Amanda Dalton's long-awaited second collection Stray has arrived. She talks here about the way in which writing drama has fed her poetry, how music and song underlie her distinctive forms and why there's a scarcity of the personal pronoun 'I' in much of her work
PJ: Stray – it’s the perfect title. Both a verb and a noun, it encapsulates the events and the characters in the collection. It’s been a while since your first book. Some might think you’d strayed from poetry – where have you been?
AD: I had strayed from poetry, I think. Interestingly, I started writing for radio because of poetry. My first radio play was, effectively, the sequence of poems, ‘Room Of Leaves,’ from my first book. That got me into the interesting world, for me, of the relationship between radio drama and poetry. Writing for radio, in turn, got me writing drama for the stage. Around that time, I went to work for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. So I was in a theatre, rather than a literature environment. Since my poetry collection How To Disappear I’ve disappeared a bit but also written nine radio plays and five plays for the theatre, and had a very full-on full time job. That’s where I’d strayed to – but I’m glad to be back home!
PJ: There’s a strong relationship between your playwriting and your poems.
AD: You’ll see from the acknowledgements that some of this work began life as poems that appeared in dramas; some began as drama that, when I got to the end, I felt I hadn’t finished with the subject matter and wanted to it explore in a different way – a poem will allow me to do that; some poems have become triggers for full-length dramas. ‘No Harm,’ for example, became a radio play with the same name, a fully developed narrative that used some elements of that poem as a starting point.
PJ: Several poems explore characters rather than what I would call personae. Characters on the edge, in extremis. Several are extended narratives, with a very particular voice such as, ‘No Harm,’ ‘Feral,’ ‘Lost In Space.’ Where do your characters come from?
AD: The short answer is that I usually don’t know. But my feeling about the world is quite complicated in relationship to people. In some ways I can be quite sociophobic (!) but I’m also endlessly fascinated by people and I think I’m generally quite an empathetic person. Writing character in poems is for me a lot about getting under people’s skin – and often about voice. That’s the place I naturally tend to start. It’s no coincidence that I’ve ended up writing poetry and drama because fragments of story, charged and led by characters who are often a little bit on the edge, is definitely where I usually start.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit more about the characters in ‘No Harm?’ Two girls have broken into a house, yet the poem is sympathetic towards them.
AD: That poem comes from a true story. I worked for a time in a secure care centre near Manchester as part of my job at The Royal Exchange Theatre. One of the girls I worked with on a drama project, a teenager, broke my heart really. Her life was sad, chaotic. The thing that had got her nicked, and in the end locked up, was that she’d taken to breaking into people’s houses and not stealing anything. Just being there. I’m not being romantic about this, she did have about three-zillion other offences to be taken into account but I was completely obsessed for a while with this notion of this girl breaking into houses in order to inhabit somebody else’s life. It’s a theme that recurs through my writing, in one way or another – the ghostly or otherwise ‘insecure’ presence, inhabiting a world in which they’re somehow out of place.What was most poignant about this girl was the fact that she so badly wanted to have another life. She’d break into a house – just watch telly, have a cup of tea and toast and Marmite and then leave.
PJ: Tell us about ‘Lost in Space’ or ‘Feral.’ Did the characters arrive with the backstory or did the poems emerge from an image or the rhythm of a voice?
AD: With ‘Feral’ there was definitely the sense of a voice. When I’m writing a poem in the first person – in the voice of a character - I do clearly hear a rhythm of a voice, rhythm – and tone, even dialect and, to an extent, vocabulary. I usually can hear the whole voice. When a poem’s in the second or third person, I don’t usually hear a voice. I’m starting with an image or a moment in a narrative – a split second. ‘Lost in Space’ began with the image of someone falling from the flats and someone witnessing it from close by but indoors. And, it came from the idea of someone who imagines himself to be someone else. It’s that obsessive thing I keep coming back to, that notion of inhabiting someone else’s life. I don’t know where the idea of Buzz Aldrin came from but once I’d got that it gave me language, it gave me the imagery of the poem.
PJ: Each of the long narratives has a distinct form, appropriate to the content. Can you tell us about finding the form?
AD: ‘Lost in Space’ found its form in a dramatic narrative way. That’s an example of a sequence that is closely related to a radio play that I wrote around the same story. With a long narrative, I plot the story – as I might do for a play – shape it as story. Other narrative sequences and longish narrative poems in the book often tell themselves to me, as miniature stories, or often as fragments of story – there are a lot of fragments!
PJ: I was struck by a line in ‘Almost a Story’ - [he] knelt in the soil to join the broken words/until he almost made a story - a ‘keynote’ line. It’s often what you’re doing - picking up fragments of a life, creating a story. Very few of your poems employ the classic lyric ‘I’ – assumed to be the poet speaking of the self.
AD: Interesting. I’m not disagreeing with you but there are fifteen or sixteen poems in the first person where the ‘I’ is I! The whole of the sequence set in the Bronte parsonage, for example. Also, the poems about my mum that I wrote after her death. And there are some that might be perceived as the lyric I but they are ‘lies.’ Because of tone or content a reader might imagine some poems are personal when they’re not. Then there is the ‘I’ voice that is clearly not I but a first person direct address to audience, as it were – more dramatic monologue. I’m interested – very interested - in playing around with the fluidity of identity: inhabiting other lives, exploring unstable identities, somebody forgetting who they are or believing themselves to be another. I don’t think it’s avoidance. It chimes with the way I work with these unstable presences. Who are we? Where are we in the world? How secure are we in the world? I guess I explore identity in relation to voice and the reader as part of that.
