Prac Crit

Stray Dog (from A General Dictionary of Magic)

by Kate Potts

Interview

by Sarah Howe

What follows is a conversation between myself and Kate Potts about her poem ‘Stray Dog’, part of a new series she’s been working on since the publication of her first book. We met a few weeks ago, first in a King’s Cross cafe and then back at mine after we realized my freshly unwrapped dictaphone wasn’t equal to the muzak. I didn’t notice it as we chatted, but what struck me as I came to type up the exchange was the resemblance between Kate’s speaking rhythms and the questing syntax of her poems – reeling through adjectives one after another in an attempt to get to what she calls in her interview the ‘exact, exact sense of the thing’.

As Kate explains, ‘Stray Dog’, was initially commissioned as a response to one of the fourteen beasts listed in the entry on ‘Animals’ from Borges’ notoriously spurious Chinese encyclopedia, as cited in his 1942 essay, The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. Foucault memorably called Borges’s charming, disorientating, laugh-out-loud taxonomy an ‘atlas of the impossible’. Part of the reason I was first drawn to this particular poem of Kate’s is my own ongoing fascination with Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In Potts’ hands, the ‘Stray Dogs’ of Borges’s fantastical encyclopedia become one piece in a larger project of hers enquiring into the very idea of dictionaries and the possibility of linguistic definition.

Kate Potts was born in South London in 1978. She worked in music publishing before training as a teacher. Her pamphlet Whichever Music (tall-lighthouse, 2008) was a Poetry Book Society Choice and was shortlisted for a Michael Marks Award. In 2009 she received an Arts Council writer’s award and her first collection Pure Hustle was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2011. Kate currently works part-time as a university outreach worker and teaches creative writing for Morley College. She is a writer in residence at Kingston University and is working towards a PhD on radio poetry at Royal Holloway, University of London.

[This interview was first published on 27 July 2013, originally appearing in an earlier incarnation of Prac Crit.]

SH

The title of the sequence as a whole is A General Dictionary of Magic. That ‘General’ is a lovely stroke because of the way it adds a note of verisimilitude, but also of (cod) scholarliness to the whole affair. How does the anthropological coolness of ‘General Dictionary’ sit with this fictional tome’s subject matter, as a book of magic? Many of your poems, including parts of this one, feel almost incantatory, or chanted in their rhythms. In what sense is this poem a spell?

KP

Your question reminds me that the series title (A General Dictionary of Magic) is actually taken from anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ book A General Theory of Magic. I was reading Mauss around the time I was writing a lot of the poems in Pure Hustle. Mauss’ descriptions of magical practices and beliefs in ‘primitive’ societies, and the ways in which he makes links between these and religious beliefs in ‘civilised’ societies, got me thinking about unacknowledged magic (and/or magical thinking) and ritual in contemporary Britain. So I suppose I was thinking of the Dictionary of Magic as a sort of directory showing the ways in which things/words are, or can be, loaded with magical power through our beliefs. I think, if I’m remembering it right, that Mauss examines the way that objects function in magic and ritual, and suggests that their power has to do with association (things they’re similar to or related to in some way) or opposites.

The Dictionary of Magic poems are all about the many and particular associations the title words might have for an individual, and how that web of associations can load those words with meaning and power. I probably also had, somewhere in the back of my head, bits and pieces of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy of novels. The power of the wizards in those books comes from a knowledge of the true names of things. The wizards’ language is an ancient, arcane one that’s increasingly being lost; to know the true name of something is to command it. This idea got me thinking about theories of childhood language acquisition (I think I was reading bits of Lacan and Kristeva at the time). I think these poems are spells in the sense that they’re trying to conjure or bring forth or reach a very particular, individual, probably extra-linguistic sense of the words they’re describing – and that’s why there’s an insistent, incantatory feel to them. They’re straining towards something they can’t reach.

There’s also a link to memory here – especially with the way each poem includes a narrative section that seems to relate a memory. Dictionaries are all about preservation and loss, and I think it’s probably possible to see the Dictionary of Magic poems as trying to call forth and/or deal with ghosts in some ways. Although I think that applies to a lot of my poems.

