Interviewer: Steven Barfield
Lisa Russ Spaar teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia, where she is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Area Program in Poetry Writing. She has received several awards, including the Academy of American Poets Prize at the University of Virginia in 1978 when she was a young poet and was then a finalist, in the National Poetry Series, 1997, as a more established practitioner. Her latest book of poems, Satin Cash: Poems, is available from Persea Books, 2008 and her anthology All That Mighty Heart: London Poems was published by University of Virginia Press in 2008 as well. Blue Venus: Poems, Persea Books, 2004. Other works includes the anthology, Acquainted With the Night: Insomnia Poems, Columbia University Press, 1999 and three further collections of poems: Glass Town, poems, Red Hen Press, 1999; Blind Boy on Skates, Trilobite Chapbooks of the University of Northern Texas Press, 1987; Cellar, Alderman Press, 1983. Her poetry has regularly appeared in a prominent national and international journals, including Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Denver Quarterly, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She has received numerous awards, including the Academy of American Poets Prize at the University of Virginia.
You say in your introduction on page one that ‘London was a vital place within me long before I travelled there’ and call it ‘a site of projection, imagination, myth, and historical, literary, familial ghosts’. I wondered if you’d like to say more about these ideas and about the sense of place for a poet considering London in your own case [which make you sound just a bit like the explorer Marlowe in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he decides to travel to the Congo after gazing at a map] about going to London, and about your own initial experience of London as created through literature and what this meant to you growing up where and when you did (Piscataway, New Jersey)?
Thank you, Steven, for your interest in my anthology of London poems, and in knowing a bit more of its back story. The immediate impetus for assembling All That Mighty Heart was a pedagogical need –- I was teaching a course on the Poetry of London to a group of University of Virginia students as part of the Culture of London program my university conducts at Regents’ College each summer, and I couldn’t find an anthology diverse and lively enough for my purposes. I began to collect poems about the city, and that Xeroxed class handout, which contained some well known London poems but also less familiar contemporary poems and poems from other cultures and languages, was the germ for what, five years later, would become the book about which we are now conversing.
But my fascination with London really goes back to my childhood, to a time even before I could read and only heard the name recited in nursery rhymes and stories that conjured for me a realm that was both strangely familiar (my father’s family hails from Somerset and Dorset) and enthrallingly other. As I grew, and began – as a book-loving introvert –- an ardent study English literature, the novels of Charles Dickens, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and others –- and the poems and lives of poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, John Keats, Derek Walcott, and William Blake created in me a kinetic, evolving interior map of the city that was charged with emotion and conflated with my own emerging sense of selfhood and life as a writer. I like your bit about Conrad’s Marlowe and his map of the Congo. Although we tend to think of maps as being made as the result of forays and experience, maps can also be prior –- they can sometimes precede and even create place for us. I’m usually terrible with directions, and often get turned around even in my own hometown, but by the time I finally emerged from the Underground into actual London streets back in the early 1980s, I had so often poured over maps of the city and had so frequently walked its streets in my mind (through the delicious excavation of the sentences of poets and other writers) that I had -– and still have – an uncanny sense of direction when I visit.
“London” –- the very word transported me beyond the cookie-cutter grid of my north-eastern New Jersey neighborhood of tract homes, with its surrounding suburban sprawl and attendant anomie of strip malls and office parks. Rightly or wrongly, the London of my novels, school lessons, and poems suggested possibility, drama, and, as I said, a familiar otherness that I found intriguing -– an enthrallment that only deepened as my romance with the city became complicated by maturity and historical and cultural awarenesses.
Was the ‘real’ London when you first arrived in 1983 a disappointment, or not what you had expected?
