JF: If high maths and contemporary poetry were a couple, what would be their dynamic?
JA: Ooh. I think they would function like a literary murmuration: numberless units in a ceaseless dance of concord and deformation, creation and destruction: logic and imagination whirling together in a restless, ecstatic sequence that beguiles and disrupts and satisfies all at once! Even one poem can have this effect.
JF: If you could ask Emily Dickinson two questions, would you? What would they be?
JA: Well, Dickinson is my favourite poet – I have walked in her garden and sat by her grave – and there are so many things I would ask her if given the chance. But if confined to only two questions, it would be these: when it was she recognised herself as a poet whose work would leap spectacularly beyond its epoch and land like a bomb in our modern minds (which I have no doubt she perceived); and how she set about conniving life as a single woman in a conservative Christian nineteenth-century American town to accommodate such a vocation.
JF: Those are big and wonderful questions. I think I would ask her about the ‘master letters’ – and what, or who, she felt she was addressing.
I want to ask a question of autobiography, but I understand if you have zero interest in indulging this. The book’s ‘childhood’ poems describe the speaker as perennial outsider – a strange kid who kept a diary, which was bewildering to those around her, and who wasn’t always sweet and agreeable like the other kids. Did you feel yourself to be this sort of outsider? Do you still?
JA: Pass. I think all that is probably in the poems anyway.
JF: I’m interested in the book’s relationship with the idea of happiness. To my mind, the second section begins in linguistic moods where ‘happiness’ is a concept, a state of mind named ironically – ‘call them your happy snaps’ – or else a state too self-conscious of itself as a word, as language, to be properly inhabited. This section then ends with several poems that are bright with joy, undeniable joy, the kind where mood just takes you over and you can’t even language it. Was this arc of sorts part of your intention?
JA: I was unaware while writing Euclid’s dog of the arc you describe. My aim was simply to develop a few poetic forms based on mathematical theorems. Once I had satisfied myself in that way, I ordered the poems chronologically. If I have treated happiness ironically, this is out of frustration, not disrespect … I aspire to day-to-day emotions like happiness, sadness and hope; but super-states such as joy, despair and yearning seem more familiar. Such states occur on a rawly physical, sometimes unspeakable plane: this is the realm that enthrals me, and which I seek to articulate in poems.
JF: How important is it to you that a reader connects with the intention of a book?
JA: I don’t write for a reader, because I don’t know who the reader is. And because I don’t know who the reader is, I am not really able to care about such things.
JF: At one time in your life you were a bellringer. Can anyone do this? Is it a secret society; do you have to be religious? What did you love about ringing bells?
JA: As a kid, I lived two doors up from a church that had one big bell, and I thought that bell was God: this seems to have had a lasting effect … I love bellringing for so many reasons: the physicality of pulling on a rope and controlling a massive, swinging weight; the profound satisfaction of patterning felt in both body and mind; the privilege of climbing all those winding stone steps to look down upon the stained-glassy space of a cathedral; the seemingly endless depth of sound … It is like being a cog in God’s personal machine … Anyone – religious or not – can be a bellringer: it is not a secret society, but it is a dying art.
Campanology is maths rather than music: methods are rung as opposed to tunes, and these methods have wonderful names like ‘Plain Bob’, ‘Reverse Titanic’ and ‘Cambridge Surprise’. I should say that music can be played using handbells, and I did belong to a handbell choir for some years, but it was handling the tower bells of St Paul’s I loved best. Unfortunately, I never progressed past the basic methods (it takes about twelve years to become proficient), as belfry politics proved too great an obstacle in the end.
JF: What are you working on now?
JA: Fifteen-line sonnets. Each poem comprises three decasyllabic quintains while consisting only and wholly of a sonnet as traditionally defined. I am drawn to the throb created by two crashing forms: the familiar music and layout of the sonnet confronting the alien sonics and graphics of the 15-line syllabic approach. Something weird happens when one of these new sonnets is finally solved, and I am exploring the source of this weirdness … English is an accentual as opposed to a syllabic language, so perhaps focussing on syllables rather than meter is partly responsible. I don’t believe I am violating form here, just having a good chat, perhaps in a way similar to George Meredith and his 16-line sonnets. Anyway, other projects are always on the go, but I am beginning to view these ‘fifteeners’ as what my apprenticeship has been all about.
remember remember! remember! the long day we are dead half a silent century of this we do the proper living things our feet proceed our tongues comply & no one knows but us on separate ships on separate seas on broken boats & wet we row the years & growing thin continue with our lot until the instant there! there! a could be distant edge & there! there! we see it now! horizon's certain verge & mountains rise in corridors & shadow fills the sky & oceans crash with continents & black assaults the eye & everything we ever was soundlessly concurs & God speaks & light falls through worlds & worlds & worlds