Though many may rightfully or otherwise shirk at the idea of engaging with poetry once it ventures beyond daffodils, greasy cash registers, and cold to the touch potatoes, there have perpetually been wordsmiths who manage to conjure up celestial enduring imagery while simultaneously refusing to pander to the school examination set. Kent born poet and academic Susan Wicks initially came to public attention with her engaging debut collection Singing Underwater (1992) in which she fused visual flashes of family life with often surreal and personal dream-like passages that never veered into a “guess how many Greek classics I’ve read this week…” pretense that so frequently bogs down the genre. Since then Wicks has produced an enviable body of work ranging from fiction, prose, and personal memoirs, marking her distinctly among the higher echelons of late 20th Century to present writers (short-listed for the International Griffin Prize for Poetry and winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French for Cold Spring in Winter, and winner of Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for Talking Vrouz, ranking among her many critical triumphs). Three Monkeys recently spoke via email to Susan about her poetic works, novels, academic life, and future plans.
Your latest work House of Tongues (2011) begins with some references to your French days, some obvious, some more abstract, just how much did your time teaching in Dijon influence your work, and were there any well-known or lesser known French writers who you encountered both personally or/and stylistically?
Yes. Of those first ten poems, six of them are, explicitly or implicitly, set in France. It was very surprising to me, though, that you’d thought to link them with my two years’ experience of teaching in Dijon in the mid-seventies. The French influences in my work go back much farther than that, in fact. I didn’t have a particularly privileged childhood, but I was lucky to go to a grammar school in Kent that had very strong links with Europe in the form of highly-developed exchange programmes. Every year, about a hundred girls would be sent off to host families in Tours and Compiègne. When it was my turn, they unfortunately ran out of contacts in those two areas, so I was one of four pupils who had to make do with Paris!
Nothing is too small for poetry. The most banal of subjects can contain a germ of something that subtly changes your whole view of the world.
Every year from the age of thirteen I was plunged into that linguistic ‘bath’. Back at school in England, we raced through the set books. For A-Level we just went on reading all the contemporary texts that were listed – far more than the exam required. So when I started A-level at the age of 14, I was already devouring Gide and Mauriac and Sartre and Camus, Cocteau, Anouilh and Giraudoux, along with the older classics of French theatre.
We read some poetry then too – Prévert, and Baudelaire – both of them more contemporary than almost anything we were introduced to in English. So it was natural for me to choose to study French. One of the most formative experiences for me was as a student at the University of Hull, where I rashly chose the Modern Poetry option in my Final year. Classes took place in Professor Rees’s study, and I remember there were only three of us. We were all thoroughly intimidated – so scared of him that we would check before the class that the others were both going to be there! – but we all persisted, nevertheless. He would give us a single short poem – from Baudelaire through the Symbolists and Apollinaire to Eluard and Surrealism – and call on one of us to read it aloud and analyse. And analyse we did – without interruption, for the better part of an hour – before he would consent to enter the discussion and give us the benefit of his wisdom, which, I can see in retrospect, was very large.
More recently, my contacts with France and French Literature have been a matter of holidays and the occasional reading or residency, the most important being my 5-day contribution to the Festival Franco-anglais in Paris in 2004, where I first came to think seriously about translating French poetry, and where I met the French poet Valérie Rouzeau, whose work I’ve read and marvelled at and challenged myself to translate ever since. I’ve done two books now, and they’ve been very well received – partly, I think, because the translation is so visibly difficult. For me it’s been hugely enriching, though it’s only very recently that I’ve caught myself writing something in what I recognised as my ‘Vrouz’ voice!
Oddly, the most memorable experiences of my Dijon years were not French but American – making close American friends and widening my sketchy knowledge of American literature – equally liberating, and I think, for my work, at least as far-reaching.
In 2008 you released a collection of short stories Roll Up for the Arabian Derby which turned out to be possibly your most deliciously macabre work. Did you find it difficult as a poet to maybe find a wider audience outside the area you are most well received?
