Prac Crit

Jump-cuts: Draft 2 Final Draft

by Vidyan Ravinthiran

Interview

by Sarah Howe

In the following interview, I spoke with Vidyan Ravinthiran about his poem ‘Jump-cuts’, taken from his first collection, Grun-tu-molani, which came out from Bloodaxe in March 2014. Looking at three different versions of the poem – the earliest of which first appeared in a pamphlet of 2008 – Vidyan and I talked about his process of writing, revising, and slowly re-conceiving this one poem over the course of several years. Tucked beneath the sloping attic beams of his Cambridge rooms, our conversation roamed from bad puns, to grumpiness, to the poetry of a Hitchcockian shot. ‘Jump-cuts’ shares in the book’s wider fascination (well captured on its back cover) with ‘a range of human behaviours common to different societies – the need to assert oneself, save face, explain, and touch; the last of which would not be possible were it not for the distances between us.’ Picking up on this almost anthropological note, I once heard at a reading Vidyan describe this poem’s earliest germ as that awkward sensation, when the hairdresser’s hands have your head in the sink, of not knowing which direction to look in.

Born in Leeds to Sri Lankan parents, Vidyan Ravinthiran is a poet and critic currently based in Cambridge, where he is a research fellow at Selwyn College. He was awarded his D.Phil for his thesis on Elizabeth Bishop at Balliol College, Oxford, in 2010, and was formerly poetry editor of the Oxonian Review. He reviews frequently (in Poetry ReviewPoetry LondonPN ReviewThe Times Literary Supplement and other magazines), and is currently working on a novel, as well as a book about Elizabeth Bishop. His pamphlet At Home or Nowhere was published by Tall-Lighthouse in 2008. His first book-length collection, Grun-tu-molani, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2014.

[This interview was first published on 15 February 2014, originally appearing in an earlier incarnation of Prac Crit.]

SH

How does this poem fit into your wider collection? Where have you positioned it in the sweep of the book?

VR

‘Jump-cuts’ appears very early on in Grun-tu-molani – it follows a poem called ‘Uncanny Valley’ which is rather more mysterious in its subject-matter, but also has something to do with hair. I’ve used a few links of this kind to position next to each other poems which might otherwise contrast – in style, real-world groundedness, etc. I like to run very different things up against each other, and see if they can communicate – I guess this has something to do with my background. And my background also makes me sceptical about the type of unified poetic voice we’re all supposed to be trying to discover within ourselves. ‘The modern poet’s progress myth’, Adam Phillips calls ‘the voice’.

SH

In one of your other poems, ‘Anti-Circ’, you bring together metaphors from wildly different, intensely physical and sensual experiences to describe something we often don’t think of as immediately embodied or sensory – the act of reading. When you’re writing, does the idea come first, or the image – or are they difficult to separate?

VR

I think that previously – and the poems in the collection were written over many years – it was individual words and phrases which always kicked things off. They used to come to me in the shower and when I moved to Selwyn and a college set whose bathroom ceiling was too low to incorporate a shower, I was worried I wouldn’t write! So I sneaked in an attachment to go on the taps… But now I do tend to have more actual ideas for poems. I think – there’s a subject I could write about, and I can visualise the poem, sometimes, progressing from beginning to middle to end.

SH

The poem seems interested in experimenting with the idea of alternative perspectives. In the very first draft, you have the uncommon vantage point of the speaker, which comes from having his head jammed in the hairdresser’s sink: ‘my attention’s fixed on the ceiling’s quincunx / of brass-ringed inset spotlights’.  The poem’s play with slant, or shifted viewpoints then intensifies through the later drafts, with their multiple sections. Could you say something about the metaphor of the ‘jump cut’? Despite the familiarity of the term, I had to remind myself what, in film technique, a jump cut is precisely. Isn’t it when the editing leaps from one shot to another shot which is taken from a slightly different angle, but not quite different enough, so the viewer finds the shift jarring?

VR

That jarring quality was important to me. The first, more linear version of the poem started to seem a bit flabby and melodramatic, so I thought chopping it up and introducing another person’s voice would improve it – Nick Laird’s verse was an inspiration here. Brenda is a hairdresser in Glencoe, which is where my girlfriend Jenny’s family live. So there’s a different incident. That bit’s about her having her hair cut. To take the poem and get it away from just being a story about, or supposedly about me, to having an extra person in it, and then to bring that extra person (or some kind of person) back in the third section: I thought that would be more interesting. The new title seemed to work because it describes jumping from one section of the poem to the other section, but with a bit of wordplay on haircuts.

SH

Yes, it’s almost in the ‘Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow’ territory of Hairdresser signage.

VR

I love those signs. You can imagine a place actually called ‘Jump Cuts’. I’m not very good with titles, but that seemed to do something at least, whereas ‘At the hairdresser’s’ doesn’t really do anything. The previous title was more of an acquiescence in the face of my inability to come up with a title! I’ve done that elsewhere – Poetry Wales took a poem called ‘Thin’. Though in Grun-tu-molani it has been changed to ‘More Context Required’!

SH

I just want to segue, while thinking about the title, onto this question of puns.  Do you find yourself thinking through puns? That is, do you actually take them quite seriously?

