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New Poets: Eric Anderson dialogue with Sean Borodale

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Eric Anderson.

Yesterday Granta was delighted to publish two poems by our latest New Poet, Eric Anderson. As part of the ongoing series, which encourages dialogue between poets, below is an exchange between Anderson and previous New Poet, Sean Borodale, who went on to be shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for poetry and the T.S. Eliot Prize for his debut collection, Bee Journal. Here they discuss the genesis of a poem, whether animals measure time differently and how to capture the ephemeral.

Dear Eric

To begin this exchange, I’d like to say I’ve really enjoyed reading your work.

I was struck by the synthesis in the poems, and rereading, the idea of synthesis seemed a key to events in ‘Epic’ and ‘Composition for a Synthetic Blend’, as well as the other poems of yours I have read. What I mean is not only a synthesis of materials, a gathering of images and elements into the compound of the poem, but also synthesis as a kind of event in itself, a process of making, so that the poem feels shaped by the ratios of a ritual.

The title ‘Composition for a Synthetic Blend’ holds a structure and equilibrium of its own; it is almost molecular, whilst the title ‘Epic’ suggests the endlessly extending expandable quality of a polymer. Perhaps what I’m feeling is that in making synthesis into an event that the reader experiences, your poems alchemically draw the elusive properties of substance in or out – their active, flighty presence. I couldn’t help noticing, for instance, all the shoots, beaks, shots, ignitable tips, which alloy themselves into the final hidden knife in ‘Epic’s’ instrument of music, the piano’s body; and conversely, all the flights out of bodies bound together in air: essences, solutions, the nuances of chemistry the perfumer works with. It seems you are drawn to questions of the intangible, and how those brief, but potent ephemera take us by the senses, and bind us with their spell. Plus, your poems feel synesthetic; licence is given to the blending of phenomena.

I’d be very interested to know more about the events of composition that go into arriving at your poems; whether you work forwards from an opening statement, or whether you gather images around a tonal space or register of feeling. How incidental are the elements of a poem? I mean this well: I keep the incidental very close to my own ‘acts’ of composition, even the haphazard. I think your poems bend towards the haphazard because they give light or vision to the hidden – you may disagree, of course. It feels like an act of generosity on your part, to give light to all, ‘to get it all in’; I wonder if for you writing is an act of connecting out and afar, rather than of introspection.

I keep reading your poems and they keep taking me back to read again; there is something enigmatic which I like and which holds me. But they also feel intentional, clearly stated, and I wonder if you could say something about the intention which brings about a poem’s shape for you; or perhaps its formality, for want of a better word.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Very best

Sean

*

Dear Sean,

I am glad to have this exchange with you and your work. I greatly enjoyed your poems in Granta, as well the selection I read from Bee Journal.

I appreciate your close reading of my poems, and your reading of them as a synthesis. I love mining for images or unique events as a way into a poem, then begin to work outward from one of those moments by surrounding that image with other elements in an attempt to build a dialogue, or atmosphere, some kind tapestry that will allow one to live in it, if only for a short time. I’m glad you bring up the element of hazard; the incendiary elements that start my poems are often something I find shocking, but hopefully not gratuitous. I am then interested in unfolding this event with other events, not in an attempt to explain or create closure, but to cast it out into the complexity of the lives that inhabit the poems. An example of this would be the child hiding his father’s hunting knife in the family’s piano. A hazard, on my end as the writer, would be to try to explain the scene. I hoped instead to expand the scene into the life of the child with elements that slightly branch away from or directly echo the initial scene, such as the trapped sparrows, hidden under the brook ice after trying to find food.

I think the poems begin as incidental, tethered to that first event, then break apart as the poems expand into a new atmosphere. I see this as the intention of form you mentioned, which begins to unravel, although doing so backwards towards the actual starting point of the poem. I’m not sure if that is clear; I could be unravelling my own poetics as I try to think through them. Your poems seem to work in the opposite direction, starting with an element, like honey in ‘12th November: Winter Honey’, then opening up into the rich complexity of that element. This will sound ridiculous, but I see the work in that poem almost as a translation of the element, like an animal translates pollen into something new. It is a very active, and beautiful, experience for the reader.
Best,
Eric

*

Dear Eric,

The translation process fascinates me. Before I encountered the tastes in this honey, I’d been observing the hive and its own transformative processes for some months, so although the poem is situated in the here and now of tasting, it moves back through a sensory time, and out and up into the woods and spaces of the bees’ habitat. As you say, it tracks, or attempts to track, that accretion or change of substance as it happens.

Whilst working on the journal, I began to see the hive as an instrument for trying to extend my senses very slightly into a different scale and speed. I see writing as an act of reading in time but I’m always bothered by the time-loss in the final text; worried that the poem doesn’t show up the dark time, the gaps in the script, the ponderings and U-turns on the line of flow – perhaps this is precisely what makes reading and writing such a hazardous process. I think you are right: it’s the hazard of explaining. I always worry about that line between letting something keep its enigma and of breaking into it to root up its meaning. The duration of a poem seems important to me as a way of phrasing change – finding words to fit – and of keeping the flow intact; so yes, working forwards, since I tend to work live. I like the hazard in that too, a live, physical hazard, literally, possibly, a waste of time. Or not.