SH

Where did this particular poem begin? And was that starting point very different to where the poem ended up?

KP

I can remember starting this one. It was for one of Roddy Lumsden’s events, the Borges thing – where all the poems were based on Borges’ invented taxonomy of animals. I wrote it quite quickly, in about two days. I remember sitting in a cafe and thinking ‘Oh god what am I going to do?’ Just reading ‘stray dogs’ on the page and writing down a really messy list of words – things like ‘slender muzzled’. That particular picture of stray dogs was quite close to what ended up becoming the first section of the poem. There’s another poem called ‘Iron Horse’, which I’d written earlier, I think, the same year.

SH

So this wasn’t the first of the dictionary poems? You took the form from that first poem and felt it would work with this material as well?

KP

In a slightly cheeky way, I just thought, well, I’ve got to do something really quick and that’s a form which will help me put something together. Like a pre-packed idea. 

SH

Do other poems from this sequence exist yet?

KP

There are three – the third is ‘Grizzly Bear’, which was another Roddy event poem.

SH

Is that putting down of snippets of language a habitual way of starting a poem for you? Your lexis is always so distinctive: cacophonies, olfactory, sleek, muzzled. Such different registers all coming together. At least at first, is it all about the texture of words for you?

KP

Not all of the poems start like this. Some of them begin in a way that’s much more centred around an idea, or a story, or a narrative. In the ‘Runt’ poem from Pure Hustle, I originally had an idea about people with strange super powers. What if your super power was being a poet? Or something really ridiculous, like not being able to fly. Some of them more follow a narrative I have in my head, and those are the ones that tend to happen more quickly, and come out more fully formed. Then there’s another category which is more like this, where it looks really messy on the page, and it is very much about a whole load of bunched-up images and sounds. I just write down things that sound good, work together, and then I’ll end up cutting a lot out usually.

SH

Is cutting generally an important part of your drafting process?

KP

I would probably not so much call it editing as part of the writing itself. So usually there will be bits that sound terrible, if I’m writing in the same way as I wrote the first section of this poem anyway, because it’s just a stream of consciousness thing.

SH

You mentioned jotting down words. Listing seems quite important in this poem, which I guess comes out of Borges’ idea of (jumbled) ‘taxonomies’. I was really struck by the end of the first section: ‘cacophonies of sweetbreads, cinnamon, piss-tang, petrol, shades of hops and turpentine – delirium.’ How important as a syntactical structure, or even a structure of thinking, is that kind of list to your work?

KP

I think I do a lot of it. I’ve started to feel like it can end up being something I fall back on, because I find it quite easy to do. In this poem there’s a sense of drive, and abundance. That list at the end of the first section is about getting that across. It’s also about taxonomy, and about the way that dictionary definitions work, which quite often involves listing alternative senses of a word – something which is not intended to have that effect of abundance, but which can give you a sense of straining to get a particular idea across. Some kind of sense of urgency, which is not what the dictionary’s trying to do [laughs] – but if you read it as if it’s a poem, that’s what it does. But that doesn’t explain why I do it in my other poetry.

SH

Although it’s a characteristic of your work in general, there does seem to be something very specific going on in this particular poem. I especially noticed it in this repeated structure you use, where two words are linked by an ‘and’ – the rhetorical figure would be something like hendiadys – the ‘alleys and silos’, ‘milk and meat’, ‘is and does’, ‘sleek and moist’, ‘tobacco and brown’. You described just now the dictionary’s listing of alternative meanings, which seems engrained in this poem’s habits of language. To what extent is ‘Stray Dog’ a parody of dictionaries?

