David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Ruth Gilligan’s The Butcher’s Blessing, an unforgettable thriller that Evie Wyld calls, “Completely gripping.” Set in the gothic wilds of Ireland, the novel tells the story of the butchers. Eight fabled men who roam from farm to farm enacting ancient methods of cattle slaughter, offering a simmering glimpse into the modern tensions that surround these men and their families. Says Colum McCann, “Gilligan braids beauty and brutality together in a seamless literary thriller with plot twists worthy of Tana French and language reminiscent of Téa Obreht. This young Irish writer has crafted a story that is dark, wild, mythic, unsuspecting, and absolutely riveting.” The Butcher’s Blessing is out now from Tin House. I have to say, I’m not sure what I would do without this show during the pandemic, during the quarantine, the social distancing, the masking, all the complications of how to come together or not come together to celebrate, or to mourn, or to mark time, and all the isolation. Some of the most memorable moments of connection for me have been across the largest distances with Nikky Finney in South Carolina, with Fernanda Melchor in Puebla, with Jenny Erpenbeck in Berlin, and with today’s guest, Alice Oswald in Great Britain. Likewise, being pushed into a need to reach out to listeners, to ask for people to become listener-supporters has generated so much goodwill, so many great conversations, created so many new connections with people, and deepened pre-existing ones. I just wanted to say thank you for that. One of the practices of connectedness or interconnectedness I’ve been trying to do more of is creating connections or conversations between episodes. Often that has involved quoting things from past guests to current guests. But increasingly, I’m trying to also invite past guests and other writers to ask questions of current guests. You’ll see in today’s episode that I do that with Alice Oswald twice. Once with the Poet Forrest Gander and once with the Poet, Classicist Anne Carson. With Forrest Gander, his question was very connected to Alice Oswald’s language and the text of her most recent book. It led to a really interesting discussion of syntax. Carson’s, in contrast, was a question about one specific ancient Greek word and because the word—at least, as someone who doesn’t speak Greek like me—wasn’t connected in any immediately obvious way to Alice Oswald’s writing, I had no idea whether this question of Anne’s from one poet, classicist and irreverent translator to another would be a generative question or just a curious pit stop or detour to our main conversation. Lucky for all of us, it was a question that really struck a chord for Alice that prompted a really interesting response. One that revealed something new about Alice’s self-conception as a poet and one that led her to continue thinking about her relationship to this Greek word after our conversation was over so much so that she wanted to continue answering it in her contribution to the bonus audio archive by reading a short ballad of hers as an additional partial response to Anne Carson’s question. To find out more about the bonus audio archive, to hear Natalie Diaz read Borges, Richard Powers read W.S. Merwin, Jen Bervin, The Letters of Paul Salon, or Jenny Offill read Mary Ruefle or to find out about the other potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter of Between The Covers, from receiving correspondence from me with each episode where I discuss what I discovered while preparing for the interview, and point listeners to the best things to explore whether written recorded or filmed after the episode is over, to becoming an early reader at Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, you can find out about all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now without further ado, my conversation with Alice Oswald.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Poet, Classicist, and Gardener Alice Oswald. Oswald trained as a classicist at New College at Oxford University, and studied gardening at the Royal Horticultural Society. She’s principally known as one of our great living poets. Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom called Alice Oswald the best UK poet now writing bar none. Art critic Charlotte Runcie poses the broader question in the telegraph, “Is Alice Oswald our greatest living poet?” And Jeannette Winterson calls Oswald the rightful heir to Ted Hughes, and says, “Alice Oswald is making a new kind of poetry. There is nothing fancy about it. She is doing the job, simple and enormous, of reworking the model for the 21st century.” Alice Oswald is the 46th professor of poetry at Oxford, and the first woman to hold the poetry chair in its over 300 years of existence, joining the company of the likes of W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, and Seamus Heaney. Alice Oswald’s debut collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile won the Eric Gregory Award. Her second collection, Dart, won one of the UK’s most prestigious poetry prizes, the T.S. Eliot Prize. Her collaborative work of poetry with etchings by Jessica Greenman, Weeds and Wildflowers, won the inaugural Ted Hughes Award. James Wood at The New Yorker called Oswald’s sixth collection, Memorial, the most remarkable and effecting book of poetry he encountered that year. Subtitled, An Excavation of the Iliad, The New York Times book review called Memorial, luminous and a poem that blooms out of slaughter. Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, Oswald pulled Memorial from consideration citing ethical concerns regarding the prize’s new hedge fund sponsors. Oswald’s follow-up collection, Falling Awake, won both the Griffin Poetry prize and the Costa award for poetry. Alice Oswald is here today on Between the Covers to talk about her most recent collection, a return to an engagement with Homer, this time, the Odyssey in her new book, Nobody, a book that arrives to us in its third form. Nobody, in its first iteration, was a collaboration with the British watercolorist, William Tillyer. The second was a performed version of the poem in collaboration with pianist Joanna McGregor, and now, today’s version of Nobody, a further revised collection of poems that have shape-shifted along the way. Rosanna Warren calls the radical re-reading and re-voicing of the Odyssey, “An oceanic nameless lyric, a sorrowing timeless up-to-the-minute, majestic, goose-fleshed meditation on what it is to be mortal.” Maria Crawford for the Financial Times calls Nobody, “A paean to water, to the fluidity of language and the porousness between beings and stories.” Kit Fan for the Poetry Foundation says that unlike the beginning and ending of a river, rainstorm, or more definite form of water, Nobody mimics the sea’s many contradictions, its rich full-bodied wateriness and its violent bodylessness, its solid clockwork tidal pattern, and its radical scattering of solid substances. Ange Mlinko in The New York Review of Books says, “Every choice in the book is made toward a fluid, Dionysian collapse of boundaries, with the illicit lovers in the background propelling not the narrative arc exactly, but the narrative desire. The scale of desire in the face of the universe, or the scale of the universe in the face of desire—two infinities are somehow trying to come into relation with each other. This desire encompasses our yearning for language: not only for a present language that will convey this vastness, but for languages that have passed away that might really have done so.” Finally, Jeremy Noel-Tod for the Sunday Times calls Nobody, Oswald’s most formally freehand work, a fragmentary gathering of murmurings, searching for the excitement of new meaning. Welcome to Between the Covers, Alice Oswald.
