This is the first part of Kate and Matthew’s conversation: you can read the second part here.
We invited Matthew Gregory and Kate Kilalea to pair up for the first in our new series of conversations between poets, Poem to Poem.
These two poets have been working for some time on longer sequences – Kate Kilalea’s House for the Study of Water and Matthew Gregory’s Rooms – that engage in different ways with architecture, thinking through its tropes and techniques for organising space. During the summer of 2014, Kate and Matthew exchanged emails, interviewing each other in turn. Their conversation roamed beyond architecture’s triggering impetus to take in imaginary mountains, the nature of narrative in poetic sequences, geographical unrootedness, the internet (or Internet), and the possibility of thinking in poetry.
Kate Kilalea, originally from South Africa, moved to London in 2005 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first book, One Eye’d Leigh (Carcanet, 2009), was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize for writers under 30.
Matthew Gregory’s poems appeared in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2011 and the Bloodaxe anthology Dear World and Everyone in It. He has lived in Prague, St. Petersburg, New York and Naples, and in 2010, he received an Eric Gregory award.
When I think of your work, and especially the newer poems, I think of the importance of delivery, over sustained ‘meditation’. By delivery, I mean the impactful musicality, texture and tension of your line. I suppose it’s a sort of verve, a shape essayed, given precedence over the unfolding of an ‘idea’ or a semantic production that might exist outside of a poem. I’ve always thought that a particular manner of thinking is better achieved in essayistic form, rather than a poem. Maybe with a long discursive poem like ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, the sensitivity, scope and sheer immersiveness gets around those concerns, but most of the time I feel that there’s some sort of compensation to pay for ‘thinking’, in a certain way, in poems. As if the intuition, its subtler shades, connections and transferences are hindered.
There are so many aspects of what you say that strike up a conversation – especially musicality. But the idea of poems and thinking reminded me of something especially, which is that when I was on my way to the airport in Berlin yesterday, I saw – just outside the airport – a taxi driver who’d stopped and laid down his mat on the side of the road to pray. I felt, driving past, really envious of him, which was hard to understand, since I’m not religious, so I suppose I wasn’t envious so much of the conversation he was having (with God) as I was of the feeling of praying, which I remember from my own Catholic upbringing, as quite intense.
One of the ideas around about poetry is that it does the opposite – that it relieves intense or extreme feelings by articulating them in words – by rationalising. The value of ‘relieving’ thinking is variable. Later, when the plane was rising to the terrifying altitude that planes fly at, I felt the fear that I always have of falling from the sky – a panic so immersive and total that it disables all my knowledge about the concept of lift and why planes are unlikely to fall from the sky. So the ‘compensation’ for my immersion in fear was not being able to think. And I think the reverse is perhaps also true – that the compensation for thinking is not being immersed in feeling. Peter Sloterdijk talks about this in his book, Bubbles. He describes feeling and thinking in spatial terms where feeling equals being in something (like being in a cave) and thinking equals looking at something from a distance (like standing at the entrance to the cave). Since you can’t be inside and outside at the same time, the one is always at the expense of the other.1 I identify with this notion of feeling as being inside. It’s something that felt fundamental in your Rooms poems.
In your sequence House for the Study of Water, I know that one of the things that prompted it was (German architect) Bruno Taut’s hypothetical proposal for a city of glass, built in the Alps. I was wondering how far you considered the formal qualities of that design to be in correspondence with your poems? Was it simply an enigmatic narrative scenario that appealed to you, or do you think the ‘textural’ character – the lightness, transparence, sense of unreality – of those buildings was able to somehow define the corresponding qualities in the poems themselves?
I was drawn to Taut’s belief that glass buildings would be an ideal container for people to live in. A glass building – open, transparent, public – is the opposite of Sloterdijk’s dark and private cave. But what’s the price to pay for replacing opaque walls with transparent ones? As you say, it’s partly to do with the quality of light in the interior. The characters in Rooms seem to be pulled closer – to develop an intimate relationship with – some rich past, or some loss, or some sense of their own inside, by the dim, moody, romantic light of the interiors they inhabit. The character in House for the Study of Water, on the other hand, experiences his glass-walled environment as too bright – over-articulated and pitilessly exposing, as if he has no private life. The kind of ‘lighting condition’ something is viewed in matters – when something very private is ‘brought to light’ under a harsh bulb the atmosphere changes from something intimate and romantic to something prosaic and even cruel.
