Gillian Clarke Interview
Interview with Gillian Clarke: 24 August 2005
by Barry Wood
Barry Wood: I wanted to start by asking you about your involvement in Welsh traditions of literature, Welsh history, and your involvement in contemporary Welsh poetry, and your own contribution to it. How do you see that, and what view of the traditions do you have?
Gillian Clarke: Poetry is the national art in Wales. It’s an unbroken ancient tradition. Poetry is often the art form—with music—that poor countries turn to. You need wealthy patrons like the Borgias to pay for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Expensive works of art need patrons. Before the creation of the Welsh Art Council in the 1960s there was little financial support for the literature of Wales. But poetry’s position in Wales is more positive than that. The two earliest named British poets are Aneirin and Taliesin, and their language was Welsh. An early form of Welsh was spoken as far north as the Scottish Highlands, except possibly in areas along the East coast where “infiltrations” from across the North Sea had already occurred. But certainly until the battle of Chester in the 7th century, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fife, way up to the Highlands, Cumbria, the north and south west, and into the central regions, were Welsh-speaking areas. They spoke an early form of Welsh which was commonly understood. The battle divided the ‘Old North’ from the southern Britons. In fact the poet Aneirin is associated with the Scottish-English border. Indeed there is a plaque - paid for by the Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils - commemorating the Battle of the Gododdin, a great epic poem about a battle fought just north of Catterick. So the tradition of Welsh poetry is ancient. Of course it was an entirely oral tradition until Welsh became a written language. The poetry and the language became stabilised when the monks began to write it down. So it is very old, centuries older than English. And older than English as a written language. By the time Chaucer virtually saved English – the language of the Court was French, and we might all have been French-speaking by now - in the land we now call England, the bardic tradition is confined to the Celtic countries. The natural place of poetry at the Court, as well as in the tavern, which was part of the bardic tradition, was lost to English. The bard picked up where the druids left off. There was still an element of magic about poetry, yet it was common in the taverns too. The old influence persists. History is deeply important. So, okay, I’m born into a Welsh tradition.
BW: Was that something you were aware of very early or was if something you acquired knowledge of as you became a poet?
GC: As a child I was aware of the Mabinogion stories and the early poets because my father was very proud of it all. He left school young and went off to sea, and worked for Marconi as a “sparks”, a radio engineer. Then he joined the BBC when it opened an office in Cardiff. Like most Welsh people he had a huge respect for education, especially literature. And where did they learn their Welsh? In Chapel. It was the translation of the Bible into Welsh – 1588, earlier than the first translation into English – that made the Welsh the first proletariat in Europe to be literate. The language of those first translations into Welsh, and later English, was very beautiful. And that becomes a rock for the language, more than a rock—a living thing, with roots. I was aware of that from my father. Now I know and speak enough Welsh to read the poetry.
BW: But you learned that as an adult?
GC: More or less really, because my mother banned it. My mother was a Welsh-speaker, but it made her feel inferior. That’s how colonised people always feel, although my father wasn’t like that. He was from a more independent and prouder tradition. My mother’s father was a tenant farmer on a huge estate. Humble people. For them, posh people spoke English, poor people spoke Welsh.
BW: So that may have been one of the reasons why your mother didn’t want you to speak Welsh, because she wanted you to “get on”…
GC: Oh yes. I adored my mother, but I suppose for me learning Welsh was part of my teenage or young adult rebellion. She was wrong, but on the other hand I was wrong not to understand why it happened, and now I do. I totally forgive her: it was not her fault but the fault of social conditions under which people like that were brought up. My father was from a much more independent corner of Wales, a fiercer corner.
BW: A fiercer corner, yes. A question arises here though. You have this commitment to the language and yet you write your poetry and write about your poetry in English…
GC: Because you have to write poetry in your mother tongue.
BW: And your original tongue, the tongue you grew up with, is English?
GC: Well, yes. My mother read me stories and poems in English, nursery rhymes in English; I went to school and studied for O-Level and A-Level, and it was all in English. That’s not the case anymore. Children now have much greater opportunities to learn Welsh than we did. If it wasn’t spoken at home, it often wasn’t taught at all. It’s been different for my children and even more so for my grandchildren. For me, when my mother banned it, it was lost. Also, my parents were not pious. Children whose parents took them to chapel had a greater chance of growing up Welsh-speaking because that’s where the language had roots and where a high standard of the language—a beautiful version of the language—was kept up. And that’s why we don’t have huge differences between one way of speaking the language and another. Yes, there’s north and south, but the difference between north and south is exaggerated. Our neighbours speak good Welsh. They hear it around them. And then there’s the good old BBC, and there was good old Edward Heath, who took notice of the demands of the Welsh Language Society and gave Welsh its own TV channel.
BW: The language issue was a very political issue, wasn’t it?
GC: O hugely political—because it was a battle against colonialism. Some of the more open-minded English people who moved into Wales, saw it as a civil rights issue and supported it. The Welsh community saw it as the rights of the language but the English supporters saw it as civil rights. Brilliant! Because it is a civil right, of course. I can remember someone in this area was taken to court for something and the solicitor said to her: “You’ll do better if you speak English”. Isn’t that shocking? And she was very halting in English. Nobody now would be able to stop her speaking Welsh in court.
BW: I wonder if we can move to another though I think related area? You’ve said that you were a late developer, or at any rate developed late as a writer. Were you conscious—as you seem to be in your poem “Blaen Cwrt”—of rooting yourself in a place and a tradition which you carry through, which you develop throughout your poetry, so that you become “the King of Britain’s Daughter”?
GC: It’s a very personal idea that! By the way, I was thirty when I began to take my poetry seriously. So it wasn’t all that late.
BW: You seem to be creating a sort of persona within your poetry, which is based in a particular view of Welsh language, traditions, the landscape; and you locate it here [Blaen Cwrt] and, whilst not being limited to the place, it is a central theme in your work.
GC: Yes, that’s interesting! “Blaen Cwrt” was one of the first poems I had published. I‘d stopped writing—well, I hadn’t really stopped writing, but I hid it all. I put it in a drawer and showed no-one. It took two things to get me going again. My youngest child went to nursery school, and we bought the old condemned ruin called Blaen Cwrt, where I now live. I think they were two freedoms, and I found myself able to start again. We lived in Cardiff, but I could run away here at the weekends to write. To go back a bit, I should say that I had a wonderful English teacher. Also, many young writers are discovered—in English as well as in Welsh—through the school eisteddfod, where you enter your story, your essay, your poem, anonymously. When I was sixteen I won all three, and my English teacher sent for me and told me I could be a writer. She persuaded me not to go to Art college but to go to university. At university, and I was taken aside by my tutor and told: “Forget your poetry now. This is an academic institution and you must concentrate on your studies.” In those days young women were very easily set back by a refusal. It was a definite “no”. And I’d heard ‘no’ often enough about being Welsh. Where, in my education, were the women poets? Where were the Welsh poets? I became secretive about my writing after that. I got married eighteen months after finishing university, had babies straightaway, and got involved in the “high art” of making sure they heard Mozart and Beethoven, and reading them stories every night, teaching them to read when they were three--the art of staying at home and making brilliant children! And my writing had a corner, but it was the drawer really: scribble/drawer, scribble/drawer. And then, when I was thirty, a poem which I’d thrown in the bin was sent by my ex-husband to Poetry Wales—and it was published. By that time I had written “Blaen Cwrt”. We bought this place as a derelict ruin in 1969 when I was thirty-one. And I wonder whether—to answer your question about location—I wonder whether—and this must happen often—having another place gave me a place for poetry. The reason we bought Blaen Cwrt – for £450! - was that we’d been taking our small children on holiday to a seaside village nearby, and I wanted them to have a Welsh country childhood as well as the city. I wanted them to hear Welsh and to love it. And I wanted us all to get back to Welsh. I think I was returning to my dead father’s land. This county is called Ceredigion now, but at the time the county of Dyfed included Cardiganshire, (now Ceredigion), Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. My father was from Carmarthenshire, but my grandmother moved to a farm in north Pembrokeshire. All King of Britain’s Daughter country. I believe I was re-discovering my dead father and what he could have given to me had he stayed alive. He was never to know I’d learn Welsh; he died when I was still a sulky teenager. I often feel sad about that. He never knew how I would value it. If your parents offer you something, you don’t eagerly say yes. If they offer you Beethoven, you play rock. So learning Welsh was a kind of reparation and restoration; it was elegy and celebration. And the place [Blaen Cwrt] was a help. After all, it was an escape—we ran away here whenever we could.
