LITERATURE, SCIENCE, WAR, CHERNOBYL
The Eternities of Poetry
An interview with Dmytro Drozdovsyki
How did you start writing? For what reason? What was your road into the Land of Literature?
As a child I never thought of myself as a potential author. My parents had no books in the house, other than a Gideon Bible closed in a drawer. The first book I owned was Middleton’s Gardening Guide. In a way, those are still my formative texts. But my ‘writing background’ is primarily one of not writing.
In all kinds of ways, I came to writing alarmingly late. Having graduated in physics at Cambridge, I later taught science in a secondary school. I went on to do a PhD in opto-electronics at University College London and later completed further studies at Middlesex University on the environment and (informally) literature. I’ve also been an organic farm-hand in Ireland and a one-man band on the Paris Metro. In other words, for the first chunk of my adult life, most of my ‘writing’ was done with chalk on blackboard, or with an ion beam on a lithium niobate crystal, or a plectrum across strings, or with goat’s milk against the wrong side (the out-side) of a milk-pail. Reading the biographies of successful writers, you do get the distinct impression they all wrote poetry in the womb, gained PhDs at Oxford with such titles as Glittering Gimlets and The Ancient Mariner, and could boast a heady body of work by the time they were 30. All I had at 30 was a body! Nevertheless, I do feel there are some (though not that many) advantages in coming to literature with a combination of proto-maturity and tabula rasa, and I’m lucky in being a fast learner and (generally) a quick drafter.
When I did start writing, I joined an excellent and supportive group in London. Till then, I’d been working and writing in relative isolation, without the usual English degree and lacking any contact with university literature or creative writing MAs. It was only in sharing ideas and words with other enthusiasts, in a grass-roots community of writers, that I first came to glimpse how vast the ocean of Humanities actually is.
My debut collection of poems, Shrapnel and Sheets, appeared in 1996 via Gladys Mary Coles at Headland after a long period of publishing in small magazines and journals. The Poetry Book Society Recommendation this book received gave me an immense boost. I’ve several other collections, including: Bosco, a book-length sequence on deforestation; Lepidoptera, an experimental ‘anthology’ combining prose and scientific poetry; and The Stamina of Sheep (based on a Year of the Artist project for Thames, Havering and Essex) which must be the only book of poems ever to have won a ‘Best Fiction’ prize!
I recently completed Heavy Water (Enitharmon) and Half Life (Heaventree), sibling collections both launched on 26 April 2004 to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. These publications form a diptych, two facets of a single extended piece, and are derived from eyewitness accounts of the disaster collected by journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. The repercussions of that fatal morning, the reverberations of those stories, are far from played out. I’m still absorbing, myself, the personal impact of researching and writing that work.
I’ll say more about that later. I’ll also pick up some of the reasons I started writing, next….
You are famous for your experimental and non-classical (hybrid) poems. Say more!
Famous? I’m flattered you think that. In British poetry, the rostrum of fame is decidedly small – only a very few are ‘famous’ in the way you’re implying. I know it’s canny to always come across as though you’re one of those writers (it certainly pays to play the ‘self-fulfilling-prophecy’ card); but with print runs of under 1000 (not bad, actually, for poetry here) I certainly don’t feel the subject of fame and, even if I were, I’d have to ask “what does that mean”? That your phone keeps ringing? Or that you get the peachy commissions (millennium, royal wedding, etc)? That you can make a comfy living from your art? That you’re culturally ‘safe’ for mass distribution? That you’re celebrity-consistent? That day I picked up a pencil and made something, through poetry, entirely my own – now that was meaningful, an achievement. Those first awestruck months in my writing when even the worst turmoil seemed eased by a cheap biro and a scrap of paper. Or the morning I stood bolt upright in the physics lab, struck by the sensation that the experiments of literature had become far more interesting to me than those of physics, far closer to my marrow. Or those many occasions since that I’ve sensed language as a constant falling-short – but miraculously so.
Letting my rabid freelancer’s marketing instinct kick back in for just a moment, I suppose what I ought to be doing is slipping into ‘shrewd mode’, dropping heavy hints that I AM of course (most flatulently) famous: for winning both the Arvon Prize and Bridport Prize; for landing the London Writers Competition, this year, for the fourth time; for securing consecutive fellowships with the Royal Literary Fund (= blissful security + time to write); through my residency at the Imperial War Museum where (for the first time) my phone did actually start to ring; and because Poetry London placed Heavy Water among the top five collections of last year. But I’m trying to get away from that kind of self-absorbed assessment of poetic-personal achievement. Heavy Water, for instance, is really about giving the testimonies of Chernobyl a small, but real, chance of being more widely heard.
