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Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Aliens, angels & annunciations: Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell in conversation

Rupert Loydell: So, A Confusion of Marys is finally out. A couple of people have asked about the process, the research, and motive for writing it. I can talk about trips to Italy and being mesmerised by a couple of Fra Angelica paintings, and then following through by looking at lots more annunciations and art and photography about angels, about deliberately [mis]reading works of art and events as annunciations, and a vague idea of something from elsewhere intruding into the human realm, but what’s your perception of coming on board as it were? I honestly can’t recall how we ended up doing those Joyful Mysteries pamphlets and then the Impossible Songs pamphlet.

Sarah Cave: I grew up a Christian and have been mentally dealing with what that means for the best part of three decades. My long poem in A Confusion of Marys was really my way of trying to understand Mary – a figure of grace – and to draw her for myself; beyond the annunciation, beyond liturgy. I think our conversations about the annunciation and John F Deane’s beautiful sequence of poems about Lydia in Give Dust a Tongue – the woman Jesus meets at Jacob’s well – helped frame how I wanted Mary to emerge in her own right. Also, when Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ was released in a softer form by the Norwegian singer Moddi, I was struck by their pleas, ‘Mary, our hands are tied in prayer / Help us if you’re there!’ and ‘O Holy Mary, be a feminist!’. I was also struck by the way that Maria Alyokhina talked about faith in interviews; faith wasn’t something that belonged to the church but to the individual. ‘Punk Prayer’ isn’t irreligious, it’s rather an intercession begging Mary to dissolve the kyriarchy and free women from society’s oppressive expectations.

I think the two pamphlets we did were a combination of this and some very silly poems about ducks. I’m certain there was an element of irreverent one-upmanship going on there too.

RL: So, what’s an autophagy then? And what’s it got to do with Mary or the annunciation? Explain yourself!

SC: Autophagy literally means self-eating.

It’s a biological process of cell regeneration – clearing out old cells to encourage regrowth – and I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology. I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.

I like that the title, A Confusion of Marys, evokes a sense of the process of writing and re-writing, the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. Was this deliberate?

RL: Very much so. I thought of it as a series of variations, accumulations and versions of the same event – including, as you say, some very silly and jokey ideas. I wanted to get away from any idea of theological certainty, I’m much more interested in doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas than anything fixed or final. I like stories that get retold throughout culture, and the annunciation certainly seems to be one that has. I guess the long prose poem that opens the book is an attempt to pile up versions of the story: it could be this, or this, or like that, or what about this?

I confess I’m quite interested in being slightly irreverent, too. I’m not very good at po-faced religion in any shape or form, although I quite like some traditional liturgy. But I abhor those who use their certainty as an excuse for censorship, racism, hatred and abuse.

I enjoyed finding some of the images of angels and annunciations I did. There’s a surprising amount of angel imagery, for instance, in contemporary photography, and many abstract paintings use ‘Annunciation’ as a title. I don’t think these tie in to any version of the traditional Mary and angel story, but I was happy to make the link for myself, just as I did with other ideas such as a magician and his assistant, or boys at a fancy dress party.

From what you’ve said, I’m guessing that your work is actually much more personal to you, and less ideas-driven, than mine is? I’m not suggesting it’s autobiography, but more concerned with ideas that are really important to you, whereas mine could be seen as a bit of an intellectual joke?

SC: Yes, they’re ideas that are important to me because I feel part of those stories. I see their patterns in my own life and the books that I read; a kind of cultural pareidolia, the culture I am simultaneously absorbing and rejecting, honouring and dishonouring. But, of course, the sequence isn’t autobiographical, no more than any other post-confessional poetry.

I think humour, play and irreverence are important when talking about theology. Human spirituality is such a beautifully absurd thing and, as you say, there’s nothing worse than po-faced believers, who sit in judgement. It’s the first step to exclusion and ‘theological certainty’ is what makes heretics and heresy is merely an historical excuse for killing people who don’t agree with you. There’s no way either of us would have survived the inquisition!

You don’t have to look much further than the bible for the sense of versioning, which you’re talking about. I love that this weird and supposedly holy text is the best sense the Council of Nicaea could make of the disparate strands of accounts, prophesy and scripture, and gloriously, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Did you have a personal sense of Mary? Where did your interest in her start?

RL: I’ve always been very resistant to any sense of Marian theology. Saints weren’t a thing in the church I was brought up in, and Mary was simply a human being chosen by God. I think I’m mostly interested in the painting and the way people do turn Mary into something else, almost non-human: it’s very strange to me. I keep coming back to that moment as the idea of worlds colliding; it’s not just me being silly when I wrote about the annunciation as an alien encounter.

