Vicki Feaver Interview
Recorded at Malmaison Hotel Manchester, May 2006
by Barry Wood
Barry Wood: When did you start writing poetry and what first inspired you to write?
Vicki Feaver: I knew I wanted to be a poet as a child and the first book of poems I remember is a copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience which belonged to my mother. And I liked as much because it was a very pretty book-it had a pale blue cover-as anything. But I loved those poems and I stole it from the bookcase and kept it under my bed, along with an old medical dictionary-because I also loved diseases and illnesses, and I used to look up such things as consumption-for which there was no cure when this dictionary was written-so I was pretty obsessed with poetry and illness and death from a very early age. I did write a few poems at school, and when we were asked to write poems I sometimes plagiarised other poems, because we didn't in those days have contemporary poetry as models. So there was a feeling that it was too difficult to do sometimes. But I did have poems and prose pieces in the school magazine. And then I went to university to read music and I remember the first man I fell for was an American because I wrote him a poem and he wrote back, and it all ended in disaster but the poetry bit was very important. But I read music and had four children and I wrote only scraps of poetry from the age of twenty until I was about thirty-five. Then I went to a poetry-writing class at Morley College in London which was run by Colin Falck-which was wonderful because he started each session with poems by people like Douglas Dunn, Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams, I remember particularly; and then we wrote poems and then immediately I realised this was what I wanted to do all along.
BW: Colin Falck was a critic, wasn't he?
VF: Yes, but he was also a poet, a friend of Ian Hamilton.
BW: And so you started writing poetry again. Was it Falck himself who inspired you or the poetry he introduced you to?
VF: I think it was the way he taught. He showed us these poems, and he expected us to produce poems of equal merit. We had standards, and models and stimuli. He was a very good teacher. One of the other people in the class was Selima Hill.
BW: He must have been proud of his progeny! So, after a degree in music, you then went on-all these years later-to a degree in English at UCL?
VF: That was after Colin's class, yes, and I'd also published my first book Close Relatives by then, and I had started to do some reviewing for the TLS. There were two things: the last of my children had gone to school, and I really wanted a job and I didn't want it to be in music. So I thought that if I did a degree in English I could teach English, which I thought I would want to do. Also, because of the reviewing, I thought it would be a good idea to have a better knowledge of the canon of English poetry, because I really felt very ignorant.
BW: So, you read for a degree in English, having published your first book, and eventually went into teaching--into teaching creative writing?
VF: Yes, but not immediately, because first of all I started doing PhD on Stevie Smith-which I never finished-and then I had a job writing subtitles for the deaf on television; and then I got a job in college.
BW: In one sense, a natural progression, but how did you find that link between your work as a creative writing teacher and your own creative writing? Was it a stimulus for you as well, or what?
VF: I never found teaching a stimulus; I always found it very draining. And it was in the vacations, the summer vacations, I went twice to Annaghmakerrig in Ireland-once for three weeks, and then for two weeks-and it was there I wrote some of my best poems. And one year I went to Hawthornden Castle for two or three weeks, and again I wrote.
BW: These were retreats for writers?
VF: They were retreats, and going to those places gave me the opportunity to write. I found teaching scary always--even though I did it for fourteen years--and very draining. And I think I was quite a good teacher, and people will remember me as an inspiring teacher; but it was draining for me, and I think I gave a lot to my students.
BW: From your experience, as a student at Morley College and as Professor of Poetry at Chichester, you are convinced of the value of the teaching of creative writing, are you?
VF: You asked earlier if I would have liked to do creative writing as part of my degree, and the answer is no. Because I felt that during the three years of the English degree you just nibbled at English literature. And I was studying it all the time. And I do feel about degrees that have creative writing in them that the amount of literature studied is tiny. I mean, I was involved in designing the course [at Chichester] and the poetry course had two parts: and the critical part was linked to the creative part. And the same was true of fiction: they ran in tandem-the critical and historical, and the creative writing parts, so that at least they was some relation between them. But if you're doing creative writing as part of your degree it obviously takes away from the amount of time you're studying the texts. So I'm not absolutely sure about creative writing at undergraduate level. I think that MAs in creative writing are a wonderful way of launching people into the world of writing, and meeting other writers, and getting a lot of stimulus. So certainly at that level it's very important. And I think that at school it's very important that children are given a chance to write. It's just taking a big slice out of the English degree; I realise that students come out of college with an English degree, and they hardly know anything!
BW: Yes, your experience may have been like mine, as an undergraduate: that although there was nothing in the degree programme itself to encourage writing there were student magazines, informal writing groups and so on which encouraged the idea that trying to write something was a help in trying to understand it.
VF: I think it does. But maybe it should be an extra thing: that there are workshops running, but they're not part of the course-and they're not assessed. I think the problem at undergraduate level is having to assess creative writing. And I think it's damaging to students. But the idea of having workshops which are voluntary is brilliant.
BW: In the Penguin Modern Poets series, you're linked with Carol Ann Duffy and Eavan Boland. Three women poets, obviously; but do you think there are other links-in terms of the use of mythology, or of style?
VF: I think the link was probably fairly arbitrary. Although I think also that Carol Ann may have had a word there ... But of course we are all poets who write from a women's perspective and do use myth as well.
BW: There is in the work of all three of you a desire to re-interpret history and mythology, isn't there?
