This is the second part of Kate and Matthew’s conversation: you can read the first 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.
…I know that we both love The Magic Mountain and have tried a few times to talk about why it still matters, because it’s such an old fashioned book and in so many ways is so out of sync with the contemporary sensibility. I’m hoping I might draw you out on the mountains in your own mountain poems like The Ambassadors? Or just more generally to see what you thought of the romance of your almost completely non-urban settings – the Italian poems too.
The places in most of my recent poems are conspicuously stages, I think. They’re stages that seem to preexist at various levels of our mythology, often specifically literary places, like André Breton’s transatlantic cabin in the Room, or as plainer, genre backgrounds onto which I can project some particular psychological scenario, like the mountains in The Ambassadors.
I’ve begun to think of mountains as almost ‘invisible’, because they exist under such deep strata of literary and pictorial reference that the imagination has a source of stand-in associations for them, making it more complicated for the singular ‘thing-in-itself’ of the poetic image. They vanish in their exposure, if you like. If I say ‘mountain range’, then it’s likely to be a sanitary Swiss postcard or something like an Altdorfer painting. What is of interest to me is the staging of a poem – and its psychical movement – against these nearly ‘invisible’ places, which perhaps, despite themselves and all of their exhausted cultural implications, are allowed through this particular type of absence to haunt the poem again. Rather than painting a dramatic Altdorfer prospect that could carry only a fraction of its original significance, a more sensitive evocation might be a type of parenthesis where description should be – just the shadow of a landscape, as a reminder of what cast it.
Each sequence or group calls for a different approach, and the Rooms, for example, through their various, time-spotted interiors, are an attempt at a type of sensibility; the one I found in bleached, festering ports of southern Europe, ‘tattered edges of empire’. That’s connotatively a romantic atmosphere, I know, though I’d hope that the work wasn’t only an elegy for a more ‘rarefied air’, and more instamatic or documentary, albeit an impossible documentary. That’s perhaps the crux of it: my interest in this particular narrative – the one of decline – inevitably takes me to textual and geographical territories that’ve been the stage for old lyrical dramas (what F. Scott Fitzgerald would call ‘the old love battles’), but I’d hope that the poems’ recourse to ‘documentary’ specificity (and the uncertainties implicit in that) somehow destabilizes the purely romantic effect of their settings.
I find it very difficult to write into a centralized urban narrative for a number of reasons. When I say ‘centralized urban narrative’, I mean one of the Anglo-American cultural megacities: London or New York. I work best when I can quietly isolate an element and consider it and allow it to reveal itself. The sheer amount of transient or commercial surface area in a metropolis doesn’t particularly allow me to do that, nor do I trust those centers to contain the most revealing aspects of the narrative I’m tracing… in recent poems, anyway. The peripheries, outposts, artefacts washed up far from their makers are more revealing in their isolation. If we were able to hear them, the remote satellites of a culture would whisper much more resonantly in space, don’t you think?
Yes, or even be drawn out by the presence of space. It reminds me (again) of The Magic Mountain which is set in a sanatorium and plays with the theme that mountain air – higher altitudes – draw out infections which in ‘lower’ environments remain latent. Just as the mountain air draws phlegm, so too, the novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, finds that living in the mountains, away from his everyday life as an engineer, draws to his attention parts of himself – strange passions – that he didn’t know he had, though they were there all along. This business of thinking deeply about himself and about life in general – which he calls ‘taking stock’ – is so pleasurable that Hans Castorp admits that ‘he had two desires: one of them, the stronger, was to be alone with his thoughts and his stock-taking projects… the other, allied unto it, was a lively craving to come into close and freer touch with the mountains, the mountains in their snowy desolation; toward them he was irresistibly drawn.’ I identified with Hans Castorp’s cravings when I read the book. I get the feeling that Rooms shares this pleasure in stock taking. Do you think that estranging, or larger-than-life environments might refocus the mind somehow, and in doing so, make visible to a person some unthought, unknown, inward-facing aspect of their nature?
I agree on the nature of larger-than-life, ‘estranging places’ and the way they produce a particular deepening introspection. At the sanatorium Hans Castorp gradually disengages his old social self, the professional, social construct he carried in Hamburg, and with its disintegration, something far more responsive and nuanced grows in him. There’s so much in The Magic Mountain that I find rich and almost inexhaustible, but his particular type of exile was particularly resonant for me. It’s a luxury that’s difficult to afford, but to be at a remove from your social, cultural and national identity is a vital, edifying thing, I think. It’s close to Zarathustra’s hermetic ascent, enlarging of self, then descent back to the social, except Thomas Mann would never admit to that, I don’t think.