VR

I really like these bad word plays, these slightly naff ones, like you get on the front of a hairdresser’s. There’s a lot of stuff… impacted in the poem. Like this ‘rope-a-dope’ pun. Some of those things, I did think, ‘Well, I’m doing that deliberately’, but other things just happened in an oblivious way. And then I had to go back to the poem and consider, ‘Is this actually too silly, or convoluted?’ I left some of them in, but quite a lot of stuff’s been taken out. So in the first version of the poem, there’s this mixed metaphor, which got completely out of control:

my attention’s fixed on the ceiling’s quincunx

of brass-ringed inset spotlights –
even when I close my eyes, I can’t escape
those five cigarette butts smouldering
in the ashtray of vision.

I just make out the ringposts from above
plus me, the glowering butt dropped centre-ring.

On the one hand, you have these lights, and they’re like the posts of a boxing ring, but they’re also like cigarette butts. I didn’t really think that worked, so I cut the cigarette butts image – and actually, the ‘quincunx’ of lights as well. The ‘wild surmise’ section, I think that’s the most convoluted bit of the poem. I was talking to Jenny about this last night, and explaining all the things that went into it, and she said it was like one of those Jonathan Creek mysteries, where he unpacks all the little details in this ludicrously convoluted way. ‘Wild surmise’ is from the Keats poem, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —

There’s wordplay here too in my poem, because Keats talks about ‘stout Cortez’ standing on the peak in Darien and seeing the Pacific – discovering the Pacific for the first time. But actually some scholarship says that it’s supposed to be another conquistador, Vasco Núñez de Balboa. So then Balboa came into it, and there’s the Rocky Balboa thing.

SH

I love the sense of play there, chasing through a chain of chance associations that somehow leads from Darien to Rocky – via some scholarly footnotes on Keats’ dodgy fact-checking. I can see why you used the word ‘impacted’ just now. Would you mind similarly teasing out the pun that unfolds around ‘Prozac rope-a-dope’ in the following lines? ‘Rope-a-dope’ being a technique in boxing where you don’t let yourself be hit …?

VR

It was Ali’s technique in that famous fight, the Rumble in the Jungle, where he was quite old and no one thought he could win. His strategy was to just let his opponent, George Foreman, punch himself out, and then, when he was tired, go for the victory. So, again, I don’t know what really stimulates the phrase. I mean, it’s the idea of ‘dope’ –

SH

…silly, or slow, or being made a fool of…?

VR

– but then trying to bring it round so that it’s actually about the half-life of the drug. It’s curious… because I still like the poem very much, but I don’t think I would write like that now, in such an impacted way. And I would certainly never – didn’t – consciously layer the references like that.

SH

And yet the effect of its associative density is that, in the final version, the poem becomes very much about charting the darting consciousness of the speaker – who is at one remove from the ‘I’ as it exists within the vignettes. How do you negotiate putting yourself into your poems?

VR

Well, I suppose all the things that are in the poem make it quite personal. I worry about a kind of willed cosmopolitanism, the mentioning of lots and lots of different things. But also, if all these different things were actually there as part of some kind of originary experience – and some of them, it seems, can’t really be separated from that experience – it seems fair to put them in a poem. But ultimately I don’t write poems which are primarily anecdotes about myself because I don’t think I’m really that… interesting. So something else was needed.

The original poem was more the kind of linear narrative one reads and assumes is drawn from the poet’s actual experience. So reshaping the poem into these three sections – foregrounding stylisation – was, I think, partly an admission that the stylisation was there already. But maybe in the first version it exists as a kind of bad faith. I thought, well, it reads like it’s an anecdote about myself, but actually some of this stuff isn’t true. Maybe making that a little bit more evident, making the artfulness of it unavoidable, was important – so now that’s what you’re confronted with when you read the poem.

SH

Perhaps that goes back to the title again. Isn’t the thing about jump cuts that they’re seen as rather showy? When directors use them, it’s often as a way of drawing attention to the film as medium. How do you feel about the kind of ‘art that shows itself’ in your own work?

VR

It’s something that I’ve definitely worried about. I remember, ages ago, when I was quite early on in my PhD maybe – no, earlier than that, when I was an undergraduate, having this argument with a friend about Heaney and Muldoon – this was before I started to realise how good Muldoon was – saying I much prefer Heaney: how beautifully it’s phrased, but also the sincerity – poems about actual stuff. And I still am drawn to write poems about actual stuff. I don’t really like writing, or even really reading, poems I don’t think are connected to things which it’s possible to actually feel or think. Is it an idea of Hitchcock’s – to use a cinematic metaphor – that you never film a shot from somewhere a person couldn’t actually be? I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere. So it could always potentially be a vantage from which someone is looking at the action.

SH

That’s nice… almost like the cinematic equivalent of thinking about free indirect style as a limiting of perspective.

VR

The artfulness is related to the self-consciousness. The poem is partly about self-consciousness – suggesting that what you do when you’re putting a poem together is not necessarily that different to the way you put yourself together when you’re trying to do things in the world.

