Beside her many other honours, Rae Armantrout has won the Pulitzer Prize and been a Guggenheim Fellow. In a wide-ranging interview with Aaron Kunin, she explains to Prac Crit how she constructs her lucid segmented poems on the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness. It turns out to be a collaborative effort, as Armantrout interacts critically, wryly, subversively, with other texts; also with her group of famous first readers. It is one of our finest interviews to date, revealing perhaps better than any other the living connection between major literary accomplishment and the bitty fascinations of poetic composition. In her essay on the poet, Joanne O’Leary suggests a concern with the ‘unattainability of lyric immediacy, the impossibility of making there here and then now.’
David Sergeant’s poetry is both immediate and cerebral – consciously impulsive. Interviewed by Anthony Caleshu, his poet-colleague at Plymouth University, he describes ‘Fox and Revolt’ as not your everyday kind of nature poem, but a work in which visceral instinct and poetic craft scintillatingly collide. My own essay reads ‘In Spring’, from his first collection, Talk Like Galileo (Shearsman, 2010), as erotic verse alive to the interconnections between desire and creative perception. Fifty Shades of Grey is in the news for bringing erotica to the mainstream – Sergeant’s poem investigates sexual feeling without shrinking it to a clamped and brutal script, and in doing so suggests that contemporary verse may be the place for a more searching, tender and playful analysis of such feelings than is possible in other media.
Melissa Lee-Houghton also considers courageously things One Isn’t Supposed To Talk About, discussing, as our third featured poet, her mental health issues and subject-matter some might think of as ‘taboo’. Relating the ‘unsayable’ to the horrifically specific, and suppressed, sufferings of women, she speaks with measured intelligence about traumatic experiences that verse might utter sans measure, and with an ungainsayable sincerity – also about the reality of women’s sexual experiences, good and bad. With self-critical playfulness, John Clegg close reads ‘I’ll Find You’ as a poem which resists traditional close reading: thronged with felicitous structures, this remains a poem which demands of the reader a more brutally intimate, and less academically considered, response. What is the literary critic to make of it?
Toby Martinez de las Rivas is a poet of admirable linguistic and conceptual density – inspired, as he explains to James Brookes, by a thrawn and subterranean (but also, at times, startlingly overt) theology. Knowledge is impacted in this type of verse, whose texture can be rebarbative, and which characterises erudition as a matter of muscular effort. Their interview considers minutely the cognitive and spiritual implications of poetic form, touching on Jacques Derrida, the book of Genesis, and the very typographical shape of de las Rivas’s poems. (Apparently the shift from his original font to Faber’s made, in Terror, for a few adjustments.) His ‘Tuscan Sequence’ reveals a poet unafraid to be earnest and capable of a lapidary seriousness in which every chiselled syllable earns, with apprehended strain, its undislodgeable place on the page.
Michael O’Neill is an internationally-renowned scholar, of Romantic literature in particular; he is also an award-winning poet, whose latest collection, Gangs of Shadow, was published last year by Arc. In his Deep Note, the poet and the critic get along charmingly, companionably, but not without a revealing tension. O’Neill analyses his new poem ‘Not That Only’ as belonging ‘to the unlovely sub-genre of possibly muddled self-exculpation’; a work about the kind of poem he would like to write – or feels compelled to. Discussing the poem’s speaker as (following Emily Dickinson) a ‘supposed person’ not quite himself – or not that only – O’Neill leads us with a light yet knowing touch through the formal stanzas of an important new work.