Katy Evans-Bush has that remarkable quality of making me want to read poetry for fun. So much so that I’ve refused a review copy of her book Me and the Dead, offered for kicking off this Cyclone virtual book tour, and I’m going to go and spend real money on it instead. It will be the second poetry book I’ve bought since I got a volume of Robert Crawford‘s stuff for a friend back in 2003.
I have, though, read Katy’s free sampler on her publisher’s website. It’s cracking. And it has a damned fine photo on the front.
Oddly, what I like so much about Katy’s poems is the fact that they reveal a fine prose writer. Take this, the first stanza of her poem ‘The Bog of Despair’:
We’d lunched on Greek salad and coffee
in a place with white walls and a skylight,
and when the guy in the corner’s phone
went off in a polyphonic can-can
we laughed without even trying to hide it.
Run the lines together, tidy up the punctuation and – bingo – you’ve got a slice of musical prose. Delicious.
Anyway, I caught up with Katy by email and asked her about her dreams, and what she thinks about some of mine.
When did you start writing poetry, and why?
My relationship with poetry started as soon as I could read… no, in fact everyone’s relationship with it starts even earlier, with the beginnings of speech – with nursery rhymes and songs. My grandfather used to sing me the old vaudeville song, “K-K-K-Katie, beautiful Katie, you’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore…” and it’s still imprinted in my head. And I still think “Row, row, Row Your Boat” is amazingly mysterious: that creepy use of the word “merrily,” and “gently” down the stream – the stream of life, which is “but a dream.”
Children love play with words and sounds, and meaning is fluid to them. They love different ways of understanding things – it’s how they learn. They don’t have an innate sense of poetry being dull or boring – they get taught that.
I never really differentiated poetry from other forms of books, stories, songs, etc. I was lucky; my parents and even their friends gave me poetry books, along with fairy tales, which I’m also steeped in. I still have my Selected Poems for Young People by Edna St Vincent Millay – a selection, not specially written for children. I can remember reading it at about 7 or 8. And I was unafraid of the Oxford Book of English Verse; I’d just dip in and read whatever took my fancy.
I’m sure I was sitting down and writing poems by about 12 or so, and I also wrote stories and everything else. I kept it up till I was about twenty, and then didn’t write poetry seriously again till about 2000. (In the meantime I worked on a novel, wrote a few poems, and wrote short stories, of which one was shortlisted for a prize. But I’m crap at plots!)
Poetry offers forms of meaning that other ways of writing don’t. Symbol and metaphor are powerful ways of conveying something. Word play opens up the language itself, like a pile of roasted chestnuts, for our delectation. Sound, and the texture of words in your mouth, informs our reaction to the content of those words. The poet Michael Donaghy wrote a wonderful little book called Wallflowers, where he talks about the physical act of reading poetry; apparently when we read, even silently, our breathing goes into rhythm with it as if we’re speaking. In this way, as Marshall MacLuhan said, the medium is the message.
Your first collection of poetry, Me And The Dead, was recently published by Salt. How did the book take shape?
Easy! I had about a million poems. I sent Salt ten, and they rang and asked for a manuscript. Over the following year I chose the best ones, whittled them down to a number that fitted into some kind of very loose thematic arc, then edited that to fit the page count. Then cut and edited the ones that ran over. Then added a few, then cut a few. It was hell. I mean it was fun! And that was before the melodrama of finding the picture for the cover.
I love the way some of your poems flit between the commonplace and the lofty. You’ll mention a used condom hanging from a tree, moments before remembering how you discussed Keats with a friend. Watching Sharon from EastEnders turns your thoughts to love. How do you manage to be poignant in this way without being Pooterish?
I thought I was Pooterish!
Seriously, oh I have no idea. I think I write the way I talk, and I can never resist the joke or crack. Also, I’m pretty firmly rooted in daily life As She is Lived. I’ve never had my Rapunzel moment in the ivory tower – I’ve been in the real world the whole time. I spent years hiding this whole side of myself from everybody, so that might have something to do with it. It’s like I got used to slipping crushed-up pills into the dog food.
Your blog, Baroque in Hackney, reveals a fascination with good design and typography. What interests you about these disciplines, and is their influence discernable in your poetry?