KP

I liked the idea of that clash between something that’s supposed to be very practical, and straightforward, and utilitarian, and then the poem which is doing something totally different – impractical, not useful in a conventional, everyday sense. Dictionary language is conventionally quite formal and has a very particular format, so that’s given me a nice structure to work around – a scaffolding. One of the main ideas in this ‘dictionary’ sequence is that the dictionaries – or The Dictionary – we use as authoritative texts are a collective thing. They’re compiled (or at least the ones we tend to rely on these days) by groups of people. And they aim to describe a language for a large group of people, so it’s a dictionary of The English language. A collective authority. One of the articles that I’ve been reading is a review by Ange Mlinko of collections by Robert Pinsky and Mary Kinzie, who both write about the dictionary. Mlinko talked about the dictionary as a ‘secular Bible’. So this idea of it…

SH

…making pronouncements?

KP

Yes, but not necessarily in a negative way. That it’s a collective historical document. That seems like something to celebrate, but at the same time it’s also problematic. I guess part of what I’m exploring with my dictionary poems is dictionary definition as a collective and… abstract thing (apart from the examples of use). What I’m doing is playing around with putting in material that’s very obviously subjective, individual and personal, and quite often narrative – and is very much rooted in a particular context in a way that dictionary definitions aren’t.

SH

It’s really interesting that you mention narrative, because of course this poem uses the structure of a dictionary entry. So on the one hand you have the organising numbers, which imply one kind of order, and on the other, the progression of this strange story. To what extent is this a narrative poem?

KP

Well it kind of is. For some reason, when I thought about stray dogs I had a particular post-apocalyptic environment in my head. So it does have that general sense about it. I mean – the first and third sections of this poem could exist outside that narrative. It’s only really the second that has any kind of story. I tried to do the same thing with all of the poems in this sequence – have one section that’s more conventionally narrative, and then try to contrast that with the others. But then you can also construct a narrative out of the poem as a whole.

SH

Part of the dynamic of the poem is that you’re trying to work out the relationship between the literal alley dogs and this mysterious ‘he’ – who is this fantastically surreal, rather disturbed character. I wanted to ask you – where did that ‘he’ come from?

KP

Another thing about these dictionary poems is that they all use found material – take the ‘tight-ribbed canid’. I did look at several dictionary definitions to see what they said, and used… well, actually, not very much in the end. But there are a couple of words or phrases still in the poem that are actually from dictionary definitions. I can remember looking up dog sanctuaries, Battersea Dogs Home – their website’s advice on what to do if you find a stray dog – who you should phone and what you should do about it.

SH

I’ve had this sudden flash of realisation about quite how rare stray dogs are in this country, compared to whatever the universe of this poem is. It’s quite removed from, from…

KP

…from everyday existence, which maybe is why it’s set in a weird future – or it is in my head. I think the main place I borrowed ideas for the poem’s middle section from is a story by an American writer called Judy Budnitz – she writes quite off-the-wall stories, and novels as well. There’s a story, which is the first one in a collection called Flying Leap, called ‘Dog Days’. It’s set in a future world, in which… basically everyone’s eaten their pets, because they’re running out of food. But one of the things that happens is that – and this totally makes sense in the context of the story – some people start dressing up as dogs and cats. So in the story there’s a family that gets visited – it’s told from the child’s point of view – they get visited by this guy in a dog suit, who the little girl gives little scraps of her food to. It’s partly a way of getting fed. And then the end of the story is – you can imagine it – but it’s kind of horrible.

SH

So they’re by mutual agreement ignoring the fact that they know it’s a person in a dog suit? Or is it a kind of magical realist premise where when you don the dog suit other people think you’re an animal?

KP

It’s more that the adults are really scathing about this guy in the dog suit. They think it’s a bit ridiculous. Whereas the little girl feels sorry for him, and also wants a pet. It’s a world where basically everything has broken down. There’s no more food. They’re living in this house trying to carry on as normal while actually there’s no government, no services, there’s no food. Everything is running out. Everyone’s starting to starve. So partly the dog is attractive because there’s a weird kind of normality about it. The idea of having a pet – if you’ve got a pet, you can afford to feed the pet.

SH

It’s so interesting to hear that that’s the initial seed of this idea. The dog suit reminded me of the poem that we wrote together, ‘Your Second Skin’. The notion that part of the performance of personality and identity might come from donning a skin-like suit.