London was so much more than I’d imagined it to be in all my years of daydreaming and reading about the place. More everything – complicated, beautiful, awful, exciting, frustrating, frightening, welcoming, lonely, manifold, obdurate. The more I got to know the place, the more it eluded me –- and I found, and find, this exhilarating. It’s like a house in a dream –- the one that always has an extra room you didn’t know existed until you discover it. And in some ways, my experience of London is like my experience of writing poetry -– I never know quite where each poem will take me -– its ambages, sudden nooks and crannies, unexpected open squares, a face suddenly looming before my own, the unbidden intrusion of one world into another. Could this happen as easily for another poet in Denton, Texas, say, or Mumbai, or Helsinki? Sure. The alchemy of it, aesthetically, poetically, has much to do with all the temperaments and conditions involved. But I do think there’s something about cities, and about London in particular -– which is not just a city predominantly about power or money or theater or literature or art or music or industry or immigration or royalty or violence or race or history or fashion – but is about all of these, and more, that forces our interiority, our subjectivity upon us. As Richard Sennett writes in Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, “the city brings together people who are different, it intensifies the complexity of social life, it presents people to each other as strangers. All these aspects of urban experience – difference, complexity, strangeness – afford resistance to domination. This craggy and difficult urban geography … can serve as a home for those who have accepted themselves as exiles from the Garden.” I think that this sense of being both exiled and free –- of writing across some essential gap or reach –- is something poets feel, and is integral to all poetic endeavor — and makes cities like London provocative sites for poetic exploration and identity.
How did you, [do we], negotiate between our imagined places and their reality, such as in this case London, when you come to live in that reality? I guess this is also a question about how poets approach the sense of place of London as that seems to me so important for all poetry at least since the Romantic movement? And of course you’ve chosen as a title for the anthology one of Wordsworth’s famous phrases from ‘Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and this also a visionary Romantic poem which imagines a surreal London that lies asleep and is quite unlike the bustling early nineteenth century London that Wordsworth’s reader’s might have expected to see. Do you think we invariably project onto London [or indeed other places] myths and fantasies, and is this a different issue do you think because of the potency of fantasy, for someone like yourself who is a poet rather than we more prosaic literary critics?
Hmmm, this is a good question. In my case, regarding London, temperament and circumstance must have something to do with it — a conflation of personal history, a tendency to conjure and imagine, and a very particular interest in the literature that’s come out of London or been written about it over the years, often by outsiders, have all certainly contributed and continue to contribute to my sense of the place. Another person, poet, critic, or otherwise, might not care two cents for London, or any place; others might feel special cathexis with, say, Ireland or Japan or the moon, or even with his or her own past. I think that these fantasies (and anxieties, in the case of Wordsworth and others) about the felicity of places can be misleading; one must be wary of the temptation to sentimentalize or to engage in one-dimensional or overly romanticized thinking. But such projections can also be instructive; they can teach us things about our selves, our propensities, our griefs and longings. And as Valery once said, the job of the poet is not to have an experience of a place, or of anything, but to recreate that experience powerfully in and for the reader. And the great many poems that exist about London suggest that I am not alone in finding its very particular and various “taking place” to be a source of poetic inspiration or provocation.
I also wondered about how as a non-Londoner and a poet [you live in Charlottesville, Virginia, and teach at the University of Virginia] would go about producing such an exciting anthology of London poetry and perhaps you could tell us more about why and how the anthology came about? How did it compare with other anthologies you looked at or already knew. For example, did you feel you had an initial agenda of sorts while preparing the anthology in terms of the choice of poetry, or at least in what type of anthology you wanted to avoid?
I happen to like anthologizing (I’m also the editor of Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, Columbia UP, 2999); it’s a lot like throwing a big house party, bringing together poets and poems one admires and having them sit together at table in perhaps ways they could not do so, literally, because of constraints of time, place, and space, and then have them converse, eat, drink, even dance with one another. The insomnia anthology came about because I’ve been a lifelong “poor go-to-sleeper,” as Nabokov would say, and was alert over the years to the many fine poems about insomnia, some ancient, some contemporary, and coming out of all sorts of cultures and predicaments. That anthology is widely diverse and, finally, is just a compilation of good poems that happen also to be about insomnia. I also think that the trick with anthologizing poems is to find some link between your thematic subject and the act or conditions of poetry. For example, the insomniac, like the poet, wants to be the one who is awake while others sleep – who sees what others don’t. And I think that poets are more sensitive to and stalked by the Big Sleep that each night’s little sleep presages, particularly in the wee hours.
