Toby Martinez de las Rivas tells the Forward Arts Foundation about the creation of Black Sun

Black Sun had its genesis in a simple diagram of a circle. That was the first part of it that appeared, before any of the poems. It was like a hole through which I imagined I could see what was behind and beyond the whiteness of the page – a brilliant darkness. Not necessarily – or not totally – threatening, but finally unknowable. It was something like a door that things might disappear into but which they might also emerge from. Perhaps the page, in this context, becomes a life, asking to be filled. I think that contributed to the focus in Black Sun on sonnets and variations of sonnets as they seem to be the closest one can come poetically to the idea of a discrete body with moving parts – sometimes all working together harmoniously, sometimes working against each other, maybe fruitfully, maybe not. Perhaps that’s also a political choice; I’m interested in construction rather than deconstruction; in authority and truth. I don’t think of truth as partial or contingent or subjective, finally. I’m not suggesting I know what that truth is – only that I believe in looking for it and that it draws us toward it as an object external to us, if we are attentive enough to it. Neither do I believe that that truth is necessarily ultimately redeeming and benevolent. Perhaps it is simple emptiness. I hope that Black Sun, beneath its occasional bluster and resistance, admits that idea, both as a book and a symbol.


In terms of influence, I think there’s a strict division between poetic, or technical influences, and others. I prefer reading narrowly and relatively deeply rather than widely, so there were probably fewer direct influences on Black Sun than on my previous book, Terror. Probably the major influence – though I don’t think it’s particularly obvious – would be James Merrill, whom I read intensively while I was working on the poems. Primarily, he’s a wonderful sonneteer – the technical skill and variety of the sonnets which make up ‘The Broken Home’ were very attractive to me, as well as the sonnets which run through ‘The Changing Light at Sandover.’ John Berryman was also increasing as an influence due to his verbal density, and the intensity of his late religious poems. Also, some of the Spanish poets I began reading, such as Machado and Unamuno, in translation at first, and gradually in the original. I like poems which are hard, dense, jointed, articulate – like armour. Poems that you have to go to war with. Perhaps that comes from my encounters with certain passages from the gospels at a relatively young age – passages which seemed to demand the destruction of logic and experience, but which admitted one into landscapes of intense verbal and imagistic beauty. It was that beauty I believed in. Beyond poetic influences, the one thing that no writer can do without is also the most nebulous: experience. And if I had to give any advice to my younger self it would be just that – wait. Be patient. The things you need to learn are not to do with technique or syntax, because technique is life, and the life hasn’t been lived yet. The further you go in this world, the further you go in the other – the world of dreams and symbols, where the dead live. When I was young, I thought I knew everything. But how can you dream what children will do to you, and divorce, and loss and the suffering of those close to you? How can you dream what getting older is like? Can you understand the crucifixion if you have never watched someone dying? Those experiences are like walking into different countries – one thing in the mind, another in actuality. And there are more to come, of course, and stranger, and more chastening and, perhaps, richer. I don’t know. So I would say to that younger self – be cautious. Not too cautious. Believe in language. ‘Do not waver in it,’ as Seamus Heaney said. And if you must accept that it is difficult to manage, well, so are saws and hammers and nails, but you can still make a chair for someone to sit on and watch the sun going down. Be humble in the sense that this is what you have. It might be the one thing that remains.