Alice Oswald: Thank you very much, David.
DN: I would like to talk about Nobody in a relational way to your other work—how Nobody engages with Homer in comparison to Memorial and how Nobody evokes and engages with water in comparison to many of your other works. But before we did, I was thinking we could step back from any particular work of yours, and first talk about water and Homer more generally because one could look at your life’s work as a poet as a sustained engagement with water. Most obviously, your engagement with the River Dart in your book Dart and the Severn Estuary in A Sleepwalk on the Severn, but also the River Dunt and the River Hebron in Falling Awake and even in Memorial, the first simile opens with the lines, “Like a wind murmur begins a rumor of waves,” and then later in the poem, the lines, “This is water’s world and the works of men are vanishing.” What is it about water as a writer that returns you to it as an element and as a muse?
AO: I think it’s a question that I’ll never fully answer except with another book perhaps, but I suppose my poetry has always been a growing attempt to encounter something that’s not myself and that’s not like myself. What I love about water is that it’s evidently not human nor is it animal nor even vegetable, but it does seem to have an intelligence. It reflects you back and it seems to have a voice, a narrative voice, it sometimes has a beginning and end, and sometimes throws you into formlessness. It challenges all my edges and understandings but also offers me a way of looking at looking I suppose.
DN: Your second Oxford lecture is entitled Interview with Water, and in it you say, “Water is never the same as itself. Rivers can only exist as similarities, and looking at water allows you to exist twice.” You just nodded to that aspect of water. I wanted to take this question of doubleness and reflectiveness maybe a little further. The first two lines in your first book go, “Last night without a sound, a ghost of a world laid down on a world.” And the epigraph from Ivan Ilyich in your second book, Dart, water always comes with an ego and an alter ego. You’ve described the 215 extended similes in the Iliad as almost an entire second hallucinated poem hovering over and above the main poem that the extended simile is Homer’s particular doubled-over style of thinking. I was hoping maybe you could talk a little more about the suggested similarity between water’s reflectiveness and that of human reflectiveness, that perhaps there’s something about water that tells us about thinking or tells us about the human mind and that there’s something about thinking itself that might be doubled-over.
AO: Yes, I think that’s exactly it, that we seem to exist as bodies and minds. That’s always slightly troubled me that I can’t quite make them be the same thing. I always have two narratives going on and it’s extraordinary the way the mind is floating around seemingly quite untethered and yet the body has all these laws like gravity, and limit, and size, and hunger, that it’s obeying. How those two interact and how they come to define what it is to be human is again—I’m wary of using the verb think because I don’t think poetry is necessarily about thinking—but it gets hold of questions, and reveals them as questions, and then reveals what’s underneath them, and then what’s underneath that. I suppose each book tries to peel away a layer of that problem and present it again.
DN: If we were to talk about a Homeric approach—maybe not a Homeric way of thinking but a Homeric mind or body set that feels like informs your writing to me, even when you’re not writing an engagement with Homer—you used to write a column for The New Statesman and one of those columns titled The Unbearable Brightness of Speaking, you say, “If you put a real leaf and a silk leaf side by side, you’ll see something of the difference between Homer’s poetry and anyone else’s. There seem to be real leaves still alive in the Iliad, real animals, real people, real light attending everything. Goethe put it like this: ‘Ancient writers represent real existence, whereas we usually present its effects.’” Similarly, in that same piece, when you talk about reading the Odyssey in Greek as a teenager, you say, “What impressed me was the unbossiness of Homer’s language, an absence of authority that allowed everything in the poem to be strongly and strangely itself.” It feels like all through the discussions you’ve had on your own writing, it seems like there’s a way you’re trying to break out and away from you, break out and away from the self, but also to break out and away from language to a thing in and of itself. And yet somehow, paradoxically bring that realness back into language. Could you orient us a little bit more to this impulse and the way you see it relating to Homer?
AO: I suppose I was very excited right from the start to feel that Homer doesn’t necessarily come from one’s self. For me, when I’m thinking about the difference between Epic and Lyric, you can define them in many ways and Aristotle had his particular definition, but for me, what is interesting is that it’s not necessarily owned oneself. That means it escapes from the solipsism that creeps into lyric poetry that you can become stifled by one mood, one point of view. For me, that extends to thinking itself. That’s why I have an anxiety about thinking because it feels as if it’s hitting one person’s skull, whereas Homer’s poems, because they have simply been eroded into their way of being by being passed from one person to another, they somehow embody a multiple mind and they move out of the clouding and confinement of one person’s point of view. That’s, I presume, why the things are allowed to be themselves. They’re not themselves as perceived. They are themselves in their radiance.
DN: Is your preference for simile over metaphor somehow related to this?
AO: Well, yeah. I have always felt that simile doesn’t capture an object, particularly the extended simile that Homer goes in for. It allows an object to grow away from the comparison. Whereas metaphor is a brilliant way of thinking. It’s a lot of metaphor that’s already embedded in language and it’s a compressed way of understanding the world. One of my favorite poems actually is a nursery rhyme, “There was a man of double deed soda garden full of seed. When the seed began to grow, it’s like a garden full of snow. When the snow began to melt, it was like a ship without a belt.” And it goes on, it just proceeds by simile so that it doesn’t create an opinion. But it creates a whole world by moving from the similarity of one thing to another. I’ve rambled there. [laughs]
DN: No. If I’m remembering correctly, I think you compared metaphor to nutrition and simile to pregnancy in one of your talks. That simile is creating us a new thing or sprouting a new thing, whereas metaphor is consuming something. Is that right?
AO: That’s right. I’ve always, as a female, maybe searched a little bit for types of poetry that you can possess and feel are your own, and simile has always seemed to be quite a female part of speech.