VF: A lot of contemporary women poets use myth as a way of escaping from the confessional lyric and to explore areas of female sexuality. I think I use it rather like Stevie Smith in a poem like "Frog Prince", as a vehicle for exploring something in my own life or psyche. I may be generalising, but I think that Eavan more often approaches it from a political point of view and Carol Ann from a witty feminist point of view.
BW: Matthew Sweeney is reported as saying that you "manage somehow to write women's poems which don't shut men out". Would you accept that description?
VF: Well, I hope that's true, because I wouldn't want to shut men out, because I really like men! But it is also true that I'm not prepared to write the kind of genderless poem that a lot of male critics--certainly in the past-thought was a desirable mode of writing. That is, not really genderless, but with an implied male voice, and I'm not ashamed to write from a woman's perspective about my world. I can't help doing that.
BW: But it's not just a matter of writing from a woman's perspective but writing out of a very specific female experience. I mean, you talk about a coming to terms with adolescent sexuality-in "Rope", for example-and with menstruation in "Women's Blood".
VF: But those are important experiences! And it is one of those taboo areas ... and I do remember some very snide male reviewer saying: 'another poem about menstruation!' Which I found really offensive. He found it offensive that I wrote a poem about menstruation. I think it's offensive that it might even be considered as something that you might not do.
BW: It is after all the common experience of over fifty-percent of the population!
BW: That's the other thing, isn't it, the idea that there were boundaries in terms of what could be mentioned in poetry.
VF: I think there still are.
BW: On the other hand-just to go back to Matthew Sweeney's remark-there are poems like "Marigolds" and "Circe", for example, which take a fairly robust attitude ("we are killers, can tear the heads/off men's shoulders") towards the male?
VF: Well, yes, but that actually comes from a legend, of the Bacchae-so I'm just quoting a legend! In my mind comes this legend of these women tearing up these flower-strewn hillsides, and their power: it's an image of women's power, I suppose, and of possible violence. But I'm interested in that legend for that very reason--because the legend is about the fact that if you repress things--that's dangerous. It's because the women are repressed that they tear the head off Orpheus. If they were allowed to be free, to enjoy themselves-to dance, to drink-they wouldn't do that. They are happy. It's when this male rational perspective is totally imposed ... what the Bacchae story is saying is that that's what causes violence. And that you need both sides of yourself: you need to have a bacchic, celebratory, emotional side of yourself, and the rational as well, and they have to be side-by-side. Both of them on their own are bad.
BW: So it's something of that might be good for men?
VF: Ye-es. For both men and women you need a feminine and masculine principle.
BW: Though, when you say that it's just a story-in "Marigolds" and elsewhere-it's a story--and capacity--you celebrate and endorse?
VF: Yes. One of the things that interests me is female violence, and trying to understand it. It's why I've written about Medea, I think, because I am interested in understanding where it comes from and why. The poem "Judith" as well-wondering how a good woman can murder. And of course she is considered a Jewish heroine, a Bible heroine, and as a good woman. But she murders, and in her case it's to save her people. And Medea: who murders her husband's new wife. What I wanted to understand was that kind of rage. There was story in the newspaper the other day about a woman who knifed the woman who'd had an affair with her husband. And I think to understand those rages, you don't need a knife-if you can write a poem! Or if you can in your imagination deal with your anger and fury. I think in a society which says: it's perfectly alright for your husband to run off with a younger woman and you have to be cool about-it's in that sort of society that people-women--knife their rivals. In a society that says it's absolutely right to feel a great rage and grief, it's okay, then they don't [get out the knife].
BW: So the stories-Greek legends and so on-are a way of working through anger.
VF: I think they are about valid emotions, and they are stories about those emotions. I once talked to a woman friend who was a Jungian analyst and I remember I said: you can feel bad about your thoughts; and she said: you must never feel bad about your thoughts, because thoughts and emotions come to you, and it's only your deeds that you must ever feel bad about. And I think that's very true.
BW: I suppose that the problem with what you're saying is that Medea does translate thoughts into deeds.
VF: Well, yes, but I don't think Medea was a real person anyway! She was an invention-actually by men, to show women what they could become at their worst. And I still think there's a value in those stories.
BW: But the change-in the sense of re-interpreting that story-is that it takes the story out of the moralistic or patriarchal context which suggests that this is horrendous and this is what women will do if they are given the opportunity.
VF: I'm saying that it's a myth that explains a valid emotion.
BW: Perhaps we could move on to another aspect of your poetry: the often very striking visual imagery. I'm thinking, for example, of the image of the wasp which "clung like a brooch/ to his bubbling chest" in "Wasps" and "my nipples/ that stood out like press-studs" in "The Singing Teacher". Do you collect images-as Auden, and Craig Raine once claimed to do-for use in future poems?
VF: No, I don't do that; the images occur in the writing of the poem. But I do think that what's interesting is that paintings and other visual things are terribly important to me. I'm always looking at things, and my excitement with the world, I think, is with how things look. With how nature looks-or sometimes the back of a lorry, or an old door or something. And a poem like "Marigolds", for instance, began with me buying some marigolds in Brixton market-in London, where I used to live-and coming home and thinking I must paint these marigolds! I looked all through the house to see if the children had left any paints around. I wasn't able to find any paints so I drew the marigolds with a pencil and then thought: this is hopeless-- my drawing isn't very good, and anyway it's grey and I'm not getting in any way the feeling that, say, Van Gogh might have conveyed. And so I had to write the poem. But it came from that impulse.
BW: From the observation of the plant itself ... And your use of paintings in your work? Do you start with the painting and develop the idea from there? Or do you start with an idea which then finds its particular correlative in a painting?