Having said that, a lot of the contemporary art I looked at, such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation and the book of it, is very concerned with female human experience, with exploring the story through Mary’s eyes. And of course I’ve reversioned the story from both the male and female gaze, from lustful angels and desirous Mary, with the idea of the angel turning up via an online dating agency, to Joseph’s point-of-view, feeling resentful and sidelined in both the original event and the ensuing art.

It’s strange how once an idea starts – and originally my sense of the annunciation was very much to do with Renaissance art and Italy, as well as colour and ekphrasis – one can interpret almost anything through the lens of a particular story or event. At times it feels like an endless and somewhat ridiculous shaggy dog story, but it’s become a real way to think about all sorts of stories and encounters in the world, a way of understanding human beings. So, I guess my ‘sense of Mary’ is not very specific, it’s about bewildered, frightened, confused and perhaps empowered humans caught up in strange encounters and activities, sometimes aware they are within a painting, sculpture, film or story.

I can’t help thinking about a text I use to teach the first years with, where Gabriel Josipovici talks about how stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over and made new. He also questions the idea of ownership of stories, or even being able to ‘ring-fence’ them. Perhaps we are just part of a religious and artistic dialogue?

SC: Gosh, yes. The book is undoubtedly part of a wider dialogue. Even in Christianity there are so many different interpretations, the same story manifesting through art, literature and performance; from fish and crosses scratched in caves, renaissance frescoes, Sunday school cartoons, those strange graphics in religious pamphlets and school plays. I love the version of the nativity in the Quran, which has Mary give birth to the prophet, while clinging to a palm tree.

I don’t know about you, but one of the first things I was asked to do at Sunday school was to draw Jesus, which started off abstract and developed over the years into crayon stick people with palm leaves, poster paint crucifixions and pasta shaped ascensions. We’ve come an awful long way in two thousand years with this particular story, considering only half a century ago re-versions by writers such as Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis et al were met with horror and derision; it’s only forty years since The Life of Brian upset Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York. I find Michael Palin’s visible pain at being told the film is irreligious during that debate very identifiable. For me, a sense of irreverence is its own reverie.

In ‘Autophagy’, I’ve tried to create my own Marian theology, based on tracing a matriarchal line of caregiving. By looking at the other women in the bible, such as Sarah and Hagar, allowed me to draw lines of comparison between different aspects of female experience. Sarah had her own miraculous conception, and, like Elizabeth’s, it went beyond biological expectation. God blesses Sarah but he also causes a rupture between her and her handmaiden Hagar. Women’s relationships are footnotes in the bible and the more we think about them the less clear cut the stories are and the less suitable for the simplistic moral guidance deployed by some believers.

© Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell 2020
14th January 2020

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

Black Book by Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer (Shearsman Books)

This profoundly serious book is an oeuvre noir, ‘an ethical response to a range of contemporary atrocities and acts of inhumanity’ (Robert Hampson). The ‘Black Book’ has an authoritarian and punitive sense to it: if you do not fit in with the rules then your name will be entered in the ‘black book’. The power of the book was legendary and even Christopher Tietjens’s father in Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not held an implicit belief in the ‘great book’ in which a mark might be placed against your name, damning you for social elevation! But there is also the oeuvre au noir which forms part of the alchemical magic suggesting that a new world might be created from this current one. For that we might go to Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel about Zeno. If this powerful new work by Robert Vas Dias is not despairing of humanity it is because, as the Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly puts it on the back cover:

‘…black dwells just before the light shines and hurts my eyes. Black invites me to rest from the uninvited and exhausting battery of illusions that fill my days. A book that is black narrates stories of night-time experiments in the telling of truth.’

The Forward that Vas Dias writes focuses on a register of ‘our outrage at the inhumanity of humanity’ and the book that he and Julia Farrer have composed ‘is analogous to the ways in which war poets, war artists and photographers, and journalists have always worked and exhibited’. The subtitle of the book is ‘An Assemblage of the Fragmentary’ and the poet and the artist played around with the idea of ‘an art of fragments, an art that recapitulates the way in which we receive information in fragmentary form in media reports that start as necessarily incomplete stories’. Julia Farrer’s images were drawn on a computer using a 3-D program, ‘fragmented and manipulated randomly’; Robert Vas Dias’s writing combines a ticker-tape of text which bears witness to the suffering of the body under regimes of torture with, above it, a series of statements:

‘let us consider the forming of walls, the mortar

of words I use to form my walls, to make my side

a better side, the other side is where the other side

resides, I’m on the right side and you are not, the

side you’re on is undesirable and my side is right

because I am right and you are wrong…’

