Poetry reviewing can be a thankless task. Often you’ve little to say as to those you’ll be writing about, and you can be restricted in terms of what it’s possible to write – by the number of words available, and the need to be introductory , effervescently so (literary journalism has its own language, just like academic writing). And then there’s the smallness of the poetry world, in which it may seem, at times, as if everyone knows everyone else, making criticism inadvisable, and collapsing disinterested praise into compromised amiability. But then, one day, an editor assigns you a poet to write about – and it’s a gift. Here’s someone you never read before, or never read so closely, and whose verse you’ll now live with for the years to come. I feel very fortunate to have met with the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and R.F. Langley this way; and also the writing of Karen Solie.
It was Solie’s Bloodaxe Selected, The Living Option (2013), which I covered. She’s the author of four more books of verse, most recently The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out (2015), and is winner of several prestigious awards, including the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010. I then met her at the Newcastle Poetry Festival, and was faced with that rather difficult task – telling a poet you deeply admire how much you enjoy their work. This always seems like such a personal thing to acknowledge (how do you lead in to it; what do you say; how are they meant to reply?!) but it is easier with a person as kind and tactful and attentive to others as I found Karen to be in Newcastle, and also following a reading she gave in Grasmere.
Karen lives, however, in Canada, and I live in the north of England – we’ve swapped stories about different kinds of bleak, beautiful weather – and the interview which follows took place by email. I sent her questions and she wrote back answers, and I came to understand this experience as no less spontaneous and vital than a face-to-face meeting. It’s simply an alternative kind of encounter, and it became a pleasure to lean on, checking my email to find another answer from Karen; another bit of information about an exciting new poem, and a further insight into the evolving practice of, to my mind, the most fascinating type of contemporary poet. Considering verse from her new book, The Caiplie Caves, we discussed her interest in the multiple meanings of words in a postmodern culture; the intersection of technology and individual (and military) power; and I was especially pleased to draw out (I hope) Karen Solie’s deep abiding concern with many kinds of social and political injustice. Her poems are always stylish and inventive and tantalising to the ear – yet she reconciles creativity and the moral intelligence, in a way I find inspiring, and would learn from.
Could you tell us a little about the Caiplie Caves, the subject of this next collection?
I was living in Anstruther, Fife, when the first thoughts toward this new manuscript transpired. During my tenure as writer-in-residence for the University of St. Andrews I spent a lot of time on the Coastal Path, and came across the Caiplie Caves soon after arriving. I did some reading on them, on their history as a site of pilgrimage, the Pictish symbols and Iron Age artifacts found there, and the 7th-century hermit, Ethernan, who supposedly lived in the caves while trying to decide whether to establish a priory on the Isle of May directly opposite in the Firth of Forth. I couldn’t find out much about Ethernan, which seemed odd, considering the wealth of colourful stories about other early medieval monks, saints, hermits and the like in Fife in that period. While these people entertained visions, commanded wild animals, exposed frauds, healed the afflicted, and performed fabulous physical feats, all I could find on Ethernan was that he reportedly survived for a very long time on only bread and water. It’s generally agreed he died on May, but sources I found did not agree on when, or how, or if he was actually the same guy as the Irish saint Adrian, and also maybe he was Hungarian. All this, of course, made him more interesting. I hung around the caves and stared at May, stared at it from a few pubs in the East Neuk and from my third-floor window in Anstruther. I thought about a person in crisis, at the crux of a decision, faced always with a prospect that looks like sanctuary and damnation, conviction and foolishness, by turns. From the first, I’ve thought of the manuscript as a book-length piece (I hesitate to call it a book-length poem, I don’t feel that way about it exactly; and by book-length I mean short-book-length) with Ethernan as its heart. Or, rather, a figure based on Ethernan. A voice and situation inspired by Ethernan, say. It will run through the book orbited by passages addressing, in some way, war, faith, technology, power, the natural world, and their intersections over eras in Fife, with some tendrils reaching out. I’ve been back to Fife – to Crail – twice so far for fairly long stays, and have learned more. Never have I experienced the slightest inclination toward a book-length poetry manuscript before this Ethernan business. But I’m happy to be exploring.
