An Interview For Fire River Poets with Penelope Shuttle
Penny is reading for us on Zoom on Thurs April 7th 2022 at 7.30pm.
We are immensely grateful to you, Penny, for this stunning, insightful and open-hearted interview about the genesis of your latest book Lyonesse. We include also a bonus interview you gave to the Poetry Society, with your kind permission to share it.
This is certain to be a memorable evening of Penelope Shuttle’s poetry – don’t miss out! Head to the Fire River Poets website if you wish to register as a guest for the event. The Zoom link will be sent a day or so before.
NB All our open mic slots for the evening have now gone; if you wish to be put on the Reseve list please register on the website too.
Graeme Ryan (Fire River Poets) : How long has Lyonesse been in genesis? What were the first poems you wrote for the collection, the seed-bank as it were?
Penelope Shuttle: The first line of the first Lyonesse poem came into my head out of nowhere one day in January 2015 while I was walking in Cornish drizzle at Trebah Gardens. I was attending a workshop in the café annexe and Katrina Naomi, running the workshop, gave out individual prompts. Mine was to write about a city. Now I had just published my collection Will You Walk a Little Faster? which is mostly about cities, London, Bristol, and walking these cities. So, rather crossly, I went outside for a breath of air and these words came to me:
of Lyonesse took satin for granted, silk
was cheaper than salt…
It was an initial surprise to me that the city in Katrina’s prompt turned out to be the undersea city Lyonesse. I knew I had to run with this. So, sitting outside in the drizzle I wrote the rest of the first poem. What was this strange place, with its gownshops and its bars? I went deeper.
Yet, for me, this was a familiar way of entering a poem, or sequence of poems. New work almost always arrives sideways, out of the corner of the eye, unexpectedly, be it from a prompt, or something overheard, a dream, a memory, and then, having arrived, the poem or poems are unrefusable!
Over the next few weeks I wrote the first batch of Lyonesse poems. These were Door, Palm Sunday, My Friend, Night Gate, by the hoar rock in the drowned wood, we are the servants of lions, Make a Wish, and Lizzie.
By this time I realised it would be a pamphlet, or even a book, if I could find enough variety in the theme. I wrote some in Cornwall, some in Madeira. I was very inspired by the exhibition, Submerged Cities, at the British Museum.
The writing of Lyonesse was a richly exhilarating process, I felt completely swept away into this lost city with its complex links to ancient and modern Kernow. As I worked I realised that writing about Lyonesse was giving me new ways of writing about loss.
I continued to work on new poems over the next eighteen months, before turning to the editing process. I spent a long time shaping the poems. The poems began with pure feeling, but during the re-writing I thought hard about form, architecture, the colour palette of the book (sea colours!), and on finding a balance between mystery and clarity. I think that poetry can give us the sense and affirmation that ‘nothing is ever truly lost’. For me the undersea city gained, in Jung’s phrase, ‘psychic actuality’. In a very real sense, Lyonesse is me.
GR: That’s such a vivid and fascinating response, I can just picture the scene in the drizzle at Trebah gardens and sense the arrival of those first few magical words. There is something miraculous in this and, as you say, un-refusable. Where does it come from? As if we‘ve tapped into a whole stream of consciousness that is utterly real, running alongside, yet staticked out by our normal ways of attending. There is a teaching in Sufism that the world is dreaming us, and for me you hint at something like this in your response.
Would you mind if I quoted the whole poem to show just how it acts as an enchanted gateway to the book?
took satin for granted, silk
was cheaper than salt, but velvet rip-roared
like the water-lions of the west
who dealt the city its fate
Those frocks wore themselves
to rags overnight
along streets pinned to the tides,
gardens groomed by the waves
When the weather
forgot its place in Lyonesse,
every dress was a flounce
in the wrong direction
in all the bars and ballrooms
as the city swam for its life
And in the last wet mirror
Lyonesse held up to itself,
not a gown to be seen,
nor a child,
if tempest-truth be told,
in the place where Lyonesse had been
Thinking back to the inspiration that came to you unbidden in that garden in the Cornish drizzle – it’s an impossible question I know, but do you think human consciousness deep down tends towards some higher purpose? Is it flowing towards revelation – miracles occasionally – aligning itself like filings to a magnet?
