Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Penelope Shuttle

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Penelope Shuttle

has lived in Cornwall since 1970, is the widow of the poet Peter Redgrove, and has a grown-up daughter Zoe, who works at the University of Bristol. Her first collection of poems, The Orchard Upstairs (1981) was followed by six other books from Oxford University Press, The Child-Stealer (1983), The Lion from Rio (1986), Adventures with My Horse (1988), Taxing the Rain (1994), Building a City for Jamie (1996) and Selected Poems 1980-1996 (1998), and then A Leaf Out of His Book (1999) from Oxford Poets/Carcanet, and Redgrove’s Wife (2006) and Sandgrain and Hourglass (2010) from Bloodaxe Books. Redgrove’s Wife was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006. Sandgrain and Hourglass was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her retrospective, Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980-2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), drew on ten collections published over three decades plus the title-collection, Unsent. A new collection, Will You Walk a Little Faster?, was published by Bloodaxe on Penelope Shuttle’s 70th birthday in May 2017. Heath, a collaboration about Hounslow Heath with John Greening, was published by Nine Arches in 2016. First published as a novelist, her fiction includes All the Usual Hours of Sleeping (1969), Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree (1973) and Rainsplitter in the Zodiac Garden (1977). With Peter Redgrove, she is co-author of The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman (1978) and Alchemy for Women: Personal Transformation Through Dreams and the Female Cycle (1995), as well as a collection of poems, The Hermaphrodite Album (1973), and two novels, The Terrors of Dr Treviles: A Romance (1974) and The Glass Cottage: A Nautical Romance (1976). Shuttle’s work is widely anthologised and can be heard on The Poetry Archive Website. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and her poem ‘Outgrown’ was used in a radio and television commercial. She has been a judge for many poetry competitions, is a Hawthornden Fellow, and a tutor for the Poetry School. She is current President of the Falmouth Poetry Group, one of the longest-running poetry workshops in the country.

The Interview

  1. When and why did you start to write poetry?

I started to write at a very early age, possibly in the womb.  I was drawn to print as a tiny child, and like loads of writers I spoke early and I read before I was three.  So the world was a place I encountered verbally, that was how I experienced everything, joys and pain.  But I started to write seriously when I was twelve, poetry and fiction. I always thought I was fourteen but recently in conversation with my very alert 97 years old mum she told me I was twelve.  By the age of fifteen I was sending poems out to little magazines, Melody, Poetmeat, and other poetry magazines of the 60s.  I wrote because I wrote.  And I was and am a voracious reader.

2. Did you introduce yourself to poetry?

My first love, when very young, was reading fiction, and I went to the public library a lot. I read historical fiction and the classics and the contemporary fiction of the day.
I spent a lot of time at my grandfather’s house (the house I was born in ) and my late grandmother had loved reading, and in that house I found some old poetry anthologies of hers, and I remember reading (and not understanding a word) of an extract from Keats’ ‘Hyperion’, when I was about eleven.  But what I got from that extract was a sense of a magical and tangible world, rich and sensuous, full of light and colour, and I drew from the energy of those (to me) curious lines.  It doesn’t matter if we don’t ‘understand’ the poem, it is the extent of our response and where the poem takes us that is the true reading.  After this lovely threshold reading of Keats, I found H R Munro’s Overheard on a Saltmarsh’, with its goblin, its green bead necklace, and its refrain.  It begins like this –

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.
No.

Give them me. Give them me.
No.

Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

And again the magic, the strange otherworldliness of the lines, the sense (as I later found in reading Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto) that there is another world but it is this one, all this drew me deeper into poetry, and then I read loads, and when very young I preferred anthologies, where there was a wide range of different voices to explore.  I remember being very struck, in my early teens, by a poem by Robert Graves, published in The Listener (I think), called ‘Turn of the Moon’, which begins with an image of the full moon bringing water to the world ‘in a goatskin bag’.  So I always liked magic, positive strangeness, this world renewed by a shift in perspective taking us out of the quotidian into deeper richer places.  So I suppose in a way poetry introduced itself to me.  Hello, I’m Poetry, who are you?
In my late teens the soi-disant ‘Movement’ poets, androcentric, dull, full of the gentility principle, made me doubt that poetry was for me, though.  I was rescued from this sense of sterility by the happy discovery on a bookstall in Charing Cross Road of an early Selected Poems by Denise Levertov, and that wondrous book gave me permission to go on writing and building my own voice.  And Levertov is an abiding influence on my own writing.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I write in the mornings, but my mornings last until 2.30 mostly, after that I don’t feel I have the edge for writing.  But  the work involves a real mix  – of new drafts, editing and revising older drafts, going back to look at poems I’ve set aside to incubate (and this can be for months or on occasion a couple of years).  My reading takes place around the edges of all this, and then in the late afternoon and evenings I’ll read.  By the evening I’ll have gone on to novel reading.  I’ll have a walk in the afternoon and I’ll be thinking about the on-going poem in an atmospheric sort of way, though sometimes a line will resolve, or a new  line will occur to me, or I can see the poem in my head and make some cuts. I always have a notebook with me, and so will scribble things down.  I’m a big believer in Frances Bacon’s ‘organised chaos’, and I’m often working on parallel projects, or old poems alongside brand-new ones.  I’ve been fortunate enough recently to be part of two collaborative projects, first on ‘Heath’ with John Greening, and now on ‘Lzrd’, poems inspired by the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, co-written with Alyson Hallett.  It is a very different focus, the process of collaboration, and I find it very refreshing as it gets me away from my own poems for a spell, and then I go back to that work with new eyes and new senses.  It is a hard thing to map out, though, the way in which I work, and it is more like spinning a web or weaving a tapestry in a way, stitch by stitch, and sometimes the necessary writing or weaving happens in the middle of the night, or on a train, or in a supermarket.  I think poets are always tuning in via their antennae to the world around them, and so the boundary between ‘I am working’ and ‘I am in a reverie’ is quite blurred, and productively so, for me.  Of course the later stages of editing and preparing a poem to send out to a magazine, or preparing a collection, require a forensic attention, a much-more structured approach, and that is always exciting and terrifying.  But why else do we do it?

And of course interspersed with all the above are the acres of time spent on admin, emails, organising events, travel, keeping in touch with social media, all the nuts and bolts of life. We are powering towards our third Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival (22/25th November, Falmouth Hotel, Falmouth) and though I do far less work than my festival committee colleagues, it still takes up time (but in a good cause, of course).

4. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I think that the writers who were Important  to me when I was young have just bedded down into my sensibilities, and influence me to this day by their abiding presence. Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Ahkmatova, Rilke are poets I return to, and their daring, craft and emotional control and richness of range continue to give me permission to explore my own articulation.  I must also add Wallace Stevens and Pasternak.  When I was a young woman the English contemporary poets were not very interesting to me and so I was drawn to poets in translation and to US poets. I was hugely influenced by the Penguin European Poets series. In the dry UK field of poets of the very early 70s these were oases indeed.  I discovered Celan, Nellie Sachs, Yevtushenko, and so many more.

When young, the one voice in contemporary  British poetry that spoke to me significantly was Stevie Smith, her wry mode and deceptively casual address gave me a way forward in my own writing. I love her River God poem! And I now recall a little anthology called 18 European Poets, edited by Danny Abse, published by Pocket Poets, and this was my first introduction to European Poets (this must have been in around 1965).  Here I first read Lorca, ‘Green o green, I want you, green…’ This line from his Romance Sonambulo has haunted me ever since.  It was in this gem of my an anthology that I first read Celan (Black Milk), Pasternak and, I think, Tsvetaeva.  She was also a huge influence on me when Elaine Feinstein’s ground-breaking translations appeared in the 80s

5. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I admire so many current poets and am constantly struck by the power and originality of exciting new voices alongside those who began publishing in the 90s or later. I’m  currently re-reading Esther Morgan’s tenderly elegiac and familial new collection, The Wound Register.  Many of my own contemporaries unfailingly surprise, delight and intrigue me.  Too many to name, so I am going to focus on two writers  I am currently steeped in. Firstly, States of Happiness, by Suzanne Batty. Now I have to say that I mentored Suzanne during part of the writing of this, her second Bloodaxe collection, but from the moment I chose her poems as winner of the inaugural Ann Born Prize, I have valued her poems very highly, and have learned a great deal in connection with my own writing via the energy and courage of Suzanne’s poems, her richly memoried and transactional art of writing. Such work unlocks the imaginal in my own writing. The second writer who has all my attention right now is the late Australian prose writer, Beverly Farmer.   Her writing is lyric, oceanic, gathered, compelling. I have only recently discovered her through her last work, Of Water (five connected stories). I read a lot of prose writers,  they nourish my poetry. Farmer’s work flows beyond the borders of prose or poetry, and her insights, imagery and psychological discernment are beyond praise. Finding her books has been like finding a new way of being, of living.  That is what great writing can do.

Writers I like, and why:

Gillian Allnutt, Pascale Petit, Jane Draycott, Suzanne Batty, Jo Shapcott, Jane Yeh, Alice Oswold, Sinead Morrissey,  Mark Waldron, Paula Meehan…

I love the poetry and novels of Canadian writer Anne Michaels.
I admire Mark Goodwin’s work, with its innovation and its original focus on landscape. Mark is a walker and a climber and so his engagement with the physical landscape is experienced, is up close and personal.
Why do I love the work of these writers?  Their work gives me a very necessary sense of connection with the real in all its infinite manifestations, and connects me to the tested and active purpose of the imagination.  Their work is exciting, renews my faith in language, illuminates my darker times so I can find my way through.  I learn from them, and their writing gives me pleasure and energy.
Adrienne Rich has a wonderful description of the way in which the poems communicate with us –

‘how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eye of a neighbour or a stranger…That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognize it or not…When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved…’

The poets I’ve listed above, and so many more, do this!

6. Why do you write?

Why do I write?

It’s my life, it’s how I experience the world, how I try to comprehend it.;  Poems are like time-machines, they take us back to significant events and places in our life, so we can always revisit.  Writing is a way of coping with loss and bereavement.  I also write to inhabit the present and think about the future.  I write, in the words of HD, ‘to make real to myself what is most real.’  I write because I love language, its play, its stringency, its power.  I write because I can’t not write.  Writing is exciting and transformative.  D. H. Lawrence said of writing that if it isn’t fun then don’t do it.  And I love this quote from Czeslaw Milosz – The poet is like a mouse in an enormous cheese excited by how much cheese there is to eat.

7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read, and read.  Read the new poetry books, but also read back through time..  Perhaps use the technique employed by Inua Ellams in his collection Afterwords (Nine Arches).  Inua Ellams was poet in residence at the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London, and he drew on the library’s comprehensive book collection, following his own life story from the year of his childhood to his eighteenth year by selecting poems published during each year of his birth.  He then wrote response poems to these poems.  This is close-reading of a profound nature; anyone following this technique or finding a version of this practice will have gained a formidable structure to their reading, benefiting their own writing and knowledge of contemporary poetry over whatever time frame is chosen.

Read the canon, T S Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov,   Read the classics.  Read new and old translations of Homer, of poets outside the Anglophone sphere.  And read poems aloud, to get a fuller sense of the structure, purpose and pace of a poem.

You might try choosing a favourite poet, and reading all of her or his work, and associated reviews, essays on that poet.  This kind of close scrutiny is invaluable.  I know of one poet who chooses a different poet each week, and reads that poet intensively for that week.

You will almost inevitably be short of time, but try to ring-fence an hour, or even half an hour a day, and just write, without editing, without thinking I must write a poem that will be accepted by a magazine.  Write for the pleasure of writing, for the experience of learning by doing what it is to write.  Perhaps go online to find a series of prompts, if you are getting stuck for something to write about.  It is often productive to put poems away for a month, or three months, to allow them to incubate, and then when you return to the drafts the deadwood will fall away, and the poetry that is alive and working will reveal itself.