As far as hybrids are concerned: yes, that’s me alright. As an ecologist and lapsed physicist, I’m forever delving into the interfaces between poetry and ecology/ science/ war, and always through a variety of forms: with ‘open-door’ articles, as well as within the stanzas of poems. For me, it is these interfaces that hold the key – or at least the imprint of the key – to grappling with the tragedies and opportunities of this fast, interwoven world.
Can you say something about the typical writer’s life, about your own creative life, in the UK?
If anything ‘typical’ does exist for writers anywhere, it’s certainly not here, and definitely not for me. Day to day, in order to survive financially and psychologically, I engage with an eclectic mix of freelance writing, workshopping, competition judging, researching, essay-writing, mentoring, moonlighting…. I’m a writing tutor in schools; a literacy and museums consultant; I teach for Arvon (a prominent British creative writing scheme) and Poetryclass (a UK project for poets in schools); I double up as a voice-and-performance trainer, using a pick-n-mix approach of my own design; I co-founded, and now co-run, both ShadoWork (experimental collaborative performance) and writers inc. (a London-based writing organisation). For 10 years I nursed my poetry magazine, The Bound Spiral. It died anyway, but had, I hope, a noble illness. I write songs for an R&B-artist-cum-doctor, though the bottom has fallen out the (meaningful) UK music business. I also play a little guitar (and I don’t mean a small one…). Which might suggest to you that, actually, like most poets here and everywhere, I’m not overly valued for my poetic output!
Certainly, a very small proportion of what I do, in poetry, gets national attention, in spite of being a regular contributor to national radio. Indeed, outside the poetry world (and often within it) no one really bothers with poets: we are not a key social voice, nor are we known to the general public. So, you see, I’m really not as famous as you think! And I like it that way: because what I’m after is communication, not celebrity status. Actually, now I come to think of it, some of us regularly point over in your direction (not always with a sure sense of whether or not we’re correct) for some evidence of a culture still attentive to its poets. I know I’m not here to ask the questions, but wasn’t that one of the silver linings of the leaden Union? That desperate, yet magnificent, thirst for literature, for poetry? Is that thirst extant in Ukraine? In Britain, poetry sales are microscopic. And yet it seems just about every professional over forty wants to be (or feels they ought to be) a writer. You know what I mean: this year’s best-selling find of a major publishing house. Too often, even with wannabe poets, they’re enamoured of the idea and the prestige rather than the practice; they’ve fallen in love with being in love. Few of them, it appears, read sideways or back; just what’s put in front of them. The genuine articles are far between, and usually quietly getting on with it.
Returning, with not insignificant bathos, to the kinds of roles I perform to prevent body separating from brick-and-mortgage… A few years ago, I began actively placing poems in public places. I figure communal sites are set to become important ‘books’ of the future. Put in a good spot, a poem might get thousands of readers each day (though, of course, the reception of poetry isn’t just about numbers, in spite of what I’ve said). My first big project of this kind was at the Imperial War Museum, under the Poetry Places scheme, where I devised Search and Create, the museum’s only poetry residency. If you walk around the atrium there, you’re likely to see shrapnel-scraps of text imbedded in niches and behind artefacts. My mice, I call them, tripping up their elephantine, exhibitional counterparts. I still find it uncanny, seeing my poems on display like that. No matter how idiosyncratic the work is – however much of you is written all over it – it always feels as if it must have come from someone else. I’m not sure I ever want to get over that feeling; for all the inferiority it implies, it’s quite a generative mode.
Currently, I’m implementing site-specific work for institutions such as Southwell Workhouse and Imperial War Museum North, where my lines are busily fusing with wall and exhibit. The Workhouse is a superb location for creativity. Its bald demeanour (walls, ceilings, stairwells, floors) make it profoundly receptive to silence. The echoey structure of the house serves, paradoxically, to amplify silence. In a peculiar way, I feel poems do that too – amplify silence, through sound. I’ve just finished a lovely project at BBC Radio 3 – its inaugural poetry residency – engaging orchestras and their endangered instruments as part of the Listen Up! festival. Silence (the potentials of silence, even within activity and sound) became a theme in that project, too. Doing this kind of work isn’t the same as gaining a conventional book-based reputation; but it can influence the ‘unconverted’ public in powerful ways. It also shows that poetry can be alive in a variety of contexts. In this respect, I seem to have become something of a frontier man of poetry residencies. I also lecture at Oxford Brookes University, offering students 2D/ 3D visualizations for essay structure. What’s left of me is given over to writing poetry – usually for an audience of one (or, if you’re a believer, One).