PJ: There is something universal in these very particular stories. Dramatisations of parts of ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge or other lives we’d rather turn away from. There but for the… etc
AD: The lyric I, in the traditional sense, isn’t there in a lot of the poems but in a way yes, inevitably, all the poems are about me. You can’t write without some of yourself being in there. They’re coming from a state of mind often. That said, I do think I turn away from poetry that is personal but doesn’t transcend the personal. Of course there are brilliant writers who write confessionally and I don’t have a problem with that, but I think there is an awful lot of bad confessional poetry. Yes, I do want to work with something universal. And yes, I do think ‘There but for the…’ I think that all the time!
PJ: You use 2nd person quite often. Sometimes as a disguised first person, as in ‘Alaska,’ other times, to take us into relationships such as in ‘Small Things’ and ‘Drift.’ With ‘Bird on a Wire’ it could be a relationship or dialogue with different bits of the self. What is it that draws you to 2nd person?
AD: With ‘Bird on a Wire’ I was thinking of it as a relationship, as two characters. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be read in different ways. It is about two different ways of looking at the world. Again, I think this is my link to drama: the tension between two ‘characters’, the direct address, the invisible somebody who is being spoken to. I use it sometimes to give the shadowy sense of another character inhabiting the poem, someone we don’t actually see. There’s often that invisible other ‘character’ as a kind of observer, sometimes observing their younger or older self. ‘Drift’ was imagining a woman addressing an absent lover – an accusatory address. Sometimes I use second person to be deliberately distancing. I like it. You have to be careful not to overuse it but it can give another layer to a poem.
PJ: Historic events feature as in ‘Untidiness,’ ‘Handheld’ and ‘Frau Beckmann.’ It can be a risk to take on such subjects in a poem. Can you tell us about the process?
AD: I don’t feel safe or confident in those areas at all. Although I hope my poems are universal I essentially see them as personal rather than overtly political or public. The poems you refer to were commissions and to be honest, much as I’m glad I wrote them, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to do so without the commissions. As it was, I tried to find the very specific and the personal as a way in, so in ‘Untidiness,’ it’s the specificity of the museum objects. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable tackling a giant topic – war, famine – via a public poetry approach.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit about your personal prosody? I notice references to songs, a musicality in the work, the invention of stanza forms.
AD: I’ve always loved song, music. I grew up in a very musical household and played piano from an early age – and I think I have a strong, innate sense of melody and rhythm. I do use traditional poetic forms sometimes but quite often I hear the rhythm of a line and I’ll think – is there a pattern here? If an existing form doesn’t present itself, I’ll often create a metrical or rhythmic pattern, sometimes as a constraint to myself in order to liberate something else. I’m a great believer that form can be freeing, because it pushes you into places you otherwise wouldn’t have gone. I also really like being playful with language and rhythm. So I might decide, for example, the third line in each stanza has nine stresses or seven stresses in the second line. There’s lots of patterning in the poems that doesn’t fit conventional form and that mainly works subliminally, though I think the reader is aware of it. These patterns give the piece an energy, a shape. I find that process of crafting really satisfying.
PJ: Who are the poets that you return to, who feed your own work?
AD: At a certain point when I’m writing poetry I don’t read poetry. I have to be careful because I do tend to take on voices that are strong. When I first starting writing, Selima Hill, for example, was important to me but was also a writer I sometimes had to avoid, because she’s so particular and distinctive. I read poems all the time and the poems I love and go back to are too many to list. But key poets would definitely include two of my A level poets who got me into reading contemporary work - Ted Hughes and Norman McCaig; Miroslav Holub, who was the first contemporary writer I read in translation – stunning. When I started writing, Jo Shapcott signposted me to Elizabeth Bishop and she blew me away. Still does. I love the narrative, the tone, that she appears to be writing so ‘plainly’ yet her work is beautifully crafted. T S Eliot should have come first on my list – he was the first for me, aged sixteen. His imagery – I remember how it astonished me. Writing now? I think a large number of poets ‘feed’ me – in many ways. There really are too many to list, but one of my favourite books of recent years is Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability, which achieves personal writing that transcends the personal in a beautiful way.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
AD: Poetry-wise, I’ve been reading a Turkish poet called Birhan Keskin because I’m trying to write an introduction to her forthcoming collection to be published by Arc. I’ve just got a copy of Jane Draycott’s Pearl – looking forward to that, and I’m reading the Bloodaxe anthology Being Human in the bath, so it’s a bit battered, but full of so many great poems and poets I’d never come across before. Fiction – just read Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions - one of his I’d missed when it came out – and the dazzling There But For The by Ali Smith. She plays with language so beautifully and brilliantly. Non-fiction on the go is Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction – How We Became Estranged from Nature. Fascinating. I work in a theatre so I’m also always reading lots of plays, old and new. Currently David Eldridge’s new version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Makes the play feel entirely contemporary and fresh.
PJ: What are you writing?
AD: A version of the classic 1922 film, Nosferatu, for Radio 3. It’s a mixture of poetry and dialogue. And I’m scribbling stuff that might someday be poems.
PJ: What would you say to someone who is taking rather longer than they’d hoped on that tricky second collection?
AD: I’d say what I’ve been saying to myself for years but not listening to: get a bloody move on!
Hear Amanda read from Stray on Radio 3's The Verb, 13 April 2012
Stray is published by Bloodaxe Books