PS: What you say brings to mind Andre Breton’s remark (somewhere in his Surrealist Manifesto) ‘that there is another world but it is this one’. I take him to mean that this world is both mundane and yet also magickal in the deepest sense, in our deepest experience. I think that when we find first lines, beginnings of poems, rising into our consciousness, it is because we have prepared for them by much reading, by much openness to the world, by attending to the world and to life in a deeper than normal way, that we have practised the readiness for the poem to come by engaging in delight and joy in the world, as well experiencing the dark places of human experience. I’m not sure that I feel the world is dreaming us, but that human beings (for all sorts of reasons, societal and political in the main but also through individual and familial repression) often turn away from the world’s riches and the light of them because that light can be blinding, and because deep feeling is always a challenge. It can be easier to turn off, and we all do so, but it easier only in the short term. Feeling is the precursor to imaginal work.
GR: What a wonderful answer Penny: that quote of Andre Breton’s is haunting and inspiring; thank you for sharing it. I also love ‘Feeling is the precursor to imaginal work.’
I’m struck by many other things you say:
‘New work almost always arrives sideways, out of the corner of the eye, unexpectedly’
and ‘finding a balance between mystery and clarity’. I think you achieve this wonderfully in the collection.
Palm Sunday, one of the first poems that came to you is startlingly written (and laid out), if I can quote from the first verse:
When the wave
with a run-up height of
over forty metres
it sealed the churches full of people
stoppered them with five million tons of fatal debris
Side-swiped orchards crashed down
to the abyssal plain
no longer dependent
on the sun
Repair garages sparked like broken wineglasses at a wedding
and seems to exemplify this unexpectedness. The wonderful clarity of the ‘Repair garages’ that spark ‘like broken wineglasses’ grounds everything in distinctive clarity and also arcs back to the vastness of ‘the abyssal plain’ so that both images are lit up by the other. Your eye and ear are wonderfully attuned to catch such broadcasts.
I’m also struck by your minimal punctuation: what is happening for you here? Does this help attune you to ‘the music of what happens’ in Heaney’s phrase? Has this always been part of your poetic? And is punctuation in poetry often an irrelevance, a barrier even ?
PS: The ways in which new poems, first lines, phrases, arrive, are deeply mysterious and unpredictable. The imagination moves along at its own rate, it has its own concerns, and then something in the writer’s unconscious mind, a sixth sense at work, if you like, connects with the imagination, with renewed verbal energy, and often at lightning speed the poem bursts into initial life. Sometimes ( rarely) the entire poem powers on to the page, or a strong beginning is given, and then the poet follows that thread through the labyrinth of the poem in its making, in its evolutions. So I have a few poems that were ‘given’ to me, and which required minimal editing. I have far more poems that go through numerous drafts, and where the final poem is often taken very far from its original impetus. I love this process and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. It takes as long as it takes! It is, to my mind, like a continued listening to the poem in progress, in order to discover what the poem wants to say, and to discern the form in which it wants to say it, needs to say it. It is not for me to over-determine the way the poem is to go, but to work like a detective seeking motive, means and opportunity.
As a poet, I’m not a particularly strategic thinker. I’m a listener, I’m intuitive, I trust and revere language and imagination, I’m patient, I’ll wait. My radar is switched on all the time, I think, I hope. So when the poem or poems come (and I do write several at a time, sometimes, in a sequence, or in batches) I’m ready.
As part of the drafting process, I find it necessary to put poems into incubation at times. At these times I don’t read the poems, I don’t fiddle with them, I put them to one side, hard copies printed out, put in a file, or in a document box. Time will make these poems look, sound, feel very different when I return to them. How do I know when to go back to them? It is almost random, but I always leave a few weeks, ideally months, and I have left poems now and again for several years. As Peter Redgrove once said to me, ‘I’ve left this poem of mine for an angel to finish.’ Well, sometimes I have to help the angel! Perhaps ‘finding a balance between mystery and clarity’ is enabled by this setting-aside of a draft poem for several weeks or months, so on re-encountering it there is the mystery of re-discovery and the clarity of learning which parts of the poem work, and which don’t. New directions might be suggested, stanza order changed, new concluding lines needing to be written.