So, all in all, in spite of being self-fuelled and working mostly from home, my writing time and brain-space have become extremely precious. Freelancing can absorb all your freedom, but it does propel you into a new relationship with yourself. I’ve become more focused and productive, more adventurous. But freelancing is also precarious. You’re rarely more than a few months away from nil income. Without the grants, the odd boost of a big prize, it would all fall through for me financially. I had more time on my hands, I think, when I held regular jobs; but I also had less purpose, had the sharp edges knocked off me, became more regular myself. Unfortunately, as the ‘cost of living’ (what a phrase!!) rises, as society promotes professions, professions, professions, we seem to be in real danger of losing vocations and the voluntary sector. Artists in modern society have to negotiate that globalist trammelwork which keeps trying to split them into the two separate tracks of ‘what they are’ and ‘how they make a living’. Your vocation either becomes commercial, or a hobby. I’m afraid I have no easy answer, or remedy, for that – except to wrestle and struggle with it.
Does the writer need prizes? Does our informatics society need art and literature? What does the poet live for?
Hmmn. Prizes are not, I think, an inherent evil. I think. They’ve certainly helped me. Actually, with regard to the rank practice of ranking poets through awards and hype, a more insidious problem can be those various ways in which the writing scene fails to be a meritocracy. As far as the UK is concerned, the failure is not a total one, by any means; and, in any case, the notion of ‘merit’ or ‘quality’ will always be subjective, socially constructed, depending on networks, trends, movements, Zeitgeist. But I do remember being told, back in the eighties, that if you got some competition prizes and magazine publications under your belt, someone would eventually acknowledge that as evidence of merit and want your book. I was even led to believe it wasn’t good practice – or etiquette – to be too pushy or self-oriented. None of that seems to apply much anymore, if it ever really did. Reputations can still be built quietly, perhaps; but apparently the rocket fuel is to market vigorously, establish your own phalanx of influence, and have some well-placed ambassadors/ agents constantly pushing your work (for personal and/or stylistic reasons). One aspect of this I certainly don’t like (and this probably says more about me than anything else) is that game of being forever on ‘literary guard’: incessantly sounding and looking the part, always coming across as someone of learning, one who constantly refers to life through the filters of literature. There’s much more to work, to life, than that; but I sometimes sense you’re dismissed or looked down upon in literary circles if you show yourself as merely impassioned or as having quite ordinary concerns. Poetry in the UK is sometimes a little too engrossed with itself, with linguistic intelligence. I’d defend that attribute to the death; but not at the expense of emotional intelligence and generosity, the welcoming of the stranger.
As for society (whatever that is) and poetry… well, when I completed my book on the environment entitled Bosco – dealing with the end of innocence, the erasure of forests, the irreversibility of our current environmental path – it won significant acclaim among reviewers but barely registered with the public. It’s a sign, in a way, of where British culture is, that even for the ‘known’ poets in my country, with many publications and prizes, hardly anyone reads their work or understands what most radical writers are trying to do. Perhaps it was ever thus for poets here? We almost have what I call an ‘open samizdat’ in Britain. I like to joke that if you want to bury a subversive or challenging book here, simply place it on the poetry shelves! Perhaps that’s the manner of important things – they lie part-hidden. Or, as I say, they remain utterly out in the open while the culture is looking elsewhere. To be brutal (see what a can of worms you’ve opened) our society, beyond a small enclave of reader-poets, isn’t actually listening at all to its poets at the moment. Given that poetry can absorb anything you throw at it, demanding the best of you – indeed, everything you have to give it – a poet might reasonably expect, in return, to make a measurable impact somewhere. I suppose, even when the evidence seems to the contrary, you just have to trust that you do. You certainly have a central part to play in the effects of the creative process on you. These effects do ripple out; and those ripples can’t be quelled – not altogether. If I’m wrong about that, the only responses available to most of us are endless striving, despair or Zen acceptance. For myself, I keep on believing that great poetry, like all great literature, can take the pulse of a civilisation. Wherever such poetry occurs and is made available it surely (in potential terms, at least) matters.
