Playing with Light and Dark: Amy Hilhorst Interviews David McCooey

By and | 1 November 2016

This attention to others’ novels and films and so on is kind of funny, really, because years ago I sent a poetry collection to a publisher, which thankfully got rejected. The poetry editor basically castigated me for having too many poems about artworks, as if I wasn’t in touch enough with real life or something. And maybe that was the case, but I suppose subconsciously that criticism has stayed with me, because I think I have tried to show, particularly in this collection, that that dichotomy is a false one. There’s nothing profound in saying this, of course; this is rather a banal postmodern insight, that there is no unmediated experience of ‘reality’.

AH: Two of the last poems of your book, ‘Under the cover of night: a romance’ and ‘La Notte: A Tale of the Uncanny’ are in verse form, but they also seem driven by a narrative impulse. Can you talk a bit about the process of balancing this narrative impetus with a poem’s lyrical or poetic status?

DM: That’s another good question because that proved to be very difficult. Talking of the privilege of being married to a writer, Maria – who is a prose fiction writer as well as a poet – gave me lots of feedback while I was writing the book. A number of poems were repeatedly re-written, often because of that issue – balancing, as you say, the demands of a lyric poem and a narrative impetus. One of the problems I found with those two longer narrative poems was not becoming too prosaic, trying to keep some of the strangeness in there. Both poems are nocturnal, and interested in the uncanny, so I had to find ways of not allowing the narrative to overwhelm the lyrical, uncanny elements. In the second one – the poem called ‘La Notte’ (another poem with ekphrastic elements, by the way), I did that by having every second stanza in parentheses. Those parenthetical asides seemed to strangify things up. I also didn’t let on the gender of the narrator, which was another way of keeping the poem somewhat more enigmatic.

Another thing about the collection as a whole, and talking of narrative and autobiography, is that I was fairly programmatically mucking around with the supposed distinction between the autobiographical and the fictional. So poems that may seem the most fictional might actually not be, and poems that seem the most autobiographical might actually not be. So for instance, there are autobiographical elements in ‘Under the cover of darkness’ which could probably only be apprehended by me. Similarly, some of the pastorals, which are dramatic monologues, which you would think are entirely fictional, but – I won’t give too much away – there are autobiographical moments there. At the same time the seemingly autobiographical poems about my time in hospital, they just pick out moments, as I’ve said, so they miss whole, huge, sections of that supposedly autobiographical narrative, which affects its status as autobiography. And like any writer, you tidy things up, you change things around, two characters become one, things like that. So I wouldn’t want readers to necessarily think that the ‘Documents’ section is literally ‘true’.

AH: I loved that you mention the strangeness or uncanny quality of your writing. Though your poems engage humour, they can also have an unsettling quality, which has been remarked upon in former reviews. For instance, Dorothy Porter described your work as having a ‘disconcerting and compelling unease’, and in an early poem in Star Struck you say, ‘Nausea, more than pain, is poetry’s teeming limit.’ Are disturbed or unsettled atmospheres something that you are particularly drawn to in your writing?

DM: Well, the short answer is yes! I mean that’s partly because I think lyric poetry is an estranging kind of art, generally. If you think about the theory of defamiliarisation whereby you try to make people see things anew, then the disquieting, the uncanny, and metaphor, are all ways of doing that. Of course the uncanny is by definition something that takes in the everyday; the uncanny is the disquieting interplay between the familiar and the unfamiliar. I am deeply attracted to that. So that’s one side of things. The other is related to that issue of the intertextual nature of my work. I’m particularly drawn to the uncanny in film and photography. I love the moodfulness that movies and photos can give you, and particularly the uncanny moodfulness. And those media, just like literature, are great at doing two things at once, as well. Everybody thinks of Bergman as being this solemn, Scandinavian director who made films about really depressing things – and he was – but I actually think Bergman had a great sense of humour as well. There are moments in his films that I think are laugh-out-loud funny. I think it’s no coincidence that someone like Woody Allen is so enamoured by Bergman, and in fact did a Bergmanesque film of his own called Interiors in the 70s, which also had some funny moments as well, even though it wasn’t a comedy. So I’m definitely attracted to the uncanny aesthetic, and to unease and difficulty, those moments in life that demand some kind of psychic working through. I’ve chosen a few obvious ones with this latest book.

As I’ve said, I’m attracted to D W Winnicott’s Playing and Reality, which talks about play as a virtual space where the human subject can take stuff from the real world and work it over in a way that you can’t literally do, but it does give you some kind of psychic power to deal with things that are difficult. So the kinds of things that I’m interested in are about playing with difficult things, hence the attraction to jokes and humour and so forth. And one of the things that I really love about Winnicott is summed up by Adam Phillips: ‘For Winnicott the opposite of play is not work but coercion’. If you think about poetry as a non-compliant art, if there’s any theme to what I’ve been saying in this interview, it’s a kind of characteristic non-compliance, but not infantile rage, a non-compliance from within the structured world of play. And to make jokes in the darkness is a kind of existential non-compliance.

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