Interview

Penelope Shuttle

Born in Staines, Middlesex, in 1947. Penelope Shuttle has published six collections of poems since 1980 including a Selected Poems (Poetry Book Society Recommendation, 1997), novels, and is co-author of two widely-read prose works, The Wise Wound and Alchemy for Women , Her work has been widely anthologised. Since 1970 she has lived in Falmouth, Cornwall and was married to the poet Peter Redgrove who died in 2003. Penelope has consistently been at the forefront of poetry written from the world of imagination.

JAMES BYRNE: The Wolf has heard whispers of a new collection from you entitled Redgrove's Wife. Can you tell us a little more? When will it be released?

PENELOPE SHUTTLE: Redgroveís Wife is the title of my new collection and it contains poems from 2000-2005.  My last collection A Leaf Out of His Book came out in 1999. The long gap is due mainly to my not writing very much in 2002-3 because of Peter's worsening health and then his death. The poems tell the story of those difficult years when P was diagnosed, around 2001, with Parkinson's. But they are by no means all grim poems - there are love poems, landscape and weather poems, poems inspired by The Royal Mail, Richard Nixon, a spider, the lost Jews of Falmouth, parrots, fear, guide dogs, being rich, being poor, God, Matisse, and time; there's a celebration of academic footnotes, and the first poems of bereavement. I hope the book will appear in 2006, but I' m currently changing publishers so I don't have a firm date yet. Soon I aim to have a website up and running and I'll post details there, where some of the poems from the book will appear.

Your recent poems seem to be more tapered and visceral than ever before. Indeed the two poems we published in The Wolf (in issue 7) reminded me of your early poems like Eavesdropper and Wings. Is a laconic tone intentional for the next book?

I like the sound of it, tapered and visceral...and it does describe a number of my new poems, such as There and Need, but I think that tone has always been present in all my collections, and it has returned strongly in recent poems where I have combined the formal with the casual. But in the new book there are also long and chunky poems such as Dukedom and Second Official Language of the Bride which find a contrasting tone to the laconic, exploring more explicit modes in subject and linguistic energy.

Ezra Pound once said that Peter was 'out of key with his time'. Do you think the full achievement of his work is only just being realised?

I didnít know Pound said that about Peter's work. Peter once had a curious dream, which he told me one morning after breakfast. In his dream someone had leaned over and whispered in his ear - Ezra Pound is dead. Later that day, Pound's death was announced on the radio. Maybe Peter wasnít so much out of key with his times as ahead of his time. He was an ecological poet long before Greenpeace, and his work in both prose and poetry on the spiritual in the sexual and the erotic in the sacred continues as a new and challenging thorn in the flesh of the still fairly staid English poetic consciousness.

His ability to find the comedic in the confluence of the sexual with the sacred without jeopardising the integrity or relevance of the subject also remains of great power, as Alan Brownjohn points out in his essay One Extraordinary Poem in the recent Redgrove Tribute Issue of the US magazine, The Manhattan Review. In this essay Brownjohn refers back to a review he wrote of The Weddings at Nether Powers (1979); 'I referred to the "free collective bargaining with cosmic forces" in his poetry', and of course not many of Peter's contemporaries or successors have stepped very far into this arena. Peter's training as a scientist, his studies in Jungian practice (he had a training analysis with John Layard, who'd worked with Homer Lane and Jung himself,) and his gifts as a teacher (I was very touched by the fact that so many of his ex-students came to his funeral, or contacted me when he died) all fuelled an imagination that moved effortlessly from microcosm to macrocosm, from the personal to the universal.

Also our joint writings on the truth and lies about the menstrual cycle and the new realities available to women when the menstrual taboo is released, The Wise Wound, and Alchemy for Women put him at the centre of con temporary thinking about gender. So not out of key with his times, no!

How did you manage to retain a level of individual working practice while being married to a poet?

Only another poet understands the overwhelming need to write, to devote much time and energy to the process; only another poet understands the emotional and intellectual struggles and rewards of writing. Ideally then poets are on the same side. So there was great support for my writing from Peter. Perhaps because there was a 16 year age gap between us, we avoided the competitiveness that might have existed if weíd been the same age.

Our early relationship was based on our affinity as poets, and also on a shared sense of escape into a new life as a pair of poets, Peter recovering from a broken marriage, myself from a protracted adolescence and an oversensitivity to my environment that resulted in psychological tunnel vision. Peter freed me from that. So our life began as a holiday from our various stresses and unhappiness. We always workshopped our poems in progress. It had to happen outside the domesticity of the house. We took our notebooks out to cafes, read one another's work, and critiqued it. I miss that a great deal.

You've always paid close attention to weather and landscapes in your poetry. How has living in Falmouth, Cornwall affected your ability to write about the natural world?

I was drawn to the West Country in my early teens, after a holiday in Devon with my aunt A few years later I read Wolf Solent, by John Cowper Powys, and the nature 'mythologies' of the eponymous hero struck a chord in me, and made me decide to move west when I could. Since childhood, when I revered individual leaves, laying them at the roots of trees, I've always felt part of a continuum with nature and weather. If some people ponder the moods of God, I ponder the moods of weather. When I moved to Cornwall in 1970, living on a peninsula at the far end of Falmouth, which itself is on a peninsula of Cornwall, which is itself a peninsula of England, the sea and its rhythms swept into my life. Our house is scrunched between the Fal estuary on one side, Falmouth Bay on the other, there's no way of avoiding it. Artists, as is known, like Cornwall. There are more artists living in Cornwall than anywhere else in the UK except London. This is perhaps because Cornwall is an artist itself, mercurial, transformative, dreamlike with its glittering light and its granite shadows, yet grounded by its industrial past, the land pierced by countless mine shafts and tunnels. And though we're so far from London, Falmouth is a busy port, and so you'll hear many languages spoken in the street here. Living in Falmouth has been, and still is, a constant spur to and enlarger of my imagination.

