“The whole art of everything is about forgetting yourself” – A Conversation with Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald’s collections include Dart, which won the 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize, Woods etc. (Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Hawthornden Prize), Weeds and Wildflowers (Ted Hughes Award) and, more recently, Memorial, which won the 2013 Warwick Prize for Writing. “Dunt,” included in this collection, was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Her latest book, Falling Awake (Norton, 2017) was the Griffin Poetry Prize 2017 International Winner. She lives in Devon and is married with three children. She spoke with Catherine Graham on Wednesday June 7th, the afternoon of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist reading.

Catherine Graham: Falling Awake is a book of motion and momentum and yet it also holds time captive through image and sound, capturing the imagination of the reader or listener as she “falls awake” into the present moment. Was it this particular paradox that propelled you to write this book? The falling cage of time through poetry?

 Alice Oswald: Yes. Paradox is, I think, always where poetry begins because it’s the inability to make things homogenized. That means you somehow have to find this form of words that will allow themselves the same space. So you’re right that there is an endless antagonism between time and non-time, and the poem as a form is a spectacular example of the way that time can move because the language of the poem moves from the beginning to the end. But by means of rhyme and repeated rhythm, it is also held in a kind of memory cycle. So that’s, I think, sort of the core of what poetry does for me. It manages to be both time and non-time.

 CG: I’d like to talk about the poem “Swan.” It seems to be about the spirit of a swan as it leaves its rotting body. Can you tell us about the journey of that poem, how it came into being?

 AO: Poems are so strange the way they come into being. It’s like they start from lots and lots of random places that simply excite you and then it’s in the making of the poem that they sort of become what they are. That poem starts, I think, about twenty or thirty years ago when I was studying Homer and I read an account of a Yugoslavian oral poem about a bridal procession that gets frozen on its way to church and thaws out after a hundred years then carries on walking. For years and years and years I’ve never been able to trace the poem, and for years I’ve just toyed with the idea about writing that poem because I can’t find it anywhere. This idea of a procession that kind of freezes and thaws, I just love that. What would happen to the bells that are ringing as the procession approaches the church? So that idea has circled in my mind literally twenty or thirty years.

 CG: The ringing and the ringing…

 AO: But it’s a kind of stuck movement. It was the physical fact of walking past this swan that the river had washed up. They are very bridal in their appearance, swans. I was basically studying it from day to day and watching the way it disappeared and this sort of secondary form of flight. The swan is a beautiful thing when it flies. But as it rots that is a form of flight, too. It’s kind of leaving its body and leaving the earth. I was just thinking about those two paradoxical forms of flight.

Alice Oswald (photograph: Kate Mount)

 CG: I noticed there was a lack of punctuation in the beginning of the book, connecting the material to the paradox of timelessness and of time moving. Was this intentional? Or did it happen naturally when you wrote these poems?

 AO: More and more I have abandoned punctuation. To me the lineation is enough. It’s not that I don’t like punctuation, because I like it very much. But I think that if you use punctuation, people immediately read something prosaically because they stop noticing. Punctuation is something invisible. People have absorbed it into themselves and they don’t notice it’s there. Whereas if you leave punctuation out they actually notice that it should be there. T.S. Eliot said poetry is punctuation. And I really agree with that. The way a poem is set out shows you where it pauses, what the hesitations are.

For me, it’s the free verse, the so-called free verse form that works best without punctuation. The free verse form, which I don’t regard as free at all, is all about phrase lengths. Each phrase is a kind of tune and the reader needs to attend to phrases rather than words. The length of phrase is very important for me. And so I’ve begun to use the spacing to show the reader where the phrases go.

 CG: That really came through to me in the command those phrases had on the reader, the way the poem, even if I wasn’t hearing you read it aloud, I was, I believe, reading it how you would read it.

AO: I’m glad to hear you say that. I get frustrated by how seldom if I hear someone else read my poems, they don’t seem to notice that it’s written in phrase lengths. And that to me is what composition is. It’s about the tunes and the phrases and how they follow each other.

CG: They were commanding and elegant at the same time. I enjoyed them very much. Just thinking about your poem “Flies,” it seems to end in this sort of in media res moment and I wondered, did it end naturally like this during a particular draft? And do you find that when your poems end in this sort of cut-off place, do you ever find yourself writing more before cutting back? Or do you generally find the end of the poem happens naturally in your original draft. I just wondered about the process for you.

 AO: I really like cut endings. I think my theme is often unfinishedness. I like the feeling that the universe isn’t finished. I believe in the future, I’m not a determinist. I believe that things are open ended and have not yet happened. And that poem is particularly about that because if you’ve ever listened to flies, they do that, they just cut off. They endlessly stop mid-sentence. So I tend to try, when I’m using free or freed verse, whatever you want to call it, I quite often take on the form of whatever I’m describing. So if I’m really concentrating on flies then, I start to speak fly language which cuts off mid-sentence. That’s why that poem does that.

CG: You have a way of capturing things that don’t necessarily have a voice and yet through you they do have a voice, one we wouldn’t otherwise hear. Through the language of poetry you become a translator for these things, your uncanny ability to sense these hidden voices, if that makes any sense.

