Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- JO SHAPCOTT
I like the idea of being ‘a Desperado of the tender thought’
Interview with JO SHAPCOTT (born 24 March 1953), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry conceals your real life. I can only infer you may have been born in 1953, from your poems. Who is Jo Shapcott, when were you born, what have you studied, what is your profession?
JO SHAPCOTT: I was born in London in 1953. I studied for my first degree at Trinity College, Dublin. I don’t have a profession but first and foremost I write poetry. In addition I do a little teaching and broadcasting.
LV. You believe in clarity, I think. Your poems do not hide behind crossword complications, you could not care less about rhyme, although the rhythm of your poems is a mesmerizing sway of sea waves, not obvious at first sight, but insidiously overwhelming. Spoken idioms do not interfere with your lines. You hold your poems in deep and tender respect. What comes first to you as a poet, mood or idea?
JS. I do believe in clarity. And actually I could not care more about rhyme. The music of the poems I write is all important to me. I rarely use full rhyme, you’d be right there. For the here and now, it’s too unwieldy an instrument, and – to me anyway – can sound clunky – as if a contemporary composer were bound at all times to the musical arc suggested by a perfect cadence. Of course, there are plenty of contemporary poems I admire which disprove this wild generalization, but still, that’s my particular ear. My most recent book, Tender Taxes, is full of other kinds of rhyme – I love the more subtle music offered by playing with vowels and consonants. Paul Muldoon is the poet I admire most for this kind of rhyme. Your description of my rhythmical world of the poems is quite beautiful although I’d add that many of them move from and return to iambic pentameter. I don’t know which comes first, mood or idea, and worry that if I tried to analyze the interchange too deeply everything would collapse.
LV. You use masks defiantly (Elizabeth and Robert, Tom and Jerry, Mad Cow, and last but not least, Rilke’s translator), as if you were saying, This is all about somebody else. You push autobiographical lyricism away. Most Desperado poets do the same, each in his or her own way. Some take refuge in the twists of language, but you write with your soul. The page is full of emotion. Why the masks? Does sensibility need protection? Is poetry dangerous?
JS. I hope poetry is dangerous. The fact that poems and poets can still be banned in some parts of the world makes me feel it must be. If it didn’t disturb, it wouldn’t be working. My concern is to make poems. You are right that I’m not interested in self revelation but I don’t see why I should be. I simply don’t believe that’s what poems are for. Novelists make things up. Playwrights make things up. So do poets. Invention and imagination are central to what we do.
LV. You are very much in love with love. Unlike most Desperado novelists, who leave this feeling outside the covers of their books, you cannot do without it, but will not subscribe to it in person, not in Her Book, anyway. A lettuce is allowed to describe the bliss of shared feeling. In Tender Taxes Rilke is dead enough to be safe as a recipient of love. You love his texts and your own imagination, your own need for love. In the economy of your poetry, what is the use of this deliberate distance from your soul? Is autobiography bad for poetry?
JS. I don’t know that autobiography is bad for poetry. If you thought that you’d have to dismiss much great work. But I don’t believe that autobiography is necessary for poetry any more than it is for novels. Poems can reveal profound truth about emotion and spirit without being literally true. It’s the whole beauty of the imagination, surely, that it grants us the freedom to tell our stories by making things up.
LV. You write, ‘I have seen the crack in the universe/ through which the galaxies stream’ (I’m Contemplated by a Portrait of a Divine). The poem ends with, ‘keeping the drawer shut/ in case my heart should slip out, fly up.’ There is a sense of emotional panic in your lines, whose reason is hidden, only to be guessed at. Since we are talking outside your lines now, what is the reason of this universal fear? Is poetry any good at soothing it?
JS. Poems are for exploration, discovery, transformation. They would be very dull otherwise. But not necessarily personal discovery – the idea of poetry primarily for therapy is pretty pointless, don’t you think?
LV. You avoid writing explicitly about love, your being in love. Yet I have found one poem that goes far deeper and is fairly explicit, as far as your poetry goes: Matter. I am going to quote it for my readers to feel the depth of your feeling, which is there even when you apparently banish it, push it back stage:
He touched my skin
as though he could feel
the smallest particles
which make me up.
By the time he knew each
of the billions of electrons
which fly through my body
Then I think he was searching
for the particles
not yet discovered
but believed to exist.
Then I didn’t know
what time it was any more
and neither of us knew
which was inside or outside
as he reached somewhere
very deep and fingered gold –
charms, strangers, tops and gravitons –
but not the words he wanted
which only come now.
The poem is an afterthought of the soul. Most Desperado poets delve into sounds rather than emotion. Your interest in the word is mainly emotional, even though devious. I would associate your poetry with Ackroyd’s fiction in my demonstration that the Desperado (a way of avoiding postmodernism as a term, an attempt at defining the present in literature) is deeply committed to sensibility if the reader can find the path. What do you expect from this reader? How should he read you, respond to your lines? Emotionally, intellectually, with sympathy or detachment? Is your poetry meant to be relished for its delightful irony or scoured with a hungry soul?
JS. I would be very happy for a reader to – as you put it – relish my poems for their delightful irony OR to scour them with a hungry soul OR read them in any other way they wish. It’s a matter which is quite outside my control.
