FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
ISABEL GALLEYMORE: A turning point in my development as a poet came when I lived in St Andrews in Scotland for a year. I was undertaking a Masters course in Creative Writing, and while the course definitely had an influence on my understanding of poetry, I found that the landscape guided much more of my writing than I had expected. Walking along the coast path and encountering species of seabird I’d never seen or heard of before was, as it sounds, a very romantic experience – one that stood in contrast to Portsmouth where I grew up. I began to question terms like ‘nature’ and ‘wildness’, and began to think more deeply about the ways we separate the human and the animal. I often returned from long walks spend the evenings reading theoretical texts on metaphor, new materialism and ecophenomenology, which urged me towards different understandings of the environment, to consider the tensions that often arise in our literary representations of the natural world and reflect on my own relationship with the creatures I encountered. This is probably when I first encountered the work of Donna Haraway who uses the term ‘significant otherness’ to define relationships we often have with animals – relationships that are at once intimate and strange.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
IG: Significant Other is indebted to conversations I was fortunate to have with scientists and geographers whilst I was studying for an English Literature PhD. Their research concerned marine environments and I became very interested in the different relationships that occur between species – the parasitic, the symbiotic – and how these might illuminate something about our own human relationships. Simultaneously, I became ever more aware of ecological issues that threaten the species I was interested in. A residency in Cornwall allowed me the space and time to observe the marine life that inhabited rockpools – it’s perhaps no surprise that you need a lot of time for this given how slowly some creatures move – watching limpets turn like little, dawdling carousels is not something you can hurry! This experience allowed me the chance to write the sequence of sonnets that weave in and out of Significant Other – some of those included are ‘Barnacles’, ‘Limpet and Drill-Tongued Whelk’ and ‘Crab’. While writing this sequence I started to play with metaphorical language. Often the language associated with writing about the environment is one of reverence and respect and I wanted to see how absurdity, humour and hyperbole might allow an alternative route, one that holds the human and the nonhuman in tension.
The American poet Gary Snyder once said that he would only write about an animal if he’d seen it first-hand or dreamt about it. I have some sympathy with this principle and it was one of the reasons that led me to take up a residency in the Amazon rainforest a few years ago. The opportunity to encounter different types of creature – spider monkeys, pink-toed tarantulas, caiman – was irresistible. The sensory disorientation I felt in the rainforest (particularly in relation to the sound of the jungle at night) influenced the poem ‘The New World’, which plays with the names given to certain birds, insects and mammals and includes a few names that I’ve made up. In many ways the residency helped me to think about biodiversity from a global perspective and my time in the Amazon helped to shape the book into a collection of poems that responded to environmental issues more directly than I had expected. Poems such as ‘Succession’ and ‘Rainforest Spelled Backwards is Lustful’ are clearly situated in the jungle environment, but others such as ‘Day’ and ‘By Ourselves’ still feel connected to some of the thoughts I had in the rainforest about our capacity to love and care for that which is not human.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
IG: As a writer, I turn to different poets for different techniques and approaches to subject matter. More often than not I find myself turning to Jorie Graham. She continually appears to be one step ahead of us all in her depiction of contemporary society and politics – and her approach to ecocide is one that is both hard-hitting, perhaps even accusatory, but also surprisingly sympathetic with regard to how flawed we are as human beings. She manages to create poems that work on vastly different scales and project us backwards as well as forwards in time. I inhabit her poems and each time I do, the poems feel like new spaces as a result. Vahni Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear also keeps me on my toes – but in a different way. Their description of animals – and I’m thinking particularly of those poems about domestic animals – makes me want to take more risks in the language I use when writing in order to capture the absurd and the mundane, distance and proximity. This is the case again when I read Elizabeth-Jane Burnett whose use of hybrid forms in Swims and The Grassling prompt me to think again about voice – particular nonhuman voices – and how poetic form must adapt itself to express the unfamiliar.
I look to Francis Ponge when I want an injection of unexpected simile – his figurative language has a kind of sprung rhythm of its own. Gillian Allnutt and Kay Ryan are very distinct writers that I expect wouldn’t usually be compared, but I admire them both for their precision and the way their turn a short poem into something that chimes and echoes. With Ryan, the poem often seems to resemble a music box.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
IG: I’m looking forward to reading from Significant Other at festivals and events in the coming months and then clearing a space for new work to emerge. At the moment it’s hard to know what shape that work will take. Over the last year I’ve been working on a pamphlet of prose poem fragments, tentatively titled Cyanic Pollens, that documents my residency in the Amazon. It will be published by Guillemot Press next year.