Jane Draycott on sound poetry,
translation and poetic process
It’s dark in here and forest green: Britannica, sixteen oak trees in a London living room,
the little girl, my mother, in the bookcase glass.
Italy, Ithaca, Izmail, Japan, each page a mainsail,
turning, HMS Discovery – none of the rivers of southern Italy is of any great importance.
– Jane Draycott, ‘Italy to Lord’
British poet Jane Draycott is interested in sound poetry and collaboration. Her translation of the Middle English poem Pearl won the Stephen Spender Prize, and has recently been released in audiobook format by Carcanet. A Carcanet poet, her collections include The Occupant, Over, The Night Tree, and Prince Rupert’s Drop, among others.
Draycott has previously been nominated for both the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Her poem ‘In the bones of the disused gasometer’ was a 2019 TLS Mick Imlah Prizewinner. She teaches on creative writing programmes at Oxford University and the University of Lancaster.
In your poem, ‘Italy to Lord’, you present your mother as ‘the little girl (…) in the bookshelf glass’. The reader is compelled to feel that this is, in some intuitive sense, also you. What were your beginnings in poetry like?
That’s interesting, that association you find in the mother figure – my mother and my own sense of self as a contained reflection in her reflection in the glass. Perhaps there is a connection between the young me who grew up with those books, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and my eventually writing.
My writing in its early stages was often about my mother, yes, about the things that were happening to her and to my brother, who both had health problems and suffered in all kinds of ways that weren’t talked about very openly.
Writing poetry began as a way of simply thinking about the things that weren’t spoken of, where I explored my closeness to them in ways that I couldn’t in conversation with them, or in conversation among the three of us (my father had died when I was younger). So that’s a very astute connection you make – I’m trying to imagine my mother’s experience, her pre-war world, and what the world has become since, through my connection with those books in that bookcase.
I suppose talking about mental illness and its link with physical illness is a relatively a new thing in today’s world. It might be difficult for a poet of my generation to imagine the scenario that you have described, yet for so much of history perhaps poetry meant something else – a different sort of confession?
Yes, I think it’s a place for a writer to work out feelings and ideas that all spring simultaneously. That is, what you know and what you feel – which is something that you don’t understand necessarily. And in relation to emotions or situations amongst people you are close to, it’s a way of talking to yourself about it. It’s also a way of talking to them without them ever hearing it.
That’s understandable. And universal, I think.
And without it even being a conscious desire for any of that achievement at all. I always read poetry, and interestingly I realise that the first major publication that accepted a poem of mine was in fact The London Magazine. It must have been in the 1990s. Alan Ross, the magazine’s legendary editor then, used to send responses on old postcards, within only a few days. He was quite extraordinary. So I was very lucky there. It was a poem about my brother and his illness and eventual death from AIDS, something which was barely talked about openly – absolutely pressing, urgent personally and for millions of people. And for society. That was the first poem that I was really pleased to have accepted.
You have an interest in sound poetry. Briefly, what is sound poetry?
Sound poetry is a term used almost deliberately without exact confines, I suppose! [Sound poetry is] to indicate composition for performance, or broadcast or podcast, impossible to deliver on the page – not just verbal sound, but rhythms of utterance and other sounds in the world around us, composed with rhythmic arrangement and musicality especially in mind.
Simon Armitage suggested that radio drama is compatible with poetry. What attracted you to ‘sound poetry’, and what do you think it can do to ‘add to the page’, so to speak?
Well, in a way, I’d say it’s the other way around. Poetry, which might find its notation in words on the page, is essentially a musical, acoustic, harmonic form. When I work in schools I try do without much written text, and have the students’ first encounter with poetry as simply sound, something they hear. It’s a much more direct reception of utterance and of voice, of narration.
That makes me think of folk music, often just integral poems put on a few simple chords.
It’s so closely connected with song, and with our sense of other rhythms in the world: heard rhythms, felt rhythms, those which we apprehend with our body, not just our ear. In the way that live music gets to you. I’ve always thought that. Before I wrote poetry, I wrote drama, bad drama, including for radio – in fact, verse drama.
Which is having a moment right now!
