Prac Crit

Autism

by Roddy Lumsden

Interview

by Kathryn Maris

When asked if I’d interview Roddy Lumsden I was given three pieces of information: Roddy had requested me as his interviewer, his new poem was very accomplished, and our discourse would require sensitivity because his poem addressed a sensitive subject.

Though Roddy and I have been colleagues at various institutions for ten years, we have seldom crossed paths, so I was somewhat surprised that he suggested me as his interviewer. On the other hand, we share a specialisation in American poetry, which comprises a large part of our teaching; and we both value innovativeness even as we approach it differently – so I suspected his choice wasn’t arbitrary either.

One significant way we differ as poets, however, is that I cling to the belief that poetry is essentially a fiction, whereas Roddy’s books, with titles like Roddy Lumsden is Dead and book jackets that allude to real-life experiences, would seem to invite his readers to approach his work as a version of memoir or autobiography. Given this tendency in Roddy’s work, I found it difficult not to read ‘Autism’ as a sort of coming-out poem: a public announcement of a condition or diagnosis. Which made me wonder if ‘sensitivity’ was the right tack. There is no shame in being on the autistic spectrum, and yet treating the subject with undue delicacy or indirection would imply that there is.

I met Roddy at the Poetry School in Lambeth Walk, where he’d spent the day teaching for the MA programme the Poetry School has recently launched in collaboration with Newcastle University. We considered conducting the interview at the Pineapple pub on Hercules Road, where Roddy and his students regularly gather after his Poetry School classes, but Roddy feared the Pineapple’s jukebox would make conversation impossible, so we settled on a quieter pub, The Steam Engine.

KM

You only just came out with a new collection. So is ‘Autism’ a very recent poem?

RL

Yes. This poem was written this year along with another 12 or 13 poems that are part of the same sequence and which are related to a series of events I organized in the last year called ‘Discomfort Zone’, where my co-hosts and I assigned poets to write about subjects we thought would cause them discomfort. For example, I asked Amy Key to write about rugby; and I gave another friend the subject ‘father-daughter love’ because I knew she’d find that uncomfortable.

KM

So there was emotional discomfort for the ‘father-daughter’ poet. But in Amy Key’s case – with the rugby – was that a different kind of discomfort you were after?

RL

Yes, I imagined rugby was a subject she’d have very little interest in. Anyway, we’ve had two ‘Discomfort Zone’ events and we’ll probably do another next year because it’s been really interesting to see the way that people respond to their assignments, which range from ‘sisters’ to ‘dogging’ (which I assigned to a very shy friend). Really good poems came out of that project.

KM

How does your poem relate to that project?

RL

The sequence that ‘Autism’ is part of is called The Black Album, and it was my attempt to give myself leeway to write about stuff that is uncomfortable for me. Some of it is really quite dark.

KM

Can you be more specific about what you mean by ‘sequence’? Is it a numbered sequence that contains a set of self-imposed rules, like the poems in Melt and Solve?

RL

No, it’s just a group of poems whose subjects are things I didn’t really want to write about. Some of the poems are quite dark; some of them are quite sexual. The title comes from an album that Prince made where his songs are all either very dark or very sexual. He initially didn’t want to release it, so the album came out years later as a kind of bootleg.

KM

Like you, I’m interested in ‘discomfort’ in poems, and, like you, I’ve been writing a series of poems about uncomfortable subject matter. Is this a coincidence or is ‘discomfort’ entering the common consciousness?

RL

I think it is entering the common consciousness, and one person who is encouraging that is the poet Tom Bland with his Blue of Noon site. In fact Tom is publishing the whole of my Black Album sequence in an anthology he’s doing.

KM

Aside from autism, what other subjects have you addressed in this sequence?

RL

There’s a poem in which I explain to myself as a young child that we’re all going to die. So that’s really uncomfortable. Death and sex, that kind of stuff. I had a partner in the past who had an eating disorder. There’s a poem that discusses what it’s like to be the partner of someone going through that, which is something I’ve alluded to in poems, but not written directly about.

KM

So in some cases the ‘discomfort’ is something you’ve experienced second hand – the poems aren’t always about your own afflictions and anxieties?

