Ledbury Poetry Festival Special: After Nyne Meets..Karen Solie, John Burnside & Jane Yeh

After Nyne’s Kirsty Morris Welsh made a flying visit to the Ledbury Poetry Festival this week and managed to pin down three amazing authors for exclusive interviews – Karen Solie, Jane Yeh and Poet-in-Residence John Burnside
photo by David Seymour
photograph by David Seymour
Karen, your latest collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, was named as one of the 50 most anticipated books of 2015 by the Globe and Mail. What sort of response have you received since its publication

The book has received some very nice reviews, and I’m grateful for that. It’s published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the U.S. as well as by House of Anansi in Canada, is my first book published in the U.S., and that’s been a very positive experience.

The best things are always the opportunities readings afford to visit places I wouldn’t be able to get to on my own, and to meet other writers, the event organizers, and readers. I’ve just returned from an absolutely lovely event in Grasmere that brought British and Canadian poets together on Canada Day to read at the Wordsworth Trust.

Wonderful people, new work to read and to recommend to colleagues and students back in Canada, a gorgeous place. And soon, I’ll get to make my first visit to Ledbury. I feel tremendously lucky. 

How does The Road In… differ from your previous collections?

This may seem strange, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that. Readers might recognize differences and similarities more readily than I would. Writers can, in time, become more objective readers of their work, better readers of it. But we still to some extent read through the lens of our intent.
Connections may exist between poems for me that may not be there on the page. And I may have in certain poems tried to effect a change in style, in voice, in structure, that hasn’t come to much. Or is not the change I intended.
By the time a book is published poems have undergone many revisions — in my case, anyway — and some objectivity has been achieved. But what we’ve tried to do still haunts what we’ve done. I suppose the short answer is that I hope the new book is better. 

You’re known for ‘pulling great wisdom from the ordinary’. Does your inspiration mainly come from everyday life, or other sources?
That assessment, while very flattering, is not something I recognize in myself, particularly. In considering my life, “wisdom” is not exactly the word that leaps to mind. I do feel that things don’t need to be unusual to be remarkable. It’s just about paying attention. Changing the intensity, or angle, or context of attention. Sometimes this happens naturally. But people are also responsible for making their own inspiration. 

What can we expect from you at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival?
In addition to a reading, I’ll be doing a short talk on how I wrote one of the poems in my new collection. It can be kind of fun for me to revisit the writing process in this way, as compressing a long — sometimes a very, very long — period of time into a few paragraphs makes the writing sound more exciting than it actually was. At the time it can feel a lot like adding and deleting the same comma for 6 hours. I also anticipate being an avid member of the audience while at the festival.  

Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Scotland, in Fife, during the past year, working on a new manuscript. It’s very early stages yet, but I’m thinking it will be a book-length poem. Seventh-century religious hermits, submarine disasters, static caravan parks, the Cockenzie power station, porphyry, poisonous mushrooms, the Crail Joint Services School of Linguistics — that’s all I’ll say.
Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out is out now in hardback 
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John, you’re the poet in residence at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival. What does this role involve?
A reading and a public discussion or two, but most importantly, a set of workshops in which we will be discussing a variety of themes, from the panorama to the miniature, from what we do when we talk about animals in poems to the kind of poetry that I tend to think of as ‘baroque’ (as in the old meaning of a pearl that is somehow more interesting and even beautiful because it is irregular, or misshapen).
I am interested in organic form, in work that arises out of spontaneous art – which does not mean simply the setting down of whatever comes into one’s head, but arises out of years of reading and observation, years of reflection and self-forgetting. 
Your oeuvre includes poetry, prose, memoir and, most recently, short stories. Do you have a preferred medium?
Actually, I did publish a book of short stories years ago, entitled Burning Elvis, so the second book, Something Like Happy, isn’t my first foray into that difficult field. I don’t admit to having a preferred medium, though I began with poetry – each has its own appeal an its own pitfalls and, sometimes, its own rewards. 
What motivates you to write?
Ah. That question. It’s a difficult one – and maybe not very realistic, in the end. I know what motivates me to read and think about certain subjects rather than others, or at least, some of the time I do.
Because the scales in our society and how we are still taught to think are tipped in favour of the systematic, the reductive and, most importantly, the quantitative, I tend to favour the organic, the sympathetic and the qualitative – not because there is necessarily more virtue on one side than the other, but because we thrive most the closer we come to having a balance in our thinking and every act of reduction – in thought, word or deed – does harm not only to the natural world but also to our own imaginations.
So I often want to write about the organic, the animate, the fanciful, the baroque, expansive, the qualitative, the conditional etc. 
One of your workshops at this year’s Festival examines the use of animals in contemporary poetry. Is this a theme that features in your own work? 
It does, sometimes. But I am not writing about animals, or I do not see myself as writing about animals, as such. I am after something else. I love poems that catch the scent or shadow of a passing creature and, from that, create the sense of a place in which I – the human listener – can imagine myself living in creaturely community with other lives, animal, vegetal or human.
I know that, no matter how I try, I cannot write a poem about an animal that is wholly about an animal. I am a human, talking to other humans about what it feels to be here, often isolated or alienated from ‘nature’, sometimes grasping at wisps and passing threads of the wild, both around and within ourselves. I love the image of Michael McClure reading his poems to lions, (you can se this on Youtube), but I have to admit to being less specific. What does interest me is a possible sense of interanimation, of awakening fully to the sense that we are, in the title of my last collection, all one breath. 
Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
As always, my head is buzzing with too much that my day-to-day duties will not let me see through. What I am most excited about, now, is a history of 20C poetry, commissioned by Profile Books, in which I hope to bring together a number of ideas that have been in my mind for years now, decades even, in the thinking, refining, going back, reimagining. This is a big project for me, a chance to gather my thoughts on poetry, politics and what we mean when we use the word ‘home’ in a number of different contexts. 
John Burnside’s I Put A Spell On You is out now on Vintage paperback 
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Jane some of your poetry takes the form of ‘ventriloquism’ – dramatic monologues from unusual perspectives, such as that of a sheep culled during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Do you find it more enjoyable to write from the perspective of these external characters?
Yes, my approach to writing is probably closer to a novelist’s than a poet’s – I like creating characters and inhabiting their voices, or portraying other people’s lives and feelings. I tend to find autobiography (whether in poetry, memoir, or novels) quite boring. Writing from a perspective that isn’t my own, stepping outside my own experiences, means that a much wider range of subjects and ideas is open to me.

You’ve spoken about how popular culture – particularly film, art and the internet – informs a lot of your poetry, but also that you write in public to avoid distraction. How do you filter through what is inspiring and what’s distracting?
By distractions I mean the things we all do to procrastinate, instead of getting down to work: reading the newspaper or looking at websites, checking email, watching TV, doing housework, that kind of thing.
I suppose some of my distractions end up becoming inspirations – I once wrote a poem based on the website Cute Overload, and I have another poem that’s loosely about the android Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think poetry, like pop culture, can be entertaining, which isn’t to say that it precludes seriousness or deeply felt meaning – lots of high-quality TV shows and films are both moving and entertaining.

What direction would you like your work to take, following the success of Marabou and The Ninjas?
My recent work is more varied in style than my previous books, and is inspired more by the contemporary world; by fairly recent events rather than historical ones, for instance, or by modern art rather than Old Master paintings.

What can you tell us about your involvement with the Ledbury Poetry Festival this year?
It’s always an honour to be asked to read at Ledbury. I’m looking forward to meeting, and hearing, the Canadian poet Karen Solie, whose appearance in the UK is a rare treat. Denise Riley and Kayo Chingonyi are also major talents whose readings I highly recommend.
This year the Festival is partnering with English PEN on its ‘Poetry as Protest’ campaign, to highlight the situation of writers at risk around the world. Each performer at Ledbury will read out a poem by one of these international writers, in my case, the Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, whose work has been banned and who has suffered house arrest, detention, and ongoing harassment by the Chinese authorities.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve been working on-and-off for a couple of years on a series of poems about Eighties TV shows –The A-Team, Quantum Leap, the miniseries Lace, etc. – so I’m hoping to publish them as a pamphlet at some point. Most of my energy right now is occupied by my other job, which is developing a new MA in Creative Writing course for the Open University (due to start in 2016). So Ledbury is probably the last reading I’ll be giving this year.
John Burnside, Jane Yeh, Karen Solie 3rd-12th of July at Ledbury Poetry Festival for programme and tickets please visit the website: http://www.poetry-festival.co.uk