Juxtaposed against these words are shorter lines in red and they include such phrases as ‘enhanced interrogation’ and ‘surgical precision’. The walls that are presented here have little to do with Robert Frost’s famous lines concerning ‘Mending Walls’ but have more in common with William Blake’s sharp proverb of Hell: ‘Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion.’ The epigraph to this book is a statement from Tagore: ‘where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’ and the fragmentary episodes threading a narrative throughout reveal ‘black sites’ where ‘anything went’.
This book demands to be read and its responses taken to heart:

‘for refugees it’s not about seeking a better life
it’s about having any life at all

I have a dream a world without borders
today more than ever’

Ian Brinton 8th December 2016

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

Fifty Six: a poem sequence Carol Watts & George Szirtes (Arc Publications)

The author’s note at the beginning of this wonderful adventure into a world of language and imagination weaves its charm:

‘Collaboration at its best is a magical form of encounter, a curious listening and discovery.’

This statement immediately recalled to my mind one made by Octavio Paz at the opening of his collaborative work with Charles Tomlinson published in 1981 as Airborn / Hijos Del Aire:

‘Since its origin poetry has been the art of joining together the echoes of words: chains of air, impalpable but unbreakable’.

Tomlinson’s account of the collaboration gave a precise point of origin:

‘These collaborative poems were the result of a meeting, early one summer in Gloucestershire, when, out of the many words we had thought and spoken, we chose “house” and “day” as the words for a future postal meditation in sonnet form. “House” arose because the stone cottage in which Octavio Paz and his wife were our guests was a place we all felt affection for, and also because at that time the Pazes had no settled house of their own. “Day” was our last day together, when the sky took on a Constable-like activity, the breeze moving clouds swiftly through the blue and involving the landscape in a rapid succession of changes. I think time was at the back of all our minds, and that “day” (time passing) thus came into a natural relationship with “house” (time measured by place).’

The echoing music of language in these recently published 56 poems by George Szirtes and Carol Watts is there from the outset: ‘words are outflung birds’ soon calls up a response of ‘wings, winds, blinds, pinks, mornings…’. As the growth of the sequence focuses on ‘coming in to speech’ and a ‘complicity with / what is out of reach & nonetheless a naming’ so it prompts an echoing call of ‘All else is translation’. The ‘Dead skin’ of language moves and stays still:

‘…out of the core
into its own marginalia, its reimagining
into the perpetual hover between desire
and its objects, into its own remaining’.

The poets tell us of an exchange which became much more than ‘a collaborative game for both of us’. In the process of a chant from one to the other, ‘speaking-singing’, other voices rise: ‘Chaucer surfaced, a whaling song, fragments of overheard conversation, the thickness of paint’. As the sequence glides forward

‘We became involved less in the mechanism, more in the rich ground that kept opening. The exchange is littered with fractures and hints, with associations that leap off in both linguistic and narrative directions.’

This litter, (‘Loved Litter of Time Spent’ as Andrew Crozier would have put it), contains tiny echoes of the song of the Rhine-daughters (‘la la’), of Pound’s Pisan Cantos with its rain-space and those small cries ‘you hear in the far distance / settling in the gaps’. The first poem consists of 28 lines and its responding poem has 27; the movement forward is decisive as a tide. Poem 28 has one line only ‘You took the words out of my mouth’ and the following poem endorses this point of change by simply saying ‘But the struggle to begin, neap tongue’. And with that the movement flows forward again page by page as ‘The tide that sweeps in draws back’. As we arrive at 27 lines (poem 55)

‘…Skin takes over the task
of telling, its folds & scrimping.’

The 28 lines of the 56th poem gives us a final literary echo of Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ and the sequence concludes with

‘…It’s late
and the wind is caught in the mouth of the clock.
Bare branches. Clarities. The clear cold night.’

Having opened this short review with an eye cast back to the 1980s I will close it by referring to another collaboration between poets of distinction. In 2011 Shearsman Books published The Pistol Tree Poems of Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh. At the time Nathan Thompson wrote that this collaboration was ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘deceptively deep-thinking’ and that the poetry was ‘disguised as imaginative twitches at the mind’s eye-corners’. These glimpses of presence and loss prompted Marsh to write from Varzi in April 2010, a few days after the death of his partner Emanuela:

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

His contribution closes with a single line taken from Emanuela’s prints, ‘& swap love for light’.
In Fifty-Six the concluding poem by Carol Watts leaves us ‘In light, / the action of. Continual beginning.’ This collaboration which is in front of us now is poetry of a very serious order; once read you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2016

