I wanted to ask if your poems come from
prompts or if they just appear?
Both. Sometimes they come from prompts that I might be given in a workshop. Other times I get unexpected
lines when I’m not actually in a writing space. I might just be looking blankly out of the window or walking
along and lines come and I just write them down and sometimes they lead to a poem. It's been like that with
my latest sequence on Lyonesse because it’s still in play. When you start to write, you are doodling really, like
artists do in sketch books, just doodling with words and nothing happens and then a line seems to come from
somewhere else in the part of you that’s doing the doodling. It kind of says, okay, go ahead.
So some magic goes on but the magic doesn’t happen without all the times you are working unproductively,
slogging along thinking, oh I’ll never write another poem. And reading -
saying to people read more, and I say it to myself too sometimes. You know sometimes you are busy doing
other things and you think, when was the last time you read a new collection? Well it’s going to be right now!
Practising what we preach.
The lines that just come, I think those are like free gifts that the language gives you but I don’t think you get
those unless you put in the hours, which in itself is not arduous, but sometimes we do spend a long time going
up the wrong route, don’t we? There are times you write something and you have to abandon it because it has
been a misstep, you get very excited about those and think this is the greatest poem I’ve ever written, this is
my Wasteland! Well it is, yes, but not in that sense! You do have to let things go.
Can you talk a bit about why Denise Levertov
is so important to you?
When I was in my teens I was presented with ‘The Movement’ poems and these were very tight arsed, very
genteel, strict rhyming forms of poetry. I used to think if this is really poetry today, then I’m not a poet. And
then I discovered Denise Levertov and I thought, oh yes, here she is, this wonderful exponent and wonderful
practitioner of free verse without all of the bullshit. The Black Mountain guys were not particularly friendly
to her, she was very patronised by them and only her friendship with Carlos Williams really made up for that.
He had no gender politics with her, he was a very good friend and fellow poet. And so she was my touchstone
I was 17 when Plath killed herself and I was always very frightened of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Apart from the
baby poems and a few others, there is so much death, so much intensity about death and rage, and although I
was excited by the language, I thought, I don’t want to go too close to you. And so Levertov, she was perhaps
10 years older than Plath, they are both key poets, but Levertov was a survivor, and Plath, if you kill yourself
you haven’t survived, that’s the end of it, you can’t do any more. I was always rather cross with Plath, although
I also feel huge pity because a woman of 30 still has that bloom of youth and possibility. I think Plath,
because of the circumstances in which she found herself, is crucially tragic. But I do feel that they are both
two poles of women writing poetry. And I wonder what would have happened if they had met? I wonder
whether Levertov could have somehow mentored Plath, but Plath probably would not have taken kindly to
being mentored. But isn’t that interesting, to find them so close in time? There's Levertov who is English,
except of course her father was a Russian Jew, who converted to Christianity and became a Christian priest
and her mother is Welsh and fills her childhood with Welsh poetry and then Levertov at 21 marries an
American and goes to America. And Plath, at about the same age, comes over to study and settles here. It’s
strange how their lifelines paralleled, crossed, missed.
Do you have any other touchstones?
I’m so thankful for translators, because I am a monglotic person. Since reading the Leishman translation of
Rilke, and now Edward Snow's and Steven Mitchell's fantastic translations, I've been thankful for translators.
Without them I would have been unable to read the Russian poets -
Tsetaeva, all of whom have been hugely important to me from when I was quite a young writer. They were all
translated in the 70s, that’s when this Eastern European stream of poetry came along with Hughes and
Weissbort starting Modern Poetry In Translation and the Penguin, European Modern Poets in Translation.
They have all been my touchstones -
naming no names.
But I’m also very interested in Mark Goodwin, the younger poets, you know, Emily
Berry, Liz Berry, Niall -
Campbell. As I get older and older, they are all younger than myself. I hope it’s not just a mummy thing, but I
feel really excited that poetry is like a viable life choice nowadays for lots of people, they’ll say right, I’m going
to be a poet, this is what I can do with my life, which wasn’t the case when I was a young woman.
Which is the more extraordinary, because
you have lived your whole life as a poet.
Yes, I’m very obstinate! And of course I had Peter’s support. If I hadn’t met Peter, I might have met somebody
else who would have been helpful in other ways, but people used to say to us, how can two poets live together?
It must be awful, I don’t know how you can do that? But who better to live with if you are a poet? And also the
fact that there’s an age difference and that Peter was an established poet. I had published these weird novels,
which are actually coming back to print, which is like being haunted by a ghost of yourself. There’s a press
called Verbiforacious Press who reprint lost works, and they are reprinting 4 of my novels in an omnibus and
so I’m going to have to go back and look at my earlier stuff. Peter was quite in awe of me having written these
mad, weird novels and so because we had 16 years between us and I had already published and he had done
different things, we kind of didn’t have that competitiveness so we could be more supportive to one another.