DN: One thing that felt like a kindred notion to some of what you’ve said about Homer is in the introduction to the Ted Hughes Bestiary that you assembled and published. Ted Hughes thought of his poems as animals and you quote him when he says, “What is it that turns language into an animal, what gives poems a vivid life of their own, such that nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them?” And about Homer, you’ve said both that he takes the imagination seriously as an external and collaborative force but also that the mind has the limitations of a pigeon that it travels outside of the head almost like or perhaps, very much like a physical thing. Can you talk more about this externality and physicality of the imagination as something that would travel to us and from us like an animal or a bird?
AO: It sounds like I might have been talking there about two different ideas in Homer. One of which is describing how Athena and Hera move from heaven to Earth. I’m just trying to remember this. In Homer, there isn’t the sense that the mind is in the skull. There isn’t a theory of mind. You do a lot of your thinking with your liver, or your belly, or your heart, and a lot of the thoughts are already externalized. I think it’s the two similes I’m thinking about, one is that Hera and Athena fly from heaven to the ground as fast as a man thinks. That man is imagining different places and moving from one to another of those places in his mind. And then later on, it talks about when they move through the lines of battle, the goddesses can barely walk. They’re taking little pigeon steps. I’ve always loved the connection of those two images. But that thought is like these goddesses flying from heaven to Earth, but they have this extreme physicality when they get to the Earth but they’re not actually very good at moving. I like that image of both the solidity of thought, the constraint of the body on thought itself, but also the freedom of these goddesses moving through the air. It’s very paradoxical.
DN: Yeah I really loved it. I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly but in one conversation, you segued from that to a notion in Dante about perception, or vision maybe, around this notion of vision being almost like insects traveling from—or maybe not almost like, but literally like— physical beings, like insects traveling from our eyes. They travel from our eyes, and then gather the information, and then travel back to our eyes.
AO: I love that. Actually my favorite book of Dante is the Paradiso. Most people like Inferno but it’s got the most extraordinary images of how we see in the Paradiso. It’s so steeped in light and this image of the colors of the flowers and the spiriti visivi which are these angels, I suppose, that carries colors to and fro. Certainly, I was thinking a lot and using a lot of Dante in my thinking about the sea and when writing Nobody because, of course, the first thing that happens when you look at the sea is you can’t look at it. There’s more than will fit into the eye. I really felt I had need of these spiriti visivi to actually carry the momentary colors of the sea into my mind and out again.
DN: When you talked about how the different parts of the body might be places of the mind or of other things, it makes me think of other ancient cultures and how, say in ancient Chinese physiology, there were five organs that had different souls. There wasn’t one place with the soul and the consciousness was in the heart. I don’t know if that relates at all to ancient Greek but I did think about and I wondered about the repetition of decapitation in your work in this light. We have the head of Orpheus who’s singing as it floats down the River Hebron in Falling Awake. Of course, there are several decapitations in Memorial. In Nobody, a fisherman who fishes out a human head referred to as a floating nobody. Then in the Interview with Water, your lecture, you say that when you’re swimming, water fits around you, and you are suspended, seemingly decapitated by reflections. This feels an engagement to me with this idea of resisting both thought trapped in the head and thought, perhaps, originating in the head. But I wondered if it was also something about the type of poetry that you’re striving towards which is a poetry, perhaps decapitated, perhaps not, about thought at all.
AO: I think it’s interesting you point that out and I sometimes wonder whether I’m a very keen swimmer, and whether for me, poetry is equivalent to swimming. I’ve often noticed when I swim, the strangeness of the way the body literally turns into a fish, but the head remains human and rather cold, and looking around at this strange flat reflective surface. I’m often very piercingly aware of the difference between my head and my body when I’m swimming because I’m not necessarily someone who goes underwater, I love swimming along the surface of rivers. Perhaps, my poems do feel a need to convey that continued separation of the head remaining human and the body becoming animal, or plant, or mineral, or whatever it can be. In some way, I suppose I’m trying to find rhythms that will heal that divide.
DN: I love that. Before we go to Nobody itself., I wanted to talk about an interview that particularly grabbed me because it was at a time when you were still imagining what Nobody might be. It was an interview back in 2014 with Max Porter in The White Review. It was Max’s enthusiasm when he was on the show about your work that really was my entryway into reading your poetry. Back then in 2014, you had written and published your Excavation of the Iliad Memorial and your future engagement with the Odyssey seemed both very much on your mind and still something you were wondering about. You said at the time that you were thinking of doing something very disloyal to the text, a ballad version that found a dislocated way of thinking that evoked the sea. In that vein, you said you were intrigued by something that you saw in contemporary American poetry. Something that you were fascinated by but couldn’t do and that was the way Americans fit thinking into their poems, that for you, poetry was, as you’ve said, about making a thing that has a life of its own. Something alive separate from you but that Americans were thinking within a poem, that they were channeling the essay, that the poem was writing itself in an unfinished moment, and you were wanting to explore it. But as you said then and as you’ve said here, you also feel that Homer’s transmission of life has always been your principle, to make something living has been your aim and that thinking isn’t living. I was hoping to hear your thoughts, before we begin talking about Nobody, about the finished book. When you hear these thoughts that you had prior to writing Nobody, do you feel like Nobody has invited thinking into it versus being a decapitated poem?
AO: It has, perhaps. In some places I tried to capture the sound of thinking while somehow cheating the reader of the end product of thinking. Maybe John Ashbery does something similar—although John Ashbery’s a totally different poet—I love the way when you jump into John Ashbery, you simply have to keep swimming and you get from one semi-statement to another. You’re not quite sure when you’ve been at the end of it but you do feel like you’ve been inside thinking that hasn’t taken you anywhere, and perhaps, some of that is in Nobody. I certainly did a huge amount of thinking when I was writing it, but I rather tried to interrupt every thought that I began to express. The real thought is, in some way, in the grammar of the poem rather than the statements and the way that grammar will, as it were a splash-something in the face of thought, it will set out to think and then twist it, or turn it, or flip it backwards, in a way that I think is quite frustrating for some readers.