BW: Yes. But, if I can quote some of the poem back at you, it ends: “It has all the first/Necessities for a high standard/Of civilised living: silence inside/A circle of sound, … /Two languages, two centuries of past/To ponder on, and the basic need/To work hard in order to survive.” It’s quite a resolute poem, a poem of resolution, saying: I am here. And it’s interesting how you connect it both with your father and with your writing.
GC: When I come to think about it—I’d have to check with old diaries—I may have written a few poems which did get published just before we bought this place. But the two events were close, close enough to call it a coinciding moment, spending time here and getting writing again. The other issue was that my son, Dylan, was three and starting nursery school, so my writing hand was free, and the years of being at home full time with children was coming to an end. So to “work hard” meant more than one thing. It’s both chopping wood, carrying water, and writing about it. As for the “silence inside/A circle of sound”—it’s very quiet here: there’s a distant dog, an owl, a fox somewhere, the wind in the trees, you’re always surrounded by the sounds of the countryside—but sometimes there’s nothing, sometimes you can’t hear anything at all. When we first came here we had to go down to the wood for logs, bring it back, chop it, light the fires; we had to take buckets to the spring to draw water. We had to trim the wicks to light oil lamps. It was fun, only holidays and weekends, but there was all this physical activity: scything grass … I’ve got a ride-on mower and a strimmer now! But then I had a scythe, and to make a civilised life meant work. But it also meant writing. I have worked hard at writing, and I’ve worked hard for poetry, preaching the sermon of poetry, as it were. I’ve nagged arts councils, wheeled and dealed and cajoled, and been a great deal of trouble! I’m proudest of Ty Newydd, our writers centre. I’ve also visited hundreds of schools, especially primary schools, in my time. At Blaen Cwrt in those days you had to be a hewer of wood and a carrier of water. It was the start of a hard-working writing life. And before that, I was waiting for it to start.
BW: That’s very illuminating. There is a kind of split, isn’t there, between your role and work with the Welsh Arts Council, your role as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan, your work as an educationist throughout the country, and your background in the city—all that’s there, and yet the creative focus of what you do is away from that, for the most part. Although there are poems about travelling but they are all to do—or many of them are to do—with arriving home.
GC: Well, it’s all for the sake of poetry. But yes, it’s true about coming home. I’ve written about France, which feels culturally familiar. A few poems about other travels – I love travelling. I do feel European. But I’ve never written a poem about America—been there, been interested, but it’s not where my heart is.
BW: Except for your September 11 poem [in “Making the Beds for the Dead”]
GC: Yes, but that’s a view from home. That’s a different obsession. That obsession is that wherever we are—even here, in “the back of beyond” [a reference to “Overheard in County Sligo”]—we see and experience the world in a way people didn’t in the past. I’m entranced by computers, radios, communications— when I first heard of mobile phones, when they were huge and had long curly wires and were too heavy to carry, I wanted one. I enjoy the new technology, and there’s no longer a “back of beyond”. If you live in a great city you’re easily deluded into thinking you’re at the navel of the universe. In fact, that’s absurd. By switching on television or radio you could see and hear what everyone on earth with access to a screen saw when news of the WTC/Twin Towers attack was breaking. We all watched it happen, and we all wept together. We are not in little enclaves. There are two worlds – the private one, and the public one the media brings into our lives. Take “A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998”. The Easter Agreement in Northern Ireland was about to be signed, and we were going to celebrate it, when our old ewe went into labour, late and with some difficulty. For me the two events were connected and happening simultaneously. One annoying reviewer wrote: “I wish she would turn the radio off and concentrate on the lamb”! But then there wouldn’t have been a poem: it isn’t about the lamb! It’s a metaphor for an impasse. The stone in the mouth of the tomb in the Christian story, the unblocking of minds in Northern Ireland, and a birth. The stone rolls away, the lamb is born, the agreement is signed. I love the connections between things, between the intimate domestic thing and the big world out there where important things are happening. And I love layers: the old story informing what we are doing now. So, I am not “in retreat”, absolutely the opposite: this is not a retreat, it’s a very busy place!
BW: This is the risky thing about “A Difficult Birth”, isn’t it, that you take something very immediate and distressing and relate it to outside events?
GC: Not distressing. A little anxious-making, but the lamb was soon born with a bit of help from me. Meanwhile in Ireland a huge shift was happening, a huge historic moment was occurring, and the “birth” was a metaphor. Some people ask which was the most important story…
BW: Of the two stories being told…
GC: Three stories! Easter, as well.
BW: Yes, the poems your poem brings to mind are in Ted Hughes’s “Moortown”, which are all concerned with distress and the visceral reality of “a difficult birth”.
GC: Those are wonderful poems!
I love Ted Hughes; I love Heaney; I love RS Thomas. Those are among the greatest influences in my adult writing lifetime. And all three are, in some sense, nature poets. Everyone talks about urban, urban, but in every urban space the concrete is being split by dandelions and buddleia … and are we not ourselves a part of nature? I don’t see this huge divide; I love cities. RS Thomas always asked huge questions: God. Doubt. Is there a God? Why suffering? What is man doing to the world? They are nature poems of warning. And I suppose it’s close to what I do. Though I am close to Hughes in the physical approach to nature; and to Heaney in the emotional approach to it. So for me they are important, exciting and thrilling poets, without whose books I could not live.
BW: Again, talking about the city, your later poem about the Manchester bombing, and the poems related to the Bridgewater Hall [in Five Fields]…
GC: That [“Concerto”] was a commission. I was resident in Manchester for the writing, and I loved it.
BW: Yes, but one of the interesting things about it and “The City” sequence is that the perspective on it is almost geological or archaeological! Of course you are looking at the city as it is now but the image that you are most fascinated by is that huge stone [sculpture] outside the Bridgewater Hall which represents something rather elemental!
GC: Yes, it is an important image, partly because it is outside the Bridgewater, and partly because there was a full moon in the sky when I wrote the poem, and the two white stones seemed to be one, the stone and the moon in thrall to each other.
BW: And in “Piazza”—the first poem in the “Concerto” sequence—you also bring in images of children playing around and on the stone, so it is both something very elemental but also humanised and intriguing to children.
GC: Yes. I love geology. My mother used to talk about Manchester. She was from North Wales, but she did her midwifery as a young nurse in Manchester. For her it was a big, exciting city. So there were connections there for me. And my own publisher [Carcanet] is in Manchester and although nobody was in the office when the IRA bomb went off, my own books and all of my contracts—along with everyone else’s—were blown up by the IRA. Quite a thought really. I didn’t get blown up but my poems did!
BW: Another question I wanted to ask you is about your role as a woman poet and your connection with the feminist movement during the last thirty years or more. You have said that being a woman was a disadvantage as a writer.