SH

I think it’s really interesting that self-consciousness emerges as one of the unifying threads in the poem: sudden awareness of the self, or even shame about the self. In terms of the order of its writing, the earliest part of the poem is what, by versions two and three, has become the middle section. At that point, you introduce another character, the woman in the first section (whose real-life equivalent would I guess be Jenny) with her reported comment, ‘None of these for me, I’m not a real person’, spoken while flicking through the glossy magazines choosing a hairstyle…

VR

I do like putting in poems terrific things which other people have said. I used to do this more, but then you get in trouble. You can tell yourself that there’s actually some kind of humility, and you’re letting another voice into your poem, but actually it can irritate people, because they might have said something embarrassing.

SH

[laughs] How does Jenny feel about her unguarded musings appearing in poems?

VR

Oh, she was alright with this – I haven’t really had this problem with her. I like the tone of that comment, because you don’t really know how to read it after it’s taken and put on the page. Is it someone saying – someone who is abashed by the situation – ‘I couldn’t carry off any of these haircuts because I’m not a real person’? Or is it more ‘Aren’t these magazines ludicrous? I refuse their standards.’

I’m interested in trying to get other people – the way they actually talk – into writing. I think that’s quite important. I mean, there was a danger in the original version of this poem of it just disappearing up its own arse. There was a self-regard that needed to be tempered. And that’s one reason why I tried to foist other people, other situations into it. It’s not even really that it was about me, so much as about a certain kind of poetic speaker. It seemed to be foundering in a very familiar kind of melodrama. I wanted to try and get out of that, to add a little bit of impatience with culture instead.

SH

If the first version feels more like Heaney, in the way it positions its first-person speaker, the final version feels more like Muldoon – its impulse to connect things in this breathtaking, synaptic way. This poem seems to demand the connecting up of parts – to find the mirror of the woman flicking through magazines in the first section in the male speaker at the barber’s in the second, and then perhaps in the reference to Gabrielle in the third, and the shame that leads her to cover her face with her hair. Do you like to make the reader work?

VR

I think that’s one of the good things about having the poem in these sections. As in one of those Nick Laird poems, it makes the reader (I hope!) want to interact with it – to do some work with it, and try to work out why these things have been juxtaposed.

On Muldoon and connecting things up: I think to some extent I just trust that things will connect; that if I’m interested in something I can put it in the poem, and either in some oblivious way there’ll be a connection I haven’t quite intuited yet – which is why I’m interested in it – or the clever person reading the verse will be able to provide. But again, these older poems, which I’ve been hanging on to for quite a long time, are quite dense in a way my more recent poems probably aren’t.

A lot of the edits I made in turning it into this version are about knowing how to frame a particular line – and knowing about the kind of demand you can actually place on someone’s attention; how you can set a tricky problem, but you then have to provide something at least minimally pleasurable if someone’s going to read the poem. Instead of just thinking that because you have this knot of sensation it must be as compelling to other people as it is to you. Not so much thinking, ‘I don’t like how this line seems anymore’, as ‘Would someone else get anything out of this? ‘Would it actually make sense to other people?’ I realise this Keats thing in the middle is still pretty out-there, but I don’t think it’s essential to understanding the poem. It’s just an Easter egg. I was completely obsessed with Keats as a teenager. And I still think he’s brilliant, but at that point it was very much personal identification. It was difficult when I turned older than he was when he died!

I didn’t really have a creative writing element, or an exposure to contemporary poetry very early. So when I was trying to write things as a teenager, I was still very much trying to write like Keats. I didn’t think, ‘This isn’t how poets write anymore’, so I wrote an ode to the sea, or something like that – all kinds of things like that. I was always trying to reproduce the structure of his odes. And then we were doing Larkin at school and I thought, ‘I really don’t like this’, but then when I actually tried to write poems – and even when I tried to fill out Keats’ forms – the things I was saying sounded more like Larkin. Which in retrospect isn’t so surprising, because Larkin on some level wants to be Keats too! So I guess the point is that all these things are quite personal, in a way. Even if the actual narrative you’re telling is not strictly based on something that happened to you, your writing can become very, very personal – but not, I hope, tediously personal, or undisentanglably personal. Actually, the belief that because you’re interested in disparate things, they must be connected, is a kind of arrogance I suppose.

SH

That idea sits interestingly with the last section of the poem, which has something of the channel-surfing, tabbed-browsing quality – of flicking through unconnected noise – which is such an inescapable part of experiencing the various media we have now. And yet on another level, it’s carefully selected noise that’s made it into the final stanzas, designed to give an overriding sense of the consciousness which is doing the looking.

VR

You might have certain connections which you make in a random way, or in a way which somehow answers to a need you have – some sort of personal association. But then I don’t think all the connections I make in my mind deserve to go in a poem, because I think poems should be about communication; communication is better than self-expression. So there has to be some reason why they’re connected which would interest another person, or should mean something to another person.

SH

You’re a poet who works very much with reference – both to high culture and to pop culture – as this poem shows. How important to you is it that the reader be equipped to deal with the references – to leap from Keats to Rocky? And are there any other poets who have influenced you in this respect?