Which is a rather long way of saying that if I had any influence here, if more people loved their real writers as well as their cellophaned videos and paperbacked soap-operas, I would be more confident and effusive in answering your question. As it is, I just do what I can, where I can, mostly with students and colleagues. I do wonder, though, how far talk can take us. I feel in me a growing tension: that words often seem to achieve nothing, and yet words are often all I have to offer… But I decided some time ago that there are only a few significant things most of us can hope to do, so it is worth doing them well and with the whole self. Sorry if this sounds pretentious, but we are called in life to offer ourselves and to receive others; we can’t do their receiving for them as well. What’s more, I try to keep open to the fact that it isn’t only great poems that make us want to change and be changed. We can discover that transformative energy everywhere, and in just about every one, if we trust the cosmos. It is in our selves. The growth modes of the person: those are the real breakthroughs, the best moments and outcomes of poetry.
What inspires you? Does scientific research enter into it?
Phew. Where do I start?
I certainly try to invoke the poem. That is, to consider it as an independent being possessed of its own existence, its own purposes. My ego has to get out of the way. It’s the poem, not the author, that speaks. Moreover, I always write with a sense of audience, with the idea that to properly exist the text will have to be seen and, most definitely, heard. It must be formed in that small cavern of the mouth: must be cast off on air, launched into those swells of sound. After all, a poem both shapes – and is shaped by – breath. It is somatic as well as intellectual. If inspiration is the breath in, then the poem is the breath out. The highest notes in poetry, indeed, can be pheromonal – when the room fills with the sweet subliminal scent of aroused communication. When that happens, audiences help to make the poem. Their response can become an organic hologram within you, storing in your bones (and in your ear) the shape and smack of genuine human interaction.
Otherwise, I do everything humanly possible to entice poetry’s bolt to strike. I keep journals, notebooks, albums. I file away aphorisms and quotes according to author, date and subject. I compile personal mini-dictionaries of unusual words, slang and (an Italian equivalent to) ‘bearlachas’. I practise telling lies. I raid memory – that larder of the brain. I read Dante on the Underground and Rilke in the bath. I’m an idiot Benjamin Franklin forever launching my kite into the cloudless blue. But, more often than not, the process seems inexorably meteorological – a kind of spontaneous condensation in the dark spaces outside consciousness. It’s a thick vapour that creeps under the door of your brightly-lit life and demands that you investigate. The rest is trying to get the blasted door to open. Unless the poem comes fully formed, that’s heavy, delicate work. It is that immense heave and heft of tackling sound, using little more than the thin guy-lines of language. Often, those black little marks of language can seem as elusive and refractory as live ants on a blank sheet of paper. Actually, I sometimes think a large part of the reason I’m a poet is my innate inability to say quite what I mean. A lot of the time, I don’t know if what is happening is actual inspiration or just an intense feeling. Not until after it’s happened. In that sense, poetry is the fifth element: the element of surprise – for the writer, as well as for the reader/ listener. I suppose writing is a bit like learning to gaze in a pool to catch yourself unawares.
Romantic inspiration, though, can be over-rated. Composition isn’t always as romantic or intense as I’ve just described. Much of it is pretty down to earth. Anything (not just emotional highs and lows) can be put to use: a shard of overheard conversation, a scrap of an idea, a faint or redolent memory. Other people’s poems, too, of course – those that strike me as a lucid confirmation of something I already knew, but had somehow never got round to thinking. Whenever that happens I want to join in the conversation the poem has started, by adding my own tuppence of words. Language inspires language. I love the way, for instance, how in poetry “that rope of copper” can, by some linguistic miracle, become heavier than “a copper rope”. Certain poets (or poems) get me going with almost frightening repeatability (Emily Dickinson is one; Robert Creeley another). They’re a little like those people who make toast at 7am, who induce us to stir in our beds, perhaps at first begrudgingly; but soon we’re all dashing down the stairs to queue at the toaster. And I’m not talking just about master chefs here: anyone – or any thing – can deliver that next wake-up aroma. During one of my classroom visits, for example, after asking a class to invent a futuristic voice, a bejewelled student raised a heavily-ringed hand and (with a face brimming with good old Anglo-Saxon feeling) encouraged me (shall we say) to do my own exercise. I did; and the resulting poem, Gene, helped me towards a new voice. Angels often come disguised as devils.