Several of the poems in Lyonesse, such as Palm Sunday, justify the poem to the righthand margin. This is a technique I’ve not used before. I decided to use this in Lyonesse as part of my desire to vary the shapes of the poems as widely as possible, as a type of mimesis of objects submerged under the waves. I also use this technique to wake up the reader (and myself!) during an extended-sequence collection, as any monotony of form works against the energy of a collection. Justifying a poem to the righthand margin also made me think about the energy field of the poem in a new and exciting way, it showed up weaknesses in any line, that is for sure! It kept me on my toes!
Poetry is a way of being concerned with time and space, with microcosm and macrocosm. It allowed me take a big subject, like Lyonesse, and work my way through the smaller component parts, where a range of emotions and experiences could be brought into play. The big space of the theme needed to be explored by paying attention to the small key details, those ‘wineglasses’, by the familiar human-scale reference. The danger in working across a big theme is that the poems can become grandiose and self-indulgent, and I hope I weeded out poems that fell into that trap. The spatial energy of the poems was a big part of the book’s evolution.
I’m glad you’re raised the issue of punctuation. I felt from the very first Lyonesse drafts that punctuation had to be minimal, used only when the sense could not be transmitted except, say, by a dash or a comma. It enables the poems to flow without let or hindrance. It gives a particular sort of freedom, but also it demands discipline because by abjuring punctuation the poet must modulate their poem by the use of line breaks, stanza breaks, the overall shape of each poem, and more energy has to be invested in the title of each poem. Your question made me recall that in my first two collections (The Orchard Upstairs 1980) and The Child-Stealer, 1983, I used minimal punctuation in a number of poems and poem sequences. I’ve been re-reading these poems, and I realise that these are the poems I felt most at home within, and more confident of, to the degree that I could allow the poem to float (almost) above the page, or to (almost) dance in an untrammelled way over the page, which is what lack of punctuation enables you to do.
But then I think in subsequent collections I had many different aspects of poems to conjure with, to explore, and I needed the support system of punctuation to continue learning how to write poems.
By the time the Lyonesse poems came along, I was ready to work without punctuation, had, perhaps, renewed confidence. The poems of the companion volume, New Lamps for Old, also avoid almost any punctuation. For me, this gives such freed energy to the poems. I continue to write without punctuation, finding new ways to modulate the poems, to signify the breathing of the poem by, as I said, line breaks etc. When a poem is allowed to occupy the space of the page without the straitjacket of punctuation the sense of liberation is amazing! And it seems then that the poem can more directly make its way to both head and heart.
GR: What a privilege to receive such a profound and beautifully written exposition of your poetic philosophy and some of your working methods: a lifetime’s wisdom distilled – and given so generously! I feel blessed and humbled to be able to read it all. Wow. Thank you so much for all you have shared Penny, there are worlds here…There can’t be a poet anywhere who wouldn’t gain soul-nourishment from reading this.
There are as many ways of reading a poetry book as there are readers, but in Lyonesse’s case I found it a very rich experience to read the poems in sequence, quaff them in big drafts or swim in the spell they cast. They have a cumulative power and a sea-like inter-relatedness: the variety of layout, form and voices definitely keeps the energies talking to each other – the tide’s always active and she takes us to some amazing places, not least to the richness of Cornwall – its maritime heritage and its Celtic soul.
In fact I think Lyonesse is an incredibly important book in terms of helping us understand Cornish identity; it is all done with such love and reverence – and a very acute ear – and will still be read in hundreds of years I think, if the sea doesn’t inundate us. My words feel inadequate here, I can only urge you to read the book and experience it for yourself! As you say, it is ‘a sub-aquatic rite of passage’ but much more besides.