RL

Well, that particular poem is about eating disorders but it’s also about the rapture, which is a thing that has always freaked me out, personally. So that poem fitted together two uncomfortable things – one about someone else and the other about me.

KM

Was ‘Autism’ particularly difficult to write, in terms of its subject matter?

RL

In many ways I didn’t want to write the poem, but I’d been meaning to write about this subject for quite a long time. And although I’ve written other poems that touched on this subject, I’ve not written about it directly. Also, I wanted to write a lyric poem, not an explanatory poem. I wanted to write a poem that caught the atmosphere of the autistic spectrum, rather than a poem saying ‘Hi I’m Roddy. I’m on the autistic spectrum.’

KM

So you identify with aspects of autistic spectrum disorder?

RL

Not only do I identify, I’m quite sure that I am on the spectrum. Although everyone has aspects of their personality that could be perceived as ‘autistic’, there are some people who are autistic. I’m not very far up the spectrum, of course – there are people who can’t even speak because they’re crippled by extreme autism. But I certainly think I have some aspects of Asperger’s. And while I don’t have the uncommunicative thing that some people with Asperger’s have, I do have what I would call ‘introspective Asperger’s’. There are some people who have problems focusing outwards and communicating. My Asperger’s is very much ‘introspective’, and to do with the way my brain is wired, which is kind of what this poem is about. I’m utterly convinced that my brain is wired differently to the normative person. Notice I use the word ‘normative’ not ‘normal’ because I believe I am ‘normal’, I’m just not ‘normative’. I think some people would say, ‘Oh, we’re all like that.’ But no, we’re not all like that, and that’s what the end of this poem, in particular, is saying: ‘Believe me: I’m different to you.’

KM

I would like to talk about your poem’s ending, but first I’d like to ask a more general question about your ethos as a poet. Your most recent collection, Melt and Solve, contains poems that adhere to idiosyncratic, self-imposed rules that were designed to get you writing when, after a concussion, you felt unable to write of your own accord. Those poems were – for all intents and purposes – exercises. Do you distinguish between poems that you have to write because of some internal imperative versus poems that are games or exercises?

RL

Quite simply, I do both. But I do like setting myself restrictions, and I do think restrictions are connected to my spectrum issues because obsessiveness is a strong part of Asperger’s, so setting myself rules is something that really works for me because I respond well to them. There are poems in Melt and Solve where one of the rules was that I had to write a poem within half an hour of having an interesting conversation. Some nights it was really frustrating because I’d be out with my friends in a bar maybe, and I’d really want to stay out, but I’d have an interesting conversation and I’d make myself go home and write. Or occasionally I’d skulk into a corner and write it there because they were quite short poems. But the focus of writing – of making myself write – really works for me. That hasn’t always been the way, but it’s been the way for the last year or two.

KM

So your poems need to be written, but they are also the product of rules and self-imposed exercises. ‘Autism’ too?

RL

Yes. But as much as this poem needed to be written, at the same time I didn’t want to write it at all, I wanted to put on iPlayer or do anything else. I had to make myself write it. And one of the things that helped was to set the poem up with a very particular structure.

KM

Yes! The number 26.

RL

[silence]

KM

Do you know why I’ve mentioned the number 26?

RL

No, I don’t. Does the poem have 26 lines?

KM

Not only does the poem have 26 lines, but each long line is separated into two parts, and the second part of each long line is indented by 26 spaces.

RL

You counted the spaces?

KM

I’m afraid I did.

RL

I don’t remember doing that but that’s the sort of thing I do.

KM

Is there any significance to the number 26?

RL

No, but I seem to remember, now that you bring it up, that it’s something I did deliberately.

KM

Despite the attention to patterns and rules, you’re very good at taking your readers by surprise, thwarting their expectations. Your opening line does this with ‘Some nights I catch the smell of’ when we expect you to say ‘catch the sight of’. Later in the poem it’s ‘clinging at mummy’ rather than ‘clinging to mummy’. Sometimes it’s phrases that are surprising, but sometimes it’s words. When it’s the words that are surprising, I sometimes have the sense that a thesaurus is involved, as in the second line: ‘awry, agley’, which are almost exact synonyms. Ditto ‘the tarriest thought,’ which seems like a more interesting version of more usual adjectives such as darkest or blackest. Do you consult the thesaurus a lot when you write poems?