DN: Maybe a good place to start with orienting us to Nobody as a project is in comparison to Memorial. Both of them either remove the main narrative or make it something in the background, in the distance, or perhaps subterranean. But Memorial is full of names and particulars of the war dead even as the main narrative of the Iliad is evacuated from it, but Nobody is largely absent names in the main text. Tell us the story of the Nobody, the poet who is the main, if not the only, portal into your Odyssey.
AO: Well, there is this unnamed poet in the Odyssey who was left by Agamemnon in-charge of his wife to make sure that she wasn’t unfaithful. Once Agamemnon was away at war, Aegistheus, as everybody knows, started to court Clytemnestra. She wouldn’t give in because she said she knew that Agamemnon had left this poet to spy on her and he said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve taken him over and abandoned him on a stoney island so we can get on and have an affair.” I’ve just always loved that tiny little matchbox story that’s embedded in the Odyssey. We don’t hear anything else about this poet. We just imagine him inside his own Odyssey, left on this rock and of course, his story is much more the Oresteia rather than the Odyssey. He’s a member of Agamemnon’s household. He’s been in all the decadent rotting marriage and adultery that’s been happening there. For him, he’s had to inhabit a reverse Odyssey. Where I think the Odyssey is supremely the most beautiful love poem, it’s a sort of [inaudible 0:33:06], I suppose. It starts with this idea of the marriage of Penelope and Odysseus. It gets put on hold for 20 years and then they’re restored to each other at the end. It’s this beautiful arc of complications that are then resolved at the end of the poem but within it, it’s got a reverse image which is the Oresteia. Obviously, that’s what drew Aeschylus to write his extraordinary trilogy. I love it that it all focuses on this unnamed negative of a human left on an island.
DN: Do you see this inverted Odyssey—the story of this poet and of Agamemnon and his future death—do you see this as similar to the hallucinated second poem in Memorial that hovers over the main poem?
AO: That’s really an interesting question. Yes, in some ways, that’s a good description of it. They both have mirror image poems. The thing about Homer is, any point you enter any of those poems, they’re so constructed. It’s like getting inside a diamond. Everything reflects everything else. I could say that Iliad and the Odyssey are reverse images of each other, or I could say that the similes are a reverse Iliad, or I could say that the Oresteia is embedded in the Odyssey as a reverse Odyssey. They have infinite opposites, both of those poems. One of the joys of reading them is that you find that you’re always in the center of the poem, at whatever point you enter it.
DN: Well maybe this is a good time to hear a little bit of Nobody, if you’re okay with it. I’ve picked out a couple short places. The first one for now would be 16-21.
AO: Okay. Yes. This is a [dornish 0:35:15] moment.
[Alice Oswald reads an excerpt from her latest book, Nobody]
DN: We’ve been listening to Alice Oswald read from her latest book, Nobody. It feels like there are many ways we can think about the title, Nobody. One is that you’re telling the story from the point of view of this unnamed exiled poet, a nobody. Another is the alias that Odysseus calls himself to deceive the Cyclops often translated as nobody. But then also, I think about how you say that in Homeric tradition, that when you recite a character, you not only become that character but that when you sing a poem, you join the chorus of any poet that has sung it before you, that a poet is a collective and not an individual. In a way, in this framing, all poets are nobodies, not just the nameless exiled ones. Lastly, I was thinking about Homer himself which you alluded to earlier, who may or may not be one person, who may very well be a collective himself, that literally, Homer might be no one, or no one body, or nobody. Does the title Nobody nod to some of these elements?
AO: Absolutely. Yeah. You’ve got them all except for one which is that it also nods to the sea, which in Homer is described as—well, has many adjectives—but one of them is that it’s the unfenced place, or the unlimited, the undefined, the unfinished if you like. For me, that was also the feeling that sea itself is the nobody, that all poets also are.
DN: When we read Dart for instance, or Sleepwalk on the Severn, there is much more of a narrative through line that’s more on the surface. I wondered if that was part of the quality of a river versus the sea, that a river might lend itself more to story going from, much like you do, going from the source to the ocean and collecting the murmurings of the river through the testimonies of the people who are interacting with it for better or worse along the way, whereas the sea doesn’t have that sense of direction or direction that feels comprehensible to the human. Is that informing, in some ways, the ways in which you want to place or not place the narrative of the Odyssey within Nobody?
AO: Yes very much, I suppose, because I’m interested in non-conventional forms. I love conventional forms as well in poetry, but I tend to try to get my imagination so steeped in whatever it is I’m writing about that in some way, the form will reflect the form of my subject. I knew that it was going to be a pretty impossible excessive enterprise to start to write about the sea and I put it off, you may notice the Dart, that’s as far as the sea but doesn’t really attempt to go into it. I avoided it for many years because I knew it was going to have to be a terrifying and formless poem if I ever wrote it. But these things always happened by chance and I happened to get a commission to a company to collaborate with a watercolor artist. Somehow the poem crept up on me before I knew where I was—if that answers your question. I rambled a bit. [laughs]
DN: No. But I just want to stay with this river versus sea for one moment more because this difference potentially between the river and the sea I thought of when I was listening to your most recent Oxford lecture, where you were redefining the notion of the epic not as being Aristotle’s definition—which was a narrative poem in heroic examiner—but rather that an epic in your approach, being the art of lines or phrases where each line is allowed to be surrounded by silence. Under this definition, you said that Paradise Lost would be a lyric poem not an epic one because of its continuity. That made me wonder if perhaps Paradise Lost would be more like a book engaging with a river in that sense, than a book engaging with the epicness of the sea where a poet is shouting into the silence while being abandoned on a rock.
AO: That’s a pretty good appraisal of it and as I wind up saying in that lecture, you shouldn’t really take either lyric or epic to its extreme. Nobody is, as far as I want to go in the edgelessness of epic, rivers are much easier to manage. The human mind wants a story and you can only go so far in cheating someone of meaning and story. But then I live in a country surrounded by the sea so you have to engage with it at some point.
DN: Let’s stay with this notion of the human wanting story and also what you said earlier about you wanting to capture the sound of thinking in this, but not necessarily the end product. Because you said in your conversation with Kit Fan for the Poetry Foundation that you felt like Nobody was unfair as a poem because it tries to drown the reader, and that you wanted to construct a grammar that cheats the reader of meaning. I was just hoping maybe we could stay with that a little more, if you could talk a little bit more about drowning the reader, and intentionally frustrating the reader’s desire for comprehension.