I was struck by the rapid deft movement in your first stanza – the idea of war as business; the word-play on ‘sharp end’, which mixes business language (is it?) with the grim glint of actual weapons; and the inclusion of a hard-nosed remark about ‘the economy’, of the kind one hears too often these days. And the stanza form then unscrambles that sometimes pretentious word, as its sounds, the n and m, are reconfigured as ‘money’ – what the perspective you’re critiquing all comes down to. But in the middle of this, what most surprises is the word ‘ourselves’ – which reveals it’s one of the mercenaries speaking. Did you want the reader to feel implicated, a little bit uncomfortable, at this point?
I don’t know that my intent is to make readers uncomfortable so much as to address the claustrophobic anxiety of implication. Address my own discomfort, really. On one hand, expressions common to corporate, political, intellectual, entertainment, and military institutions do reflect simply the viral spread of language. That’s nothing new. How long before ‘dark merger’ or the ‘chirp’ of black holes drawn to each other turns up in ads for household disinfectant, on a hockey broadcast, or in Urban Dictionary meaning something very different? We love image and metaphor. But a common language also suggests a collusion of forces, in the face of which a person can feel paralysed. Not in the least because of our complicity in systems we hate, systems that depend on our complicity by way of consumerism, distraction, inertia, and fear. Collusion, propaganda, profiting from weakness are all old as the hills. The machinations of players in early medieval conflicts, the manipulation of people’s flaws and vulnerabilities for profit, it’s not much different now, though broadened and intensified as the stakes have globalised. I think most people are well aware of their complicity. What we do with this awareness is a question bothering the poem, I think.
What I love about the double-meanings and word-plays in your poems is that they don’t come off as leisured and smugly clever. Instead, am I right, they’re moments of impatience with vulgarity or injustice? When you insert political phrases like ‘plausible deniability’ into your verse, or revise a gesture of hospitality – mi casa es su casa – into a statement of takeover – ‘Your home town / is now my home town’ – I do hear anger.
There is impatience, it is true. Irritation. I responded to another interview question recently that very generously inquired whether a particular poem in the last book arose from a kind of emotional awareness, when in fact it began in a stingy mood of irritation. My irritability can be uncharitable. But phrases such as ‘plausible deniability,’ that render mild or attempt to neutralize with legality an immoral act, are truly maddening. Sometimes I wish agencies would plainly state their intent. Just fucking say it. They don’t in order to minimize dissent, but people who live fairly comfortably tend to go along with this spin in order to avoid the bother of dissent. That’s maybe unfair. But we all know what ‘collateral damage,’ for example, refers to. We know about black sites, about corruption. But most often it takes televised or video evidence of horrific injustice to make us speak out. At least until our attention is successfully deflected. I’m not as cynical as this sounds. I do harbour hope we are more informed as a public and less inclined to tolerate injustice than we once were.
Could you tell us a bit more about the shift to Homer in the fourth stanza?
The Iliad is a popular reference for scholars of warfare, and a deep well for quotations dramatising the horror and honour of combat, the fame it brings to some, the anonymous oblivion it has in store for most, for its enthusiastic descriptions of slaughter, fraternity, and hardware. I’d remembered an essay by Simone Weil, which begins: ‘The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. . . . In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.’ As has been often discussed, the Iliad is also a poem of Achilles’ rage, and Weil’s essay suggested for me how – in the figure of the mercenary, but not exclusively – the human spirit is deformed by recontextualising anger within an inhuman military model that is pathologically euphemistic, that denies chaos and feeling by erecting an operational facade of discipline and control, and whose behavioural code is largely a fiction. In an excellent article published in the Guardian in 2010, Charlotte Higgins (who also quotes Weil’s essay) notes that the Iliad is studied by students at West Point, the American military academy.
Despite numerous popular references to soldiers of fortune as ‘modern-day Achilles,’ I don’t think Achilles is, strictly speaking, a mercenary. Though in the Republic, Socrates charges him with being mercenary in his love of wealth, and he does lead his own army into Troy. When he returns to battle after Patroclus is killed, he kills on behalf of his rage. His rage orders him, and pays him. His rage is his greed. He has no allegiance to Menelaus, who has no control of him and thus cannot be blamed for his war crimes; but Menelaus’ cause does benefit by Achilles’ actions.