VR

I don’t try to be very contemporary, or to keep up to date. There’s a good bit in Heaney’s interviews, where Dennis O’Driscoll is trying to get him to grump a bit about these youngsters who, instead of writing about ancient landscapes or whatever, are actually writing about popular culture. And Heaney just defuses the question and says people write about what’s important to them, and if those are the things that set off these ‘emotional depth-charges’ – or however he beautifully puts it on this occasion – in these young writers, then they’re going to write about those things. My cultural references might seem a bit eclectic, but I think that is an aspect of my upbringing. I think my Sri Lankan parents would probably share in this – knowing about some things and not about others, and maybe connecting things in a sort of high-culture / pop-culture way, but without thinking about that as being a very provocative thing to do.

About the readerly competence though, I don’t know – I’m an academic and I teach very complex poems, and I think the kind of literary intelligence which you want from a student is a very important thing – being able to pick something apart and all of that. But I certainly don’t think of myself as the kind of poet who’s putting in so many clever things to be spotted in each line. As if the reader is somehow failing if they don’t spot these things. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it.

SH

The last section of the poem seems to meditate on fashion’s built-in sell-by-dates and unexpected revivals – the ‘scene kids’ who ‘cover one eye, or both’ with their hipster locks, but don’t remember Gabrielle doing it better in the 90s. That limited collective memory span seems here to feed into ‘reality TV’, with its ever-unfolding present. Is the poem having an argument with contemporary society?

VR

Well, I am impatient with a lot of things. I think I’ve gradually realised through which poems got picked up by magazines, which poems people appreciate at readings, that this kind of impatience, this grumpiness, was something that I maybe shouldn’t suppress, because it’s actually something that some people share, and that others perhaps find enjoyable in some way even if they don’t straightforwardly share it. And so the ending of the poem is a little bit impatient – I think that is the tone of the last line: ‘the usual format.’ This kind of ‘let’s move on from this to something better’.

I don’t necessarily think that everything original is good. And indeed something completely original would be rather incoherent and unpleasant. But the really terrible thing about those reality TV programmes is that you’re asked to judge these people: you’re supposed to side with the parent figure who’s telling the errant child they’ve done something awful. How could they dare to run a hair salon and not do it in this particular way? I don’t really know what you’re going along with there. Is it some kind of pleasure of feeling that you and the judges know how the real world works, but those other people don’t know how the real world works? It can be addicting, but it’s ultimately a depressing experience.

I never really felt that artists like Keats – or Hopper, who is a figure I came across much later in life – were separate from me, or belonged to some kind of ‘Culture’ I didn’t have access to. Keats’s poems were very important to me, and that’s why he’s in my work. There’s no argument in this poem saying ‘Here’s Keats and he’s brilliant, and there’s reality TV and that’s bad’. I did like Generation X a lot when I was a teenager, I liked all those Douglas Coupland novels very much. I thought they were great.

SH

Maybe that fondness comes through at the same time as a sideswiping contempt for the sloganeering of it. Despite its Zeitgeisty ubiquity, I’ve never actually read Generation X. I assume that slogan, ‘HAIR IS YOUR DOCUMENT’, came out of the novel? I guess satire doesn’t feel like a terribly common mode in contemporary poetry, so it does stand out when you see it attempted.

VR

In the edition I had – I still remember reading this hot pink book as a teenager and feeling quite cool. At the bottom of the page there are these slogans, and they’re sort of pictorial. ‘Hair is your document’ is one of them, and several have this gnomic quality. So it is a kind of satire. I do like satire. Maybe I am satirical sometimes. But I worry about the type of implicated satire where you produce something that risks being as inconsequential as whatever you’re complaining about, because it’s just made up of that thing, and you’re sort of saying well, I’m part of this culture too. I understand there is a gesture of humility there, because you’re saying you can’t stand aloof from it and say what’s wrong with it. So maybe I’m just a very judgmental person and that’s coming across at the end of the poem! I’d like to believe in something – better. I’ve just reviewed a book by Frederick Seidel – at one point he calls an Apple Store a ‘contemporary church’. You read that and you think, oh well, that’s kind of clever. But poetry should be trying to do, to provide, something better.

Actually, your question has let me see that this poem, which I thought of as quite an old one, has an impatience with some aspects of contemporary culture, which I didn’t think of it as having. I thought of that as something which started getting into my writing as I got a bit older and grumpier, but maybe it was already there.

SH

I was intrigued by your use of the Hopper painting in the first section. I know Hopper’s work, but I didn’t know that particular painting, Girl at Sewing Machine, which is only explicitly named in the third version of ‘Jump Cuts’. It depicts a Vermeer-like woman, intent on the garment she is passing beneath the machine’s juddering needle, seated in front of a brightly-lit window, a high-ceilinged room opening out behind her whose walls are bathed a deep orange.  I wanted to ask you what work the painting and its invocation is doing in this poem. How important is that visual allusion to the scene your reader imaginatively constructs?

VR

I don’t write that many ekphrastic poems, because I find them very difficult in a basic way – how to even begin writing about a painting without the poem just turning into a description of the painting. But with the Hopper, I wanted to launch into something straight away. I worry that if I don’t get going straight away in a poem, it will be inert. This is one reason I like Elizabeth Bishop so much. She can begin by just talking to you, in something that’s like prose, and yet it never becomes inert or boring. But I usually feel the need to plunge into something. It was more an impulsive gambit than anything else.

