Prac Crit

I am lordly, puce and done,

by Mark Waldron

Interview

by Francine Elena

I first became aware of Mark Waldron’s poetry while staying in a Hungarian hotel one January, as I read a copy of The Best British Poetry 2012 at the hotel bar. A fellow guest, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Des Lynham, approached me and said that I should read a poem in the anthology written by an acquaintance of his. The poem, ‘The Life Cycle of the Fly’, was my first introduction to a style that is refreshing in its originality and imagination, paired with a rhythm and vocabulary that feel rooted in English lyric.

Later that year I saw Waldron read in person at an SSYK event in Peckham. ‘Read’ is perhaps the wrong word as, unlike many poets, Waldron charismatically delivers each poem by heart. As he left the stage, a friend sitting next to me confessed he had become as much enamoured with Waldron’s impeccable grooming as his charmingly surreal poetry. It spans two collections: The Brand New Dark (2008) and The Itchy Sea (2011), both published by Salt.

When I am asked to meet Waldron, to discuss his latest poem ‘I am lordly, puce and done,’ I am not quite sure what to expect from a man who has at least one foot in dream-like imaginings at all times. When I arrive at his farmhouse in Normandy, where we have agreed to conduct the interview, I am immediately struck by the fact he is wearing a dark blue three piece suit, in spite of the insufferably hot weather. As we enter the rustic kitchen he seems preoccupied and tells me he is spending the afternoon cooking bouillabaisse. This is at odds with the smell of the kitchen, which is not dissimilar to choux pastry.

As I admire a collection of bucolic figurines balanced on the shelves of an ornate dresser, Waldron, who is unerringly pleasant, tells me about some of the finer points of Swiss bee-keeping. He turns his attention to the stove and, once the enamelled casserole dish is bubbling away encouragingly, we begin a lengthy conversation that will cover everything from anaerobic exercise to wallpaper design. As a wind picks up in the fields outside, I notice dusk has fallen; the kitchen dresser starts to rattle until it looks ready to disintegrate.

Visibly shaken himself, Waldron sets a tureen on the roughly-hewn oak table and says we had better get on with the interview; he is expecting dinner guests to arrive in a couple of hours’ time.

As we begin I notice the kitchen now smells of something more closely resembling crème de menthe and pine needles.

FE

Tell us something about the first line of the poem and why you chose to open with it.

MW

Oh dear Francine, I can’t imagine what I was thinking of when I wrote that! Actually, it’s a bit of semi-nonsense being spoken by Manning. What he says about himself being ‘lordly, puce and done’ feels absolutely true to me, but I’m not completely certain what he means by it. Manning came about partly because I wanted a character who could act like an idiot in my poems so that I didn’t have to act like an idiot in them. There’s a kind of archness that really wants to come out sometimes, so I let poor old Manning express that – he’s my stooge.

Also Manning likes to appear in many different forms. In this one, he’s taken over a poem that, not in its original state but at a later stage, featured a Hamlet character – Manning is being a bit of a luvvy and also acting like a preposterous clown. His disposition has gone a bit antic.

FE

When you say a Hamlet character, do you mean a different persona to Manning in an earlier draft?

MW

When I first wrote this poem it had Marcie in it, as well as a character called Mark who was probably me. The camp speech at the beginning of the poem originally didn’t belong to a character at all. Then the Mark character was replaced with Hamlet, who was given that bit of monologue as well as the tights and the castle-like backdrop. Then Hamlet was replaced with a character called Buddy The Stone (he was a stone living in a rock garden) who then, a few drafts later, became another character called Henry, who was a puppet dog, and then Henry became Hamlet again and finally Manning.

FE

These two characters, Manning and Marcie often appear in your poetry. Tell us a bit about them…

MW

Someone once told me that when you analyse your own dreams you should remember that everyone in your dreams is you – the same goes for writing. I think of my poems as my dreams. Marcie and Manning both start with the first two letters of my name – in fact Marcie has got the whole of my name (one spelling of it) inside her name.

Marcie is an invented muse character. I made her as a way of scratching the itch I have about the extent to which we might at least partly invent ‘real’ people in the ‘real’ world. Particularly people we fall for. Someone said falling in love is a kind of narcissistic identification – I believe that certainly can be the case. So if it’s narcissistic then Marcie is a projection. Freud said something about the violence of obsession (I can’t track down exactly what he said, but I think it had to do with the violence of forcing someone into your projection of them).

As for Manning, he’s a more direct version of me, one who’s exaggeratedly lost – he doesn’t even know what historical period he belongs in. For some reason I think of him as looking a bit like Des Lynam, the sports compere, in the 1970s – a rather suburban image of masculinity.