In House for the Study of Water, there’s an impulse towards narrative of a sort. Not a linear one, but one that subtly augments, fragment by fragment, through short excerpts or the missives of one character to another. I find the ‘gaps’ between the poems latent with narrative – the mind can’t help but assemble something between the constellated details. For me the poems act as brief apertures onto an elusive, fuller life, and it’s just because they’re brief and torn-off, that there’s a sort of inexhaustibility to the scenario. I wondered what you considered, I don’t know, ‘expedient’, when writing this as a series of poems, rather than as one long piece?
I think that a sequence, unlike an unbroken long poem, doesn’t offer narrative promise of progression. With a narrative there is a feeling that the lines of the poem are somehow leading, one after another, towards some kind of end, conclusion, resolution. So that, in a narrative poem, you can never really be lost because if you ask yourself, where am I, you always know where you are in relation to that end (I’m at the beginning, the middle, etc.).
There is, in the House for the Study of Water sequence, a story about a man who is on his own, living in the mountains, writing letters to a brother who never replies. I’m interested in the fruitlessness of the letter writing – the frustration of it. One has this idea that situations like this will somehow resolve themselves. That at some stage these unanswered letters will either receive a reply, or stop being written. This idea of things resolving seems hopeful to me. What’s so compelling about books like The Castle or In Search of Lost Time is how the feelings they deal with – obsession, longing – don’t resolve. The insatiability of K.’s yearning for the Castle and of Marcel’s yearning for Albertine are impervious to the passing of time. They betray this idea that time = change. They persist and do not progress. Rather than showing people getting over it or moving on, these works make one feel that the characters could go on yearning forever. The plots of these books seem driven by this non-progression. And yet, for me anyway, these fixated characters and these plots in which nothing changes are not at all boring.
There’s a balance of detail in your work that I admire, a fresh sort of palette, that builds the particular, fleeting moment – either one ostensibly lived through or, increasingly in the newer work, a more unstable, atmospheric one. What you don’t often do is depart from that particular instance or set of instances, into specific historical or ‘exteriorized’ detail. We encounter an intimate world, often oblique, or somehow freshened, rather than one with all of its public coordinates in place. I was wondering how you saw your poems existing alongside these ‘coordinates’, the specific histories and names?
I guess there’s a pleasure in making a world and then closing it in on itself, not letting in the light from outside. It’s a pleasant claustrophobia. You avoid the inevitable bathos of the real world. Yearning is a sentimental feeling which can very easily look stupid or be humiliated. Letting too much of the outside world in is like sitting in a coffee shop and trying to tell somebody something very meaningful and delicate but finding the mood disturbed by somebody vulgar talking loudly about something trivial at the next door table. The environment needs to be very carefully controlled to contain and protect the feeling. In a way it’s the opposite of what you were saying earlier about allowing the peripheries to find their way into a poem – it’s a kind of very strict barricade against the outside world.
You’ve been living in London for a few years now. In the first collection, One-Eyed Leigh, a good number of the poems locate themselves explicitly in South Africa or, perhaps, in the half-light of an indistinct country. London features, too, but lightly. Now, with this increased distance, I wonder if SA appears to you as an accessible place, or more remote as background to your poems. Maybe with your recent work it’s more accurate to speak of something like a fictive ‘composite morphology’, than an actual place?
The South African landscape is very hard for me to write into, because although of course it’s the setting for a lot of my actual experiences, the books I really love are not generally set there and the danger (or benefit) of spending a lot of time in books is that I sometimes feel that I come from the countries I read about rather than the one I actually grew up in. The House for the Study of Water sequence, for instance, is set in the Alps, although I’d only been to the Alps once when I started writing it. What interested me was less the actuality of the place than the idea of mountains I’d encountered in books – especially in books like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – where the mountains exist as a place where somebody who has something on their mind, something to work out, goes to get a new sense of perspective, or an overview of things: a mountain vista.
