Your journey into poetry, what started it?
Reading poetry. My grandfather had a shop -
broker so when times were hard between the wars people would bring a box of stuff and he'd give them a
couple of quid, and it would often have old anthologies and old school books in and
I would sit in my grand-
father's house and read them. It's where I first came across Keats, Edward Thomas and poets like that. When I
was fourteen, I started reading anything I could. I found the world quite difficult, as many children do, not that
there was anything dangerous or difficult in my childhood, it was just me, and when I was in the sphere of
poetry I thought, this is where I belong, I'll do this, and I started to write little surrealist haikus in school, in
lessons, influenced by the american poet Witter Bynner.
What appealed about surrealism?
Alternative realities, I think, because I grew up in the '50's which is notorious for being incredibly boring.
Long before I read Rimbaud I think I was experiencing this deregulation of the senses and the alternative side
without knowing what it was but I just quite liked it -
I think you've never lost that ability to access what's seen as surreal,
or areas that are incredibly free, that you could never walk into
poetry that's straight line poetry but poetry that goes round behind the scenery and sees what's there, behind
the appearances of things. Peter [Redgrove] always used to like that phrase. When we were in Cornwall we'd
go driving off roads onto smaller and smaller roads, back roads, and Peter used to call that going behind the
appearance of things, and I think that's what poetry is going to find, the other realities.
Do you think having that affinity with surrealism places your
work more closely with other poets who are surrealists?
I've always liked poetry in translation, which as you know used to be quite thin on the ground, but when I was
about seventeen Penguin started to produce European Poetry in Translation. I came across Rilke and poets
who were around the fringes of surrealism or using elements of surrealism. Hard core surrealism is not what I
was interested in. I was interested in being grounded and, to use H.D.'s (the american poet's) wonderful phrase,
writing poetry because it's a way of making real to myself those things which are most real. And so you move
towards surrealism but also ground yourself in reality as a way of rejecting what we're offered as reality, which
in the '50's was a very boundaried experience of life.
Can you say a bit more about reading poetry?
The pleasure principle is what drives me. I learnt to read very early and when I came to a word I didn't
understand I often used to think okay, I don't know that word so I'm going to skip it. To a certain extent when
you're reading Rilke in your teens you're not going to understand it -
world that Rilke offers you that's come through Rilke's sensibilities so you can't paraphrase or understand it,
it's just a place you want to be. So I really was inhabiting these poets without understanding, without
comprehending them, but the meaning was coming in a strange osmosis, in other ways that weren't logical.
When did you start to show people your poems?
I didn't have a wonderful teacher in school who inspired me or anything like that, I was really never happy at
school at all, but I started sending out to little magazines when I was fifteen. I used to read a magazine called
John O'Londons which is an old literary magazine, a newspaper format, and I must have seen little adverts in
there for a magazine called Medley. I sent my poems to it -
Whitton poetry group from the age of fifteen, which was not a critiquing group but one where we met together
and read poems by other poets, and talked about them, so that was a great deal more helpful. It was run by a
dear man called Brian Louis Pearce who was published by Shearsman and sadly isn't with us anymore. So I
started sending out and you just then send to slightly more high-
permission to say, I'm going to be a writer -
was going to live. I didn't really bother with exams and did a commercial course instead. I didn't take the
university route, but I certainly couldn't have coped with university psychologically. I was very shy and quite
phobic of some things, because I think if you're that young and entirely enmeshed in reading and writing
poetry it's a seriously weird place to be, socially for a young woman.
Quite isolating I imagine?
It was, and that's where the Whitton poets were lovely -
When I was about seventeen or eighteen I heard Pablo Neruda at the Roundhouse. He read in Spanish, and he
stood there like an Aztec god with his hands open on either side, lifted his head and all by memory this Spanish
poetry came out. I didn't have a word of Spanish, yet I understood exactly and so did everyone in the room,
they understood exactly what he was saying because he communicated it. And I heard
Stevie Smith -
how I got myself from Staines into London, even though I was scuttling around and terrified of my own
nineteen, because of the whole strain of things. I was working in offices because
I could type like mad -
my one motor skill! -
much, so I did a bit of crash and burn. And I'd just really got back on my feet and moved to Somerset when I
met Peter Redgrove.
Was that prior to you winning an Eric Gregory Award?
