Rebecca Perry's debut collection, Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe, 2015) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection and the T S Eliot Prize. She also has a pamphlet, little armoured, published by Seren. She co-edits the online journal Poems in Which.
Greg McCartney: Hi Rebecca, Thanks for being in the HU. I was wondering if I may ask, in this very public world, where everyone’s (maybe those ‘paragons of frankness’) feelings, opinions, memories are shared instantly, do you think the poet fits in? Perhaps it’s as in Pow where you say ‘Though I am listing flowers/I am not thinking of flowers?’ Maybe it’s the same as it ever was, the poet offers an alternative take on life? And maybe alternative takes on life are so rare these days that this might lead a poet to end up like the Poor Sasquatch forever on view at the British Museum? Not that I’m saying that you’re going to be found face down on a dual carriageway!
Rebecca Perry: My pleasure! I suppose this idea of ‘the poet’ is something I’m quite sceptical about – I’m not sure that I know what it means. But I suppose writers, or artists of any kind, have always fitted in fairly quietly and awkwardly. We sort of pour into the cracks. I think poets are just the same as anyone else who is trying to contribute something to the world around them – they want to disrupt, or challenge, or question, or celebrate or feel heard. I have answered this very badly – it’s a big question!
GMcC: Your poem ‘Hungry’ actually reminds me of that vast internet sea where people are ‘seeking love where there is none’ and there’s ‘the lonely sea calling out for a friend/ to go drinking with on a cold/winter evening’. It seems to be a poem about failing to connect?
RP: I think it’s about loneliness and isolation and detachment, which are all failures to connect in their own ways. Or not failures – detachments, I suppose. I’m interested in the unknowability of water and the experience of being underwater – that very brief removal from the natural environment in which we can breathe – which is also a detachment.
GMcC: I still struggle now with mobile phones and internet and being continually contactable. It used to be after school ended you’d just see the people in your street. Does that strangely make for a lonelier time now do you think?
RP: I actually find phones and the internet and the existence of this huge, always-accessible bank of knowledge very comforting. I think there’s this idea that relationships forged/maintained online are somehow less valid or real than face-to-face ones, which I don’t think is the case. I talk to my friends online a lot so we’re basically just writing to each other which, for a few of us (as writers or shy people), is the way we best convey our feelings.
The internet has saved me on lots of occasions when I’ve felt lonely and it’s also brought me a lot of joy. I love to hang out with people in person but I also really like to not do that sometimes. Being online can make you feel like you’re making valuable use of your time – investigating and learning and engaging – without leaving the house.
GMcC: It’s funny, it’s still for some reason feels strange to see contemporary phenomena in poems. Maybe I’m just getting old! A lot of poems I read could have been written fifty years ago. I like how SPAM intrudes in ‘Junk Mail’ for instance. I’m wondering if it comes naturally using contemporary terminology in your work?
RP: People are often still squeamish about contemporary vocabulary or ‘internet speak’ in poetry – like Poetry is sacred as an art form and it’s muddied or degraded by the realities of the 21st century. On a very basic level I think we write from our experience of the world, so it feels as natural to me to make use of the internet/technology as it would a tree or the moon. I was very grateful for something generous Dave Coates said when he reviewed my book: ‘In the right hands, in the right context, custard is as jarring, moving, perspective-altering as the archaic torso of Apollo, and which did you encounter more recently?’
Denying the modern world seems like an odd thing for poetry to do – novels don’t do it, non-fiction doesn’t do it, nor does contemporary art or film.
GMcC: There’s I think a duality to your work with regard to memory. I love that line ‘I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth/to myself as much as you. I’d love to know your process of bringing poems dealing with the past to fruition? Are you really an archaeologist?
RP: The first part of that line (‘I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth’) is actually one of Blanche DuBois’ lines from A Streetcar Named Desire – that poem is about 50% a collage of lines/quotes of Tennessee Williams, who I’ve always been fascinated by, both as a writer and a person.
I suppose I’m interested in the ways we lie (both in life and in the writing of poetry) or the ways we alter perspective. It’s a powerful thing, what poetry allows you to do. In one of Mary Ruefle’s Twenty Two Short Lectures she says:
(Turn vase into a hat and wear it)
You think the vase has become a hat; it has not.
My body has become an upside-down flower.
I think those lines can be read in a multitude of ways, but they struck me as talking about the ways we present things as writers, how we bend things and surprise and force a shift in perspective. It’s also great to feel out of control as a reader, and like you’re an idiot, and that’s how those lines make me feel.
But, yes, interestingly, if I could start life over (or, more accurately, have a second life that runs parallel to mine, which I’m constantly annoyed that I can’t have) I’d have trained to be an archaeologist. But I suppose writing poems is as close as you can get to digging up bones and making a skeleton, or digging up shards and creating a vase, without actually being in a field or desert. Also, I’m very clumsy and would probably be bad at it.
