CA: I certainly feel that hesitation is an anxious factor in writing, both in the process and the product. Your recasting of hesitation as deliberate and disruptive formal choices made by the writer is interesting, as it suggests an attempt at control (in a world that at times feels completely out of control). My new manuscript focuses closely on personal and global anxiety, and I thought the form would be quite tight and compressed as a result, bringing the reader into the stressed and breathless affect of anxiety, but it has actually come out very sparse, dominated by white space and open, repetitive visual forms. Perhaps this is what I needed to respond to my own feelings of anxiety and entrapment in isolation – to be able to breathe on the page, at least. This brings up questions of intention and how mine was completely foiled in the writing process. The title of your new book, A History of What I’ll Become, seems to be open in its intention, or future intentions. Is this the book you thought you’d write when you began?
JJ: That’s interesting, ‘an attempt at control’ – isn’t that what writing, what form is – with emphasis on ‘attempt’. I’ve been wondering lately if the wariness a lot of people have around the idea of authorial intention as a kind of post-Barthes ‘death of the author’ moment which we could just get past. On another tack, even if I think I’m letting chance or ‘freedom’ operate in my work, I’m still making choices. They may be dictated by things I’m aware of and other things I’m less aware of or not at all (chemistry, humours, luck). I do use both choice/control and chance, depending, to see what might become of that as a process.
To an extent but only to an extent, A History of What I’ll Become is the book I wanted to put together, given that the result is always different from what you have in your head, well, in my head. I am not a ‘project’ person, but it is the one book of mine that has the most ‘plan’ to it, apart from Breaking the Days which had a specific plan around form, i.e. short poems, and specific kinds of short poems, the only long poem in it being a sequence of, guess what, short poems. A History of What I’ll Become is built around an idea of ‘becoming’, given that becoming relies on the past, i.e. history/memory, and that includes a little bit of history repeating (cue Shirley Bassey and The Propellerheads). I wasn’t thinking simply of what emerges in time but where ongoingness, including poetry, comes from. There is a sense of collaboration with the dead, in this case dead poets, throughout the book and the poems talk back and forth to each other, which is structural, conceptual. So, it’s not lyric as private event but as social, and book as a specifically made thing. But not a project. The structure is, I hope, a lot less tight than I’m making it sound. And, in case it needs to be said, a lot of the book is also about desire and sex, directly and indirectly, so you can make whatever you might like out of becoming. I also had in mind the idea of language, especially language in poems, as a kind of generative compost, so there is a clear gesture in it to the ecological, in that, what is this particular house of poetry made from.
Your remark about white spaces and repetitions as related to breath or breathing makes me think about how reading the page is so different to speaking the page, if you like. How do you perform white space or should you even try? But I’m also interested in the way emotion plays into this. Are gaps or spaces anxieties, or places to think? And can poetry be a way of working out problems? Or does it generate more?
CA: A History of What I’ll Become certainly feels like it circles around particular themes with more of a gravitational pull, despite its multitude of approaches to writing and form. There’s a sense of fresh experimentation that is almost unexpected from, what, a twelfth full-length collection! I recognise a lot of familiar ground in here, particularly a pull towards dust and grit (‘oh gritty gritty something / don’t let go’, from ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline’ in The Beautiful Anxiety, remains my most remembered line of poetry from, well, anywhere), and of course your personal flock of birds. But you’re right – it is a very sexual and sexy book! Perhaps another way to interpret dirt, earth, grit? The ways language and sex work together are very interesting to me … but that’s a whole conversation in itself.
You ask about performing white space. I’m still learning how to perform space and silence. I’ve seen spoken word artists do a great job of it, but all I can hear when I pause reading a poem of mine is the shudder of my breath as I try to keep control of a reasonably confident exterior (and the potent shuffling silence of the audience).
When these gaps and silences are on the page, I do think they function as places to think rather than moments of anxiety, at least personally. I come from a classical music background, and rhythm is important to me. Back when I started playing viola in a youth chamber orchestra, we were taught to count the beats in our heads during the ‘rests’, and I think this is something I do subconsciously with poetry. I usually just know if a line needs a line break or some white space (a ‘rest’) to give it room, because I can hear it in my head. But perhaps that space is necessary because there has been some anxiety or problem, as you say, to work out from the lines previous.
I’ve been thinking and writing a lot recently about the relationship between anxiety and the sublime, picturing a kind of arc that reaches upwards to those lofty sublime heights, but keeps getting tangled and distorted by the anxieties that hide up in such uncertainties. Is the sublime a level that can be reached before one goes too far and gets lost in those wilds of panic, or is the sublime what happens when we can quell the anxieties and use our ‘reason’ to push past into whatever raptures might still be available to a 21st century thinker? I’m reminded here of your line ‘the nuzzle of eternity terrors’. I don’t think you specifically mention the sublime in the book (I guess it’s a bit ‘done’ these days), but echoes of it seem to persevere, particularly an eco-sublime and the quasi-spirituality of a ‘God of dust’.