Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “Lyonesse” by Penelope Shuttle


Penelope Shuttle

lives in Cornwall. Her thirteenth collection, Lyonesse, appears from Bloodaxe, June 2021. Covid/Corvid, a pamphlet written in collaboration with Alyson Hallett, appears from Broken Sleep Books, November 2021. Father Lear, a pamphlet, was published by Poetry Salzburg in June 2020. Shuttle is President of the Falmouth Poetry Group, founded in 1972. She is widely published, and her radio poem, Conversations on a Bench, set in Falmouth, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in March 2020. She is currently working on a new collection, History of the Child.

The Interview

1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in the book?

That is a big and essential question.  The main and subsidiary themes of Lyonesse set me writing full-tilt and in three big separate surges over about 18 months I wrote many more poems than a full collection would warrant, and indeed as I wrote I knew that not all would make the final cut, but I felt that in these first and early drafts I had to let everything come through, and deal with it later.  All of this I find exhilarating as a process.  And I got to a place eventually, after much re-drafting of these too many poems, when I then had a longish break from the Lyonesse poems.  This was in order to let the whole absorbing process or matrix settle down, to be able to come back with fresh eyes and make the cuts that I knew would be necessary before I could work on the running order.  When I came back to this still unruly mass of material I soon saw which poems were weaker, which ones repeated what I’d said more trenchantly in other poems, and I dropped these from the book.  I still had far too many poems, and I had a sense  (pun intended) of being inundated with poems about Lyonesse.  I have always found that bringing draft poems to a workshop group, particularly the Falmouth Poetry Group, was a helpful and useful process.  Indeed I’ve been a member of Fpg since it was founded in 1972.  But though single poems were workshopped there with helpful comments, I still felt overwhelmed by the work in progress that was Lyonesse.  So I asked my friend and colleague Katrina Naomi to close-read the manuscript and comment on it.  This proved to be a real turning-point in the process, her insights, comments and suggestions aided  me in cutting out further less-energised poems from the collection, and dropping these poems gave me elbow-room to start, at last!, thinking about the running order.  I took a long time over this, trying this order and that order, and wasn’t satisfied until I decided to put the longish prose-poems called ‘An Account of the Submergence’ at the mid-point of the collection, and not as I had always had it as the opening poem.  This prose poem then acted as the hinge upon which the book turned.  This in turn enabled me to put on either side of ‘An Account…’ two poems which give the phrase ‘land under sea’ in many different tongues.  This central hinge, bracketed with the ‘land under sea’ pieces made a strong structure and the running order then almost fell into place on either side.  I have employed in Lyonesse a number of very short ‘ribbon’ poems throughout (as in Heath, at the suggestion there of editor Jane Comane) and these ‘ribbon’ poems act as little respites in the narrative, and let the reader pause  before plunging back into Lyonesse.  Finding ways to modulate the onward movement of the book was an ever-present concern as I worked on the running order.  It is astonishing how when a poem fits in place it creates a mental, lyrical and narrative harmony and adds to the overall shape of the book, whereas a poem in the wrong place soon tells you ‘I’m in the wrong place and this doesn’t work!’  So I tried always to listen to each individual poem, and sense the rightness or wrongness of the placing.

2. In the preface you talk about getting the “colour palette” right. What did you mean by this?

Cornwall is famous for its painterly light, its colours.  Because Cornwall is a narrow peninsula at the very end of England, it is almost an island, there is sea on all three sides, and this creates our vivid brightness of light and colour, as the light bounces off all that sea, refracting and dazzling and magical.  The colours of Cornwall are predominately, then, green and blue.  But what greens and blues, every modulation and variation of blue and green.  And in the spring the vivid blossoming shrubs add their multiple colours.  As Lyonesse is the submerged land beyond the Isles of Scilly, I am imagining that Lyonesse possessed the same brilliance and variety of light and colour, sea-refracted, sea-rinsed, sea-related as Cornwall does today.  I can’t, alas, draw or paint, but I’m an avid enjoyer of paintings,  and I’ve drawn that element into the poems of sea-sunken Lyonesse, I’m imagining in the poems the colours we might see or glimpse beneath the clear waters, the ruins of palaces and squares, this underwater quivering of Cornwall’s colours.  So the colour-palette is the vocabulary of engagement with the greens and blues that predominate in a maritime county where i climate and atmosphere and light are unique.  I focused also on the colours of gardens, hence roses are mentioned at times, and by weaving colours into and through the poems I hope to give vivid life to the lost land, Lyonesse.  I think in our poems we can usefully aim for a synaesthesia of the senses,  to imbue the vocabulary of our poems with sounds, perfumes, perspectives, say,  inspired by paintings.  Our present historic moment, of corrupt politics, of a sleep-walking electorate, of pandemic, of deliberately-underfunded social services and infrastructures, means that life turns drab, dull, depressed. I’m not immune to feeling depressed at where we are, post-Brexit, in the UK where only man is vile, and so I needed to remind myself of a different palette, to describe, yes, a lost city, but also to describe a living reality, not so much as escapism, for there is grief and deep regret in Lyonesse, but to remind myself that we don’t need to live in accepted ruinous ways.  I suppose it is another approach to ‘you must change your life’.