SH

I guess I’ve only mentioned half the story, because the poem begins with Hopper, but this first section works its way round to the women’s magazines spread across the table with their glossy photos, which are transformed in the metaphor into the ‘conjuror’s cards’. So you actually have two visual inputs into this section.

VR

It’s strange isn’t it, noticing things in the poem which I wasn’t really conscious about before! And if I were talking about someone else’s poem I would say ‘Observe how this links up with that’, but then to say that about your own poem would be like you’re praising yourself. And it seems especially inappropriate because with many of these things I just wasn’t really aware of it at the time. I mean, we talk lots about the craft of poems, and that poems need to be edited, and you need to put lots of work into it, but there is also a kind of obliviousness that’s required…

SH

A poet hind-brain which you trust?

VR

I don’t think I’d really write anything if it wasn’t for that. Because the writing of poems is a kind of perverse activity, isn’t it? So without this abrupt foisting of yourself on the world that you sometimes feel the need to go through with, you wouldn’t actually write anything. Robert Frost said a poem cannot be ‘worried into being’.

SH

What’s the balance between inspiration and work, then, for you as a poet? Having come all the way from your Tall-lighthouse pamphlet, At Home or Nowhere, in 2008, and moving through its later incarnations, ‘At the hairdresser’s’ / ‘Jump-cuts’ must, I presume, be one of your longest ongoing poems, in terms of its revision at least. How long has this poem been worked on from its very first stage till this last version?

VR

So, from 2008… I suppose that’s almost five years. But then some of that will be more of a dormant period when it was just in a folder. I have a ‘Not Yet’ folder on my computer, and there are hundreds of poems in there. Although I think many of those are just cloned files, because I copy things in there, and if it says, ‘This file already exists’, I just create another copy, so there are probably 32 versions of ‘Jump Cuts’ in there, or something like that. Writing poems is difficult, but… maybe this is a slightly daft Keatsian idea, but I think it isn’t really work. I mean, it does kind of come naturally, even if it is difficult. I find, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of poems, most of which will thankfully never see the light of day because they aren’t very good, that it’s almost always enjoyable to write poems. Sometimes I feel slightly uncomfortable or blocked in some way, and you realise, ‘Oh, I haven’t actually written a poem in a while’, and then I write a poem… And sometimes poems do come very quickly, and often they’re the ones which actually work, and the ones which I try to construct very carefully just don’t, because they come apart. I can see there’s this whole daft romantic way of thinking about writing there. But just because we do talk so much about craft… with a poem like this, where it’s in these three parts, it’s a problem because it’s artistically constructed like that, so it’s not like it poured forth as a single ‘blurt’. But I guess that’s one of the things I’m really interested in, in my academic work as well – how the impulse and the form coincide, and whether one actually comes first. And if the form comes first, does that mean that you’re being inauthentic or insincere?

SH

Is this your work on the idea of ‘spontaneity’?

VR

Yes. And that’s why I like utterances like this one in the first section of the poem, ‘None of these for me, I’m not a real person’. Sometimes someone just says something like that and you think that’s just exactly right, it needs to be preserved in amber. Or – I need to exploit it and put it in a poem!

SH

We’ve talked about how the poem’s larger structure and conception altered from the point at which you split it into three sections. Would you mind talking me through some of the other changes you’ve made in the course of revising and editing, on a smaller scale? The way the poem moves from four to the three-line stanzas, say, or the detailed lexical changes you make between versions two and three?

VR

Much of my academic work is to do with prose. Writing more prose – critical prose, or literary journalistic prose – it’s made me want things to be a bit terser and tighter. A lot of the edits I make to my poems now are to do with that. I like monosyllables now, swapping things out for monosyllables. Starting from the beginning – ‘Like Hopper had travelled in time to Glencoe’ – this line has changed since The Salt Book of Younger Poets version, where it’s ‘As if Hopper had travelled in time to Glencoe’. I misuse the word ‘like’ in this context a lot, so there are many poems where I’ve gone through and I’ve replaced ‘likes’ with ‘as if’s. But in this case, it just seemed a little stodgy and awkward and I thought it was better to plunge in. And then in the Salt version, there’s ‘Brenda’s son in his Adidas shellsuit’. So that maybe is an instance of the kind of ‘contemporaneousness’ which has no real point to it. It doesn’t matter that it’s an Adidas shellsuit, so I thought that should go.

Having the Adidas thing there also makes the whole ‘Like Hopper’ thing a little bit odd, because there’s no one in a Hopper painting wearing Adidas. It seemed to be flying in different directions at that point. And then again, the second stanza seemed a little bit inert and inelegant in the Salt version. That was an attempt at a description of an actual thing I had seen, but which, transposed into language like this, doesn’t really make the image snap into your mind – it makes you go a little bit cross-eyed. I suppose there was a kind of perversity – I wanted to use the word ‘lambent’ because you’re not supposed to use ‘lambent’ in a poem. And I was sure that the Heaneyan mouth music of ‘lambent’ and ‘bump’ somehow redeemed this.