LV. I cannot detect echoes from other poets in your lines. You use a motto from William Carlos Williams (I think it is The Last of My Grandmother), and you lovingly converse with Rilke, eternally young and in love. Who are your masters and those who influenced your poetic voice?
JS. Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, George Herbert, John Donne.
LV. You write in The Mad Cow is a Vogue Model: ‘these words, these little deaths, these individual/ devils...’ You mention words and address readers directly in other places, too. Your lines conceal your preoccupation with art because they sound so natural and flow so easily into our understanding. Most Desperado poets jot down private meanings in public lines and leave it at that. Your meanings are no less private (even more so, actually), but you fight each word and win: the sentences are crystal clear, which readers are thankful for. Is your poetry on the whole anything like an emotional diary, an attempt at outlining the universe using language? Do you merely want the reader to become aware of infinity when he reads you, or to become aware of you perceiving and conveying it? To share your emotions or just stare at the painting from behind the red cord?
JS. I like your idea of poems as an attempt to outline the universe using language. That’s a big, ambitious, sexy thought. On the other hand, I would hate to think poems were merely an emotional diary.
Again, my wishes for the reader are irrelevant. It’s enough for me to do and be everything I can in the poems.
LV. Death is not a favourite topic with you, but I have found one remarkable poem, about death seen as a new life: When I Died.
I’m coming back on All Saints’ Day
for your olives, old peanuts and dodgy sherry,
dirty dancing. I’ll cross-dress at last
pirouette and flash, act pissed.
You’ll have to look for me hard:
search for my bones in the crowd.
Or lay a pint and a pie on my grave to tempt me out
and a trail of marigolds back to the flat,
where you’ll leave the door ajar
and the cushions plumped in my old armchair.
I could speak about echoes of the metaphysical poets here, if I did not know better. Your poetry has taught me that there is no irreversible and no forever. Is that what you might call your lesson? Or how would you put it into plain words?
JS. Transformation is at the centre: it’s hard to say more than that. My best plain words are in the poems: I can’t put it another way. But I’ve recently been reading the work of another writer who believes passionately that change is an attribute of the highest order. This is Galileo Galilei, in a brilliant passage from his ‘Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems’ which, I think, prefigures Darwin:
‘I cannot without great astonishment – I might say without great insult to my intelligence – hear it attributed as a prime perfection and nobility of the natural and integral bodies of the universe that they are invariant, immutable, inalterable, etc., while on the other hand it is called a great imperfection to be alterable, generable, mutable, etc. For my part I consider the earth very noble and admirable precisely because of the diverse alterations, changes, generations, etc. that occur in it incessantly. If, not being subject to any changes, it were a vast desert of sand or a mountain of jasper, or if at the time of the flood the waters which covered it had frozen, and it had remained an enormous globe of ice where nothing was ever born or ever altered or changed, I should deem it a useless lump in the universe, devoid of activity and, in a word, superfluous and essentially non-existent. This is exactly the difference between a living animal and a dead one; and I say the same of the moon, of Jupiter, and of all other world globes. ‘
LV. Except London, your fridge, your terrace and your computer with e-mail, I do not catch many images of yourself in the lines, but I can definitely feel your presence precisely because you suppress its physical details and I am free to improvise. You use words to paint impressionistic landscapes of the soul, as you do in Gilwern Dingle:
A lane between two meadows,
not leading anywhere
but still managing to tempt
the fields to go along with it.
A track which often has
except the ford,
and the lengthening season.
This poem is perfect. It creates the essential mood of poetry, which is translation, reenactment, self-discovery and, again last but definitely not least, entreating the reader into sharing the page. You are very good at all these. It must be very obvious by now that I think the world of your poetry. I just wonder what you think of my attempt at forcing you into a group. I must explain that being a Desperado means being different from everybody else first and foremost. They are similar precisely because they differ, they reject all classification. This new age is a very solitary time, more so than ever. We all find refuges within ourselves and furnish them with the minds we relate to. I could easily furnish my refuge with your poems. The point is, do you mean your poetry to do just that?
JS. I’m delighted that you think I’ve written a perfect poem. Of course I can’t afford to share your view or I might never write another one. Your idea is an interesting one: the reader (and writer) kitting out her shelter with a variety of texts, defense against – what? – the storm? the world? the other? But the exact place where the self and the other touch, where there’s the possibility of either transformation or stasis – the place like the cell wall, the chemical chamber of the mitochondria – that’s the place that interests me most. And, of course, the catalysts for this opening (or, in their absence, closing) are love of God or poetry.
LV. You describe Tender Taxes as ‘primarily a reader’s book’. You create a new Rilke, one who shares your emotions. It is the first time you become intimate, so very intimate with one of your masks. Maybe because Rilke is far more than a persona. He is you. You wonder: ‘Am I almost, but not quite, a word?’ I have the distinct impression that with this volume you have stated what you want your own poetry to be: sharing recreation. Each reader ought to continue the line and the whole world will turn into windows opening into other windows forever. This stresses emotion. I think I could call you the Desperado of the tender thought. Would you agree that tenderness is the key note of everything you write?
JS. I like the idea of being ‘a Desperado of the tender thought’: me riding into Deadwood on my brown horse, in my cowboy hat, waving my six shooter around, all the townsfolk diving for cover, terrified I might give them a big kiss or a cuddle. Yo.