VF: I'm not quite sure; but if I think about a specific example-"Oi Oi Yoi" from The Handless Maiden. Adrian Henri was ill and I was looking through my postcards for a painting, a postcard to send to him to cheer him up. And I thought: this lovely naked woman running across a beach would be just right! At the same time I'd been commissioned by the Tate to write a poem on a painting. I hadn't done it, and I looked on the back of this postcard and saw that it was in the Tate. So before I sent it off to Adrian I wrote this poem but it was obvious that I had bought this postcard because I loved this image of this woman. So the poem came out of my feelings for the painting; it wasn't just arbitrary. So I think all the paintings I've written about-like Hilton's-are painting which I've actually seen and loved. To take another instance from my new book: Goya's "The Fates"-I had seen it in the Prado in Madrid. Those black paintings of Goya-I'd like to write as series about all of them really-but "The Fates" particularly affected me. I think that sometimes my religious views come into it: I suppose I'm an agnostic and I veer between (because I was brought up as a Christian) believing in a benevolent god, and not-- and being quite close to Hardy with his "immortals having their sport with Tess". And the four Fates of Goya-because they look rather like witches, rather like Macbeth's witches, cutting up the threads, rather spiteful creatures, and I can believe that they're responsible for our lives. So it hooked into something that I was thinking.
BW: Things coalesce around the image of the painting ...
VF: I'm not interested in describing the painting; I'm interested in using it to develop some idea of my own. So, in "Oi Oi Yoi", the woman is some idea of the kind of woman I want to be! And in "The Fates"--that's not my whole view of how our lives are ordered but it's a passing view.
BW: Many of the paintings you refer to--or have been inspired by--to write poems are images of women, aren't they?
VF: The Bonnard painting "The Red Cupboard" that's another painting where I came back from the exhibition, and I'd wanted a postcard of it but there wasn't one-it's his wife's cupboard, painted red inside and full of bottles of jelly and jam-and I so much wanted a postcard of it because it's so beautiful and moving. And it isn't even in the books on Bonnard, so I ended up having to write the poem. And more and more, as I wrote the poem, because the cupboard is painted red, it became a womb, and a place where I could write about my own life as a woman, and about the lives of my ancestors. Then it became, in a way, a place where this queue of women, of ancestors, stretched out-- rather like the shades in Hades who come asking for blood.
BW: Red actually figures prominently in your poems and-as well as the resonance with blood-a sort of running motif in your new book of course!-redness stands for vivacity, life-giving qualities, as well as murder and violence?
VF: I think it does stand for life and in "Girl in Red" it really is true that I did get my mother to make me a bright red dress and there was something contrary about that. Girls didn't wear bright red dresses! At that time my party dress-identical with my sister-- was pale lemon seersucker! And I had some grey shorts, the same as my sister, and a tee-shirt, and our school uniforms were navy blue. And I just wanted something different, something red. I loved poppies. So I wanted this red dress. And the really sad thing is that the first red dress that my mother made for me-I chose the pattern myself-and it was red wool and it shrank at the first wash. It was a tragedy! And then she made me another dress, but it was horrible-in a dull, tweedy colour.
BW: But the original dress has survived, in the poem!
VF: Yes. And then when I went to my first party dance-the one where my sister was sent to spy on me-and I drank-well, actually the poem's a lie-it wasn't cherryade, I actually just drank gin and told her it was water. And my mother made me-again, on demand-a bright red strapless evening dress, with a boned bodice which actually stuck out about three inches beyond my actual bosom!
BW: A very understanding mother really!
VF:Well, yes, she was-and I'm so horrible about her!
BW: Just to return to questions about the sources of imagery and subject-matter in classical literature, fairy tales and mythology: when did that begin? Was it always an area of interest for you in your reading? Where fairy stories important to you as a child?
VF: I think fairy stories were. And later I remember Bruno Bettelheim's book on fairy tales-The Uses of Enchantment. In that he says it's important to recognise which of the fairy stories you really hold on to and remember from childhood, because very often those are the stories which are important to your life. One of those stories for me was Beauty and the Beast. And I think it was that idea that love can change people and restore them. The handless maiden story, however, I actually didn't read as a child. I came to it later through a book by another analyst; and she tells the story of the handless maiden as a girl who has her hands cut off and then recovers her hands. And she tells it as a story about women artists-or women-who cut off their own hands and live through men. And it seemed so much my story, what I had done-found a creative man and lived through him, instead of being myself creative. And she says it is a story about a woman recovering her hands and that seems important to me. I spent at least five years trying to write that poem; and it was while I was staying in Hawthornden that I suddenly came back to it-I hadn't even brought the book with me-but I was by this raging torrent of a red river and I thought what if I dropped my baby into this river now-what would I do? Recover the baby? So I wrote it as if I was writing it in my own hand-'with her hand/ she writes this"[sic] it says at the end. It's as if she's writing the story at the moment she recovers the baby, or recovers her hands. So it was a really, really important story for me. It still is--because I can still cut off my hands. And the only way to recover them is to do it-is to write. But sometimes that's difficult and scary and a struggle.
BW: So it was a very real and personal appropriation--a taking into your self-- of the story?