I don’t want to keep going through like this because it’s quite tedious I’m sure, but perhaps I’ll end with ‘airbrushed snaps’, which has become ‘glossies’ in the final version. The magazines which are laid out for you in a hairdresser’s: they’re not actually there in an obvious way to give you examples of what you want, and yet they are, because that’s the culture which produces the kind of hairstyle which it is currently acceptable to choose from. You’re always being told you have so much choice, but really it’s choice within quite a narrow spectrum, and so the magazine is there to instruct you; you need to learn from it. In the way that back in the olden days people would read Jane Austen to know how to woo each other, you read a magazine to know what kind of haircut to have.

SH

Conduct manuals in the form of style magazines… There’s a question about lightness to be asked here – that something as seemingly trivial as a haircut should be the poem’s route into thinking about the ‘weightier’ issues of identity, of being part of a tribe – the subtle outward signs of our social affiliations. Is lightness and/or humour an important element in your work? Is ‘humour’ even the right word?

VR

I think humour is quite important because otherwise… melodrama is what I’m often trying to avoid. You want your poem to be of significance, and the easiest way for a poem to appear to be significant is for it to be about ‘damage’ in some way – personal damage perhaps. And this can start to be a little bit rote. So things like humour, or bad-taste word play, or things like that, are important because they make you rethink where the significance, or the value, is actually supposed to come from – rather than it coming from some core of damage the poem obliquely refers to. It’s quite difficult writing about being happy. Unless it’s some full-on transcendent experience, then it’s significant. But contentment isn’t really a subject, because it would seem too much like contentment with the status quo and you don’t want that.

SH

The politics of being happy…

VR

I do like being a bit silly, and I like surprise. Talking about the poem, it feels like I don’t really know very much about it. By which I don’t mean to praise its supposedly infinite complexity! But it does make you think about the actual process of writing, and how it is perhaps a little bit more mysterious than you let on to yourself. Mysterious not necessarily in a way which makes you feel good about yourself – mysterious in that it just kind of happens, and there’s an urgency, and you don’t really know where this comes from, or why it is.

SH

I was wondering, in the process of conducting these interviews, if poets would talk differently about a poem they’d been working on last week, as opposed to one begun five years ago. I guess you tell yourself a story about how the poem happened: what was its impetus, what were its influences, how you wrote it on the bus, or over a summer. But going back through earlier drafts, you can actually sometimes disprove that retrospective narration, by say pointing to a forgotten stub or piece of scaffolding…

VR

Poets do like talking about the experience of writing. But once you start talking about it are you just creating another little poem? It’s a strange process. Poems are these self-surprising things, you write them and you don’t really know where they’re going to go. Even if you think about it in terms of two stages – one where you produce the poem as naturally as Keats said a tree produced leaves, and then a second process where you look back objectively, it’s still not really like that, because the second stage is equally involved, in a different way. And the editorial decisions themselves are sometimes motivated by things that you can’t really get a handle on. You might edit in a very impulsive way: an edit to a line might be as impulsive as the writing of that line.

SH

In terms of your division of labour as a poet, do you spend more time on the writing or the editing? Of course it’s often hard to separate them out, but how would you break down the proportion on average?

VR

Well there’s the worry that when you’re editing you’ve somehow taken your eye off the ball. I get a bit obsessive compulsive sometimes, and I worry that the editing process might just be so much of that – an anxious checking that something’s still there, rather than working to actually improve a poem. But what I usually do to edit a poem is I start typing it out again from the beginning. Then maybe as I type I’ll write a line differently. I type all my poems, I don’t hand write them. You can type quite quickly, and it seems to come to me as I type.

SH

You type them again from memory, rather than by looking back at the existing draft?

VR

The existing draft is further down the page, but after a while it gets seared into your brain.

SH

You’re almost hoping to felicitously misremember?

VR

Almost hoping that something will occur to you.

SH

So even when you start writing the poem you don’t use a notebook?

VR

I sometimes write down little phrases, and those phrases might come back in a poem. I think at the very earliest stages I’m more of an aesthete, and there’s just a phrase – Paul Valéry says something interesting along the lines of… the gods give you the first line for nothing, and then you have to come up with a poem which is equal to the first line. I really like that. That’s the experience I’m trying to have by typing out the poem over and over again. I’m trying to cheat them into giving me more lines, so I don’t actually have to do anything! I think it begins with something about the shape of words and phrases – or even the actual first line and the way it looks on the page.

SH

Is that what generally determines the line length of the rest of the poem? When you’ve received that first line, does that set the poem’s form?

VR

I think that’s interesting. I suppose I am one of those poets who mostly write poems where all the lines are roughly the same length, and I find it quite difficult to write a poem where the line lengths drastically vary, because I think, ‘why do it that way?’ We now think of poems visually more than we think of them rhythmically. I’ve done some quite naive things in the past. There was certainly a point where I just didn’t understand poems with short lines, and I thought, ‘why not just put them all together in a long line?’ But now I quite like short lines.

SH

There’s a lot more rhythmic variation going on in this poem, though the lines are all roughly pentameter length – either bang on ten syllables, or one or two syllables either way. That first line – like some of the others – has the ghost of an anapaestic metre to it.