3. Why do you think so many writers associate water with grief?

Being in grief is an inundation, we are immersed, drowned in grief, and so the element, ‘water’, symbolises that overwhelming oceanic feeling that comes from loss of all kinds.  The association is there with tears, with weeping.  But also water is a cleansing substance, and perhaps the way of moving through grief is to be washed clean of our most intense sadness, enabling us to contain the overflow of our grief.  Perhaps writing about inundation, creating images and patterns, is also a container for grief, or a way of coming to terms with it.  For some religions immersion and baptism enable a new beginning, a new sense of self.  In writing Lyonesse I was aware that the ocean is a powerful player in the collective unconscious.  Early humans lived along shorelines where food was abundant.  Proto-humans came out of the ocean.  A great deal of human emotion is bound up with water, both as a paradigm for grief, for birth and rebirth, and renewal. The images and associations that poets write from are drawn from this process, and from collective unconscious.

4. What is to the significance of the two quotes at the beginning of the book?

During the writing of Lyonesse I became aware that overdosing on research was going to make the book top-heavy, so I kept research to a necessary minimum, to keep the imagination free to work.  I’m quite a fan of the random giving a poet a nudge now and then, and the quotation from The Anathemata by David Jones was a nudge given to me by a random library angel.  I hadn’t re-read ad this amazing key text from David Jones for many years but one day a library angel suggested to me that I might like to re-read it.  Doing so, I discovered that in the voyage described in the early part of the book the ship goes by the coast of Cornwall and the text remembers the sunken land of Lyonesse, with its 140 drowned churches.  This felt like a message from a greatly-admired poet, a thumbs-up, if you like, for Lyonesse.  It also gave impetus to my seeking out elder and alternate names for Lyonesse, as in ‘Leonnoyes’ in The Anathemata.  Lyonesse in the historic record is also referred to as ‘Leonois’ and ‘Lethostow’ and ‘Lyonnaise’. 

The second quote from Mark Goodwin follows this strand of alternate names for Lyonesse, where in his wonderful Cornish-set poem, ‘a St Juliot’ , Mark playfully renames Lyonesse as ‘Lea-on-Ness’.  Mark Goodwin has a strong connection with Cornwall, where he has often walked, and climbed the sea cliffs.  He was a good friend to Peter Redgrove, visiting him in Falmouth, especially in Peter’s last years.  The connection with ‘Lea-on-Ness’ and ‘Lyonesse’ was a meeting-place that, like the quoted lines from David Jones, gave a valued affirmation to my poems, and I wanted to pay tribute to both writers.  Writing playfully is, of course, a very serious business.

5. How important is form for you in poetry?

For a poem to be alive, a living entity, form and content need to be in equilibrium.  Too much form with too little content or a splurge of content without the containment of some form of form?  Neither give us a living poem.  

So how do we find that equilibrium between form and content?  For me, it is by paying very close attention to the poem through its drafts and revisions.  What does the poem want to be?  A sonnet? Free-form sonnet, or rhymed sonnet? To be cast in couplets, or in one long energised stanza?  To be long-lined, or very thinly-set on the page.  Poem, are you an ode, or are you a haiku?  How does the poem want to use the white space?  There is a perfect form for each poem, and teasing out that form, being in dialogue with the poem as to its desired form, is how I work with form. Form is essential, gives the language something to push against.  In Lyonesse I have occasionally justified a poem to the right hand margin, a use of form that resulted in this kind of conversation with the poem in the making

Somewhere Seamus Heaney says that every poem has ‘a binding secret’ and I think he means that its secret is the form, the container that makes and keeps the language alive.  A poem needs to do more than sit well-behaved on the page, being passive:  reading a poem is an integrative experience, the poem is a living entity, and the poet’s love for the poem will find the poem the needed form, enabling the ‘inner coherence’ of the poem to flow freely within that form, be it formally-traditional or experimental in the extreme.  There’s much also to be gained from starting at the other end, with form, and seeing if that generates living language, to ascertain if that way of writing permits fidelity to inner experience. 

5.1.What do you mean by “fidelity to lived experience”?