KP

That’s true. I hadn’t really thought of the connection. I guess it is partly about identity. And there are some similarities. Because the suit in the poem that we wrote is all about being the person in the advert. Being someone with an amazingly beautiful life which all goes, not exactly swimmingly, but is glamorous and attractive – but a bit fantastical and strange as well. Whereas in this poem… Dog has this relationship to what we think of as ‘animal’… There’s stuff here about hunger and food, and then – ‘brute snarls’ – there’s violence. ‘A gleeful snouter of rumps’. Sex, violence, hunger. But actually the dog in the middle of this – this Zen philosophy that’s to do with the idea of Dog – is… not animal in the way that parts one and three are. It’s animal in the sense of not bothering about world affairs, or having to worry about paying the rent, not having responsibilities.

SH

Is that why the ‘I’ of the poem – who’s only mentioned that once – is coming home possibly from work, or some implicitly slightly more normal and functioning world? How important is that ‘I’ in this poem?

KP

I think it is quite important, for me. It makes the story really specific. Even if it was just ‘you come home early’, it wouldn’t have the same impact, I think. Some of the stuff in the second part is also inspired by a film called Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It’s a Jim Jarmusch film. He’s an assassin, a super-hard character, played by Forrest Whittaker. Except he’s a little bit overweight, and a really unlikely hard man. And he’s really into his Samurai stuff. And so ‘Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness,’ is from, I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the Samurai Bible, the text for Samurais: the Hagakure. It’s about being a warrior and about becoming freer from your ego, but it’s also partly about control of some of what we might think of as animal instincts. So it’s an odd way of thinking about being a dog.

SH

I loved the idea that the dog was somehow an embodiment of Zen, because a ‘dog only is and does.’ And I even more loved the idea that the dog ‘lives in simple verbs’. Maybe it’s a bit tenuous to bring in the listing we were talking about earlier, but it’s a real characteristic of your poems – you’re a clause-builder, a piler-up of nouns and adjectives and participial threads… Basically, you like to really delay verbs, or have lots of stuff in your sentences that isn’t finite verb. And I wondered how you thought about verbs, and whether it was something you were very conscious of?

KP

I suppose I like the idea of living in simple verbs. In some ways I’d like to get away from having quite such pile-ups of nouns and adjectives. I think part of it comes out of a real anxiety about people somehow not getting the exact thing that I’m trying to get across – the exact specific image, or the exact specific emotion that I’m trying to communicate – and that if I have enough of a layering of words – that volume of stuff – then people will get it. In some ways, this might have the opposite effect. It might be nice to leave things a little bit more open.

SH

You talk of worrying, in effect, about whether the language you set down will communicate what you intend. So at what point in the writing process do you start thinking about a reader?

KP

The whole time, I think. I’m never really just writing for myself. Because that would seem, for me, kind of pointless. The only things I ever write for myself are diaries, and that’s not very often.

SH

Who would your ideal reader be?

KP

I don’t know. My ideal reader… The kind of poems I’m writing, I’m probably writing for people who already have some knowledge of the language of poetry. I’m assuming a certain level of understanding and cultural context. I don’t know, I find it hard to think of an ideal reader because I like to think that people could stumble across this and be intrigued. Sometimes my beginner students have gone and bought my book and then said, ‘Oh, I’m a bit flummoxed by this’. But then after we’ve talked about things a bit – and they’ve gone and looked things up in the dictionary [laughs] – then they say, ‘Oh, I see what you’re doing!’ I like that, the idea that people have discovered things they weren’t expecting.

SH

How important a part of your writing is the more rarefied end of your diction? And how much is it to do with getting the precise sense, and how much is it to do with just the pleasures of sound in language?