AO: If you spend a lot of time outdoors—and I had for a long time as a gardener—you develop a love of the assault and interruption that goes on when you are out in the natural world. The thing of being incapable of carrying your own meaning beyond the meaning of the grass, the weeds, the wind, the rain, the mud is something that I developed a liking for. I have not really wanted to make poems that prioritize my human meaning above the meanings that are going on around me. I love meaning but I like meaning to be interrupted before it gets too smug.
DN: You rightly said at one point that viewers of visual art are much more tolerant of incomprehension, of being in engagement with a work of art that they don’t understand, and maybe they’re less signaled to look for understanding when words aren’t involved. Again, as you mentioned, this book was originally constructed in engagement with William Tillyer, the abstract watercolorist. Could you talk a little bit about the collaboration you had with him and what that looked like?
AO: I was very interested in his actual process where he spills or splodges water onto high quality paper and observes the way it moves. He sometimes builds fortifications and edges that the water can react against, and it seemed to me that he was rather beautifully unbossly, again, which is the word I’ve always liked, allowing water to reveal to him its own character without him necessarily telling water what it is. I wanted to find an equivalent smudging and blurring in my own poem that was going to accompany it. I was also really interested to be thinking about color because I’d always seen myself in some way as a lines artist. I love the line unit. I love to think about human sentences, and human phrases, and how they react with the line, and what you’re visually doing when you break a line. I have seen myself previously in making very clear lines. I saw myself as a black and white poet up to that point. I wanted to think hard about color and how one might introduce color into one’s ways of thinking. I did quite a lot of reading up about Kandinsky’s approach to color and I’m very interested anyway in the different theories that have been put forth about Homer’s sense of color. Looking at the way a painter uses color, I corresponded with him, I might write to him one week and say, “Can you tell me a bit about white? I don’t really know what white is,” and he would write back about what types of pigments he would use to make white, or whether he would just leave a white space on the page. We thought a lot about the color blue, and the color purple, and none of that necessarily made its way into the poem but it gave a particular flavor of smudge and blurriness. The interesting thing in color is the fact that there aren’t edges between colors. They blur into each other. Blue is nearly green which is nearly yellow, and that had an effect on my ways of thinking about language. I became less clipped and constrained in my thinking about how sentences should relate to each other.
DN: I made a connection between the way you wanted to betray the epic and the way he would pierce or fray or slice paper surfaces that he’s troubling or changing or removing the very basis of what most people would be leaving undisturbed.
AO: Yeah, I love that. I like that when suddenly in his paintings, you might see the framework of the actual making of the canvas behind it. That’s something that I think Anne Carson has talked about in some of her essays, that tendency that you really feel in Greek that the language is a veil, that you’re peeling back the veil and revealing things underneath. I like that as a method that you make a skin or surface or screen, then you cut it and you find something underneath it.
DN: You’ve mentioned that you often start a poem using Paul Klee’s line drawing exercises from his sketchbook, I don’t know if that’s a new thing with [inaudible 0:51:16] collaboration with Tillyer or a long-standing thing. But tell me a little bit about these line drawing exercises from him, what that does for you as a way into beginning a poem?
AO: Actually, I started when I was collaborating with Tillyer, I wanted to understand the visual imagination because I’m not particularly educated about the art world. I would start a section of the poem by seeing it as an abstract image in my head, then trying to translate that onto the page. Initially, it started as the line, then I would start with colors. It was when I’d felt that I translated the feeling in my head onto the page, I would then add words to that in order to create the poem. I was trying, I suppose, to look at the poem through Tillyer’s eyes, then to translate the image I had into a text. I love to draw the feeling of the sound that I can hear in my head before I write something, I will anyway often start a poem with these curled loops and phrases that go across the page or I might get a few words then I’ll just finish it with a line, the process is to try and hear what it is that I’ve drawn.
DN: That made me think of, I don’t know if I can quote it directly, but you went on a walk with one journalist at one point, you were talking about how you would want to put your eye behind the flower for instance, that you’d want to try to see from the point of view of the flower, it sounds like maybe, that’s what you’re doing with the watercolorist also.
AO: Yes, a little bit except that I needed to keep my eye not really—I mean I wouldn’t say Nobody is a portrait of the watercolorist—it’s that I was hearing his method but I was still really trying to look at the sea, it was just a different way I suppose. I think it’s important as a writer as you get older and older to try and find new processes I suppose because you can get very stuck in ways that you’ve used before that you know will work.
DN: To stay with color one more beat, you’ve said that the rhapsodes, when they sang Homer’s poems, they would wear blue when they recited The Odyssey and red when they recited the Iliad. Yet to me as a reader of Nobody, it felt like green might be the ruling color, perhaps with purple as a close second, I didn’t know if that rang true to you but I was curious to hear more specifically about color in Nobody whether that be about green or another color.
AO: Yeah, I think you’re right to spot green. For me, going back to that idea of The Odyssey and Iliad being reverse images of each other, I’ve always felt that the Iliad is the color of blood, it’s a kind of poem about the body and death. The Odyssey is this unbelievably growing, living, leaf-like poem. More than anything, it just makes me feel the energy of the growing world, the feeling of what England is like in the spring. Actually, part of the time when I was writing it, I was working in a plant nursery, and I can remember the thing of going into the greenhouses there, and just that feeling of, “Yeah, this is exactly what it feels like to read The Odyssey,” hundreds of different growing forms bursting at you from all around, yes, that energy of growth and metamorphosis is for me very much in The Odyssey.
DN: Let’s hear another excerpt from Nobody, this time I was thinking perhaps 30-33.
