is also a master of the lyric moment that captures and explores something that is below (or also sometimes hovering above) the poem's surface. Most commonly thought of as a biographical poet, rather than a confessional poet, my interpretation is that he uses themes of "hopelessville" to explore other ideas and emotions. He uses simple (yet elegant language) to achieve clarity and explore emotions that are complex and dynamic.

SHEENAGH Oh, I had a spell of reading Stephen Dobyns! Again I liked the narrative aspect, though I think in him it does sometimes become a bit too much like prose narrative, which yours doesn't. Interesting that you name two poets, Dobyns and Carver, who are arguably better known for their prose writings.

Muldoon - I can see that, now you mention it. Not only does he deal in iceberg poems, buried narratives, he uses half-concealed rhyme a lot as well, and you certainly do that; rhyme in your poems tends to be unobtrusive so that we hear it before we notice it. Muldoon once told me he acknowledged the influence of George Herbert, indeed he often uses a rhyme pattern of Herbert's, the one where you find rhymes by dropping one letter - start-tart-art. That set me wondering if your use of white space is a modern way of using the page in the same way as Herbert's shape poems - eg Easter Wings, where not only does the poem make the shape of a pair of wings, but each line ends with a little e, the bottom line elongated like the feather at the tip of a bird's wing. You like to use the whole page; you don't feel everything has to start at the left-hand edge. I've seen critics who feel any departure from the Normal Practice has somehow to be justified. I don't share that feeling, but again could you talk about your practice in this respect - what do you feel it adds to your poems?

ROSIE: Yes, I think I do use shape in a similar way to Herbert (my favourite of his shapes is The Altar, as I enjoy the line breaks and the feeling that he is only just balanced on this altar!) I think my white space is trying to create a pause that says, "hold on for a second and see what we make of this - it might not be what you expect; it's certainly not what I expected. This poem wants to take a small breath here and just allow that question to unfold." In a strongly idiomatic poem, I think it chops up the voice, almost as though the poem is interrupting the poet.

For me, really using white space is a good way to create hesitation in a poem. How can we create something that isn't there? For me, absence is very important as a contrast to what's in the poem. Uneven line breaks and delayed line beginnings slow down a poem that may be packed with assonance, or else provide metric intensity to a piece that's written with more prosaic language. I spend a lot of time considering each indent and I hope they achieve what I feel is the right length of pause/hiatus. Even in a reasonably "straight" poem like "What was the name of the thing I called Love?" I used the space to create a trickle-down effect of images into thoughts. The back-story here is a visit to the family plantation home (in Nevis) of Nelson's wife, Fanny Nisbet, whom he left for Emma Hamilton. It' a poem that looks at the search for something loved and familiar, knowing that being able to locate it will be just as painful as losing it.

Awake at 6.30, looking through the shutters into the black
             green shade of the tamarind tree.
I have an hour or more and surely
                   time beside the ocean will help me find words that are not,
                               You would have loved this.

This poem popped out in a very emphatic idiom where the speaker is so sure that they want to find a lost emotion, that the possibility of not finding it lingers in every white space. The spaces contrast to the sureness of the voice and to me, changes that sureness into desperation, which may feel like the same thing, but isn't.

SHEENAGH Humour is important in your work, and as I know from experience it can be hard to use; so often some reader takes in earnest what was meant in jest, or just misses it altogether. Yet it can be a great leavener and, in your work, often coexists very happily with seriousness and even pathos - as in your Iota poem. How do you manage and use it in your work?

ROSIE: There is nothing more serious than humour. This sounds like a quip but it's true. Humour is the ultimate risk and when misplaced, it's a disaster. I remember seeing Schindler's List in Manhattan (where I lived in the early 90s). I was in an upper west side cinema and the film was so upsetting that it was shown in several parts, with coffee and cookies provided during the intermissions. The horror of the film was not voyeuristic, and many of us felt that we absorbed each terrible moment, and were not repelled into avoiding them. To me, this was achieved by including humorous and "human" moments. An elderly Jewish woman (who had lost all her family in one of the camps) sat with me and ate our cookies together. When we talked about this use of humour, she said, "you think no-one laughed in Auschwitz? We never needed laughter more."

I know I'm making several points here, but sometimes when an emotion or an event is so bleak, I think poetry can effectively explore it using humour. The humour holds the horror up to the light, so that it becomes something else. Otherwise it risks becoming horror, rather than art. There's nothing clever about horror; it's horrible.

It takes real skill to engage people in sadness without telling them on what terms they should look at the sadness. I think humour allows people to feel the sadness in contrast with something else, and that something else has a good chance of becoming very personal to the reader, rather than just the maudlin recollections of the poet.

In some of my sadder poems, I hope that the humour (or perhaps the exaggerated sense of the ridiculous) contrives to shade the sadness in a different "colour". And again I think a nod toward the absurd comes from the voice that is giving me the narrative. In Edward's Father's Embolism, the relentless word play and use of everyday details from the commuter's lives, contrasts with the fact that a man lies dead on Platform 3. Sometimes when we are confronted with the worst sort of tragedy, there's an inability to process what is going on, and this leads to us to focus on unimportant (and sometimes very funny) details. I think this serves to slow things down to a pace we can cope with. In my sad poems, I hope the humour has a similar effect, especially if the consonance and word-play has been unrelenting. Humour and a firm segue into detail that is unrelated to the tragedy, delays our understanding of the tragedy. I don't think any understanding can evolve if people look at tragedy, and then look away too quickly, and without translating it to something else - even if it is a tray load of tightly rolled and impossibly sweet Italian cakes!