KP

It’s sometimes something I feel a bit conflicted about, because I don’t want people to… I have had people say, ‘Do you read the dictionary for fun? You’re using all this language I totally don’t understand’. But I don’t want to feel I’m excluding people like that. I think mostly it’s about wanting to get the exact sense of something… but also I did actually used to read the dictionary for fun! Well, partly for fun and partly in a self-improvement kind of way. When I was little, I remember having the dictionary under my bed. Yes, finding a word that was a bit unusual, and then making myself use it. I guess in this poem, there’s also a weird gluttony of really enjoying the sound of certain words. And I do that probably with dialect words sometimes as well. Words that are not in common use but I think should be, because they sound fantastic.

When I was reading when I was a kid, I used to read a lot of adult books, and I used to figure out the words I didn’t understand from the context, rather than from looking them up. So there were some words I got totally wrong for years, because of the particular contexts I’d encountered them in. There’s one example, oh yes – I always thought that ‘modest’ meant ‘showing off’. Because it was often used sarcastically [laughs].

SH

That’s great! Your poetry reminds me sometimes of, say, Jen Hadfield’s way of repurposing, or slightly misusing words, so that there’s this wonderful frisson of ‘boat’ becoming an adverb, ‘boatly’ – or something very everyday becoming startlingly metaphorical.

KP

That’s something I really like, and sometimes what I’m aiming for. I don’t know – ‘rootling’. That’s really there just for the sound – and then the sense of it.  The picture it creates in my head.

SH

I was interested in singulars and plurals, individuals versus collectives, in this poem. I noticed this because I am so much inhabiting the Borges Chinese encyclopedia list myself at the moment – and there, it’s of course ‘Stray Dogs’, rather than ‘Stray Dog’ (at least in the translation we’re working from). So I thought it was probably gesturing towards something significant that ‘Dog’ becomes a singular character here, and that the ‘he’ is single. But on the other hand, you also have the ‘n  (pl  stray dogs)’ at the top, then the dogs in the pack – and also the ‘our’, which is the ‘he’ and ‘I’ combined. I was suddenly reminded of this when you talked earlier about dictionaries being at once a kind of individual authority and a collective effort.

KP

I added the ‘n (pl  stray dogs)’ note at the top here partly because I knew that was what the title (from the Borges) was really supposed to be, and that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do… It does constantly shift, because it starts with ‘a’ – with one dog, then a pack of dogs, then one particular dog, then this relationship between the ‘I’ and the guy in the dog suit, and then it’s ‘any’: ‘Any street-sharp carnivore, any creature…’

SH

That ‘any’ signalling a move into a kind of hypothetical?

KP

But then it goes back to ‘the’ towards the end, so it’s a particular dog again. I didn’t really think about it when I was writing the poem, but it is about that idea of the general and abstract – and the collective idea of the dictionary. And so it could be any of these people, or any of this kind of creature, or it’s all of these creatures. But also, in this poem, it’s this very particular person, in a very particular strange situation.

SH

You drew attention to that definite article – which is important to the philosophy of this poem, being partly about setting abstract schemes against very particular and very concrete instances of things. But in that last sentence, the stray dog is still a kind of hypothetical, because it’s described with that unspecifying alternative, ‘He or she’. And yet it’s so particularly realised, that image of the slipping away into the night, that you can’t help picturing that dog so vividly…

KP

I think I originally had more ‘he or she’s in that section. My idea was that it was someone too distant to be able to recognise, though it was a very particular person – or dog – that you could see from a distance.

SH

Ah, right, as opposed to that indicating the provisionalness, or imaginedness, of the image.

KP

But I think that too – I wanted to still be playing around with that ‘any’. It could be ‘Any street-sharp carnivore’ – there are multiples of these creatures, and it could be any of them. But at the same time, wanting to have a really specific picture: ‘slides under the night wind’s silvered edge.’ I think in my head I had a picture of a teenager in a hoodie disappearing into the overall, or into the distance.

SH

That image is fabulously synaesthetic – you have the visual input of the darkness and the realisation that the thing is disappearing from sight, but also the tactile chill of the wind with its ‘edge’, which you can really feel. When you’re describing – because description does seem an important part of what you do – how much are you thinking about the visual? Or are you trying consciously to inhabit lots of different senses?