RL

Yes, I do. But the phrase ‘tarriest thoughts’ actually came from a message I wrote to the poet Fran Lock, whom I correspond with quite a bit about poems through Facebook and email. Like me, she writes poems with dark subjects. The quote in my message to her was: ‘Some days life is more tar than treacle.’ I can’t remember which came first, the message to Fran or the line in the poem, but I think it was the message.

KM

And as for the clinging at mummy rather than to mummy?

RL

Clinging to mummy is one thing, clinging at implies running towards something.

KM

I find that distinction quite clever, because clinging to something implies a connection, whereas clinging at something implies a lack of connection, or a one-way connection.

RL

Well, to me, saying ‘at’ suggests both ‘to’ and ‘towards’. The children are running out of the sea because they’re scared.

KM

There is a list of smells: creosote, broth smog and thinners. These substances are associated both with progress and destruction: am I on the right track?

RL

Those are actually the smells of my childhood. Though it’s not particularly relevant, they are all smells I connect with my father. For example he would creosote the shed, and I’d love the smell of creosote. And my father was a big soup-maker – he loved to make soup – hence the smell of broth. And ‘thinners’ is there because he was a man of the shed, with his paint thinners, and the shed smelled of them. So I was thinking about evocative childhood smells, smells that were integral to me in my childhood.

KM

OK, so those are the smells of your own childhood, yet the poem begins ‘Some nights I catch the smell of others’. Who are the others, and what are their smells?

RL

Other people have other smells – as in, other people have other identities. I went for smell, not sight, because sight is too specific. What I’m talking about is that thing where you have to try to vaguely sense how someone else’s brain works when you yourself don’t think in a normative way.

KM

When later in the poem you write ‘is that “cute”?’ I’m reminded of the poem ‘Cute’ from your pamphlet Super Try Again, in which the word ‘cute’ is described as a ‘terrible word’. Is it a terrible word here?

RL

It’s a way of undercutting the rather preposterous preceding line, ‘No one has ever known me’. There is a part of me that absolutely means that – ‘no one has ever known me’ – but at the same time it’s a little bit of a lofty thing to say. Or maybe not lofty, but it’s a bit of a big, melodramatic statement. No one has ever known me! I wanted to undercut that; I was being a bit hammy.

KM

Indeed there is a shifting of registers in this poem and a general mixing of the high and the low. Is this a favourite device for you generally? What does it achieve?

RL

I think it’s the way my brain works. There are references here to things where only I know their origins. Like the broth smog comes from my dad. And the man walking through darkness comes from a short story by the Scottish author Duncan McLean called ‘Hours of Darkness’, which is about a man walking through the night. My novelist friend Alan Warner and I both absolutely love that story. Nothing much happens; it’s just a man going out into the night walking and walking. We both love that title ‘Hours of Darkness’ and it’s a story that has always been a bit of a meme for me, this idea of going out into the night in a kind of fugue state, walking and walking. There’s something about fugue states that remind me of focus and obsession.

KM

When you include allusions to a favourite book you share with a friend, or the smells of your childhood, or when you namedrop friends as you do in other poems (and which the New York School poets often did in their poems) – is there a risk of excluding your reader?

RL

Not in this poem, anyway. There are specific references here, yes, but they’re to do with my compositional process and not anything that I am challenging the reader to ‘get’. I don’t want anyone to stroke their beard and say, ‘Ah! He’s referencing Duncan McLean’s short story!’

KM

There’s a mixing of senses, almost a synaesthesia here. It happens several times, and it strikes me as central to the isolation of the speaker, a way of expressing his otherness and the otherness of others.

RL

I guess this poem is very driven by its first line, that idea that we smell each other, by which I don’t mean physically smell but that we sense what the other person is about. If the person is non-normative, he or she is using a lot of guesswork. And I worry that I will get other people wrong. And I think there’s a bit in the poem where I say even my siblings I sometimes find hard to gauge. So even the people very, very close to you – you can sometimes get them wrong. And perhaps we all get people wrong, but I think those of us with spectrum conditions are very prone to getting people wrong, and you have to spend your whole life teaching yourself to get people right. I’ve written so much about miscommunication, simply because I have such a fear of miscommunicating.