VF: I think that every story I've taken-from legend or fairy story or the Bible-I've only taken because it's meant something very deep to me. The Judith story: she's a widow so she's grieving, and I remember asking myself: how did she manage to kill Holofernes? I asked myself that question in my notebook: why? And it's the anger of her grief that she manages to do it, she's got nothing to lose. She uses that power to kill Holofernes. And I also was in mourning and in grief when I wrote the poem and I use the power, the anger of my grief to write the poem. So we were both women who were using our anger, but channelling it into something good.
BW: There's a poem at the end of your new collection called "Cinderella" in which you say: "I print the shapes of grief/ .../onto fine linen sheets". Is that what you're doing in the Judith poem?
VF: I think what I wanted to say in that poem is that fairy stories always have happy endings-the characters go through suffering and difficulty-Cinderella is a rejected girl-and I suppose what I'm saying is that you can't expect a totally happy end after that. People don't suddenly-if they've been abused or had a difficult childhood-they don't suddenly get married and everything is alright and fine. They carry a lot of that suffering with them; there is no complete recovery. And so for Cinderella: she leaves her place on the hearth to be a princess with the fine linen sheets but the grief of her childhood is still with her.
BW: Your tale of Cinderella doesn't have the fairy tale ending at all. The question of grieving in your work-it isn't only a matter of grieving for the dead but is also a grieving for the self-some part of the self which has been denied or repressed is important.
VF: Or grieving for a relationship. When I thought of this as a child-I was brought up in this house where my mother's brother died almost at the point when I was born-I think it was three months afterwards but I say in the poem ["Girl in Red"] "I was born to a mother in mourning". And my grandmother lived in this house as well, so it was her house too. And in fact he was missing and assumed dead. So they never really knew, and it must have been terrible. But I remember my childhood house as being a house of tears, very much of grief. And I think I must have reacted to that in some way-that maybe my demand for this red dress was part of my response to that. I had two sides: there was the side that was the very good girl who conformed to everything and on the other side I was a sort of rebel who wanted to be different. I also remember being very sad inside as a child, being quite depressed really-I remember not wanting to get up in the morning, wanting to hide under the bedclothes. But also being a bit of a show-off. My mother used to chant "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" to me all the time. But I was also a good girl as well-I was a bit of a mixture. I suppose, as a poet, there's a bit of that too. There's a bit of me that wants to conform, to be respectable, to be an academic sort of poet-a poet who wrote sonnets and so on. And there's another bit that says: screw that! All I can be is myself. Pound has this thing about two kinds of poetry: one is the urn and you're filling the urn which is the shape of the sonnet or the four-line stanza; and the other kind of poetry is organic and grows like a tree and makes its own form. I think I would quite like to write the urn kind of poem but also another bit of me wants the poetry that is organic, that comes absolutely out of me, the shape comes from me and everything comes from me.
BW: One of the poems I like most in your new book is "Hemingway's Hat". That's a poem which is written in quatrains-unrhymed, loose quatrains in metrical terms, but quatrains nonetheless; and you talk about a mixture in you-there's a conflict resolved there, isn't there, in that you dealing with difficult emotions which could go all over the page but you've-in a sense-contained them within the form?
VF:I found that poem very difficult to write. It's got so many threads in it, about childhood. It starts off with this hat which, for the man in the poem, is his mother's attempt to make him a Hemingway-esque figure and it's been this great influence on his life, and for me suddenly makes me feel like this Shakespearean heroine. And then there's the thing about my father and what kind of man he was. And then there's the thing about me trying to be a boy and changing into a girl. And then the man in the poem going off to wars because he's expected to be this Hemingway character. So much; and then there's this peaceful place where the battle is remembered and these ghosts rising above the battle in Vietnam. And then at the end this sexual scene where the sexual dominance is given to the woman and the tenderness is given to the man. And it was trying to juggle all those things together that made the writing of the poem really difficult. I think it was a bit of a miracle that the poem came together!
BW: Yes, I think it's a wonderful poem. Perhaps it's an illustration of Matthew Sweeney's point that you write poems that "don't shut men out"! It seems an investigation of female and male sexuality and how it responds, amongst other things, to the violence of war. And, as you suggest, it ends in tenderness-and indeed tenderness is very potent in all the poems which surround it -rather than in the violence at the end of "Marigolds".
VF:Well, "Marigolds" doesn't end with violence, actually! [Laughter] It ends with the women secretly bringing marigolds into their house. It ends in solitariness, but not in violence. And, in "Hemingway's Hat", there's a moment of reconciliation.
BW: Perhaps we can move on to discussion of your new book as a whole. What sort of continuity do you see between this book and your previous collections?
VF:Well, I think that the main thing is that I am-in the broadest terms-a confessional poet, to the extent that, even if I'm not writing about my own life, I'm writing about my emotions and feelings through stories about other people-maybe legends, maybe fairy stories or whatever. But in The Book of Blood there is a lot more about nature-and I think that this is because I moved from living in Brixton, first of all to a village outside Chichester and then-in the last five years-up to Scotland. And curiously although as a child I grew up in a town--in Nottingham--we used to go on holiday in a caravan in the country. And I absolutely loved that. I had an almost Wordsworthian relationship with nature, that sense of being in awe of it, a bit scared of it, because as a town child I was a bit scared of animals, and the loneliness and space of nature. But also I was drawn to animals, and to these spaces. I think that has emerged much more as a theme-this relationship with nature. Also, the correspondences between animal behaviour and human behaviour. That comes in a poem like "Glow-worm", for instance, where the glow-worm attracts her mates and the woman shines also in a way to attract her mate.
BW: There are very precise observations of nature in the recent poems as well, drawing on scientific terminology.