SHEENAGH But of course there are the poems you wrote on the illness and death of your father, which, though they're like your other poems in many ways, are unlike in being totally grounded in reality; I don't recall them taking refuge in either fantasy or humour. I agree, by the way, with what you say about humour being a way to engage readers in fictional sadness and even understand it better. But you didn't use it in those, perhaps because the sadness, for you, wasn't fictional enough for that?

ROSIE: The straighter father poems use a lot of white space, to dilute their intensity and also because highly intense emotions do have periods of white space - for me that's what makes them so intense - their contrast with quiet.

I think there's a core three - "Sleeping Lions, Santa Claus is Leaving Town and There's nothing sudden about it" where there is no humour-deflection - what there is (I think) is an almost obsessional level of detail that seemed to be doing a similar thing to humour. It's saying "don't look over there - you won't be able to stand it; look at this, and this, and this....." The colour of napkins, finger bowls, gilt chairs, curtains and then the remorselessness of the menu……

SHEENAGH You spoke earlier of "the voice of the poem", which I found an interesting phrase. Of course a poem is sometimes in a character voice, which won't be the same as the poet's, but I take your phrase to mean that even if a poem is in a third-person narrative voice, it won't necessarily be exactly the same voice as the next poem in a third-person narrative voice: the poet has a slightly different voice for each poem? I think this is an interesting idea because you do actually have a very characteristic voice, but I like the notion that each poem moulds the poet's voice to its own needs.

ROSIE: I think the voice discussion is really interesting. The one thing a poet can never do, is read their own poems as others do - and then others also read differently from each other too! You and others have commented on the consistent voice, which is funny as each poem sounds (in my head) so very different. I wonder if the white space is actually the poem, saying, "I know this poet is going off on one, but I'm still here!!"

Here are some poems Rosie has kindly allowed me to print, starting with the one she quoted earlier set in Nevis:

What was the name of the thing I called Love?
                                                       Nisbet’s Plantation, Nevis, West Indies

Awake at 6.30, looking through the shutters into the black
             green shade of the tamarind tree.
I have an hour or more and surely
                               time beside the ocean will help me find words that are not,
                                           You would have loved this.

The elephant grass grows warm, but holds back some
                                                                                                               part of the night.
                       I understand this.
          I know about the casuarina and the coconuts and the palms;
                       why they were planted in avenues, fifteen feet apart.

          A man in a loose blue shirt
                                         moves across the sand, leans on a rake, lifts his face to The Narrows.
                He walks towards a pontoon, bumping in the breeze;
                                                                                      stays still for barely a moment,
                                                                             then disappears.

          I sit close to the edge of the beach, wondering
                if Nelson’s young wife ever stopped someone in this garden to ask,
                          Who planted the succulent that grows so close to the sea?
                Does it have a name that might mean something?
                          And what was the name of the thing I called Love?

The embolism suffered by Edward’s father (during a sudden cold snap)

                                                            had unforeseen consequences
                                                                              for Luciano Mondolini,
                          whose heart lay beyond
      the breakfast counter of Mondolini’s Speedy Station Snacks.
                          The abruptness of Edward’s father’s fall
      distracted the ladies on platform 3 from Luciano’s muscular shoulders
      as he slipped breakfast bacon into split rolls,
                          waiting with a dusting of flour.
                                                             Luciano’s rashers flew over the steam-frother,
                                             landing at the feet of his Auntie Rosanna,
                          famous for her modification
                                                      of Calabria cannoli, to accommodate an
urgency for fast-release carbs
                          within West Byfleet station.

More portly than naughty, Auntie Rosanna
                                  neglected to notice the bacon, lying lifeless, and slipped
                                                    on the heel of her sling-back.
Blueberry, honey-wheat and Rosanna’s latest (acacia-lite-marshmallow-bran)
                    bounced toward those waiting
                                                                                             with yearning for the 07.47 to Surbiton,
                                                                                 away from those who had parted with
                    £1.75 for a Bambini, £2.15 for Slambini, £3.35 for Mamabini.

                    In one bound, Luciano cleared the counter, gathering cannoli
                                                        and admiring glances from the ladies of Mole Valley,
including Edward’s mother, who, on reversing her Espace,
                                                        spotted pink flutters of The Financial Times
                    between the recycling unit and Mrs Dewe-Davis’s Datsun.

As Edward’s mother moved toward Luciano and his batch
                                                                                                 of white-chocolate citronella Slambinies,
                                                           she saw the passion in his trembling hand,
              drank the forbidden scent of instant sprinkles,
                                                           mingled with a burn of salty, smoked, saturated fat.

She felt the strength of his arm as he manoeuvred her
                          past the Grammar School cut-through;
                                    she turned to his voice that sang like a dream
                                           forgotten and folded in her glove compartment.
          Cornetto Man, pleading, serenading, paddling down the tarmac of Horsell High Street.
              Luciano turned to Edward’s mother
                                his face grazed with hazelnut praline.
“You know, he was a good man
              and always he was tasteful
                                in his appetite for my mother’s sister.”

Links to other poems by Rosie Shepperd

Somewhere I read that a thought could be exaggerated while an emotion cannot (Words Unlimited)

Tomorrow will be a day beloved of your father and you (In a review on Peony Moon)

The girl you saw (Pelmeni Poetry)

Link to another interview

Words Unlimited

Tags: interviews with writers, poetry, rosie shepperd, ways of working

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