Jean Sprackland

Fire River Poets Interview with Jean Sprackland,
Guest Poet at Ciccic Taunton February 7th 2019

Graeme Ryan: Firstly, have just read ‘Green Noise’ your latest collection, published by Cape, and have really enjoyed it! Particularly love ‘Oak Apples’, ‘Ivy’, lots of ‘The Lost Villages’, ‘Aphid Farm’, ‘Science’, ‘Wicksteed of Kettering’ (wow, I absolutely get that poem!) and ‘Swimming Pool'(a cracking finale).

Graeme Ryan: Firstly, have just read ‘Green Noise’ your latest collection, published by Cape, and have really enjoyed it! Particularly love ‘Oak Apples’, ‘Ivy’, lots of ‘The Lost Villages’, ‘Aphid Farm’, ‘Science’, ‘Wicksteed of Kettering’ (wow, I absolutely get that poem!) and ‘Swimming Pool'(a cracking finale).

You have such a memorable way with language.

Jean Sprackland: Thanks for your kind comments – I’m very much looking forward to the reading.I’m happy to answer some questions, though I hope they’re not all as hard as this first one:

GR: Which particular poems in ‘Green Noise’ feel to you closest to the original poetic impulse or inspiration that made you want to write them?

JS: This is a difficult question to answer. I find that a poem evolves so much in the process of writing that the original impulse becomes obscure and even irrelevant to me. I work out what I want to say by writing, rather than writing in response to ideas. As Auden put it, ‘Let me see what I wrote so I know what I think’. 

But of course every poem does have a starting point, and in some cases I can still recall it. I vividly remember starting the first poem in the book, April. It was one of those springs that come late and all at once, and I felt physically overwhelmed by it. That feeling of immediacy, and of being at the mercy of forces we can’t control, affects me again when I re-read the poem, so I must have captured some of it, somehow.

Looking forward to your next one…

GR: Thanks so much Jean, thought I’d jump in at the deep end with that first question…Your answer is fascinating and I love the Auden quote, hadn’t heard that before. Working out what you want to say by writing makes a lot of sense in terms of poetic exploration – a particular way of thinking and feeling which can travel far and deeply from an original impulse and take the poet into ever-new territory.

Your vivid description of the starting point of ‘April’ and the way it still has an effect on you when you re-read it is beautifully put too – particularly the sense of being physically overwhelmed by spring, which you capture so well with all the striking imagery: ‘machine of spring with all your levers thrown to max…muddy ponds spuming with cannibal tadpoles’ plus the way you stagger the spacing between words, with no punctuation to make it even more immediate. Makes me think of Frost’s ‘Being a poet is not a profession it’s a condition’.

I’ve also been enjoying ‘Tourism’, ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, and ‘Lost/Lust’ in the past few days – I really like the skill you have in evoking big and resonant things in almost an understated and certainly very contained way, making less language say a lot eg the last two lines of ‘Damnatio…’

‘they walked her on the soles of their feet

into the houses where their wives were waiting.’

So my next question…

Which poems particularly excite you as the author of this collection?

Which poems in ‘Green Noise’ do you feel are departures for you, forays into new territory – and in what way (s)? 

JS: The most exciting part of writing Green Noise has been finding new ways to write about ‘nature’ and how we humans relate to it, particularly at a time of ecological crisis. I made some early forays into this territory in my collection Tilt (2006), but this time it really took over the whole project. I loved writing ‘Oak Apples’ and ‘Aphid Farm’, where I’m looking really closely at the way tiny insects live and behave – it was like magically shrinking myself so that I could go into their nests, observe them and report back. Then there’s ‘The Lost Villages’, a sequence about places and what happens when they get wiped off the map or changed beyond recognition – what gets lost along with the buildings and streets. This taps into another of my big preoccupations – the experience of being lost, literally and in other ways -which is also part of the texture of this book.

GR: I’ve just re-read ‘Aphid Farm’ and you do magically take the reader into that hidden world you mention; similarly with ‘Oak Apples’ and its three three different voices/perspectives. I think they’re both wonderful in opening up new ways of writing about nature.

The elegiac, haunting quality of ‘The Lost Villages’ is very powerful too, such a sense of reverence and mourning in some sections eg ‘Landfill’ and ‘Where the Farm Was’. For me there are echoes of Clare in there too…

I read a lot of modern poetry and am genuinely impressed with how you write, and its heft – for me it’s right up there and makes me want to return many times. I’m so glad Genny put me in touch with your work, I must now read your earlier collections! 

JS: Thanks, Graeme, for that lovely feedback – I’m very glad you’ve been enjoying the poems. Here goes with your latest questions:

GR: Where is ‘The Lost Villages’ geographically (and possibly emotionally) located? 

JS: Of course there are actual lost or abandoned villages in many parts of the UK – sometimes you can see bumps and hollows in the fields where houses used to be, and in other cases it’s that a small settlement has been swallowed up by a town and has ceased to exist in its own right. There’s a Midlands locus to my sequence, because that’s where I grew up, so there are some old place names that still have left a trace, on maps or road names for instance, even though the place itself has gone. I use some Midlands dialect words, too – words like ‘twitchel’, ‘baulk’ and ‘scraighting’ – which I would have heard spoken around me when I was a child. All this matters because in the poems I’m thinking about things that get lost when a place disappears, and one of those things might be its language.

GR: You talked earlier about the process of drafting – is the genesis of a poem normally a lengthy one for you?

JS: Yes, I take ages over most of my poems, not only because I write so many drafts but also because I find I need to let time pass so that I can come back and look at the poem through fresh eyes, and find it strange, almost as if it had been written by someone else. That’s how I can see what it’s about and where it needs work.

GR: When did poetry-writing become important to you – were there particular experiences which crystallised it – have you always written?

JS: Poetry was very important to me from early childhood – from before I knew what it was, in fact. I was brought up in a Methodist family, so there were lots of hymns – I don’t think I made any distinction between hymns and poems back then. We also had a big illustrated anthology at home called The Golden Treasury of Poetry, by the American editor Louis Untermeyer, and I was obsessed with it for years (still am, really). As an adult I didn’t get started properly until I was in my early thirties, when through a series of accidental meetings I ended up going on a course run by the Arvon Foundation. That week, poetry moved to the centre of my life, and it has been there ever since.

GR: What an interesting answer – fascinating to hear about Methodist hymns combined with The Golden Treasury of Poetry, and how an Arvon course years later properly lit the blue touchpaper … glad it did!

Which poets have been particularly formative or inspiring for you? Who are you currently reading?

JS: At the moment I’m reading Fiona Benson’s new book, Vertigo & Ghost, which is an astonishing piece of work.

GR: Jean, Thanks so much for doing this interview – I think it gives a really good insight into your poetic practice and current work, and is a great taster to whet people’s appetite for your reading, which I’m hugely looking forward to! I’d just say to anyone who likes contemporary poetry – don’t miss Jean’s reading!

Many thanks again for the wealth and generosity of your responses, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.