VF:Yes, with the toad poem ["Bufo Bufo"] and with "Glow-worm", I went to the library and looked up the scientific facts.
BW: Although-as you pointed out in your reading last night [at Library Theatre, Manchester]-there is also a literary reference at the end of "Glow-worm-to the "yes yes yes" of Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Ulysses-a positive, life-affirming conclusion!.
VF:I like that ending! And I think in this new book-as in The Handless Maiden-there's both dark and light-depression and anger and loss but also a great joy and exuberance in sexuality, in nature, in love. In The Handless Maiden, it's reflected in a poem like "Ironing"-which begins with the world of the downtrodden wife and ends so that ironing is transformed from being an act of repressed rage, domestic slavery, into something which is absolutely lovely-"crumpledness" becoming a "shining, ceaseless blue". And I think this transformation also happens in The Book of Blood. A poem like "Bats", for instance, is so much a celebration of these creatures in the house-these bats we share the house with. And there is a terror in the bats flying around! But there is also a sense that they're breeding in the house, and that they've got their babies. And then there's the couple there whose "care is not for the flesh of our flesh/ but flesh itself": it's the sense of the children being gone and being able to nurture each other.
BW: Yes, part of the interest or surprise in that poem is that it turns into a love poem-for nature, but also between a man and a woman, and ends on a moment of tenderness.
VF:In a poem like "Pills"--which is about the depression of early motherhood-but even in that poem there is a restoration. There is a sort of shut-down of the senses where everything is grey; and then there is a sort of re-discovery of the senses, of the world, when the chemical lid is taken off. So it is a poem about a re-discovering of the world. And I hope that angry poems like the one about Medea--"The Gift"-about her sending this dress to the new wife; it's a very controlled poem actually-it's not a poem about anger spilling out. Curiously, it is about something that happened to me-but the rage I felt at the time is long since past. It's about something that happened fifteen years ago at least and I could never have written it at the time. I couldn't express what I felt at all. I was inarticulate with grief and anger and all those terrible emotions. I just couldn't deal with it. It's only afterwards, a long time afterwards, that I can deal with something like that. And curiously, I have a friend whose husband has recently left her and it means so much to her to have a poem which expresses some of the feelings that she is feeling-that those are acceptable as feelings.
BW: You quote Stevie Smith, as a sort of epigraph at the beginning of the book-does it have a very specific purpose?
VF:Yes: "The human creature is alone in his carapace. Poetry is a strong way out. The passage out that she blasts is often in splinters, covered with blood ... ". I chose that quotation because I'd already decided that the book was going to be called after one of the poems in it "The Book of Blood" and because Stevie Smith means a lot to me as a poet. I think what I like particularly about Stevie Smith is that she is also a suburban girl. She was also brought up in the suburbs like me--and she is also very anarchic. She doesn't want to conform. She doesn't conform in society because she remains a spinster; but as a poet too she refuses to conform, to write the kind of tidy poems that people wanted her to write. And for a time she was very unfashionable-though not any more. But she just refused to fit in with the male canon in poetry. And I liked too her attitude to women poets: she was down on the kind of women poets who tried to be nice. Women poets, she says, are bad when they're nice! Actually in this wonderful essay called "The Muse"-which is where the epigraph comes from-she says much worse things about poetry: that it's an explosion in the sky, a mushroom cloud of terror! So that they are quite violent images, but very like Emily Dickinson who makes poetry "a loaded gun". And there's Plath--with her "blood-drip of poetry". The other thing I like about this quote is-"The human being .. alone in his carapace"-is the idea that what the poet is trying to do is make a way out of that loneliness and that it [poetry] is a communication. It points towards the struggle to get feelings out in words-and it is a struggle, I don't find writing poetry easy at all.
BW: I wonder if that image of the human creature "alone in his carapace" is in any way linked for you to the love poem "Skin" which ends with the image of the lovers mating "like tortoises/ ... impervious to love"?
VF:I don't think there is a connection! But it's interesting how that poem ["Skin"]came because it came from the fact that Alasdair [to whom the poem is dedicated] and I both have these problems with our skin which get worse when we're under stress. And being in love was obviously quite stressful for both of us, I guess! Because my elbows were quite scaly and his knees were worse. And he was saying to me that the principle on which the lie-detector is based is that the skin is the same tissue as the brain, so that's how you detect a lie-by the raised temperature of the skin. So these skin problems are all very emotional. But then I was thinking about evolution, and that human love and sexuality are very much to do with our skins and to do with touch, and therefore imagining this evolutionary path where we were all so stressed that our skins had become tortoise-like. So it's an amusing poem as well. Poetry is, of course, a way of communicating with other people, but even more it is a way of communicating with myself-it's a way of saying things which I don't quite understand or am confused about or want to fix in my mind and hold there. Wanting to keep that moment, I write a poem about it.
BW: Auden says somewhere that poems are provisional statements, attempts at meaning rather than final judgements. You talked earlier about the fact that your admiration for Stevie Smith was that she didn't conform, in the sense of writing neat little, well-ordered, well-structured sonnets and quatrains ...
VF:When I was writing my PhD on Stevie Smith, I actually thought that my poetry was very unlike Stevie Smith's, but I realise now that I did learn a lot from her, and I think it's this way of combining a very ordinary world-the world that I live in-with a world of fantasy and legend and myth, and putting those two things together, and it's the collision of those two things that I found interesting in her work and which I hope to explore in mine.