Yes. And not its first moment either. (Laughs.) But there is a great overlap between drama and poetics. Some of the best poems are composed with all kinds of dramatic dynamics in play – the way they move, turn, develop, reveal, discover, uncover, in a given short space. At one point – using early sound-editing software – I worked with the very fine poet Elizabeth James building poetic audio montages, just trial-and-error composing at the bedroom desk. We assembled fragments of scripted poetry with recordings made in places like the Wallace Collection and on a Wye Valley rock-climb for instance (which we put together in one piece called ‘Rock Music’), working with generous friends – the poet Robert Seatter, musician Geoff Pollitt and sound-composer Allan Jones, who contributed their voices and music and sound-art – but still fairly simply made pieces, broadcast on the BBC and LBC. I think we were aiming to fulfil the conviction that sound – not just verbal sound, but rhythms of utterance and other sounds in the world around us – can be used as elements in harmonic, dramatic composition. This isn’t new now, and it wasn’t new then. I think that’s what you’re aiming to do with your ear when you face the page.
This challenges my perception of you as the highly controlled poet. It’s impromptu to a degree, what you’re saying, whereas the written poem has an implicit degree of anonymity and artifice in comparison. Your poetry strikes the perfect balance (see Jane Draycott, ‘The Experiment‘), of keeping the strings taut and yielding control, from a linguistic point of view.
Are you a rigorous editor, rather than an impulsive, spontaneous poet? Would you be able to say what the process of a poem is like, from beginning to end?
Well, that’s a generous description, thank you. My process is something I’ve described once before as a kind of controlled explosion. I might have pages and pages of notes. Then in bringing those towards a first draft imaginatively I’m looking for the phrases and images which have filled a gap, a synapse that fires between two obvious things, which doesn’t need explaining. But I am also looking for things that fire harmonically together.
Anne Carson has said something like ‘edit ferociously and with joy’, and I think the joy lies in the way revision can be a very generative process at its best, taking it down only to what’s essential and what doesn’t fully explain itself. You find things quite often with your ear. Or sometimes because I misread my handwriting, a version that’s actually more exciting and kind of tangential, a moment that gives birth to something else that’s a little bit like it. Somehow that has to find its way into a continuous set of arcing phrases, continuously propulsive, generative, doesn’t stand still for very long. A little bit like something choreographed. Of course, you never achieve it. [Laughs.]
Evidently, you choose works to translate that speak to your own aesthetic sensibilities. By this point, you’ve written quite a few books: Are you preoccupied with ‘establishing an aesthetic’? Is ‘artistic vision’ something that develops on its own, or are you always working towards an ideal?
To answer the first part: definitely not. I think I’m absolutely resisting knowing what I’m doing. There is an admirable kind of poet who has a pioneering, high-wire-act of interest that drives them and drives how what they want to create might sound and look new on the page. But I’m not one of those wonderful kind of – the word ‘theorist’ comes to mind – I’m much more interested in the sheer pleasure of the act: using poetry to think and feel. That joy – and difficulty – only comes when I don’t know what I think, and I’m excited by some glimmering thought or connection, or feeling. So no, I would run a mile from knowing what my aesthetic is.
Artistic vision, that’s interesting. Vision seems all-important. That’s the physical pleasure: something happens within your body when you’re working with your mind’s eye, in the ways that you follow images, half-seen, that you want to chase down. I think you mostly see that vision reflected in other people’s work, a flicker of what you might recognize to be your own sense of things in fragmentary ways. That’s recognition not just as a reader, but as a writer: what you hoped for, the possibility for your own poetics.
I find it interesting that this should happen to you with an anonymous poem like Pearl, and one that has been so talked about – perhaps annoyingly for you.
Oh, no! Whenever people talk about Pearl, the happier I am. It’s a beautiful, rich poem, in anyone’s translation. I encountered Pearl long before I started writing poetry. I translated it as a student and I wrote about in my master’s dissertation, but I wasn’t writing poetry myself then. Although when I came to do a translation –
How did that happen?