GC: Did I say “disadvantage”? Adrian Henri said to me once: “You’re in two political situations, being Welsh and a woman?” An interesting thought. It’s never held me back. Certainly, as a Welsh poet, it wasn’t a disadvantage! But that was probably because they were so few of us in the beginning. As society became more anxious about its attitude to women they were more eager to include us. I don’t feel I’ve been held up by anyone outside myself, my own hesitations. The situation for women poets has been transformed during the thirty years I’ve been writing. I don’t think about it now. But not thinking about it doesn’t mean it’s not there! People say: Are you proud of being Welsh? I don’t know. It’s all that I know. This is the culture I belong to. And there are advantages: for example, an almost complete unawareness of class. Far more people here send their children to State schools, and don’t even consider private schools. We’re much less class-ridden. I have never felt divided by class, anywhere in Wales, from any kind of person, doing any kind of job, or not doing a job. By opinion, yes; but not class.
As for being a woman, poets are respected in the culture that I was brought up in, so being a woman wasn’t the only issue. That, plus the feminist movement in Britain. They were things I benefited from. I felt uncomfortable about extremist feminists. I have never been a push-men-off-cliffs feminist. I think it’s civilised to believe all human beings have rights. It’s like socialism: you just think all people have a right to be and to develop and to have opportunities. When I wrote ‘Letter from a Far Country’ I thought I was writing in anger. But when it was broadcast on radio, people phoned me to say: Gillian, you said it was a protest but it’s a celebration. When I went back to it I realised that, yes, it’s a celebration and I thought: that’s how far we’ve moved. That means that I could write about my mother’s work, and my grandmother’s work, as heroic, as epic work. That was what I wanted to do with ‘Letter from a Far Country’, to praise women without being angry with men—though I have the odd little dig. So the men didn’t hate me when they read it and reviewed it. Lining up a group and saying: ‘we hate them’ is atrocious, uncivilised, and I want nothing to do with it. I’ve been lucky with the men in my life. All of them are feminists! My sons, my husband wouldn’t consider any other position. It’s another matter for many women in the world - despised, abused, poor, hungry, caught in wars, crossing borders with babies on their backs.
Poets like Gwyneth Lewis and Menna Elfyn and other wonderful Welsh women writers are through to a new world. And Carol Ann Duffy and UA Fanthorpe and all the British women poets are valued and respected. It’s a huge step for us, but it’s not true for all women.
“Marged” died of poverty, before there was a Welfare State. She died for the lack of a pension.
BW: Maybe we could look at “Marged” now, because I’m intrigued by the question at the end: “What else do we share, but being women?” Now I read that as a very ambiguous question because, on the one hand, you imply that you share a great deal in being women, but, on the other, the picture you give of her life and her death makes clear that you share nothing, with your “reading book”, your “whisky gold in my glass”, your “typewriter”…
GC: Typewriter! You see how old that poem is!
BW: Yes. It seems to me that you are raising questions about the need for solidarity and yet recognising that there is a different life there which you aren’t part of.
GC: We can’t presume that we know about other people. I didn’t want to presume. This was where she kept her cow, here, where I have my study; the floor was cobbled, the manger was in this corner where my computer is! Every time I dig the garden I find a bit of her pottery. But the truth is I know nothing about real poverty. I don’t know what it is like not to have enough food in the house; I don’t know what it’s like to have to go to bed because it’s dark and oil-lamps ruin your eyes. I know nothing of that and I don’t pretend that I do. And yet, being a woman, there are still so many things … I just wanted to shine a light on a woman who lived in my house 80 years ago.
BW: Yes. She comes across very vividly of course but at the same time what comes across is a kind of uneasiness, a feeling that you can’t pretend to take over her life or even understand what it was like.
GC: But also to inhabit her cottage, but with electricity and hot water and a washing machine!
BW: She’s an important figure in the poems?
GC: Yes, she’s also the woman in “Letter from a Far Country” who commits suicide.
BW: Where did that poem start and what were you aiming to achieve with it?
GC: Six poets were commissioned by BBC Wales to write a half-hour radio poem. I think they were hoping for another Under Milk Wood. For me, it was a very provocative and exciting idea, I wrote it as a meditation for one voice because I dislike hearing poetry “acted”, and wanted to read it myself. The producer said actors would be hired if there were more than one voice. Writing it for one voice governed how it developed. I didn’t want actors injecting melodrama into the poem. Simon Armitage recently said: I think actors should be told to calm down when they pick up a poem. As he said, ‘ a poem is not a part’. I was the only one. The others were done by actors.
BW: And the question of voice is important, isn’t it?
GC: Ah yes, crucial. The poet’s voice is physical —it’s not just a metaphor for style, but the sound, the breath. The heard voice and the ‘voice’ of the poet on the page are connected.
BW: You describe the poem in the early lines as “my apologia” and you address it to “husbands, fathers, forefathers” … and you said earlier in our conversation that it started in anger, but it’s not really an angry poem, is it, or even a manifesto poem?
GC: No. There’s a big difference between personal anger and the energy and intellect you use for a poem. You don’t expose your personal emotions in the writing of a poem. You plug them into the wall and they come out as electricity! I was cross enough to get down to it. We had twelve weeks to do it and I had three teenage kids, two of them with a band. They all rehearsed in my house; there was no peace and no time. I remember my friend the poet Jeremy Hooker phoning to ask if I’d “done my poem”. It was the Christmas holidays by this time, and I hadn’t had a spare minute. And he said: ‘Oh, I’ve done mine.’ And I thought ‘Well, you’ve got a wife!’ (GC chuckles) So I had a little shout on the phone to my good friend Jeremy and then I went to my notebook and wrote: “Dear husbands, fathers, forefathers”! I could just see him in his little writing caravan, with coffee being brought, and the children being kept quiet, and there was I with these noisy teenagers to look after. I was separated from my first husband at that time. So I started crossly. Then language took over and entranced me. I recall being seduced by the language describing the washing. For me English, my mother tongue, is a bewitching place. You weave yourself into the spell of it. I had done a lot of research, and the results were in little heaps. I like research. So I had to collect it all, census reports from a hundred years ago, and so on. I think I had reports from 1861, 1871, 1881, just to see where everybody lived and how it fitted together. All the people listed [in the poem] were real people named in the census. And I discovered an extraordinary thing - I began looking at the census with no thesis - that all the people with “pauper” after their name were women or old men.
BW: These are the people specifically named in the poem: “Enoch Elias”, etc.
GC: Yes. I looked up the names of the people and the names of the farms, so they are all real. The place is an invention, made of two places. It is this house, this parish, a hundred years ago and in the present, but set close to the sea where my grandmother’s farm was, an hour away from here, down the coast in Pembrokeshire. The census was from this parish, the farms, the work people did—the stocking knitters, the weavers, and so on, was all happening here at that time. So the woman who killed herself, Marged, is real, and this is where she died. I am the storyteller but I am not the character. I am Everywoman, telling the story. It’s fiction, or a combination of fiction, research, memory, experience. imagination.
BW: But there is an individual voice—whether Gillian Clarke or not—which becomes the voice for women, and the “I” becomes “we”, and you talk about your mother and your grandmother and others, all of whose experience you draw into this story.
GC: Yes, as novelists use experience, but disguise it. But poetry is not fiction. It’s the truth, so even if you are quoting other people’s stories, like “the woman who had everything”, it’s based on truth, on something someone said. When I say the people are gossiping [“people have always talked”] I imply that I am hearing these stories.
BW: Yes. And then there are these domestic interjections within the narrative?