It’s not such a rigorous isolation in The Magic Mountain, though – there’s an irresistibility to Hans Castorp’s reveries. In this sense, perhaps the patients’ ‘sickly’ preoccupations are comparable to my Rooms’ interest in the past – like someone who can’t help but pathologically finger through old mementos.
Mann was apparently critical of Hans Castorp’s self-absorption, but the way he writes about it makes me feel the opposite – I love (in theory) the idea of going up to a mountain to be isolated and think. Orhan Pamuk describes something of this in his book, Other Colours, where he says something along the lines of ‘I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write to be alone.’
Staying with mountains, I’ve been thinking about something I heard recently on Bella Marin’s and David Anselm’s Resonance FM radio show: the presenters discussed how landscape might present an obstacle, or an interruption, to the ‘fluid’ exchanges and transfers of globalization. Attention to a physical space, like a mountain range, with its individual textures and topography, poses a special problem, a slowing down of the process. Then I thought about this in terms of literature, and wondered if a book could act as a similar obstacle. I don’t mean anything as crude or direct as a political device, but a sensibility, a sensibility that becomes a way of carrying oneself. It’s quixotic, but I like the idea that a work like The Magic Mountain, or, say, Sebald’s Austerlitz, with its atmospheric ‘carefulness’ and alien manners could provide an interruption to what’s harmful or rapid in modernity.
I know that, among other places I’m sure, you’ve recently spent time in Scotland, Italy, Paris. Do you have a particular affinity for these places, or is their appeal being ‘away-from-here’?1
I like travelling very much. I think my ideal state would be perpetual, though gradual, motion. A very slow sleeper train that dawdled at various stations for however long it took to tire of the stop. Islanders, like the English, are very prone – and travelling unmasks this quite dramatically – to unconscious fits of exceptionalism and nationalism. It’s a very useful experience for an islander to have their centralized narrative destabilized continuously.
On another note, I’ve spoken a bit about the allure of sequences, or a longer form poem of some sort, as opposed to stand-alone poems. What’s your take on that? Why did the Rooms poems become a group?
An open-ended sequence seems the best way of deferring finality or what I see to be the bluntly ‘categorical’ in my work. During the writing, that deferral is important; it leaves the impetus of it in a state of becoming. Most of my sequences or groups could accept an addition or an omission far into the future, too, like an unfinished sketch or a cumulus formation. Another thing – with separate poems within a group it’s possible to establish remote points of contact between constellated details, in a way that’s far more difficult in a single piece. Seemingly disparate parts can be linked to other coordinates within a sequence, and attain a new light in that relation, within the reader’s own capacity to make those links.
It’s funny, because the Rooms poems are not all in the past – they happen in many different times and places (1266, 2005, Taiwan, Florence) – yet each feels coloured by the same atmosphere of the past, as if reclaiming some of the elegance and romance which I associate with some 20th century European novels – perhaps it’s the faded rooms and the careful, gentle, formal language. The sense of time travel I get when reading the poems is partly to do with the voice, which is less skeptical and guarded than ‘today’s’ voice. I admire it. It has an elegance I associate with books which take on grand themes – novels which in some way take on (sorry – I’ve tried to find a better way of saying this!) the human plight – and is rather at odds with the contemporary preoccupation with the everyday, and especially with everyday language. Is it a critical stance – a conscious ‘return to carefulness’? Can you articulate where this romantic mood comes from? Do you think there is a value to stylistic elegance?
I’m wary of generalizing about my work outside of any one group of poems, because I think of each as governed and generated by its own sensibility, but with the Rooms, I was aware of feeling around for a careful, precise sentence that could carry a string of historical contexts and consequences and, then, the particularity of those interiors. When the impression you build is exact and particular, the presence and then absence of the subject is keener, like in photographs of dead people or of vanished places in the past. In the sense that I was approaching something that required a type of exhumation – of ‘texts’, rather than empirical historical facts – I felt a degree of responsibility to the subject, a carefulness, as you say.
You can locate a critical stance within a style, I think. Style is really where the fabric and character of a work are found. I read a wonderful essay on John Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by Helen Vendler, in which she inferred from the sort of vatic enterprise of his work that it was anticipating and shaping ‘a reader that was yet to be’. As if his particular syntactical movement and what could be thought of as his style might give rise to an incipient psychological character, a more developed type of reader, and, I imagine, a maker. That’s a utopian project, but I liked the ambition of Vendler’s reading.