I was asked once why I so often write poems about characters rather than writing about myself and I remember thinking, well, all my poems are about me, it’s just I’m usually dressed up as those characters. Actually though, I think the main reason I’m suspicious about an authorial ‘I’ has more to do with my sense that I don’t even have a clear idea who the ‘I’ in my life is, let alone an ‘I’ in my poems. So it’s not so much a suspicion that’s connected to how I see writing as an activity, but a suspicion that’s connected to how I see my life.

FE

That’s very interesting and I think explains a lot about your approach to subject matter. Is Marcie’s ‘light’ and ‘buzzing honey’ connected to the fact she is an invented muse?

MW

I suppose I was imagining she’s made of light like a projection. And as the honey’s buzzing then she might be something between a bee and its honey. Half fabricated and half alive. In another Manning poem I mention that I own him like some people own bees. I like the idea that my creations are a bit like creatures I own and do with as I will.

FE

As with many of your poems, phrases such as ‘what we take for a moon’ make us very conscious of a poem as an artistic construct; there is a strong sense that we are the audience, you are the poet, the character is playing a part, in costume. Why did you want to bring such an awareness to the poem, and to your poetry in general?

MW

Yes, the moon in the poem is only a prop – like everything in poems and also, to some extent, everything in the world. Much of what we think we perceive as ‘out there’ is actually ‘in here’. It’s been demonstrated (somehow) that when you think you ‘see’ a tree you only really see a little bit of tree, and the rest you ‘fill-in’ using your memories of what a tree should look like. This sense of where invention stops and reality begins is important, because of its implications for how alone each of us might be. Perhaps it’s also motivated by a concern I have that in this day and age the suspension of disbelief seems too much to ask for. I personally find I’m less alienated by art that acknowledges it’s a construct (even if that acknowledgement is very subtle).

FE

Yes, I think there is a certain truth in making the reader aware that they are experiencing something ‘man-made’ rather than something completely representative of reality (which would be impossible). Talking of art, I remember you once mentioning the differences between the visual art world and the poetry world. Visual art often seems more adventurous and to me, you approach poetry in a similarly challenging way. Is that true?

MW

Visual art does often seem more adventurous. It’s a contentious view perhaps, but I sometimes think it’s because the art world is driven by a market, at least to a far greater extent. I think funding has over-protected poetry. I wouldn’t argue that all contemporary art is interesting and adventurous and all poetry isn’t – that would be ridiculous – but it sometimes feels as though the people who control poetry are the equivalents of the people who love, say, David Hockney in the art world. I very much like his work as it happens, but an awful lot has happened since that’s also interesting. The art world seems to want to rush enthusiastically into the future, embracing new ideas and valuing originality, whereas poetry sometimes seems actively opposed to newness. Mind you, all this is beginning to change, I think (I hope!). I can’t see the point of any of this activity if it’s not about attempting to push forward towards something new.

FE

In a wider sense, to what extent are you influenced by visual art, including theatre and film, in your approach to writing?

MW

I’m not sure I know if or how I’m influenced. I know what I’m drawn to but I never know if it’s rubbed off on me.

An artist friend and a poet friend independently told me my poems seemed to them to be like pieces of art. When the first one said it I didn’t give it much attention, but when the second did I realised they must have both seen something real. Maybe my interest in art has rubbed off on the way I make poems.

FE

Are you influenced by any particular schools of thought or art movements? I would say forms of Surrealism and Postmodernism definitely play a part.

MW

I don’t think I’m that influenced by art, at least not directly. I have certainly been interested in German (and to a lesser extent American and UK) contemporary art for a long time – Martin Kippenberger, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Paloma Varga Weisz, Gregor Schneider, Katharina Fritsch, Uwe Henneken, Peter Böhnisch, Thomas Schütte and many others as well as Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy and others in the US. I think I felt drawn to German art partly because they’re still attempting to deal with a traumatic past, in which their fathers and grandfathers were the perpetrators of terrible crimes – the rest of humanity got let off.

Kippenberger became a bit of an obsession for me – the absurdly committed way he devoted his life to his art, and the way the humour in his work feels so poignant, and how he won’t allow you to find a comfortable kind of meaning in his work – any kind of settled meaning. It’s full of fantastic and very knowing contradictions. I suppose Kippenberger and all the others I mentioned might fall into a Postmodern category although I don’t think of him or them in those terms. And I wouldn’t say I’d been influenced by him or any of the others in the sense of incorporating anything from their work. I suppose I look for people who I sense are worrying about the things I worry about, so I might feel less alone with those worries.