GC: That was inspired by something that happened to me! I was invited to the Soviet Union as a visiting poet for three weeks, leaving the house with three kids in it. Their father kept an eye on them, but they’d arrive home from school on their own. I made twenty-one frozen meals, and they had to remember to take one out in the morning to eat in the evening. I put notices showing where everything was. I’d never left them before and it took some organising. The interjections are notes pinned up by the woman running away in the poem: this is the hoover, clean underwear here, et cetera. It’s a little running away dream, based on a three week experience and how I arranged it.
BW: That reinforces something that comes across in the poem, which is a quite traditional image of the woman’s role within the family and the society—protecting, caring, nurturing, responsible for children and therefore not able to just go off on your own and leave everything. So I suppose I read those interjections as a sort of ironic commentary.
GC: True! It is ironic and a bit matronising to say: you can’t cope so I’m going to put notices up. There’s a little joke going on, but it is based on what really happened—I did provide a “map” of the airing cupboard! As for “traditional”, I think that most people in the world are in the traditional role and although there are people who leave children in crèches and so on - I didn’t and couldn’t. – the women still have to make all the arrangements for baby-minders. And what do you do with a teenager? I didn’t have a career. I had a degree, had worked for the BBC, did some part-time teaching, but no real career.
BW: So poetry was a last resort…
GC: Poetry was the last resort! (Laughs) I feel that I’ve made a career out of nothing!
BW: One of the motifs in the poem is about the emergence of song and language out of these different contexts.
GC: Nursery rhymes…
BW: And birdsong. You mention birdsong; and you relate different kinds of experience to that idea of articulating all this past experience, all these women whose experience has not been presented before.
GC: Interesting that, about birdsong. I think if we saw as many animals around as we see birds we’d be utterly amazed. I love birds. They are all around us, even in cities, all the time. They are part of our daily sound-map, aren’t they, wherever we are.
BW: Yes. In a passage towards the end of the poem, you say: “People have always talked./ The landscape collects conversations/ as carefully as a bucket,/ gives them back in concert/ with a wood of birdsong”.
GC: Yes, it’s all that chattering. If you’re near a wood below a valley, with a bit of echo in it, and there’s a stream running, you might imagine you were hearing people talking. In Lumb Bank, Sylvia Plath thought she could hear children crying – I have children crying in the woods in my poem - and I’ve only just thought of the connection – she said the children crying kept her awake. At the bottom of the valley at Lumb Bank there’s a river and a mill which used to weave black silk for widows, and the workers were children. That’s a very haunting story. I have to say I don’t think it’s ghosts that she heard but the river, that sounds like voices, high voices. Frances Bellerby has a wonderful poem about hearing voices in the woods. There’s more to this than I first thought.
BW: The poem was—as you’ve said—written for radio and although it isn’t a manifesto it does convey something of a statement and finishes on a series of questions which go back to the “fathers, forefathers” at the beginning, saying: “If we launch the boat and sail away/ Who will rock the cradle? Who will stay?”
GC: That’s a nursery rhyme. It’s meant to be a subliminal message, like listening to all those nursery rhymes which assert that Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep do quite different things and have a different future. The Boy goes off on adventure, but the Girl’s not allowed to go. Daughters stay at home. I thought about my beautiful, passionate grandmother and how she … at fifteen, like many at fifteen years old … must have felt trapped, knowing that it was a hell of a job to get out of there. That “trappedness” of women is in many poems. It’s not a complaint, because I’m not trapped—I do as I like! If you’re grown up and you’ve got a bit of money in the bank you can do as you like. The freedoms that have been given to some of us are very great. Our grandmothers had no such freedom.
BW: I wonder if we could pick up on the question of writing your poems from personal experience, of family, of children, reflections on your father, your mother—that seems to be an important thread and theme in your poetry.
GC: There are two or three distinct things there really. When I wrote my first poems, the family was my entire life. That’s when I wrote the poems which appeared in my first collection, The Sundial - “The Sundial” was rescued from the bin. I felt a sudden impulse to write the poem, dozing in the garden watching my 6 year old son make a little sundial on the ground and remembering his nightmare from the night before. I was excited by the idea of the “mathematics” of it: the sun, the circle, the lion, images which would look similar if a child drew them. The child’s drawing of either a lion or a sun would be a face with flames coming out of it. The metaphor came straight out of children’s books. And then history. So the “circle” brought a stone circle and the lion brought the circus. I went indoors and wrote it down immediately almost word-for-word. It’s interesting to see the word “diurnal” there. I’d hardly read any contemporary poetry, and that word is straight out of Wordsworth, isn’t it? Wordsworth at A-level and at University; my big influences were the poets I studied at school and university. But somehow or other it doesn’t sound like an old-fashioned poem; it still sounds like a poem written in the time I was living in. Looking after children, looking after a house, you’ve got a lot of time to think. Whatever you’re doing - mowing the lawn, doing the ironing, - you can think, and while you’re thinking of metaphors and connections, the two hotwires that cross to make a poem would be ready in my head for when I had a minute to pick up a pen. I wrote then about the sort of life I lived at the time. Quite a narrow life, in some ways—a life of books, of listening to music and so on, and looking after kids.
BW: It’s interesting that the image at the end of the poem: “the sun/ Caged in its white diurnal heat,/ Pointing at us with its black stick”—that’s quite ominous, isn’t it?
GC: I’m surprised at how ominous my poems can be! I’ve caused myself endless trouble with the poem “Baby-Sitting” by being ominous about something which is just about babysitting! And the baby’s loneliness. Half the country thinks it’s about postnatal depression. I only experienced post-natal ecstacy! I have no experience of postnatal depression. And so, the “black stick” [in “The Sundial”] is an image of threat, the threat we fear for our children, a surprisingly dark image in such a poem. I saw the shadow. The child had been ill in the night, and he was six years old, and every minute is precious. It’s all about time really, isn’t it? The lion in the cage, the sun is your friend and it’s your enemy, the shadow of the “black stick” on the sundial warning you to live for the moment! Many of my poems have darkness in them, and it always amazes me to see it. It’s not in me, it’s in the language. I’m not a “dark” person, in that sense, at all - but the language suddenly does something scary. I think of it as writing to the very edge and a bit over. You go further than you understand.
BW: It’s interesting that you say that because Janet Lewison, who has written about “Cold Knap Lake”*, has suggested that you are preoccupied with loss and have a melancholic take on things—but you’re saying that it’s not constitutional.
GC: Absolutely not. People shouldn’t confuse the poet’s life with the poetry. It is the language that leads me, that dares me to go to the edge, dares me to look at things. What people have to remember is that poetry is art. It’s imagination. You might be sad and write a poem about joy. Or the other way round. It’s to do with art; it’s making - the excitement of looking over the edge artistically. It’s not constitutional, absolutely not. I’m the least depressed person I know!
BW: Nonetheless, if I can pick this up in your poem “Catrin” - about your daughter, that does end on a slightly apprehensive note, because she wants to go out in the dark and skate and you don’t want her to.
GC: Yes. You’re always scared for your child. The worse thing that could happen to anybody is to lose a child. There can be no tragedy worse than that. My grandfather wrote in a letter - quoted in “Cofiant” - that nothing is worse than to lose a child who has grown. Not a baby - he’d lost several babies - but a daughter who was grown, so that he had sixteen or seventeen years of memory to lose - instead of hopes for his child he had years of her life to grieve. Piercingly sad, the letter that he wrote. In “Catrin” the child wants to skate in the dark - roller-skating in the street, in fact - and I thought that skating in the dark [another Wordsworthian allusion?] was marvellously symbolic of the whole thing. The beauty and danger of youth. I well understand wanting to skate in the dark myself - but for your child to do it! And it’s also that teenage thing, you know - though I think Catrin was only about eleven! Starting to get rebellious.