The phrase ‘fidelity to lived experience’ is a quotation from George Whalley’s ‘Poetic Process’.  It is an incredibly thought-provoking book that I go back to many times.  Whalley suggests that in writing poetry a key element very early on in the process is the charge of feeling and value created by the poet’s encounter with reality.  Whalley says that a poem works by ‘communicating feeling of an intricate and ordered kind.’  He uses quantum theory as an analogy through which to understand the coming-into-being of a poem.  Like everything that matters in life, this is complicated!  But by centring the perception of reality at the core of a poem he opens an amazing door of possibilities, and his writings have given me permission to address the oddness. the intensity, and  the relevance of the nature of reality as expressed in poems…And yet reality dissolves when we hold it in language.   So the holding and the dissolving in language is perhaps also the poem.  What is the reality of Lyonesse?   Is it my grief?  Is it the grief of facing human extinction and climate change?  Is it the grief of the twentieth and the twenty-first century, and the sense that human beings have failed at being custodians of the planet, and don’t deserve to survive?  Is it human folly?  It is all of these, though I have studiously avoided polemic and the climate change bandwagon in Lyonesse..    Lyonesse is paradox. Is living in imagination but dead historically.   Why is the world so beautiful and yet so despoiled?  Yet I don’t want to limit myself to theorising about reality, or Lyonesse, I work in language, that is all I can say, language that is allied to my own lived experience.

6. When I read it all the TV images of folk in Hebden Bridge, and a year or so ago when we had a lot of rain in Summer, flood victims kept coming to mind.

That’s interesting. The associations are there, aren’t they?  A few years ago after a lot of extreme rain the Thames at Staines flooded, and streets nearby were flooded, and we were concerned for my mum’s house.  Although she is a way from the river she’s near a stream, and the fear was that the water would come up through drains.  Didn’t happen, but yes, water will go the way it wants.  Inexorable.

7. How important is nature to you in Lyonesse and the sequence that follows it?

We’ve seen how in a crisis of the magnitude of the pandemic how important being out of doors, being in nature has become for people, and I think it is a basic part of being human.  In Lyonesse I imagined the forest being just outside the city, and that the city had gardens and parks.  And yes, evoking and portraying the natural landscape of Lyonesse before the inundation, and  the sea-floor situation of the sunk Lyonesse was an essential thing to do.  Bringing human nature into engagement with wider nature made outer and inner places to explore.  In ‘New Lamps for Old’ nature is woven into memory and the past.  I find it quite difficult to write about nature in relation to the two collections, because I don’t see it as set apart from any of the ongoing experiences I’m writing about, it is woven in, not a separate ‘thing’ I insert into the poems.  It is there in the air the poems breathe.   And often I only discern important threads and themes after the poems are written in first drafts.  The poems in process give me back the purpose and strategy I need to complete them.  So nature is inherent and embedded in the writing.  Is one element more important than another?  I hope all the elements work together to complete the poems.

8. Another theme that runs through it is music, sea shanties, Lully lullay, and so on.

When there’s not a pandemic on, here in Falmouth every June we have an International Sea Shanty Festival, and thousands of people come to enjoy it, you can’t turn a corner in Fal without a group of shanty singers being there singing away.  So they were in my mind.  But more seriously, when Katrina Naomi did a close-reading of an early draft of Lyonesse, among her comments, she flagged up the point that a lot of the titles of the poems were very neutral.  And then I realised, yes,  I’d put quite a lot of holding-pattern titles into Lyonesse.  I thought a lot about livening up the titles and eventually I realised that sea-shanties would give more force to the titles.  I think that musicality is an important part of poetry, it musn’t just be written for the eye, but for the ear.  I listen to music, mostly Radio 3, when I’m working, or reading, in fact I just have it on all day and have done since I was in my 20s, and so I think all that music has soaked into me, and is present in the poems.  And the Lully lullay is from an Old English poem I’ve always loved.  A friend of mine is planning to set some Lyonesse poems to music,  as songs, which will be thrilling.

9. “New Lamps For Old” is very different in tone and texture to “Lyonesse”. There seems to be a lot more journeys recounted and a lot of rain.

Yes, there is rain, and this is our constant companion in Cornwall!  

In ‘New Lamps’ I go back in time to memories of life with Peter, but I’m also writing about my life after Peter.  

A couple of years after his death in 2003 I went back to work as a freelance creative writer, running poetry workshops, tutoring on residential courses, and mentoring individual poets.  I was very involved in the poetry world also as a judge of many poetry competitions.  This work involved a lot of travel, and I also travelled for pleasure, and these journeys have woven themselves into the poems.  