[Alice Oswald reads an excerpt from her latest book, Nobody]
DN: You’ve been listening to Alice Oswald read from her latest book of poetry, Nobody. In the spirit of this reading and Nobody in general, I wanted to switch to another topic that infuses your work, and that is the process of erosion—erosion by water, erosion by wind, erosion by light—the topic of your first Oxford lecture but also, something that feels very present to Nobody. You said in one interview that the anonymity you were striving after for this book was inspired by eroded Cycladic sculptures, sculptures where the features had been nearly washed away. I was hoping you could talk about erosion in relationship to this and to the text.
AO: I suppose that comes back to your question about thinking. The poem conveys a kind of eroded thinking. It’s as if the thoughts have had reality washing away at them; a sentence sets out then gets blown in another direction. Erosion is important to me in that I think poetry has a particular duty and relationship towards time. Poems are miniature human clots I think, they’re full of time keeping in the way that a piece of music is full of timekeeping. In some way, they set their own time but they need to be awake to actual time moving around them. A poem has to offer itself up to the erosion that’s going on in the world. Nobody, more than any of my poems, I think gives in completely to that force of erosion where I would normally try to maintain some human presence in the face of it. I think Nobody allows itself to get weathered to a Cycladic blankness.
DN: This talk of erosion and time makes me think of that famous Marguerite Yourcenar essay, That Mighty Sculptor, Time. I’m just going to read a couple of lines from it, “On the day when a statue is finished, its life, in a certain sense, begins. The first phase, in which it has been brought, by means of the sculptor’s efforts, out of the block of stone into human shape, is over; a second phase, stretching across the course of centuries, through alternations of adoration, admiration, love, hatred, and indifference, and successive degrees of erosion and attrition, will bit by bit return it to the state of unformed mineral mass out of which its sculptor had taken it.” I was thinking of this when I encountered your interview with Claire Armitstead where you said you think of your poems less as poems than as sound carvings which made me think that the sound these poems were making is eating away at something which then by extension suggests that both the blank page and silence are not really absences in this framing at all but presences.
AO: Yeah, I like that. I’ve always felt that in some way, a poem is really a framing of its silences, that the musical art poetry is all about leading you to those silences in a way that you hear them where normally one doesn’t necessarily hear a silence or an absence, both the sound is eating away that silence but then also, the sounds are, in their own way, erosions made so I let my voice get blown around by the information it’s taken in if you like. The feeling of not quite holding your own—I mean, I hate reading poems outdoors, I’m often asked to do it but I do rather like that thing that voice just gets very small and bits of your words blow away. I think that’s perhaps an effect that sounds in my poems aimed for.
DN: Let me ask you something about Homer’s syntax that you’ve said in light of sound carvings being a description of your poems. You said about Homer’s syntax, “The tendency of his grammar is therefore cumulative, like a cairn. Each clause is a separable unit. It might be placed loosely on another and held there with a quick connective, but it never loses its essential singleness; which is why you often find that one end of his sentence turns away from the other.” On the one hand, this feels like a process of accretion rather than erosion, an accumulation, but the singleness and the separateness of each component, and that each is surrounded by silence of the white page made me wonder if perhaps, this accumulation is the product of erosion like I imagine the scree that builds at the at the bottom of a cliffside of all the piles of rocks that are single but also part of this erosive process.
AO: I think perhaps, what’s exciting about Homer is that two forces are working together. There is the eroding and editing force of the time and the tradition where anything that’s not worthwhile is going to be forgotten, that’s why the poems have this amazing bright quality to them because anything that hasn’t worked has just been dropped away. But then again, there is also I think a power in the other direction of particularly, the similes are examples of individual poets coming up with brilliant images to help them remember or describe a situation, those working the other way, they simply can’t be forgotten, they nest in the mind and carry on multiplying there. I think Homer is a combination of erosion and creation.
DN: Maybe in this light, can you talk a little bit about punctuation? Specifically in Nobody, the absence of punctuation, and maybe, how that might be related to this essential singleness that you mention in Homer’s syntax?
AO: I suppose there are two approaches to that question. One is to say that there is punctuation, it’s just that I’m using the line ends themselves as punctuation. Sometimes, I think that the only way to get people to notice the end of the line is to take out all other punctuation, then they will realize they need it because early on I used to get quite frustrated by hearing people read my poems and not notice what was happening at the line end. I suppose that I’m very interested in what happens when you remove formal constraints from poetry. Having started out writing almost only sonnets and ballads for me was a vertigo when I decided to see what would have happened if I took away those very strict metrical forms and the need to find something that was as binding as a sonic form or a ballad form where if you remove one word, the whole thing collapses, meant that I felt that the only thing that could take the place of that was grammar itself. I started to try to make tunes out of the way a sentence sounds grammatically. The only way to show people I was doing that I think was to leave out the punctuation that conceals that fact. To a certain extent, my poems as they’ve gone along have used less and less punctuation in order to draw attention to the fact that the tunes are there in the syntax. But in Nobody, I suppose there was also just the feeling that the punctuation had been washed away. Certainly in Homer, originally wasn’t written down, so there wouldn’t be punctuation there, the original transcriptions of poems don’t have punctuation either. There’s a feeling of trying to move back towards what a sound is before it’s been codified into a novel or a speech or an essay.
DN: Yeah. Well, your answer to Ted Hughes’ question about what would make a poem an animal, what would make a poem alive was for you, in Hughes’ case, the percussion in his poetry. I reached out to several poets to invite them to ask questions to you. One of them was Forrest Gander. He wanted to ask you a question about certain effects that are produced in your syntax to make your poetry alive. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is also a question of erosion too, both because he uses the word undercutting in his question and because he has a background in geology but either way, Forrest said the following quote, “One of the things about Alice’s work that makes my jaw drop is how she’ll undercut her own lyricism and perhaps, the latinate richness of her language with Old English Anglo-Saxon words.” He then selected five lines from Nobody as one example, which I’ll read, forgive me if I don’t read them well. “But the gods know everything they sent a virus fluttering after the ship and seven days later she dropped like a dead bird into the bilge four sailors had to swing her over the side and the water with all its claws and eaters closed over her” Forrest continued by saying, “Claws and eaters is so unexpected, metonymic, and seems to keep the tone from getting grand.” His question for you is, “In what ways do you think about adjusting the tone of your poems in regard to drawing from an Old English or a Latinate based lexicon? Are you insistently testing the mix? If so, do you purposely deflate the Latinate richness with the grounding of Anglo-Saxon?”
