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POET & NOVELIST
WRITING POETRY BY PENELOPE

"It falls on to the open page through some kind magic"

Penelope Shuttle

Although my ‘Unsent: New and Selected Poems’ stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how

poems get themselves written. Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry;

before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to

do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is

the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.


But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-shaping and learning further

meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive

is also an exciting challenge.


It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop

at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-and-again poem, as all poets

know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the

tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s

radar is switched on all the time.


Here’s some background. I published my first full collection of poems in 1980, when I was thirty three years

old. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and my editor there, Jacqueline Simms, created a wonderful

and unique stable of poets, including Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy, Hugo Williams and Fleur -

Adcock, to name but a few. By 1998 I had published six collections with OUP, and in that year my first ‘Selected

Poem’ appeared. In 1999 OUP’s superb poetry list was shut-down by The Press, in an act of unparalleled

cultural vandalism. The poets dispersed, and continued to play highly-significant roles in the life of poetry in

the United Kingdom and beyond, winning numerous prizes such as the Forward Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, and

the Griffin Prize. But nothing to me in my publishing life has been sadder than that wilful destruction of a

living poetry list.


My 1998 ‘Selected Poems’ was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In a review in the TSL, Gerard -

Woodward said: ‘Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject-matter and the breadth of

her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-maker. One senses that she has her life

perfectly in tune with her poetry, so that it registers the slightest variation in her state of being. In this sense,

the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love that can be traced through these poems collocate into

the drama of a life lived in the full flood of being’.


I published a seventh collection in 1999, ‘A Leaf Out Of His Book’, with OxfordPoets/Carcanet. They also took

over the distribution of my OUP books, including the Selected Poems, which went out of print a few years

later.


There was a considerable gap before my eighth collection, ‘Redgrove’s Wife’, appeared from Bloodaxe Books in

2006. This was due to the death of my husband, poet Peter Redgrove, in 2003, after some years of ill-health.

‘Redgrove’s Wife’ contained a number of elegies for Peter, and for my late father Jack Shuttle, who had also died

in 2003. This collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot

Prize. A ninth collection, ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’, appeared (also from Bloodaxe, 2010, Poetry Book Society

Recommendation), again containing elegies for Peter, Dad, and my friend, artist, musician and poet Linda -

Helen Smith who died in 2008.


I’m most grateful to Bloodaxe Books for their generous and sustaining support over the past six years, and for

publishing in October 2012 Unsent, which contains all the poems from my OUP 1998 Selected Poems, with

further selections from the three subsequent collections.


It also contains a volume of sixty-two new poems entitled Unsent. Whereas I had tempered my two previous

volumes of elegies (‘Redgrove’s Wife’ and ‘Sandgrain and Hourglass’) with poems covering a wide range of other

Topics, ‘Unsent’ is a book of elegies. I wished to include this volume in my ‘New and Selected Poems’ to create a

triptych of elegies. They seemed to fit naturally together. One theme which emerges in this third volume is the

question – how long do you  continue writing and publishing elegies? And I try to find and suggest some

answers. I felt that to publish Unsent as a stand-alone collection would be asking too much of a reader, an

overwhelm. There comes a time (and this is delineated in the poems of ‘Unsent’) when I must cease ‘to weep on

the world’s shoulder’.


I’m sure I’ll continue to write elegies, for they are a way of continuing to talk to Peter, to Dad,  … but I don’t

plan to publish any more elegies. (Though, as the old song has it, never say never!). The poems in ‘Unsent’ have

been a process of release and re-awakening to possibilities for me though language, rhythm and experience.

They have liberated me into whatever new kinds of poems I’ll be writing next. Those poem-drafts are already

beginning, taking me to new places and opening new doors. What else are poems for?


This piece first appeared on the blog Peony Moon in 2012

#

Penelope Shuttle’s new collection ‘Will You

Walk a Little Faster?’ published to celebrate

her 70th birthday on 12 May 2017.

Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall

since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and

rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.

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