Interview with Maggie Butt on ‘Degrees of Twilight’


Poet Maggie Butt talks about writing today, her style, and the themes that inform her stunning new poetry collection Degrees of Twilight. The poems in Maggie’s fifth collection were written over an eight year period, and make the passage of time tangible with astounding clarity and poise. Maggie uses history, memory, work and travel as lenses to examine the inevitable pains and sharp pleasures at the heart of our transient lives.

What’s the theme of this book? Why is it called Degrees of Twilight?

The poems in this book were written over an 8-year period since the publication of Lipstick in 2007, and are all the poems which didn’t fit into any of the three themed collections which have been published in the intervening years.  Many of these poems are personal, and though they weren’t written with an overarching theme in mind, when I began to edit them for the collection, I could see clearly the big themes of love and loss, and also a preoccupation with time. So the title comes from a poem which slows down and examines the three distinct divisions of a fleeting moment of every day – twilight.

It always surprises me that there aren’t more poems about work, when we spend so much of our lives doing it.

I hope there’s also humour and joy in the book.

How would you describe your style?

I believe passionately that language exists to communicate, and I pare down and pare down to try to achieve clarity. I think some of our strongest poems are also our most apparently simple – though let me tell you simplicity is not easy to achieve. I was once a film-maker and I also think there’s a strong visual element in most of the poems.

I use a wide range of form. Architects say ‘form follows function’ – I suppose for poets that translates into ‘form enhances meaning’.  The majority of the poems are ‘free verse’ which means I’ve invented a form for them, but there’s also metre and rhyme. The global warming poem ‘Meltwater’ employs the cadences of the King James Bible to issue an old-testament type warning; Hringvegur Snow uses an Anglo Saxon alliterative form to describe a treacherous car journey in Iceland; ‘Letting Go’ had to be a sonnet because the argument of it needed to take a turn at just the right point – although it’s neither a formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet.  I’d been aware of the Pantoum for a long time, and when the idea for ‘Time Travellers’ came to me, the repeating, circular form seemed perfect to convey the sense of being surrounded by family photographs, slipping backwards and forwards in time – even if the maths of writing it was challenging! ‘Risk Assessment’ is in the medieval French form of the Triolet, which underscored the theme of the poem, written at the time of the banking crash, that our modern methods of predicting the future are no more reliable than those of the middle-ages. There are also poems like ‘Cherries’ and ‘Wish’ where an almost nursery-rhyme form chimes with the theme of the poem.

What’s the writing process?

I also write fiction and journalism and academic articles, and I have to say that poetry remains the most mysterious. It’s hard to say why a particular idea, or something you see or hear, starts the process of alchemy which turns it into words, when we are bombarded with ‘input’ all day and most of it never becomes a poem.  For example, with Degrees of Twilight, I was driving to work and heard someone talk on Radio 4 about civil, nautical and astronomical twilight, when the sun is 6, 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. I stopped the car and wrote it down, and before I’d driven another half mile, had to stop again and write down more, as the ideas started to coalesce into particular strings of words.

That’s what normally happens with me, ideas start to form, usually at inconvenient times, in the bath, or on a walk, or driving, or falling asleep, and have to be written down at once. Sometimes then it’s like a trap door opening, and the words come rushing out.  And sometimes you feel very pleased with that first draft, but a few days later you see it needs an awful lot of work. I sometimes think of this inspiration as like finding a treasure washed up on the beach, but you have to spend a lot of time scraping off barnacles and polishing it.  Sometimes though I might have one line for a long time – even years, before the rest of the poem starts to grow around it. From the scrap of paper or the notes on my phone which captured the initial idea, it goes into a long-hand notebook, then onto the computer. Then after several drafts on the computer to my Stanza group for editing suggestions, and finally settles into a form I can stop tinkering with. Some poems are written in both free verse and metrical versions.  There are six, quite different, versions of the sonnet ‘Blue Moon.’ I’ve only ever written one poem which was almost a ‘donné’ which came to me and didn’t have to be much edited – and that’s the last poem in the book, ‘Wish.’ I only had to play with some of the rhymes and add the last two lines. I hope that happens again one day!

Who is this book for?

I want poetry to be enjoyed by everyone, not something which is accessible to the few who know how to deconstruct it.  It’s the most perfect kind of literature for our ‘sound bite’ age. That’s why I perform in festivals and schools, why I’ve been pleased for my poems to be turned into choreography and a mobile phone app, and why I’m thrilled that this book is being published by the London Magazine, which reaches an audience beyond other poets, and in a kindle as well as paper edition, so people can read it on their phones, on the tube, on the beach. I hope they find something which speaks to them, in the way only poetry can.

Degrees of Twilight will be available on 7th July from The London Magazine.

By Tara Flynn