Exploring some of StAnza 2022’s wide-ranging themes, Jenny Lewis looks at modernist takes and out-takes with Yang Lian and interviews Claire Crowther on two of her events – one looking at the modernist writer Veronica Forrest-Thompson and the second focusing on her uniquely personal take on ‘Alternative Environmental Narratives’. Claire says, of the interface between art and science in poetry, that they are both ‘aspects of an ongoing engagement with the coming world’. Also, the extraordinary ‘soul-space’ of Fiona Benson’s poetry and the ‘remarkable litanies’ of Parwana Fayyaz’s Forty Names.
Fragmentation of narrative was a key feature of early modernist poetry by poets such as Eliot, Pound and Stein. So what do contemporary poets, who continue to work in the modernist tradition, make of narrative? In Poetry Centre Stage: Modernist Takes and Out-takes on Narrative (8.15pm, 12 March) Yang Lian joins translator Brian Holton and fellow poets Sandeep Parmer and Holly Pester in readings from, and discussions of, their work.
Interview with Claire Crowther
JL: Claire, Fiona Sampson describes you as ‘one of our most intelligent surrealists’ and Humphrey Astley, in Sabotage Reviews, applauds the fact that you used your stint at the Royal Mint in Wales as an ‘opportunity for a feminist treatment of religious and fiscal symbolism’. What links can you find between your own singular writing and the avant garde poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thompson (who was tutored at Cambridge by J H Prynne) whose work you’ll be discussing with Matthew Welton on Thursday at 11.30 on 10 March in Past and Present/ Modernism.
CC: One aspect of my writing that, I’d like to think, reflects Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work is she didn’t try to adjust her poetry or her ideas to suit current poetic norms. She had ideas, her poems – odd, awkward and interesting – bubble with them. I’m told my poems are odd and awkward – I hope they’re interesting. Both hers and mine can sound surreal. A surreal air won’t be found around a given idea wrapped in convention. Surreal poems sound edgy and can come at you from unexpected angles. Surprise in a poem can raise awareness of how society works. I sense that Veronica Forrest-Thomson saw everyday life as her poetry suggests she saw it, as angular, uncomfortable, striking, funny and, especially, as an ongoing changing conversation. That’s how I see my journey through each day and, if that’s surreal, so be it. The hard work in a poem, I find, is to get it to speak my language in its own terms and I work very hard on every poem, not to make it strange, but to make it join in the conversation I’m having with the world.
How I wish I could have had a conversation with Veronica Forrest-Thomson, a striking figure in late twentieth century poetry who died at 27. She was born in 1947, the same year as I was born; I felt a kinship on first finding a book she wrote, published after her death, called Poetic Artifice. From so far back, she helped me over the highest hurdle I faced as a new poet, belief in my somehow peculiar (I was told) poems. Where she had determinedly built a career as an academic and poet, I had drifted into consumer journalism and had internalised conventions that my poetic practice refused to comply with. Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s views on how to construct a poem were revelatory and not easily classified. She was not a proponent of one approach, either modern or post-modern, structuralist or post-structuralist, lyrical or language. She interrogated form, all form – language is paramount, she bestrode it, but so is emotion. She experimented in every one of her own poems. After reading her refreshing ideas and her innovative poems, I set off on the journey toward my own poems with a determination to take, as she did, the other path.
JL: In The Power of Gold, from your 2020 collection, Solar Cruise, you say ‘…I experiment with words // He works on the power of gold / photons to keep us warm’ – the ‘he’ being Keith, your husband who is an Emeritus Professor of Solar Physics. What’s the difference between a scientist actively advancing knowledge and a poet actively advancing the potential of language to inform about that knowledge? And can physicists and poets between them save the world?
CC: Solar Cruise is an ongoing conversation, with narrative fragmented into the pauses and dreams, between two creative practitioners, a poet and a physicist. Physicists are creative. They have visions. They imagine structures that have not yet been found, they name them, and then find them. Poets use data, language, and find structures for poems that can reveal truths. When a physicist is working to help a world in decline, a poet has the means to inform the world. So I take my partner with me when I do readings, as will be the case at my reading for Stanza this spring with J O Morgan (4.00pm, 10 March) billed as Alternative Environmental Narratives I will read a narrative about a voyage to a safer climate and direct questions about science to my professor. It’s a double act for this book as it is for our life together.
A poem doesn’t just inform of course, it makes new ideas just as a physicist does. Each poem is a new idea. One thing I wanted Solar Cruise to demonstrate is that art and science are not the eternally separate activities contemporary classification believes them to be. They are aspects of an ongoing engagement with the coming world. They are, equally, the reflective part of human nature. That’s one reason why my partner, now Emeritus (retired) doesn’t stop working. The world has yet to be saved. Poets don’t retire either, I’ve noticed…
JL: Fascinating! Thanks so much, Claire.
Fiona Benson’s urgent and moving poetry creates its own ‘soul-space’ says Michael Longley. A highlight of any festival (including StAnza) Fiona is featured in two events on Sunday 13 March, at 11.30 the Poetry Book Society Showcase with Emily Berry and Will Alexander and at 4.00pm, The Roundtable in the Yurt.
Pawana Fayyaz considers stories a key part of her life – as a refugee in Pakistan and later as a wanderer in pursuit of education on different continents. In her Three Poets For Whom Storytelling is Key event with David Constantine and Martina Evans, Parwana reads from, and discusses, her collection Forty Names which evokes the lives of Afghan women past and present.