Sheenagh Pugh's twelfth collection, Short Days, Long Shadows, has just been published by Seren. As you would expect, it is full of wit, wisdom, erudition, sharp-eyed observation and makes for a compelling read. Now living in Shetland, the landscape of her poems has shifted. She talks here about her view of the sea, the characters that inhabit her poems and why she dedicated the book to Mikhail Gorbachev
PJ: A preoccupation with time runs through the collection – it’s there in the title. There is an awareness of your own shortening days and the long shadows cast by the dead. Though some are elegiac - ‘Days of November 2009’ - I sometimes detect a sense of wonder - what is this thing, time? As in: ‘Staying,’ ‘Catching Up,’ ‘Wasting Time,’ ‘The Eye.’ Perhaps you’re not consciously thinking – ah I must write about time, but that’s the preoccupation that comes through in different ways?
SP: I don't consciously set out to write about death and transience; in fact whenever a poem turns that way, I know my daughter will complain "change the tune", because I do it too often, but there are times in my life when that theme seems to dominate. When I came to live in the village, there were a couple of people here that I knew slightly and who were close to death and knew it. But the whole 'Walker' sequence was almost as much playful as serious, imagining a persona for death. (I think the poem that ends it, 'The Edges,' is my current favourite of my own poems.) It doesn't help either that the older I get, the more exacting I am about poems. It isn't enough for it to work on its own terms, it needs to be important enough to bother writing down. I’ve discarded several on what seemed more frivolous themes. The two big subjects for poetry, when you come down to it, are death and love, and I don't do ‘lerve.’ Being influenced by Cavafy, Louise Glück and Paul Henry tends to point you in the direction of elegy and mortality, too.
Days of November 2009
Short days, long shadows:
sun rising low skims the hill.
Mending, making good, days full
of outdoor jobs, folk
racing to finish before dark,
before winter. Angled light, always
on the edge of leaving. These days
when every little thing feels urgent,
unmissable, when all you want
is to hold on to a lit rack
of cirrus, the taste of woodsmoke
catching your throat, a sleek seal
slipping back under, the farewell
of geese, scribbled in black arrows.
PJ: This collection straddles your last days in South Wales before moving to Shetland. There seems to be an elegy for Wales, a leave taking, in, say, ‘Ghosts of Cardiff’ but there’s a new energy, a delight in observation in the Shetland landscape where sea and sky dominate your days. I love the way in ‘Sea’s Answer’ you write about the sea by ‘talking’ to it, to say how impossible it is to find fresh images for the sea. How has this daily challenge of sea affected your writing generally or in other ways?
SP: I never used to be what you'd call a landscape poet; in fact I couldn't write about landscape in its own right; I needed a person in the picture. 'Big Sky' records how that changed for me here, how the landscape suddenly seemed far bigger and more important. Orhan Pamuk has an interesting passage somewhere about Islamic art's attitude to portraiture. It isn't true that Islamic art isn't allowed to show figures, that was just the Taliban being ignorant as usual, but what it does frown on is portraiture, the showing of human figures outside the landscape, as if they were a world in themselves. Much as I like some portraiture, I can sort of see where they are coming from. It's seeing humans as something apart from the world that allows them to ruin it so thoughtlessly. I've always loved the sea and wanted to live next to - I can see it from my window as I write. Talking to the sea also reflects the freedom one has, at a certain age, to play the batty old woman.
Unbroken by forest or town, this skyline
all hills and ocean: you look up
and your gaze, stopped by no branch, no office block,
overflows with sky, too much to take in
even when you turn slowly in the circle
of green and blue. Who knew how vast
cumulus could boil over, or how sweeping
the great ragged brush-strokes of cirrus,
or, at night, how many bright worlds,
hundreds of years away, cluster and prickle
above our heads? It is as if,
having lived all your life in the jewelled oval
of a miniature, you stepped into a frame
the size of a gallery wall, a landscape
where a few small figures, lost against distance,
seem to be looking for the way out.