The London book came about in a slightly different way. London, as I’ve said, had preoccupied my imagination for years, but the idea of anthologizing London poems didn’t occur to me until the summer of 2001, when I was invited by colleagues to teach a course entitled “Poetry of London” as part of the University’s Summer Culture of London Program and Regents College. I couldn’t find an extant anthology that suited me. The books of London poems I managed to track down lacked diversity – culturally, aesthetically, thematically, and in terms of gender. Instead I compiled on my own an eclectic group of poems about London to use with my students. On return trips to London, and as time allowed back in the states, I began to look about seriously and widely for poems about London. London is known as a world city, but I found no extant anthologies that reflected that multi-cultural pulse and influence. Of course I started with favorite poems, both by what Wordsworth called “the noble living and the noble dead”; this reading, in turn, led to new finds and favorites. When I was in London, I picked up literary journals and rummaged through bookshops. Friends, editors, translators, and other contacts I made through researching poems and tracking down permissions and rights led to yet other poems and poets. Through this experience, I also made new friends (the distinguished editor, translator, and poet Anthony Rudolf, for example, who proved to be of extraordinary help as I attempted to make contacts and negotiations between my office in the states and the many heirs and editors and agents in London); the Internet was also an invaluable resource. By the time I finally stopped collecting poems and began the task of shaping them into a book, I had collected nearly 250 poems. It was important to me that the book contain not only familiar pieces and poets, but new voices, and poems from a wide range of cultures and time periods. The hard work came when I had to cut some 150 poems from the manuscript, as my editor was committed to publishing a portable anthology, suitable for toting along on trips to and from London. The grand party one envisions at the start of the anthologizing process can get to feeling more like a wedding –- all those compromises, the hacked guest list, the expenses –- and at lowest moments, even downright funereal.
I hope, despite the editorial cuts, that All That Mighty Heart, which represents over 15 different languages and cultures and spans nearly five centuries, is a kind of meta-anthology of the metropolis itself. Rather than taking an historical approach, I finally decided to organize the book into elemental sections – water, earth, fire, and air – in order to allow poems to speak ahead and back to one another across time and space (most cities first take place via beside water, develop in and under the earth, are plagued by conflagrations of all sorts, and inspire us to give their atmospheres, however famously foggy and mizzly, as Shakespeare would say, “a local habitation and a name”). I curated each section carefully, often clustering poems in ways that I hoped would allow individual poems to illuminate one another in provocative ways. In a section about the Thames, for example, I juxtapose poems by 16th-century English poet George Turberville, Yiddish poet Max Hershman, Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandon, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and two UVA’s poets Stephen Cushman and Charles Wright. In this way, I attempt to highlight the rich multi-culturalism of London, and the ways in which these various aesthetic and cultural lenses have shaped poetic imaginings of the city over time. London, as a city and as a text, manifests a tremendous range of social, storied, and cultural flux, with profound implications for and challenges to the aesthetic imagination. I wanted this book to reflect my sense of London as a protean site of history, projection, culture, and personal drama.
Do poets think about poetry anthologies differently from the way that literary critics do, in your view as anthologist?
I like reading anthologies, probably for the same reason I enjoy putting them together. I feel that any anthology says as much about the anthologizer and the quality of his or her mind as it does about the subject at hand. So I’m as interested in anthologies put together by scholars as I am by those assembled by poets. My sense, though, is that a poet anthologizer is going to be to a great extent preoccupied with writerly effects and subtexts as with historical and critical contexts and glosses. For poet and scholar alike, however, there decidedly unpoetic aspects to anthologizing! Putting together this diverse compilation did not come without setbacks and expenses. Hunting down permissions to publish certain works and tracking down rights holders often gave me considerable trouble. There’s a lot of detective work, frustration, and luck involved. Because many of the poems I chose are in translation or not in the public domain, permission costs to reprint several works were exceedingly high. One irony of anthologizing is that beautiful poems by Wordsworth or Blake can be used for free, while the permissions fees of lesser-known poets who are represented by large publishing conglomerates are astronomically high. On the other hand, I was impressed by the generosity of small press publishers, non-profit presses, and individual poets who sometimes offered permission to reprint for free, or a small fee. Anthologizing raises all sorts of interesting questions about the literary publishing; a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, suggested that big publishing houses may be pricing their own authors out of the canon by charging exorbitant fees — food for thought …
Before we turn to the choice of poetry in the anthology, I wanted to ask about the audience you had in mind for the anthology. Were you thinking of an American audience or were you thinking of a British one, or indeed both?
