‘I feel similarly when I’m watching a horror film to when I am reading poetry, like some kind of truth of the world is being exposed.’ Rachael Allen speaks with Alice Hiller on opening yourself to extreme states and alternative forms to reach, and make, the new in your work.

 

AUTHORThe first time I saw poet and editor Rachael Allen live a few years back, she performed her complex, vegan anthem, ‘Many Bird Roast.’ It’s a tumbling, shifting, exposing poem, that comes in “dandy and present”, and moves to a surreally different, but intensely truthful-feeling, place. Rachael gave it to the room with an energy which made the lines rise up like juggling balls, and then float, reverberatingly, as objects in a Dutch still life.   In our conversation, we discussed pulsing boundaries until they bend and melt, why the horror genre, and poetry, can each have the ability to expose truth, where human and animal rights meet, why it is important to be “serious” and “childlike” simultaneously – and avoiding getting hung up on the ‘right’ language around poetry. I was able to ask Rachael about the nameless, ambiguous female figures who slip in and out of Kingdomland, and she explained how the title poem, which came to her on a train journey, was her debut collection’s starting place, and the skeleton which gave form and direction to the material which took shape around it.  As founding editor of online journal tender with Sophie Collins, editor at the poetry press clinic, and Poetry Editor of Granta, it’s a real delight to be able to share her immensely thoughtful and rich words on ‘saying the difficult thing’ in her work with you.

AH: Can I begin by asking about your path into writing poems Rachael Allen?

RA: At 15 I read Modern Women Poets, an anthology edited by Deryn Rees Jones published by Bloodaxe, and it is one of the most important books in my life. I think I can say I started writing poems because of this book.

AH: Were there any particular poets, writers, or artists, who made this collection seem more possible to you? The historian, Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, is credited relative to the title of your final sequence, ‘Landscape for Dead Woman’, but several poems seem to be in conversation with her work?

RA: There are a huge number of visual artists, writers and filmmakers who informed the poetry my book. When I read the book now it seems to be just a mesh of influences. I love horror films, novels and stories, and there’s an untitled poem that’s a kind of homage to my favourite M.R. James’s story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. Horror films in general are a big visual influence for me; the way certain images can initiate suspense and tension. This visual essay I read recently speaks to the aesthetic pleasure and beauty I find in horror films here. Horror films are epic to me in the emotions they can engender. I feel similarly when I’m watching a horror film to when I am reading poetry, like some kind of truth of the world is being exposed. But it was the visual artists I worked with during the writing of the book that feel like the most essential external influences. I collaborated with a number of artists over the course of writing the book, including Marie Jacotey, Guy Gormley, JocJonJosch, Oto Gillen and Vera Iliatova, and I wrote poems about sculptures by Anna Mahler. There are probably more poems indebted to my work with visual artists than not; it’s an incredibly generative process for me to work with other people.

kingdomlandAH: I know that Kingdomland was written over a number of years, and that some work appeared in your two previous collaborative publications,   Jolene and Nights of Poor Sleep. It nonetheless feels as if the collection was conceived as a whole, to be read consecutively, as well as through individual poems. Was that part of your intention?

RA: ‘Kingdomland’ is the oldest poem in the book, and I remember when I wrote it I felt a strong connection to the kind of landscape or world it felt like it was trying to access. I wrote the poem quickly on a train, and I remember worrying that I would lose whatever I’d been thinking at that time that gave me access to the landscape or world that the poem seemed to invent for itself, so I worked hard from that point to write poems almost fulfilling the world that I felt the poem was establishing. In my mind I see it as a kind of genealogical tree, and even if I wasn’t realizing it early on, I was writing poems that wanted to flesh out the universe that started with this poem. There was a quote by my favourite horror writer Thomas Ligotti that I very nearly used to open the collection, which is ‘The only value of this world lay in its power – at certain times – to suggest another world’, and while I struggle to articulate the thrust or overall feel or intention of the book, when I read that quote I remember attaching my idea of the book to it. I feel very close to that quote and the desire to create worlds.

AH: One of the elements which drew me to reading Kingdomland as a continuous experience, was the six lyrics which open and close the collection, and appear episodically between the poems – almost as a form of commentary. Resisting the convention that a poem is by default titled for its first line, they are each denoted in the contents by a forward slash and their page number. The first lyric begins:

Watch the forest burn
with granular heat.

A girl, large-eyed
pressure in a ditch

grips to a dank and
disordered root system

no tongue
flavoured camo

bathing in the black
and emergent pool.