There are certain subjects that draw me in regularly. Family. Loss. Love. War. The illusions and confirmations of sense and experience. The pressure generated by insight and its simultaneous insistence on taxidermy and flight. The potentials of silence, of absence, even when the thing is present. Ecology. Technology. History (we seem so focused on topicality and the present these days, I’m concerned for the past’s future…) Most of all: awareness, paying attention – which, in the end, is what all art is really about. Literature (the real stuff) is one of the chief ways a culture stays awake. Naturally, as a poet, I’m also fascinated by metaphor, the way everything becomes everything else. That’s the engine-room of my writing, one of its major subjects. Metaphor is never far from reality; or rather, should I say, isn’t reality always on the verge of metaphor? I’m also much engaged with, and energised by, style and form. For a while now, I’ve been obsessed with unrhymed couplets, tercets and quatrains: those wonderful spear-, signpost- and coffin-shaped boxes. To balance that, it seems, I’ve become increasingly involved with the fluid use of voice in modern poetry and the characteristic eclecticism one finds in contemporary writing (for more, Google ‘Poeclectics’ or look at http://mariopetrucci.port5.com). Some of these various concerns, especially those involving narrative, are more obviously present in my poems than others; but they are all spurs my flanks recognise.
Yes, I do keep an eye on science. Science inspires me because I’ve experienced it at the coal face; but also because poetry and science are kin. They both ask deeper questions of what is superficially observed and, by the same token, both adopt a hypothetical and provisional stance towards what they try to understand. They each demand that we pay full attention. What’s more, the rigour and the precision of the scientist isn’t foreign to the poet, just as the faith-leaps of poetry are far from excluded from the drawing-boards of science. Poetry and science are not tribal arch-rivals, but kissing cousins.
Finally, science provides not just interesting things to write about; it also feeds one of my key creative concerns: to discover novel perspectives, new ways of perceiving and processing ‘ordinary’ experience. As one scientist said, a physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms.
What is your advice for poets? The main rules of Poetry?
I suppose you want all that on a postcard, eh?! Look, I’m not fond of ‘giving advice’. It makes you old. And I’m too old for that. A writer over here once said that poets who offer you advice want you to be just like them – only not quite so good. As for rules, there’s certainly a place for them as a productive constraint; otherwise, all they usually indicate is the proponent’s rigidity or insecurity. What I will say is that I want from poetry all the intellectual and linguistic rigour, all the endeavour, of modernism, but with a soul. Poetry with its juices flowing too, not poetry that is (for no good reason) decorous or safe. And, even at its most bleak or experimental, poetry has to be everlastingly founded on generosity, on the foundation stones of quest, and of gift. That sense of ‘gift’ extends to teaching as well: you may teach techniques, sure; or share insights gleaned from experience, perhaps; but avoid any simplifying rules on ‘how to be’. That’s rather like saying cookery is all about menus. No; you open yourself to students as help and challenge, to encourage study and self-esteem, to act as a safety net while each explores her own best way(s). And to learn something yourself.
Okay… one bit of ‘advice’. Most writers will know it’s usually best to avoid signalling, or spelling out, their meanings. What is perhaps less obvious is that this is much more than a simplistic adherence to the adage ‘show don’t tell’. Indeed, I have a theory that the sentiments and significances of a situation (real, imagined or abstract) are already there, in the relationships (the ‘angles’) between people, things and words… who did/ said what, when, how and to whom. Those relationships – related by the author through perception and/or imagination – constitute a kind of geometry. I call this “the geometry of experience”, and I believe it to be one of the key forces, or instincts, behind composition, particularly in film and theatre. This geometry draws a vessel in the mind, in the heart. Often, that’s all the writer need do; the reader will fill it for herself.
Okay, okay…. here’s some more advice. Oh, alright, you may as well have my full-blown thirteen-point party manifesto (though I’m not at all rigid or insecure about any of these, honest):
1. When sending your work to a magazine editor, never enclose an A9 self-addressed envelope for 18 pp of foolscap verse typed out in 6-point Braggadocio. Anyone doing that (or anything like it) should be made to fold an entire telephone directory, page by page, in a dimly lit cellar, into perfect 1cm squares.
2. Never dismiss anyone (even a poet) as ‘rubbish’. Never see another writer as just an adversary.
3. Remember: compared to the TV producer or celebrity, the poet has no power whatsoever – and all the power in the world.
4. Be wary of any verse or performance that’s just a cavalry charge of the ego.
5. Don’t believe it when people say poetry is kaput. For an art-form that’s meant to be in its last throes, there’s an awful lot of it around. But we DO need more readers …
6. Read everything.
7. Keep a journal. I forget most things: my journal doesn’t.
8. Take your time. Don’t rush publication. The good poet is slowly discovered; the bad poet is slowly found out.
9. Be yourself, not how ‘the scene’ would have you. If you fish for fame, expect to catch old boots.
10. Make your art your hobby, not your profession; then make your hobby your life.
11. Make rooms for silence.
12. Mistrust failure as much as success. Beckett: “Fail again, fail better”.
13. Always mistrust a writer who says clever things about writers.
You see what happens when you unleash the advisor in a poet….? Enough!