I did a reading and talk about Surrealism and Surrealist poetry with Luke Kennard and Chris McCabe at the Southbank last year. Chris had invited me to take part because he saw my work as influenced by Surrealism. I remember that at first I didn’t understand what he meant but I came to see that surrealism has had an indirect influence on me, and that much of what I write is available to me because the surrealists opened the door. I like the idea that Surrealism represented ‘la grande permission’, as Henri Michaux put it. I think an opening-up did come into the world at that time and I revel in the freedom it brings. As for Postmodernism, I suppose it’s a description of a view of existence which was an inevitable result of the implications of where history had taken us (similar to the way Surrealism emerged via Dada after the horror of the First World War) and there’s no escaping from these realities. You can’t fail to be influenced by the air you’re breathing.

FE

You have used italics in other poems to signify a different voice, sometimes a higher register. In this particular poem, italics signify Manning’s direct speech, which seems to form a poem within the poem – is that what you what you wanted it to signify and, if so, why?

MW

The italics do signify a higher register in the sense that they’re Manning going all over-the-top and camp. Sometimes it feels to me as though that tone is a way of expressing frustration with trying to express things as they really are in a straightforward manner. Manning is talking semi-nonsense, but out of frustration with the limitations of talking sense.

FE

Manning is wearing tights in this poem, which brings out a feminine aspect to his character as well as a something comically outlandish. In previous poems he has swaggered in a more outlandishly masculine way. Were you thinking of gender here, or do the tights have a more theatrical significance?

MW

Manning’s tights are Elizabethan hose so they’re more theatrical than feminine, though I meant them to seem a bit comically feminine too, which is why Manning ‘adjusts’ them. The thing about Manning is he’s cooked-up. His moustache, as it says in another poem, might be fake or it might not (in fact he’s actually able to grow a fake moustache). Sometimes it suits him to be a bit Hamletish because that character expresses some of what Dai George called, in his review of Best British Poetry 2013, his ‘depleted agency’. The thing is, if you’re uncertain about who you are, as Manning is, it’s very hard to find any firm ground from which to act. It’s very hard to be political, to hold any kind of opinions, even to have real integrity. Manning doesn’t do much in the way of action; he’s mostly stymied and passive.

FE

Is the sense of passivity connected to the fact that he is a character you have agency over, or is there another reason?

MW

Partly yes, that I have agency over him as I do over myself. I feel pity for Manning who gets pushed around by me, who gets forced to do my dirty-work and I feel pity for myself for the same reasons. Also his passivity is an inevitable consequence of his uncertainty in relation to his identity, and again I sympathise with that.

FE

I thought it was funny when you said that Manning looked somewhat like a young Des Lynham. I always thought there was something more rock and roll about him, based on his appearance in ‘Collaboration’ (the poem selected for Best British Poetry 2013). I would picture his moustache as more Zappa or Captain Beefheart than Lynham, while his theatricality feels a bit Bowie or Rolling Stones-esque. Is that completely my projection?

MW

Completely! In my mind’s eye, although I don’t really try to put it across, I see a kind of provincial middle-class ladies’ man.

FE

How do you see the relationship between the first person voice in the poem and Marcie and Manning? Is it your voice? Or at least a characterisation of the ‘poet’ or ‘narrator’, as in some of your other poems?

MW

The voice of the narrator is my poem voice, so not quite my voice. He’s bemoaning the fact that all of this is a fabrication. When he talks about the ‘blown mice’ I’m imagining the mice as glass in a glass world in which even the bees are ‘made’. Marcie is clean like glass. There’s no actual dirt in Marcie in which a person might make a real relationship – a home. There’s no soil to take root in.

FE

Touching on your earlier point, there is something difficult about applying ‘real people’ to ‘invention’ too. I tend to think that as soon as one tries to write about one’s own life and experiences, one immediately creates a kind of fictional, simplified replica. By depicting living beings or objects made of other materials, such as the ‘blown-mice’ and ‘made-bees’ here, are you playing with this idea?

MW

That, and the fact that as I said, I worry about the ‘real world’ being to some extent a projection. So maybe even real mice are blown mice and real bees are made bees. Both real and made at the same time. Writing is interesting to me partly because it’s about creating characters and that echoes my life.

FE

The poem changes focus from Manning to Marcie, then to the first person voice, then to inside the body of the first person – and their blood appears as a character. What was your thinking behind this sequence?

MW

Well I suppose they’re all aspects of the same person each getting a look-in. This is the only time Manning and Marcie appear in the same poem. They’re actually from different worlds: Marcie is a floating muse without a real woman to be attached to. Like other muses she’s a canvas onto which rather infantile ideals get projected, whereas Manning is a series of expressions of a cartoon masculinity. One of them represents how other people might get invented and the other represents how we might invent ourselves. Alongside them is a rather forlorn, innocent, put-upon real body and blood.

FE

The blood’s activity reminded me, in its industrious liquidity, of the ‘chain of men, working hard, working fast with buckets’ to catch the ‘vision’ of Marcie in ‘WWII Marcie’. Do you see the two as related in any loose sense? And, on that note, can you talk a little about your fascination with anthropomorphism? Was there anything that inspired you to characterise in this way?