KM

But you know that even in the best of circumstances, people can be really hard to understand?

RL

I know that, but –

KM

And I appreciate that you feel it’s all the more difficult for you –

RL

Yes it is –

KM

… but to reassure you, I think communication is universally quite problematic for people. But to go back for a minute to the synaesthesia. Ezra Pound said, ‘Don’t mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word. To this clause there are possibly exceptions.’ Your poem is obviously one of the exceptions. But what do you think, generally, of Ezra Pound’s dos and don’ts? Are there rules – his or anyone else’s – that you defer to, or which you promote in your teaching?

RL

I think as you become more experienced as a poet, you are really drawn to break the rules. For example, in Melt and Solve I wrote a series of poems that had intentionally flamboyant and sentimental endings. I knew that some people wouldn’t like those endings, but I liked their preposterousness, their kitsch. And also all the namedropping that goes on in Melt and Solve, and the repetitions. But as for what you identify as synaesthesia in ‘Autism’, I think it’s less about synaesthesia and more about trying to get across the gist of what it is to be non-normative, and to have anxiety that comes from being non-normative.

KM

OK, maybe I’m overstating what I have taken to be synaesthesia in your poem, but if you look at the last six lines, you list what are basically auditory things (a woman says, ‘I died that night’; a man in the audience shouts out in the quiet part of the play; a self-styled prophet screams for an hour on the beach) and then you write, ‘I count these sifting colours of my brief spectrum’, which is a visual, not auditory, conclusion.

RL

When I use the word ‘colours’ towards the end I’m thinking of the association of the word ‘spectrum’. And the various things that are laced through the poems are, I guess, anxieties – this idea that I might be the man who shouts on the beach. And hasn’t everyone had the urge to shout out in the quiet part of the play?

KM

I imagine it’s crossed most people’s minds at some point.

RL

Not that I ever have.

KM

But speaking of anxieties: you seem to have loaded this poem with vocabulary associated with illness, poison and death. But maybe that says more about me than you.

RL

Well the leopard and gazelle –

KM

… and ‘hangs’, ‘bawl’, ‘funeral’, ‘sick’, ‘knife’, ‘appalling’ (which has ‘pall’ in it), ‘mercury’ (which is a poison), ‘darkness’, ‘taint’, ‘died’. Are these conscious or unconscious inclusions?

RL

Unconscious, I guess. There is a lot of anxious, dark stuff in here, as well as in the other poems of the series. In fact the image of the washer coming loose has come up maybe three times in my poems. It’s a metaphor for things going wrong in general. But yeah – it’s got lots of images about things going wrong, or anxiety.

KM

You sometimes seem to invite readers to look at your poems as autobiographical, or at least self-referential. You have a book called Roddy Lumsden is Dead. Your most recent collection is prefaced with an introduction that explains that you had a concussion. In recent years I’ve seen a lot of books – books that do very well – whose jacket blurbs allude to some life event or tragedy, thereby inviting the reader to treat the book as memoir, whereas I have never really thought of poetry as memoir, but as its own genre. What is your view on autobiographical poetry? Is each poem a fiction, or does it depend on the poem?

RL

First of all, I prefer to think of so-called autobiographical poetry as ‘self-mythologizing’ poetry, which seems a more apt term for what I do at least. Second, I think there’s a big difference between autobiographical (or self-mythologizing) poetry and what I would call anecdotal poetry.

KM

Can you please explain that distinction between the autobiographical and the anecdotal? I feel like I need someone to explain that to me in baby language.

RL

OK. Well, to me an anecdotal poem goes, ‘Back when I was 10 and at school, I had an argument with my mom, etc.’ Self-mythologizing or autobiography, on the other hand, comes at the story from a different angle. But it doesn’t mean it’s less true. It’s not ‘fibbing’; it’s just a dramatic take on self-truth. Do I sometimes lie in poems to make the poems more interesting? I probably do on occasion, but I like to stick to the truth generally, and if I want to move away from particular facts, then I’ll use image or metaphor or lyricism – and I think that’s kind of what I’m doing here. The poem leaps around a lot from image to image, but I hope the reader will realise that everything is rolling around the central image of me being someone on the autistic spectrum, and how it feels, and that I’m trying to explain that to you.