I regard the poems for my father, and for my mother, as different—they are elegies. In the case of my father, it took a long time to get round to writing them. When I wrote “Radio Engineer” [in The King of Britain’s Daughter] where my father is calling into the void: ““Testing, testing” into the dark”—“Still I can’t look at the stars”—I’m asking the questions too. Are you there? Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? What does it all mean? The sort of thing that keeps you awake at night. I have always been fascinated, since being a very young child, by things like that. I used to think: Who made God? And my parents had to come and calm me down because I’d scared myself by asking the question. The mystery of life stuff! And the fact that he died. I was angry with him for dying—buggering off and leaving me. So the whole [“Radio Engineer”] sequence was made of memories of him and trying to put together the metaphor of the blanket on my bed, the ‘carthen’, with the lowest layer of the ionosphere, the “Heavyside layer”, so named because it was discovered by Professor Heavyside, did you know that?
BW: No, I didn’t!
GC: ? I thought it was just heavy, like the blanket! A “carthen” is a traditional Welsh blanket—woven in patterns—heirlooms now. The ionosphere is a blanket round the earth. Little did I know that by now it would be nibbled into holes by President Bush, nibbled and wrecked! And so, it’s all about Long Wave radio, and words transmitted by Long Wave are immortal--did you know that? All those politician’s words travelling out between the stars for all eternity! Horror! But so will Beethoven—everything that has been broadcast on Long Wave is immortal. Whereas FM is local, isn’t it?
BW: You know more about it than I do!
GC: My father told me about Long Wave! So little bits of science get into the poem. As for my mother, she died not that long ago, aged 85, so the poems truly were an elegy—things were on my mind that I couldn’t write while she was still alive. I couldn’t say that she wore silly shoes when she was still alive.
BW: To go back to “Cold Knap Lake”—it starts as an anecdote about a real event…
GC: Yes, watching my mother saving a child, which I remember doing—I think I was about five years old, and someone held my hand while my mother gave this child the kiss-of-life, because she was a nurse. And she did save the child’s life, towelled her dry and sent her home in my clothes with my father in the car.
BW: But—this is the thing that Janet Lewison* is talking about—although the poem is about saving the child’s life it becomes a poem about your relationship with your mother and your sense of what your mother was like.
GC: I don’t think so! I think it turns into a Fairy Story. When I was a child legends and stories (there’s another poem about this, by the way, “Legend” about when I pushed my sister out onto the ice--it’s the same lake) … My mother was a stunning beauty—she was a redhead but she didn’t have a redhead’s skin--she had very white skin, dark blue eyes, dark eyebrows—she was from a black-haired family, a North Wales black-haired family—she was very beautiful. Even at four years old my heart stopped when I came out of school and saw that the pretty one was mine! And so there she is [in the poem], red-haired, leaning over this little girl, and the language is the language of me at five years old: she was giving another child her breath and why was she doing that? I couldn’t understand that at all. And then I was frightened when I heard my father tell my mother as soon as he came through the door: they walloped her. People say now: is it about child abuse? No, it’s about a parent walloping a child out of sheer anxiety. It’s not a good thing to do, and it shouldn’t have happened. But it’s something that pretty often happened then. So why did he do it? I suppose he wasn’t a very sensible man, and he was scared that his child had nearly drowned. Why, “Was I there?”. When you’re grown up you think you have a very clear memory of something. I remember the dress I was wearing, and looking at my nice brown arms in while cuffs on a blue dress. And yet, suddenly you think: or was it a story I read? Did someone tell me about it? Then the swans. In stories swans sometimes carried children away. There were swans, and wild geese in stories, and princesses, and foundlings and changelings. My head was full of stories. I was read to all the time—I could read when I was four, but I was still read to. And so I wonder how much of the feeling of scariness of that occasion is to do with swans, the fear of swans? And why are swans frightening? Is it because they are fierce, or because of the stories? I think the poem turns into a fairy story or a nursery rhyme—which is why it ends with a rhyming couplet, and uses fairy story language like “the poor man’s daughter”. I wouldn’t use that phrase in any other circumstances. It’s out of a fairy story, isn’t it?
BW: Yes—memory is notably fallible, isn’t it, and we make things up out of memory.
GC: Yes, but I want the reader to say: I know what she means. It’s quite mysterious, but I like mystery.
BW: And I wonder about that “troubled surface” which leads to the depth of memory and is associated with the mother rather than the father. The father is associated with the everyday and the practical, and something rather painful, whereas the mother…
GC: My mother was the heroine, so the crowd stood back for her to go—there was no doctor near, just my mother, the nurse. Actually it happened a hell of a lot, because we lived across from the park so someone was always banging on the door saying: quick, someone has fallen in the lake or fallen out of a tree, how bad is this cut … And my mother would turn out and help. My father must have been at work, and arrived home in time to take the child home. I feel that that’s where those two characters leave the story and I’m left with a lake where a child nearly drowned. And on other occasions people did drown. And I think all lakes are like memory—I think it’s the lake of history. If the lake is your mind the surface is confused by reflections and shadows, so there are things that you’re not sure you’re reading right. It’s not like a swimming pool—you’re not quite sure of what you’re seeing. So it’s the uncertainty of memory, and therefore the mystery of memory.
BW: Can we pick up the link with “Legend”—I hadn’t realised it was the same lake—but there the Snow Queen does bring in a specific fairy tale reference.
GC: I’m always referring to fairy tale and nursery rhyme, and very few people pick that up!
BW: But this looks like a childhood incident that you’re guilty about! But why “legend”?
GC: Why legend? Your memories turn into stories that you tell people, and I’d never told anyone that one.
BW: And the “she” who let you “suck top-of-the-milk” is your mother?
GC: Yes. And it was 1947—an enormous snow, like nothing we had known before, and the milk bottles had press-in cardboard tops, and the cream froze solid and burst out like lollipops!
BW: And the poem was a confession.
GC: Probably. I did a silly thing, but then I did save her!
BW: She’s never mentioned this poem to you?
GC: If I’d called it “Cold Knap Lake” she might have. But “Legend” she won’t go there. She’s never mentioned it. She doesn’t know that story, she’s forgotten it. I think.
BW: She never knew the truth of it presumably!
GC: They all thought I was such a brave girl! But I can remember that tempting moment when I said: go on, you go first! It was all my fault as I was the older. Though I was a bit young to be entrusted with this small child to the park. [Pause] I am very factual when I write, and when I am going to wonder off into a legendary area—like in “Cold Knap Lake”—I think it’s quite clear that I am doing so. “Was I there?/ Or is that troubled surface something else … ?” So I’m thinking what else is there in memory that I can’t quite remember? I think that I’m quite straightforward.
BW: There’s another poem “Return to Login” which focuses on something very specific at the beginning. Is it the specific memory which triggers the poem?
GC: It’s going back to Login, a village in Carmarthenshire where my father was a boy, and tapping on the door of the house, and I had never been there before, and Dylan, my son, was with me. We knocked on the door and I said: excuse me, but my father used to live in this village. And she said: what’s his name? And I said: Penri Williams. And she opened the door very wide and said: I should say I did! And Dylan gazed at me, and we realised that we’d stumbled on something very interesting. He’d nearly married her apparently. Then he went back to sea and she married a teacher, encouraged by her parents that he was a better bet. And his heart was broken.
BW: We were talking about "Return to Login" and about your father.
