Interview with Katherine Towers
Katharine Towers’ first poetry collection 'The Floating Man' was published by Picador in 2010, won the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. A poem from the collection was selected as a Poem on the Underground.
Her second collection, The Remedies is also published by Picador and was shortlisted for the 2016 TS Eliot Prize. Katharine's poems have appeared in The Guardian, Poetry Review, Poetry London, The North and in several anthologies including the Forward Book of Poetry 2017. She is currently Poet in Residence at the Cloud Appreciation Society.
Katharine was born in London and read Modern Languages at St. Hilda's College, Oxford. In 2007 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.
“Of course, an ‘I’ poem isn’t necessarily about the speaker, but I did have a strong aesthetic resistance to the directness and apparent openness of the first person voice.”
“Slips of the tongue, parapraxes, outbursts of laughter represent escapes from the unconscious, as do my night fragments.”
“Mindfulness is such a buzzword these days that I hesitate to use it. But Georgia O’Keeffe’s giant paintings of small flowers really resonated – she wanted to force people attend to small things by making them large.”
“Writing poems is for me about creating a quiet atmosphere in which ideas and language can settle and clarify. In a way, it’s the opposite of feeling ‘inspired.’ The more I think about something, the smaller and simpler it seems to get. Useless words just peel away until I’m sometimes left with hardly anything at all.”
Maria Isakova Bennett: In your interview on Woman’s Hour, you mentioned the idea of approaching the personal ‘sideways on’ or tangentially. I wonder if you could talk a little about this approach to writing? For instance I was thinking about your poem, ‘Double Concerto’, from The Floating Man, and whether the initial drive was to write about the concerto, or whether the genesis might have been linked to you reflecting on your parents?
Katharine Towers: You’ve identified something that I’m very interested in. In my first book there are almost no poems written in the first person. Of course, an ‘I’ poem isn’t necessarily about the speaker, but I did have a strong aesthetic resistance to the directness and apparent openness of the first person voice. He/she/you seemed a far more beguiling and productive premise.
The poem ‘Double Concerto’ is partly about a personal experience. To rationalise after the event (because I don’t think we really know what we’re doing when we start a poem) I suppose I must have been ready to address the experience of my father’s illness. When I started thinking and writing some lines about Bach’s double violin concerto, those memories somehow wormed their way in. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to tackle that particular subject head-on.
More recently my feelings have evolved. In The Remedies the flower remedy poems are all written in the first person. I started to love the guilelessness of the ‘I’ which seemed to enable a purity and naturalness of language. In some ways, by pretending to be a flower it became possible to say things that couldn’t otherwise be said.
MIB: That's really interesting. I've often felt that there are things I'd like to say in a poem, but felt that I should protect those I might mention. In light of this, a tutor once suggested to me that I should write as a tree! Do you think that your feelings about the use of 'I' are evolving further in your current writing? Can you tell me a little about your present preoccupations in relation to writing?
KT: Recently, I have starting finding it helpful to frame a poem in the first person if I’m struggling to get it off the ground. To give an example – I’m currently Poet in Residence at the Cloud Appreciation Society and part of my role is to write a poem every month about a cloud that has been chosen to feature on the website. Imagining I am a cumulonimbus, for instance, seems to throw up ideas and images that wouldn’t arise if I were simply an onlooker. Of course, the poem doesn’t have to stay in the first person. But it can be a productive hoodwink. Sometimes when you’re writing poems you have to trick yourself – take yourself by surprise or startle your mind into seeing things a different way.
MIB: In the Woman’s Hour interview you also mentioned the idea of ‘a perfect poem’. I wonder if you could cite two or three of these poems, and expand a little on their qualities.
KT: This is such a hard question; there are so few – and so many! Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sandpiper’ is an extraordinary poem. The first two lines (‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted / and that every so often the world is bound to shake’) seem to take the reader for granted – it’s as if Bishop assumes we’re on board with the poem before it’s really started. There’s a deceptive casualness that in that ‘every so often’. In truth, I admire every line – not least the audacity of rhyming ‘obsessed’ with ‘amethyst’ in the last stanza.
I’d also mention Michael Donaghy’s miraculous poem ‘Machines’. It’s formally perfect and so elegantly arch. Does he have his tongue in his cheek or not? And then it ends with that wonderfully satisfying chiasmus ‘Who only by moving can balance / Only by balancing move.’ There’s not a chink anywhere in the poem’s armour – nothing that isn’t essential or right.