 AO: Yes, I like the feeling the object and I come towards each other. That we somehow meet somewhere in the middle, that it’s not just me describing, that it’s a kind of encounter.

 I think what I spotted in Homer that excited me was that something actual is there. Literature tends to describe things. But in Homer you actually think that is an actual leaf.

 CG: The being of it. The essence.

AO: Yes. It’s the living energy of something. And then it’s the question of me standing back. The less I put in of my own voice and just kind of stand back and let something else come through. I think that’s the art for me—to just stand aside.

CG: And of course you’ve got this lovely tribute to Ted Hughes and his poem, “The Thought Fox” and also John Clare’s poem, “The Badger.” I wondered, do you have a totem animal?

 AO: Well, there is the grasshopper. That comes into “Tithonus” of course, and it also comes into the second of the “Two Voices” sonnet. And that’s partly because of the Greek belief that poets turned into grasshoppers, the fact that Tithonus turned into a grasshopper. And I just love them. There’s a field near me where I live that’s really full of grasshoppers and I love that sound they make. I like the way they seem to be something between the animal and the plant world. They’re almost grass but yet they’re not. Ted Hughes is much more akin to animals whereas I am more fascinated by and tuned into plants which I regard as a form of animal. They’re just a cold slow animal.

Catherine Graham

 CG: One of the other things I love about the architecture of your poems is the use of simile. I’ve always loved simile. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” and how through the continued seeing through simile—something being like something else—the speaker reaches an epiphany. You use simile so organically. Sometimes you hear these blanket statements about poetry that you shouldn’t use simile, that it’s weaker. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this.

 AO: It’s really interesting and something I feel very strongly about because people always believe that metaphor is more poetic. But I’ve always loved simile. One of the reasons is that simile keeps both worlds alive at the same time whereas metaphor changes one for another. So you get this beautiful kind of doubled feeling with the simile. You don’t lose anything. It’s like a theatre curtain. You get the feeling of the artifice and reality going on at the same time. And this beautiful pivotal word ‘like’ or ‘as’ allows the thing to exist in two places at the same time. I love that. And I was always, again I’m afraid it’s Homer, but Homer has these extended similes which find a point of likeness and then go on long enough that they become unlike what they were describing, so it turns into a dis-simile half way through and I just love that because it gives you such a feeling of a kind of growth of word form. That’s how language works. It starts off doing something and then it’s still alive and ends up doing something else.

CG: Yes, to me you are showing us through simile your connection to nature, your love of plants. How something grows from itself, changes, and yet remains what it is. Even in the unlike the like is still there.

 AO: Yes, but with Homer, everything in Homer is still alive and the simile is so alive it grows into its own form. I’m just fascinated by simile. To me it is the absolute root of poetry.

 CG: I love the way, in some of the poems, the first person emerges naturally, not necessarily as an announcement but again organically. I don’t really have a question here, just an observation.

 AO: It’s funny, I don’t know who it is necessarily, the I. It’s a person slightly behind myself like in the poem “Vertigo” where I suddenly found I was describing myself as this weird kind of underground creature that lives beneath and I thought well, that is me actually. But it sometimes takes me by surprise, that first person. It’s a voice that’s underneath my voice. And it’s sometimes a bit spooky. You find something sort of speaking, speaking through, that’s slightly bigger than yourself.

CG: Let’s talk about “Village” for a moment. I still hear your voice reciting this poem whenever I read it having heard you at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year. I love the captivating, sinister aspect of this poem. It’s eerily fantastic with its music and spell-binding charm. The list of names too. It’s not based on anything from what I understand.

 AO: It is based on a lot of things. Based on a village where I live. All the names are taken from gravestones. And a lot of the anecdotes are taken from someone who lives in our village who has talked about the stories of people that he’s known over the years. He even wrote an account in a church magazine about some of the characters he knew. English villages are strange places. They’re sort of a mixture of this incredible vigorous sort of natural life in the hedgerows and then this slightly kind of decayed dainty kind of life going on in the houses. I love that strange combination of unlikeness. So it’s very much based on stories that I take and make what I want of them, names that I took from here and there, and just really this kind of choked and decadent feeling of being alive in an English village in the 21st century. That feeling of being right at the end of something, this sort of strange slightly backwards way of life, as if we’re all about to go underwater or something but somehow we’re still going on with our strange habits.

 CG: I love that punctuation that’s part of it, the ellipsis.

AO: I suppose I’m interested in the gaps everywhere, the moments where speech breaks down and the feeling of things going on in another language.

 CG: And yet there’s still something there.

 AO: Yeah, but I can’t speak it. I think poems are made of their gaps. That’s really what speaks. It’s not the words. It’s what the words set up and what happens in that space. That’s why I like the simile because it articulates the gap. The word “like” is actually a gap, a word that isn’t really there. It’s a hinge, isn’t it? It’s a pivot between two words.