KP

People often say my work is quite visual, and that, I think, has something to do with having studied film. We had to write essays which were basically very intricate descriptions of scenes or of parts of scenes. We had this editing machine – it had a funny name: a ‘Steenbeck’ – that allowed you to pause a particular piece of film in tiny increments. I remember having to write several hundred words of description of about two seconds of film, saying exactly what was happening in the frame: what was the camera angle, what was happening in the shot. And we’d sit in this dark room just clicking and pausing, clicking and pausing, and describing it in intense, visual detail. I remember thinking when I really started writing poetry, actually, that experience was incredibly useful.

SH

That opens up a whole other dimension of this poem for me – thinking about these paragraphs, and the gaps between them, as a kind of filmic jump-cutting…

KP

That hadn’t really occurred to me, but yes, it does have that sense.

SH

In fact, that makes me want to go back to Pure Hustle to see whether that kind of technique is in evidence. With Pure Hustle in mind, can I ask you, to what extent is this a ‘post-first book’ poem? Do you feel like you’ve moved into a different phase of your writing now?

KP

I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure. I find it really difficult to be objective, so there are quite a few of the Pure Hustle poems that I look at now and think… not even that I would do this differently, but that I couldn’t write quite in this way anymore. They’re quite dense and intense. It’s not that I necessarily wanted to get away from that, it’s just that I wanted to have a bit more of a range, to try doing some different things. Actually the dictionary poems are the place where I’m still doing the most listing and the most alliteration and really focusing on consonants and sound, in the same way as the poems of Pure Hustle. But then I’m also – I’ve just had a thought – I’m also trying to juxtapose that with some kind of more narrative sense, to see what that does.

SH

I happen to know that you are working on a radio play for your PhD at Royal Holloway, which is similarly set in an uncanny future, and which borrows elements from the thinking you’ve done in A General Dictionary of Magic. You’ve mentioned before that you actually have a dictionary as a character in that play. Could you say something about that project’s relationship to these poems?

KP

Well, I was feeling really lost with the – I’m calling it a ‘dramatic radio poem’ – basically a play that’s in poetry form. I was feeling really lost with it, because I’m terrible with plot. The radio poem is something people are probably only going to hear once, and they have to have some sort of immediate understanding of it. Because if it’s 45 minutes, an hour long, and if the entire thing was the kind of poetry I was writing in Pure Hustle, I think it would just be too much. So I have to have something with a narrative, and I have to have something where the language is a bit looser.

I think you have to use repetition quite cleverly, because quite often – having listened to a lot of radio plays and dramatic radio poems – things  that might seem a bit repetitive in the script, when you listen to it, it’s just enough that you actually understand what’s going on. So you do have to reiterate things. At first, there was just the idea of a long narrative poem that didn’t have different voices in it. I wanted to figure out how to use what I already do, and also how to come up with an innovative idea for how to structure the narrative.

I thought about… well, taxonomy… but also the idea of different registers. I was thinking about August Kleinzahler and what he does with different linguistic registers. And how that relates to radio – it’s a really good way of creating texture and distinguishing between characters. So when I started writing these dictionary poems, I thought, right, why not have a dictionary voice in the radio poem – because I’m really interested in the idea of electronic voices and how they mimic something that’s human, but aren’t human. I thought, why not have the dictionary as part of my narrative. I’m looking at writers who have supposedly been influenced by radio, or been interested in early radio, like Joyce. I became interested in combining two different kinds of poetry – on the one hand, having something that’s a bit more like a song, that’s more performative…

SH

Would that be the dictionary?