Is all good poetry a manifestation of nature?

Basho would say so, and so would Emily Dickinson. But good poetry is also a manifestation of human nature.

You belong to local walking and yoga groups. Would you say that this is part of your working practice for writing poetry?

I'm just back from a walking holiday in Devon, followed by a yoga retreat over the weekend. In my poetry I give primacy to the breath. For me it is the way the poem breathes that gives it form. When walking, or doing yoga, one is aware of one's breath.

Walking alone, I take notes for poems. Walking in a group it is often people's conversations that later set off poems, such as the old lady remembering her time in the ATS in occupied Germany in 1945. She told me that the Polish soldiers were so tough they put their clean shirts on wet. Virginia Woolf often thought out her novels while walking, and I often think about poems still in draft when I'm walking. Because I'm outside, away from confines of desk and laptop, out in the world, a new energy becomes available, and light and weather seem to come back home with me into the poems, or so I hope.

Yoga is a very important area for me. Yoga means union - of body and mind and soul; yoga's trinity is Waking, Dreaming, Deep Sleep. Yoga is also the union of the asanas (positions) and pranayama (breath). There is the practice of yoga, and there is the non-attachment to practice, i.e., practice without ego. It encourages mindfulness, the senses alert but not clinging on to their sensations, not seeking praise or gratification. Transpose all this to poetry, and you have my poetry practice. Thereís the experience of writing, of re-drafting; there is the experience of letting it go, not forcing poems into unnatural or theoretical shapes. Like poetry, yoga seeks self-knowledge; like poetry, it holds up a mirror mind to the world. Meditation is a very similar journey, and meditative thinking for me is a strong foundation for the dynamic thinking and feeling of poetry.

It has been said that you ‘write at the edge’. What do you think this means?

I do want to work at the far borders of experience, reaching into the new, the unknown, and the unexplored. As a teenage reader I read lots of poetry in translation and such poetry, I found, was written at the edge. I wasn't so interested or excited by the anecdotal verse that rises remorselessly to the surface of English poetry every generation. Excitement, danger, visionary power, release, came through these non-English poets and made me want to write - they knew about the derangement of the senses, and the new logic of paradox. Also I follow my dreams as a poet, and draw from the deep reservoir of the images I find there and the places of the collective unconscious to which dreams lead. I always like that quote of Freud's - the craziest dreams are the most profound.

This is a busy summer for you. Your new collection is imminent and you are participating in various literary festivals. Additionally you're judging two important competitions: for Poetry London and Poetry on the Lake. However you always seem to be prolific. How do you find the time to write?

Because I live alone now I have a lot of spare time for writing. One reason I've been so busy this year is that I was Peter's sole carer for four years and didnít do anything or go anywhere, so I'm catching up. Also, going to festivals etc, means I don't get lonely, and if I stayed at home all the time, despite friends and pastimes, I would feel lonely. Because my father died six months after Peter, I travel upcountry to see my mother every two months or so, but also take the opportunity to fit in going to readings and to do workshops. When I am at home I really appreciate the time and space for writing. I've been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in November and I'll be working on poems drafted this year and last year. I'm going to Andalucia with my daughter for a fortnight in June, and Iím sure I'll have some poems springing from that experience.

Is judging a poetry competition as daunting as it seems?

I love judging poetry competitions. You never know what amazing new poet is lying in wait for you For instance, years ago, I was a preliminary judge for the Arvon in 1988 when Selima Hill's poem The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness was the winner - and it was in my batch! I sent it on to the main judges with a special message to please read this one! So I am looking forward to the two competitions I'm judging this summer.

Peter Porter once described you as a mystic. However, your work at the time Adventures with My Horse (1988) veered towards the shamanic. Do you think that poetry and shamanism are closely related?

Well, I'm deeply involved with language as a sacramental process, and of course I believe it shares much of its power and usefulness with dream experience, in the sense that dreams are a light cast from the darkness into our daily concerns. Shamanism? I dunno. I don't throw myself into a trance and do automatic writing. My poems are drafted many times over, as Peter's were. But language is magical, ambiguous, mysterious, super and sub-rational, lyrical, logical and crazy all at once. In my earlier collection Adventures With My Horse, I was exploring the situation of deciding not to have a second child by writing poems about an imaginary son, and as part of this journey I found the motif of a horse, its energy and combination of wildness and tame association with humans rising up repeatedly. At that time the horse was my totem animal, and I guess thatís personal shamanism. But it has to be controlled, directed.

Neruda or Lorca?

Both, plus Tsvetayeva and Akhmatova, Rilke and Wallace Stevens.

When I was about fifteen I bought a book in a series called Pocket Poets, it was Modern European Poetry edited by Danny Abse, featuring 20 poets, including Lorca, Pasternak, Yevtuskenko and Prevert. The first European poetry I'd encountered. And my favourite of them all was Lorca. A few years later Penguin began their series of European poets in translation, and thatís where I read for the first time Rilke, Ahkamatova, Montale, Holan, Nellie Sachs. These were the poets that fed my imagination, rather than our homeground poets, they offered richer and deeper perspectives, painted with a brighter palette, travelled much further, were like voices from the future, not the past.

Bearing in mind the high calibre of female poets in the UK, are you surprised that there has never been a female poet laureate?

Yes. And yet…no.

Three poems to take to a desert island?

Uncertain Oneiromancy by Denise Levertov, Autumn Day by Rilke (which I first read in 1964), Living in Falmouth by Peter Redgrove.

Questions: James Byrne

 

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