Both! And I’d be thrilled if the book reached farther afield, as well, as there are poets represented in the book from all over the world –- poets from Jorge Luis Borges to Yang Lian speak here. London lives everywhere.
Did the audience you were considering have any bearing on your choice of poems do you think and on your ideas about what the anthology should be?
As I said earlier, I very much wanted the anthology to represent a myriad of languages, cultures, time periods. I find it fascinating, for example, to see the ways in which MacNeice and Evaristo and Harpur all imbue the Thames with Lethe-like energies, and all with distinct tones and purposes. I always kept my students –- intrepid, curious, eager, discerning –- in mind as I was working. In my introduction, I try to explore the ways in which my elemental thematic organization and notions about London’s “Infinite” and protean identity are related to poetry, but I also hope that the book is also just a collection of strong poems that will appeal to travelers and general readers as well as students and scholars. In my introduction, I tried to keep the tone accessible and engaging; you won’t find much crit-speech there. I wanted my father, for example, to be able to make his way through it unimpeded by the jargon of our discipline, which can sometimes feel like chewing on scallions.
I wondered about your working practice as an anthologist, did you give shape to the volume as you worked with the material of the poems, did you already have a shape and series of themes in mind before you started or did you just gather as many poems as possible and then shape it when they started arriving?
Most of this question is answered above. The book definitely changed as I gathered poems -– it became much more international and, in a way, more risky, because I included relatively unknown poets and poems as well as better known pieces; using poems in translation always complicates the permissions-gathering process of anthologizing, but for me it was important to take on that extra work if the end result could be something manifold, new, exciting.
The thing that stands out for me is how far this is an anthology prioritising living poets, rather than a great tradition of canonical London poems. In particular, gives a sense of today’s London as a complex multi-cultural city, (you cite John McLeod’s Postcolonial London – Rewriting the Metropolis for instance, in your introduction on page five]. Some of the classic poems are still there, certainly, such as those by Wordsworth, Blake, T.S. Eliot, etc. but there is a dazzling array of newer poets, many of these are women and many are from London’s newer ethnic communities. Was this a conscious intention on your part in terms of the choice of poetry and if so why? How did you decide to arrange the more classic and well-known poetry against the newer material? Were you worried at all that the classic or traditional poetry would be overwhelmed by the new voices or else overwhelm them, especially as these newer poems are often reacting to the older poems in complicated and different ways.
Absolutely. I wanted to convey a sense of a living city, and one represented by a rich and diverse array of voices and approaches. But I didn’t want to abandon the older, more familiar and often canonized pieces – they are essential to writing poetic London into existence, too. What excited me was having the speakers in these traditional poems – Blake’s “London,” for example, or Browning’s “Aurora Leigh,” resonate in conversation with, say, with the passion of Linton Kwesi Johnson or Ravi Shankar, or with the romantic and poetic projections of Ní Chuilleanáin or Talvikki Ansel, respectively. This “mash-up” approach, to borrow a term from the hip-hop nation, is one that I hope highlights distinctions and similarities despite cultural, geographic, and temporal distances. Cities have a way of forcing our humanity –- and our affinities as well as our differences –- upon us, and it’s thrilling to see this happening in poems that come from such strikingly different centuries or cultures. I want the anthology to raise the question, “What is a London poem?” –- and then to answer it richly, from the voices of exiles, transplants, natives, immigrants, and a myriad states of otherness and belonging.
You chose not to do a historically based anthology of London poetry which is one of the things that makes this anthology stand out and to produce sometimes uncanny affinities. Instead, the book is structured around the elements — ‘earth, air, fire and water’. It is a structure that I very much liked, but it certainly isn’t one that would have normally occurred to me. Was this a structure that existed from the very beginning of the book; that is to say after you decided to reject a chronological ordering of the material? If not, how did it evolve?