The title ‘New Lamps for Old’ is intended to convey the complex, difficult yet also liberating process of making a new life after a marriage of almost 33 years.  Liberating because Peter had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease in the last years of his life, and so our life in general narrowed down a great deal.  I am thinking in respect of the title that our old life with all its shared illuminations (old lamps) has ended, and I am in the situation of needed to find new lamps, new purpose, new ways of being (involving work and travel and change).  A lot of rain?  Yes, I think there is a strand in the book where I am alone in our house and it is often raining, and I am meditating on change or struggling with fears and sadness.  

So a very transitional feeling comes in at times, and the discoveries of travel, and the sense of poetry as a lifeline through a complicated time. 

I made a lot of new friends via my teaching and travels, and friendship is key to poems in the second volume.  

I think there is much more of the  interior life in ‘New Lamps’, whereas the Lyonesse poems are more extrovert, and the ‘I’ there is at a considerable remove from my own self, an invented ‘I’.  In ‘New Lamps’ the ‘I’ of the poems is  centrally me, speaking my experience.  They are on the brink, often, finding equilibrium,  of charting that journey from bereavement to reflection, to a calmer inwardness.  The ‘Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston’ sequence, written on a retreat at Swarthmoor Hall, is a meditation written on and around the anniversary of Peter’s death.  It rains in Cumbria a lot, also!

During the writing of these poems I spent periods of time near London, either when working, or visiting family and friends, and so the thread of London poems that appears in my 2017 collection, Will You Walk a Little Faster, continues on into several  poems as London was such a part of my changed life.  Visits to friends in Normandie also feature,  as in ‘Village of La Baleine’.  There are poems drawn from visits to art galleries (Kandinsky at the Tate) (Ruby Loftus…)

So yes, the tone and the texture are very different from Lyonesse, with its oceanic sweep, and its otherworldliness/under the waves-ness, and its slantwise look at climate change…I suppose in a way Lyonesse has more a feeling of theatre about it, where New Lamps poems are often meditative and questioning.  In these poems I am encountering and reporting  processes of widowhood with its new possibilities and old sorrows.  Many of the New Lamps poems are written for sheer pleasure of the thing, of course, as in Ann Boleyn’s Music Book.  But overall the poems try to say, this is where the poet was, thinking/feeling these things, considering her options, welcoming new landscapes, and opening new doors while remembering the door to and of the past.

10. What fascinates you about ekphrastic writing, using paintings as inspirations?

I love going to galleries, and museums.  Visiting a good or sympatico exhibition is like plugging one’s whole spirit into a spirit generator, so that one is rinsed through with art, or energised by a museum’s objects.  Going to an exhibition is also a way of being free from the demands of poetry!  Devoted as I am to those demands, to enter an art exhibition as observer/participant/admirer and to have no professional responsibilities at all, but simply to be there to respond, is a very nourishing experience, and I greatly miss these visits since the pandemic changed things.  I enjoy curatorial text, and often take notes.  In the Kandinsky exhibition I became fascinated with the many different body-languages pf peoples’ responses to these paintings, and I imagined these in the poem as people swimming through the galleries in different ways.  Ruby Loftus, in Dame Laura Knights’ 1942 painting, fascinated me, I felt a real connection with her, and tried to give a sense of her personality in the poem.  So ekphrastic writing offers us the riches of close attention to another art form, of innumerable thresholds into worlds, and personalities.  Sometimes a painting will remind us of things in our own lives.  When I used to run poetry writing workshops I often used postcards from art exhibitions, and sometimes I gave everyone the same image .  I was always struck by how variously each poet responded to the image, some choosing a tiny detail, others giving a comprehensive overview.  An image gives you permission to write, it is a good solution to writers’ block, the fear of the blank page.  But I write poems inspired by paintings because I fall in love with them, or from a feeling that the painting has requested me to write a poem about it.  A kind of imploring, or a temptation.  It has been said often, elsewhere, that going to exhibitions has replaced going to church, and the intensity of feeling that can be experienced from a gallery visit does have a similar resonance.

11. After having read the book what do you wish the reader to leave with?

Readers are individuals so reactions will be as individual. 

 I hope that the reader finds in the book what s/he hoped for, or found something different or unexpected that had meaning for them.  

I hope the reader goes away wanting to write something of their own. 

I hope that the reader enjoys it above all,  gains pleasure from reading the book, pleasure is a very important thing!.  

But one of the best things written about how poems have their effect comes from Paul Valery (in his ‘Poetry and Abstract Thought’):

‘…the poem makes poetry happen in the mind of the reader or listener.  It happens first to the poet, and in the course of writing, the poet eventually makes something, a little machine, one that for the reader produces discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression.  Whatever it does, it can do again and again, as many times as we need it.’

I would love a reader to experience that from reading Lyonesse.

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