In Liquid Silhouette: An Interview With Gregory Leadbetter
Illustration of Yggdrasil from Prose Edda, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge, 1847 edition. Via Wikimedia Commons (cc).
by Medha Singh
I first met Gregory Leadbetter in Trivandrum, in its notorious, sweltering heat. Curiously enough, I’d been placed in a couple of panels on love and feminism(s), and publishing. I didn’t mind it so much, except that I’d been invited as a poet and editor, who was not given a slot to read. The distance between New Delhi and Kerala is usually the same between England and a European country outside of the UK. That is to say, vast. I was in the midst of speaking to the organisers about trying to remedy this if time permits them, because I’d travelled a fair distance after all, and voila, Gregory stood behind me, joining in the conversation (who was I talking to anyway?) as he said to me, that he’d travelled from Birmingham to face this as well; and to my mind, it added a severity to a problem I’d previously thought was a mistake. Truant and newly united poets, we marched right up to the events office and made a polite (for the circumstances) request. The day was saved.
At the end of the reading the following day, we exchanged our poetry books, and in the company of the wonderful poet and publisher Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press, novelist Liam Brown (and his lovely partner, Simone), and CEO of the Birmingham poetry festival, Jonathan Davidson. We spoke among ourselves about various things—the history of the English language, punk rock (Liam has a band called ‘Absent Fathers’), literature and parenting, Gregory’s investment in the occult, his work on Coleridge, his book titled The Fetch, and Jane’s publishing experience (poets have the “best barbs”), India’s relationship with Britain, how the colonial past leaves its own ravages and intimacies behind as it unconsciously inherits them, how it transforms local tyrannies into international ones, and what it does to our cultures. A few wines in, I’d taken the liberty to recount the incident from the previous night.
After one too many glasses, I’d been locked out of my room, having lost my key, and the heady heat making its way into my ears. I stood (then sat) in the lobby reading out Gregory’s poems to myself (I was reading ‘Feather’ at that moment) and enjoying their music. It seemed to go well with the mild, tapering intoxication, and then (well, not so) suddenly, I heard a door click, a man emerged from the next room and said as softly as he could “can you please shut up?”
That was the end of that. I flew home the next evening, with my bags twice as heavy with books and a long, pleasant task at hand. To read, and know my new friends better as writers. Gregory’s poems glowed with an emerald, forest clearing sort of luminescence, a mystery wrapping each poem. Each one carried its own sense of history, time, space and myth. Every single page had a tenderness that emerged from the very core of its speaking voice, each utterance carefully chosen, each aesthetic choice a noble one. I spent a good deal of the previous year trying to understand it, and it was almost exactly a year ago, that I’d first encountered it.
I sat down with some questions I had, around Christmas, which I thought I’d ask him privately, within the capacity of our intellectual acquaintance. The text started to resemble a proper interview and here I remained, saying to myself “Why not?”
Tell me about the title The Fetch.
A ‘fetch’ (in this context) is an apparition, double, or wraith of a living person. The book shares its title with the second poem in the collection, which came to feel emblematic of the work as a whole. The word has mysterious origins, and I love the connotations and the implicate life of the word, some of which are included in the brief notes to the book.
Your major literary-critical work is on the Daemonic in Coleridge’s oeuvre. Could you tell us about what you discovered? What is the daemonic? What is the transnatural to you?
Around October 1812, Coleridge wrote an extraordinary entry in his notebook in which he described his own experience of ‘second sight’, and acknowledged in his own appetite for the ‘transnatural’ a simultaneous feeling of exaltation and transgression, or ‘shame & power’ (in his words) that he poured into and identified with the word Δαιμων – ‘Daemon’. (It’s important to recognise that this is not to identify it with evil – which I tend to differentiate with the spelling ‘demonic’, as opposed to the ‘daemonic’.) I used that notebook entry as the skeleton key to unlock the comprehensive new reading of his work that I presented in Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination. In the process, that study of Coleridge became the medium for an extended essay on poetry, creativity, the subtle will, nature, myth, spirituality and human becoming – a book of my own fascinations, which ended up (to me, at least) feeling like a number of books rolled into one.
