FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
DENISE RILEY: This collection reflects on making your way in the light of the usual kinds of private loss, of abandonment, of cruelty – it tries to do so in a tone which isn’t melancholic or intrusively autobiographical, but is undefended.
My writing and its preoccupations seem to me to have stayed pretty much the same for decades. And an adherence to ‘song’ has always been there, altering only in shape as it goes along. It’s twisted and looped through varying lyric modes. So the very recent writing is different again from ‘A Part Song’, and maybe closer in tone to my work from the 1970s.
‘A Part Song’ was written in imagined solidarity with the endless others whose adult children have died, often in far worse circumstances. The speculation in ‘Death Makes Dead Metaphor Revive’ is about rhyme’s own relation to temporality, and how this links to that feeling of ‘time stopped’ that you might inhabit after someone’s unexpected death. Whereas rhyme, anticipated and recurring, acts as a guarantor of continuing perceived time, of human listening attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language. I wrote it [and its companion piece ‘You men who go in living flesh’] with an eye to the affect that rises up from Isaac Watts’ boxy hymn quatrains. I was wondering about the nature of the feeling that can shine through rhyme’s mechanical aspects, for it to exist as feeling. There’s an impersonality in rhyme that’s, in the same breath, deeply personal. Like a marriage of the material and the ideal.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
DR: William Blake. Otherwise, restricting myself to those who died in the course of the last century: Guillaume Apollinaire, Ted Berrigan, A.E. Housman, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, W.H. Auden, W.S. Graham, James Schuyler, Lynette Roberts, Frank O’Hara, Sorley MacLean, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Wallace Stevens, César Vallejo, W.B. Yeats – very varied embodiments of gracefulness, tart compression, gravity with lightness.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
DR: I wouldn’t lay claim to that phrase ‘as a poet’. I never know if I’ll ever manage another poem; I suspect this is a common uncertainty – if so, I wonder about exactly why that is.