I love structure. I love things fitting together stylistically, thematically, integrally. I feel terrible if a conceit fails. In language, tone is of the utmost importance, which means understanding the histories, previous usages, provenances of words and phrases. Poetry and design are both about combining elements, expressing things in different ways, translating ideas into sensory cues. Design and typography both rely on nonlinear ways of thinking in order to be able to do them. They use different parts of the brain at once.
I used to read books about colour theory: Johannes Itten, and also the hippie people, and psychologists. Also, I’ve always had a thing where the letters of the alphabet have colours: A is red, O is black, R is green and E is yellow, etc. Maybe this accounts for the colour theory books. I also used to see my words rolling in white across the black of my mind’s eye whenever I spoke. (I don’t so much any more, though I can still make it happen.) I confided this to my mother one day when I was about seventeen, and she just thought I was weird. I’ve recently discovered two things. One, it is part of what they call synaesthesia, where people, for example, smell colours or see sounds; and two, my cousin Nadja also sees her words rolling along, and she’s not a writer. She’s a painter.
Finally, I should say that poetry is largely about observing. Poems rely on images. Images rely on seeing, even if it’s only in your mind’s eye. Precision and exactitude. These are nerds’ traits. I’m a very visual person.
But are these influences discernable in my poetry? You’d have to tell me, I think. I hope so, I hope they are.
You rarely publish your poems on your blog. Why?
I think it’s not really what either poems or blogs are for. If I’m browsing the web and find a blog that’s mainly the person’s poems I tend to surf straight past it. Whoops! Unless it’s the blog of the late, and fascinating, Tom Disch, who stopped publishing books in his final, sad years and simply put all his new work onto his blog.
I’ll put poems by other people on my blog, though you have to be careful for copyright reasons. Once in a blue moon I’ll put something of my own up, but for a reason. Also, if it’s up on the blog you can’t put it in a magazine, so if it’s on the blog, chances are it’s in the book.
If you could be Poet Laureate for a year, what would you do?
I think what Andrew Motion has done with the Poetry Archive is wonderful. A lasting legacy and a wonderful resource.
I’d like to change the way they do poetry in the schools. I know children’s poetry is a Good Thing and all that, but I always found it patronising as a child and I can’t be the only one. There should be a drive to get kids reading real, grown-up poetry with complex layered meanings, much earlier. This way when people grow up and encounter it, they find they already know it – that’s incredibly empowering. And it’s even aside from the value of simply having it in your brain!
I think I’d also like, as Poet Laureate, to take on the poetry publishing establishment – and the booksellers – and really accuse them of not serving either poets or the public. In my experience, people say they like poetry – or they used to love it at school – but don’t know what to read. That’s shameful! Here we have an industry that produces fusty, dated-looking books, often quite boring books, and shops that don’t order or promote poetry unless it’s by (for example) Seamus Heaney. When do you ever see a poetry collection, say by a young woman, or a guy in his thirties, maybe wearing a leather jacket like a novelist, in the 3 for 2’s? This myth that no one wants poetry becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is tons of great stuff out there that people would like to read! But it’s stuck in its own ghetto with its little skinny spines facing out…
Let’s end on a stanza. Which one do you choose?
The final stanza of The Master and the Future (it’s Henry James talking, after the catastrophic failure of his play, Guy Domville, on which all his hopes were pinned; it’s based on a sentence he wrote in his notebook):
Large and high the future exquisitely opens
Over chestnut trees in full flower along a promenade
Where the park widens out to a horseshoe shape, courting
Sly clouds that dawdle over scampering puppies
And over a certain interesting girl on a young man’s arm,
That roll like hoops alongside great waves of what is possible;
Opens into the chance to breathe afresh again, as if
One had never breathed the old torpid air full of mistakes:
Clicks, in fact, open like an ivory fan.
It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life.
Me and the Dead by Katy Evans-Bush is available at a discount from Amazon.co.uk for £9.99.
Author: Ben Locker
Posted: 8th December, 2008 at 12:01 am in Blog, The North Meadow Interview.
Tags: katy evans-bush, me and the dead, poetry, salt publishing
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