David Sergeant is finishing work on his second collection of poetry. He shared the manuscript with me when I was given the good task of choosing a single unpublished poem to discuss with him on behalf of Prac Crit. The choice was both easy and difficult to make; easy because ‘Fox and Revolt’ stands out for me as a stunning example of how Sergeant is a poet in command of ‘voice’; difficult because the new MS is full of any number of excellent poems I might have chosen (read some of his new work in recent or forthcoming issues of Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland, and The Warwick Review).
David’s first book, Talk Like Galileo (Shearsman 2010) showed him to be one of Britain’s new generation of writers who had a penchant for comic moments – whimsical word-play, narrative surprise – but who was also willing to venture into the territory of sincere emotional engagement. That still stands, and yet his new work has taken this motive to a new level; one where the voice has been honed to even more purposefully make us aware that underneath the inventiveness this is a poetry of great depth and concern. Poems are laugh-out-loud funny, but also think-in-silence stimulating for their literary allusiveness, their historical savvy.
When Sergeant isn’t writing poetry: he is Lecturer of post-1850 literature in Plymouth University’s English and Creative Writing Department. Expertise of the past 165 years may be something most academics balk at, but Sergeant’s capacious range can be seen in his scholarly writing about Robert Burns (into the 18th Century!), Rudyard Kipling, Ted Hughes, and Doris Lessing. If these writers have some bearing on Sergeant’s investment in, for instance, the natural world, it’s more telling to think of his aesthetic as belonging to that diverse vein of writers for whom language is a way into the imagination: from Paul Muldoon to James Tate; from Luke Kennard to Jack Underwood and Emily Berry, to name three of his own generation.
I’ve the good fortune to work in the office next door to David, in the only remaining Georgian terrace block on the Plymouth University city-centre campus. This interview took place between teaching and administrative duties – a respite for good conversation in the crazy middle of term. It validates Sergeant as a writer who has ‘thought long and deeply’ as the Romantics instructed – but it also shows him to be trusting of the fact that the process of making poetry often relies on what one doesn’t know. It’s a combination that makes for some truly memorable work.
‘Fox and Revolt’ is unique in the new collection you’re working on for being the only anthropomorphic poem – but it’s also perhaps representative of a move away from the real self, into the field of hyper-persona. Could you say something about your intentions with voice here?
It never occurred to me that this is the only anthropomorphic poem in the collection! I wonder, even, if it’s the only one I’ve ever written? But I was conscious of trying to experiment with the telling of stories through poetry: finding that storyteller’s voice and seeing what happens when you feed it through the circuit that is a poem. And so I found myself with a seeming license to commit certain flagrant breaches of narrative decorum, which might not be so easily tolerated in other forms. Perhaps it has something to do with the metaphoric nature of poetry? The license to yoke together different planes very directly and simply, but in a way that could set up a resonance through the poem, which then plays out through the course of the plot, the narrative, such as it is.
Storytelling is one of the major concerns in the poem and in the final section, the fox-narrator questions, ‘What stories did it find in my head … And what fabulous realms of cause and effect / did such telling produce’? So what effect do you want your storytelling to have?
I think it’s not so much effect in terms of something that’s come out of a cause, but of cause and effect: the two held side by side, at once. Thinking back, the first poem in my first collection was about cause and effect as well, though played out in a more condensed and lyric way, maybe. But ‘fabulous realms of cause and effect’ came out of that process by which narrative can develop its own logic, or perhaps a sort of anarchic double to logic. I suppose it’s storytelling as fabulism or romance, where there’s what we call a poetic logic to events that do not seem otherwise explicable. Hence you have leaps and resolutions and conversions that make no accountable sense, that don’t add up mathematically or logically. But nevertheless we intuit them as having a sort of elusive harmony. So at this point in the poem there is something going on with the fox, who is a product of the poem, but who is now reading the poem through the medium of the poet. So there’s a kind of circularity there, to the cause and effect.
I think that’s clear, isn’t it, in the first line: so there’s the cause, ‘after the revolt had failed’, and then there’s the effect, ‘and I’d turned into a fox.’ But I’m just wondering if you could talk a little more about that opening. Do you have a particular revolution in mind here? Is this something you’ve abstracted from something concrete in your head?