There are also a few things I couldn’t resist. The River Meles, which ran by Smyrna, Homer’s birthplace, was named for its ‘black water,’ and of course Blackwater is a private American military training and consulting company. A number of video war games feature ‘Achilles’ as a mercenary character. I found a website called Spear of Achilles advertising ‘mercenary products.’ You can rent out a ‘trained assault team’ for $3,000 a day. $5,000 under combat conditions. Apache helicopters and missile launchers are also available. I quite enjoy the writing stage in which connections, echoes, and cross-references proliferate and gel. I enjoy it a little too much, maybe.
The idea of war as a psychological necessity for some reminded me, at this stage of the poem, of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘A Motorbike’, which describes the ‘horrible privations’ experienced by disenfranchised young men, ex-soldiers, in the north of England following WW2. ‘The shrunk-back war ached in their testicles / And England dwindled to the size of a dog-track’. Perhaps this is a rather random, clod-hopping association! But I am interested in how gendered his poem is (as they often are) and how you’ve written a war poem which doesn’t go in that direction. In fact, the executive directness of your speaker, earlier on, suggests the voice in his ‘Hawk Roosting’. But you combine multiple registers – there’s also this cold, dispassionate, euphemistic language…
I’ve read Hughes, certainly, but haven’t been back to his books for a while. Others have mentioned him in the context of my poems too, and it always surprises me. There are interesting connections in these. I’ve really enjoyed my attention directed to them. ‘A Motorbike’ addresses an age-old tragedy, how cultures train soldiers to suppress many normal human instincts and then expect them to behave like normal humans when they return from conflict. Training is psychological as much as it is physical, and the adaptations allowing humans to survive war often aren’t that helpful to surviving peace. As Hughes writes, ‘Peace took them all prisoner.’ The poem is gendered, as you say, as are military or paramilitary organizations. Women who serve with them can attest to that. I have to say I love the lines you’ve quoted. They’re devastating, containing the tragedy of these lives, their generation, generations of men returned from wars, their families and communities. And I think they can be read as an indictment, or at least an indication, of how military culture (for one) and the experience of war (which involves returning from it) insist on a pathological interpretation of masculinity that is ruinous.
There are no testicles in my poem, but I wonder if its language would be read as gendered if I were a man. I honestly don’t know, and perhaps it’s pointless to speculate. I am interested in ‘cold, dispassionate, euphemistic language,’ though, always have been, even when it irritates, angers, or frustrates me. Maybe because it does. Its efforts to evade emotional investments, moral implications, contradictions, can call them forth, multiplying the crazy factor. To bomb a school or a wedding by mistake (?) with your drone is one thing. To then attempt to professionalise this in the context of war by calling it ‘collateral damage’ is another. An act of violence in itself. And then to hear this euphemism used in the context of corporate layoffs or a hockey game as a totally oblivious metaphor, is a horror. I have a very dark fascination with the absurdity of it, too, the brinksmanship of its malevolent or negligent disregard. It’s language that ends up undermining the intent to neutralize by foregrounding that intent, if we pay attention. Not that any of this is disguised, god knows. But as I say earlier, it also gives us an out we are too willing to take. We for whom wars happen elsewhere.
‘Hawk Roosting’ is a strange poem. I don’t know if I’d call the language dispassionate, but perhaps that’s because of the affect it instigates rather than its nature. The obverse of how a poem written in heavily passionate language can leave a reader cold and disinterested. One thing the poem does is expose the human shortcoming that experiences as barbarism or cruelty what is simply nature, which entertains ‘no falsifying dream’; but to write the hawk in such first-person human terms, complete with falsifying dreams, enacts this very shortcoming:
I like it. The effect is feeling tangled in the limitations of one’s brain, unable to escape the falsifying dream. I can’t help but read the act of writing here, too. The fiction of hovering above and revolving it all slowly, and the kind of fictions this in turn produces.
The speakers of neither Hughes’ poem nor mine are gendered. But the cool, dispassionate register seems largely considered a masculine one, associated with ownership, power, and the maintenance thereof. Even when it does not explicitly articulate violence, there is often violence implied in its careful refusal to disclose, its privilege to not disclose. But one can also detect a frantic desperation shimmering beneath its surface sometimes, the chaos and inadequacy it attempts to deny. My hope for the Mercenary passage is that a little shaky glint of this escapes.
And speaking of limitations – I do use multiple registers, have been known to use them, er, occasionally. But life takes place in multiple registers. Not that I always employ them successfully, mind you. It’s a challenge to get the balance right, the connotation. The combination has to express significance. You can’t just hose them around.