KM

It seems like you attempt to say the unsayable, which is what much poetry sets out to do.

RL

Well, that’s why I use smell, which is a vaguer sense than touch or sight. I think that’s what started this off. ‘Some nights I catch the smell / of the lives of others’, meaning sometimes I do manage to latch on to how other people think, but it’s a little scary for me because I realise that people are different – not in the way that we’re all different, but in the way that is specific to autism.

KM

This poem has something of an Anglo-Saxon feel. For example, the lines have a kind of caesura: they are broken about halfway through, often after a full stop or comma. You also have alliterative phrases like ‘fear that friends may feel’ or ‘I would bow to its bidding or bawl’. Would you agree it has Anglo-Saxon elements?

RL

Yes, it was something I was thinking about. Not so much with the line breaks because that’s how I often break lines anyway. But sometimes I redraft (though I didn’t redraft this particular poem very much) with something called a ‘sonic draft’, where I don’t think about the meaning, only the music, and I find myself going into a natural string of consonants, like this bit in the middle:

                                       lay late with a knife
in my mind, or a pulse of appalling glory.
              We are alike as mercury
and nickel are, as leopard and gazelle
              might blink in unison.

There are a lot of ‘l’ sounds strung through this part. There are a lot of ‘l’s in the whole poem actually. It’s very much an ‘l’ poem, even from the very beginning lines. How aware I was that I was doing that, I’m not quite sure. I’ve written so many poems by now that I think I just naturally get into a mode where I use a lot of consonance and assonance. I don’t decide to put them in later.

KM

Because I know you have an interest in self-imposed rules and patterns, I scanned the poem for patterns. I noticed the number 26 of course, and the caesuras and assonance and consonance. But is there anything I’m missing?

RL

No. This poem came quickly. It wasn’t one of those poems that was planned and written over a few days. It was a poem where I had an idea, sat down, and wrote. And it maybe has had a few small changes, but it’s more or less a first draft. And I wrote it late at night.

KM

Some poems are born whole.

RL

It is a poem where I’m using the idea of leaping, shifting, discursiveness. Even though everything in the poem is kind of about the one subject, I go into a metaphor here, a memory there, or an explanation there – and then I hope the end works. It’s me doing one of my heavy endings that I’m rather fond of.

KM

Yes, I was wondering if your intentionally heavy-handed endings from the ‘Plaintive’ sequence in Melt and Solve gave you the courage and permission to be risky with the ending here? ‘What I am seeing now is something / you must never see.’ It’s a spooky, creepy, even campy ending.

RL

Yes, I think it does come from what I was doing in Melt and Solve. And the sentence that comes before the ending is deliberately softer, which allows me to go into that slightly heavy last sentence.

KM

You are attentive to what is going on in contemporary American poetry, and you’ve been instrumental in introducing young British poets to American poetry. Are there any American influences in this poem?

RL

This poem to some extent is influenced by an older American poet called Marianne Boruch, who has been a strong influence on my poems in recent years. Boruch’s style is discursive. I also like Albert Goldbarth’s poetry, whose style is similarly discursive. They’ve changed my style. I love the way their poems, in different ways, make leaps, but often return to this top-and-tail thing going on. Boruch has been a huge influence on me in the last two years. I’ve been writing poems that are more 25-40 lines long, whereas previously I was writing very short poems, as in Melt and Solve, which is entirely short poems. Goldbarth and Boruch tend to write poems that are two-page poems. In Goldbarth’s case, it’s often three-page poems. And poems which can have a sort of looping logic to them, go off on tangents, and then return to the central subject matter and wind it up.

KM

Are the poems in The Black Album on the longer side, then?

RL

There’s a mix. There are a few sonnets, so some of the poems are shorter. But there are a few that are about this length, yes.

KM

Do you often think of sequences as albums?

RL

Yes. I’ve been writing what I call EPs, so basically it’s like the way a band puts out three songs that are loosely connected. Sometimes I write three poems that interlink in some tenuous way, like a set of three poems I recently wrote about three cities I’d never been to. I wrote two of the poems one day, and the third the next day.