Your poems seem to hold time in a looped way; I like the sense of different angles and images moving in around the starting phrase. I imagine like a painter describing the process of painting a still life, that the time spent on the still life moves in all kinds of directions through time and space and joins at different points. The final image seems intact but full of necessary movements and disjoints, small, separate navigations of the eye and hand. ‘Composition for a Synthetic Blend’ is full of embodied time, and the attempt to hold – or let go of – time. Could you say something about the presence of time in your poems? And possibly the hazard?

Very best,

Sean

*

Dear Sean,

I am obsessed with various philosophical approaches to time: linear time, a-temporality, Proustian time seeded in memory, elliptical time (elliptical, a slippery word in contemporary poetry!) and time outside of human consciousness, an objective time. After I have the raw material of a first draft in place, I look to time as a mechanism for revision. ‘Composition for a Synthetic Blend’ began with my interest in perfuming; as I revised I was interested in the lives of perfumers, steeped in scent. I wondered if their episodic memories were tied to distinct notes they had crafted in their studios. In ‘Epic’ I was interested in a failure to encapsulate historic time, a hazardous endeavour as it is often overtaken and stained by a subjective, autobiographical understanding of our place in history.

I enjoy the tensions of various types of time in your work. First we are given an exact date, a journal entry, a marker of human time; then we are granted an animal time, that of the bee. I’m fascinated with the notion of animal time since, except for some species of birds, most animals don’t display the ability to employ mental time travel towards possible future events. When writing Bee Journal were these different approaches to time an influence on the individual poems and their form? Do you think time, or various modes of time, create a tension in the poems’ narratives?

Best,

Eric

*

Dear Eric,

Wasn’t it Samuel Beckett when writing on Proust who called time a monster? I often go back to that word.

I’ve often wondered if bees have such a thing as individual time, or whether time for each bee is always connected to the colony. It raises, perhaps, a question of what an individual is, as a property of collective time.

Writing Bee Journal I was very interested in tracking, almost hunting, the unavoidable time – the time something takes to happen, and the frequency of that time. Bees, with their constant song – a song which stretches continuously back through the fifty million years of their existence – render time almost audible. The journal charts cyclical time, corresponding with the pulse of the year. In terms of tensions, I fall back to that idea of unstated gaps and points of congestion. It’s the way one time runs over another, like rhythm and modulation, or cross-shear winds; the narrative is simply a chart of events in time spent, in this respect; and the journal, a collated narrative made up of components.

I like your phrase ‘time as a mechanism for revision’. In ‘Epic’, I’m struck by the tendency of time to branch away: all the pieces are there but each has its distances and kinetics; they are survivors in a way of a much bigger picture. You have very beautifully connected the episodes into something intact. You mention the episodic memories of perfumers, and the embodied organic time of essence that the perfumer seeks to catch and control in your poem seems to evaporate through the edges of the poem’s room.

In ‘Epic’ it seems as if the knife offers a future connected to the individual, pegging down one branch of the sprawling time of the epic to a single entity. How do you think an individual, if it exists at all, relates to the presences, the exerting forces within your poems; perhaps as part of an active, not necessarily human, community?

Very best,

Sean

*

Dear Sean,

I believe the kinetics you mention are what make up the individuals of my poems. I often don’t start with an individual in mind but know that one will most likely arise during the process. I’m aware of a reluctance to write autobiographically when I begin poems. This may come from an embracing of self-importance in my first attempts at writing poetry, or doubts as to my own life as a point of interest, especially the longer I spend sitting in an empty room, typing away at white space. Regardless, an individual, or individuals, emerge in the work, being cut and circled by the kinetics of the poems’ details. The lives of these individuals are never fully formed, so they probably belong to me just as much as they belong to the reader, whose understanding of them is sculpted by the same accretion of materials and moments.

Do you view the individual in the poems of the Bee Journal as being connected to a communal consciousness, that of the bees, the honey, the animal communication? I don’t read them as pastoral, in the Romantic sense of the word, since they don’t only celebrate, by investigation, nature but live through it, work within its technologies to offer new modes of seeing and thinking. Do you feel that your poems investigate the world through the consciousness of an individual, or something outside of the self?

Best,

Eric

*

Dear Eric,

The bees activated the landscape for me; I felt somehow I was working in a very stretched open conscious space with a point of congestion at its centre. That general locality was also the stage, a theatre for the act of writing. In the poems everything is over in a flash. Can I say it was myself? I certainly don’t mean to leave any trace of autobiography. I lived through the writing of the poems in those moments; they remember more than I do, if that doesn’t sound absurd. The individual among the poems holds human time, bee time, mouse time, flower time in specific ways related to the bees.

I wonder if persuasion is the hazardous kinetic element; being half in the unknown future of the reader.

Very best,

Sean

*

Dear Sean,

I haven’t thought much about persuasion working within my poems, but now that you’ve brought it to my attention I think considering persuasion can be a great entry point to examining the real force behind the work. We could look at the attempts of the writer to persuade the reader of the believability of a scene or the validity of a theory, but I think the internal persuasion of the material is where the real work is happening. Moments and details begin communicating, changing contexts depending on their placement, coaxing me to remove a section, shuffle the order of the poem’s world so it will be entered differently. I typically start with a detail, and maybe this initial detail acts as a toxin, infecting everything else that may surround it. The wound of the initial moment! Going forward I hope our work continues to investigate experience sick with this venom and willing to dip its toes in the hazards of the blank page.

It was an absolute pleasure having this dialogue with you. I look forward to keeping up with your future projects.

Best,

Eric

You can read Eric Anderson’s poems here and Sean Borodale’s here.

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