The ‘EUOIA’ collaboration

The ‘EUOIA’ collaboration

The ‘EUOIA’ is a collaborative venture that extends the premise of the fictional poetry of my volume, A Translated Man, published by Shearsman in 2013, which is given over to my own invention, the fictional Belgian poet René Van Valckenborch. (He has a whole page on my website: http://robertsheppard.weebly.com/rene-van-valckenborch.html.) Apparently writing in both Flemish and Walloon, and translated and edited by entities as shadowy (and dodgy) as himself, Van Valckenborch’s split oeuvre derives from the linguistic and cultural divide within contemporary Belgium. They are ‘fictional poems’, not hoaxes, and that distinction is important for me.

The last project of his Flemish writings was to invent the ‘EUOIA: The European Union Of Imaginary Authors’. Van Valckenborch invents his own fictional authors and, being in Brussels (capital of the EU), hits upon the idea of one for each member country. In the book we read a sample of five women writers, one poem each. I’ve put together a website for it (www.euoia.weebly.com), which now describes the latest project with regular updates (as does my blog http://www.robertsheppard.blogspot.com).

You can also watch the Liverpool Camarade (February 2015) showing me reading with several collaborators here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSLlfz5mfOY, though it’s also added to the website now, as is the video of Zoe Skoulding reading our Cypriot poet Gurkan Arnavut. (It’s also here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-UHv9lFaxU). So far, the collaborations, either finished or currently underway, have been with colleagues, old friends, new friends, young poets, and (a deliberate decision) female poets. The methods of collaboration range from one word at a time (with Philip Terry) to whole poems (Kelvin Corcoran). Some (with Jèssica Pujol i Duran and Alys Conran) leave me not quite sure who wrote what. The result is a developing anthology, which I hope will be published (before the EU referendum: Van Valckenborch had NO idea how timely his project would be).

Croatia Martina Marković (1982-) with James Byrne (and Damir Šodan).
Austria Sophie Poppmeier (1981-) with Jason Argleton (See more on Sophie Poppmeier on Pages at: http://www.robertsheppard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/robert-sheppard-euoia-sophie-poppmeier.html)
Belgium Paul Coppens (1980-) with Philip Terry
Bulgaria Ivaylo Dimitrov (1979-) with Patricia Farrell
Cyprus Gurkan Arnavut (1978-) with Zoë Skoulding
Finland Minna Kärkkäinen (1974-) with Allen Fisher
Greece Eua Ionnou (1971-) with Kelvin Corcoran
Ireland Sean Eogan (1969-) with Steve MacCaffery
Luxembourg Georg Bleinstein (1965-2046) with Tom Jenks
Malta Hubert Zuba (1964-) with Scott Thurston
Netherlands Maarten De Zoete (1963-) with God’s Rude Wireless (a cut up machine)
Portugal Ana Cristina Pessao (1961-) with Jèssica Pujol i Duran
Spain Cristòfol Subira (1957-) with Alys Conran (Our reading as part of Gelynion Poetry (Bangor), on May 26th 2015, may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVOfQEMoss4.)
Sweden Kajsa Bergström (1956-) with Steven Fowler
United Kingdom Robert Sheppard (1955-)

There is a bonus track (outside the EU and beyond reality): Frisland: Hróbjartur Ríkeyjarson af Dvala (1948- ), written with Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, and, of course: Poland: Jaroslav Biały (1962-) with Anamaría Crowe Serrano, which is featured in the current issue of Tears in the Fence.

In some ways this has been the most extraordinary collaboration, and partly because, unlike most of the other collaborators (except Jason Argleton, who is a fiction, and God’s Rude Wireless, ‘who’ is a machine) I have never met Anamaría. But Jaroslav Biały has a special place in the sequence because I felt so completely taken out of myself and made into (half) of someone else. It’s a difficult thing to describe, the process of being othered and familiarised at the same time. When it’s over, there is a period of mourning because you realise you’ll never re-create him, as it were. There’s nothing else to come. (This is a common feeling of reading foreign poetry; at the moment I’m reading a Hugo Claus selection, and I’m reading incomplete sequences and extracts that leave me dissatisfied, among the other causes of intense satisfaction: that I’d managed to get the particularly rural gloom of Belgium right, in some early Van Valckenborch poems, for example! They are just great poems anyway.)

Nevertheless, there is more of Jaroslav at The Bogman’s Cannon: http://bogmanscannon.com/2015/05/06/poetic-fictions/. But no more. Thank you Anamaría; thank you Jaroslav.

Robert Sheppard 30th October 2015

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