Interview by Matt Bryden of Fire River Poets April 2017
MB: The title poem of your most recent book describes a dog occupied with repeatedly conveying a ball up a concrete incline from where it inevitably rolls back to the sea. Is there a Sisyphus dog in all of us (all poets anyway)?
SB: The legend of Sisyphus has an enduring resonance and is a well used metaphor for the frustration of never quite achieving all that one aspires to, while being driven nonetheless to keep on keeping on. As a student I read Albert Camus’ famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus and, like him, I tend to think of Sisyphus as heroic in his constant labour. Certainly I regard the dog – the “unhurried innocent” – as a hero, one who can put aside the endless frustration of his situation.
And, yes, I suppose I do think there is something of Sisyphus in all of us. Poets will undoubtedly recognise how, having rolled the rock of a poem up the hill, we are so often left with the feeling that we have to start over – and possibly that we will never reach that point again. Writing is a process of constant renewal and, however much we learn about the craft, however inspired we feel, the steep incline of self doubt – or the draining of creative adrenalin – has a knack of sending us back to the beginning.
On the whole I admire perseverance or persistence, especially when it is unselfconscious, as in the case of the dog.
You devote a section of The Sisyphus Dog to ekphrastic poems. In general, art can be a spur to writing, but there are dangers – a presumption that the author might alone be the one to continue the art of the original artist, an obscurity to those unfamiliar with the original work, a redundancy to those who are familiar… What was your approach and your intent in grouping these poems together?
I’m very fortunate that my work as a consultant in the cultural sector brings me into regular contact with artists of all kinds. And I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with visual artists on several occasions, which I find especially stimulating.
There is a wide interest in ekphrastic poetry – about which Martyn Crucifix writes very perceptively – and there are many approaches one can take. Sometimes a poem requires the reader to have some familiarity with the painting, but these days it’s very easy to seek out images online.
For me, a painting or sculpture is simply another starting point, a spur as you put it. The emotional or other response of the poet is what matters, and where that takes him or her. The poem should have its own integrity; it’s certainly not an attempt to explain or progress the artist’s work, either of which would be presumptuous in my view.
One of the enjoyable things for me was that these works prompted very different responses – including writing in the voice of a chair! But they are all governed to some degree by the “principle of uncertainty”, the notion that the very act of seeing alters what is seen. The same principle applies to poetry in that the reader brings her/his own experience and sensibility to the poem, something which cannot be governed or influenced by the poet.
It seemed appropriate to group these poems not only with others associated with art – a meander through Manchester’s incomparable Whitworth Gallery, for instance – but also with some poem portraits, impressions and sketches, often homing in on a particular characteristic of the ‘sitter’.
‘Interrogation Scenes’, the closing section of The Sisyphus Dog, is concerned in part with what we leave behind that is readable. How valuable do you think poetry is for existing beneath the radar, exempt from airport scanners, for example?
Fundamentally I think poetry is an attempt to decipher mystery, to decode what is beneath the surface of knowing. Perhaps inevitably poetry also absorbs some of that mystery in the process. By virtue of coming at things “slant”, as Emily Dickinson put it, the light that poetry sheds may be diffuse. I don’t mean to imply that poems should be obscure or ‘difficult’, only that as we peer at the “dust in the sunlight” the shafts of light glare or fade as the curtain moves in the wind.
Poets are like listeners in the next room – attempting to make sense of something barely perceived, a kind of Chinese whisper.
Part of the attraction of poetry is that it is not usually susceptible to straightforward or simplistic interpretation. And, importantly, the reader plays her/his part in ascribing meaning as different aspects of the poem resonate with their personal experience. Many years ago – in the days before scanners – I heard Tom Stoppard say that, when people told him what they thought his work was about, he felt as if he was going through Customs. As items were pulled from his suitcase his reaction was: ‘Well, I can see that it’s there, but I don’t remember packing it.’