GMcC: Which inevitably leads on to museums and dinosaurs. The National Portrait Gallery terrifies me. All those dead people staring down brings me out in a sweat. I imagine the past being very accusatory. You’ve written before on how you enjoy museums and how you’re a bit jealous of the past. I wonder if maybe in creating a book a poet is creating a museum or a gallery of sorts? My other hat is a curator so I sometimes think very visually.
RP: I talked to Crispin Best in an interview for The Quietus about my relationship with museums. I find them vital both in terms of having to confront mortality in one of the most overwhelming and visual ways possible and also being connected to the past via things you can see and touch. I’m very afraid of being dead and I think having my death presented to me in the form of a painting or an amulet or a roman coin (ie art) is one of the few ways I can accept it. And there’s a very tiny consolation in the fact that something survives of a culture (if it’s lucky) – though I think I say that and don’t really believe it.
I do like the idea of a book as a museum/gallery – it’s a really neat little image. When I was putting my book together I had to split it into seven sections, both in order to be able to edit it and to be able to present it to other people. I just couldn’t bear to have the poems all floating about together, which I suppose is like keeping tapestries away from the suits of armour and the renaissance paintings away from the taxidermy.
GMcC: Some of the spacing in your poems remind me of exhibits. We take a couple of steps before the next few words. Do you take long over composition in terms of how a poem looks on the page?
RP: The composition tends to come quite easily. I very rarely change or mess around with things. If a poem needs space I generally instinctively allow it that as I’m writing, rather than rearranging things later. I’m not a huge editor of my own poems. I’m aware this makes me sound like a very lazy writer (which is possibly true) but I tend to prefer the honesty (even if flawed) of writing that way – it feels like there are fewer barriers between the writer and reader that way (which is possibly nonsense). The only time I drastically changed the form of a poem was ‘Poem in which the girl has no door on her mouth’ (which I talk about here) – it had never felt quite right in its first iteration and suddenly felt finished when I split it down the middle.
GMcC: Those couple of poems, Dear Stegosaurus and Pepo, I love. It strikes me as kind of subversive as identifying with the more gentle stegosaurus rather than a violent T-Rex for example. But then we have an 8 year old killing her imaginary friend, blasting the atlas and being a kind of extinction event. Would you say that duality exists in you (or everyone) for creation and destruction?
RP: I actually wrote that love poem to a stegosaurus because it’s my favourite dinosaur, but it’s my favourite dinosaur because it’s slow and gentle and vegetarian, so those things are inextricably linked. I think there’s a split in a lot of my poems (and my life) between hope/despair and cynicism/hope – so praising a perfect creature that no longer, and never again will, exist seems perfect!
I think you probably can’t create anything unless you have impulses to both make and break. I used to burn things a lot as a child, and often have the impulse to smash things, but I also like to make things exist. I’m sure that’s the case for everyone.
GMcC: Every time I read about dinosaurs the image of a sad brontosaurus saying ‘All my friends are dead’ on the same titled book comes to mind. A single line and little drawing can be funny and heart-breaking. I have that same feeling when I read ‘All the Sad Movies’ ‘In winter, colour is broken’. I love lines that though abstract hit you like a punch in the gut, that make you have that something in your eye moment. Would that be something you’d aim for?
RP: I think that’s one of poetry’s greatest abilities. It’s one of the things I love best about reading and hearing poetry, so if I managed it a handful of times in my life I’d be very happy.
GMcC: Do you see yourself as writing for the ‘girl-power generation’ (as it says on the Beauty/Beauty cover)? Yours, like the best writing whilst detailing specifics has a universality that can echo with everyone who’s ever been lonely or in love or lost or all three.
RP: Does it say that on the cover?! I think maybe they added a quote or two on the reprinted version! I feel quite uncomfortable with some of the ways my book has been reviewed/talked about but actually, being a cis, straight, middle-class white female, is something I have to endure way less than other writers who are pigeonholed in far crasser and more basic ways.
The honest answer is that I just write for whoever wants to read me but, of course, the fact that I often choose to write about female experience (which inevitably means writing from my experience as a female – cis, straight, etc etc – which has its own limitations) will be of more interest to some people than others. I want people who identify as female to feel and be powerful, and that’s hard a lot of the time. It feels important to me to call out some of the bullshit we deal with (both in my writing and day-to-day) but I would also hope that just feelings and the business of being alive, which are really what I’m most interested in are, as you say, universal.
GMcC: Finally what’s next? Any more videos? I loved the Pow video in a previous HU!
RP: I hope so! Owen Davey, who made the Pow video, has an idea for a video for A Woman’s Bones are Purely Ornamental, and I’ve done the voice recording for it, so that will exist at some point in the not too distant future. I’m hoping to work on a couple of collaborative projects this year – something written with Amy Key and hopefully a festival/event with Crispin Best – and maybe write some poems.
GMcC: Thanks again for being in the HU. Good luck with your projects!
You can purchase Rebecca's (excellent) book 'Beauty/Beauty' here: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/beauty-beauty-175