In the opening pages of the book, I say that ‘the transnatural carries the promise and the risk of hidden orders of insight, being, and knowledge – proscribed by contingent social and religious mores – and the daemon is the image of a mind fascinated with the transnatural’. That still holds, but the twin terms daemonic and transnatural have continued to accumulate significance for me, and the transnatural, in particular, has become a word central to my own poetics. I’m forever formulating and reformulating this, but for now: the daemonic is a figure of becoming – the altered state implicit in all creative change – and the transnatural is the self-altering agency within our being by which our being exceeds itself: the power by which nature crosses, alters and transcends itself. It includes and blends the natural, the imaginal and the artful. Poetry is transnatural language. (I expand upon the transnatural in an essay called ‘Poets in a Transnatural Landscape: Coleridge, Nature, Poetry’, which will be published in a special issue of the journal Romanticism in 2020.)
In your work one finds great moments of tenderness. For you (or at least your speaking voice in the poem) tenderness is almost entirely entwined with a mystery of an occult sort. In the two lines “Here’s the feather that knocked me down…” from Feather and “a nine-month seal / of shared blood, melted in the wax / of a waning flame that tapered to a scrawl / I knew as mine, telling me go tonight” from ‘The Pact’ give that away. Would you disagree? If no, why not?
I like the fact that you’ve made that connection, as a reader. I suppose that a sensitivity to the imaginal, the invisible, and the emotional does manifest in a kindred singularity in my work, come to think of it. That really comes from treating these things as if they were tactile, palpable, real. We inhabit a mystery.
Historically speaking, feminine religions have not survived long and wide enough across time to establish their influence in a global conception of ethics. In all the major Abrahamic religions, the male figure reigns, monotheistic or not. Do you see some resemblance between the Tale of Phyllis and Aristotle here with respect to the ‘highest male intellect’ against the seductive power of poetry?
Well, I like the story of Phyllis and Aristotle – though in some versions, at least, both Alexander and Aristotle take the wrong lesson, when Aristotle uses the fact that he has been seduced by Phyllis to say that he was right in the first place!
Poetry has certainly occupied a similar place, historically and culturally, to that of woman – both have been accused of leading the poor male from the path of righteousness: Francis Bacon writes that one of the fathers of the Christian church (he’s blending more than one source, in fact) called poetry ‘vinum daemonum’, the ‘wine of daemons’. As you can imagine, I’m in favour of drinking that wine – and an end to misogyny.
“I felt the kiss of a voice on my throat / sing through my skin with the touch of the air”. I’ve always felt there will always be the power of the immaterial as the immortal, it survives because it is only matter that perishes. Tell me, do you think this is true for poetry? Do poets leave behind a ‘poetic body’ after they exit their corporeal ones? In what way?
Well in one sense we know that some poetry, at least, survives the death of the poet, because we have the evidence of our poetic heritage, as a species – and that poetry carries the existential signature, as it were, of its makers. W.B. Yeats’ wish for his own poetry was to leave, for posterity, a ‘sacred book’ – and I like the idea of making something for others, known or unknown to us, ultimately as a kind of gift, or ‘dividend from ourselves’, as Czesław Miłosz says. Perhaps that is the ‘poetic body’.
I look at these lines and think of the music, “I listen for the worrms in the sand:/their music mixes with the sea’s breathin / and glints through thought luyk sunluyt: theh hear / muy tears and knohw oo has retaurrned to weep / agaihn, and watch the sandbahrdz blohw luyk smohke / abeut muy earrz, blue as the shark is hwuyt: // that’s a riddle that he tohld, hwen fahrrst / he cahld muy muynd to his, as nou I knohw: / I wonderrd at him, and that, his daughterr. / Hwen she taught me speech luyk theirrs, I asked him: // ‘Hwerr is muy motherr?’ Hou pairle he lookid then.”
What is the point of using Original Pronunciation here? What effect does it have on the mind of the reader?