I address this one a bit in response to an earlier question. The idea of organizing the anthology came late in the process; before that, as you say, I had just gathered as many various London poems as I could –- I was actively seeking poems from a range of cultures, but the poems had to be good poems, not just poems about London. Since I knew that I wasn’t interested in compiling the poems exhaustively and historically, I wanted to come up with a structure that would allow poems to resonate with one another thematically. I was, of course, doing a lot of reading about London, historically and otherwise, while I was compiling poems, and I was struck by how London (like people) grew up on water, out of natal seawater, primordial ooze, and of course how many people came and departed from London via water and the Thames. It made sense, then, to move from water to earth (bridges are also a recurring motif in the book) – streets, flats, churches, parks, the underground –- and to then talk about fire –- plagues, literal blazes, terrorist attacks, bombings (all cities are incendiary), political and social ire. I liked moving from fire, then, into air, smoke, fog, mizzle –- London’s famous atmosphere –- which of course returns us to water –- rainfall and the river and the sea –- but which also speaks most directly to the “airy” preoccupations of the poet, who writes place into being and being into place.
The book is really nicely designed and produced in a way that only American academic publishers really do any more. There are a number of rather lovely illustrations for example which turn up from time to time, rather unexpectedly. Could you say something about that design process and did you have an involvement with it?
I agree that the book is nicely made, and I’m grateful to the University of Virginia Press for embodying the book so beautifully. I believe the press wanted to model this book after my insomnia anthology, which is small and handsome. The idea, I think, is that it is the sort of book that is “giftable” -– a book to leave out on the bedside table for vicarious traveling, to return to again and again, but also small enough to tote along on actual sojourns of all kinds.
How is the design of the book related to the content?
I chose the Turner for the cover –- for one thing, it dramatically contains all four elements of the book –- water, fire, land, and air –- and there is also a moving poem in the book about Turner and the burning of the houses of parliament by the young American poet Steve Gehrke. The painting also depicts Westminster Bridge, which is where Wordsworth stood while composing the title poem. I hope that the vibrancy of the cover and shape of the book will attract readers to its content.
Congratulations on getting Michael Moorcock to say something on the book’s back dust-jacket, as he is an important novelist of London. He makes the comment that — ‘the poetry in this anthology is as varied, ambitious, illuminating, and mysterious as the city itself.’I wanted to focus on his last (apparently) paradoxical assertion. Is there a sense do you think in which poetry helps us understand what London has been and is in a material way, while also reminding us of how much cannot be understood about London, or to put it another way, the manner in which London sublimely transcends its own descriptions? I guess I’m opposing here the particular fabric of our everyday life against the patterns of London experience and I’m also thinking of the tension between the everyday phenomenology of living in London through our own consciousness and the abstraction of that material into something more meaningful to us as people, such as for example poetry or writing more generally.
I have Tony Rudolf to thank for putting me in touch with Moorcock, who then so generously endorsed the book. And I do think that you’re absolutely right that one thing an anthology such as this one demonstrates is that, to borrow Blake’s description, London is “Infinite” –- we can never say all that it is -– or even what it is. There are as many notions of London as there are poets who write her into or respond to the place. One thing that can happen in an anthology that is unique, I think, is that the reader not only gets to “see” the city that is often hard to abstract or contextualize when one is in the midst of its daily roar and mire, but he or she also gets a very palpable sense of the manifold lenses and realities of the city –- it’s not one reality. That’s rather consoling, at least to me.
Is this something, the tension between the illuminating and the mysterious, do you think, that is part of poetry’s special role in representing London as opposed to say the way prose or drama can represent it?
I’m not sure that this ability to move between the illuminating and the mysterious is the sole precinct of poetry -– think of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for example -– but I do think that poetry, because of its condensed intensities and musics allows for a special relationship with the city. As Seamus Heaney has written, “one function of poetry is the write place into existence.” Perhaps there’s something about the “broken-ness” of poetry’s lines, too, that contributes to the mosaic or palimpsestic quality we often associate with urban places.
You say at one point on page nine, that the individual and ‘the ‘relationship of the individual to industrialization, urbanization and change’ is a theme of many poets writing on London. Could you say a bit more about this theme and others in terms of how you understood them from producing the anthology. Are there, for example, certain consistent themes we always see in poetry that depicts London?
Great question. I think that one thing that all of these London poems share, despite their various emotional and geographic precincts, is some sense of distance or separateness from the city’s thrall –- as watcher, rememberer, visitor, immigrant, ghost, transplant, memorializer, desirer. Perhaps this condition is true for all poems, but it seems particularly apparent and important in these poems.