A lot of my fellow-students then, didn’t like the poem: its formality, the heavy doctrinal passages in the middle phases of the poem. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I felt the poem was somehow charged for me was that, in a sort of inverse charge – my father had died only a few years before I first encountered it as an undergraduate – it’s a direct and very powerfully transformed expression of grief for any sensitive reader.
When I came back to it more recently I found my own student translation, written in pencil in the 70s, and had it on the table along with all the well-known scholarly translations – Tolkien among them. And there’s a note in my nineteen-year-old’s writing which says something like ‘this is the last time he sees her’ – like that Dantean moment where he looks and Virgil isn’t there anymore, he looks and the pearl maiden isn’t there anymore. When I re-read that note in my own young handwriting it was quite moving for me to see my own self there, as a separated daughter reading the poem.
Has your handwriting changed?
Oh yes, it’s chaotic now and was much more controlled. [Laughs.] Sloping violently backwards, then.
What does that mean?
I don’t know. It probably means I’m a coward or something. (Laughs.) Even before I thought about attempting this translation, I’d written a poem called ‘Matchless’, a one-hundred-line poem that floated on the lexical repetition within the echoing, complicated patterning in Pearl – very condensed, and just a distant reflection of the original, playing with the idea of girls lost in a city, and a father looking for his daughter there. I think I wrote that because my own two daughters were about to leave home… I wasn’t conscious of it at the time.
In a conversation about that poem, the wonderful Irish poet and scholar Bernard O’Donoghue, who’s been so very helpful and encouraging to me, asked if I’d ever thought of translating Pearl, so I thought I would try. But that was the first thing I had ever translated, and I discovered how much like writing a new poem of your own translation is. In the end you’re trying to find what the heart of the piece is for you. So you develop that same love affair with the thing you want it to be, know it could be if you got things right. Just as when you revise your own first drafts, you try and find the ‘poem within the poem’ that is the radioactive heart of its meaning for you.
I love that description.
Mm. I hadn’t understood this before, but starting on it turned out to be the same process of waiting until I heard it. Not in any mystical way, but possibly in the same way the fiction writer waits for the voice, the voice of the narration. So I waited a long time before writing the first four lines. I knew what it meant, I knew all the glosses on it, the famous translations of it that had been done by others, and I just had to wait for the arc of the phrasing, for the tone, for the dance it would do in terms of its music. And then one evening, I heard it.
As with translation, everyone is saying that poetry is having a moment right now – again, like you said of verse drama, definitely not its first moment. What would you say about its progression during the time that you have been writing, and where do you see it going?
I think what’s happening now is wonderful, and necessary. So many things are in play. I suppose the great thing is – coming back to the idea of poetry as something spoken, something heard – the rediscovery of the possibility and excitement of shared language which has been taken off the desk, off the bookshelf. It’s like song: it’s in our ears.
Obviously the internet has had a huge part to play in that, but also the strand of poetics created by and spoken by individuals with urgent stories and narratives to explore that haven’t previously had a wide audience. And translation plays a big part in this as well. Talented writers whose experiences are often emblematic of a wider experience – all of that is taking place. Rap has had a lot to do with that, and the emergence of so many stand-up venues, spoken word – Instagram poetry too.
The other very exciting thing is the exploration, by poets like the amazing Harry Man, of the part software might have to play in poetic composition. Or vice-versa. Globally, as audience and listeners, we’ve become very good at developing an intelligence for half-heard things: montage, jump cut, things that aren’t explained or things we only half-understand maybe because of our own limited experience. That’s very exciting too, and happening in all kinds of art, but especially in audio-visual art. More is demanded of the viewer, the film-watcher, the audio-listener.
In proportion with the spirit of the age.
Yes, I think so. And that is actually what poetry has always been about. About suggesting and not explaining. If I could make poetry without writing it down, I would. And the attempt to choreograph on the page, that is to release poems from the anchor of the left-hand margin, which a lot of people are working with, is related to that dynamic sense of movement. That there can be pattern and call and response in something that’s really quite unpredictable. That seems much more like a model of the way we think. And especially the way we live, most of us, in our rapidly changing world.
Interview by Andreea Scridon.
For more information, visit Carcanet’s website.
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