PJ: Many of your poems step into the shoes of others - the child in ‘Later’ [time, again] who is not allowed to watch the duck, also in ‘Skeleton,’ ‘The Sailor Who Fell from the Rigging’ and ‘Walsingham’s Men’ – this suggests a fiction writer's eye, I know you've published fiction - so when do think, ah this one is for a poem, this one for a story?
SP: I'm not sure persona suggests a fiction writer's eye? Or rather, I think a poet IS a fiction writer, as much as a novelist. I've no time for the notion that poetry is All True, comes from the heart (yuk) and somehow needs to reflect the writer's experience rather than his/her imagination. I make things up, it's my trade, and I like the freedom of being other people. Whether something is material for a poem or a story depends far more on the structure and scope of the material - also, I fear, on the amount of research I would need or can be bothered to do. A novel's more work, and for no more money, given that I can't write sex scenes without collapsing in giggles.
PJ: I love the way you take some discovered fact and explore it through a poem. I’m thinking of poems such as, ‘Naglfar,’ – the boat made of dead men’s fingernails, ‘The Vanishing Bishop’ and ‘Dr Johnson’s Letter.’ You give these poems an intimate, a felt, quality. Do such poems come quickly, in that moment of discovery, or is there a period of research?
SP: I've known about Naglfar since I was reading Norse myths at the age of 12 and never wanted to write about it until now; I really don't know why it suddenly presented itself as a theme, except perhaps that I was in a conservationist mood - one gets that way when one is an endangered species oneself. The bishop I found out about a few years ago on a visit to my German relatives; he was in the same museum, Landenberg, as the Thirty Years War skeleton, and I knew at once that I would write about both. What came first with the bishop was the image of the log falling apart in the fire; I've seen peat do that plenty of times in our stove! I wanted to do that one in the voice of the finder, so that they could have this moment of intimacy before the bishop vanishes for good. The skeleton poem, by contrast, needed only her, and the sparest language possible; language was no use at all to her at the end. I never really know when it's time to write; only that if I don't start getting something down on paper or a screen, I never will.
They'll be coming to end the world some day,
sicking wolves on to swallow the sun and moon,
stamping crops flat. Their faces slabs of stone,
their eyes tiny. Nothing you can say
will make odds to them; they will not stay
their hand for kindness or reason.
Their fingers snuff stars, not even for fun
but indifferently, along their way.
And they will come on the ship Naglfar,
made all of dead men's nails, that cannot sail
until the world has enough of us,
the kind and the cruel both, until the fill
of all those graves takes the shape of our killer,
our leavings at last cobbled into use.
PJ: several poems explore the boundary between animals and humans, you seem to enter their world. I’m thinking of, ‘Gannet’, ‘Tea With Skuas’, ‘The Madonna of The Rocks’ and ‘Capybara Moments.’ With such closely observed studies, and with so many birds to observe on Shetland, I wonder, do write out in the landscape as you are observing?
SP: I take a notebook with me, but I don't actually write much in the open - though sometimes when waiting for buses and, down south, on trains. Lawrence Sail once visited Glamorgan and did an exercise where he gave people a theme and asked them to think about it for half an hour without writing anything down. They were mostly horrified and said they'd forget everything; he said they wouldn't forget anything that mattered.
PJ: you use a lot of subtle slant rhyme. For example, ‘Travelling with Ashes,’ where the first and third lines of each tercet end in slant rhymes, but the second line of each tercet ends in a full rhyme. With ‘Trondheim: January’ after the first rhyming couplet, the end rhyme slips across into the following couplet. Can you say something about how rhyme and form come to you?
SP: The rhyme scheme in Trondheim, and a lot of others, is a variant sonnet, it goes ab bc cd de ef fg ga - so the rhyme crosses the couplet each time and ends up back at the first rhyme. The idea, originally, was to set up a sort of tension between the couplet of rhyme and the couplet of sense, and sometimes it works quite well. I used it a lot on my last book, Long-Haul Travellers, too. At the time, it introduced more music; I was tired of free-verse couplets. But it's becoming a default now, so I'm having to steer away from it. I owe the very free rhymes in ‘Travelling with Ashes’ to the influence of Rosie Shepperd, who uses rhyme very inventively and freely.