KP

Yes, something that doesn’t necessarily, or doesn’t obviously push the narrative along. That’s more like a musical number, or like a Greek chorus. The essay that I enjoyed writing most when I was doing film studies was all about how musical numbers function in narrative films – films that aren’t musicals. So where you aren’t necessarily expecting anyone to burst into song. A lot of the received theory at the time (as far as I remember) said that, when this happens, it’s a spectacle – it doesn’t have any impact on the narrative. The narrative progression stops while everyone has a song and dance. Casablanca is a really obvious example. And then there’s a Doris Day film called The Man Who Knew Too Much, where she sings ‘Que sera, sera’, and I love it. When I started thinking about the dictionary segments as kind of ‘song’ in the middle of the narrative, it reminded me of that essay.

SH

I guess the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy is that it comments on the action, and yet despite their being on the stage in the same space as the protagonists, they can’t have any impact on the action. They can’t stop Agamemnon being murdered. There’s a divide between action and reflection…

KP

…which I guess I’m interested in, in that divide. My argument in that essay was that they’re not entirely separate – it’s not just a spectacle. But the world people enter into when they start singing is different. In Casablanca, it’s a catalyst for all these memories, and it’s very emotionally charged, but it also has quite an impact on the narrative. It doesn’t halt the narrative, but steps outside it, and then acts as a kind of engine that pushes it forward.

SH

I don’t want to make you give away too much about your new project, but I’m intrigued what the definitions given by the dictionary are, and how they are generated – how they chime with what’s happening in the dialogue elsewhere in the play.

KP

Well, the idea at the moment is that they’re woven into the narrative, so the narrative is basically framed around them. There are two people having a conversation: one of them is a researcher, and one of them is the last known expert on a language that’s disappearing. And he’s living on an island that’s also disappearing. So they’re having a conversation about his language and, through the language, about the history and culture of the island. There are words that he doesn’t understand, and words that she doesn’t understand. They’re having the conversation in English, but he’s also telling her about the dying language. But there are also words that she uses which he doesn’t understand. So the dictionary comes in as a way of explaining, or elucidating. Of making clearer what they’re trying to say to each other. I’m not sure how well this is going to work, but the dictionary – as in the General Dictionary of Magic poems, but in a slightly different way – is supposed to be an objective, collective thing, which is telling them exactly what these words mean. But it’s not objective. It’s an artificial intelligence that’s got a bit of a mind of its own.

SH

I love the idea that you’ve set yourself the task of imagining how not just any dictionary, but this future dictionary, where language has presumably shifted – how it speaks, and what its voice would be like.

KP

There are things I really need to sort out. The dictionary obviously doesn’t have much of a life of its own outside its function [laughs], but it does have an obvious character – it’s telling their stories. The man’s language is not well documented, so there are parts of that language that it won’t know, that he would have to explain in his own words.

SH

I want to bring us back to ‘Stray Dog’. Following on from this talk about creating a voice for a dictionary – and, I guess, the illusory personhood that comes along with the dictionary having a voice – I wanted to come back to the ‘I’ which flicks through the middle of this poem – and the startlingness of that. Because even in this poem, there is an implied voice to the dictionary, a character to its descriptions. And yet presumably its ‘voice’ is not the same as the ‘I’ which suddenly gets thrown up.

KP

I was thinking about a book called, For More than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, by a philosopher called Adriana Cavarero. It’s a feminist philosophy around voice, and the idea of voice as a vital component of language – as opposed to her argument about Plato’s concept of language as being all about abstract ideas, which in her understanding excludes the idea of voice. When you exclude voice, you exclude the bodily, because voice is a physical thing. But you also exclude the idea of individual subjectivity. Either of those models of language is obviously flawed, and what you need is something in the middle. But I found that really interesting as a way of thinking about what I’m trying to do with these poems – to play around with those two ends of the spectrum. The dictionary is a very textual thing. It’s something that we experience as a text for obvious reasons, because it’s much more practical that way. But in the dramatic radio poem, it’s something that you only experience through sound, and you experience it, obviously, through an individual voice. I was talking about this to a friend who does voiceovers and she said, ‘Ooh, would you consider using me for the recording?’ She recorded different versions of one of the dictionary definitions. And she tried doing them in a very flat, emotionless way, that sounded much more like one of those… you know there are those programs…

SH

Computer generated voices? Automated phone messages?