Titles like ‘Why the Maidens prefer future funk to a Sumerian goat’, ‘Jackie Onassis orders new dancing shoes’ and ‘Church of the Crayfish Christ’ give an idea of the sheer variety of approaches you have, I love the different voices you conjure for us in these, for example in the latter poem:
‘Blessed are those who sail the Persistencia around the globe for a thousand years, for they will inherit the Arctic Ocean, the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the North Pacific, the South Pacific and even the Antarctic Ocean, yea verily the Seven Seas
Go down you pinks and posies
Go down you blood red roses
Go down where them whalefish blow’
I could absolutely hear the Cornish accents too in ‘The Foster Brothers of Kernow Speak’, it’s just like overhearing a real conversation, it made me laugh and yet you kept the mythic dimension wide open – that’s some achievement!
The Foster-Brothers of Kernow Speak
Lady Lyonesse thinks igh of erself
biggin up er beauty n such
runnin into us ole boyos
she can’t elp boostin er tits
n banterin givin’ us the eye
but she’m tricksy
just when you think
she gonna lap youse up
she be gone leavin you
in the heartbroke dark
I was very struck by a comment you made earlier that ‘in a very real sense Lyonesse is me’. It got me thinking about which poem, or poems (or lines even) in the book represent for you the most magical insights, or the most unexpected bulletins from yourself as you recall them coming to you; those most fleeting messages which – perhaps because of their elusiveness – speak to us from the depths of the self? Something perhaps in an utter flash of beauty. These lines from by the hoar rock in the drowned wood did it for me:
there was once
a feasting-cup city
pearl and aquamarine
of its precincts and palaces
of its square miles
and I was transfixed by the sheer unexpectedness of the lion-presence you conjure in Legends,
‘If a lion might swagger past you
all afternoon in your courtyard
you’d look the other way
show respect – no child of the city
ever play-roared back at a lion
Day and night
their meat-breath mocked the city
no salt-sharp air
no sea-garden lavender after rain
sweetened the ravenous pong…’
It would be amazing to read any response of yours to that hopefully-not –too-difficult question I’ve posed! I’ll pass over the baton to you…
PS: When I’m there in the writing, everything is white-hot, goes at top speed, the synapses flashing with connections, perceptions flying into place. The process of looking back to examine how the poems came about is a bit like the forensic examination of a crime scene, (but in a good way). Here goes.
The very first poem, The Gownshops made the deepest personal impact. It was the threshold poem. It was the open sesame poem from which the other poems unfurled. It was the precursor poem. The energy of the entire book was packed in that single poem, and the subsequent poems burst out, at intervals, like a slo-mo jack-in-the-box.
Conversely, every line of every poem in Lyonesse has, for me, equivalent energy and purpose. Only those poems dropped from the manuscript didn’t have that energy, that need-to-be-written brightness. The book poems each offered me their own revelatory energy.
Each added another aspect to Lyonesse, helping me keep the variety, enhancing the reality of this sub-aquatic world, this link to my individual unconscious, and the wider Collective Unconscious to which we are all constantly responding. One poem in an extended sequence precipitates another. It is organic, it is magic.
Another essential part of the writing was my growing sense of inhabiting this imaginal place. I felt a deepening familiarity to it, I felt Lyonesse was me. Lyonesse contains so much of the experience of living all my adult life in Cornwall. I moved to Falmouth when I was 22, and now I’m coming up to my 75th birthday.
The sense of tidal time is ever-present when you live by the ocean. Its rhythms are your rhythms. In addition, the lunar pulse is also very active if you live by the sea. All these feelings nourished Lyonesse. The poems are embedded in nature, from the cataclysm of the inundation itself, (described in Palm Sunday and in the prose poem An Account of The Submergence) to the evocations of weather and light throughout. All of these are, I hope, recognizably Cornish.
There were key realisations throughout. Lyonesse had to be peopled, it could not be an empty city. It was as if a space had been cleared in my imagination and the figures of disparate personalities such as Jackie Onassis, Lizzie Siddal, the Sea god Neptune, The Devil, the Maidens killed by Apollo arrived, with their different testimonies. These personalities and witnesses added to the reality of Lyonesse for me, and I felt they became my companions throughout.
The foster-brothers of Cornwall also arrived out of the imagination’s elsewhere, and their ancient shamanic identities added another thread to the living tapestry. When using a vernacular tone I hope I’ve done it with respect to the Cornish background. I hope that the brothers stand for and speak Cornwall’s individualism. The foster-brothers speak with a very perceptible twinge of irony, sardonic even.