In that fifth stanza, you mention how it’s in the interest of private military operatives to keep war going – ‘a durable disorder’ is the evilly chewy phrase that sums this up – and then you move on to the language of video games. A sandbox, like Grand Theft Auto, is a game in which you can do pretty much whatever you want in an expansive world – but I understand the ‘sandbox’ was also how US soldiers referred to Iraq?
It is, yes. Nearly every stanza contains phrases used in – or adapted from – two or more contexts. Some things a person simply cannot make up, they’re too weird. ‘Durable disorder’ is a term coined by Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington DC and former contractor with DynCorp International. He is billed as ‘an expert on grand strategy and war.’ ‘Durable disorder’ has also been used in the field of economics, to characterise globalization, and in medicine to describe a brain lesion that satisfies a cause of mental illness.
I didn’t know the phrase ‘durable disorder’ was used in so many ways! This makes me wonder how you feel about providing notes to your poems. Both The Living Option, your Bloodaxe Selected, and your latest collection, The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out, published by FSG, have notes in the back. But they mostly acknowledge borrowings from more respectable sources – essays, cultural histories, novels, albums. Would the possibly sinister proliferation of ‘durable disorder’ and its like be something you wouldn’t point up, so much as let the reader discover for themselves? Perhaps your ideal reader is already aware of such weird doublings, or quick to Google transplanted phrases highlighted as strange.
The only reason I’d provide a note for ‘durable disorder’ is to point out that it was coined by someone named McFate. It’s nearly in the same category as a verb phrase like ‘call audibles,’ which I believe originated in American football, but appears in writing on mercenary/military activity, too, and I’ve heard and read it in less professional contexts. It’s an expression now. As is ‘plausible deniability,’ which is everywhere these days.
Your verse occasionally suggests something vaguely threatening about contemporary technology – ‘A Good Hotel in Rotterdam’, for example, describes a ‘TripAdvisor / review form loaded on your iPad like a gun to the head / of the good hotel’. There seems to be a point here, as in this poem, about technology and individual power.
There’s something more than vaguely threatening about everything, I think. Certainly everything we make. It’s the old lesson of the pharmakon, but radicalized and outpacing its absurdity. Someone can 3-D print a gun at home and use it to shoot your ear off, but then you can go home and 3-D print yourself a new one. Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s also very nearly true, if it isn’t already. If, in the middle ages, an inn was deplorable, people might tell a few others not to stay there, and over time business might suffer. Though likely the medieval traveller didn’t have much of a choice. A few bad online reviews and a bedbug report can close a hotel now in a year, whether the reports are real or not. Whereas others might question the judgment or temperament of the medieval traveller, suspect he or she of being particularly fussy or having an axe to grind, we tend to trust, or at least pay attention to, online reviews by strangers despite knowing some are faked or malicious, because better safe than sorry. An individual has always been able to damage a stranger’s reputation from afar, via rumour, the written word, or whatever. With the internet, the capacity is magnified in every sense, though human nature remains pretty much the same, for good and for ill. Technology is just an extension of our will.
And yes, I was also thinking about class, privilege, and luck in that poem, the privilege of choice. We don’t think about power, leisure, choice, or safety so much when we have a certain degree of it. Not everyone has access to technology. ‘Money isn’t everything’ is only true for people who have it. The poem’s speaker is lolling about watching football and wasting time with an iPad in a historic hotel in a city technology had flattened in the war. The speaker is an English speaker, as well, part of a colonising language community. The poem doesn’t intend to demonstrate simply that people are oblivious, though there is that. It’s also about adaptability. Again, for good or ill.
Zooming out slightly, what do you think of the interaction between contemporary verse and technology – social media – the publication of verse online (as in this very magazine); the encouragement to poets (often from their peers, sometimes from their editors) to curate an online profile, to blog and tweet?
The publication of poetry and essays online is great. There are a number of excellent online journals and forums. I come from a fairly remote rural area in Saskatchewan, and it’s important that people outside urban centres have access to diverse work. It’s also important to subscribe to print journals, if possible. Not a matter of one or the other, obviously. But without online examples of the work published in print journals, and links to publications one might not otherwise be aware of, it can be tough to know what to subscribe to if the nearest library is an hour’s drive away and of limited resources, and the nearest bookstore is likewise an hour, and crap. I had no idea literary journals existed until I went to university in my mid-20s.