If there is a local Poetry Stanza within reach, or any kind of critiquing or poetry appreciation group,  join it.  This will avoid the problem of isolation, because although there are contacts and much to be gained by finding writers and writing groups online, it is still an isolation.  Real people in the real world are essential to a writer, and learning how to accept criticism of your drafts, and learning how to edit and critique by focusing on the work of other developing or established poets is vital.

Look online at what the Poetry School offer, there are courses online, and at various venues in London and through the UK.  They also have a list of poets who offer mentor sessions.

Read your own poems aloud when they are in draft form.  Is there one line you stumble over?  Ask yourself why, and work to make that line or stanza clearer, more fluid, maybe by cutting back, maybe by expanding.  In writing poetry we learn by doing, by our mistakes, by our willingness to see our work as always in progress, open to change and re-consideration.

Try to go to readings, or even to Festivals if your budget allows.

Go, if you can, to the Poetry Library at the Southbank, or to the Scottish Poetry Library.  Order books from your local library.

Go to the Poetry Archive, and listen to as many poets as you can.

Believe in your writing, believe that the page belongs to you, but accept criticism, be open.  Be aware that finding your voice as a poet is a long process, and one that is constantly shifting and renewing.

Join the Poetry Society.  If you are on a tight budget try to find a poet friend to share the subscription.

8. Tell me about any writing projects your involved in at the moment.

I’m quite prolific, I think, and often have several projects on the go, working on them turn and turn about.

Since 2015 I’ve been working on a full-length collection of poems titled Lyonesse.  I am now doing final edits on this. Several Lyonesse poems have appeared in magazines, and four are shortly to appear in a Stickleback pamphlet.

I am also working on a parallel collection, consisting of poems written from 2016 and to which I am adding new poems, titled History of The Child.  The title sequence is a set of 24 poems focusing on childhood, both personal and trans-personal, drawn from memories and mediated by the imaginal. Other poems in the book explore familial issues and include poems considering aspects of the patriarchy via the figures of Lear and Noah.  And there are also poems set outside these frameworks, exploring other themes, including poems respectively on the death of Stanley Spencer, on Rome, Wallace Stevens, Kew Gardens, and Katherine of Aragon.

In August 2016 I challenged myself to attempt the familiar system of writing a poem a day.  I was also influenced in this decision by  the practice of American poet William Stafford who said that he always wrote a poem a day and that it did not matter if it was good or bad.  This was very affirming.  I wrote a poem a day from from August 2016 to February 2017, when I pretty much hit the wall and stopped, though I have added some extra poems when over several days the mood has returned.  These poems are currently put aside in incubation mode and I shall return to them at a future date, when time has de-familiarised them.  In the opening poems of the poem-a-day process I found myself writing journal-type poems about the weather or about what I saw from my window, but as I continued the project the subjects grew deeper and darker, and the entire process was very involving, and led me to avenues I would not have discerned otherwise in my writing.

I am also writing a series of short poems on my phone. I call these ‘Phone Poems’.  I began doing this when I got a new phone this summer, and the first poems are about visiting Reykjavik.

Later this month (October) I’m publishing a collection of poems inspired by the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, written in collaboration with my friend and co-poet Alyson Hallett, This book is called Lzrd, and is published by Indigo Dreams Publications.  We’ll be launching it in Falmouth at the Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival on the 23rd November.

I’m also looking back over the various short stories I have published over the years.  This is proving a strange and interesting  process, taking me back in writing’s time machine to much earlier modes. I have not written stories for a while but my interest has re-awakened.

I have new poems appearing shortly in Poetry, Ambit, Artemis, and Magma.

And I’m reading as much poetry by a wide range of poets as I can.  As usual.  And in the field of prose writing I am, as I say, reading all the novels and short stories of Australian writer Beverley Farmer.

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