BW: There are a number of poems-like "Bats"-which starts with an ordinary description of a bat flying into your bedroom and then expands into a larger narrative and concludes in a very personal way, as a love poem. In terms of form, your characteristic poem is short, unrhymed and lyrical, a loose metrical pattern ...
VF:There's a bit of rhyme or internal rhyme and assonance ...
BW: What is it that determines your choice-of form, line-break, stanza pattern, etc? Is it a matter of ear? At what point do you make the decision?
VF:I think there's a point when I'm writing a poem when part of it takes shape-maybe a stanza shape of a certain number of lines-because I never write a poem straight out-and probably then-though it wouldn't be an arbitrary pattern: it would never be like that-the poem would be seen to be falling into three-line stanzas or five-line stanzas or like "Bats" into one long passage.
BW: So it's an organic process?
VF:Yes, I wouldn't start off saying I want to write this in four-line stanzas, not at all. In fact-although "Hemingway's Hat" is in four line stanzas-I think generally I avoid that because it sets up the expectation of its being a rhymed quatrain. On the whole, however, I think I favour some kind of stanza because it suits the way I write in images, and quite often one image will be contained in one stanza, and then lead into another and so on. So that works well for me.
BW: The central theme-or continuing motif-of The Book of Blood is announced pretty unequivocally in the title. At what point was that decided?
VF:Not until the end; and I was a bit wary about calling it "the book of blood" because it is a quite provocative title. But I think blood and the colour red runs right through the book, and it's reflected in various ways: the blood filling the tight shoes in "Girl in Red". And there's the girl in "The Camellia House"-who is me. One of the books which really affected me as a child was Little Women, and the death of Beth who dies of consumption. So with the red petals of the camellia I pretend that I've coughed up blood and that I'm the child who's died. And there are the two girls in "The Sacrifice"-leading the bull off to sacrifice and the Medea poem. So there is a theme of blood in the book.
BW: Blood tends to be associated with pain or violence in The Handless Maiden: in the new book it seems to have multiple associations and resonances, different layers of meaning-on the one side it has to do with murder and death and on the other with life and life-affirming actions and experiences, the joyfulness of existence.
Having characterised the book as being about murder, violence, sex and death, the first poem in the book-"Once Angels Freely Roamed"-- is a very gentle even spiritual poem, the first line recalling to me a hymn at evensong, or a poem by George Herbert!
VF:Well, I love George Herbert!
BW: The poem is very elegiac-"angels lost their powers" ...
VF:'The nymphs are departed'!
BW: You said before your reading of the poem last night that the first line "just came to you": where from, do you know?
VF:It was in my head when I woke up one morning. The image in my head was a postcard with a picture of wooden angels on the roof of Blythburgh Church in Suffolk; and I do go round churches and graveyards and you see these angels on the tombs and they've got all battered. And poems about angels are quite fashionable at the moment; so I was thinking I wish I could write a poem about an angel. I'd love to encounter an angel-I never have, sadly. And I was terribly familiar with the Bible, because I was brought up going to church, so all these stories about angels were there and important to me.
BW: And Blake, you mentioned earlier?
VF:Oh yes, Blake-I just adore! So my literature and my visual imagination are loaded with angels. I've never encountered one but they are there in these "effigies/ in wood and stone". The other thing that is curious about that poem is that normally poems are quite a struggle to write-but the first part of the poem did come very easily-almost as if it was like Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", as if I'd recovered it-and then I couldn't end it at all; so it just ends with this rather sad image of these angels with "noses crumbling".
BW: I suppose I'd read it as a poem of regret for lost Edens, but it is also a poem of yearning-seeking something?
VF:I guess, like everyone else in the twentieth-century or twenty-first-century world, I yearn after something beyond our world-whatever that is-for some beneficent power. Whether I believe in it or not is different thing, but I yearn for it.
BW: I was listening to a radio programme about Mozart recently and they were talking about the fact that Mozart, and Berlioz and Verdi had all written Requiems even though they weren't believers; and one of the musicians said that "they remembered from childhood what it felt like to believe". Is that what you feel as well?
VF:I think I do feel that. I think if you were brought up with the Bible and the Prayer Book they are very wonderful pieces of literature, very powerful, and bound therefore to have a big influence.
BW: "Girl in Red"-the next poem in the book--takes us into other, perhaps more familiar territory; the contrast between black and red symbolising a conflict between grief and joyfulness.
VF:Yes, I think it comes out of my own life as a rather depressed child, since I was very affected by grief-almost thinking: why should I have lived when my uncle died? There was a very real grief for him [in the family]. Somehow I felt I needed to take his place-I had his boxing gloves in my cupboard in my room! It was quite strange having things which belonged to him. I did see his ghost once, and tried to write a poem about it-but it didn't work. So it was a very powerful influence. And as a child-and I suppose an incipient poet!-I used to go off on lonely walks on my own-which used to worry my parents-but it was partly to be with nature. And I adopted all these wild animals, and was always coming home with a mouse or a bird on my shoulder or something [laughter]; I was always drawn to wild animals ...
BW: And they to you, presumably!
VF:Yes: I think I was a rather strange girl! And then later being rather precocious, and wanting this bright red dress and being a bit rebellious. And being unhappy at school, not really fitting in. So I was very excited by things, but lonely and depressed as well.
BW: And the poem-after its irruption of red--ends back in black, doesn't it?
