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LIDIA VIANU -- JEAN BLEAKNEY
Desperado is a flexible term. It respects the outsider/loner status of the poet.
Interview with JEAN BLEAKNEY (born 1956), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: After John Brown’s interview with you (In the Chair: Interviews with poets from the North of Ireland, Salmon Poetry, 2002) most of the topics seem redundant. I have, though, one poem which I like so much that I have to quote it in full:
On Going without Saying
I can’t begin to tell you
(I keep meaning to tell you)
how it feels to drive away ...
the absolute gobsmackery
of wheeling round the corner
to that face-to-face encounter
with Venus—always there these nights,
completely unfazed by streetlights.
I keep forgetting to mention
this localized phenomenon.
I always happen on it too late—
at the wrong end of your one-way street.
By then, there’s no turning back.
But some night, I will. I’ll shock
the gearbox into reverse
and drag you out to see Venus.
We’ll stand there, basking in irony
—shortsighted-you and stargazer-me.
We’ll talk about more than the weather;
and maybe, so lit, I’ll remember
what it was I wanted to say,
something relating to constancy ...
But just for now, here I sit,
For a biochemist, a person who works in the garden centre at Belfast, for someone who turned to poetry after a scientific education, this sounds unbelievably perfect. Lyricism enclosed in all the right words. Every word with a clear, concise meaning, not one letter that does not serve a purpose. Since all the right questions have already been asked by John Brown, I will only ask: What is poetry to you now? Why do you write it?
JEAN BLEAKNEY: Many thanks Lidia, for those kind words, and for your interest in my work. I’m in the final stages of preparing my second collection, so poetry seems very important right now; not least because the deadline has stimulated a blissful burst of new writing. At a very basic level, I write to experience the puzzle-solving pleasure of securing a poem. Also, certain aspects of brain function, especially thought and memory, have always fascinated me. Disappointingly, biochemistry didn’t provide many answers. Poetry, for me, is partly that same quest, from a different angle. Otherwise, my love for words and, I must confess, a desire to entertain; show off, even. It’s like skimming flat stones across the water: I think I’m quite adept, but I’m not so inclined to lift the stone if there is no one else on the shore to see the bounces and ripples! Is this is a very un-Desperado-like confession?
LV. I find that most poets I call Desperado poets hate being grouped with other writers, as they hope to be a trend of their own. Like several contemporary women poets (Carol Rumens, Jo Shapcott, Maura Dooley), you avoid slipping into biography in your verse. Is that deliberate or just inevitable, instinctive reticence? Should a poem rely on a living experience or can it live on ideas only?
JB. I’m probably much more instinctively reticent than most poets – possibly because I have come to poetry relatively late in life – but I also think that reticence is an integral part of the show-not-tell quality which is important to the poem and respects the sensibility of the reader. Which is not to say that the ‘I’ doesn’t appear (rather a lot!) in my poetry. But it’s a guarded ‘I’.
Poems should be rooted, if not in living experience, then in observation, which is, I suppose, an extension of living experience. Hopefully, ideas emerge. And it’s more interesting for the reader to see the process of emergence.
LV. Since from your volume The Ripple Tank Experiment I learn very little about Jean Bleakney the person who writes, I would like to ask who you are, what your life has been so far, what your education has been, anything that would throw light upon the poet, not necessarily the poems.
JB. I was born in Newry (on the northern side of the border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland) in 1956 and lived there for my first 17 years. My family, like many others, was displaced in the early part of The Troubles. Since then, I have lived in or near Belfast. I studied biochemistry at Queen’s University and worked for eight years as a biochemist in medical research. The birth of my second child coincided with a sense of disillusionment with my skills as a research scientist. Also, I was fed up writing grant applications and reports. So it was an easy decision to leave my job (thanks to my wage-earning husband!). Thereafter, my loathing for housework drove me into the garden where I discovered the pleasure of naming and growing plants. Poetry came soon after, in parallel with my children’s language development and my own expanding botanical vocabulary. I started attending the Queen’s Creative Writing Workshop in 1993, when Carol Rumens was Writer in Residence. For the past ten years, I have worked part-time at a garden centre.