You’ve put your finger on something here – though things happened in a different order from what you’re assuming. Fiction was my first love.
It was what I wrote from my late twenties, as soon as I’d finished my D.Phil. I can remember moaning one evening to a friend in Lyon, during the Dijon years. He said, ‘Well, if you’ve just wasted three years writing something you feel like that about, why don’t you write something different, that’s entirely yours? Why not write a novel?’ I thought about it – and then I did write a couple of novels in the mid-seventies, and they did in fact get quite close to the point of publication. It was only a few years later, when I had two small children and was teaching part-time for the University of Kent in Tonbridge, that a student of mine invited me to come to a mixed-genre writers’ workshop and it occurred to me suddenly that writing poetry was something I wanted to do. I wrote my first handful of poems on an Arvon course with Fleur Adcock and Archie Markham in 1987, and, with Archie’s encouragement, I sent them out.
What was hugely surprising to me then – but less surprising now – was that it is actually easier to publish poetry than it is to publish literary fiction. Readers are used to giving close attention to poetry (like David Constantine in his wonderful Poetry monograph, I believe that poetry is defined by the quality of attention it demands and rewards) – but they rarely pay that kind of attention to a novel. And I was steeped in Modernist and Nouveau Roman French fiction, and it didn’t occur to me at that point to write anything that wouldn’t, ultimately, make those demands. Since then it’s always been my ambition to write fiction that still teased the brain but was written ‘undercover’, disguising itself as easier and perhaps more populist than it in fact was. Over the years I think I’ve learned to do that better: the British market doesn’t encourage experiment. And I go on.
An older poet friend, Dorothy Nimmo, who died a few years ago, once told me that I was extremely lucky to have been allowed to write the novels I did write – and I found myself thinking, quite fiercely, ‘No! I may have to be allowed to publish them, but I don’t need anyone’s permission to write them!’
Now I’m a bit older, though, I do begin to understand what she was saying. I still love fiction. I’m still fired by that experimental strand in the novel. And I do publish – so far three novels, as well as the collection of stories you mention – when and where I can. With exciting small press initiatives like Salt and Peirene and & Other Stories, I feel hopeful that things are changing slightly and the fiction market is becoming more diverse. And I’m still writing both poems and prose fiction: another (themed) collection of short stories is gathering energy and asking to be worked on as I write this. As to that elusive ‘wider audience’, I’m not sure. Of course, it’s nice to have lots of readers, but, as Apollinaire once wrote, sometimes seven appreciative strangers of different genders, callings and nationalities will do!
Having been diagnosed with M.S. in the 1990s, did you find that your writing became more passionate and/or stoic, shall we say, i.e. a kind of rage against the dying of the light approach, or were you perhaps, more pragmatic?
I was never, in fact, officially diagnosed with M.S. – the words were spoken by a harassed consultant into his pager two days before we were due to leave the U.S. at the end of a year’s teaching exchange. He suggested I should contact my own doctor on my return to England, and that’s what I did. The consultant at the National Hospital in London preferred to return an ‘open diagnosis’, the phrase which became the title of my second book.
You’re essentially right, though. Because of the time and manner in which the idea was first conveyed to me, I think that for about a year afterwards I was in a state of shock. And the way through that shock seemed to be to try and look things in the eye – the eye of the dead trout in my ‘Buying Fish’ poem – and to be ever fiercer and more determined about my writing. I suppose it gave me a kind of confidence, a feeling of necessity. It was a feeling I already had some acquaintance with from my years with small children, and it’s one I know again now, in my late sixties. And actually, it’s welcome! When you’ve got a family, finding time to write is never easy, and a heightened sense of clarity and urgency can change the quality of the precious time you have.
Singing Underwater displays a strong sense of family, a fresh matter of fact approach to everyday life with a rich lyrical observation underneath, while your mid 90s duo The Clever Daughter and Driving My Father obviously approached your relationship with your parents, are there any other muses, life events, or perhaps physical places you have incorporated into your work recently that you would like to take further?