It seemed to me that one of the things that these lyrics were doing, was requiring the reader to see the world from a ‘young female’ perspective of being vulnerable, and undefended. Would you be able to say something about your decisions around these lyrics, and your idea of the “girl” in Kingdomland?

RA: I’m not very good with structuring or appreciating white space, but while I was writing the collection I wanted it to be interrupted by fragments that would link both to each other and to the sequences in the book, something that would hold everything together. In Vera Iliatova’s paintings, who I worked with on a number of poems, girls appear silently in various landscapes – running through trees or swimming or sometimes with a more sinister aspect, like face down in water. I liked the idea that the collection could have people running through it, cropping up here and there, but sparsely, like in a nightmare. Disappearing for a bit then popping up again. I think that could probably be influenced by films as well. The fact that these girls are almost acting as untrustworthy guides through the poems speaks to the balance between some elements that dominate the book, I’ve realized since publishing, which are female characters oscillating between being sinister and coquettish, and whatever exists in-between.

AH: ‘Kingdomland’, the title poem, appears to sit on a fault line. It opens:

The dark village sits on the crooked hill.
There is a plot of impassable paths towards it,
impassable paths overcome with bees,
the stigma that bees bring.
There is a bottle neck at the base of the hive.
There is an impassable knowledge that your eyebrows bring.

While these images are of resistance, intimidation and obstruction, the sound orchestration – the gliding open vowels in particular – has a quality of propulsion, as if this dangerous journey can no longer be resisted.   Were you interested in exploring these conflicting energies within the collection, as well as this poem?

RA: This poem takes a lot from Lorca’s ‘Moon Poems’, and the poem has been previously published with a small epigraph line from Lorca, one of my favourite lines of poetry, which is ‘at the rise of the moon, bells fade out, and impassable paths appear’. What I love about these lines is they seem to offer an entrance into darkness and nocturnal thinking. I otherwise find it slightly hard to talk about this poem because it was one of those that almost just seems to drop into your head. I resist the kind of muse-struck mystical chat around poetry, because I think it can lead to a mode of thinking that tries to anti-intellectualize poetry, claiming that it needs to have come out of nowhere to be gifted some inexplicable brilliance, that it needs some kind of protective wide birth just in case we wreck it. I think this leads to people worrying they don’t have the ‘right’ language to talk about poetry, which I hear a lot from people who are more general readers. It can be really off putting. I work as an editor and can demystify a poem very quickly. But for all of that, this was one of those poems that just seemed to kind of write itself; which is the worst sentence ever, so I think I’d rather say I wrote it on a train from Cornwall, which is where I’m from and have conflicting feelings about, was probably the impetus for these feelings of resistance, intimidation and obstruction.

AH: The speaker of ‘Prawns of Joe’ (which responds to Selima Hill’s ‘Prawns de Jo’), seems to be haunted by a fatally injured female body – “burned in the oval/ purple and mystical”. She also expresses a light-filled moment which merges menace with possibility:

I hold her name like grit between my teeth
turning cartwheels by the edge of the stream.
The air is touchy, fiberglass,
summer streams through the trees like a long blonde hair.
I want to grab all the things that make me ashamed
and throw them from the bridge

Could you say something about these lines, within the poem more generally? They felt like a jumping off point to me, and a claiming of space at many levels.

RA: This poem is heavily indebted to Hill’s imagery in ‘Prawns de Jo’. I’ve spoken about Hill’s poem quite a bit, and Sophie Collins described the poem brilliantly as like a wound in the collection it’s taken from, Bunny, in Sophie’s extraordinary book Strange White Monkeys. So I think this poem could be seen as an exercise in being a fan, and how a poem – or a piece of art or music – can have a hold over you. I first read this poem when I was 15 in the book I mentioned earlier (Modern Women Poets), and now I think about it, I feel like the poem I wrote was perhaps me trying to exorcise certain feelings that poem held over me? It’s a frightening poem, and I think it frightened me when I first read it. It’s an incredibly tactile poem, talking about wigs and pubic hair and burned bodies. It struck me as not really a poem as I had recognised poems up until that point, and was probably the starting point for all my writing, that imagery, that shock factor and horror. I think this poem was written in the wake of all those feelings.

 AH: I remember Wayne Holloway Smith telling me, admiringly, that you were one of the most “hardcore vegan poets” he knew. Some of your poems – ‘Lunatic Urbaine’, ‘Beef Cubes’ amongst others – melt the violence done to animal bodies into the violence done (on occasion) to women’s bodies. It is as if you were making a double mirror which reflects and refracts both sets of attacks, and lets us see the actions and lack of agency underlying current power structures more clearly?