That’s a useful way of phrasing it given the answer, a suggestive way. At the risk of being insufferably Romantic – as opposed to sufferably Romantic, which is the edge I need to tread here, if that’s possible! – it comes out of a dream in which I did, indeed, seem to be a fox, in the way you can be in dreams, whilst also not being a fox.
And woke in a church, knowing that I’d just been involved in some kind of conspiracy or revolution, which had failed and so I was now a fugitive. And I think – I mean, it catches up all manner of things. I’ve written on Ted Hughes before but I don’t think it’s a Hughesian fox. But I think, possibly, in the news at the time, there was a fox or foxes that had bitten a baby?
And I think maybe that was swimming around, somewhere.
This is interesting because you’re anticipating my questions. My next has to do with the fact that a fox reappears in several poems in your new collection – in lines such as ‘punky as a fox cub’, or ‘helpless as a fox without limbs’. And so the question: what about the fox interests you? If it’s not a Hughesian fox is it another’s? A literary figure that you draw from other writers?
I don’t know; I don’t know. Perhaps there’s something about it as an animal, an animal figure. I remember moments growing up, of going for a walk in broad daylight and seeing foxes: and the strangeness of that, the feeling that that moment was special. But then, I also suppose that now I might see that differently – as that feeling having been conditioned by our culture, so, we value moments like that as a sort of indulgence which we’ve bought, so as to excuse us from our wider sins. But then, from another perspective, maybe there’s something here about that dread word liminality – which should really have a moratorium on it for a few years. But a fox is a creature that’s both close and apart, country and urban, and is beautiful, it’s a beautiful creature.
The fox here, of course, is the means to some sort of salvation for the boy who is ill. By the end of the poem, the fox drags in the sheep, to keep this boy warm, to ease his chill. When the mother discovers the fox with the boy in the morning – you don’t actually go so far as to say what happens to this fox – but we’re thinking he’s doomed. I’m wondering if you have a sense of that? You’ve left the story on pause, on that ‘moment’s edge // of seeing, waiting to know / if she knew / what no-one could expect.’ Do you want the reader to think this fox has saved this child only, Christ-like, to then be killed himself? Or is the reader expected to simply revel in the tensions that you’ve managed to weave throughout?
I think I wanted it to end at this stage where it dares from the reader an act of belief and of empathy – both of which are also intrinsic to the act of hearing a story. But you have to give yourself over to it, commit to the world that is being created, which at this stage also requires a mercy and a grace in the reader, and in the mother. Where you hope that the mother will see ‘what no-one could expect’, which is partly what the story has done to you already, I mean, you cannot expect or credit someone who seems to have turned into a fox, after some un-named revolt in some weirdly war-torn but contemporary England. And linked to this, the way the poem works the tenses slightly strangely through that final section: where you’re in a kind of past perfect, that is also looking to the future, to see what has already occurred in the past. So there’s this weird baffling of narrative time, in a poem which started like a chronicle, a record.
That’s very effective I think. But just sticking with that ending, there’s an epistemological pause, where knowledge is arrested or at least delayed. So, when you say, ‘And even then I knew, as my body started shivering / what even the fox in me knew / had already begun’. And then there’s that little bit at the end, the last tercet: ‘Of seeing, waiting to know / if she knew / what no-one could expect’. So I’m remembering all that poetry which at one point in our history was very concerned with imparting knowledge; but at the same time, this poem is, I think, very much walking a line beside mystery and wonder and the idea of celebrating that – the unknown. Can you talk about your own relationship to knowledge and poetry? Is this poem representative of that?
That’s a really nice lever into the fit of the poem. I think I’d leap it back to what I said before about crediting – and I suppose that’s a very Heaneysque word – but of crediting a poem, or in this case the fabulous, crediting a story and the fact it can change you, but that will not be in any paraphrasable way. I suppose it’s a useful starting definition for any art form, the non-paraphrasable, but with a poem in particular – well, what is known at the end here? What comes to knowledge or doesn’t? As being saturate within the poem, within each agent in the poem, within the reader, within the poet, ’cause it’s very much a poet-voice devolving itself into these narrative agents, I think.