VR

Rhythm is quite primary for me. If something has that rhythmic coherence which sounds right, sounds true, sounds like a line of poetry, that can be a problem. You don’t want it to be about writing lots and lots of lines which all sound the same, all have the same rhythm to them. But maybe some conception of traditional poetic rhythm can help put off other kinds of conventional behaviour, like ways of rounding poems off.

SH

Do you think you have particular habits when it comes to ending poems then, or do you try to stave them off?

VR

I like a perky ending rather than a die-away one. But I think syntax is quite important, so I have the odd poem which is just one sentence.

SH

This poem’s middle section is all one sentence, bar its last line.

VR

Poetry makes certain kinds of syntax possible, because you have the lines, which allow the reader to pay attention to things, whereas if you put them as prose it would just be a big straggling thing and you wouldn’t be able to follow it.

SH

I wanted to ask you about gaps in your poems. You told me once you had been thinking of making ‘Dot Dot Dot’ the title poem of your first collection. That poem is about the ellipsis as a piece of punctuation involved, in that poem at least, in insinuation. But you also seem to be interested in the ellipsis as an omission – what gets cuts out, and the implications created by that gap.

VR

I’m the sort of person who often gets suspicious about what I do or instinctively want to do. That doesn’t mean subjecting myself to radical self-critique, I think that’s just a personality trait, which shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as virtuous, or the opposite. So for a while I was quite angry with Robert Lowell, because I thought that all these ellipses were cheating, and he was just connecting things that had not actually connected. He does allude to this process in various poems. And it can become a bit rote as well. Ellipses seem to ask – is there something of significance, some kind of darkness here? I don’t know if I’ve grown out of that now, if I’ve had to come through the ellipses by using loads and loads and loads of them. But having separate sentences, sometimes you feel like they don’t really connect. There’s this bit in Ted Hughes’ letters – about his mad Shakespeare book and in response to Christopher Reid – where he says really he would like to forego separate sentences, and just have one sentence laden with dashes all the way through. And I definitely think that sometimes. What makes two things connect together instead of just being separate things which don’t actually tally?

SH

This poem has two sentences that pivot on semicolons, one in the first section, one in the second. For a poem which is so explicitly about connection making, it’s interesting that you’re relying on the semicolon to articulate a certain kind of relationship between thoughts.

VR

I do like my semicolons, because they don’t necessarily express the kind of logical relationship which the colon is supposed to. They can be used as a kind of rhetorical punctuation, if that’s not a misuse of that word.

SH

The punctuation is interesting at the poem’s start: ‘Like Hopper had travelled in time to Glencoe / – the wall orange with sun, two gilt mirrors’? That dash after ‘Glencoe’, which comes not immediately, but at the start of the following line, allows a pause for thought, and also becomes the momentum that spurs the next line on.

VR

I’m an admirer of quite a few poets who do that: Bishop obviously, and Jamie McKendrick as well. I like the immediacy it provides, and also the look of it – like a sudden interjection. To have that at the beginning of the line, to kick it into being with velocity. I suppose if I wanted something like that at the end of the line I would use a semicolon. So the dashes go at the beginning of the line and the semicolons go at the end of the line.

SH

My attention was caught by the word ‘glitch’, with respect to the poem’s moments of pace change, or switches in the current of thought. I was struck by the way it’s become a noun in the final version, as opposed to the ‘glitching’, like an addict’s twitch, the speaker experiences in the Salt version. The final version’s ‘glitch’ does make you think again about the title’s metaphor – moments of disruption almost like The Matrix’s filmic representation of déjà vu as a rent in perception.

VR

But then I get anxious about the disruption, because when does that get to be too much? A poem can’t just give you back the disorder of a particular experience.

SH

Why not?

VR

I suppose it can do that, but I worry that it wouldn’t be doing something that a poem is supposed to do. There’s a passage in Frank Kermode’s book, The Sense of an Ending, where he’s talking about really good novelists as opposed to authors of genre fiction. He says something like, ‘all novelists retreat from reality into some sort of shaping, but the great ones do so in a less perfunctory manner’. I think the idea that you could actually just reproduce the disorder and chaos, it doesn’t seem that could ever really be the case, because when you start to write order is inevitable, the sound of the words coming together. And if you think of the reader again, you want to provide something that will be of use – though this is obviously really difficult if you’re trying to write about politics, etc. It’s hard for me to use a word like ‘packet’ at the end of the line without wanting to rhyme it with something. ‘Packet’ and ‘scissors’ are about as different as two words could possibly be without exploding. So I decided to just leave that in the poem as something which makes me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe that disjunction is actually telling in some way.

SH

You seem to be thinking about rhyme, at least here, as an indulgence that you don’t want to let yourself succumb to, because you could so easily.

VR

I’m quite an untidy person in some ways, but in terms of… you think, why does this line of poetry exist, and then you think, well, if it rhymes with this other line, then that’s why it exists. It’s justified by another line, so you put a little tick next to it – that works. The other justification for something is that content-wise, in a thematic way, it makes some connection to something else. So maybe if those kinds of connections are attenuated, or held in abeyance, then instead you want some kind of acoustic connection. But I reassure myself that glitch / scissors assonates, so that’s fine!