Is there something thematic which allows us to define the ‘London poem’ as such, you seem to suggest there is on page fourteen of your introduction? And I’d like to hear a little more about this, if it is the case.
Well, to quote my Introduction to the anthology: “As St. Augustine said of time, I know what [a London poem] is until someone asks me. It is many things: street poems, church poems, flat poems, park poems, pub poems, dub mantras, songs, dirges, laments, riffs, love poems, elegies, funny poems, political and social satires, nursery rhymes, parodies, and hymns of tribute, desire, despaire, and more.” I hope that the idea that London is not one reality but many relates, too, to the particular ways in which looking at how artists respond to cities can reveal as well the ways in which our vulnerabilities, fears, wildness, and multiplicity bind as well as separate us.
One of the things which intrigues me about this book was the way you used a series of distinctions: between poets living in London and those visiting; between inhabitants and more recent immigrants; between those in London and those from outside; between poets translated from other languages and those writing in varieties of English, [British, American, from the Commonwealth and so forth]; between poets from one period and those from the present day. These dualities and their accompanying voices, from my point of view as a Londoner, were a very pleasant surprise. I wondered if you could say some more about these varied distinctions and patterns within the anthology and its organisation, do you think it is important, for instance, such differences, and does it relates to London itself?
I wanted very much to present these various voices in a contrapuntal way –- an embodiment of London’s protean mix of peoples and languages and cultures. I keep finding, almost on a daily basis, new London poems that I wish I could gather up and make more widely know. If my book makes readers more alert to such poems in their own reading, I’d be very gratified.
It’s interesting that London is going through a new phase of growth since the 1990s, even though a book like Roy Porter’s London A Social History (1994) at least in its first edition, ends with an elegiac vision of London as a diminishing city whose greatest days of expansion and vitality are long gone. In fourteen odd years, London seems the very opposite of a city facing decline amid its fading grandeur from the past. It is a great pity Roy didn’t live to see all the changes that have returned London to something of its protean, excessive character — much like in earlier periods of pell-mell expansion. Did this sense of the new London that has emerged since the 1990s influence you when compiling the book, in your choice of poetry and poets and the overall vision of the book? Do you feel you are contributing to a newly globalised London with this anthology and if so, how do you feel about that?
I was hoping that one result of presenting poems by poets across several cultures and centuries would be the realization that London has endured, survived, and risen renewed from a myriad of hardships and declines, politically and otherwise. I do happen to believe that in London, as in America, the increasingly multi-cultural suffusion of our population is a source of resilience, hope, and strength despite the “mind-forged manacles” of bigotry, racisim, and fear that will ever stalk humanity; if my book makes a small contribution to acknowledging London’s globalized identity, I’d be honored.
I know you use poetry about London in both your own teaching of London Studies in Virginia and here on trips with students to London and I presume that this was one reason this anthology emerged as a practical idea. I think it is going to be a grand anthology for everyone teaching courses on London poetry. Incidentally, I wondered if you’d like to say something about how you use the London poetry for teaching, maybe with some examples for our readers? Are these creative writing course for aspiring poets and other writers, for example, or are they what we in the UK would call London Studies courses for Arts and Humanities courses?
I haven’t actually used the book with my own students yet, though my colleagues used the book last summer in the UVA Culture of London program at Regent’s College. By all reports, the book was a great success; students read two poems a week, often related to places they’d be visiting or themes they would be discussing. I would imagine that this book would be of interest to anyone leading groups of students or others to London, to travelers, and to anyone interested in London and/or in the relationship between poetry and the city.
Secondly, I wondered if you might say something about what your students find in poems about London and whether you find differences teaching such poems here in London as opposed to in the USA?
Students tell me that the London poems they read stateside take on fresh and vital associations once they actually encounter the places they describe in the city; my students who have been to London are hungry for London images and voices, and so they turn to the anthology to be consoled or excited or for the frisson of memory.
I wondered which critical and historical books on London you found useful or informative (you mention some in the introduction) when creating the anthology and why?