The closing lines of an early poem of yours, ‘Portrait of the beach’, are: ‘I think the sea is soft like a dog / which has got a duck / and brought it to the side of the lake / still alive in its mouth.’ I think those lines are illustrative of the way in which you gently tease out resonant ‘fields’ from the object world, with a type of sympathetic feeling for it. It’s a very precise attention, visual and palpable, that takes a thing, and pulls and stretches and realigns it until it gives out something faithful to its character. In One-Eyed Leigh, perhaps there’s something close to Expressionism in this sort of fluent responsiveness to the tangible. That’s a lazy, very approximate comparison, but I wondered if you’ve ever felt close to a particular visual artist?
I find the working methods of visual artists interesting and was especially interested in the intimacy of portraiture for a while. Part of the appeal, for me, of a Lucian Freud is the kind of blank gaze he casts on his sitters. It’s hard to justify why I find that appealing, but I do. It conjures up a private and cruel atmosphere between the painter and the sitter and I sometimes have this fantasy that Freud’s real motivation for the work was not a desire to produce paintings so much as a desire to be in a room with somebody for a long time in that kind of master-servant dynamic.
When I mentioned Expressionism, what I think I was getting at was the sort of bright, springy, measured disorderliness of, say, Jan Wieger’s or Van Gogh’s paintings, and how – at least your earlier poems, anyway – seem to be closer to a visual approximation in this line of painting than one of the technological arts.
Other than literal representation, i.e., taking technology as ‘subject matter’, do you think there’s any way you could see yourself responding formally to a technologized ‘scenario’? If I think of a recent book like Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation, there’s an attentiveness, very broadly speaking, to the sort of hybrid registers and interrupted thought that a technologized world might impress on a consciousness. It manifests often as a type of controlled porousness, allowing the structures and lexicon of technology – or more accurately, technologized bureaucracy – to seep into the poems. For me, your intention seems quite remote from this, and perhaps that’s a type of resistance, a mistrust?
If you’d just asked about writing about technology or the manifestations of the modern world, I’d have said I’m not really that interested, but The Cloud Corporation is gorgeous and I don’t know why. Although there is a modern vocabulary, it feels un-modern to me. Somehow it’s as if the world of middle management has been pulled into a completely different genre and I do completely trust it. His technologized world seems somehow displaced into history. And I don’t know how exactly…
Continue to the second part of Kate and Matthew’s Poem to Poem conversation.
1 ‘Whoever believes in ritual; acts of approach that they are standing before this entrance of all entrances, or envisages it in symbolic imagination, is immediately affected by a suction that is meant to make the beholder’s senses reel… The seeker’s eye here wants to, and must, be broken by its object. The pupils dilate before the sucking portal. As he comes closer, the beholder will feel as if a powerless warning legend had just glided past him: the last object before the great attainment of knowledge! And in reality, as soon as the entrants had passed through the grotto gate, they would encounter the tropical night; and the fall of this exquisite night would make the end of everything based on clearing, distance and concreteness. From now on, asking about the intimate has its price for the analytical intelligence too.’ (Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles [MIT Press, 2011], pp. 283-4).
My dearest brother, last night
I saw water playing in the pond
where the women were swimming.
I was stationed in the House for
the Study of Water amid parapets
and ruby red columns under the
open sky. I was with a man. His
name was Curtis. It was muggy
outside. He said, it wants to be a
storm. I said, it (the water) held
no more shape than a dream. He
is so much better than me. I have
so much confusion. I lay on my
stomach and made notes in pencil.
From the veranda in front of the
waiting room I can see the entire
garden, including the river, and
further, the shapes of people I
knew, including you. I’d like to
get closer but what the hell. In
any case I can almost hear you
saying to yourself he always was
an over-ambitious but timorous
child to which I can add only the
assurance that now I am a man
and nothing in a man’s life is
more certain than his being too
timid or too stupid or something.
It goes without saying: a man can-
not have intercourse with a river.
But what then can he hope for?
If you do not know, she says, why
then do you not ask? You want to
stay with me? To come away with
me on holiday? To live with me in
my house? The truth is, if I could,
I would have followed her perm-
anently and without resistance. Or
did you expect me to just lie here
like a corpse?
First published in Blackbox Manifold 9, December 2012. Reproduced with permission of the author.