You have a lot of war poems. What is ‘war’ for you?
My family’s village in Italy, huddled against the Abruzzi foothills under the mountaintop stare of the abbey of Monte Cassino, knew all about war. Poverty, malaria, the deep destruction of land and property, all helped to fuel the post-war emigration of locals, and primed my (as yet, unborn) life for a very different trajectory to the one it would have had. I remember listening, as a child, to war stories in a smoky London kitchen and wondering why they seemed to have nothing to do with the lists of dates and military manoeuvres recounted in history lessons or in books. Much of my interest in war stems from that early insight: that history is compiled of personal and intimate experience (a view now much more fashionable) and that history (especially the history of war) is plural, a body of internal haemorrhaging, vying agendas and discrepancy. As for poetry and war, if war is the ultimate failure of communication, of empathy, then poetry – at its richest and most ‘calling forth’ – still has many roles to play in war’s reversal… because poetry strikes at war’s base causes, the root causes. And these purple tongues are among those roots.
One of the things to celebrate in British poetry is the way First World War poets are still commemorated, still studied at school. That commemoration and renewal will need to be constant, and probably needs to go deeper. The fact that wars continue in spite of great war poets is not testimony to their failure, but evidence of the ongoing need to continue with their work of finding and speaking languages of empathy and creative meaning. Not the flat, single meaning of propaganda or (most) politics, but the multidimensional, plural truths of life and literature. In fact, many of our children seem to be losing the cognitive ‘codes’ by which to register and appreciate genuine poetries. That is, those codes which provide the means of discriminating between language that informs, that inhabits, and words which merely entertain, sensationalise or gratify; if our generation fails to hand these codes on, society may forget one of its most valuable tools for self-examination. Meanwhile, I continue to be sanguine, to support a contemporary poetry refusing to fall into commercial and aesthetic step, into the ‘cultural monoculture’. Genuine plurality is kept in the mouth by poetry. Plural speech is, I feel, freedom’s first seed and its final stronghold.
2006 is the year of Chornobyl in Europe. I know that you have been working on a full-length film: ‘Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl’. Can you tell our readers more about this?
In 2002 I found, quite by accident, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl (translated by Antonina Bouis). Such a rare book. Rare, not just because of the devastating subject – a subject of crucial importance at any of the levels at which we ‘sound’ ourselves in order to understand what we are – but because Alexievich (herself irradiated in her efforts to record the event) allowed the testaments of ordinary people to pass onto the page in such a way as to concentrate and amplify them into the realm of the extraordinary. Peasant and teacher; wife, soldier; fireman and cameraman; the official and the child: common voices, uncommonly eloquent. I felt I could trust the profound effect Bouis’s translation had on me: how the individuality, tone and pressure of those voices seemed to push through into English so powerfully, so insistently, that my writing – once it started – usually felt already three-quarters-done.
And yet, I still felt uneasy about picking up the pen. Then I found, in Voices from Chernobyl, Ludmila Polyanskaya. “Where are our intellectuals? Writers? Philosophers?” she cried, “Why are they silent?” There was also the grim reasoning of Alexandr Renansky who – in spite of sensing the inherent “sinfulness of art”, how it is always “peering into another’s life” – reassured me that art, nonetheless, is “like the plasma of an infected person, can serve to inoculate”. I realised that we are all infected by Chernobyl in a multitude of ways, many of these far from clear. “It is the attempt to place Chernobyl in a series of well-known catastrophes” Alexievich said, “that is keeping us from understanding it”. In other words, and at the risk of a grossly understated paraphrase: Chernobyl is absolutely unprecedented.
I could see that the task of an authentic re-membering of Chernobyl in any artistic or literary context would therefore be difficult and painful, if not impossible. So why attempt it at all? Alexievich, entering her own book, briefly, provided part of an answer when she referred to Chernobyl as ‘missed history’. Nevertheless, I recalled how the opening poem in my first book, Shrapnel and Sheets, drew flak for taking on the subject of war crimes in Sarajevo in the first person. There was Seamus Heaney’s warning, too, not to “rampage permissively in other people’s sadnesses”. At every moment in the writing of Heavy Water, I grappled with this issue of how far writers should explore, in creative empathy, the narratives and sufferings of others. My only real option was to go ahead and write; to bear any consequences; and to be as sure as I could to let the voices themselves – the authenticated stories – dictate that writing as far as possible. Already, Heavy Water has created dissent over whether or not missing histories such as these should be broached by those who were not there. And yet, as I have said, in many ways writing Heavy Water did feel less like composition, more like taking dictation. Those men and women, their children whose words prise open your heart even as they shatter it: they refused to be ignored. Were too insistent. They continued to speak to me, beyond the point at which Alexievich’s book stopped.
