LIDIA VIANU -- CAROL RUMENS
I feel I am on my own
Interview with CAROL RUMENS (born 10 December 1944), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry is shyly autobiographical. I have a theory of my own, which groups contemporary poets under the label of Desperadoes, which is just a name for a number of features, one of which is the fact that you cannot stop at one poem by any of such poets, you cannot quote them by bits. You have to read a whole volume, if not all volumes, to appease the sense of suspense of experience that they offer, far more than any predecessors. Your volume The Greening of the Snow Beach (Bloodaxe Books, 1988) is a perfect example. I simply could not put it down once I had opened it. Are you aware of the fictional interest it arouses? Did you mean for this to happen? Would you agree that contemporary poetry is far more flooded by the narrative than it used to be? Are you interested in autobiography, diary or just story-telling when you write a volume of poems?
CAROL RUMENS: The Greening of the Snow Beach is not typical of my work. It was a one-off, intended as a celebration of my relationship with my partner and my first trip to Russia, and then I added the dedication to my partner’s father. There is a story there but it’s not linear. I liked the idea of mixing media, with a block of prose journal and autobiographical images included. It’s not a very defined shape, I feel. Normally I would bring a lot of diverse material to a new collection. I arrange it but not to create a narrative, exactly. I think about harmony and variation and sustaining the reader’s interest with contrast. Inevitably, events from my own life underlie much of my writing but I am not making a story of them. I slightly regret that I have never felt able to compile a book of poems that has strong narrative design. But I have written a novel (Plato Park, 1988) and various short stories, and now I write plays. So I feel that poetry is for my more lyric moments.
LV. You talk about travelling at an early age, but I detect a shade of diffidence, maybe fear, when you visit Russia in 1987. Your perception of dying communism is incredibly correct. The iron curtain is perfectly illustrated in your poems. The wife of the imprisoned dissident writer, the fear of foreigners, the rules and the terror of silence, you do not miss one essential element. What other ex-communist countries have you seen and what in your biography makes you understand them so well and want to write about that experience?
CR. Yes, it was a big challenge to go around on my own and meet new people. But it wasn’t as difficult as a previous errand to Prague (I went to Czechoslovakia several years before I went to Russia.) I was working as a messenger for Palach Press – they published a journal about human rights abuses, which I helped edit (see the poem dedicated to Jan Kavan in Thinking of Skins). This was much more frightening because I was smuggling in letters, books, money, etc. The people I was visiting could have been in serious trouble had I been caught and questioned. The poem ‘A Prague Dusk’ is about that time. I suppose it was talking to people from the Communist Bloc countries that chiefly informed my work – Jan himself, my partner, Yuri. I read everything I could find, too: history, fiction, anything.
I did not travel much when I was younger. My background is lower middle class. My family didn’t even have a car!
LV. You quote Burgess, with Honey for the Bears. I can also detect a vague Eliot ring here and there, seldom but sure. What writers do you value, who would you say was a standard for you? What contemporary poets do you appreciate? Whom do you feel closer to you, from a literary point of view?
CR. I am most interested in the Northern Irish poets: Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley. I read a lot of poetry, of course, but I no longer feel close to anyone. I feel I am on my own – in England the poetry scene is a particularly alien place. I don’t know enough about the Welsh ‘scene’ yet.
LV. You write: ‘The best way of getting talking to Russians is to join a queue.’ You have a unique gift of blending in, of becoming one with the landscape, of writing about it as if it were an inner reality of yours. I am not sure a direct question would be welcome and I have no way of rephrasing what I really want to know. There is one fascinating character in this Russian volume, Kolya. Who is he, besides having defected from Russia? He is an emotional mountain in your biography, yet the poems hide most of it and the peak we see is very intriguing. Would you be willing to say more in this interview?
CR. ‘Kolya’ is my partner Yuri. We have been together for almost 20 years. We translated some poems of Yevgeny Rein recently. He and I are just two of a team of translators in that publication.