RA: I have spent a long time researching how humans have used animals historically. Animal rights are a big part of my personal ethics and the way I live my life, and there are a few important texts that helped me think these things through and write poems out of this. Carol J. Adams The Sexual Politics of Meat, Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, and works by Gauri Maulekhi. In poems, Ariana Reines’ The Cow was huge for me, as I know it is for many other female writers. I was amazed at how a whole collection could dedicate itself to something as prominent (but ignored) as the abuse we see in animal agriculture every day, aligning that with violence towards women’s bodies in a way that still feels so incredibly radical, without making a metaphor of either, critiquing society through a critique of metaphor and damaging poetic structures, while utilising the power of them. She gives marginalised beings some kind of power in their margins. I think the way a society talks and thinks about animals speaks to how they treat other humans. This research into animal-human relationships has cemented my belief that, generally, the way we treat animals is barbaric. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. I also know that not everyone has the room or time or want to consider this, and there are intersecting factors that make talking about eating and using animals tricky, and this was something I wanted to embed into the poems I wrote that try and think through human and non-human relationships, vegan ethics, and all the contradictions inherent in them.

AH: In ‘Lunatic Urbaine’ the voice reveals:

There’s nothing like a man
to serve you pain deep-seared
on a silver dish that rings
when you flick it, your table
gilded and festooned
with international meats,
cured and crusted, each
demanding its own sauce.
I ask to be taken home
but of course I am home,
so I turn my attention elsewhere.

Along with a complex complicity and vortex-like sense of powerlessness, I also found in the poem the kind of horror which some of Dorothea Tanning’s paintings of formal meals evoke. I wondered if you could say something about your table-setting here?

RA: I’m not much a fan of formality or formal settings but I do like aspects of ceremony and the performance inherent in formal settings, and I think that’s the thinking behind this table ceremony, it feels a little like a performance. And thank you so much for this comparison! Dorothea Tanning is one of my absolute favourite artists and writers. I adore her. She wrote this seriously underrated horror novel called Chasm that she spent 30 years writing, or something. I love her formal dining scenes, they are so claustrophobic, but also absolutely bizarre, and haunting and sinister. The way she twists what should be a homely or comforting scene is a draw to me. Tanning is a writer and artist who also knew the power of creating ‘horror’ in a scene. Some of her paintings haunt me. Maybe it’s easier to link to a few of my favourites? I think this one here.  The overbearing figure of the father! And the dog of course, which is in so many of her paintings. At her recent show at the Tate there was a small film where she talked about her dog as being descendent from a dog that was kept in a Tibetan monastery. That it held seeing powers.

AH: Speaking of visual artists, I wondered how your collaboration with Marie Jacotey came about, and what the process between you was? The first poem in the ‘Nights of Poor Sleep’ sequence – ‘Meeting you in the first place was great though’ – introduces the reader to very dark material, continuing after the title:

I am the girl with the chapped cheeks and blue bow
with my breasts taped down
dancing silently on my father’s lap
of course I wake with a start in the
new bedroom
painted blue
in a cacophonous pool of blood

the moon sways over me whitely
too quickly
bordered by trees
in the ghost town where I live

RA: I have been in touch with Marie since around 2013, when Sophie Collins and I published her in Tender, the journal we edit. But collaborating with her came through my work with the gallerist Hannah Barry at the Hannah Barry gallery, who saw an affinity in our work and put us forward for a collaborative commission for a magazine. I responded to Marie’s paintings, and she would paint in response to the poems I wrote. We made work for the publication, but afterwards, I didn’t stop writing poems that came from Marie’s drawings and paintings. I feel a deep connection with how her work presents female desire as intensely powerful and destructive, complicating agency and control, what it means to be submissive or to dominate. Her work objectifies bodies in a way that is subversive to me, and there is a kind of performative confessionalism in her work that I adore. It all feels like a performance in the absolute extremes of high emotion, it has taught me a lot.

rachael and marie

AH: In ‘Rodeo Fun on a Sunday’ (also within this sequence) the speaker refers to the man “who made me feel like I was falling from a cliff”, and afterwards to following their lover “around the larger parts of an unfamiliar forest”. Before this, ‘Monstrous Horses’ described “falling without help/down a steep white cliff”, and seeing a “forest so green/it is an optical illusion/ mounted on foam.” I wondered if you could say something about your use of landscape within Kingdomland?