That might be evidence, of a kind, that Chernobyl’s potency continues to operate in us. As a ‘lapsed physicist’ I know Chernobyl is still active. Active in the air we use to speak about it, in the blood we use to think about it. I feel infected, and inoculated, by it. Chernobyl. It’s far too late for any official statistics, however conservative, to reverse the mushrooming of that word beyond mere place-name. As with Three Mile Island, the Somme or Hiroshima – and whether we like it or not – all manner of associations and issues have become entangled around it. Chernobyl joins the spectrum of proper nouns linked with tragedy and loss, a spectrum at whose extremity we find that final ironic sign: Arbeit Macht Frei.
As a physicist, I was obsessive. I’d pursue experiments to the very end. Once, when I visited Poland, they told me I had Polish blood in me. When I lived in Eire, they said I had Irish blood in me. Perhaps it’s because I would try to look into who they were – to the very end. Maybe all the world can flow through all our veins if we look and listen hard enough, and let it happen. I’ve always focussed on the ‘spoken position’, the voice inhabited. I’ve got into trouble for putting words into mouths. Some critics have (more or less) asked – Where is Petrucci in all of this? As Milan Kundera says, such people are looking at (and for) something else. They’re listening elsewhere. They want language and its experience made innocuous – or safely thrilling, measurably authentic. Many authors seem appalled or terrified at the prospect of utilising another’s experience, of speaking through/with/for them. Furthermore, if the events concerned are relatively recent, that often seems to provide the final push across that fine line between defensible empathy and voyeuristic exploitation. I know that Arkady Bogdankevich tells us not “to trade on… misery”. But it was Ludmila Polyanskaya’s questions which rang truest, and longest, inside me.
After Heavy Water was published (Enitharmon, 2004) I was approached by an independent film company in Brighton (Seventh Art) who wished to make a film on Chernobyl using the book-length poem. In spite of the company’s excellent reputation, no one so far has financed the film in any major way; perhaps because the idea is too far from ‘art as entertainment’? And this at a time when the government (along with James Lovelock) wants more nuclear power stations along our coasts, black as flies around a rind, and the world generally remains as much in thrall to oil as the Neanderthals were to the first cudgel or camp-fire. Few civilisations can have had more covert dark to process than ours; and yet, we seem more concerned with turning up the lights than we are with enlightenment. I hope I’m proved wrong, but perhaps the only global ‘organisation’ willing and able to pay full attention to the environment, to take decisive action about it, will be the planet herself. Gaia is set to become our greatest revolutionary. I’m really examining, as person[writer] as well as writer[person], where I stand in all this. The book, and the film, have become for me part of questioning how a person, or work of art, can operate within culture and maintain integrity. My benchmark in this has been to stay true to my sources, particularly those voices in Alexievich’s book. Back in 2002, it wasn’t widely known here. Now there’s a well-promoted reprint and (of course, with the 20th anniversary coming up) significant attention. Strange, by the way, how western/ entertainment culture seems to need anniversaries in order to think, or feel. I suppose the danger is that of much commemorative activity, especially ‘the anniversary’: it can end up serving as a unit of cultural consumption rather than engendering felt experience and transformation, or raise social anxiety levels without providing a means of personal response.
That said, an interesting and valuable aspect of the film is its rarity: a full length production whose central narrative is driven by poetry. That kind of thing doesn’t happen much over here, particularly on a serious subject. Along with the co-directors David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky, I welcome the technical challenge of developing a cinematic language around, and for, narrative poetry. The film is to be released early to mid-2006 (www.seventh-art.com); our primary goal is to do the testimonies, those people, justice. I also hope the film might facilitate a translation of Heavy Water into relevant languages. After all, Heavy Water is a poem, written in English, by an Italian, based on a prose transcript, in English, translated from (I believe) the Russian, derived from the spoken word in (presumably) a number of dialects and linguistic variants. I would dearly love to see this poem returned to its sources. Another issue I hope the film will help me with (through the people I may meet as a result of it) is that of how best to help. I’ve heard, for instance, mixed reports concerning ‘Chernobyl children’ (i.e. those sent abroad from the region to ‘do them good’). Not everyone does think it’s good. So: how can the individual, or small group, best assist Ukraine?
Someone said that poets are those who control the future. Can poetic power save our world? Can poets help us with history? With something like Chernobyl?