LV. Your poems have a discreet, ingenious rhyme (when they do). After Eliot, most poets avoid noisy rhymes (he mocked at them while using so many), alliterations, assonances. The music of poetry has changed, from sound to feeling. The music of verse these days is an inner one, a music of sensibility rather than words. Must poetry preserve its ancient craft or should it change to prosey texts?
JB. I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to the music of words, especially the possibilities of rhyme: its leaps and bounds help to propel the writing. Yes, there will always be rhyme. Our brains and hearts are pre-programmed to be seduced by it.
LV. Your poems never shock verbal propriety, your words are all decent. What do you think of the use of four-letter words, of offensive words, of physically offensive images on the page?
JB. Four-letter words are rarely a shock these days, on the ear or to the eye, but I’m not inclined to write about a context in which they would be used, so they don’t occur in my poetry. Not yet, anyway! Physically offensive images are harder to accept. I almost always feel as if I’m being deliberately shocked or manipulated; and I don’t like having to question the motives of the poet, mid-poem. Again, maybe in context? In small doses, certainly. I had to attend post mortems during my research. I particularly remember the body of a child. The most powerful image was neither the incision, nor the removal of tissue, but having to set aside a teddy bear and a rose, its stem wrapped with aluminum foil.
LV. Your lines are discreet and have a halo of meditative sadness. Life goes by. You never say so, but I can feel the poignancy of passing seconds, of fragile beauty, menaced by seasons, by our own habit of waiting and then regretting we did not enjoy the moment while it lasted. Do you write with joy, grief, indifference? What gets you started?
JB. This is very close reading, Lidia! I am indeed preoccupied with passing time and the consequences of tempting fate by leaving all sorts of things undone. The garden, where chaos can replace order in such a short time, offers many associated metaphors. I probably write with resignation, a sense of ‘that’s the way life is’. Whence poignancy and wistfulness.
I rarely start out to write a poem about x, y or z (though recently, I have enjoyed writing a sequence of poems about the paintings of the Hungarian artist Csontváry). Sometimes, I start from an image or a coincidence of images. Mostly, the poem develops from a line or a phrase that arrives unbidden.
LV. Ireland is the country of Joyce, Yeats, Swift, Heaney. You are Irish, I understand. You say the Irish landscape means a lot to you. Does it make you different from British poets? In what way?
JB. I’m British, but I don’t mind being referred to as Irish. Being from Northern Ireland confers an identity crisis with respect to nationality: not so much a crisis… more like the luxury of having a reversible jacket. Yes, the landscape and its flora are important to me. Like many other poets, my favourite bit of Ireland is the ruggedly beautiful west coast, especially Donegal. Any Irishness in my poetry would be the occasional use of local words or phrases. Otherwise, my inclination towards rhyme and form, including some light verse, probably looks more towards English poetry, than contemporary Irish poetry.
LV. I have been deeply impressed by the quality of your images, which all quiver with emotion, with delicate life, with the fear of loss and the joy of beauty caught in time, just in time. Gardens must have taught you the frailty of flowers and the beautiful expectation of summer, the pang of autumn. You are so sensitive to seasons, both in poetry and in life, I think. What is more fulfilling to you, being a poet or being a ‘gardener’?
JB. Again, thanks for those sentiments, Lidia. It is so gratifying to feel that my poems have yielded them! I have experienced the pleasure of propagating plants, and did have a flower-filled garden for a few years, but I have retreated into being an armchair gardener: I read and write about it rather than do it. Currently, poetry is much more fulfilling. Also, a garden being reclaimed by nature, as mine is, can be both fascinating and stimulating.
LV. A Desperado poet professes to be totally honest while keeping to himself most of his experiences. They hide the beauty and spit out the bitter seed of pain, of shocking ugliness at times. You strike a balance between the two: you hide yourself but share your moods, which is what poetry basically does, of course, but to various degrees. Should poetry be a diary of experience or a tapestry of emotionally tinged words? What is, to you, the aim of a poem? How do you connect with your reader?
