Rachel Spence

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Rachel Spence is a poet and art writer living in London, Ludlow, and previously in Venice. Rachel has two pamphlets: Furies (2016, Templar) and Call and Response (2020, Emma Press); a collection, Bird of Sorrow (2018, Templar), and a collaborative work with photographer Giacomo Cosua, Venice Unclocked, (Ivory Press, 2022)


Rachel has recent work in PN Review, The London Magazine, The Friday Poem, and she has a hand stitched poetry journal forthcoming from Coast to Coast to Coast (Autumn, 2023)





Maria Isakova: Rachel, it’s lovely to have this chance to talk with you about your writing and practice as a poet. We met briefly in 2016 at the launch of your first pamphlet, Furies. I read that book immediately cover to cover, totally absorbed in the world you created with its undercurrent of conflict expressed through powerful verb choices, and contrasted with a tenderness toward art and artists. I remember being so happy to hear you mention Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin. I wonder if you could talk about that first pamphlet.

Rachel Spence: Thank you Maria! I am so happy to have this opportunity to talk with you as our concerns overlap in ways that are fertile.

The story behind Furies is that I'd been writing poetry since I was a child. Both my parents loved poetry – John Clare was Mum's favourite. My father loves the Spanish Civil War poets like Spender and Auden.

During my 20s when I was living in London, I started to publish in magazines. But as my poetic voice started to consolidate a little, I veered off to take a Masters in Literature in English. That really scuppered my lyricism not helped by my job as a journalist covering employment. After realising that a career in academia was not for me, I moved to Venice in Italy and started to work as a journalist covering travel, design and eventually art.

As I engaged with visual artists, and experienced Venice day in day out, that lyrical heartbeat started to thump again. I remember the day I saw the old ladies in the street 'outside the bakery' that became the subject of the eponymous poem and just knowing that that was a poem right there waiting to be written.

MI:  Yes. I love that poem, ‘Outside the Bakery’, with the reference, ‘four ladies boneless as the loaves in their trolleys,’. I wonder, how did writing for publication come about?

RS: In 2007, I had a kind of epiphany in front of L'Annunziata, a 15th-century painting of Mary ostensibly receiving the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina but to my mind, a portrait of a woman asking for time to think before she accepts her so-called destiny. Although Antonello is Sicilian, I found out that some scholars think he painted the Annunziata in Venice so I wrote a sequence about it, imagining that Antonello had fallen in love with a self-contained young woman who sold eggs at Venice's Rialto market, reminded him of his mother and became his model and muse. That sequence Palermo Suite is the core of Furies.

By now I was back in London after nine years in Italy but still spending a lot of time in Venice. Working as an arts journalist and travelling to different countries for exhibitions and events, I got to see the work of remarkable artists. In the same four days in Delhi, I saw the work of Nasreen Mohamedi and interviewed the photographer and book-maker Dayanita Singh.

Furies, which includes poems about Nasreen and Dayanita, came out of me giving myself permission to voyage inwards. More concretely, it was enormously aided by classes at the Poetry School with Mimi Khalvati who taught me how to edit more effectively and a one-day workshop on pamphlet-making with Mario Petrucci who just said: yours is ready, send it.

MI: Interesting to hear about the influence of Mimi Khalvati. I love the way you reference art in your writing – not surprising given your time in Venice and art writing (which I also love!). Could you talk about the genesis of, and relationship between, art and writing for you?

RS: As a young woman I had a dear friend, Robin, who was an art collector. As a child, I came from a family, as Adrienne Rich puts it, "of the book". It was all literature and politics; there was no visual art at all. Robin took me around Italy. We'd wander into museums and churches and stand in front of paintings by Bellini and Titian. He'd just say 'that's nice, isn't it?' His lack of didacticism gave me space to look.

