Interview – Nathan
- Angela Gardner, February 2007
Your book Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror is either one extended poem or a sequence. Looking at this and the previous Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize poems you appear to work in an extended meditation. Is this just what we have seen of your work i.e. what has been published or is there something particular about the space this form gives you that you respond to?
The form is generally derived from the way the idea presents itself. I do have a tendency to write short poems in sequence or larger extended works. With the shorter ones it’s a way of building polygons of thinking – separate shapes to be placed on the table. The simple act of thinking is my primary pleasure in all this. Whether I succeed or not, the intent is that each poem within a sequence can stand on its own. With Sweeping the Light, originally I imagined them all being short, but some went their own way, and ended up more conversational in tone. This is particularly true of the ones where I’m recounting an incident or a specific memory or object. I consider those poems as being a little outside my usual train of thought, but obviously it was purpose built with my mother in mind.
Otherwise the sequences I write tend to be an exploration of a particular subject or notion. Although these notions can be very loose, and I enjoy taking an anti-focussed approach, and just hope that however disparate the images that I end up with are, that they possess something innate that allows them to be identified as having come from the same body of thought. Often there will be intrinsic patterns involved, and I develop basic number obsessions, which can be taken from a date, an age, a phone number, or a post code, so at times it’s like pouring words into containers.
Every now and again I feel like approaching a much larger work. On average I probably only do about one of these a year. Perhaps they are a sort of philosophical stock-take. You are putting all your ideas out in front of you, then assessing whether or not they are worth anything. The main sensory difference in writing a large poem is that you feel you are surrounded by it. You don’t have the same rights of negotiation as you do with smaller works. So I have to be in the right frame of mind, because they come from some sort of impossibility urge, and there are risks involved. There is a journey in the process, and you don’t want to be left stranded in the middle of a large poem with nowhere to go. So I’m always relieved when I manage to finish one.
Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror is as much a book about your mother’s life as it is about her death and your grieving. Reading it some of the most powerful images are secular – I think of the speaking tube and also the faithfulness of a pair of shoes – but your mother’s religious faith supplies a quite different system of images and word choice. Was there a tension for you in the poetry between those two elements?
That’s a very good question. Yes there was a tension between those elements. But I knew it was something I had to address, because faith was something that underpinned her life. She wasn’t overt about it, her spirituality was subtle. In her last weeks it was a powerful experience for me to watch the comfort she drew from having the daily presence of the priest and the nun. So while the ritual was outside my secular view of things, it wasn’t hard for me to understand what was going on in my mother’s mind. I was very pleased that she had that support. And despite the circumstance, it does give you an insight into the Catholic church. From the hospital to the grave we didn’t talk to anyone from the church who was under 70, so there is a symbolic resonance there, because that generation appears to be overseeing its own decline in spiritual terms. Their resources are very tired and stretched, but those that are left still play an important role for those who need it.
So yes, those poems were the most difficult ones to write. I guess I had a dual perspective – simply as a witness, but also as her son. Interestingly No. 57 (with faith we wind our souls back onto the reel) was my first attempt to write No. 41 (Father Brian and Sister Eta are the ushers), and No. 57 is perhaps one of the tougher poems in the book. But I just went with it, and it shows you how with the flick of a switch you can end up on the opposite side of an idea. So violence can be extracted from an attempt at grace.
From the secular angle, I think of objects and memories as being interchangeable. Things just float to the surface, but you have to be careful because the personality within an object can be very shy, and if you try to bend it too much you can damage it. Objects can store and emit, so sometimes you’re taking words out of the object, and sometimes you’re putting words into the object. And of course objects that you know very well can sometimes contain an absence. So an old pair of shoes can be coaxed into a conversation. They’re quite skilled at this. After all they have two tongues, and I’ve only got one.
You are the son of the painter Gordon Shepherdson and you yourself write on the visual arts. In Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror there are a number of graphic devices ;←; ↔; the empty parenthesis ( ). Could you talk a bit about this. When in writing a poem would they appear and if they are tied to a particular meaning? BTW I found the empty parenthesis particularly moving but the arrows were for me less clear though they gave the poems a particular look.
I started using arrows in my work in the early 90s. I don’t really know why. I’ve always liked the way Francis Bacon uses arrows in his paintings, so it could be something to do with that. They are not something I feel I need to use, but I do like using them. I just love their form. The possibilities for using them just occur to me as I’m writing. They can point to something that is there, or something that isn’t there. Almost as subverted musical notation they can highlight the space or the silence after the note. They can accelerate or decelerate a line or a word. Often they will be pointing left, so you can create a momentary skip of the eye against the flow of reading. It’s a bit of a stretch for the reader, but sometimes I feel that an arrow can give a figurative quality to a word or a concept. For example No. 14 in Sweeping the Light has the line ‘this is true ←’. I am reaffirming the line before with that line, but I am also saying as an aside that this is the actual word ‘true’, which of course exists inside and outside of the poem, regardless of what I happen to be using it for. So I am isolating and objectifying that word at that point in the poem, and in the reader’s mind. We don’t think about words enough as objects.
