When I first developed an online presence, this is what it looked like. I was providing authentic Latin for a computer game my daughter was developing – Latin, it turns out, was made for alien court cases – and I thought I might do a lot more of this, as well as translations. It never happened. People who wanted ancient languages for curses, spells, prophecies or plain ordinary geeky purposes were very soon able to learn , everything from Old Norse to Elvish and Klingon on the internet, and didn’t need me. And I found myself increasingly absorbed in my own poetry – and eventually, editing. But the idea I dimly felt when I started and later expressed in the Burnedthumb poem, was that it is a poet’s job to cross the boundaries between one language and another, and between one species and another, listening and learning wisdom.
This came out in the Eurydice sequence in Wherever We Live Now, in the Huldra poems in The Territory of Rain, and was behind the ways of knowing poems in Haggards, and more explicitly in The Wren in the Ash Tree. But since Haggards came out, there has been a slump in my poetry. I’ve written a bit, but I’ve been very ambivalent about it, wary of staying in my comfort zone and merely repeating myself. I’ve also been very busy editing, which turned out to be very helpful in ways I couldn’t possibly predict. And, if you’ve seen the events page you’ll see that lately I’ve done some readings, including newer poems, and a workshop. I’m not going to discuss those in detail, but all these combined factors have helped me develop the theme and structure of the next collection.
Occasional comments about my work have seemed to imply that my personal life was missing from my work, and that this poet wasn’t so much ‘scarred, accidental, listening’, as invisible, perhaps in hiding. This threw up a dilemma that was psychological as much as poetic. It wasn’t just that I believed my personal life was uninteresting or irrelevant to the poetry – the poet is always implied in a poem, no? But I appeared, when I thought about it, to be invisible and in hiding from myself.
There are people who take this to pathological extremes, lumped together under the heading of dissociative disorder. I haven’t experienced anything serious enough to classify as pathological, but I have had enough fleeting and partial experiences to realise that it is not the most creative or comfortable way to be. Recent events have forced me to reflect on what it means ‘to be a person’, and the kinds of knowledge someone has to possess to know that she is a person. Crucial to this is the work of Julia Kristeva whose concept of the human as a ‘speaking being’ inspired The Wren in the Ash Tree, the writings of a Scottish medieval philosopher, Richard of St Victor (who may even have lived in the Abbey of our village), as well as the writings about herbs which led me to think about the ‘ways of knowing’ valued by different cultures.
I’m going to be writing about self-understanding and perception, about belonging to a place or a community, and artistic expression and language. Some of it may well be quite personal, but mostly it’s about being human in an age where that concept seems increasingly up for debate. Since I’ve started reading the recent poems, the book has come alive in my head, and it will be called Burnedthumb.