I tried to read everything I could get my hands on – everything by Peter Ackroyd and Iaian Sinclair; also John McLeod, whom you name above. History books. Other anthologies. Richard Lehan. Richard Sennett. Julian Wolfreys. Stephen Inwood. Saskia Sassen’s The Global City.
Are there any poems you had to leave out due to space which you really wish you could have included? If so, what are these and for what reasons did you include some poems rather than others? Are there any favourites you really regret having had to leave out?
As I say above, I collected many more poems than I could use –- and encounter more, almost on a daily basis. For the reasons given above, my editors wanted to keep the book portable and concise – one concession I made, then, was to include just one poem by any given poet, and to excerpt longer pieces, such as Mew, Eliot, and Dryden, hoping that readers would seek out the full poems on their own. Yes, I have many griefs in relation to the poems I couldn’t include –- too many and too painful to recount them here!
I know from reading your own collection of poems Satin Cash: Poems (Persea Books, 2008) that you are yourself a poet writing about London. I wanted to look at these in some more detail with you a little later, but I wondered lastly how you thought your own work as poet writing about London influenced the anthology, if it did?
I wrote the London poems that appear in Satin Cash over a period of years, during which time I was also working on the anthology, and I feel certain that the two projects suggested and spoke to one another over those years. I’m the sort of editor who does not include her own work in an anthology she’s editing, however, so it was nice to be able to include some of my London poems in the new book (I have many other London poems, by the way, that don’t appear in SC) since I didn’t want to put them into ATMH.
I wondered first of all about the connections if any between Satin Cash and All That Mighty Heart, as you seem to be a poet who quite frequently chooses to do anthologies alongside your own poetic work and I think that’s an intriguing way of operating. For example, there are several poems about places in London — The Royal Observatory, Greenwich is featured in ‘Camera Obscura’, while Keats House, Wentwoth Place provides the setting for ‘Keats House’ — that I think were admirable, but which strike me as signifying a larger engagement with London and its sense of place and space and memory for your own poetry. So I wondered if the London project fed into your own poetry?
That’s very astute of you to pick up on the ways in which I tend to anthologize while working on my own poem projects. I think that working in the London anthology with all of those many cross-cultural voices gave me permission to engage with and to write about London despite my being a non-native, an outsider. In my poems about Keats and James – or with the Greenwich Observatory, for example -– I write not only out of homage and pilgrimage, but also find ways to touch upon the themes that tend to stalk my poems –- temporality, desire, Eros, sorrow, God-hunger, the mutability of beauty and its story …
There are a number of poems here in your collection, which seem to set up dialogues between your work as a contemporary poet with the work of other poets from an older tradition, for example, Hart Crane, William Blake, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost. Gerard Manley Hopkins – and of course the collection itself is titled after a strange, exotic, gendered and mysterious phrase by Emily Dickinson. So, I wondered if first you could say something about both these poems as dialogues (or however you might prefer to view them) and how you see your relationship to this or perhaps these poetic tradition(s)? I find this an interesting question, as in terms of verse form, rhythm, imagery I didn’t really perceive your work as simply existing within an older English language poetry tradition.
I think of myself as a reading poet, one who is deeply influenced and inspired by what she reads (thus the infatuation with London on the page all those years ago), and though I’m excited by contemporary poetry, my favorite poets tend to be, well, dead. And so these conversations –- I like your word “dialogues” –- are a way for me to communicate my debt to these poets and at the same time connect that debt with my voice and preoccupations. A number of the poems in Satin Cash, as you point out, take as their titles phrases from the letters and journals of poets I admire (“Cold, Resolved to be a religious,” for example, from Hopkins’s notebook). One poem that didn’t make it into the book takes its title -– “Not mortal tableware” -– from a note Anne Carson makes to one of translations of Sappho, in which she is remarking on a golden cup. I suppose that working in series this way, as I often do, is a process not unlike anthologizing …
One of the other things that struck me from reading Satin Cash is the combination of a sometimes liquid, often fiery and passionate lyrical impulse in many of the poems and a simultaneous interest in the very rigorous description of objects almost in a phenomenological kind of way. For example, there are such descriptions of places, ( e.g. ‘Ablution’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘Hammock’, ‘Stairwell, Rio Road’), animals ( e.g. ‘Hermit Thrush’, ‘Cricket’, ‘Fawn’, ‘The Geese’). These are very strongly felt and held experiences that out there in the world and I wondered if you could say a bit more about how these qualities relate to one another, perhaps using a few of your poems, not necessarily the ones I have cited, as examples of this?