So that sense of knowledge as something enacted, lived out, embodied in the moment of reading or telling or writing? That makes sense, it works very well. Let’s just follow up on that, that sense of a poet’s voice. The poem is definitely interested in anecdote as a way forward with narration. Is the personal anecdote being used to achieve an Eliotic impersonality here, maybe as a catalyst to the imagination or even as a way forward in terms of tradition? You’ve begun to say a little bit about certain poets and the tradition and the shadows they cast. I’m thinking of Hughes and I’m thinking of Heaney, are you in tradition with them?
I think I would see, not just this poem, but any poem I write, as ideally impersonal. Even the most biographic poem – say, I’ve written some elegiac poems in the last couple of years, and even in those a major part of my thinking through what it is to write an elegy was how it must achieve a kind of impersonality to be of any use or validity. But I guess that’s also a fairly traditional stance: the devolving of responsibility or identity into the realm of writing. As for the Eliot-like persona, it didn’t occur to me to think of Eliot.
You mentioned that you’ve written some elegies in recent years – and I know this poem is part of a new collection in progress. So I’m going to ask about this poem’s contribution to that collection; and I’m going to lead you a little bit, because – as with the fox poem here, the politics of life (or rather death) runs as an undercurrent throughout this new collection. I’m thinking here really about that elegiac strain, the idea of mourning. And the counter balance of salvation. In another poem, you extend a line from a Keith Douglas poem, ‘How easy it is to make a ghost’. You continue: ‘to be haunted / and what a remarkable world we live in’. Which seems a lovely bit of marvelling – a celebration of life as much as it’s recognising that one has to mourn.
Well the haunted phrase I added is really unnecessary to the Douglas, I think, but hopefully it works out in the poem I’ve written. But the politics of death, and life in the collection … I think I was aware as it began to come together – especially the section in which I envisage ‘Fox and Revolt’ taking part, along with that other poem you’ve quoted from – but there’s an abruptness in them, and the abruptness of death is bound up with that. In ‘Fox and Revolt’ you have the abruptness of the failure at the start, that has resulted in the most brutal of deaths, and in a visceral violation of the dead; and this paralleled by another killing carried out it seems by our own fox-narrator, though it happens again without our seeing, as though there’s this suppressed, contingent realm of death adjacent to the lines we actually get. And then in terms of the counter balance you mention, you have this penance the fox-poet poet-fox hybrid seems to work out through the course of the poem, which – I don’t know, I hadn’t actually thought it through in this way – but I suppose in some ways it could be the opposite of an armed insurrection, the taking upon one’s self of another life: be that the sick baby or the life not-life of being a fox. And yeah, now you mention it, I can think of other poems in which – in which life flickers, I guess. But doesn’t necessarily go out.
I’ll change track a little bit now and ask you about the urban environment – there’s the church at the beginning of the poem, and then there’s the terraced houses later. And the fox, as you say, is this – well, you’ve used the word liminal, so I’ll use it as well – the fox exists in the wild but he’s also a creature that can exist in urban settings. So what’s this poem’s relationship to nature poetry?
I hadn’t thought of this as a nature poem – or as a poem that is not a nature poem. Well, I guess in general, though, I’m kind of sick of nature poetry. [laughter]. In that I’ve just read too many poems – I still read too many poems – in which someone is pleasantly removed into a delectably recognisable Edward Thomasonian landscape – as much as I like Edward Thomas, though maybe for different reasons. But where it comes to ‘nature’ in this collection, perhaps it enters obliquely or incidentally, as a landscape that is travelled through, that is inhabited, that is not dwelt upon abstractly – in every sense of that phrasing. Whereas in my first collection I suspect there was more nature poetry, or, at least, poems featuring nature. Having said that, I thought recently about starting to think through the writing of nature in a different way. So who knows, maybe I’ll have to discount this in, well, two days or two years!
We end up, of course, in the domestic environment, with the fox as an interloper in that environment. And so I’m going to ask about the poem as a place that can contemplate domesticity. What’s your interest in using it here? What does it offer you?