I got that in 1974, about a year after Peter and I moved in together. His first marriage had ended and so I
moved from Somerset down here [Falmouth] in February. I was only about the second or third woman to
receive an Eric Gregory. Winning it gave me confirmation that I could be thinking about writing a collection.
And the money was helpful as well because I wasn't earning anything, and I was still post this breakdown. I
was not really tough enough to have a full time job, so that made me feel I could contribute something to our
Maybe you could say a little bit about the room you work in,
in the attic of your house here in Falmouth?
I’ve worked in that room for about 5 years. It was my daughter’s room and although she’d gone to university
and then work, you kind of always want to keep the nest there because it gives a bad signal if as soon as a
young adult has gone you immediately move into their room. It’s a very bad signal. So the time came and I said
to Zoe, I’d like to move up to the attic and have my office there. And she said yes, so long as I can sleep up
there and for a long time her single bed stayed but I’ve completely colonized it now and many years have
passed since then and it’s been lovely. It’s a very light room and it looks right out over to Event's Square, the
Maritime Museum and beyond the Penryn river. If you look to the right you can look out towards the Roseland.
You’ve got the blue of the sea and if I move my eyes sideways, because where I work I have a wall in front, if I
move sideways I can see a yacht going by.
Do you think it makes a difference working up high?
I think it is quite liberating yes, you are away from everything, in a sort of eyrie, like an eagle. I have a break
and look out of the window -
and so on. Though you are up in the sky room you are also grounded and reminded that you're part of a
community. So it’s kind of a bit of the best of both worlds, I love it.
And you said you couldn’t hear the front door from up there?
No. I don’t hear the phone either, and don’t take my mobile up unless there is a particular reason. And so you
can't get the person from Porlock -
be writing a genius poem like Kubla Kahn I will not let the person in.
I wanted to ask you to explore what community means to you both in terms of the
Falmouth Poetry Group and the wider world of poetry. I think I said to you that
Alison Brackenbury recently described you as a benevolent force in the poetry
community, so I just wanted you to explore why it's so important to you.
Well, it goes back a really long time. The Falmouth Poetry Group was started by Peter Redgrove in 1972,
initially as an extra mural course in the Falmouth College of Art in the days when it was run by the University
of Exeter. That ran for two years and then Exeter changed their policy and stopped funding it, and everyone
said to Peter please go on running this monthly workshop we just love it. It was based on the original group of
Philip Hobsbaum, which is a structure that has worked for more than half a century now.
Where did Peter find out about the original group?
As a student at Cambridge. It was the first critiquing workshop in this country.
It was devised by Philip -
Hobsbaum with the structure that the poem of each person is circulated to the group. In those days each poem
was laboriously typed out, and Philip said that Hughes’s poems were terrible -
was almost worn away to nothing and you'd get this grotty poem on grubby paper. Anyway, the poem circulates
ahead of the meeting, everyone reads it, each poet reads their poem but must remain silent while the group
critique their poem and then the chair, Philip, invites the poet back in and that started in about 1954. Peter
had that model which he took and he just started it again in Falmouth. In Falmouth we always want to
remember Philip Hobsbaum having really created this amazing way of working because the poet can’t come
in and defend their poetry in the middle of the critiquing, and that’s what we all want to do, we all want to
come in and say, ‘no, that line doesn’t mean that! It means this!’ Instead, you have to remain silent while other
people comment on your work. Perhaps one argues for the merits of a line and another says no get that line
Alyson Hallet asks the questions
First appeared in Raceme Magazine, Issue 3 Winter 2016
This interview takes place over three days, from the 11th to the 13th October, 2015. The first two days we
stayed indoors, in the book-
to the terrace of the Cove restaurant at Maenporth. It was a sunny day. When the interview was over, we
went for a walk on the beach. This is where Penny and Zoe waded out in their wellies on the 19th September
2004 and scattered Peter Redgrove's ashes. When we weren't doing the interview, we went to see the film
Macbeth, perused the improvements to Penny's garage with its new storage facility for archives, and visited
the Townhouse bar for a tot of vodka and further conversation.
Cornwall Contemporary Poetry Festival
Will be held in Falmouth, from Thursday 22
to Sunday 25 November 2018
Penelope Shuttle has made her home in Cornwall
since 1970 and the county’s mercurial weather and
rich history are continuing sources of inspiration.