This is from a sequence of five new monologues that I have written for Caliban, which tell a story set 12 years after the events of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I wrote them during my time as Poet in Residence at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage for the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival 2016. I had been immersing myself in David Crystal’s research on ‘Original Pronunciation’ – the way English sounded in Shakespeare’s day – and I had the idea of writing original poetry using that phonology, and representing the soundscape on the page phonetically, in the manner of modern-day dialect verse.
First of all I wanted to see what happened to me, as a poet, to compose in this way – but of course that’s intimately connected to the effects of the language on a reader or listener. I can’t speak for everyone, but I found its effects fascinating. I’m very interested in finding language within language – other qualities in the familiar and taken-for-granted – and this seemed to open a portal onto the hidden life of the English language, if you will, as well as providing Caliban with an imagined idiom suitable for him. The full sequence will be published in due course.
You talk about the Battle of the Somme in ‘White Horse Hill’. Could you tell me how important you feel it is for a poet to live with a sense of history? How does it inform her life?
Although I applied that poem to the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme on my blog/website, it has its origins in my experience of landscape – and in particular, a mood in the valley of the Bronze-Age White Horse of Uffington, in Oxfordshire. The poem certainly involves the layering of history in its own layering, and I hope this gives it resonance in many contexts.
For me, a historical sense is deeply important, as a source of learning, vitality and perspective. Those who think they can do without it will be unwittingly passive to it – just as those who obsess upon the past makes themselves deliberately passive to it. Ignorance of history is ignorance of the present and the future. The critical and philosophical study of history – which is the very opposite of political or religious dogma and propaganda – is ultimately liberating for a poet, and (I think) part of their calling.
In ‘Translation’, you speak of those who are/were part of a war in which they have/had no hand: refugees, exiles. It’s a touching poem. What was the experience of working with poets whose native tongues are different from your own, yet they carry all the heft and intensity that makes for a great (and calls for a great) cathartic experience? How do you transfer that into various registers?
It was a privilege to work with Dheere, a refugee from the conflict in Somalia. It began with listening – to him, his story, his ways of coming to terms with (or trying to come to terms with) his experience. Within that process of empathy and communication, the process of ‘translation’, in every sense of the word, naturally came to the fore, and the poem was composed in light of the complexity of what transpired there, as well as what had transpired for Dheere.
What is your favourite myth? Top two.
Difficult! Here are five from among those dear to me: Woden hanging on the tree to acquire the runes; Prometheus; Orpheus; Isis, Osiris and Horus; the Tree of Knowledge.
Perhaps it’s impossible to write the way we once did, before we ever published a thing. Do you think it’s possible to write anything wantonly, with reckless abandon?
I still write freely – more freely than ever, in many ways, I think. I let myself play, and do a lot of my playing inwardly, too, before I put pen to paper. For a long time now, I’ve aimed to educate my own spontaneity. That may sound paradoxical, but it isn’t.
What is on your bookshelf right now?
I read a great deal, though I’m very mercurial about it. I have piles of books everywhere. Right now I’m reading (among other things) W.S. Graham, P.R. Anderson, Byron, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the critic David Holbrook, and a new book of essays on poetry by many hands (to which I am a contributor): The Craft, edited by Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press, 2019).
Do you think it’s important to memorize poems? What do you remember by heart?
I enjoy memorizing poems, though one of my current resolutions is to get more of my own by heart. I once recited Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ to an audience of folk musicians in Boscastle, Cornwall, who were very welcoming about it.
What does your study desk look like?
Assorted notebooks, sheaves of paper, books, CDs, diaries, postcards, a picture, bird’s egg-shells, three magpie feathers, one jay feather, otter fur, urchin shells and crab shells from the sea off Crete, stones and semi-precious stones, an obsidian sphere, a crystal sphere, a keepsake box, a serpentine paperweight, a paperweight of Klimt’s The Kiss, pens, pencils, erasers, a telephone, binoculars, a wand of oak and idigbo.
Quote a favourite passage that comes to mind.
I re-read this beautiful poem the other day, so I’m back within hearing of its haunting influence – ‘The Collar-Bone of a Hare’, by W.B. Yeats:
Would I could cast a sail upon the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the thin white bone of a hare.
About the Author:
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.