Readers of my more recent work tell me I seem to be moving ‘outwards’, and I think that in a way that’s true. My poems are still based mostly on what I have first-hand knowledge of, which is still the material which moves me most. So there are still poems about my family. My new collection, The Months, forthcoming from Bloodaxe next year, has a long central poem that intercuts material from the time of my daughter’s recent pregnancy with written memories of my own – though it’s not actually about the physical phenomena of pregnancy and childbirth, so much as about the necessary co-existence and accommodations with all the ‘busy-ness’ and insecurities and minor triumphs of ordinary life. The other poems in the collection are equally preoccupied with time, but perhaps more interested in other kinds of attrition and survival. So, though the ‘family’ subjects are still very important to me, I think they are becoming more inclusive, and they’re more often set against a wider landscape.
I’ve been very fortunate over the years to be given a number of writing residencies abroad, some in Europe, and some in the U.S., and these have inevitably changed the way I think, colouring the writing I’ve done there and after my return. My most recent collection, House of Tongues, contained a group of quite angry poems inspired by the medieval backdrop of the Swedish harbour-town of Visby, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic – which, at the time, seemed to be just what I needed! The new collection does quite a bit of travelling too – from Cape Cornwall to the Greek island of Thassos, and from Cromer in Norfolk to New Hampshire and the unspoilt woodland of the MacDowell Colony, where I’ve stayed a few times now. Not to mention the more urban and suburban backdrops of home.
I’ve also been lucky to work on a collaborative project with visual artists at my local museum, and this too felt like an exciting departure. When we’d all had time to create something based on the museum’s ‘hidden’ material, I rented a cottage in West Wales for a couple of weeks, and took a handful of prints of artist Lizzy Clayman’s charcoal drawings of antique lace down there with me. The result, Lace, is a pamphlet collection of artwork and poetry to be published by Stonewood Press this coming autumn. The poem, in thirteen sections, is unlike anything I’ve written before.
But my internal landscape has been shifting too. I’m sure I’ve been influenced, if indirectly, by my recent translation activities: since Valérie Rouzeau and I met at that mutual translation workshop in Paris in 2004, I’ve translated and published two book-length collections of her work, Cold Spring in Winter, and Talking Vrouz. My Rouzeau translations have a particular tone, I think – a tone I’ve occasionally been aware of resisting the temptation to imitate in my own work. Valérie’s poems – at the same time deeply serious and deeply playful – are extraordinary. It’s hard not to find their fluent wordplay infectious. But, rather than being tempted to emulate them on the level of voice and technique, I think I have, at a deeper level, been influenced by her underlying inclusiveness. Nothing is too small for poetry. The most banal of subjects can contain a germ of something that subtly changes your whole view of the world.
Outside of direct experiences, what has been the most powerful influence on your poetry and story writing?
Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between a ‘powerful influence’ and a ‘direct experience’ – for me any truly powerful influence seems to become a direct part of my own experience. Examples: the year I worked rather joylessly and inappropriately as an educational guidance counsellor, often without clients, in an office where one of the few ‘non-directory’ books on the shelves just happened to be Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems. Another example: during our exchange year in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1989-90, my writer friends Alison Townsend, Judith Strasser and I founded what is now known as the ‘Lake Effect’ poetry workshop. It was through Alison that I first came across the poems of Sharon Olds – the early books, Satan Says, The Dead and the Living, and The Gold Cell. I was astonished. In spite of the titles, I’d never read anything more alive!
And a third example would be a third-year undergraduate module called ‘Reading and Writing Short Fiction’, that I was encouraged to devise and teach during my years in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. The module was based on stories by only three writers, but they were all great writers, with the deepest and best lessons for apprentices and students of the short story: Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, and Raymond Carver. Each year I’d change the selection of stories slightly, and each year the students would harvest a good crop of their own, all of them different, none of them in sub-Carver voices, almost all of them with a sense of open-endedness and structural possibility. I loved teaching that module! It was as enriching for me as I hope it was for some of the forty-eight students whose many and various fictional worlds I glimpsed each year.