As for there being value, in itself, to stylistic elegance, in the way that I think we both have in mind, I suppose my intuitive answer to that is ‘no’, unless what is achieved is some sort of higher intensity, a unique syntax that achieves closer ‘proximity’ to its subject, and a naturalness to that elegance. Otherwise, it’s a purely formal convention, like those late Renaissance painters who painted increasingly beautiful, lifeless bodies. I wonder if precision and elegance are analogous, though, because I can definitely say that I value the sort of exhilarating precision of a book like Speak, Memory, for its almost hallucinatory proximity to its subject, and, then, what I can only describe as its generosity. Generosity – in its detail, not in demeanor (Nabokov can be brilliantly cruel).
Rather than wish for a return to anything, I would look to what can be done with abandoned ventures of the past, and articulate them into what can only be a developed vision. So much of the recent past is great. I love Montale for his wrought, intensive detail and wild atmospherics. Then, Akhmatova for her coolness. The dead quiet of Jean Follain. The sort of crystalline artifice in Wallace Stevens. That’s a whole miscellany of very different poets, but I suppose this position is better illustrated by quoting G.K Chesterton: ‘history does not consist of completed and crumbling ruins … but half-built villas abandoned by a bankrupt builder. The world is more like an unfinished suburb than a deserted cemetery.’
The idea of ruins vs. an unfinished suburb reminds me of the woman who drifts ‘from one ruined domain / to the next one’ searching for Mastroianni in ‘A Room in Taiwan’. The elegance I was trying to describe earlier feels particularly disorienting in that poem because it’s applied to the Internet and I have this notion that the Internet is meaningless and that browsing (is it still called that?) is a frivolous activity. But in this poem, the Internet is serious – it carries a very serious longing, or seeking. For me, seeing the Internet in this way is like watching a serious film in which a comic actor has suddenly been given a leading role. The poem also recasts what I see as the traditional hierarchy between poetry and the internet, because mostly it’s the Internet which influences poetry – poetry takes on the style and language of the Internet – but here the opposite happens, my impression of the internet is changed by its being brought into a poem.
I suppose the internet in that poem is analogous to the other, desolate physical spaces in the sequence – given that the servers of various defunct forums, in a seemingly earlier, firewalled incarnation of the internet, are down, and locatable somewhere as technological ruins. So, I suppose it received the same ‘treatment’ as the other interiors. Another thought is that I’ve never found the internet to be particularly frivolous – as a young teenager I found everything about it – the aestheticized platforms and forums, its illimitable boundaries – sublime, in its way, as a natural spectacle. It was a refuge, too. This was the Internet, though, and not the internet.
I’m interested in the internet’s influence on a structural level – what in cinema would be called its ‘syntactical’ level – and less by the explicit appropriation of its popular, transitory surfaces. The latter seems like the most immediate and widespread response to the internet, and also the most limited. But the former notion is inescapable and part of the configuration of any writer under its zone. It affects the work at a foundational level – in the movement of the mind through semantics, the immediate access and inundation of ‘supplementary’ detail, more extended and complicated types of linkage, and so on.
Return to the first part of Kate and Matthew’s Poem to Poem conversation.
Yesterday a deckhand confused the new land
with a cloudbank and its own flocks and shepherds
and white houses in the cloud’s country.
The sea is green at night
a violent blue by day
and wider and deeper than the dreams of André Breton.
André Breton is aboard the Capitaine.
He is writing to someone, one a.m. His bunk wobbles
in the rough passage and his gaslamp swings.
On his wrists the eczema has come up again.
His yellow sleeve is spotted with ink as he spills
his hand across the page. He is writing to his wife
or to Nadja but won’t decide who until he signs off.
He is describing the luminescence that rises
through the ocean at night and follows the Capitaine.
First there is only a pulse, the propeller turning
up green sparks, stirring them with its long ladles
before the lighted halls of plankton appear.
It follows us, Dearest, disappearing for days
then returning in waves like the mind to a place.
In every light shoal he sees something he remembers.
In every hall an empty lectern and shipment papers.
André Breton walks a Sorbonne in his head
and goes from room to room, to look for the lights
He writes how the crew saw
a manta rise in the glow
with its dark studies under one arm of its cloak,
circle once then wing slowly out of their surveillance.
First published in Poetry London 76, Autumn 2013.