You know, I’ve never thought through the movement of the poem in these ways or these terms. It’s a de-familiarising experience, walking back through it with these shoes on! I guess if I was, maybe – I don’t know – reading the poem in a clinical way, as in, it’s got a ten minute appointment in my poetry reading window, then I’d point out the starting in a church, the spiralling out to the countryside and then winding back into the hearth, to the centre of the household. But I’m not convincing myself, that this is what charges the movement…
It’s curious: the fox slinks off through the cow parsley, electric with fear, wakes up in a field, finds shelter in a needle-strewn, nappy-strewn lane behind a row of terraced houses in order to bring both death and life to the domestic realm: ‘I dragged / the murdered sheep in through the darkened house’. And that’s where we’re left: we’re left in the home. And place is, I think, something that seems to get real investment in your work. You seem to be a poet that is interested in putting voices in places. And the place that you’ve chosen to go with this one is inviting for the reader because it’s a realm that we recognise – and yet at the same time it’s a sensational realm and that’s what’s fabulous about it, literally that, as you referred to before, the fabulous.
Well, there’s resonances through the different sections, it’s like a circus hall of mirrors, that bounce you back and then back again between different stages, different registers and planes of meaning, metaphor, metonymy. So if you’re looking at the household that is the poem, as well as the household in the poem, then the fox slinks away into the fields, where it’s ‘slunk’ off through the cow parsley in the first section. And then with this woman’s face being animated by hatred, I think I was conscious of that rechanneling the hatred you’ve glimpsed obliquely in the first section, with the people who were executed so brutally. And presumably she’s listening to the kind of accounts which would stimulate a similar kind of hate in her, within her kitchen. And so there’s the different spaces you mention, but maybe in a different way – with the poem as a set of Chinese dolls, that fit into each other and mirror each other’s shape, even though they’re different spaces and occupy different planes and scales. I suppose mythic narrative does that as well, doesn’t it, in that it shadows the everyday, the quotidian, it kind of veils it. Or maybe sits on it like a silk dressing gown, you know, moving as it moves.
You’ve mentioned metaphor/metonymy and so I’m going to mention similes. You’ve got some striking ones here, really wonderful. The first one in the first stanza, ‘I left the church where we had sheltered / knowing that my co-conspirators / were even then being laid out under hedges / in all likelihood, / like rolled up carpets after a party’. And then in the second section, ‘And when I next woke up it was in a field / with the sheep laid out beside me, / neat little oblong face, / like a building block thrown aside’. And then in the third section, ‘And later that night she wept / into the phone talking of doctors, / of lungs spread wide, like cobwebs, fungal walls / heavy with droplets’. And I’m wondering about that move to simile, as well as metaphor/metonymy in this poem.
I think it was, again, that sense of treading edges from the beginning, of what you can do as a poet and get away with. Which sounds frivolous – not necessarily a bad thing! – but with the end of the poem also daring from you, hopefully, a more meaningful leap, or yoking, of the kind simile offers to you, and which you’ve had to endorse throughout the poem if you’re to carry on listening to it. So I think there was a sense of these similes pushing the envelope, pushing you to yoke together things in a way you wouldn’t normally concede to. That’s something I was interested in throughout the narrative poems in the new collection. How it’s a bit like watching a very good psychological conjurer – I’m thinking of Derren Brown of course! Basically, you know, taking the watch off someone while talking to their face. And there’s something about the balancing of action and compulsion that allows him to do what seems impossible. And so the poem’s voice acting something like that, taking your watch off to hold it up to your face, even as they talk to you as normal.
When you’re writing a poem like this: are you thinking about other poetries? Other contemporary poets?
Never consciously, but – well, surely every poet must be, it’s one of the oldest clichés in the book, isn’t it, you’re always writing out of a tradition, a body of other work. But it’s a fascinating process to think about – how it must work slightly differently for each poet. There’s a moment for me when you can kind of sense the imminence of another poem and you can choose to either – like a kid playing tag – reach out and touch it and see what would happen because of that. Or let it go by, or even grab it and haul it along with you for a while. Each of those acts of play will do different things.
I’ve been interested for a while now in the ending of one of Ted Hughes’ Moortown poems – supposedly it was written out after a day’s work, in one go, without reflection – and it ends with a borrowing or adaptation from Robert Frost. And in his notes to the poems, which he wrote later, Hughes says something about how the line of Frost strayed into his head and so he made ‘a quick bow around that, to tie the piece up’. And there’s something about the way he told that relation, as if the other poem had an agency of its own, an independent life, but was still offering itself, still coming close, as if drawn – and then the double meaning of ‘bow’: it’s the bow on a present, of course, which he’s received and is now rewrapping, to pass on again – but I also hear in it the performer’s bow, only now he’s in a kind of double act with the other poem.
