Bob Beagrie (PhD)
lives in Middlesbrough. He has published numerous collections of poetry and several pamphlets, most recently: When We Wake We Think We’re Whalers from Eden (Stairwell Books 2021) And Then We Saw The Daughter of the Minotaur (The Black Light Engine Press 2020), Civil Insolencies (Smokestack 2019). A new collection ‘The Last Almanac’ was published in 2023 by Yaffle Press.
1. Aside from its calendar design, how did you decide on the order of the poems in “The Last Almanac”?
As you can imagine it went through a fair few drafts and different arrangements. Originally the title was Everything Under the Sun. However, I have been teaching a few sessions on Ecopoetics as part of an undergraduate module and realised that many of the poems in the collection would fit that definition. Once I saw it in that light the title The Last Almanac came and with it the idea of reordering the collection as a calendar.
Q:1.2. Ecopoetics? How did the references to old celebrations such as “Imbolc” fit the idea of “Ecopoetics”
The references to the ancient festive days such as Imbolc, Beltane, Litha, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, and Yule, is because they were intrinsically linked to the natural changes within the cycle of the year. The poems pick out and celebrate the often-subtle sensations of these changes. Ecopoetics attempts to challenge the anthropocentric, often urban vision, and foregrounds the natural environment, while acknowledging the historical human impact and its value as defined by capital. At the same time, it resists simply pastoralising the land as an idil. I think that is what’s going on in a lot of the poems, a kind of creative reconnection to particular times and places. Gerald Manley Hopkins’ notion of inscapes was also a key and recurring influence behind the collection.
Q:2. Each quarter of the book has a photo of the moon at a particular stage and a quote from a poet. What was the purpose behind this?
The four sections roughly equate to the seasons and the quotations from the poets introduce each seasonal theme, and foreshadow the emotive responses to the seasonal shifts. The four illustrations of the moon in its different phases simply signal the lunar calendar, which was (and still is in some cultures) the prevailing method of counting the passage of time, of outer and inner tides. I guess it’s another strategy of anchoring the poems into the waxing and waning of forces within the natural world, and paying attention to their psychological effects.
Q:3: How important is poetic form in this book, and in your poetry in general?
The Last Almanac contains some traditional forms, or adaptations of them, sonnets, and villanelle for instance, and a few poems draw upon the Tang Dynasty form of semantic and syntactic parallelism. Most are organic verse forms, inspired by Denise Levertov’s idea that ‘form is a revelation of content’. In some poems like ‘Dog Day‘ this is taken to quite an extreme level of fragmentation and disruption. Clare Hele, a French scholar, noted this approach in some of my earlier books and suggested it was ‘rewinding language’. I have harnessed this idea in quite a few of the poems in this collection.
Q:4: How did Hopkins motion of “inscape” work itself into the poems?
In Denise Levertov’s essay ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’ (1965) she says:
“Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word “inscape” to denote intrin¬sic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other, and the word “instress” to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape. In thinking of the process of poetry as I know it, I extend the use of these words, which he seems to have used mainly in reference to sensory phenomena, to include intellec¬tual and emotional experience as well; I would speak of the inscape of an experience (which might be composed of any and all of these elements, including the sensory) or of the inscape of a sequence or constellation of experiences.”
Many of the poems in the collection begin with observation of a subject, whether that is a location or an animal or an experience, and build up accumulative details of the ‘thing’. Mary Oliver famously said, ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion”. Through the process of focused ‘apperception’ there is a point when the poem moves somewhere unexpected, it stops being about external description and enters the ‘semiotic’, where subject and object blur and unconscious psychically charged images emerge. This is an approach that the Deep Image Poets pioneered in the 1950s and 60s, which was inspired by Lorca’s Cante Jonda or Deep Song. Robert Bly pointed out the importance of what he referred to as “psychic leaps”, which subvert simple rational explanation and are produced by the unconscious imagination. One of the Deep Image poets Jerome Rothenberg claimed that;
“The poem is the record of the movement from perception to vision.
Poetic form is the pattern of that movement through space and time .
The deep image is the content of vision emerging in the poem.
The vehicle of movement is freedom.”
I think the ‘freedom’ he is referring to is an ‘openness’ and a suspension of habitual modes of perception and is closely linked to Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’.
Q:4.1. In what way is it linked to negative capability?
Keats refers to ‘negative capabilities’ as a state of openess and acceptance of uncertainties. It is intuitive approach rather than one based on rational or prescribed outcomes, and I think there is a vulnerability and tenderness that comes with it. The poems in The Last Almanac embody this tentative mode of enquiry and expression.