What is Susan Wicks’ favourite Susan Wicks poem and what would you consider to be your best non-poetic work/story?
I’m not sure I have a ‘favourite Susan Wicks poem’. Or, if I do, the affection has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with personal association or a reader’s response. I’m fond of ‘Rings’, the last poem in my first collection, Singing Underwater – mainly because Michael Laskey was kind enough once to say that when he heard me read it at Aldeburgh it gave him ‘the authentic shiver’ – but also because it evokes a particular walk in Door County, Wisconsin, and a time when both my parents and my writer friend, Judith Strasser, were all still alive.
The second half of your question is about perceived quality, though – and I can’t evade it! I think my best prose work is my short memoir, Driving My Father. I wrote it mostly in the course of a spring residency at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 1994, intuiting, I think, that the structure was to be somehow non-discursive and ‘different’ – and when I came home I cut the manuscript up into pieces and colour-coded it with little stickers before building it up again in layers. I felt like a collage artist, or a sculptor – one of the visual artists I’d been spending time with in Virginia! Working on it was a great freedom and a real delight. And I think it did come out more or less as I’d hoped: I’d let the experiences speak for themselves without judgement; I hadn’t told any lies. My parents deserved no less.
And then when it was published the book brought with it its own store of experiences. I read from it on the stage of the National Theatre and on Radio 4. As we left Broadcasting House, elated at the end of Night Waves, I remember Blake Morrison saying, ‘Race you down the stairs!’ (He won, of course!)
In Pistachios you write “a whole glittering expanse/of blue-black points/and/hidden inside/that throb of flesh/As the tide recedes/a million brittle mouths lean shut.” evoking that classic poetic sense of otherworldly and Earthly elements that exist somewhat invisibly around the seemingly mundane; again, would you yourself see this as something coming from more of a European existentialist framework, a classic English lyrical approach, or perhaps both mediating with each other?
I don’t know about ‘otherworldly’… but the conviction that everything in a poem should ‘mean’ – or even ‘mean twice’ – is coming from those tutorials at Hull in my early twenties. There’s a density in a poem by Baudelaire or his Symbolist and Futurist successors that, for me, goes with the idea that poetry demands a special kind of attention. My more recent acquaintance with American poetry, on the other hand, has taught me that that ‘doubleness’ doesn’t always have to operate at the level of the single word, but may be more to do with overall patterns of expectation. It may use larger ‘building blocks’ that often sound at first more like narrative, or even conversational. But if I’m reading a poem by another poet, I have to find that ‘extra’ meaning somewhere… or I’m tempted to think it isn’t really a poem.
Once, at the end of a reading, someone asked me about my relationship to the ‘Romantic Sublime’ and I confess, to my shame, that at that point I hadn’t even heard the expression. I’d studied two or three French Romantic poets at university, but somehow the frame of reference and terminology weren’t the same… I’d studied Keats for A-level, and been made to memorise parts of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ at about twelve – but hadn’t the distance at that point to absorb anything more than a visual image – though that is still with me, even now. So any English influences there are have got in there, so to speak, by stealth. Or since I began to write poetry myself.
Are there any particular projects you are working on at present?
As I’ve said already, I’ve got a book and a pamphlet coming out during the coming months, so I’m at a stage where I wouldn’t normally be expecting to write anything very focused. During my recent residency at the MacDowell Colony, though, I was writing both new poems and short fiction. The poems are still too fresh for me to see where they’re going – I’m working through them now, trying to see them clearly – but I find I’m intrigued by being around my small grandson and starting to share his fascination for people at work and processes and machines, in all their manifestations.
The fiction is more purposeful: I’ve got a list of short story ideas on a related theme, and I’m trying to develop each in turn. It’s hard, though. The wonderful thing about MacDowell is that it seems to give you, not just time and space and stimulus and precious hours of solitude, but also a kind of endorsement, so that ideas that might have seemed crazy or half-baked at home begin to take on flesh. The trick is, once you’re home again, to keep that self-belief alive…