LV. A Moscow Wife, Waiting is a perfect poem, which ought to be quoted in full, and I will, for those who have not read it:
Husbands wait sometimes, too:
But when I think of waiting,
I think only of you,
As if you were the true
Symbol of all waiting
And all who wait are you,
Larissa. And I see
The blackish lumps of snow
Surging to your dark porchway,
The flats in rows, the stairs
In hundreds, and I climb
Praying you’ll be there,
Praying you won’t be there.
I hear the clattered chains –
It’s like a prison-door.
You peep an inch. I’m scared
I’ve scared you – and just scared.
But then – I’ve stepped inside.
You sit and listen, pale
Distracted. You look ill.
The message falters. No,
It isn’t much. I can’t
Say much. And there’s a word
Which you repeat and which
Baffles me. That it means
The most important thing
For you is all I know.
‘I’m sorry.’ I bring out
My pocket dictionary.
The word is amnesty.
You said ‘I think there’s hope.’
You didn’t smile. I said
‘I’m glad.’ The words seemed small.
I took your hand, I went
Into the sleety cold.
And now I learn that hope
Was simply one more way
Of torturing you: they’ve sent
Your husband back to camp.
And yes, he’s waiting, too;
But when I think of waiting
Somehow I think of you
As if you were the true
Symbol of all waiting,
And all who wait are you.
You also write poems with obvious rhyme and rhythm, but this poem, devoid of all complicated sonority and loaded with emotion and sympathy, goes very deep. Does poetry imply musicality for you? Is there a new music that you feel you need to devise? A music of shyness and of the commonplace, maybe? You are reticent in everything you write. You avoid big words and also vulgar words, which have become common coin. Do you deliberately choose the tone and language of your poems or do you follow your instinct?
CR. I felt shy in this poem, writing about a real person, a dissident writer’s wife. But you are probably right that I write low-key and simply most of the time – or I certainly used to. My new poems are a bit more flashy! It was a hard lesson to learn because when I was much younger I went in for rhetoric and big effects. It was kicked out of me at a writing-workshop I attended. But now I am finding that voice again, with, I hope, a slightly more restrained and mature tone! I do try to keep close to my spoken diction, even now. I have to be able to say the poems aloud and feel them naturally in my mouth.
LV. Solitude is the main mood of your poems. Even when you write about your two daughters you are alone, separate from the rest of the world. Ireland is your poetic loneliness. You seem to enjoy it precisely because it resembles that ‘single desk’ you were once punished to sit in, memory which has made you prefer ‘small islands to large.’ Do you feel alone when you write? Is writing a way of exorcising loneliness, among other things?
CR. I don’t feel alone when I write, unless the work is going badly. I feel I have all the company I could possibly want. I like a certain amount of solitude in my life, but enjoy sociable patches here and there.
LV. You have a more than memorable line: ‘nothing at all to keep me/ From language...’ Your language is clear and does not hide behind puzzles, does not hunt for intricate half-rhymes or rhymes out of the ordinary. Your naturalness is baffling. You write as you breathe, the poem seems to require no effort on your part. Do you write with difficulty? Is the act of writing an abrupt rise or a gently sloping hill, on top of which you lie at ease in a meadow? Do you write with fear or gentleness in your soul?
CR. I couldn’t generalise – it’s never quite the same and often very different. Few of my poems come right straight away. I work intensely, in short bursts. Sometimes I give the commands, mostly I listen to them. Writing demands a give and take between passive and active elements in the self.
LV. Love is muffled by discretion in your poems. Most contemporary poets cry out loud when wounded and rejoice at having reason to scream. You whisper, but your voice is far more impressive because it commands more attention and effort to listen. The reader cannot help but share your frailty. Do you think of yourself as a strong being, a rough poet? What image would you like to convey of yourself?
CR. I am not at all interested in conveying an image of myself. Only when I give a reading – then, I try to look casual and yet interesting! I am strong in my commitment to poetry. It has been and still is a long quest. I have been tough in making space for it. But I am not naturally strong in any other way! I make efforts to be brave but frequently succumb to panic!