KP

Quite disjointed. A little bit like the syllables are all recorded separately. And it sounds quite odd. So it gives you the information, but it’s kind of emotionally neutral. I guess what I was interested in was the possibility of taking away the emotion in the voice. Or putting it back. And what difference that makes.

SH

Which one did you prefer?

KP

Well, what I’ve ended up with was one that seemed – in a very non-scientific way – halfway between the two. So it sounds a bit artificial, but it also sounds human. Because you’re hearing a voice (and I think maybe this happens even when you listen to those clunky voice-synthesisers) you imagine an individual person behind it, in a way that you don’t imagine an individual person behind a dictionary definition, because there’s no voice. Part of what modern poetry is interested in, or concerned with, is that sense of voice, and sound, and that very individual subjectivity.

SH

What’s the balance between your poetry being read on the page, and being brought to sound in the voice for you? Perhaps this relationship has changed since, in the last couple of years, you’ve started thinking more about dramatic performance?

KP

It’s a really interesting and quite difficult area to get your head round – how your actual, physical voice relates to the language on the page, and the syntax, and the tone of it, and things like accent. I used to hate doing readings, and I think I originally thought of my poems as very much written for the page. I was wondering if maybe that’s part of the reason why they are so sound heavy, or emphasising sound…

SH

Because they’re for the mind’s ear?

KP

Maybe – although the logic there is slightly skewed. Yes, I mean you do definitely voice things when you read them, but you voice everything in your own internal voice. So it doesn’t have quite that connection, that sense of actual communication of your self, that a poem has if you read it to an audience. I guess I have got more interested in the effect that that has. There’s something about becoming more aware of my own voice, and the range of it, and the potential power of it when it works well. It does actually, I think, have quite a profound effect – profound but also subtle – on how I’m writing.

I’m not writing things that are designed to be performed (and even with the radio stuff it’s not the same as performance poetry). I don’t think of myself as a performer, I’m not really that type of person. But I was just wondering if there is something about being more confident about the kind of nuance and information that comes across in your voice when you read, which makes me worry slightly less about getting the exact, exact sense of the thing. I feel like what I intended shouldn’t matter quite so much to some extent – that I’ll hopefully communicate something anyway.

I think of it as a bit like the way that, if you see Shakespeare plays done really badly, then the language can be quite off-putting, but if you feel as if the actors really understand the character, and understand the story, then suddenly it seems incredibly easy and clear, and it’s not a barrier at all. It’s quite reassuring to know that if you read or perform something with a particular idea or a particular image in your head, you can kind of trust that people will get something from it – even with poetry that’s quite dense and potentially difficult.

Stray Dog (from A General Dictionary of Magic)

by Kate Potts

[strey dawg]

n (pl stray dogs)

1. A tight-ribbed canid – its belly a skin drum.

In packs, they scrum through railings and wall cracks, in the wild state, slender-muzzled, ears
cocked and noses honed to bolt. In alleys and silos, they snuffle for milk and meat. Though
they’re dry-nosed, their olfactory receptors brim: cacophonies of sweetbreads, cinnamon,
piss-tang, petrol, shades of hops and turpentine – delirium.

2. Dog is the root of his zen philosophy, he says. A dog only is and does.

Dog has no knotting gut, no slackening jaw at the price of fish, the fallout, our institutional
implosions. Dog has no piquant sense of doom, but lives in simple verbs.

He wears his dog suit after work to watch the TV news. It’s an all-in-one of teddy fur, sleek
and moist with age, dabbed with tobacco and brown. He says Our bodies are given life from
the midst of nothingness. I come home early, find him rootling through our bins – muzzle
first, on all fours.

3. Any street-sharp carnivore, any creature having canine teeth (sl); a flea-haven, haunter of
parks, snarler of brute snarls, gleeful snouter of rumps. The stray dog melds with the
harbouring dark, camouflaged as lamp post or wheel hub. He or she scarpers – slides under
the night wind’s silvered edge.

First Published by Prac Crit.

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