VF:It does, as if the black had taken over. And also because at school I had this music teacher and I composed this piece of music and she said: you've got to learn to play the piano first before you start composing for it. And this thing in Art classes: being told that red and green clash: so everything you were doing in art--anything creative--was being suppressed. 'You have to wait till you're older for that!' So I always had this feeling of wanting something to break out, and always being tied down.
BW: There are a number of poems in the book-I'm thinking particularly of "Her Hair", "The Camellia House", "The Trunk"-which seem to draw on specific memories of childhood, and in terms of tone of the poems they seem very unsentimental, deliberately dispassionate-not wanting to sentimentalise or emote about these experiences. They don't express any tenderness or affection.
VF:These are all poems about my grandmother. My grandmother was really important to me because just after I was born my mother went back to work as a teacher and so I spent long periods of time with my grandmother. She lived with us and, as I've said earlier, she was grieving for her son. That was a very big part of her life. Her husband had died of pneumonia when my mother was four-so she was a widow as well; and she was terribly aware of her own death. She was always saying to me: I'll be dead soon, I'm going to have to have a wig, my hair's falling out. I was terribly aware of this decaying body! I had to put poultices on her back; and she had these terrible feet-full of bunions which I had to bathe. So there we were with this body decaying. And also she talked about how she was going to be burned! So in "The Trunk" I describe all these sad things that she kept in the trunk, including the white night-dress which she was going to be buried in. So as a child I was very aware of death and that's where I got-and still have probably-a real fear of death, of dying, of illness.
BW: Does this explain why-in contrast to Wordsworth, say, recollecting childhood experiences-these poems don't seem to call up any sympathy to the person, to the grandmother?
VF:No they don't, do they? And I think that that would reflect my honest feelings! Although I was of course also very attached to her. I have written a series of poems about my grandmother, and I've only included these three. There were others-there was one about her feet!
BW: There is another poem-"The Woman Who Talked To Her Teeth"-
VF:Which isn't about my grandmother!
BW: But it does seem to link with them in its macabre kind of humour and focus on the decaying body?
BW: Then there are other poems-like "The Gorilla"-which give a different view of childhood experience.
VF:Yes, "The Gorilla" is a childhood poem, and I've actually got this photograph of this gorilla, a postcard. And my friends at school were all mad about film stars and I really wasn't. I was really more fixated on this gorilla. [laughter]
BW: Tarzan and Jane?
VF:Well, yes! But the curious thing is that although the poem talks about "the glossy pouch of his penis and balls"-because it's so obvious on the postcard-I really can't remember that as a child, actually. So the poem is dishonest in a way. I can't remember gazing fascinatedly, as it suggests in the poem.
BW: You may well have done that ... ?
VF:I may well have done that, and chosen not to remember! But in the postcard they are so obvious, but I can't remember-because I was quite an innocent child.
BW: It is a sort of strange love poem, isn't it-comical, ironic, innocent?
BW: It also picks up on something which recurs in your work-rising from the dead: "if you loved me enough/you'd bring me back to life" you imagine the gorilla saying at the end of the poem; and there are other poems-"After the Play", for example-where you imagine the lover coming back to life-"miraculously returned from the dead"-restored by love.
VF:I think it's partly the Beauty and the Beast idea: that if you do love someone enough you can bring them back to life, if you love someone enough you can change the beast into the prince.
BW: After "The Gorilla" poem-and very much at the heart of the collection-there is a series of poems-starting with "Horned Poppy" and including "Hemingway's Hat" and "The Glow-worm"-which seem almost like a sequence of love poems-very erotic, and very affirmative about love and sexuality.
VF:"Horned Poppy" is in a way a parable about this poppy which is destroyed by the elements it loves; it puts itself in this position where it's going to be blasted by the waves and the wind. And it survives; but it is a little parable about what we do when we love-we don't always love wisely. It is very much about the poppy; but it is also about global warming. The poems are about different aspects of love. "The Glow-worm" is about how love can transcend illness, and about how sex and love are our way of defeating death. And "Hemingway's Hat" is also about the same thing, but also about the possibility of reversing our sexual/gender roles.
BW: Well, you use the phrase "our shared penis"-which perhaps encapsulates everything you want to say really, does it?
VF: I think it just reflects a fact, and it's an image of this joining of two people.
BW: This is quite Laurentian, isn't it? I wonder how much-coming from Nottingham!--you might have been influenced by Lawrence?
VF:Absolutely! I devoured DH Lawrence! I think I discovered Lawrence when I was about eleven and I read every single novel. I absolutely adored DH Lawrence.
BW: And in addition to the interest in sex, there's also the sensitivity to the natural world in his poetry ...
VF:In his poetry, and in his prose. And the other poet who was an influence-and I got his poems as a school prize-was Dylan Thomas; and his poetry is sort of sexy. I remember playing Consequences at a party-I was a naughty child-and I quoted some lines from Thomas and was sent home as a disruptive and horrible influence!
BW: Not a respectable young woman!
VF:The reason I got interested in Thomas was because our English teacher at school read us the opening passages from Under Milk Wood. So I immediately went to the library and got his poems and discovered that they were all about sex.
BW: In very hidden, coded ways! In contrast to Thomas perhaps your poems in this series work from very precise observation of the natural world in "Bats", for example, or in "The Glow-worm" where you use the word "luciferin" as a very precise, scientific term, although the poem is not scientific at all.
VF:Yes, the worlds interlock so that the scientific description of what the glow-worm does to produce its light is interlocked with the emotional world of the woman. But the woman's feelings are expressed totally in terms of what happens to the glow-worm-"wingless, wordless".