Q:5. Why are there so many references to the mouth, and the face and the senses associated with it, taste, smell, and so on?
I hadn’t realised that there was so many references to the he face and associated senses. I think it is probably an attempt at anchoring the poems into the physical experience of place and time, which then allows more abstract, emotional or conceptually based images and symbols to emerge.
Q:6. What’s the function of the natural world in “The Last Almanac”?
The natural world is central to The Last Almanac. From poems like ‘Watching Swallows at Ludworth Tower’, ‘Big Sea’, ‘Slendere’ and ‘Headland’ which are homages, even odes, to aspects of nature and its majesty. Others personify natural forces such as ‘Persephone’ and ‘Old Uncle Tay’. In ‘Rewilding’, which is about exploring the green corridors between industrial, retail and residential estates on a bike during lockdown, nature is shown pervading and reclaiming the urban landscape. It points out, like Ozymandius and some of John Clare’s poetry, that our sense of control over it is an anthropological ego-driven illusion.
Q:7: How did you design the poems for performance?
Part of my process in writing a poem is to focus on its oral and aural qualities, this often involves reciting it as I’m working through revisions and fine edits. Some of the poems have been performed to live audiences over the years, and subsequently reworked. Some, like ‘Seeding the Solstice’ ‘Persephone’, ‘Splendere’, ‘Old Uncle Tay’, ‘Everything Under the Sun’, ‘Holding Liquid’, ‘Film Poem’ and ‘Head of the Heathen’ have been recorded and had music and sound effects added as part of Project Lono, a poetry and music collaboration I am involved with. These can be listened to on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
Q:8. Why is the collection called The Last Almanac?
The arrangement of the poems, even though they cover many years of writing, into a calendar of days representing the passing of one year, seemed a useful and stimulating way of organising them, especially as so many are responding to different phases, seasons or events within the annual cycle. So it is playing off the idea of a farmer’s almanac. The concern for ecology and fears of extreme weather conditions, the undeniability of climate change also threaten the natural cycles and our response to them. I know it sounds somewhat dystopian but The Last Almanac foregrounds the fragility of our current situation. Only this week The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a warning in their Synthesis Report that rising greenhouse gas emissions are pushing the world to the brink of irrevocable damage that only swift and drastic action can avert. This makes the poems in the collection a homage to nature but also an elegy.
Q:9. How important is a sense of place, perhaps a sense of “Northernness” in The Last Almanac?
Place, both in terms of specific location and in the broader sense of Northerness, and historical roots, is one of the key themes of the collection. Many of the poems are place specific, and draw on the principle of the Irish Dindsenchas (Lore of Places), in which the land is explored, and can be imaginatively reclaimed, through shared and intergenerational narratives, myths, legends and folklore. As well as poems about the rural landscapes of Northern England like Hardraw, Head of the Heathen, Kirkcarrion, Sheep Wash etch, and more urban-located poems, there are a fair few about places in Scotland. I have a deep connection to Scotland, my Great Grandfather came to Middlesbrough from Aberdeen to find work in the steel industry. But it’s more than that, I think the Northern English and the Scots have a complex, intermingled and shared history and often have more in common than with people in the South of England. Teesside has been part of Scotland on several occasions throughout history. Personally, I would be happy if the Scottish border was redrawn at the Humber.
Q:10. There is a delight in the long sentence in your poetry. The sentence can form a whole poem or one stanza. What is the attraction of the long sentence for you?
Yes there is, I am attracted to the long sentence as it seems to best illustrate the meandering and divergent way my thoughts emerge, each clause triggering another which might complement or offer a counterpoint or allows for an increase in focus on a particular image. I remember my Mam once saying to me when I was quite young, “You’d argue with yourself” and I remember being surprised because, of course I would and do, all of the time, and I thought everyone did that as part of their internal monologue. Charles Olsen, in his essay ‘Projective Verse’ made the claim that when composing a poem “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception”, which I see as a process of discovery through the awareness of how the mind moves around any particular subject. I find the long sentence, with its left, right and centre branching clauses, ideal in capturing this cognitive mapping.
Q:11. Having read the book what do you want the reader to leave with?
Tricky question. I’ve had some really lovely responses to it so far with people saying they found it beautiful, inspiring, joyous, uplifting but also quite dark, “like a tray of honey cakes” and Cait O’Neill Macullgh said that it is like “an answer to a question I didn’t realise I’d been carrying”.
Every reader will obviously take something different from it, and the poems will connect with different people in different ways, but I would hope that readers will take away a sense of authenticity and personal truth from the journey.