AO: Lovely question. I think that most of that is probably happening unconsciously on the level of the ear, that I like lines that trickle and you need a number of syllables if you’re going to trickle but I also like crashes and collisions. It’s great to have a good supply of monosyllables to make those jarring crashes and collisions. But I am someone who, I mean, I hate flying, [laughs] I like to have my feet on the ground, I like to check that the ground is there. For me, there is a kind of just a lovely heaviness to monosyllabic words that I feel mostly my sentences need that sandy weight in the bottom of them. It doesn’t have the status of a thought or a decision but my particular taste is for those Earthy words that will tie the Latin polysyllables so that they don’t fly off.
DN: To stay with your word choice for a little bit longer, I’m going to quote Kit Fan again from his review of Nobody, he says, “In her translation of Aeschylus, Anne Carson argues that everywhere in Agamemnon there is a leakage of the metaphorical into the literal and the literal into the metaphorical. Images echo, overlap and interlock. Words are coined by pressing old words together into new compounds—’dayvisible’ … ‘dreamvisible.’ The same can be said of Oswald’s Nobody. The book is populated with at least 113 hyphenated words, as if invoking the protean power of the sea has enabled the poet to push etymological and morphological boundaries by blending and clashing unlikely nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.” He then lists examples including “sea-film,” “sky-lids,” “blood-shade,” “goose-fleshed,” “ghost-grace.” Talk to us a little bit about hyphens.
AO: I think my editor forced me to [hyphenate them 1:13:16]. [laughs]
DN: Oh, really?
AO: I quite like words that are obviously jammed together and working together but I don’t always hyphenate them. That may not be right but I have a recollection that some of those words actually weren’t even two separate words, I’d actually made them into one word, they were pulled apart into hyphenated words. I had a lovely feeling of rush when I was writing Nobody, that I wanted in a way to trust my first impressions and grab words that wouldn’t always go together in order to convey the motion of the sea I suppose. Rather than sitting with the separate words that one has grown used to, it was lovely to chuck things together. Of course, the idea of Proteus, as in some way, the god of this poem was very much in my mind. Proteus shifts shape that I think was the spirit of the work in poems to allow words to instantly shift into something else as you try to speak them.
DN: While we’re talking about Anne Carson, I wanted to ask you a question about translation because I think of both of you not only as classicists but as irreverent translators. You said in your preface to Memorial that your translation of the Iliad was more of a translucence than a translation, that you were writing through the Greek not from the Greek. In your interview with Max Porter in 2014, you were imagining classicists being in an uproar around how you might translate The Odyssey into Nobody. In your last Oxford lecture you say, “What about translations of poems that are not easy to translate? What about thought ruptured by astonishment, knowledge limited by mystery? What about epic, if epic means a broken melody through which something beyond the human finds expression?” These all made me think of some of the writings of editor and translator Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney who helm action books here in the states who have deeply considered and reconsidered both what translation is and can be. What I quoted from you, “the notion of a ruptured thought or an epic is a broken melody,” made me think of some of what they’ve done with translation which goes against the notion of aiming for a well wrought urn. They argue that translations call attention to excess, that no one word can own or be the thing, that instead, in Johannes Göransson’s words, “The words vibrate in an excess of unsettled meanings, leaking into the English language.” Elsewhere, he says, “If we take translation with its flux and flows, its excesses (too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many languages) as an inspiration, nobody can ‘master’ literature. There is simply too much of it, in a state of flux. We have to give up that illusory critical distance, and the stability it demands. We have to drown in art.” I don’t know if that resonates with you or your approach but I would love to hear about your translation philosophy specific to Nobody if it’s similarly also a translucence or some other approach.
AO: I think it’s not a translucence really, it’s more of a drowning, a coloring, and an excess. I mean what springs to mind is the idea that in Memorial, I was looking through the Greek at the line drawings, almost like on a bar of what’s happening whereas, in Nobody, I’m allowing color through. I think that’s for me the feeling of the difference is the difference in color and line. Much more so in Nobody, I felt as if I was dealing with material that was still alive and had its own autonomous movements that I wasn’t even attempting to control really so that the moments of control are smaller than the moments in Memorial. I try to give a flick of the wrist that gets the sentence started and maintain meaning for most of it, I allow it to fly out of control. That’s not an answer to a question.
DN: To stay with this notion of allowing for knowledge limited by mystery or allowing for something beyond us and out of our control, creating an animal that lives on its own terms in the poem or the way you translate Homer’s poem, is that related for you in some way to orality and performance, that Homer’s poems were recited from memory, that the Iliad was even composed in performance, that each recitation would never quite be the same as the last? Or even the way you say Ted Hughes isn’t performing his poems but rather being performed by them, that he isn’t adding something when he performs them but that the poems are inhabiting him, is this at all related in some way to the way you’re approaching translation of The Odyssey here?
AO: I think it is. I think it’s been my slogan, my principle, my kind of flag has been the idea that an oral tradition is more than whatever is ever written down, that if you perform it, the poem will change, if you try to translate it, it’s not really the words you’re translating, it’s something beyond the words. That idea right the way through has been important for me that a poem is more than the written word, there’s something beyond it, something excessive and almost annihilating that you’re hinting at, that if you fully expressed it, [what will] betide you, you probably wouldn’t survive it. [laughs]
DN: Your own performances—which are somewhat rare but I dare say also somewhat legendary—reciting from memory often in collaboration with another artist or art form, and sometimes with great feats of stamina or precision of time like your Tithonus, a poem which is precisely 46 minutes long, I was hoping maybe you could talk about performance for you. I noticed that for instance, between us recording this, whenever this airs in December, you’re involved in A Postal Poetry Performance called Moon Viewing which is happening on the last day of November at midnight, maybe you could talk about that as an entry way into performance for you in a larger sense.