With the brackets I am essentially framing things. You can frame an absence, a silence, or literally frame nothing. They may hold an echo of sorts, or provide a small space to hide on the page. I will tab the number of letters in a particular word as a way of invisibly placing that word in between the brackets. I can say something without saying anything. When I look at the empty brackets now, I usually can’t remember what the word was, which I quite like, because even the word that was there is now submerged. So we are left with a space that was once occupied by a memory.
Again talking about the influence of visual art, could you tell me how other art forms are integrated, or influence or affect your chosen art-form of poetry? And how conscious a choice was poetry to start with?
Visual art has had an enormous influence on me. It’s an appetite. It triggers things because you’re dealing with images or the negation of images. The surface of a good painting can breathe. And having grown up with a father who is an artist, the fascination started early. I’ve always followed the progress of just about every painting he has done since I was nine or ten. It’s been a ritual for me to be able to walk into his dark shed and see what’s on the wall. And he has always asked me what I think, so my dialogue about art in a casual sense goes back a long way. I was shy as a kid, but used to listen to the conversation when artists or dealers or collectors came over for dinner. I don’t know how much I understood, but I was intrigued anyway. The same with poetry, I don’t know how much I understand, but I’m intrigued anyway.
I mean there is lot of common ground. In the simplest sense, if you look at a drawing it’s a series of marks with a lot of white space around them. If you look at a poem, it’s series of marks with a lot of white space around them. In the conventional sense I don’t think we pay enough attention to the page. I think of a book of poetry as a small gallery with a 100 walls. It’s not just something to read, it’s something to wander through.
At certain times art and poetry have been very close, with Dada and Surrealism, people like Arp and Schwitters, and of course you can go back to Blake, or move up to Fluxus and beyond. So this is a big item for me, and I could talk about it for ages. I’m much more comfortable talking about art than poetry. Music is also very important to me. How the abstract comes from and returns to silence. The distinctions between these forms are becoming less, and the overlaps are huge. One of my favourite composers is Morton Feldman, who knew a lot of painters like Rauschenberg, Pollock and Guston. What attracted me to him was his interest in art. And if you read his essays, he talks about painting in order to talk about music. So for me a good way to talk about poetry is to talk about art.
In a visual sense I’m asking an idea to sit for a portrait. It is the words depicting the thought. There is a microsecond before the thought is put into language, where the moment glimpses its own eye, and the immediate loss of that moment is what we’re trying to record. And I guess I’m being defeated by putting it into language, but of course this is where the baton is handed to memory, and you’re suddenly moving in this endless landscape that can walk through you as much as you can walk through it.
So you end up putting the memories into words, and putting the words into the poem. So the poem is twice removed from the original impulse. The poem collects images and a degree of meaning, the poem itself becomes another type of memory. In analysing things this way, this is not how I approach writing. In catching a ball you simply catch a ball. But of course we could say this action represents a concoction of vision, space, reflex, physics and biology. As with talking about writing, these complexities can be dismissed, and I can say that I write a poem by writing a poem.
I found ‘to find what is not there’ (the 2006 Josephine Ulrick prize winning poem) quite difficult. The way it can be read as one circular sentence and the uneven opposition of images giving it an almost awkward cadence that made me feel as if I was climbing a ziggurat and back down the other side! I felt like I had to work quite hard because I wanted keep the whole poem in my head as I took each step though this was tempered by the equivalent of a high altitude exhilaration! I’d really like to hear a bit about the development of this poem.
Sorry to have put you through that endurance course Angela! Maybe you should have put it down carefully on the table, and walked away slowly. But thanks for going to the effort. And I like the idea of the ziggurat, although the poem is made of more porous materials. And I’d probably have each step disappear as you take it, to a point where the structure folds down and evaporates, and in an attempt to move upwards you have moved nowhere.
When my father first read this poem he made the comment that ‘the reader becomes the poem’ – that was pretty astute I think.
I quickly decided on the form, using the pairs of lines. Other longer poems are more like word-slabs, and I wanted to try and slow it down a bit, to a point where each thought digests itself as you read it. For some reason I kept returning to this image of an analogue watch that had had its back removed. And while that image is not actually in the poem, I guess that’s the way I hoped it would come together – the small cogs inaudibly moving at varying speeds, a delicate machine used to measure nothing. Within the poem I’m basically modelling small structures and then knocking them down. It’s not unlike using loops in music I suppose, where you propagate images, and then improvise on their meaning. Language has defence mechanisms, and I’m happy to let it infect what I’m doing as I’m doing it – to let the contradictions bloom. There is a half-heard, half-seen energy in uncertainty, and in a low-level way, this perhaps powers the core of where I’m at. There is a strange reward in being able to utilise something by disposing of it on the page. For me there are distinctions and choices that can be made while you are inside the poem. You can preserve the thought, you can preserve the thought in order to kill it, or you can preserve the thought by killing it.
So to ‘keep the whole poem in my head’ as you put it is a difficult ask. It may be possible, but the head of the poem, and the reader’s head will be using the same pair of eyes at times. It would be nice to think sometimes that the poem could recognise its reader.
... maybe I just needed to read it in a less intensely conscious way! I enjoy the thought of the steps/lines disappearing as I read them. So maybe I don't need to try and keep it all in my head! I'll enjoy re-reading it. Thanks for talking about your poems I've enjoyed that and look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.