SH

You do write in traditional forms – in other poems, you’re a very skilful user of rhyme. Is that going out then in your more recent work?

VR

Form is quite primary to me, so sometimes when I’m not using form, it’s almost for the thrill of the absence. The rhyme is something which people like, and it gives people pleasure. It raises the whole question of what does it actually do to language, if you’re thinking of language as something cognitive which has ideas inside it. I provoke my students by saying, ‘Why don’t scientific papers rhyme?’ They start to think ‘Well, what does rhyme actually do? Is it just some kind of ornament, or is it to do with something else?’ I do like rhyme, although I think I’m actually fairly conservative with rhyme. I’m not really into this sort of Muldoonian fuzzy rhyme. Although I admire that a lot, writers who do it. But I like the rhyme to have some kind of… for you to feel it, rather than for it to become a purely cerebral juxtaposition of two words, where you don’t hear it. The sound of things is quite important to me.

SH

I’m just looking through this poem – ‘cut’ and ‘format’, overarching the last three lines are in that fuzzy, half-rhyme territory.

VR

So that’s another… if you think you don’t want to end a poem with something sententious, then instead you might have two sounds come together, and that will provide you with the end of the poem. But of course sound and sententiousness can go together. But in putting the sounds together – certainly if you have a poem which doesn’t rhyme and then you have a rhyme at the end, that makes you think it’s a provisional way… and that’s really the kind of form I’m interested in – something more provisional, rather than a crystalline perfection of everything in its right place.

SH

It’s actually difficult to imagine this poem rhyming (at least going beyond whatever sound patterning already exists among its terminal words – bump/lap, and so on). It just seems wrong for this poem, because rhyme would tie it up too neatly, when what it’s about is disparateness, the provisionality of connection making.

VR

The tying up is kind of inevitable. So I think we are getting into this quite high level discussion about things being connected and things being disparate. When I first began writing my doctoral thesis, a lot of sentences would begin with ‘Therefore…’ because you want to feel it connects. Or just long sentences, because I didn’t feel if I broke them up one thing would actually follow from another. But of course they do – this again, is not really being able to think of someone else interacting with this text, because the pace of their reading will lead from one sentence to another sentence. And if the thing makes sense it’s up to the reader to decide, you can’t bully them.

SH

I spent my PhD very much trying to bully the reader with ‘Therefores’ and ‘In this ways’! It’s nice to think there is some relationship between writing academic prose and writing poems, because I sometimes wonder how that could possibly happen, except in an unhelpful way. That you’re writing the poem with the prac crit student as the endpoint in your mind…

VR

That is a problem, but the texture of academic prose is sometimes quite creative. I think of criticism as secondary to poems, but that doesn’t mean that just any poem you read is better than The Sense of an Ending (by which I mean the Kermode book, again) because there’s so much intelligence of a creative kind, or however you want to describe it, in that, and there’s so much good writing as well. And sometimes I do just actually – this is a confession – lift phrases from academic books and just stick them in poems. I wonder: ‘Could I reapply this in a more sensuous context?’ Critics are phrasemakers too. Well, good ones are, I think. They think on the level of the sentence. They want to write well. So actually, poetry for a long time was a displacement activity, where I’d be working on my thesis and then I’d just see something interesting and think ‘Oh, I’d quite like to write a poem about that’. And this terrific privilege of doing a PhD and being able to just say, oh well, actually this afternoon I’m not going to work on my PhD, because I’ve just thought of this idea for a poem and I can write that. That’s just such a wonderful thing. It’s not something that’s available to everybody and we should be immensely grateful for it.

Jump-cuts: Draft 2 Final Draft

by Vidyan Ravinthiran

As if Like Hopper had travelled in time to Glencoe
the wall orange with sun, the two gilt mirrors
and Brenda’s son in his Adidas shellsuit lad looking on from his stool;

from his stool in the sun as out of your reticent back as she croons to her lambent baby bump
your mum’s head like a second head emerges you eye the cuttings on your lap,
to make small talk with his mum’s baby bump. silent as the Girl at Sewing Machine.

None of these for me, I’m not a real person
you’d you said as we leafed through the airbrushed snaps glossies
splayed across the varnish like a conjuror’s cards.

* ~

The trick is to look dreamy but not orgasmic
as nubile fingers knead shampoo through my hair;
as licks of lather are towelled off the towel’s thrown across my brow

I squint up at the ceiling lights with wild surmise
like some metrosexual Rocky Balboa,
then rise from my corner for the last round

of the Prozac rope-a-dope – withdrawal its half-life
symptoms, that five-week half-life inside me outlasts the binned packet.
has me glitching up as I’m offered tea. With a glitch I’m taken through to the scissors.

* ~

The scene kids cover one eye, or both.
I’d say Gabrielle did it better back in the 90s,
but of course she had a as required by her ptosis. The nineties,

back when the slogan from Generation X
said HAIR IS YOUR DOCUMENT. You show me
Beyoncé’s weave flamed by her wind-machine,

reality TV: a stylist with no signature cut
is pressured to revamp his ailing salon.
Bullying then transformation; a familiar the usual format.