RA: I remember a period of time spent trying to write these kind of staid landscape poems. As in, describing a hill I might be on top of or a sea I was looking out to, and the poetry was very trite. I was frustrated at one point that the landscapes in my poems, when written true to my thinking, feel like the set of a cartoon. When I have tried to replicate a real landscape I have always failed. I think I went through phase of kind of wanting to be like a proper nature poet, but I was just crap at it. Everything is ballooned and unreal. I think it was working on the Marie poems in their entirety that made me realise this could be a strength. I love cartoons, and I love the strange simplicity of a cartoon landscape, the limited colours and perspective, it feels naïve and knowing all once. I think to be serious and childlike at the same time is one of the most difficult things to do but is powerful and important. I was looking at some of the landscapes in Pingu the other day, and they were so melancholy and simple, and beautiful, surreal and quietly kind of epic. Edward Lear was one of the first poets I read when I was very young, and this probably made more of an impression than I realise. And my favourite poets, most recently, are poets who seem to have a child-like naivety in their poems, coupled with extraordinarily dark themes. Vasko Popa translated by Anne Pennington and Charles Simic, Sakutarō Hagiwara translated by Hiroaki Sato, Michael Earl Craig, Toon Tellegen translated by Judith Wilkinson.

AH: In my own work, I am interested in how trauma can result in inappropriately, or unwittingly, sexualized behaviours in adolescence. This inquiry also seems to be present in Kingdomland.   I’m thinking of “hot tight Penny” in ‘Beef Cubes’, and also the poem ‘You look unwell, my dear’ describing a young girl sauntering into a café, “lipstick on my teeth/ a pair of pants hanging around my arm/ little smacked-on stain”. The poem ends, in her voice, “I’m having problems with my vision, sort of short lines of blue/ perhaps becoming blinder”. Carolyn Steedman writes in Landscape for a Good Woman of the “refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in conditions of material distress” as being something her work seeks to challenge.

Carolyn Steedman’s work also writes “Part of the desire to reproduce oneself as a body, as an entity in the real world, lies in a conscious memory of someone approving that body” [p.95]. Your poem ‘The Indigo Field’ responds with compassion to the grief which can result from a termination, even when there may have been no other possible outcome for the pregnancy. Picking up the bees in ‘Kingdomland’, to give a suggestion of brutal, or forced sex, in the image of the bees “forgetting that they’re supposed to/ pollinate/ flowers instead of/ the roughly opened gland/of a mammal”, ‘The Indigo Field’ concludes:

You stood no chance
of being born
I tell myself, as the sea
cannibalises.
It manages to forgive itself
every day, without visions
of the baby
making her way towards me
across the indigo field.

Adjacent to violet, indigo is a darker shade than blue within the colour wheel, and I wondered if you would say something about how it entered this poem, and also how it relates to some of the other blues within your collection?

AH: Matthew Hollis who edits the poetry list at Faber counted up that the word I said most in the book was ‘blue’, which I think has no real significance other than thinking back to how I like to utilise cartoon imagery, as I also mention a ton of other colours, and think I just like and am attracted to very bright things. I am not (or at least I don’t think I am) synaesthetic, but when I am writing I can see some of the words and scenes of the writing as having a certain colour attached to them. Some poems feel yellow, some green, etc. I am attracted to visual works of art that utilise big blocks of colour to communicate emotion. I have felt physical symptoms when in front of some pieces of visual art, which is nothing too special, but they are usually pieces considered ‘abstract art’ with seemingly simple colour contrasts. There’s a big black painting by Rothko that made me feel nauseous when I first saw it. I had a panic attack once looking at Picasso paintings. I love Patrick Heron and Clyfford Still’s big stark colour paintings. Also Matisse’s swimming pool room in MOMA made me cry when I first saw it and makes me cry even when I think of it. It’s a small room that he made a frieze for when he was too old to make it down to the beach or swimming pool, and the frieze is made up of a collage of very basic and simple blue shapes of people jumping into water and water splashing. I don’t think this is doing much to answer your question, but I am led by the power that associations from colour can bring, so perhaps that’s where this indigo came from.

AH: I’ve also had that feeling of nausea rising from black paintings by Rothko, specifically in an exhibition in Tate Modern a few years back. For me, colour holds and triggers mood visually, as music does sonically.   ‘Seer’, which follows immediately after ‘The Indigo Field’, contrasts “The kind of dark you find inside a body./ The kind of darkness you find a body in.” Its landscape suggests a world in which we all of us, wittingly and unwittingly, can do violence to each other through our processes of interaction. ‘Seer’ ends:

The sky is wet with blood and solvent,
sinewy like a fish spine, illuminated
with stars like bone ends. If you climb
onto the roof and watch this weather
from the weather vane, to hold this
poor memory up, like a sacrifice
to the firmament, you will be exposed.

