The New Welsh Review mentions the ‘coarse vitality’ in your latest collection, Red Devon; this is evident from the first poem in the book and gave me the impression that you wanted readers to know from the outset that these would not be bucolic English countryside poems. Was that a concern for you?
‘Coarse vitality’—yes, I like that. It’s true, things are pretty rough and ready on a farm, and it is all about life and death; a fox after the fowls, stillbirths at lambing, a cow struggling to calve. Farmers are also kept firmly in touch with their own mortality; machinery is unwieldy and unforgiving, animals can be unpredictable and a random kick from a cow can break bones. This sort of subject matter dictates muscular, down-to-earth language—coarse, if you like. So I don’t think bucolic English countryside poems were ever an option. It’s just not how I see the world. Not that there isn’t beauty and joy to be found in nature, and great poetry to be written about it. But I’m more interested in the human element at work in the countryside, how people negotiate deals with the natural world, exploit it, or live more or less harmoniously within it. In this, I guess I’m influenced by people like RS Thomas and Ted Hughes, who see the grit and the grime as necessary counterpoint to the beauty. What I was certainly concerned about was not to be too obviously political or didactic. I have pretty strong misgivings about the way much agriculture is practised both in the UK and around the world, and inevitably this comes across in some of my poetry. I was keen not to sound worthy. But great poetry has come from poets with deeply felt convictions. I’m not sure we should keep politics out of poetry. I’m still working this one out.
The toughness of farming and its dangers become all too clear in the sequence of poems which is a love story between the characters ‘Grunt’ and ‘Jo’; these two characters seem to act as a vehicle for some of the realities of farming as well as some of those concerns about modern agriculture. Was this your intent or did it happen as the poems formed?
The Grunt & Jo sequence of poems grew out of a pamphlet, Wheelbarrow Farm, which I wrote in 2009 -10. At this time we were running a one hundred acre mixed organic stock farm producing pedigree Red Devon breeding heifers, finished beef steers and organic lamb and hoggett. Many of our neighbours used traditional farming methods—hand shearing, mixed stocking, long rotations—often in conjunction with modern chemical inputs and machinery. Living and working among them we saw how difficult it was for many to deal with the changes imposed by modern commercial agriculture, how hard it was to make any sort of living, and also how physically tough the farming life can be. In Wheelbarrow Farm I tried to show some of this. Grunt Garvey is a composite character made up of a number of Devon farmers who lived and farmed near us, and his preoccupations are typical of small farmers in Devon; TB, weed control, pests, red tape, the cost of living. Grunt’s farm is Wheelbarrow Farm, so named due to Grunt’s reliance on one of the earliest agricultural implements, mostly used by him for transporting dead sheep. In Red Devon I gave Grunt a love interest. It seemed the obvious thing to do. I’m not sure how much I consciously tried to make the story of Grunt and Jo a vehicle for anything, but I do know that if you want a tragic end, a farm is a pretty good place to be.
You say “if you want a tragic end”; the tragedy has a sense of inevitability about it, and the lovers have an archetypal feel to them. Was this intentional? I am wondering whether the characters took charge of their own story in the way that novelists sometimes say their characters do.
Partly. Both Grunt and Jo made it pretty clear what they would and wouldn’t do, and to some extent the story did rather play itself out. But I did know from the start where they were headed. I’m pleased you say that their characters have an archetypal feel. I was very much going for that whole Greek thing, especially with Grunt – I wanted that sense of inevitability, of events taking the only possible course.
As you’ve suggested, farming is tough and it’s hard work. Others have found the space for poetry in farming: M R Peacocke – a previous interviewee here – started writing and publishing poetry after moving to a Cumbrian hill farm. Where did you find the poetry, or the space for it, in farming? How do poems begin, for you?
These poems bgan mostly as barely legible scribbles on any muddy scrap of paper—farm shop receipts, feed sack labels, old movement forms—and stuffed deep in the pockets of my old Barbour. In the early days of writing I found that walking the dog was a good time for ideas to evolve to the scribbling stage and would often come back from tramping round the Devon lanes with a few phrases or a couple of lines to worry over for the rest of the day. We sold the farm at the end of 2011 and let much of the land out to grasskeep, so these days I have more time to write, although I write very little during school holidays and tend to have a burst of activity from mid-January to the end of March, and mid-September to the end of October. We tend to do work on the house in May and June (we have a rambling Georgian house which needs regular attention) and I work with my husband on a children’s theatre show for Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre during November and December. If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago I would have answered using words like ‘inspiration’ and ‘muse’. These days I think of it as more of a craft than an art. I sit down to work on something whether I feel like it or not. I’ll go over old stuff, read some poetry, or trawl the internet for something to trigger an idea. While I used to work poem by poem, I now work on more of a whole book basis, so I tend to know the territory I want to cover in advance, though often not how I’m going to approach it.
Working on a book, rather than individual poems is a different feeling, I know. Are you aware of how the poems communicate with each other as you write them?
I was aware of wanting certain themes or tropes to run through the book. The colour red, particularly red mud; a seven-couplet form; an obsession with pigs; local dialect and phraseology; and a filmic approach which sweeps from the minute to the macro to show scale, and perspective.
I was aware, while reading Red Devon, that you use the personal first person very rarely. Is this a deliberate choice? How do you feel about writing in the first person?
I wanted the Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker to have a strong narrative flow—not an easy thing to do with a sequence of poems—and I didn’t think an ‘I’ would help that, so ‘I’ kept out of it until the last line of the penultimate poem of the section. In the last poem I really put my hand up to being the author of it all (although the characters do seem to be the authors of their own fate, even to me). The poems in the second part are spoken by a variety of characters; pigs, cannibals, scientists, farmers from around the globe. I wanted to offer a range of perspectives on certain features of commercial global agriculture. The third section—UK364195, which is the holding number for our farm—is more personal. These poems come directly out of my experience of farming, and I think only three of them are not from a direct ‘I’ or ‘we’ standpoint. I do have some reluctance to write in the first person. I think as poets we owe it to our readers to be interesting. I don’t mean all-singing and dancing, bells, whistles and fireworks—there are lots of different ways to be interesting and often the quieter the better. But I don’t think we can assume that the contents of our own heads will interest other peoople just because it interests us. Obviously we write what we write, but there’s no harm in considering a range of different ways of doing things—variants of form, perspective, voice, tone—because poetry works by crossing the gaps between people and making the individual feel part of a wider story or community, and there are many ways to meet readers and facilitate this connection.
Finally, you mentioned working on a ‘whole book basis’, rather than individual poems; are you working on a book now? What’s next for you?
I was walking in the woods last year when my small son spotted a mound of earth thrown up by a fallen tree. He named it the Mud Man, and fed leaves and flowers into the gap between the rootball and the ground, as if it was a mouth. I was interested by the way he ascribed personhood to it, and then felt a need to pacify, honour and even deify it. (We are not a religious family). This got me thinking about religion, our evolutionary byproduct of useful mental adaptations, and how certain situations might be more conducive to religious belief. One of my older boys has recently been dealing with the sharp end of his chronic kidney disease, and I have found myself undertaking something disconcertingly close to prayer. I have been working on some poems about this, though I’m not entirely sure where they are going. I take issue with the way most religious thought stands in the way of scientific advancement and medical research, which is what I ‘pray’ for most these days, so I think I will probably arrange for Grunt Garvey to jump ship from Red Devon and drive over the Mud Man in his green Fendt tractor.