I’m very interested in the ways in which the objective and subjective realms -– the mysterious and the bodily -– exchange their secrets, and I’m glad you picked up on this, particularly in relation to the poems you name above. At their most intense, the vocabularies of erotic and spiritual desire strike me as interchangeable, and I like what happens when I move from intensely brocaded and lyric speech to language that is more vernacular and concrete.
I also noted there was a sense if not of the religious in your poetry [ as you say in ‘Geese’: ‘Just as God is not my sorrow’], then something that is very firmly numinous if not exactly sacred [ ‘The Anxiety Offices’, ‘Baptismal’, ‘Three Mortifications’, ‘Silva Rerum’ ] and perhaps a certain quality of transcendence that we associate with the Romantics. I wondered if you could say something more about this, perhaps with reference to a few specific poems in the collection?
My colleague Charles Wright calls himself a “God-fearing agnostic.” That doesn’t exactly characterize my stance in these poems, but certainly they are full of longing, of sending out language into the silence. I think that one reason I’m so drawn to Dickinson is that each of her poems holds over it the float of religious, erotic, and poetic hunger –- so that a poem like Dickinson’s 1432 (Franklin) could be about God or faith, a lover, or her own work, her “petals” — her pages, her poems:
I have no Life but this –
To lead it here –
Nor any Death – but lest
Dispelled from there –
Nor tie to Earths to come,
Nor Action new
Except through this Extent
The love of you
I’m hoping for similar effects in, say, individual poems like “The Geese,” which you mention above, and also in the series poems –- the Mortifications, the Offices, &c. Again, I’m grateful to you for seeing this in the poems.
Love also seems to be an important theme in your poetry, for example in poems such as ‘Lunar Tantra’, Rendezvous’, ‘Hammock’, ‘You, With Gold Leaf’, ‘Fast’, yet it is also treated in a physical, even voluptuous manner as much as it is a spiritual way (and sometimes in quite a gentle, witty way it should be said), and I wondered if you could say more about this in relation to a few of your poems? And also perhaps to say something about writing this kind of love poetry as a woman, bearing in mind that the tradition of poets like Donne whom you cite (and Shakespeare who is also there) tends to rather objectify the woman as the other of the poet?
Great question. I’m so glad you mentioned Donne. I think that we tend to either love the wit and often sexually charged tropes of the metaphysical poets while feeling uncomfortable about their piety, or vice versa. I like mixing up all of this, and, as I say above, I like taking the risk of assuming a strong erotic tone, however elliptical or “veiled” (as Dickinson would say) in these love poems, and taking as and speaking to a muse who is an unnamed “you” –- de Certeau’s “thou” –- an entity who is both Beloved and beloved.
Lastly I wanted to ask about yours sense of being a contemporary American poet, which seems to me quite unmistakable from both the way you use meter and rhythm but also the sharpness of the imagery. What does it mean for you to be a contemporary American poet, do you see yourself as part of any kind of tradition?
Ever since Walt Whitman began Song of Myself with “I” and ended it with “you,” and Emily Dickinson masterfully toyed with a provocative array of fictive masks, including her ballsy “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you –- Nobody –- too?,” identity in American poetry has been a site of bravado, uncertainty, vexation, and transformation. As a contemporary American poet, I feel that I belong more to the Emily Dickinson strain in American poetry – elliptical, strophic, condensed, lexicon-bound, lyric, personal, and haunted by hunger –- though I read Walt often, as an antidote and for the sheer vitality of his vision. So while I don’t write about “America” per se, I do feel a tremendous debt to these two American poets, and could not write the poems I do without their influences.
Lisa, if there is anything else you’d like mention …?
No, this has been terrific. Thanks for taking my work seriously, and for the honor of featuring it in Literary London.
To Cite This Article:
Steven Barfield, ‘Anthologizing Poetic London – an interview with Lisa Russ Spaar, editor of All That Mighty Heart: London Poems’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2008/spaar.html. Accessed on [date of access]