I don’t have any social media accounts, or a website. Though someone is threatening to make me one. We’ll see. But it isn’t that I think disparagingly about these things. I recognize their value to conversation, their potential for social justice initiatives, and there are people using these platforms for good. I’m not personally inclined to engage with their promotional or publicity aspects – though again, I don’t think doing so is a bad thing, it’s a valuable tool – and I haven’t really encountered any pressure from my publishers to join. It’s more expected of novelists, I gather, because the financial stakes are higher. At the end of the day, I’m just not a particularly social animal, so social media would be wasted on me. It also takes me a very long time to write anything. I’d spend an afternoon on one tweet. It’s okay to be a private person if you need to be one. There isn’t any one proper or preferred way to be a poet, to engage with your communities. We do need to consider where best to devote our energies toward positive, helpful work that contributes to the health of our communities, but there are a number of avenues.
The penultimate stanza returns us to a specific historical moment.
Yes, the early medieval period when the Picts occupied the area around the Firth of Forth, and wars for territory were ongoing. Strategic alliances were made and broken often, and soldiers of fortune were common. Naturally, it was in each group’s interest to portray the others as barbarians.
The last stanza returns to ‘the game’ – now American football, as you say, with its ‘audibles’, which is where the quarterback intervenes to change the play. I wonder if you could talk a little about the tone of the ending. One thing that occurs to me is that American sports has a way of becoming the language in which absolutely everything is discussed. It provides metaphors for war, for business – almost like the baseline of reality…
I did want a somewhat sinister tone to linger. Mercenaries capitalize on conflict. Profit and personal agendas are the priority, and temptations to abuse power toward those ends are likely rampant. There’s menace in the capacity to change the plan on the fly. Given the implications, and the evils and horrors of military conflict generally, language as neutral and euphemistically flippant as is often used in these contexts is especially chilling. Much of this could be said about corporate culture, too. That the speaker uses a sport reference to talk about war also calls to mind how war references are used to talk about sport, and the deadly seriousness attributed to games.
I’m a fan of sport, though not of American football. I watch far too many sports already. It can be great fun, and the performances thrilling and beautiful. But some aspects of the professional industry and its cultures are disgusting. And I’m just talking about the fans. In all seriousness, though, we who consume a system’s products and ideologies are necessary to its survival. But I don’t intend, nor am I interested in, making poems into little lessons. There’s nothing in any of this people don’t already know, and anyway to write poems about things isn’t exactly doing something about them. In part, it’s that some of the demented and persistent aspects of human behaviour are among my preoccupations, and it’s a puzzle and a challenge to attempt to write through them with some quality of aesthetic verve. Perhaps it’s kind of mercenary in itself to use war, for example, as a platform for these puzzlings-out. This passage is an excerpt from a larger work, though, and I hope it will inflect and be inflected by the writing around it, and speak a bit differently in concert.
is the term preferred
by a growing industry
of private actors who,
at the sharp end of conflict,
aren’t kidding ourselves
about the economy. Money
is a country I can take with me.
I walk through the battlefield
as through my home town,
fully realized, valued
for my talents. In this territory
also known as Fuck You.
Your home town
is now my home town.
with persistent characteristics
and inventory, we offer
the plausible deniability
Achilles did for Agamemnon
to whom our Ethelfrid
might be compared
were he not so wholly ignorant.
Homer, in Smyrna, blackwater
of the Meles flowing
through him. He knew
some individuals are born
in combat, and others ruined,
hysterical with belief in meaning
as a thing outside them
they can’t find. All of us saved,
nonetheless, from poverty,
dishonour, boredom, irrelevance
A durable disorder
is in our best interest to sustain.
In the game world’s vast
buildings and societies
are eventually restored.
These abstract northern
wastes are even more so
when you’re in them, fighting
alongside those you’ve fought
against. The Picts,
fortunately, in their nudity
and tattoos, their language
of thorns and mud and bullshit,
Loyalty to a paycheque
is purer than loyalty
to a man, or god, and more flexible.
Non-linear, and mission based.
If the plan does not fit
the game you see,
you can call a few audibles
and change it.
First Published by Prac Crit.