You’ve never gone back to novels?
No, I always find as if I’m straining in a way, I don’t feel I’m in a place where I’m confident. I really have
perhaps too much confidence in poetry, I think oh yes here I am, this is what I do and I feel very happy in it, but
as I move in prose I find myself being drawn back to poetry. I read lots of novels and every so often I have a
go at it but it’s like an endless bit of knitting. I've had a novel going on for about 20 years, I get fed up with it,
and you know how knitting gets tangled and you put it in a cupboard it’s like this mad rug or something. So I
don’t really think I’ll go back to that.
I wonder if you want to say anything about
the importance of Cornwall to you?
Well I’ve lived here since I was 22. I think the good thing about it for me is that it’s probably not England, it is
a Celtic region. The fact that we are joined on to Devon by a narrow land bridge is in fact neither here nor
there, the fact that we speak English is neither here nor there, I think England is another place. Lots of people
are following some kind of artistic pursuits here, they are working part-
keeping money and the rent and doing a lot of other things the rest of the time, and of course a lot of the
people when I moved down here were involved with Falmouth College of Art, and Peter taught and I met a lot
of people through that. So we didn’t go out of Cornwall all that much particularly as Peter got older because
he didn’t like travelling. Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve been out of Cornwall
as much as I have been in it -
I return to it and rediscover it a lot, so that’s been interesting.
You use place names and Cornish words and...
...yes, yes I’m very keen on keeping what are almost lost languages in view even though I haven’t got the
sticking force to try and learn Cornish. But I think it is very important to honour the original language here,
and of course all the place names more or less are in Cornish still and that reminds me of the Cornish tongue.
If you had to name the most significant event
in terms of being a poet, what would it be?
I think it was probably two things. The first was having my first collection published by OUP, a mainstream
publisher. I had 6 collections with them before the press was closed down by Oxford University. I had a
wonderful editor there, Jacqueline Simms and it all happened really by chance because I had an agent, which
poets usually don’t, because I had won a third prize in a Radio Times drama competition. As soon as that was
announced I got a message from a couple of agents saying that they would like to represent me. I think they
were thinking I was going to become a radio dramatist -
radio plays when he was becoming not so well towards the end, I actually wrote some of the dialogue for that
because it was beginning to get too difficult.
I’m going a long way round aren’t I? And so I had an agent because of the radio drama and they said we would
like to do everything that you do except your readings and workshops or whatever, so when I had a poetry
collection ready, the agents sent it round. They sent it first of all to Dennis Enright at Chatto & Windus. He
didn’t want it but he was a very good friend of Jacqueline Simms and he couriered it over to her and said, I
don’t want to publish this new book but I think you will like it. That was a very kind thing of him and she
accepted it. That took me from publishing pamphlets and so on, to this more high visibility. That was
the first important event. Second important event was that Neil Astley took Redgrove's Wife. And I've been
very fortunate to have had two publishers with editors who were so supportive and so devoted to poetry.
So those are the two events, because you can write all you like, but the whole point of writing in many ways is
to communicate with the outside world and you can’t do that if you never send your poems out into the world.
And so you think of poets who weren’t published in their day because they were too
far ahead, like Emily -
Dickinson, you know the world couldn’t read her at all and Melville as well, I think
it was ages before Moby-
Dick was published, it wasn’t published because it wasn’t understood, it was dismissed as an eccentric. If you
are born into an era when your readers are actually alive, and not a hundred years ahead, and then you are
fortunate enough to have publishers who enable you to reach your readership, and so those are the events I
think. And that’s a very practical answer isn’t it?
Yes, and very heartening as well because it's about bridging,
that moment when your works go out to other people.
I also think poetry comes alive when you read it and when you’ve got the book then people ask you to come
along and do readings. I’ve learnt a lot about poetry in general from reading in public and then having
comments back. And so I think that is also part of the communication, reading aloud to people,
communicating it rather than performing it. So that enables all that too, and then you feel it’s come full circle,
it’s come from that moment when you are on your own writing something or at the beach writing and it has
gone through this whole trajectory. Been worked and worked on, and maybe other people have commented
on it in draft, and then it goes to be published and then it goes out into the world.
Penelope Shuttle in conversation with Alyson Hallett first appeared in Raceme Magazine, Issue 3 Winter 2016.
Raceme is a new Bristol-
Alyson Hallet asks the questions
First appeared in Raceme Magazine, Issue 3 Winter 2016
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.