I think those years imprinted me with an appreciation for painting. It simply moved me. I think art and poetry spring from that first sense of being moved. Then you build on it. As I started to work as an arts journalist when I was living in Venice, the articles came out of laborious research. I basically did a degree in my apartment by getting up at 4am and reading art-history books. But the poems came out of that first feeling in front of an image. Where did that take me if I just followed it? These days I let the poetic slide into the journalism as far as possible. Otherwise, it can get a little dry.

I also read a lot of artist biographies. As I discovered the stories behind visual artists, I realised that many lived on the edge of their sanity sometimes but the art often came out of that risk. Like many people, I know what it is to feel on that edge. Reading about artists made me feel less alone. As if I'd found my tribe - even though I was a writer. It was permission to pursue who I was, with the darkness and the light, and be grateful for it rather than frightened.

MI: Yes. I think it’s another sort of epiphany and an important milestone in life when you realise that you are not alone in terms of your concerns re an interior life. In the past you’ve spoken about the way artists Nasreen Mohamedi and Antonello da Messina, ‘…are separated by gender, geography and history. And yet… linked, their work blinking out cryptic, metaphysical codes across chasms of time, distance and understanding.’ I sense that like me you see that there is something essential in nothing and space that is much fuller than people might anticipate. I wonder if you can speak about how these ideas function in your writing?

RS: Sometimes I think it's all about absence, isn't it? As human beings, we so desperately want to make something. You can call it ego. Or creativity. I'm not sure how you can separate those. But if you are drawn to mysticism, you sense that what's really transcendent is nothingness. The space beyond. The void. (Adrienne Rich said female creativity comes from the void which is why we are taught to fear it and turn ourselves into external objects for the world to look at). If there's any truth, it's in the connections across time and space between one creature and another, one particle and another. (The physicists and the mystics meet on this plane). For humans that might be love, compassion, certainly our co-dependence on each other and the natural world. I think both Nasreen Mohamedi and Antonello da Messina were pursuing inwardness even as they made external images. Another artist whose work dances on the brink of the void is Sofia Karim. She is a good friend and we talk about the void and its fertility a lot.

Perhaps I'm attempting to circle around that void in certain poems. Make something so weightless and fleeting it's barely there. Like a bird landing for a second on a branch. (You can see why I'm drawn to haiku!) It's a kind of unwriting.

MI: Yes. I do see your attraction to haiku and look forward to creating your journals of haiku later this year.

With further reference to ideas around nothing, space, the void; I think that there can be misunderstandings about abstraction as largely a move through or away from representation. I’ve been thinking of its role as an intensification and distillation of the essential and how it aids a search for that. I wonder about your thoughts on the importance, in light of your art writing, of abstraction in writing poetry.

RS: Two artists I love are Agnes Martin and, as I've already said, Nasreen Mohamedi, both of whom worked with grids, lines and geometries, and both of whom allowed feeling to simmer through the 'bars' of their work, like suppressed whispers. To 'explain' or 'paraphrase' their art would be a pointless exercise. Martin was concerned with turning an external landscape – often the New Mexico desert – into an internal image. Mohamedi was drawn to terrestrial and cosmic forms and energies and translating that into a quest for inner unity. But their hermeticism was intrinsic to their expression.

As the artist Richard Tuttle once said to me: 'art creates a space for mystery' – that's its superpower. I think mystery is our superpower too. So much of the human race has wagered itself on Cartesian reason, and on allowing our capacity to understand and analyse become a licence to colonise, control and extract. And look where that's got us. We need to start to accept that if we were really so clever, we wouldn't be in this environmental and social crisis. Mystery humbles us. Also it's fascinating, beautiful and fecund as you find with abstract poetry of say, Paul Celan or Samuel Beckett.

MI: Rachel – I love the hopeful thoughts contained here. Thank you for that… Hopeful for me anyway!

Call and Response, your second pamphlet, was published four years after Furies and uses the sonnet form. I know that you are drawn to haiku and the ghazal too [https://inksweatandtears.co.uk/rachel-spence/; and forthcoming work with Coast to Coast to Coast], and I wonder if you can tell us some more about your decision to use form (or perhaps its decision to call on you)?