 CG: Given your other tribute poems to Ted Hughes and John Clare, I wondered if “Slowed-Down Blackbird” was a nod to Wallace Stevens and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

 AO: I’d like to wonder if it is. Probably not if I’m totally honest. I’m not a complete fan of Wallace Stevens. I can see that he’s important but he’s not someone I’m soaked with. Actually, I heard a CD of a slowed-down blackbird which was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard. I get a sort of real chill when I think of the sound that blackbirds make in winter. I’ve always absolutely hated it. It goes right back to my childhood. Something about the sort of feeling of time get slower and slower as it approaches the solstice in the winter. I hate it. And the thing about the blackbird song is it gets so kind of…ugh. So it was a combination of hearing the CD of an actual summer blackbird song slowed down and also my remembering. In a way it becomes something that doesn’t really exist because blackbirds aren’t singing like that. But there is that feeling.

 CG: Do you carry a notebook with you?

 AO: No, I don’t much. If I travel like now I do take a notebook. I find by the time I get back home I haven’t got the sort of liveliness. Mostly I try to take things into my head. I really believe in the sort of inarticulate ways of thinking. So the fact that you can read the whole day, all day long, and then when you’re composed it can come out again. I like that process of it not yet being in language, changing your mind round. And I’m more and more wary of the kind of willed and conscious act of writing. More and more I leave my mind to do it by itself. So I will, you know, go out and be kind of shocked by all the colours and pictures and smells and then purposefully not think of them linguistically. I think that the underneath mind will then do the work and that’s the mind I’m interested in. So the skill for me is then learning how to raid that underneath mind and then, when you do pick up a pen, you’re listening just hard enough so that you don’t use your surface mind. You get down to the mind that has taken everything in.

 CG: That’s how we started.

 AO: I suppose that’s how we started. Yes. I’m wary of the pen, you know. That to me is what went wrong with poetry, once it started being written down. When it was improvised and remembered, then it was alive. I think it’s got deader the more pen and paper have entered.

CG: About “You Must Never Sleep Under a Magnolia,” I just love the dark playfulness there. It’s the speaker “Alice” talking to herself and yet it also makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. The magical world. I love the magnolia tree by the way. It’s one of my favourites. A magnolia tree grew outside my childhood home. I loved the petals, the tactile experience, the sort of juice inside.

 AO: They are very strange trees. My bedroom was almost in the branches of a huge magnolia, a really huge one. So every spring I mean the whole room would be pink all night, and I was quite obsessed with it. I used to climb it a lot and there was something a bit indecent about it. I remember the slightly guilty feeling that the petals were flesh, pure flesh. And it was during my teenage years when you’re life is fueled by embarrassment and this sort of over the top tree outside my window was being everything I couldn’t be. So there was no specific event. The poem was longer originally. I just cut it in half. I’d rather it was quieter.

 CG: I love its elegance, all on the one page.

 AO: Yeah. I’m very fascinated by flowers. My mother is a gardener. I’ve never quite managed to say what it is about flowers that I find so fascinating. Something about the way they speak light. It makes me want to describe them but I can’t. They are indescribable.

 CG: But it’s the trying that creates.

 AO: I think it is. One’s lucky that one can’t do it. They are just fascinating things. They just really are. And they seem to inhabit a different form of time. So that when you really look at a flower, you’re taken into the same kind of time as poetry is. You are in that sort of simultaneous time as opposed to sequential time.

 CG: Are you ever nervous reciting your poems?

 AO: Yes I am. I get nervous beforehand. Then as soon as I’m reciting I tend not to get nervous. But you have to concentrate very hard and if I get distracted I can very easily forget. And you never quite know…I know they’re all in there but you never quite know what the memory is going to do to you. I have quite a few times just kind of blanked. And then you either invent something or you go back to the beginning.

So I would say nervous is not necessarily the right word. I’m nervous beforehand. But when I’m doing it, I have to be so awake. I’m moving all the time and trying not to get distracted. I think in the end you have to trust the poems. And the poems that I recite will be the ones that I trust. So it’s about being able to forget yourself.

CG: You’re a vessel for the poem.

 AO: Yes. I think one just has to forget. The whole art of everything, whether it’s living or reciting or writing, is about forgetting yourself. Once you’ve forgotten yourself, you are okay.

 CG: It’s interesting that you mentioned light when you talked about trying to connect to the light of flowers and the flowers to the light. A potter plays with clay and a poet plays with words but that’s not what you do. You play with matter of light through words, almost like a thing that it passes through.

 AO: Well, I’m really pleased to hear you say that. I don’t think that anyone’s ever said that before. And that is absolutely what I would like because that’s what I get off Homer, this extraordinarily actual physical light. To me it’s almost like photography. It’s like he’s actual caught some ancient light and it’s released in the universe.

 CG: It’s almost like the words are just the root of the energy of what’s passing through.

 AO: Yes, you’re the first person ever to say that. That’s exactly what I want.

CG: What are you working on now?

AO: Well, my next project, which I’m about to start when I’ve finished this last one, is working with a camera-less photographer. He does this incredible thing of shining lights through colour liquids onto photographic paper. I really love his work because it is just these beautiful portraits of light. So we’re going to do a collaborative work together which I think will be poetry.