Poetry save the world? Not on its own, no. The kind of consciousness that is receptive to poetry, to great art, is, I suppose, less likely to grind creation into the dust. I would certainly hope so; though there’s always that horrific cliché of the Bach-adoring Nazi. Would the Chernobyl accident really have been prevented if all our physicists were also innovative and open-minded artists? With poets at the helm, would the power station never have been built in the first place? If we had Plato’s philosophers running the Republics, would our economic-social-technological structures be so different that creatures such as plutonium and nuclear bombs would be inconceivable? Those kinds of questions don’t get us very far, I suspect, at least in the near-term, except perhaps as plots for escapist novels.
But poetic power is very real. It is simply that it is not much exercised. All the poets can do is to continue to persuade, to utter; they cannot coerce. And perhaps, sometimes, a situation may actually demand silence, if only for the appropriate while. Chernobyl needs its respectful silences, too; but not the silence of denial or neglect, surely? Hot news, Chernobyl may no longer be; but it continues to speak through the many fragments of memory, reportage and image it has engendered. Artists should engage with that. Yes, I fully accept we should be wary of writers and media who make capital on misery – or, for that matter, who gloss facts or leap to convenient or melodramatic conclusions – but I’m equally convinced that with all our potential and actual misfires it remains the on-going task of journalists, historians and artists to continue with the human, and humane, effort of trying to remember and understand. That act of ‘remembering’, the putting back together of separated parts, remains a civilised and civilising act, even when understanding is in short supply. Isn’t it part of our job as writers – individually if not collectively – to reclaim lost voices; or at least to listen out for them, to be prepared for their sudden, sometimes terrible, commissions? Writers should feel free (with sensitivity) to tackle missing histories, even if it means sometimes getting it wrong. How else to honour those who were not able to speak, who were rendered see-through by political, social or intellectual neglect?
What are your own hopes for the future?
I hope for anything that feels like opening a family restaurant in a fast-food mall. Something in which I could simply (and invisibly) provide the facilitating inch from which all concerned could take their own particular creative mile.
I’m also mugging up for an Arts Council England project ‘Science in Poetry’. For some time, I’ve been trying to span the arts-science duality through my work. I’m keen to write poems that move the listener, yet address the technological problems and opportunities of our age; that encapsulate individual corpuscles of scientific perception whilst sending ‘waves’ through an audience with their performance and resonance. I believe science and poetry can successfully co-exist in this way, but not through the injection of science into poems in an arbitrary manner, or as a kind of technological name-dropping. The science has to be fully absorbed into the creative writing process, so that the poems attain a negotiated co-habitation, an organic balance. These poems will form the spine of my next book with Enitharmon in 2007, Flowers of Sulphur. I’m also trying to get round to completing a book-length sequence centred on the bombing of Monte Cassino during the Second World War, relegated to a back-burner for well over a decade now. I’m hoping to have that ready for the hundredth anniversary in 2044… Ahem. Anyhow, in most other things, I’m trying not to look more than a few hours ahead. I just try to live well and to snatch a few hours’ shut-eye here and there.
What is the eternity of ‘poetry’ based on? Shall we need poetry in the year 3000?
Another white-hot spud. And just as I was heading for bed. Give me a sec. while I pour another caffeinated brandy…
Okay. I do believe (writing is, after all, an act of faith) that some authentic meeting point can always exist between an artist and their chosen subject; that there is, forever possible, some brush with the universal. I also trust – perhaps mistakenly – that we can communicate something from that deep place where all experience, however bleak, is compassionately sensed. Arundhati Roy (the novelist) lends support to this belief, it would seem, when she tells us: “Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world… it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative – they colonise us. They commission us. They insist on being told.” That’s how I felt composing Heavy Water: commissioned. If the commission turns out to be false, it is soon forgotten. But if it’s true, it never dates. Because life, the world, can never really date.
‘What is the eternity of poetry based on?’. The deeper answer to that question is: poetry itself. That crafted and spiritual engagement with existence, relayed through heightened language, continues across the ages, every bit as important as music, or love. We need to rediscover its value, and the desire to embrace it. The Muses can make for terrifying sisters, I know; but it’s a terror both beautiful (thank you, Yeats) and saving. To be bored by that terror, indifferent to its passing, is a sure sign of our losing the wildness of ear, tongue and heart. When, as a culture, or as an era, we no longer do that thing/ non-thing of ‘poetry’, we will have finally felled one of the central pillars of human consciousness.
© Mario Petrucci, December 2005. 7500 words.
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