Read an email interview with Alan Baker, conducted by the WRI 2010 (The Art of Poetry: Land and Landscape) group at Edge Hill University (2015-16), via Robert Sheppard, the tutor.
The interview is largely about the pamphlet they were studying, Whether, which is available from Knives Forks and Spoons here.
We were wondering about your overall book title Whether. What is the purpose of the pun on ‘weather’?
The pun on “weather” – an obvious one I know – is because the poems are “about” climate and weather, but not directly. I wanted to express the general unease we all feel about this subject but to do it by making word-objects in the form of spells. I also wanted to express a general feeling we often have of wanting to take control of our world, but being limited by our own physical resources. So the poems are related to climate and weather, but not exclusively about that. I like to think the pun in the title expresses this uncertainty.
This conditional mode expressed by “whether” also sets the tone for "Week to View"; in that sequence I wanted to express how our perception of the world is contingent and dependent on chance.
How did you structure the poems in ‘Week to View’ and how much was left to chance, or collage?
I can tell you that I wrote this sequence in a single sitting while waiting for a delayed plane at Amsterdam airport. I started writing in diary mode; I’d stayed in a hotel, attended powerpoint presentations, and so on, so they all got into the poems. At the airport, I consciously responded to the various stimuli - announcements, adverts, a Golden Age centre (still not quite sure what that is), and my own random thoughts which were affected by being in Holland. I also had a notebook of previous jottings from which I lifted phrases and passages (I didn't make it all up at the same time - some of those notebook entries were a year or two old). "Heart disease wears a skirt too" was a headline in a women's magazine. By including it at that point in the poem, I wanted to replicate the sudden switches in attention which contemporary life forces on us, sometimes in a shocking way (the switch from TV adverts to a news report of some violent event for example). As is probably obvious, the poem isn’t a true cut-up; but neither is it too consciously structured; it’s more of an improvisation. Whenever I found myself getting into a fluent passage, I’d switch focus, or add in an unrelated piece of text – whatever my eye alighted on at the time (so introducing a large element of chance); this seems to be how people keep diaries, or diary-style blogs, by writing short passages on things that occur to them; these poems try to take that to another level.
The poems (particularly in ‘Week to View’) seem multi-voiced. Are there overheard voices, media clips, found material, etc. in there? How much is your own voice?
The question "How much is your own voice" is a good one, and difficult to answer. I don't really know, in terms of poetry, what my own voice is. Even apparently personal statements are forms of address in a poetic text. At the same time, there is a personal element to these poems, both to the tone and the content, a result, I think, of the work of the subconscious. What I find when writing this collage-based poetry is that I'm often surprised at what comes out, and how pertinent to my own life it is. As if the use of apparently impersonal collaged materials frees your unconscious; themes emerge, and preoccupations become apparent. I suppose this is the equivalent of the traditional idea of ‘the muse’, or of Jack Spicer’s “poetry by dictation”.
The poems certainly contain found materials – from adverts, headlines in magazines, marketing materials, work-related emails and so on. What I've done in these poems, particularly in “Week To View”, is to collage materials from various sources, including my own notebooks. Are these latter "my own voice"? My writings probably have evolved a distinctive style, but it's not the same as my speaking voice, or my tone when writing emails at work; it's a style evolved to write in notebooks, and is certainly, to some degree, borrowed from the style of other poets.
In writing poem 5 of ‘Thirteen Spells’, how did you arrange its various parts? How was it written?
I work in an office overlooking the railway tracks at Derby station, and part of this poem was jotted down while at work there - just observations from looking round the office. The lines "traffic lights turn icicles red", "the river’s dangerous eddies that seem beautiful in the dark" and "Hyundai containers line the tracks" were from notebook jottings (I like Hyundai, as it's so un-English - starting a word with "hy"). Part of my technique is to assemble all these bits of text, and to yoke them together using a form, like pouring metal into a mould; the form here, of course, is the Spell or Charm, and it allowed me bring all of the pieces together; as I said earlier, somehow using the form freed the subconscious to make associations between them.
We noticed repeated imperatives in ‘Thirteen Spells’ and wondered why you’d used so many to create their rhetorical shape?
I used so many imperatives, because that’s the poetic form of the spell. Traditional spells and charms use imperatives, as they're demanding that something happens ("Shrink like coal in a bucket", etc). Traditional spells also name things, as if the act of naming gave the speaker some kind of power. So the Nine Herbs Charm names herbs:
This herb is called Cress ... This is named Nettle
The things they named were everyday, banal things to people at the time. In my spells, I name things like the office water cooler, Hyundai containers and hot desks.
The spell and the diary provide the forms in "Whether". The "talking to yourself" mode, which people use for diaries, provided the form of address in "Week to View", and that dictated the voice to some degree.
How seriously should we take the ancient spoken and written forms of spells or charms in reading these pieces? How strong is ‘against’ in the title?
I take the traditional spells very seriously; too seriously to want to reproduce them as museum pieces. So, the poems are partly parody, which is one way of paying homage to the originals. The idea is to "make them new", in the way that the poet Peter Hughes has done with Petrarch - his lively and irreverent versions are created by imagining how Petrarch might write today. How would you speak if you were casting a spell now? i.e. if you were addressing something over which you have little control, in language which might help you believe you were mitigating its effects. The word “against” is strong in the sense that I envisage these poems as contemporary spells which may give some comfort in the face of large, impersonal forces, but, of course, it’s also ironic in that none of us believe in the efficacy of spells in the way medieval people did.
We liked the way the poems move from the everyday to the cosmic. How does that work for you?
It's difficult to address the 'cosmic' (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) without becoming hopelessly abstract (which may work in French, but not so well in English). So it's necessary to undercut and contrast the cosmic things with the everyday. This is something which collagic composition and its sudden switches enable you to do. I think it's part of the human condition to be caught between two worlds of the day-to-day and the cosmic / spiritual and for each to interrupt each other at inconvenient times.
Alan Baker blogs here, and runs themagazine: LITTER
Alan Baker's reivew of The Drop by Robert Sheppard may be read here.