In addition to needing the poems to be peopled, I also wished to have heard voices. Where there are people and voices, there is life. But manifestations, such as the foster-brothers, did come with the same spontaneous surprise as the initial gown shop poem. A lot of creativity is mysterious: after the event of the poem there are echoes, fragments, of its manifestation. But much can’t be paraphrased.
Some poems are about deeply-felt loss, others are more playful. Playful poems, for me, possess a deep seriousness, otherwise they are merely gabble.
I hope that all the poems, at their different pressures, are interconnected via the values of language, by verbal intensity and the interiority poetry offers us. Play is an integral part of serious thinking, for me.
As for the title: a poet friend did a peer review of Lyonesse-in-progress, making the very important comment that my titles were ‘not quite there’. I realised I had simply put holding pattern titles in place, but hadn’t revisited them. Having had my attention directed to the title issue, I had a long think, and found ways of adding detail and point throughout by making the titles come alive. I decided in some places to draw on the tradition of sea shanties, which are a branch of work songs. Sea shanties would have been sung (perhaps written, adapted) by press-ganged sailors. Shanties reveal much about the former exploitation of human beings, about corporate greed, and about sadness. I wanted this to be a part of Lyonesse.
The lions who appear throughout were another gift to a poet. The word ‘lion’ is embedded in the world ‘Lyonesse’. I found opportunities for punning were productive, but even more so the lions became guardian animals for Lyonesse, totem animals. Their animal presence brought an instinctual energy into the book.
The more I wrote the more the subject gave me; the more I was both absorbed into Lyonesse, and yet felt the need to set boundaries. This act of distancing is necessary, firstly not to be overwhelmed by material and by research, and secondly, to prepare the ground for the editing process, when as we know, our darlings must be killed.
Now, looking back in retrospect, the hard work vanishes into the ether and the magic comes to the fore! I count myself fortunate to have stumbled upon Lyonesse, and I thank Lyonesse for finding me, for opening its floodgates to me, and letting me swim alongside.
The cover of my book Lyonesse is a marvellously-wrought painting entitled Sea-Serpent Guarding Treasure, by George Wallace Jardine (1920 – 2002). Its sea colours and exquisite details are a wondrous evocation of an undersea world. I’d been looking for a cover image all through the writing of the poems, but hadn’t found anything suitable. I had a stack of Tate Etc magazines (the magazine of the Tate for members) and I was looking through these one day when I came across a feature on an exhibition (2013) at Tate St Ives entitled Aquatopia. Here I saw George Wallace Jardine’s superb sea serpent picture. I’m hugely indebted to my editor, Neil Astley, for tracking the picture to the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, and to the artist’s widow, June Furlong, for giving rare permission to use one of her husband’s paintings as a cover image. It is a joy every time I look at the book!
My late husband the poet Peter Redgrove always used to like saying ‘we’re going behind the appearance of things’. This is what he’d say when we set off for a drive in Cornwall, leaving the main road for smaller and smaller back roads and trackways. Going behind the appearance of things meant seeing the hidden places behind the regular landscape, but also he meant, that is what poetry does, it goes behind the appearance of things to find the other deeper or lost realities of the world, of the self. It is also what love does.
In about 1967, when I was twenty, I discovered the work of Denise Levertov and her colloquial lyrical open yet disciplined poems, her ways of seeing the world, were immediately a touchstone for me, and I learned and continue to learn from her work.
When I was 17 a friend gave me a copy of the Penguin European Poets edition of Rilke and his work was a revelation to me. And the whole roster of amazing poets that came out in that European Poets series in the Sixties and Seventies were a deep education for me. I discovered Yevtushenko, Akhmatova, Montale, Apollinaire, Nellie Sachs, Salvatore Quasimodo, so many major poets from beyond the Anglophone tradition. I was tired of Larkin! Weren’t we all!
I want to say about the art and act of reading that the pleasure principle is what drives me in my reading. Reading is a sensuous pleasure, one is plunged into synesthesias of being, of meditative flow, and intellectual challenge. When I first read Rilke I was too young to understand those depths, but I responded very intently to the music, the atmosphere, the truth of his writing. There was a world
that Rilke offered me, the purity of his sensibilities, and it was the place I wanted to be.