GC: Yes - and my grandfather was once the clerk at the little station at Login, near Carmarthen. Writing “Return to Login” and “Siege” interested me for the same reason really: layers of place and time. In “Siege” I’m in a kitchen on a beautiful day in May, looking at photographs of the past. I was living in Cardiff in the house I was born in, and I was looking at a photograph of my father in the garden with me in his arms. He had old-fashioned brown and white, Noel Coward-type shoes on—very smart shoes. And I was listening to the radio. Suddenly the programme was interrupted for a live report as the siege at the Iranian Embassy siege came to a violent end. This is 1980-something, You could hear gunshots and, I think, ten people died. It was terribly shocking—and such a beautiful day. There was a yellow butterfly in the air. I tried to write a poem which layered past and present, far and near, and although I don’t think it’s an entire success, it has intrigued people and has been studied for GCSE and A-level. The fascinating thing for me was that I was in a beautiful garden, thinking about decades earlier with my father, and at the same time people are being shot in London. “We’re going over to the Iranian Embassy where something is beginning to happen”—and then we hear: bang, bang, bang! And the reporter shouting: they’ve gone in, the police have gone in and there are shots being fired! Now we may be used to seeing such things as the Twin Towers falling on television. But then we weren’t. And, for me, radio is much more powerful than television. I turn back to the photographs—of my father, and seeing my mother on a perfect day, in black and white, and yet these terrible things happening as I look at her. At the end of “Return to Login”, I’m saying goodbye to the woman outside her house, and my son has twigged—both of us had -- that she’d been in love with my father, from the welcome she gave us. I hope that is implied by the lace cloth, and the fact that she put her hand amongst my son’s curls and ruffled them. It’s as if she remembered that hair! And then, at the end of the poem, he runs to the bridge, and looks back at me and her, and one day he’ll maybe look back and see us “in sepia”, and hear footsteps “not yet taken”—because I haven’t yet taken them—“fade away”. It’s complicated: different levels of time!
BW: It’s a beautiful and very poignant ending to “Return to Login” because it places us in two times, if not three times—a present, a past and a future! It gives us a wonderful idea of how time passes and how time is perceived.
GC: There are a lot of things going on there about time.
BW: Yes. But “Return to Login” resolves itself whereas “Siege” leaves it all open. The different layers, as you say, are there but not resolved.
Perhaps we could go to “Miracle on St David’s Day”, which starts with the quotation from Wordsworth and is also a true story?
GC: It’s a true story—as they all are really. I used to tell that story to everyone and they would say: write a poem about it! And once I’d written the poem I became less sure of the details, even though at the time of writing I’m always very careful to get the details right. But of course in the poem there’s only what is there and what’s left out is only what I edited out. So you can’t tell really that everything that happened that day was exactly like that. I have a clear memory of it however. I also wrote a radio play based on it called “Talking to Wordsworth”. The poem itself wasn’t used, just the story. I think things happen to me; I have adventures, and I notice things, spot things, and they affect what I do. Annie Dillard says that all a poet can do is be there. I love that: you’ve got to be there. All you can do is be the witness. I didn’t know the term at the time , but he was an “elected mute”. All the patients are real; I haven’t made anything up. The man in the poem was an old miner--well, I thought he was old then! He was probably about fifty-five. But he’d been mentally ill for years with depression. His name was Arthur, I think. They’d said: don’t talk to him because he can’t speak! As if to say don’t embarrass yourself by saying hello to someone who won’t reply! But he was there, and so was the old lady who kept offering “buckets of coal”! I tried to write that poem for ten years. I was trying to write a Seamus Heaney sort of a poem. And I was trying to write a short poem in which there was just silence and daffodils and speech. In the end the only thing I could do was tell the story. It had to be called “Miracle on St David’s Day”—though one reviewer said it was nationalistic!
BW: So it is! (Laughter)
GC: Isn’t that weird? You’ve got to be pretty insecure to think that! The whole point was that I wanted the reader to know the date because that was why I was there—to celebrate that day. Dannie Abse was never happy with the quote but I wanted to be able to guide people to Wordsworth, because the connection is so important. So the reference to St David’s Day and the quotation are there for purely practical reasons.
BW: It’s also appropriate in that “They flash upon that inward eye” is what happened to him, in a way, that in his solitude, in his isolation, he’s remembered that verse.
GC: Yes, hearing poetry has reminded him—“ten thousand saw I at a glance”. Quite extraordinary! But teachers, you see, regard that as a very important lesson: that children ought to learn poetry by heart. I think that’s the poem that got me into the classroom! (Some laughter)
GC: So the poem is true, but what was also exciting for me was being led forward by the imagery until I came to that culmination of the “flame”. A sixth-former once asked me : “did you intend the candle flame to be out?” And he quoted: “The nurses are frozen”, and then said: “and did you mean to set the candle alight at the end? And is the flame, the lit candle, a symbol for speech?” A fantastic question.. I hadn’t thought of it as a candle, but I think he was absolutely right! I thought the thrush was doing enough speaking to symbolise that! I thought “still as wax” appropriate for the daffodils, and I suspect the word “wax” led me to the “flame”.
BW: “October” is another poem where you link two experiences, remembering the death of a friend.
GC: Yes, but the two occasions are only days apart. It’s just remembering the funeral of Francis Horowitz a few days afterwards. I’d written several poems for Francis—I wrote “The Hare” about her.
BW: It’s a wonderful poem, I think, because it focuses on living things even though it’s about mortality and the death of a friend. Part of this is about how the poem redeems the experience, isn’t it?
GC: And it’s also another “don’t waste time”—just get on with it—“I must write like the wind … passing my death-day”. We all know our birthday, but not our death-day, but every time we pass it we’ve won another year. Francis has a poem which says: “This year I will not forget to see the wild garlic, as I did last year, and the year before”. I thought: yes, you’re right, Francis, I’ll never again be too busy to see the wild garlic flower.
BW: “Llŷr” is obviously based in your memory of a visit to Stratford as a child to see a performance of Lear, your king being a Welsh king however. What was it drew you to this subject, and to develop it as you do?
GC: What made me write it was Sam Wannemaker. He was collecting poems on Shakespeare for a book to raise money for the Globe Theatre. My Auntie Phyllis, my father’s sister, who lived in Carmarthen, a railway clerk, left school at fifteen, but loved Shakespeare, took me to Stratford every year from the age of ten to twenty-two, to every play. So I had no time to find out that Shakespeare might be boring because by the time anyone was saying such things to me I was already enthralled, entranced, and loved it, and associated it with swans on the river, orange juice at the interval, velvet seats and being allowed to use the little binoculars to see the actors! Seeing Lawrence Olivier’s spit shine in the spotlight—it was wonderful! The very first play I saw was King Lear. I thought that he was such a stupid man, and I thought Cordelia was very stubborn, though I didn’t blame her. And I cried and cried. And my aunt looked down and said: what did you think of that? And I said: wasn’t it sad when he said: “I am a foolish, fond old man but I think you are my child, Cordelia”. I wept my heart out, and will do again if I don’t watch. I was just knocked out. No gift—apart from my mother’s nursery rhymes—has been so important to me as a writer as those years of going to Stratford. And occasionally to London, to the Old Vic, to see some special production.
At first the poem was made up of three matching sonnets—they’re not quite sonnets now.
BW: They are fourteen line poems, though, aren’t they?
GC: And rhyme, and rhyming couplets, and iambic pentameter—“the continuous pentameter of the sea”, the whole rhythm of the ocean. I remember looking down from cliffs, later, and seeing the waves crashing below. I’d seen that sight from childhood—but I only really saw it after I had seen it from Gloucester’s point of view! After he’s been blinded, and Edgar describes ’the crows and choughs that wing the mid-way air/ show scarce so gross as beetles’, and ‘one who gathers samphire, dreadful trade.’ It makes me shiver now—brrr!--and it’s not the event, it’s the language. I don’t think there’s anything more shiver-making than language. Shakespeare showed me how high cliffs were. It’s like when David [GC’s husband] came in ‘Have you seen the chestnut? “like something almost being said”. Quoting Larkin’s description of a tree coming into leaf. If you love poetry, that’s what it does to you. Shakespeare, Larkin, Carol Ann [Duffy]—“The distant Latin chanting of a train”! I could kill her for that! (Laughter!) It’s just stunning.