MW

I think of the body and the blood as being innocent back-room boys keeping the show going – they might not be very bright but they have a selfless integrity that the self lacks. In The Itchy Sea I have a poem called ‘Inside’ in which the interior of the body is imagined as a victim of an abusive self. In this poem the blood is carrying out its designated work unquestioningly. Each corpuscle spends his oxygen wisely, unlike the owner of the body who might be spending his earnings on drink or drugs or women or poetry collections or gambling or whatever – on self-gratification. The ‘red-corpuscle song’ which the blood sings is an expression of a sense of community, in which every corpuscle sings the same song as they all go about their work together. Their sense of a collaborative community is in opposition to the self-gratifying life.

The men in the ‘WWII Marcie’ poem have some similarities to the corpuscles. There’s a moment in that poem when Marcie, Marcie’s brother, the other men and I are all laughing at the absurdity of the whole sloshing vision we’re creating together. There’s a momentary sense of community and collaboration between myself and all the characters in the poem, a moment of community inside myself. It brings sentimental tears of happiness to my eyes even though it’s just another total sham!

As for the anthropomorphism, I suppose it’s a way of simplifying.

FE

We talked a little at the start about drafts of the poem – how long did it take you to write ‘I am lordly, puce and done,’ and how many drafts did it go through?

MW

Not many. I’m guessing twenty-something drafts.

FE

There is a lyrical rhythm to your poetry that, I think, makes it very English. At what point do you start to bring that into the draft?

MW

People have mentioned a couple of times in reviews that there’s something about my poems that’s very English. I don’t really notice it but I suppose it must be there – I’d always assumed they were referring to the subject matter, but perhaps it was what you’re talking about. As far as when I bring the lyrical rhythm into it, it’s there from the start. Some poems come out with that sound in them and some don’t. If they come out without that sound, and I try to apply that later, I find I can’t for some reason. I think that maybe the rhythms of Shakespearean poetry got into my head way back when I was at school and I can tap into it sometimes. Not into the quality obviously, just the rhythm!

FE

Where did you write this poem? Do you have a particular routine for writing poetry?

MW

I can’t remember actually. I write things down in notebooks and then try to make poems out of them later. I like writing notes on the tube.

FE

What gave you the idea for the poem? Were there any particular things that inspired it or that you are referencing?

MW

I don’t know what gave me the idea for the poem. I’m not sure the poem has an idea really. Hamlet is in there and the ideas I’ve already spoken about – the sterility of the invented. That’s a bit of an obsession…

FE

In the past you have mentioned that you enjoy the poetry of Matthea Harvey and Noelle Kocot. Which poets would you cite as influences in your writing? And could you say that any approaches to poetry have had a direct influence on this poem or your writing in general?

MW

I hugely admire Matthea Harvey because she does something I can’t do and she does it brilliantly well. I love the way she achieves the sense of control and of fun and of poignancy and plain cleverness. Noelle Kocot too, she does another thing I can’t do – a kind of extraordinarily rich spontaneity. They’re different in their approaches but they have that in common – capacities that are completely beyond me. I’m really bad at knowing who’s influenced me. I believe you’re only powerfully influenced by people you come across when you’re still forming in your teens. So for me Eliot might be one. The way he changes register within a poem is something I sometimes think I might unconsciously copy. I think I was also influenced by writers of prose at that time and their voices have stayed with me – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence, John Updike, Sartre and Camus, James Thurber.

FE

Is the poem part of a new collection?

MW

Yes, it’s part of a sequence that features Manning.

FE

Will we be seeing more of Manning and Marcie together?

MW

There are other moments when they meet but it always feels just a wee bit forced I think, because they come from different worlds. They feel a bit uncertain as to how to relate to each other, seeing as they know I’ve made them both.

I am lordly, puce and done,

by Mark Waldron

but enough about me, Manning says
as he adjust his tights under what we take for a moon.

There’s a cascading swagger,
everything is joy in a thin strip:

Forgive me, the trees themselves
are morose rather than lightweight, the sky is certainly lit.
The ground bows down like a dumpty stone
quite free under its own buff
beneath the undressed yellowy pomp of its own boff,
and Manning laughs a luvvy laugh beneath a stony arch.

Marcie is all light of course and buzzing honey,
though quite as quiet as my open hand
and my old forgotten blood
who sings to himself
as he trundles about
picking up oxygen
spending it wisely
driving the pump that pumps him round
picking it up again
spending it wisely
singing the red corpuscle song.

The made-bees are quite as quiet as the blown-mice
(all my house is glass),
and Marcie is just about as clean as any window
ever was.
No so sorry dirt at all for me to make my home in.

First Published by Prac Crit.