JB. Yes, I think there is an element of camouflage in my poetry. I’m inclined to hide behind the greenery! A diary of experience is too telling. Poems are little slices, a bit like slides viewed under the microscope. The poet invites the reader to look, and interpret. Hopefully, the reader will want to (and be able to) imagine the milieu from which the slice was taken. A good poem should have a physical effect on the reader; some minor autonomic (gut, respiratory, vascular or goosebump) response which the brain has to rationalise. In my own poetry, I hope I’m kindly disposed towards the reader.
LV. Criticism, Eliot used to say, is ‘as inevitable as breathing’. What kind of critics do you like? Scholarly, impressionistic, commonsensical? What do you think of such a term as Postmodernism (which I am trying to avoid when I use the label Desperado)?
JB. I enjoy reading poetry reviews and criticism, and regard it as an integral part of my poetry education. Criticism should be informative and entertaining, and a cocktail of all the above adjectives. I have no academic background in English literature. Sometimes that feels like a handicap. More often, it feels liberating to be able to distance myself from a concept such as Postmodernism. To imply that poetry can be split into a before and an after seems very suspect. Desperado is a much more flexible term. It respects the outsider/loner status of the poet.
LV. When a book comes out about your poetry, how would you like it to be? What language should it use? Is criticism literature, do you think, or is it meant to dissect a work and express its ideas with mathematical precision, in which words become figures and are impersonal? Do you read books of criticism? Who are your favourite critics?
JB. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write or read a book about my poetry! I think the language of criticism should attempt to match the language of the poetry. A very superior tone is off-putting. Good criticism is certainly good literature, but the sense of an analytical mind is reassuring for the reader. Being opinionated and feisty is ok too. Being witty is a great bonus. I do see criticism as dissection. But it differs from plant/animal dissections in that (a) there is no dissection guide book; the points of reference are very subjective, and (b) a plant or animal can only be dissected once. I probably read and enjoy more poet-critics, like Carol Rumens, Dennis O’Driscoll, Sean O’Brien and David Wheatley, than non-poet-critics. I am familiar with some of Edna Longley’s writings and admire her vice-like grip of the subject matter, her opinionativeness and those wickedly witty, sometimes hilarious asides. But I rarely feel like her addressee. Her audience is academia. I have also enjoyed essays by Randall Jarrell and Marianne Moore.
LV. When you read poetry, what poets do you choose? Do you ever write a poem starting from another poem?
JB. Louis MacNeice is my favourite Irish poet, especially for the sound effects. I like Hardy and Frost, but Elizabeth Bishop is the poet I have read most attentively. From contemporary poetry, I enjoy Carol’s lyricism and formal skills. Also Bernard O’Donoghue, for his ability to affect the reader so deeply with such deceptively simple rural tales. But really I read and admire a great number of poets, from Ireland and far beyond. I have an extensive poetry library and also use the internet.
So far, I have only written one poem in response to another. It’s called ‘Afterwards’ and is a housewife’s version of Hardy’s reflections on what people will say about him when he is dead. As it is only four lines, may I include it?
When I’m gone – when they gather round and see the grey
Gradation up the curtains, the mugs’ brown rings,
The dust, the clutter, the tacky vinyl – will the neighbours say
‘She was a woman who never noticed such things’?
Otherwise, Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful ‘Poem’ is the source of my desire to write poems about paintings.
LV. Are you familiar with the literary life? You say you are a friend of Carol Rumens’. Who else is your friend, whom do you feel akin to?
JB. Fortunately, there are quite a lot of poetry readings and other literary events in Belfast, and I also assist in the organisation of an annual literary festival, Between the Lines. Carol is a great teacher. I was very fortunate to encounter her at the start of my interest in poetry. It saved a lot of time and frustration. She remains a good friend, to my poems and me. Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Paula Cunningham are among the younger and very talented poets I meet with in Belfast and whose critical skills I employ, from time to time.
LV. If you were to start all over again, would you take poetry as your main occupation, would you change anything in your life?
JB. No, I wouldn’t change anything. Much of my poetry depends on what came before, in terms of both experience and vocabulary.
LV. Since you already have a very comprehensive interview with John Brown, I wonder: Is there any question that you would have liked to be asked but have not been, yet? What is it your readers ought to know first about you?
JB. I can’t think of any other questions, but I’d like my readers to know that above all, I love words: on the tongue, on the ear and on the page.
February 3, 2003