MH: Peter, as you came to writing poetry later in life than most contemporary poets, could you explain your interest in French philosophy and what impact this interest may have had on your poetic development?
PL: I wrote some poetry before University but still thought I was a fiction writer until I’d completed one long and unpublishable novel in which very little happened (though a privately printed copy found its way into the Cambridge UL!). Interlude material for a second novel turned into my first published poem, Enclosures, but the prose traces very much remain. I’d already had an interest in the French Nouveau Roman and then discovered Derrida whom I thought was the most challenging philosopher around who couldn’t be easily ignored though I felt he was against my own instinctive grain in many ways. In the event it was Geoffrey Hartman’s swerve across Derrida that influenced me more because of the common reference point in landscape and Wordsworth. I started reading Derrida again at the time of his later work, particularly around the period of his engagement with Richard Kearney. Strangely, I didn’t read so much Merleau-Ponty until just a few years ago when some of the post-structuralist waves had settled and he was defiantly looming above the swell, though I did read quite a lot of Ricoeur throughout my ambivalent preoccupation with Derrida. All this made my own work doubly contorted, as I was relishing a post-structuralist rhetorical density but trying to get it to mutate towards more pacifically speculative or contemplative realms. Even more recently, the French writers like Marion, Chretien and Henry associated with the ‘theological turn’ within phenomenology have been a big influence, even a sort of confirmation to my own parallel but more submerged course.
MH: What, in your opinion have been some of the benefits of working as a lecturer and as the Literature Librarian at The University of Warwick in the development of your own singular poetic?
PL: The only teaching I regularly do is in IT and research methods, but I have taken part in seminars in the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature & the Arts over many years, and I have also learnt a lot from being the subject librarian for this area. Being at Warwick has exposed me to many currents, poetic, politico-ecological and theological and it has enabled me to build up stock in these areas and gain some acquaintance with the material as I do so. Not being an academic teacher has kept my mind freer for my own projects and in that way I have found it helpful to be a small fish in a big pond. My elaborated style must owe something to having dipped into hundreds of books, prefaces, chapters or conclusions over the years. I keep a notebook for anything that catches my eye.
MH: For those readers who do not know about the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry versus Cambridge (or more broadly, European) divide, I was hoping you could address your own, what I see as uniquely identifiable ability to straddle both schools of contemporary poetry. You seem to have managed to find a place in the two most major English-language poetry developments in the past decades. May I ask how you see your own placement alongside these schools, and the development of your poetic as involved with, or removed from, the movement of these two groups.
PL: I’ve never tried actively to traverse the LANGPO-Cambridge divide and any sort of ‘place’ I might have in either is fairly low-key. Neither grouping has been exemplary for me in terms of practice but I have been considerably indebted to them both, particularly Coolidge, Andrews and Bernstein on the one side and Prynne, Riley, Crozier, Barnett and Wilkinson on the other. In addition, a number of North American women poets like Hejinian, Robertson and Wollsak and the two Howes have meant a lot to me. This has intensified my penchant for ‘riff’ type material and also to subjecting it to a complex or overlapping micro-syntax which slows it down and gives it a new obstinate weight, which in my case also extends to the use of internal rhyme or half-rhyme, particularly at the prosier moments. In terms of any poetic of my own, my ecological and ontological preoccupations have always demanded to come first and only after that has any more exact strategy emerged, so the influences above have become rather distorted or thinned out.
MH: Could you expand on this issue of your use of the material, from Wollsak’s and Robertson’s poetic, for example?
Robertson’s The Weather (mostly written in Cambridge) has meant a lot to me with its elaborated prose refrains, and also Wollsak’s Pen Chants and especially An Heuristic Prolusion with its filigree inventiveness but underlying intensity of vision. I’ve not directly reworked any of this material into my own texts but my own writing has echoed and sounded its way across some of it. Often the material I rework or slide over in terms of generating a slippage in the phonemes to transplant invisible near-rhymes is overtly more distant from my interests or more often not poetry at all.
MH: Could you address your own change in approach as it has moved from Enclosures, or Wang Wei, to your work in the development of Roots Surfacing Horizon and now in the writing of Brushwood by Inflection? How has your approach to the work changed in the last decade?
PL: Enclosures had a very exact sense of terrain subsequently subjected to a number of speculative revisions or recodings in terms of how one might ‘read’ such places without losing their sensory immediacy. The Wang Wei versions were in some ways a side-line but allowed me to discover whether they could find their own way back to some of my main preoccupations by setting up deliberate limitations in the way of my usual means of working (‘Spirit of the Trees’ was put together with a similar concern for arbitrary impediments). My more recent work hasn’t changed in any radical way (and I like the idea that earlier threads might resurface at any moment) but the form has tended to settle into short prose clusters with verse tail-pieces (though sometimes these latter are absent). I find that a good working template rather than it being a deliberate aesthetic as such. The single more fundamental modification has been that, where I used to sometimes add a prefatory essay to a text, more recently I have incorporated that sort of ancillary material as a section within the poetry itself. This began with At Wall with the Approach of Trees where I literally reworked notebook material into five page-long paragraphs and called the section ‘Inflections’. I did something similar with Roots Surfacing Horizon which has a section in continuous unparagraphed prose and I am now working on a sequence called ‘Brushwood by Inflection’ which also has an unbroken prose section with broad margins where the material is deliberately more ‘secondary’ or discursive (though that does now have a very brief preface as well!). I had forgotten my earlier use of the term ‘inflections’ but it does indicate a move to a relatively more reflective or abstract type of writing which asks the reader to share a particular taking-off point, though I now want to run this as close to the ‘thick’ textuality of the poetry as possible.