There’s a Jamesian suggestion of the impossibility of innocence, and I wondered if that was something that preoccupied you in these difficult times?

RA: I’m not sure if it directly preoccupies me, but I write about violence a lot, in various ways. The poem ‘Seer’ actually came about through another collaboration with the arts collective JocJonJosch. They’d sent me a photograph of a spooky old hotel – or at least that’s what it looked like to me – with sort of Blair Witch-esque scratches all in it, and what I thought was the word BLOOD sort of coming through in the background. It sounds a bit over the top, but I absolutely loved it, and wanted to make a poem about this hotel scene. Anyway, turns out I misread the word BLOOD and what was actually written was the word POTATO, which I think just proves we all see what we want to see.

AH: Keeping with the idea of blood, and of the idea of inscribed landscapes, ‘Banshee’, the penultimate poem, holds the room where the act which brought about the ‘Landscape for a Dead Woman’ finally becomes visible:

There’s the kitchen
where she was murdered
where she was delivered
into a weapon with force
like a small model forester
axing up plastic logs
in a red wooden clock

The reader is simultaneously drawn in, and exposed, by the miniaturisation of the scene, and the seemingly disarming, and tender, use of rhyme and sound patterning. Like a tiny mouthful, we swallow too fast to stop – in the way that the murder described must also have happened. We then learn that “her hair was a clotted/ pattern of wallpaper/ like a tapestry of rabbits”, and also that the murdered woman can no longer be thought of separate from what was done to her. ‘Banshee’ ends:

She dons now a grey sheet
the dusk colour of bonbons
to seem more like a haunting
light pools through the mock-glass
and the door she approaches
the red door approaches

Would you be able to say something about the creative decisions you made relative to the form and tone of this poem?

RA: I’d say this was definitely a cartoon poem, the miniaturization of it. As I was writing I could see the action being played out in my head, cartoon-ized. With a quite easy reason behind it, the poem thinks about a relatively difficult subject, and to write about it I had to create an aesthetic distance between myself and it, which was this framing.

AH: There is great impact for me in what you have achieved.   The “dusk colour of bonbons” has an alphabetised plangency – d, c, b but no a  – , as if this ending is also remembering its beginning, which helps us mourn and honour the living-ness of the life that was taken, without denying the crime that caused it to be forfeited.

As you mentioned, you are also someone who helps bring the work of other poets to the world through your work as an editor. Will Harris told me how much you have helped him with RENDANG, which is going to be Granta’s first full poetry collection, out in February 2020. What does it feel like to swap chairs, and help other poets to realize their work into its published form?

RA: It’s hard for me to talk about Will’s book without hyperbole or with restraint. I think he is one of the most important poets writing now, and I cannot believe I have been lucky enough to work on this book with him. It blows my mind every time I read it, and I find new things in it every day. I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of it. I have been working as an editor for as long as I’ve been writing poetry seriously, so the two feel inextricable for me, it doesn’t too much feel like chair swapping as I love editing and making books as much as I love writing.

AH: What are your future projects – as a poet, and an editor?

RA: There will be lots of books coming through with Granta, confirmed in the upcoming weeks and months. I have missed working on pamphlets with Clinic after a little break, so hopefully we should be publishing more next year. I am writing lots of new poems, but I think I’m going through a phase of trying to be a nature poet again. Terrible. I’m writing a book of horror short stories that will probably never see the light of day but are working in spooking me out when I’m alone in the house, which is maybe the only reason I’m writing them to be honest, I’ve just run out of horror films at this point.

AH: Thank you so much Rachael. I really look forward to your poems – and the short stories!  For anyone wanting to go deeper into the creative power of horror, occult poems, fantasy landscapes and surreal worlds, I know that you’re running a two day pre-Halloween workshop at the Poetry School in London on 26 and 27 October (link below). Those of us not able to join you there will be looking forward keenly to all the new work you’ll be publishing over the next months and beyond.

Rachael Allen’s Weird Weekend

An intensive weekend exploring the strange, surreal, and weird in selected contemporary poets at the Poetry School in Canada Water, London, UK.

Taking cues from weird fiction and the genres that informed it – horror, sci-fi, supernatural, and fantasy – this course will spend time looking at contemporary poets, such as Noelle Kocot, Oki Sogumi, Daisy Lafarge, Jenny George, Kim Kyung Ju, Mary Ruefle, and Dorothea Tanning to see where aspects of these genres intersect with poetry. Expect horror writers, surrealist artists, occult poets, and fantasy lands.

 

 

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Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

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