And for other writers reading this, can you talk to us a little bit about the process that you went through writing this? Is this a poem that’s done in one go or 100 drafts over six years?
Well, it differs. With a poem like this I tend to write the first drafts quickly, where it depends on riding a momentum or energy which I don’t think I could manage consciously. And then I’ll reach a stage where there’s seemingly endless tinkering. So maybe an initial quarrying of the word block, and then a kind of fast – cartoonishly blurred – initial sculpting. And then the final chiselling and polishing … But it often gets harder as you go – so it’s not unusual for a poem to have its first lines, say, or even its first half, come out right first time, and then for the rest of it to take months, before you work out what the start actually wanted you to do.
The poem feels to me filmic, in terms of its narrative movement and momentum: I think there’s some lovely examples of prolepsis, ‘And when I next woke up I was in a field ….’, ‘and later that night I found shelter ….’, ‘and later that night she wept …’. And so I’m wondering about the movement and the will to advance the story in such a way, with these great leaps, which are imaginative leaps. Maybe it’s the cause and effect once again?
Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned film; I think I’ve had film and TV in my head for a couple of years. And who can’t, who hasn’t, but I’ve been more conscious of it than before. So there’s even another poem in the collection which is about a Western, the filming of a Western, of sorts. But I was aware, at some level, of the idea of jump cuts, montage, in these narrative poems in particular. I’ve also been writing fictional prose a lot in the past couple of years, and so I’ve been very aware of how you transition narrative, and of what you can do even in the most seemingly straightforward of narrations. How the smallest jump, you know – whether you miss someone going through the door, whether you just place them suddenly on the other side – how that can impact on the space of meaning as it unfolds in the narrative.
Hilary Mantel, I haven’t heard this said about her, but she’d be an interesting one to think about in relation to this – she strikes me as an extremely filmic novelist. I wonder if that’s not one of the reasons her writing in the Tudor novels has been so well received, and so frequently adapted into other media.
After the revolt had failed and I’d turned into a fox
I left the church where we had sheltered
knowing that my co-conspirators
were even then being laid out under hedges
in all likelihood,
like rolled-up carpets after a party,
some with their balls stuffed in their mouths,
and though I’d heard no shots I slunk off through the cow-parsley
electric with fear, mist was everywhere
on tombstones and bryony
as though hung up to dry, but too heavy, just ready
And when I next woke up it was in a field
with a sheep laid out beside me,
neat little oblong face
like a building-block thrown aside
and its throat ripped out beside me, insides
of a purse
rummaged on their doorstep by a drunk
and I thought: can a fox
and swallowed, as blood
became a black
rainbow caught in my throat…
And later that night I found shelter
in a needle-strewn, nappy-strewn lane
behind a row of terraced houses
heading north: open moorland waited.
And from a belt of shadows I watched
as a mother in her ruined kitchen window
listened to news on the radio and her baby
crying and crying inside: her face
was a faraway lake
unfathomed and turquoise, though frazzled
by currents of hate
being force-fed through its surface.
And later that night she wept
into the phone, talking of doctors,
of lungs spread wide like cobwebs, fungal walls
heavy with droplets, of having
no shelter, no blankets, having no warmth.
And as I slunk away into the fields
I knew something terrible was going to happen…
What stories did it find inside my head,
little foxlet, fox mind, fox paws?
And what fabulous realms of cause and effect
did such telling produce? As I dragged
the murdered sheep in through the darkened house
and pushed its raggy, bone-white fleece
up against the baby’s shivering body
and lay down myself.
I felt the moisture blink
and the white fleece drink
the whole room dry.
And even then I knew, as my body started shivering,
what even the fox in me knew
had already begun:
of how a mother came down in the morning,
and found our bodies laid there, cheek to cheek:
and how the story paused, on that moment’s edge
of seeing, waiting to know
if she knew
what no-one could expect.
First Published by Prac Crit.