Interview with Fire River Guest Poet Ian Royce Chamberlain
August 2018 by Graeme Ryan
G: Ian, I’ve enjoyed your new collection ‘Vertigo and Beeswax’ very much, and am struck by the precision of your descriptions and the way so much is evoked so memorably. You mention your background in engineering and its links with poetry-writing. Were you always a poet? When did the poet’s eye and ear awake in you? Which events crystallised in you the sense that poetry-writing would be important?
I: Interesting question Graeme, got me thinking – the precise moment? It was a former editor of Devon Life magazine, Jan Barwick who kicked it off. I had been made happily redundant a few months earlier and I needed pocket money, so I was writing features for them. One day Jan said something like ‘Your writing is so lyrical – you should be writing poetry.’ Soon after that my first grandson was born. Grandchildren evoke like nothing else. I hadn’t written poetry since I was 20, in love with… well, someone impossible. But suddenly, there was Dylan, this amazing new human being, just a few hours old when I first saw him. So I wrote a poem about him playing cricket! And soon after that I joined Moor Poets, and when I read that same poem at an event in Ashburton they seemed to really like it. That was 2007. Since then – two books and a hundred other publications – I still feel I have something to say.
G: A really interesting response. Your poem ‘Kilner’ catches some of the sense of that wonder you feel, now translated, as I read it, into a wish for your grandchildren to feel this wonder of existence too. A lovely poem.
There is a real humanity to how you write; you have a hotline for uncovering resonance and poignancy within everyday settings and this is a powerful signature of your anthology. Your poem ‘Regrets’ for instance, really struck me on first reading, communicating a universal world of feeling through spot-on significant detail as you look at an old saw hanging up in a shed:
‘each tooth minutely barbed/with its own gritted grains of rust/ which pick at the knit of a passing sleeve’.
Which poems in the anthology do you feel most get to the heart of what you want your poetry to say – and why?
I: No straight answer to that. A full collection of poems is made up of several of life’s strands: the living world, relationships, the political, confessional… Others,of course.
It’s not hard to select a single representative poem from a pamphlet or short collection – these are often themed so there may well be one piece which pulls all the ideas together.
But there is one poem from Vertigo & Beeswax which I include in most readings: ‘Haytor Quarry’ is in a way heartfelt – about a place which is very special to me; it’s accurate, it covers the ground, it illustrates just how special it is. But it’s also a grumble about people who intrude into ‘my’ special place, not recognising the worth of peaceful contemplation. A religious person might feel the same about their place of worship. That’s the serious aspect, but just as importantly for a poet who likes to hold an audience, it works well in performance. ‘Haytor Quarry’ is a competition winner and has appeared in several anthologies, so yes – it’s something from my heart which seems to appeal to the hearts of readers and listeners.”
G: I can see why ‘Haytor Quarry’ communicates so well – have just gone back and re-read it. Can relate exactly to what you are saying in the poem – the wittily-written and breathless rhythm of the first stanza’s list and the contrast with the rhythm of the second, plus the very effective repetition of ‘and the few quiet sitters sit’.
Love the re-jigsawing water and the sun steaming up the splashes – can absolutely see it.
My next question:
As you said in your last reply, a collection encompasses many themes. I’m interested to know which poems in ‘Vertigo and Beeswax’ gave you the feeling of moving into new territory either in terms of subject matter or stylistically or both, pushing at the limits of what you want to express. The title poem has some of that kind of feeling for me, something about the juxtaposition of two strikingly different things and the authoritative, arresting course you steer between them as you invite the reader to find their own conclusion.
I: Ah, the course we steer… And the need to break out of the poetic mould in which we allow ourselves to become trapped. You must find this too, Graeme – that we write in a particular way because that’s how we’ve found we best express ourselves. And that becomes our ‘voice’, and it seems to please other people so, without even thinking about it, we keep on doing what we do. There’s a clear parallel with visual artists, with whom I do a lot of collaboration: a landscape painter keeps on painting landscapes because they’re a landscape painter. But after a while…
Often I’ve thought ‘If I see one more canvas of the Ness at Shaldon I shall have to set fire to it’. As artists (of any kind) we can become bogged down in what comes most easily. It’s a form of laziness. So since Vertigo & Beeswax was published I’ve consciously worked at different formats – deliberately set out to project a different voice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels completely wrong – as if I were trying to put on a Jamaican accent.
Which is a long way round to saying, yes: the title poem was an early break-out attempt, but also a false start because – over time, as so often – much of the spontaneity was edited out. Like much of the material in the book, that poem arose directly from the strictly platonic relationship I have with a good friend and Muse. She is both visual artist and writer; mostly she refuses to edit or refine what she writes, explaining that the words which first come to her are the words which spring directly from whatever seed it was that took root – they are therefore inviolable. There’s a poem in V&B (‘Yet Another Finished Poem, Dammit’) which explains how she feels about writing which is over-edited, or ‘has had all the life polished out of it’, she might say.
Guilty as charged. But I’m working on it…
G: Thanks for this reply – I think you are being a little harsh on yourself if you characterise some of your work as possibly having had ‘all the life polished out of it’. It’s the eternal conversation between form and content, plus the necessity of craft. Yes, you could argue that the greatest craft is invisible, allowing maximum original inspiration to be smuggled across the border, but it’s craft all the same, and its supposed ‘invisibility’ is the result of years of hard graft. I think there are many poems in ‘V & B’ where a strong feeling of your spontaneous original inspiration comes through and which is then enriched by your craft. ‘The Dangle’, about the knife-blade ridge of an Irish mountain is a great example, as are ‘A Handful Of Water’, ‘Riddle For K’, Armco’, ‘That Last Birthday’. The poem you cite: ‘Yet Another Finished Poem, Dammit’ works so well precisely because of the very craft it professes to disparage – I don’t recognise anywhere in the collection the ‘window-dressed mannequin’ you accuse yourself of presenting, so ‘not guilty as charged; for me, and I imagine many others, the poems are very alive. Your voice is alive.
What do you reckon?
Would you then mind, as a finale, having a go at this one:
What poets (or other artists) have inspired and influenced you and/or…name three poems (or works of art) that would be part of your Desert Island selection – and why.
I: Only 3?
Galway Kinnell – USA poet, for fluidity and clarity of vision. Try ‘After Making Love We Hear Footsteps’.
Dylan Thomas – inventiveness, use of language, paradox… ‘Under Milk Wood’ is an undisputed masterpiece, and ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is a source of continual fascination to me: the perfect villanelle – but there’s something indefinably wrong with it!
Seamus Heaney – perhaps the poet all male writers would like to be?
And yes, I do realise I’ve listed three men. Why no Carol-Ann Duffy, Jorie Graham, Penny Shuttle, Sylvia Plath, Greta Stoddart? I love the work of all of them and many more: if you asked which 10 poets I would most like to listen to they would all be female. But you asked which poets have been the greatest influence – and that is a different matter.”
Thanks Graeme, this has been deeply interesting. It’s an odd thing – having to find a perspective on one’s own work.
G: Thanks very much Ian for all your responses – I’ve really enjoyed exploring your collection ‘Vertigo and Beeswax’ and it will be great to hear you in person. The voice you definitely have is not tethered by work that may have influenced you – it’s yours.
Fire River Poets and friends look forward very much to your reading at CICCIC in Taunton at 8pm on September 6th.