BW: One of the things I like about the poem is the way it starts as a lesson-almost-in zoology and becomes a poem about sexual fulfilment.
VF:Well, sexual desire-the people in the poem "haven't touched"!
BW: Though, by the end, they're pretty close! [Some laughter] Would you agree that there is a definite change in these poems in terms of the affirmativeness about sexual feeling and relationship.
VF:I think that reflects a development in my life. A failed marriage at the beginning of the book and then feeling my way into new relationships and then into a profound love.
BW: In "The Gun" you write about bringing something new-and potentially dangerous-into your life; but the poem becomes a poem about the conquest of life over death-the "King of Death" with "his black mouth/ sprouting golden crocuses". It's a very affirming image at the end, isn't it?
VF:I think it's a paradox: the gun is a fearful object-to me as to most people-but somehow embracing this life of killing, or of having a husband who goes out and kills the meat and brings it to the table is an affirmation of life. That's more what people did, before butchers and before death was removed from us. People did live their lives much more in contact with having to wring the chicken's neck before you eat it. I think death has been distanced from us, and that makes it so difficult for us in lots of ways. And somehow, inviting death in and having to deal with it makes it not so scary-as this unmentionable thing, something that's tidied away. People used to have corpses in their houses, didn't they? Still do perhaps, but mostly they don't. They just have them taken away to a nice place. So there's something about being closer to that world which, for me at least, has made the fear of death less strong. I suppose it runs right through the poetry-the association of sex and death, and I think it is partly to do with the fact that death, the acceptance of death, and the realisation of it, sharpens our sense of living life to the full. And it's partly to do with sex and reproduction-the continuity of the species.
BW: There's-for me-an interesting link between this poem-"The Gun"-and a poem in your previous book, a poem called "White Feathers", which also features a gun, a father's gun, which also features as a symbol-or it becomes a sexualised image because the child in the poem smells the father's gun on the mother after they've been upstairs. I'm not sure what one would make of the connection, if anything?
VF:I'm not sure there is one really: the father in the poem is not my father!
BW: The series of poems which are at the literal and emotional heart of the collection-from "The Gorilla" through to "The Riddle"-are also the most challenging and original in language and feeling. Are you aware of breaking new ground here-personally and stylistically?
VF:I don't know. I just write the poems I want to write. And I suppose there is an idea in my head and I usually have a struggle to get it into language and often don't succeed, or sometimes I do, more or less, but it takes years going through different drafts-sometimes starting in another place, or changing voices. These are the poems I like best, that I feel happiest reading.
BW: You talked earlier about the "confessional" in poetry. These poems are very personal, intimate even: was that part of the difficulty in writing them?
VF:I suppose so-but I think it's more that they often contain quite complicated ideas and it was difficult making the connections and holding all the threads together so that the poem didn't fall apart.
BW: "Riddle" is a bit of a riddling poem! Who is the speaker? What did you have in mind-just a voice?
VF:Oh no! The speaker is a bath-one of those old-fashioned baths with claw feet. I think the poem is influenced a bit by Stevie Smith's "River God" who wanted to drown women and was upset when they left him. I suppose I saw the bath as a person-a very lonely person who really wants the woman to stay with him: not always be going.
BW: I must confess that I thought the speaker was female!
Despite the affirmative centre of the book, you also speak of "mourning" in "Girl in Red" and, in "Cinderella", about printing "the shapes of grief". Are loving and grieving still the twin daughters of your imagination?
VF:I've just picked up my childhood copy of Blake and was wondering what it is that drew me to him-and it wasn't the happy poems about childhood, it was the poems that take on the contraries and paradoxes and miseries of human experience and express those in stunning poems like "O Rose thou art sick". Of course I can be joyous and full of rapture-but it's fleeting. My dominant emotion is much more a sense of sadness-for the things I've lost personally and people close to me have lost-but as much for the world in general: a kind of grief for the difference between how I would like the world to be and how it is-full of violence and suffering. Love is the thing that counters: love for my husband, love for my children and grandchildren, love for my dog, love for nature. But of course love is complicated, as Blake so brilliantly expresses, and it goes hand in hand with grief.
BW: The last poem in the book-"The Blue Butterfly"-assumes a continuing division or creative conflict between the "blue" of transcendence and the "smoky blue" [Lawrence again?] of darkness and death. Is this how you see things?
VF:I wrote the poem in response to 9:11. I was staying in a camper van in North Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides, and after a stormy night with hardly any sleep we turned the radio on and heard the news about the planes hitting the towers. I didn't believe it at first. I thought it was a joke. I felt very guilty because I'd been grizzling about the holiday-the weather, the sea being too cold to swim in. And now there was news of all those people killed. We went for a walk and I saw the blue butterfly. I tried for a long time to write a poem with a reference to the twin towers in it. But I couldn't make the connection without it seeming incredibly crass. So I just wrote the poem as it was. I don't suppose anyone understands it-but for me it is a sort of prayer: earth and heaven coming together-the light and the darkness.
BW: The Book of Blood seems to me a very complete and beautifully structured book: how concerned or conscious were you to select and create a particular order or arrangement?
VF:I find it very difficult ordering collections: probably because I write so slowly and there are great gaps between the poems, and I don't usually write sequences, so I don't have a sense of them belonging together. I did some of the arrangement myself but I had a lot of help from my friend Matthew Sweeney. He's brilliant at it!