MH: I was recently reading Gustaf Sobin’s Luminous Debris and came across the following quotation:
It is not every day that we realize we’re allowed to gaze into the contours of absence, into the specific proportions, dimensions, properties that absence, under a given set of conditions, has assumed. Is memory any different? Aren’t we continually running over the imprint, the deeply scored outline of vanished experience, attempting to read – in counterpoint – the plenitude of so many irrecuperable events, reading here what is eternally there?
These lines instantly brought to mind Sobin’s parallels with Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, both of which I see having strong inflections (if I may so use the word) in your poetic and I was hoping you could speak to the influence of Merleau-Ponty, as well as Sobin, in your work.
PL: Thanks for that interesting quote. It suggested Jean Louis Chrétien to me rather than Merleau-Ponty, particularly his The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For. It’s fascinating that Sobin reads absence as a sort of plenitude in reserve and his own work is anything but austere, having a revelatory immediacy. However, for Chrétien memory is not a matter of any plenitude of accumulation or total recapture but rather a continuous trace of surrenderings backed by what is too profound to be recalled at all but which invites us to an unexpected depth of granted relation with being. Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible is a marvellous work which I have only really gor to know well over the last few years. In particular, I’m fascinated by the fragmentary notes right at the end of this unfinished work, especially where he sketches a sense of hollowness or of what doesn’t appear at all as immediately involved with concrete being, but which is equally participating in the horizons of materiality.
MH: And do your use, definition and development of the term ‘scarcity’ reflect what Sobin would term ‘a basic intimacy of life itself’, and as such, does the conceptual directive of ‘scarcity’ help to define a written piece? Is this the entry point for the midrashic in your work?
For both Chrétien and Merleau-Ponty I think there is a sense that where life is most immediate it is most open to being emptied out but also to being re-hollowed or recalled to itself. I think that connects with my speculative sense of ‘scarcity’ as a quality that is diminishable but rebounds in unexpected ways, not without distortion and loss but as gaining extension and depth and new horizons of relation. My only exposure to the ‘midrashic’ has been through the critical essays of Geoffrey Hartman as the way in which truth to the letter itself rebounds and amplifies and I identify that with the continuous verbal micro-variations and permutations out of which my texts are built, though the textual play is not an end in itself but takes on the ‘scarce’ or ungroundable burden of an horizon or ontological orientation – for me there is no ‘unburdened’ form of textuality, textual obstructions or gaps are as much meta-symbolic as counter-symbolic.
MH: In the critical writing of Matthew Jarvis he has made quite a strong argument about the establishment and importance of recognising mythical space by relying on Mircea Eliade’s idea of the ‘irruption of the sacred’ to define that something which appears apoditically in the landscape. Do the landscapes that your writing focuses on have an established sense of the sacred, or is this irruption something which one must be a witness to?
PL: I have always found Eliade’s distinction between the prophetic and the hierophanic a helpful one, with my own writing leaning towards the latter in what I think of as a ‘speculative-contemplative’ mode. What that means is my technique in bending, twisting and extruding phrases or even signalling words within words does not offer innovation as a self-justifying process, but re-offers it to an horizon of participating in the world, a world which offers horizons of self-distance and difference. Eliade’s idea of a sacred spot chimes for me with Geoffrey Hartman’s notion of an ‘omphalos’ which could equally be conceived as an irregularity or knot in the midst of surfaces themselves which complicates how one surface might relate to another; or how a surface relates to an horizon which is not simply another surface.
MH: As someone who is writing at the more progressive end of landscape tradition, I wanted to ask a more traditional question: What do you see as the place of literary writing and imagination in the relation between mankind and the environment, between the singular wo/man and all of nature, and between being and dwelling?
PL: I suppose I’m not very optimistic that writing can do much to turn round the appalling environmental degradation that we are already well advanced into, except to help stiffen the opposition that already exists in other domains. Imagination per se is never going to be a form of dominance, not even a corrective one, but as something actively seeking assent and as a different way of being in the world it offers re-orientation in the midst of a damaged planet. Any site of healing which such writing could be will be scarce in terms of the terrain it can occupy but I also hope it can be irruptive and abruptly discontinuous but not simply reactive or subversive – rather something like a recall to what is essentially fragile and invites to a difference of nurture. The paradox is that what humans break undermines any further ground for dominance and breaks out of that series – but we might not survive that break ourselves.
MH: What immediate plans do you have for your writing?
PL: I’m looking forward to my next collection, Lessways Least Scarce Among which is due to be published by Nate Dorward atlater this year, which includes work from 2002 until the present, mostly not published complete before. He has been an intrepid supporter of my work, and did a fine job on the three chapbooks which came out ( , , ) a few years ago and which aren’t included in the new collection as they’re essentially complementary. I’m also finishing off a new text as already mentioned called Brushwood by Inflection which is a study of damaged but differently extended bits of trees – the kink or break along which offers a distinctive layout of what can persist immediately before horizon in a way perhaps organic plenitude cannot. Beyond that I have vague thoughts of writing some shorter poems around the theme of sheer exposure to human/non-human existence but its equivocal openness to some sort of participation or what Stanley Cavell calls ‘presencing’.