Rosie Shepperd is a poet to watch. She worked in banking and financial journalism in London and New York until 2004 when she discovered her talent for writing poetry. She’s now doing a Phd at The University of Glamorgan, publishing widely in magazines and picking up prizes, most recently a winner in this year’s Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition judged by Carol-Ann Duffy.
That So-Easy Thing was launched by Smith/Doorstop last week. A second pamphlet is due from Salt later in the year. She talks here about how food feeds her poetry, what’s really going on in her ‘relationship poems’ and the parallels between mathematics and poetic construction.
PJ: Many of these poems offer a glimpse into a much larger narrative. With poems such as ‘2 out of 12 organic eggs are cracked’ or ‘I tend to tug when I shouldn’t even push,’ the ‘character’ arrives at an epiphany, a moment of insight and the reader is left working on the rest of the story. Have you ever been tempted to write fiction?
RS: Before I started to write poetry, I wrote a few small stories and a couple of short plays. I remember writing a one-woman dramatic monologue and was fascinated by the process of constructing a totally fictitious voice. One that was not mine, but which formed a construction of an authentic voice. The devices used in that construction still interest me and one example of these (in my poetry) is to use a profusion of detail that only the constructed person/persona would know and that would identify them as unique and separate but (on some level) familiar.
PJ: I used the word ‘character’ because I sense, often, the ‘I’ in a poem might not be the poet. Tone is key – an archness, a knowing playfulness. Is getting the tone pitch perfect a key part of the process for you – a voice that withholds more than it reveals?
RS: Yes it is and it’s vital for me as a reader too. I enjoy poems where I have been able to see something more clearly because the images and the tone are doing a job of ellipsis, rather than demonstration; that utter confidence when the voice knows exactly what it is doing and I (as the reader) am happy to be led into or away from an event or memory or an exploration.
PJ: The sense of narrative is heightened as we often get an ‘I’ addressing a present, or sometimes absent, ‘you.’ Do you see the poems as inviting the reader to eavesdrop?
RS: Yes, if a poem is working well, I think the reader does eavesdrop on the conversation between the poet and the poem so that the conversation the readers start to participate in is between themselves and the poem – it’s almost as if a code or message has been passed from the poem to the reader in a way that he/she finds both surprising and familiar.
PJ: That said a number of poems threaded through the collection seem to track the illness and death of a father, ‘Santa Claus is Leaving Town,’ is one of the most moving in the book. I’m sensing here a more personal lyric?
RS: I’m sure many people experience a similar “illumination” at times of personal distress. Images take on an extraordinary clarity and intensity, almost as if everything that we see, hear, taste, touch and smell at those times is inextricably linked to the experiences and emotions of that time. In another poem written at that time (published in Rialto) I have the line, “that’s why people have songs, isn’t it/ to take them to the same place, at the same time?”
PJ: I’m struck by how many of the poems involve food and foreign locations! Does food often start a poem for you?
RS: I would say that specific food and precise location always enter into the process (and my thoughts and conversation) – either with the taste and texture of the food or the process of preparation. There’s an exquisiteness and a deliberation in my enjoyment of places and tastes, which is very similar to my enjoyment of words and images. But also this reverts back to what we were saying about distilling down details until you get to the real syrup of the persona or voice!
PJ: Yes, there’s an almost obsessive piling on of specificity – brands, place names, numbers, eg ‘From my 30cm table in the café at the Dulwich Picture Gallery/I watch your Discovery back into the hellebore’ – do you have a notebook full of such details waiting for a poem?
RS: I have notebooks, but never remember to carry them around with me! The poem you mentioned “I tend to pull when I shouldn’t even push” came from a struggle by the voice to stand back and let a poem happen. So the details piled up and seduced the poet into thinking they all matter – it’s their accumulation that indicates a mind trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. And her capitulation at the end that marks a surrender to what may or may not unfold. A huge number of my ‘relationship’ poems are about my relationship with writing/reading poetry.