And so, “Llŷr” is a fore-runner for “The King of Britain’s Daughter”; and I think that “Siege” is sort of a fore-runner to “The Fall”, about the Twin Towers. Poems often tell me about poems I’ll be writing later. In the current book [Making Beds for the Dead] I think the poem about Vermeer is probably telling me about something I’m going to do later.
BW: You put a marker down?
GC: No. I think I know that I will want to write more. It sets up something.
BW: “Llŷr” is about language, but also about fathers and daughters.
GC: It’s about being told to wear your new school blazer to go out, and saying: I’m not wearing it! And then I’m about to say I hate it and remember how much it cost him. But I refuse to wear it and we quarrel. And I think: fathers and daughters, my God! Silly man, doesn’t understand; silly girl, won’t do a simple thing to please her father. That’s much more about me and my father than “Cold Knap Lake” is about me and my mother! “And guilty daughters longing to be gone.” It’s also young girls trapped in the countryside: how are we going to keep them down on the farm now that they’ve seen Par-ee? It was very real that. I thought long and hard about how I to write a poem about King Lear. I wrote it when I was in the Llŷn peninsula [NW Wales], you know that area? Sam Wannamaker phoned me up and said: Gillian, what’s this Llŷr and Llŷn bit? Is it a mistake?
BW: And the rhyme at the end: “and there I heard/ That nothing is until it has a word”—points to your interest in the pleasure of naming things.
GC: It’s a manifesto, isn’t it, for all writers? But surely for everybody. Little girls very often have a better memory because we speak earlier. I think that we’d remember the womb if we’d had words then. I think the act of writing bring things back you thought you’d forgotten. But memory happens because of language. Which is what is so terrible about Alzheimer’s.
BW: We said we’d go back to some of the early poems. What about “Jac Codi Baw”? It’s a poem where your distaste for some aspects of modern life comes through.
GC: It’s just that they were knocking down a beautiful building for no good reason! Why knock it down? Why couldn’t they restore it? And now they would restore it, and make beautiful flats for very rich people to live in. Unlike Manchester, Cardiff’s wealth was based on something that didn’t need a warehouse—coal. So they could just pile it up along the docks with no building over it. But Manchester had cloth and so they had fantastic buildings. So the odd warehouse they did have in Cardiff was a very precious thing. It also reflects my passion for architecture. I wouldn’t say that it’s a distaste for modern life; it’s about demolition. It’s a protest; but it’s also amusing. The chap whistling at me, the cheeky so-and-so, and he doesn’t care a bit about me and my Renault 4 covered in dust and rubble.
BW: It also focuses on the idea that the building had its own “ecology”…
GC: There are many building then which we pulled down which we shouldn’t have pulled down, in the sixties, and many we put up!
BW: Another poem we should talk about is “The Water Diviner”. Apart from telling us about the activities of the water diviner, it does seem to be about something else: he finds water but he also finds something elemental, symbolised in the word “dŵr”?
GC: “Dŵr” is the Welsh for water, of course. That kind of question has come up a lot and I think I can answer it like this. When I am writing the poem I trust telling the truth calmly and quietly and accurately; and I trust my observation of what I see and hear completely to lead me through. And somewhere the language itself, whether I like it or not, if I stick to the truth, will find the other level of the thing. All my poems are little narratives. It was a magical and beautiful experience watching the water diviner. He found water in two places: right outside the front door—which is not good!—and then in the garden. They drilled down fifty-four feet. And he waited till it rose and he said: this is rising at so many gallons a minute—this is good, this is fine. Then they left. We fed a hose into the pipe to see whether we could bring it up by siphoning it. But the water was too low. I sucked the hose, trying to draw it, and suddenly it spoke. Sort of dwrrrr!—a great cry, an echoing noise. So water speaks Welsh! A funny little notion—though nobody in this house, until we lived here, had ever spoken a word of English.
BW: So it’s about discovering the wellsprings, something deeply embedded in the place.
GC: Indeed. And I asked my son—who’s a musician—for something to replace a cliché I had used, and he said: what about “thorough bass”?--that’s a musical term. So it’s not a little sound like drip-drip but “thorough bass”—almost too deep. It doesn’t matter if nobody knows that it’s a musical term, but occasionally someone will know that. And I like that thought that occasionally someone might know it.
BW: Yes, it suggests something elemental, a voice deeper than sound, below the boundaries we normally hear.
GC: And all the other associations with water below the earth, like aquifers, the idea of it filling up caves deep in the earth.
BW: The next poems I wanted to talk about is the group of poems about your mother called “Glass” and two other poems in the book [Five Fields] which are connected to the sequence—“Phoning Home” and “Amber”.
GC: Ah yes, “Amber”, you’ve picked that one up! I wrote that one before the others, when my mother was still alive, but I placed it with the others because it was one of those poems which told me I was going to write the “Glass” poems. It was almost that it would inevitably lead me to write about her one day.
BW: “Phoning Home”—which seems to lead into the sequence—is very specific, very particular and almost mundane, you might say, in its description and language.
GC: Yes, and I hope it picks up on other people’s particularity and mundanity. That somebody else might think in the same way. Simple, very ordinary things which touch us about our elderly parents.
BW: The simplicity and directness of the language is part of its effectiveness.
GC: I often wish I wrote like that all the time, and that imagery would not crowd in.
BW: The focus on the ordinary here reminds me of Wordsworth, again, and Hardy—especially since they are elegiac. The poems take us into a very particular experience, and something very personal.
GC: And it’s also about telling the truth. It is personal, but never just my experience. Supposing I’m on a train and get talking to someone whose mother’s just died. Or their mother’s getting old and we begin to compare notes. Two strangers comparing notes—I just feel that I’m just telling someone about it. So that they’ll think: oh yes, I know what you mean, I always ring my mother on a Sunday too.
BW: The poems in “Glass” seem to focus on a particular moment with great emotional honesty and directness and restraint. Is that what you were aiming for?
GC: Yes. And when I was organising those poems for the book, I deliberately put “Phoning Home” before the other poems, and “Amber” after them. So I’m very glad you noticed that, because they are placed to frame the “Glass” poems.
BW: “The Glass Factory”—the first of the sequence—is there a specific reference there?
GC: Venice! It’s also research, thinking that if I’m going to write about glass I want to put in more, how it’s done, the recipe—lead and sand and so on.
BW: Yes, “lead, sand, fire,/ dangerous treacles spun for the tourists”…
GC: And yet it ended up as things in a department store which she desired tremendously. And I suppose if you’re going to write a sequence you like to spread the wings of the subject a little. I’m influenced by Yeats’s the Tower poems, where one poem will glance at another and connect. For instance, in one poem he mentions the sword wrapped in silk [viz. “My Table” in Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War”], and then the silk turns up later, so that things will layer into each other and connect, sing to each other—I love that! So instead of the poem being boxed in, it opens out.
BW: So the first poem in the sequence begins indirectly, doesn’t it, without a direct mention of your mother?
GC: I don’t know the order in which I wrote the poems, but I probably wrote that poem later.
BW: The next poems--“Her Table”, “The Habit of Light” and so on, become more direct memories of your mother.
GC: She was one of ten children of a farmer with a big, generous kitchen table, loaded with bread and butter, cheese, cake, all cast onto the table. The slices of bread and butter flew from the knife to the plates! So she wanted white damask and nice glasses: it was her vision of what she desired on this earth, as a symbol of getting somewhere.