PJ: I remember Seamus Heaney saying after writing a run of sonnets, “The ear becomes a pastry cutter.” Can you say a bit more about a form becoming default – is it just a matter of getting away from it for a while?
SP: There's this sweet myth among some critics, that every poem somehow has its own perfect form, and that therefore there must always be a good reason for whatever form the poet has chosen. Actually that is baloney. Now and then, a poem will indeed tell you what form it wants to be in, perhaps because it needs to be conversational, in which case you might end up with vaguely iambic free verse, or ballad-type – I've written one since the book that clearly wanted to be a knockabout ballad, and that was real fun to do. The Walsingham sestinas are all about spies, men who lived in disguise, and the sestinas are similarly disguised, with the line and verse breaks falling where they aren't expected, to disguise the form. I nicked that technique from Paul Henry, who writes rondeaux and sestinas that way, and the Walsingham poems just seemed the perfect theme to try it out on.
But there are plenty of poems that aren't like that, they could have been in many forms and the one they end up in is a bit of a lottery – often depending on what form the poet is most into at the time. When Mark Doty published My Alexandria, way back in 1993, he started a fashion for unrhymed couplet (and sometimes triplet) verses which I used to call Doty couplets. They were my default for ages; every idea I ever had seemed to fall naturally into them. Eventually though, I began to feel there wasn't enough music in them and wanted to go back to some kind of slant rhyme – again I was reading a lot of Paul Henry and reacting to his extreme but very subtle musicality. That resulted in the couplet sonnets where the rhyme crosses the couplet. I don't know how I came on that form, certainly not via anyone else. It's served me well for some time but it's also, now, curtailing some poems that might otherwise become longer. My answer to that for a while has been to do those in terza rima with slant rhymes – eg 'The Sailor Who Fell from the Rigging' – or to write sonnet sequences, but I'm trying consciously to leave the sonnet form alone.
PJ: If you go for free verse how do you resolve lineation, find a form?
SP: With difficulty. I find form easier than free verse, because it imposes its own music and direction, often also length. With free verse, there's no obvious reason why a poem can't witter aimlessly on until the paper, or the audience, runs out. Sometimes there'll be a natural line length imposed by an opening phrase, say, that gives you a line of roughly so many stresses. Mostly I'm not really very sure what happens, or how.
PJ: I'm assuming all kinds of reading feeds your writing, not just poetry, What are you reading at the moment? Is there, perhaps, a book of essays or on form that you would recommend to someone beginning to write poetry.
SP: Oh God no, I never read Lit Crit and as for "how to write poetry" books, they only ever convince me I'm doing it wrong. I read a hell of a lot of history and have also just read my way through a Scottish novelist called Andrew Drummond who writes the kind of eccentric, history-inspired, language-fixated, downright weird novels that I like. I just finished his novel Elephantina, about an elephant that died in Dundee in 1706, the year before the Act of Union also killed off Scotland.
PJ: You’ve dedicated the book to Mikhail Gorbachev – have you sent him a copy?
SP: No, in fact it didn't occur to me but I don't know if he reads English anyway - or poetry! Most statesmen aren't keen on it, though Ho Chi Minh was a very fair poet indeed, and of course Radovan Karadzic published poetry, though I've no idea what it was like (one rather hopes it wasn't very good). It was Gorbachev who issued the Russian Convoys Medal to the seamen who did that deadly run during World War 2, and he did so a long time before any British government agreed to award a medal for that service. My father was in the convoys, and the sequence 'Medals' is about his four WW2 medals, written not long after he died in 2008. He was very proud of his Russian medal. 'Travelling with Ashes' and 'Terra Nova' are about him, too.