PJ: Can you say a bit more about that idea of relationship?
RS: Sometimes when I’m constructing a poem, it feels like I’m looking for something illusive. There’s a feeling of being excluded. Trying to capture images and symbols, is a passport, a way in.
PJ: Your background is in economics and maths. I have the feeling that the particularity of your poems has something to do with mathematics – pattern recognition? Both sides of the equation?
RS: I enjoy precision and the process of finding solutions, but not ones that are definitive. Uniformity and things fitting too easily; that makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s more about the route to different solutions, as in mathematics when you have equations in equilibrium, where the progression takes place in both directions.
PJ: Your titles remind me of chapter headings in 18th Century novels – there to sum up the chapter or to half reveal what might be in it, sometimes misleading or teasing. You clearly have fun with titles. Do the titles come first?
RS: Sometimes the titles become a line in the poem. At other times, titles are lifted right out of the poem. I like titles that headlight rather than headline what might happen. The importance for me is that word “might”. I would be uncomfortable if a whole group of people got the same thing from a poem and I love it when someone shows me something I haven’t seen in a poem I’ve known for a while.
PJ: Your lineation is consistently idiosyncratic, very particular – can you say something about how you’ve arrived at these forms?
RS: I was experimenting with the syntax of spoken speech within poems. The pauses, the emphases; the rises and falls of verbal expression and how the literal way that a character/persona/poet’s voice can build up the texture and detail of that voice, without having to explain what’s going on. The minute I start to explain, I know I’m failing. The voice has do “do it” and for me, that means making sure that the surface of the poem is kept uneven, just as the idiom of speech is uneven but with each pause and inflection serving a very specific purpose.
PJ: As well as winning The Poetry Business Pamphlet comp you also have a pamphlet coming out with Salt in their Modern Voices Series this autumn, Jalapeno Smiles. Are the poems very different for that collection?
RS: We haven’t finalised the poems in the Salt pamphlet, although I do feel that the poems in that volume may well have a more edgy voice and be more sour-sweet in tone. But usually when I get too prescriptive about these things, the poems have a way of organising themselves in a way that I hadn’t foreseen.
PJ: Which poets do you return to again and again to nourish you?
RS: I’m a huge fan of Paul Muldoon, both his poetry and his essays.
PJ: What can you recommend?
RS: His collection, The End of The Poem and a particular pamphlet, ‘When The Pie Was Open.’ My favourite poem of his is, ‘Sushi’ from his collection Meeting the British.
PJ: Anyone else?
RS: Paul Durcan, who has a very satisfying story-telling voice. Most of my big reads are from the US – Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell. I like Fredrick Seidel’s use of detail and the idiom of August Kleinzhaler, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. I love the largeness of gesture in Les Murray’s poetry. The late Michael Donaghy does something wonderfully arch and witty in the simultaneous pressure he puts on form and voice. I love Neruda and Vallejo too and Trakl. My quest at the moment is to find some of Rosemary Tonk’s books. Her love poetry is wonderfully hard headed, while being tragically and delicately imaginative.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
RS: I never really stop reading Raymond Carver – his work is a constant for me and I have several copies of his books always at arm’s length. My study of his poetry represents a study of his poetic construction and so whatever else I’m reading, I’ll usually pick him up a couple of times a day. At the moment, I’m also looking at CK Williams, Charles Simic, Robert Creeley and James Wright.
PJ: What would you say to someone who was about to put a pamphlet together for a competition?
RS: Whenever I submit poems for a competition, I’m always amazed at how much I learn from the process of putting the poems together; taking them in and out of order and forcing things out of them by shifting them around. I never just put poems into an envelope – the act of submission tends to be just that – it brings something out of the poems that would not have happened just by revising and editing them. So I would say, take time and really think of the poems as a collection, rather than a group of poems that were written in a particular time period. After all, you wouldn’t chop sage into sea-bass, just because you bought them at roughly the same time.
You can buy a copy of That So-Easy Thing, here.