LV. Politics is apparently in disgrace with you. You mock at political parties that somehow remind you of Gulliver and his travels. Yet you are so open-eyed when you notice its human dimension, when you describe Russian victims of politics. Should poetry be concerned with political life or should it keep out of it? You seem to be doing both, by some inexplicable charm. Where do you place yourself? A fighting or a submissive poet?
CR. I think in my social attitudes I am a fighter. I don’t want to write polemic: I don’t want to write about what I haven’t experienced for myself. So the material available is limited, and the tone must remain true to my voice. But I am angry about many things, and deeply disappointed with the human race. We are incapable of learning from history. I have very little hope for the future. I have begun exploring this in my latest poems.
LV. One line goes, ‘Looking out on that drenched street my heart...’ There is this sadness in everything you write. No buoyant joy in your poems. You prefer quiet meditation and unuttered wounds, hidden from the eye. I do not know the first thing about you. Would you describe your existence to the readers of this interview? Its main experiences, which your poetry mirrors indirectly?
CR. I am a disappointed romantic. Not very original – many poets are, I think. I have had many imaginary love-affairs, and behaved very foolishly in sometimes not realising how very imaginary they were – but they gave me poems and perhaps that was what I really wanted. This so-called love has been a great energy source for my poetry.
LV. You claim, ‘I’ll/ author an honest tear.’ So you do. Your poetry is honest and what we are left with is a tear. You also claim you ‘open the veins of speech.’ One other, more recent poem states, ‘I’m a woman, English, not young.’ Desperado poetry always carries a burden, and this burden is another one for each poet, of course. Which burden is yours? What don’t you want to state in verse, so that the reader may infer and be sucked into it?
CR. My burden is me!
LV. You mention concentration camps several times. You also mention a foreign accent of some ancestor. I may be wrong in trying to build this detective story. Is there a family tale behind these poems?
CR. No, no family tale. I learned about the Nazi concentration camps through film and TV at a young impressionable age. Perhaps this gives me the real answer to your previous question. Human evil (including mine, of course).
LV. Another line goes, ‘I’m due for demolition.../ That’s why I stand in the Poetry Section...’ You remember a Hebrew class in Dresden, with the warmth of childhood suffusing it. You talk about an ‘emigrée’ who muses, ‘I have no passport, there’s no way back at all...’ You have translated poetry from Russian. Presumably you know the language quite well. How did you learn it? When?
CR. In ‘The Hebrew Class’ it is the ice formations on the pavements that make me imagine a miniature ruined Dresden. It’s not very clear I’m afraid but the poem is set in London. I learnt a little Hebrew in my empathy for Judaism, and, later, spent time on a Kibbutz. In the lines about having no passport I’m using a metaphor for loving a forbidden person.
My Hebrew now is non-existent, and my Russian sadly small. I work very closely with Yuri when we translate. My interest in Russia began when I bought Dr Zhivago. I was 16 and I’d won a prize for music, a book token. I remember picking up this heavy, yellow-covered hardback, with the strange title and strange author’s name, unsure if I’d like it. And then I found poems in it! I was utterly entranced.
LV. Desperadoes are apparently crystal clear, both in fiction and in poetry. So is your work. Apparently no secret, the sentences offer themselves to the reader with no scholarly locks. But the end of a volume is a huge question mark. You reveal nothing, you merely brush the unutterable. Since this is not a poem but a piece of prose, what is your poetic credo? What is most important for the poet Carol Rumens: write clearly, hide pain, win the reader, share emotion without deconspiring it?
CR. To be true to myself and true to the language. That’s my overall desire. But I change objectives at different times, even in different poems written on the same day. I might want clarity in one, a mask of metaphor in another, special musical effects in yet another. The first few drafts of a poem are always just for myself. But there is a later stage, when I do consider how the work will be shared, i.e. read. And I would hate to think I had no readers. I have only a few but they are deeply important to me. I hope they feel invited into my poems: they can live how they like there, rearrange the furniture, etc. I don’t mind as long as they come!