BW: Though the poem ends: “as if these things could hold us, as if/ they could make us flawless and ring true”. So you see it as connected with the way she was bringing you up.
GC: She wanted everything to be perfect, and got very upset if things went wrong. She wanted to choreograph lovely happenings, and she had a whole load of human beings around her who were not necessarily going to be very cooperative in her ambition!
BW: And yet she fills the place as in “The Habit of Light”.
GC: In one sense, as in “Letter from a Far Country”, she wanted to make things beautiful for people.
BW: Yes, “The Habit of Light” does create a particular image of domesticity.
GC: And making everything glowing! Unlike this cobweb-shrouded, dusty house, her house was pristine. And she worked from dawn till dusk making all this happen.
BW: And “Shopping” presents a similar image: “Brought up with make do and mend, she wanted nice things”.
GC: Yes, it’s meant to be a very frank look at my mother, but also loving look—because you can love a charmingly flawed person. She was certainly a flawed person, but then who isn’t? She had a touching faith in material goods, as many people do.
BW: What about “Under the Stairs”: this doesn’t connect directly with your mother?
GC: It’s the War. And I’m popped under there because there’s an air-raid threatened and we were in Barry. Most of the time I was sent off to my grandmother in Pembrokeshire. But I happened to have been there and things were bad. It’s about the shrapnel coming through the dining room window. Terribly exciting! There it was, this piece of shrapnel: we’d been bombed! As far as I was concerned it was like finding a piece of the moon!
BW: Yes, I like your description of it: “in a matchbox/ like a tame meteorite”!
GC: It was an adventure! And just shows how close people came to death, and did die of course, and yet the child just sees it as exciting. What I’m trying to plumb there is memory as well—trying to remember it, to get it back.
BW: And there’s a similar personal memory in “Migraine”.
GC: My migraine has gone. I no longer have them. But when I was four, five , six, I used to get something they called “a sick headache”. People used to say: well, she’s highly strung! I used to get them on my birthday and at Christmas—when I was most excited. They persisted until I discovered that if you drink a lot of water you don’t get them! I discovered that in the last five or ten years. You know, the line when she lifts her hand and creeps away—I think that’s about her death. It’s accurate. It’s what happened. If I woke up I’d cry and say: oh, don’t go! And she’d come back and bathe my head with a cold flannel. But as I wrote it I heard the other meaning happen—the language led me to the other meaning. I hadn’t thought I must put in at the end something symbolic—that’s not how it happened. It’s the language that makes me realise that something else is resonating there.
BW: The next poem is “The Croquet Set”…
GC: Yes. Is there any glass in that? Oh yes, “the tinkling tray”—bringing out glasses! I was in Tetbury and saw a croquet set and wanted it! Remembering the one we had at home. We would have croquet, wouldn’t we? A farmer’s daughter knows you have to have it, as well as cut glass! It’s all aspiration stuff.
BW: Although it is about you also buying into that aspiration?
GC: What I’m doing is buying back the memory.
BW: Whereas “Quince” is again about your mother, or about how you planted a quince “after her death”?
GC: Though it would have been more appropriate to plant a red acer, because she was a red-head.
BW: And you refer to the acer in the poem: “the tree whose leaves she untangled/ with hands that untangled my hair”. As with the lines at the end of “Migraine”, these are lines of great personal poignancy.
GC: She always loved to do that, running her fingers through the acer leaves.
BW: And “Cut Glass”: ““she wanted you to have them,” he said”.
GC: Yes, my mother wanted me to have them; and we’ve got the cut glass and we use it Things do bring back people.
BW: And there’s a little echo of Wordsworth at the end: “Even I felt my heart leap then”! I don’t know if it’s deliberate but it seems appropriate.
I particularly like “Elegy”—the last poem of the sequence--because although it recognises the grief as “diamond hard” it ends as a poem of love, doesn’t it?
GC: I think I wrote that almost first. I think that the poem about the cut glass and this poem came first, and the rest were added. I think I wrote it just days after she died.
BW: The phrase “diamond hard” seems to connect with the cut glass. The reference to your father at the beginning and the reference at the end as you’re sitting with your partner: “With this libation I remember her,/ hold it to the light,/ touch your glass with mine/ on a pure note”. This seems to pick up that image at the beginning about “making us flawless and ring true”.
GC: Yes, I think that could be true, though I hadn’t myself made that connection before. You don’t always notice, when you’re writing. The words take charge.
BW: And, just to follow up on these connections, you said earlier that “Amber” was written before this sequence was started?
GC: Yes; I wrote it at a workshop. I was asked to write a poem: a poet said: bring something to write about and I took a string of amber beads. So that is certainly a poem where picking up the pen and opening up the notebook and thinking hard has led me into somewhere in my head. And the language led me there. It’s also a poem where some research was added, although I think most of the poem was written on that day. But it draws on the facts about amber—that most of it comes from the permafrost of Northern Russia and Sweden, that amber is “never cold”, as jewels are cold, and the colour is wonderful. And there are grades of colour. I have a string of graded beads, with a big one in the middle—perfectly graded. I did buy it, but I’m imagining someone else wanting it. Then I imagine the woman who owned it. And then I pick up on a memory of when I was four or five years old and my mother popping next door to see her friend and I nip into her room and open the dressing-table drawers. There were all sorts of exciting things on top of the dressing-table and all sorts of secrets inside the drawers. I think my mother used to put things, pearls and so on, between the underwear to hide them and keep them safe. I would go rummaging for secrets. And to me being fascinated by my mother was a much more intriguing way of finding the woman I would one day be than the usual theory that all little girls are in love with their fathers. To me, it was finding out your mother’s secrets that was the really exciting and sexy thing. So the poem is really about sensuality of the four or five year old rummaging. It’s a poem layered with experience and imagination.
Who owned that string of bead? Not my mother, it’s not in our family, but someone in the twenties or before the first world war when amber was very popular. Most amber beads, especially the red, milky ones, are old—they don’t seem to use red amber anymore. It’s about things, and mirrors, and the ghostly thought of who owned them.
BW: The thing about the image of amber is that it suggests something deeply embedded in the past that has become solid now—in the poem, you talk about “each drip of sticky gold/ hardening to honeyed stone”. But there’s a contrast between the warmth of the amber beards and the coldness of the permafrost.
GC: Yes, that image of the “sanctuary lamp”! I went to a Convent boarding school, so if the sanctuary lamp is burning it means that the host is in the tabernacle. So the sanctuary lamp glows in my imagination, the flame burning inside the red glass, the amber burning underneath the permafrost. It says something is here, something is alive, is layered with a superstitious but haunting idea that when the host is in the tabernacle the body of Christ is there. Which I don’t believe but nevertheless—the imagination makes all sorts of magic. And so the sanctuary lamp captures the glow inside amber and the idea of it burning under the ice. But also there’s a question: does anybody really die? As long as we’re alive, all this is alive. I couldn’t help thinking that all those poems make my mother completely there—she’s absolutely there for other people to read about. I’ve held her in conscious life of the world for a moment.
BW: It’s a very striking phrase at the end: “ice woman to living daughter”. The poem does seem a fitting conclusion to that sequence, because it does memorialise a life.
GC: And perhaps I couldn’t have written “ice woman to living daughter” after she had died. I had to write it before while my imagination was seeing the other women, other possibilities, and not my own mother. Things do get handed down in a family; everybody has things from the past in their life. And there is this extraordinary sense that we’re holding onto the objects, the things, in order to recreate the life.
All Lost Things: A study of Gillian Clarke’s Cold Knap Lake by Janet Lewison