KM

What do you see as the biggest change in your poems since you published your first book?

RL

I think each book I’ve written is very different. I like to reinvent my writing to keep it fresh. But there is probably also a constancy there. I mean, my first book is a real mixed bag of stuff, as first books often are, whereas The Book of Love is much more accessible; Melt and Solve is much stranger; Roddy Lumsden is Dead is a more personal book; Third Wish Wasted is a much more lyrical book. And often I will leave out poems from books that I’m perfectly happy with because they don’t quite fit the book. And I guess that goes back to the album thing: you don’t want to put out your album of piano ballads and then suddenly have a heavy metal song in the middle of it.

KM

Is there anything about this poem that we haven’t yet talked about which you’d like to address?

RL

We haven’t talked about the ‘you’ passage:

Paralleling you in bed, I give marginal more
                of myself when sleep
grips its pliers…

There is a suggestion that by being asleep you can be more yourself because you’re not as different in that situation as you are when you’re awake and aware of the difference between yourself and someone you might be intimate with. This goes back to the earlier image of the leopard and the gazelle. The leopard and the gazelle are both mammals, but you know that their relationship with each other is going to be a bit odd! [Laughs] And mercury and nickel are both metal, but very different in the way they’re used and the way they act. So I was thinking about sameness and difference. Also here:

                    But I too
              have met against
your tarriest thought, your sick ambition,
              lay late with a knife…

What I meant there was, ‘We are different, but we both have our issues, we both have our fears.’

KM

Is the ‘you’ anyone in particular?

RL

No, there is no specific ‘you’ in this poem. And the ‘you’ at the end is a different you, because it’s ‘all of you’.

KM

When you end with those lines

                    You should
              believe me when I say
that what I am seeing now is something
              you must never see.

Is that about shame – as in, ‘You must never see’ – or is the sentiment more self-pitying? It seems ambiguous to me.

RL

I think it is shame, yes. Because not only do I have some issues with autism but I also have some issues with mental health problems. I’ve felt over the years that perhaps my mental health problems, which I’ve had on and off in my life, have developed partly due to my being slightly non-normative – and that I’m prone to depression and bipolar disorder because I’m slightly different. I’m maybe wrong – maybe a mental expert would disagree with me on the connection between those things. But the end of the poem is me saying, ‘You should feel lucky that you don’t have problems like these.’ So it’s a little bit of self-pity and a little bit of shame.

Autism

by Roddy Lumsden

Some nights I catch the smell
                              of the lives of others,
all that is awry, agley,
                              the washers loose
the springs rust-bunged.
                              Or the sheerest glee
I hope and fear that friends may feel,
                              their refound wallet
or the cat returned after a week
                              and just a little thin.
And when I say I smell this, I am
                              talking creosote,
broth smog, thinners. The room hangs
                              round the smell,
would bow to its bidding or bawl
                              at its funeral.
I strain to enter the life of another,
                              to bathe it, taunt it,
treat. For people mainly think they only
                              think they think that
no one thinks like them. But I too
                              have met against
your tarriest thought, your sick ambition,
                              lay late with a knife
in my mind, or a pulse of appalling glory.
                              We are alike as mercury
and nickel are, as leopard and gazelle
                              might blink in unison.
Even my siblings are disarmingly other.
                              And as a man walking
through all hours of darkness, clearing
                              to clearing, stile to well
to glebe to turnpike, I catch a gamey taint
                              of other beings, softly
being, grinding in foliage, cowering in boles,
                              zedding to warrens.
Paralleling you in bed, I give marginal more
                              of myself when sleep
grips its pliers. No one has ever known me.
                              Is that cute? I hear a woman
say, ‘I died that night.’ A man in the audience
                              shouts out in the quiet part
of the play. Some self-styled prophet screams,
                              full minute, on the beach
and all the poppets scatter from the sea,
                              gapey-eyed and clinging
at Mummy. I count these sifting colours
                              of my brief spectrum,
softly touching each in turn. You should
                              believe me when I say
that what I am seeing now is something
                              you must never see.

First Published by Prac Crit.

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