There are other poets who have meant a great deal to me, in particular Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney. I’m also greatly enriched by reading my twentieth century fore-poets, and by my own contemporaries, and by new voices now coming into their own. The list would be endless! Here are a few: Janet Frame, Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Seamus Heaney, Theodore Roethke, Stevie Smith, Edwin Morgan, Mark Goodwin, Jo Shapcott, Kathleen Raine, Ruth Bidgood, Jean Earle, Sharon Olds, Ruth Stone, Jane Hershfield, Louise Gluck, Alison Brackenbury, Pascale Petit, Steve Ely, Gunnar Eckhart, Olav Hauge, Mark Goodwin… And recently I’ve gone back to some classical writers, Catullus, Tibullus, Sappho.
In my experience, the reading of poetry makes me want to write poetry. Immersion in poetry creates the desire to write in me. I want to be part of that great tapestry where each poet is working on their own thread but in present awareness of the scale of the poetic universe all the poets are creating.
GR: Penny, thank you doesn’t even come close for all you have shared with us in this interview! Your generosity, insights and wisdom are a total inspiration and your responses in this interview are a touchstone for the value of poetry and the sacredly human nature of the poetic process. Your words make contact with us in the most profound way. It has been a privilege to interview you.
It goes without saying we are looking forward immensely to your reading for Fire River Poets on April 7th at 7.30pm.
Graham Ryan, March 2022
Here’s a piece Penelope wrote for the Poetry Society website about writing her poem, Gardens where there’s no need for a garden, which was published in the Poetry Review. The piece was re-published as an afterword in her 2020 pamphlet, Father Lear.
Gardens where there’s no need for a garden
For me, it begins with a grandfather consciousness of Russia
and a difficulty of surnames,
smiles in a local kitchen from my alien gold neighbours
and the gladness of their horses
It begins in the dark regions
of vodka and childhood
where the staircase birds share the flight of the child
and a windowsill mother counts
a thousand years
on her exact tongue of black-blood grief
Or it begins, for me, with a master-sleep
with the dog who understands the breast that wears black,
and the hour when a strange
but better than usual guest
comes to call
For me, it begins when I step aside
from my own concerns and the dead look at me,
quiet as thimbles,
they look at me from the hushing handheld sky,
its subdued palaces,
the doors all blue and in the wrong places
For me, it begins there
Writing my poem ‘Gardens where there’s no need for a garden’
I like words and images. A poem often starts when I put myself in the place of language, and wait. I do this without strategic thinking.
Here, the title arrived first, from the place of language, presenting me with possibilities that led into the initial draft of the piece. The refrain of ‘beginning’ is a trajectory of feeling my way into the implications of the title. Those implications turned out to focus on death and loss. June is a difficult month for me because my husband Peter Redgrove died in June 2013. That sense of grief was an underlying factor where a death atmosphere began to impinge, first like this, then like that, and that, and that. The mystery of the Russian past. Alien sensations of pain, of joy. The photograph of the mother on the windowsill. The dog with his greater-than-our-human senses. (And the dog is a real dog, not a psycho-pomp). The ‘strange/but better than usual guest’ who brings news of death. These colours, these gestures, these presences.
The poem is also ‘about’ not needing to understand or strip down every image that rises from our unconscious mind into consciousness via language, but of offering those images our closest attention, a fidelity of the spirit, letting the poem speak and make its way through the many layers of resistance and laziness that make up the everyday mind, well, mine, anyhow.
Perhaps a poem is a spell spelt out to test how much reality we can bear. Not much, as we know. Language offers itself as a gleaming shield against the overwhelms and the anguish. Death and loss are hard to bear. Our dead look at us when we’re not expecting that look, we’re never prepared, and that look feels like a disconnect and a connection. All these things are bewildering and not simple. The poem recounts them to the poet in us and through its alchemical mingling of truth and lie, mystery and illumination, makes our anguish into a story, a song. Among the mad noise of the world, it offers its still small voice, as some kind of compensation for things too awful for anyone to think about for too long. And in this poem maybe thinking is a false friend, compared to feeling, intuition, and falling awake in language.