RS: I first became interested in form when I took Mimi Khalvati's course Versification. She is a great formal poet of our era (I only took the course because I wanted more teaching from Mimi and it was the only course she was taking.) Instantly I realised I loved form. (Mimi says you like form if you like detective stories and crossword puzzles and I love both). Form gets you to places you wouldn't get to otherwise –you have to experiment with words that you wouldn't arrive at with free verse. Surprising yourself is delightful.

Often I choose form to handle emotional material. For Call and Response, which are 13 sonnets for my mother after she recovered from illness, I chose the sonnet form only after writing most of it in free verse. When I realised that there was darkness as well as light and love in the poems, I thought I need to stay in the light and decided on sonnets because they have a tradition of being used as love poems. Also they are relatively straightforward unless you really adhere to the classic form which I don't.

With haiku what I like is the tension between delicacy and rigour. That five/seven/five syllable count keeps you on your toes because every word has to work.

I started writing haiku for Lita's House, Sofia Karim's project about political prisoners. Again, this was painful material which required a light touch.

When Mum fell ill terminally in early 2021, the same applied. As her body changed, her garden was changing too, blossoming into spring even as Mum seemed to be shrinking into winter. Yet even that wasn't quite true. Her last months were full of happiness and our relationship flourished and deepened. But essentially, these are fragile, transient subjects ideal for a fragile, transient form like haiku.

MI: And these are the haiku to be published later this year. 

RS: Yes. Uncalendared, the pamphlet coming out with Coast to Coast to Coast contains the haiku I wrote during those months. Most were written in the middle of the night when otherwise I would have been awake and gloomy. They just fell into my head and onto my iphone. As if they were out there in the garden waiting to come in. (Laura Scott, another good friend, has written that poems are like fish tapping on the glass of their bowl wanting to be let in.) Another influence was the painter Charlotte Verity for whom I was writing an essay. Charlotte paints her garden as it changes over the year. Haiku were perfect for her work so I wrote some for her too.

MI: I love the idea of the poems like fish tapping to come in – such a lovely image! And the sonnets?

RS: The sonnets kept coming. After Mum died, I started swimming in the river in Ludlow where my parents lived. The sonnets emerged out of my relationship with the river, loss and change. The swimming is glorious - a beautiful thing born from a sad thing because I would never have found it if I hadn't been in Ludlow caring for my parents.

At a certain point lines from the sonnets and haiku started to migrate into each other. Those overlaps make me happy. I like the idea of poetry being borderless. I think Paul Cézanne said that essentially he was always painting the same picture. I think I'm probably always writing the same poem.

The problem with form is that it can take over like a song you can't get out of your head. At a certain point I feared I would never write anything that wasn't a sonnet or a haiku so I made myself write a ghazal. (I'd written a grumpy one about Boris Johnson's government and lockdown - more difficult material!) Now I've written one more about Mum. It's a beautiful form but I'm not very accomplished. You have to practice. But I am writing free verse again. I'm glad - I was starting to feel hemmed-in. Even with free verse I have certain tropes and phrases I return to a lot - as if I really am always writing the same poem! In fact, considering this makes me think I am going to start a new poem with none of my usual words and structures and see what happens!

MI: I’m delighted to hear about a new poem! You’re very prolific which I for one feel very happy about and I admire your ability to use form enormously. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so generously Rachel. It’s been a pleasure, inspiring, and very enlightening  

Some links for references made in our interview:

Mimi Khalvati https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/mimi-khalvati

Adrienne Rich https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/adrienne-rich


Laura Scott https://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=1846

Charlotte Verity https://www.charlotteverity.co.uk

Sofia Karim https://www.sofiakarim.co.uk

Photo of Rachel Spence is courtesy of Andrew King.