AO: That’s a very different kind of performance, that’s a lockdown performance. It’s been really strange being away from live performance which is my whole passion. Of course, it’s been impossible in lockdown. I had the idea that what you could do was if you couldn’t seat people in a theater and have an audience gathered in a space, you could at least gather them in a time. I’ve sent out 500 copies of a poem, people are not allowed to open it until midnight on the 30th of November. It’s a riddle, they will find the answer to the riddle if they step outside. I’m also broadcasting at the same time a YouTube little film which is a collaboration with dancers and the composer that will pose the same riddle. The idea really is that the theater is a moment in time rather than a space. People can be socially distanced but at least engaged in the same moment of looking up.
DN: I reached out to Anne Carson to see if she wanted to ask you a question. I reached her in Iceland. She had a question for you that I wanted to ask now because it does touch on performance. I don’t know if this will be a generative question or not, it’s not specific to Nobody but it’s an interesting one, it’s about the ancient Greek word, Aidos. She says, “You might ask her what she thinks of this word, an aspect of moral life that seems to be vanishing from the world.” Then she links it to performance for herself when she says, “Ask Alice what she thinks of the work of Kazuo Ôno, the Japanese dancer, one of the founders of Butoh who I always think of in relationship to this Greek word.” Does anything immediately come to mind regarding this word for you?
AO: She’s amazing, Anne Carson. That question, it’s like a whole poem, isn’t it? [laughs] It’s an amazing word, Aidos. I think for me, I felt the need early on to grow towards an understanding of the moral life of poetry. My first poems were more like trying to locate myself in a physical world, and perhaps, the trajectory I’ve been on has been trying to grow towards an understanding of that word which is I suppose to do with how we view ourselves in relation to other humans, what our duties are? How do we maintain self-respect or honor?
DN: I looked up to see whether Anne had written about this word because I was curious why she was asking about it. I’m going to read you what I found and see if that prompts any thoughts too. One is from her intro to the plays by Euripides. Also, the second one is from her book Eros the Bittersweet, these are two short excerpts about Aidos. “Aidos (‘shame’) is a vast work in Greek. Its lexical equivalents include ‘awe, reverence, respect, self-respect, shamefulness, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, coyness, scandal, dignity, majesty Majesty.’ Shame vibrates with honor and also with disgrace, with what is chaste and with what is erotic, with coldness and also with blushing. Shame is felt before the eyes of others and also in facing oneself.” Then in her other excerpt, she says, “Aidos (‘shamefastness’) is a sort of voltage of decorum discharged between two people approaching one another for the crisis of human contact, an instinctive and mutual sensitivity to the boundary between them. It is the shame suitably felt by a suppliant at the hEarth, a guest before his host, youth making way for old age, as well as a shared shyness that radiates between lover and beloved. The proverbial residence of aidos upon sensitive eyelids is a way of saying that aidos exploits the power of the glance by withholding it, and also that one must watch one’s feet to avoid the misstep called hybris. In erotic contexts aidos can demarcate like a third presence, as in a fragment of Sappho that records the overture of a man to a woman: I want to say something to you, but aidos prevents me. The static electricity of erotic ‘shame’ is a very discreet way of marking that two are not one.”
AO: I am always just so impressed by Anne Carson, I mean, her kind of precision and lyricism. She is an amazing poet I think. Thank you for reading those out. I think that if there’s a lack in my poetry, I’d probably say it’s that I’ve found it quite hard to tell the stories about human interactions that are part of the subject of poetry. I do think that sort of project of the imagination is towards what I would say is a kind of justice if you like, I mean, imagination is about compassion, the sort of having the compassion to imagine what it’s like to be something else. I’ve spent a hugely long time trying to work out what it’s like to be another species. I feel as if I’m only now trying to bring that into focus in the human world, partly because I’ve moved into a city from having lived in the country all my life. I think that if you are engaged in a career in the imagination, you are forced with each project to take away another veil if you like, you come to a sort of block with a poem which you can only go through by understanding something that’s not yourself. I think for me, that’s where that word shame, decency, honor, all those amazing meanings she gives, I feel I’m only just broaching that word with regard to humans but I think it’s also important to have a sense of it with regard to the natural world, that’s maybe where I’ve focused it in the past but you can’t get through your life without also addressing the question as it impacts on other humans.
DN: I did like the way what I read with her saying that, “Shame is a very discreet way of marking that two are not one.” It brings us back to the beginning of our conversation to the doubleness of water, water allowing us to exist twice, Homer like the sea creating agitated similarity. I was hoping we could go out with one more reading from Nobody.
[Alice Oswald reads an excerpt from her latest book, Nobody]
DN: We’ve been listening to Alice Oswald read from Nobody. You’ve said, Alice, that you always abandon your gods at the end of writing a book and want a sense of reinvention with the next one. Can you tell us a little bit about what is brewing in your imagination around what comes after Nobody?
AO: I think a pushback of the human against those eroding powers and maybe, an investigation of Anne Carson’s [inaudible 1:34:23].
DN: That would be fascinating, and in relationship with a classical text do you think?
AO: No. I’m quite happy to leave classical text aside for the moment. I’m finding it really extraordinary to be living in a city really for the first time in my life or I haven’t lived this long in a city before. Really, I’m just wanting to settle into that and see what that brings.
DN: Well, thank you so much for being on Between The Covers, Alice.
AO: Thank you very much.
DN: We’ve been listening today to Alice Oswald read from her latest book of poetry, Nobody. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO, but it’s a volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. Alice Oswald contributes a two-part reading to the bonus audio archive, the first in homage to my questions to her, she reads a sampling of the impossible questions God poses in the Book of Job. In the second, she continues her engagement with Anne Carson’s question by reading a short ballad of hers called Emerald that pertains to it. This joins bonus audio from Nikky Finney, C. A. Conrad, Natalie Diaz, Hanif Abdurraqib, Max Porter, Miriam Toews, and many others. Find out more about the bonus audio archive and the other potential benefits of supporting the fall Fundraising Campaign to get Between The Covers on solid footing going into 2021 at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth DeMeo, Alyssa Ogi, and Spencer Ruchti in the book division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writing Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album, Imre Lodbrog & sa petite amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.