MIB: It's lovely to read those poems and appreciate their balance (pasted below). I can see how your admiration of this work has influenced your own beautifully balanced poems. Thank you.
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.
The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.
So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.
If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove
Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.
I loved your reference to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition in London and recalled the quotation you cite that, due to busyness, no one sees a flower, ‘Nobody really sees a flower, they are too small and we are too busy.’ I recall another quotation when she talks about the reasons for painting the flowers on such a grand scale which links to what you were referring to. I wonder if you could talk a little about how you see poetry as, maybe, a way of addressing or / and balancing something of this busyness.
KT: Mindfulness is such a buzzword these days that I hesitate to use it. But Georgia O’Keeffe’s giant paintings of small flowers really resonated – she wanted to force people attend to small things by making them large. I think it’s the same with poems. Even a very small poem is a large space. When you step in there should be density and richness, a sense of work and of time compressed.
I think this relates to how busy and distracted we all are. If something is beautiful you have to stand still and pay attention. Of course, it’s partly to do with being startled. But I’m really interested in the idea that the time that has gone into making an artefact can be tangibly felt. The painter/writer/composer has done the work, so the reader/viewer/listener can open the trap door and fall into something vast and rich. Attending to a poem or a piece of music or a painting really does stop the clock. Perhaps that’s how you know something really works.
MIB: Yes. Thanks. I'm really interested in the idea of the time and labour put into a piece of work too. I remember seeing an installation once where, to express labour, the artist was knitting non-stop, and had metres of knitting coiled at her feet.
One of the many things that attracted me to your latest collection was the cohesion of the work. It is a beautifully composed collection. For me nothing seems out of place in The Remedies. I wonder how you worked on the process of composing this collection? I’m particularly interested in it’s structure using three sections.
KT: That’s a tricky one… I think The Floating Man was a bit of a miscellany – maybe it’s always the case with first collections. Poems about this and that… whatever took my fancy! While I was writing The Remedies I started to feel that I was interested in far fewer things – perhaps bigger things – but I had a definite sense that my thoughts and ideas were clumping together in a more focused way. So perhaps there are stronger links between the poems than in The Floating Man.
When I was finally putting the book together, I initially wondered about dispersing the flower remedies so that the reader would stumble upon them, as if unawares. But the cumulative effect of a sequence seemed important and I decided it would make for a more intense and satisfying experience for the reader to juxtapose them. So the flower remedies had to sit at the heart of the book. They seemed to be its crux so I suppose the collection is a bit like a see-saw. The other poems fell into place on either side. Because there are lots about plants and flowers and trees and creatures they seemed to settle down quite naturally.
MIB: I like the image of the see-saw, and there's a beautiful balance around the fulcrum of the flower remedies poems too - your father on one side, and your mother on the other, and one daughter on each side. Throughout, for me anyway, there's a prayer-like tone, which attracts and holds me in its contemplative mood. I love the repetitions, (soul, heart, glass, prayers), like refrains. The striking images in 'Two Toads' with the line of prayer at the end is powerful and memorable, 'world without end for ever and ever amen.'
Despite references to loss, your poems are poems of consolation, culminating in the reassurance of nature at the end of the collection,
if you stare in winter
at a leftover flower
in its clock of frost -
a rose, say, or a Japanese
anemone - you'll see
there's no need after all
to be afraid of dying
Did you have a sense of this tone and quality as you wrote? I wonder what has influenced this prayer-like quality in your work?
KT: Perhaps the tone you identify is to do with seeking a simplicity and spareness of utterance. I’m averse to clutter in language and I suppose the words of something like the Lord’s Prayer are an example of that plain way of speaking.
Writing poems is for me about creating a quiet atmosphere in which ideas and language can settle and clarify. In a way, it’s the opposite of feeling ‘inspired.’ The more I think about something, the smaller and simpler it seems to get. Useless words just peel away until I’m sometimes left with hardly anything at all.
The epigraph of one of the poems in The Remedies quotes the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt who said ‘it’s enough if a single note is played perfectly.’ He was essentially a religious/spiritual composer and I suppose his idea is that very little can be expressive and entirely adequate as long as it is correct and precise.