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Patrick Chapman Interview

 

Patrick Chapman’s poetry collections are Jazztown (Raven Arts Press, 1991); The New Pornography (Salmon, 1996); Breaking Hearts And Traffic Lights (Salmon, 2007); A Shopping Mall On Mars (BlazeVOX, 2008); The Darwin Vampires (Salmon, 2010); A Promiscuity of Spines: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2012); Slow Clocks of Decay (Salmon, 2016); and Open Season on the Moon (Salmon, 2019). His books of fiction are The Wow Signal, (stories, Bluechrome, 2007), The Negative Cutter (novellas, Arlen House, 2014); So Long, Napoleon Solo (novel, BlazeVOX, 2017); and Anhedonia (stories, BlazeVOX, 2018). He has written for several animated television shows; scripted an award-winning short film, Burning The Bed (2003); and written audio dramas for Doctor Who and Dan Dare. He produced B7’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles for BBC Radio 4. With poet Dimitra Xidous he edits The Pickled Body.

   

 

Maureen Gallagher is an Irish writer and poet living in Galway. Her first poetry collection, Calling the Tune, was published by Wordsonthestreet Press in December 2008. Her stories, poetry and literary criticism have been published widely in magazines and anthologies, including Chapman, Van Gogh’s Ear, The Cork Literary Review, The Stinging Fly and New Irish Writing. She has won or been shortlisted in many competitions, including the Hanna Greally 2017 Short Story Award, Limnisa 2018 Short Story Award, RTE’s Write by the Sea 2018 Award and the Benedict Kiely 2018 Short Story Award. Her website can be found here.

   

 

MG Open Season on the Moon, your most recent publication, is your eighth poetry collection. How do you think it differs from your other collections?

PC: In this collection the content of many of the poems is reflected in how they look on the page, so that meaning and form dance together. Because of how they’re laid out, there can be a few ways to read some of them aloud. It’s like that Monty Python LP where one side had two grooves. This evolved without premeditation or intention—I followed the work where it wanted to go, rather than setting out to be visually expressive. In my previous collection, the visual began to become more important. Open Season on the Moon takes that further. It felt natural to go this way. It allows for ‘easter eggs’, and layers you wouldn’t get with a straight text.

 

MG Not so long ago, in an article in PIR, Michael Smith bemoaned the lack of avant-garde modernist writing in Ireland. But if we take your recent collection as an example, you demonstrate a strong commitment to exploring new and fresh ways of approaching a theme—avant-garde, if you will. You experiment with form including concrete poems. How do you go about deciding how to proceed? Does the content decide the form? Or vice versa? Do you believe that poetry should always have meaning?

 

PC: For Open Season on the Moon the forms arrived with the poems; there was no potential reader in mind, and being avant-garde was not a consideration. Yet they have turned out somewhat avant-garde. Is that a classification that means what it used to? In any case, these poems are not exactly traditional but there are some traditional structures, which I’ve gleefully torn apart. ‘Stiletto and Fugue’ consists of mutated sonnets. You can read ‘In Heaven’ aloud a couple of ways, both of them right, one of them incantatory. ‘Blvd’, a tribute to the swimming pools in J. G. Ballard and Sunset Boulevard, began as a scrap of text that became a poem when laid out in a grid that recalls a swimming pool as well as a “word search” puzzle. When work emerged that used the visual and verbal in concert, I trusted that as a hidden intention.

 

A poem can have meaning but that doesn’t need to be obvious or digestible. I like it when the reader has work to do. In writing, I never focus on what a piece is about, just on what it is, as an object in time and space. This often means diving into a place where everything is strange, yet still me—a bit like being an actor. I like Lynch’s idea of ‘catching the big fish’, coupled with Woody Allen’s idea of ‘showing up’.

 

As to Michael Smith’s point, I don’t think I’m particularly an Irish writer; my influences don’t come from other poetry or the idea of a canon. If you’re going to make a beautiful Grecian urn, be sure to bring some interesting ashes to put in it.

 

How do I decide how to proceed? I don’t plan ahead, I just see what wants to join me in the room. Sometimes it’s a lonely ghost, sometimes it’s a planet. Sometimes it’s nothing at all.

 

MG A love poem from the collection, ‘Ophelia’s Day Out’, appeared recently in the Irish Times; and indeed love in all its various aspects—erotic, unrequited, platonic—features strongly in Open Season on the Moon.

 

PC: There are many kinds of love poem, and the ones you write in your youth can be very different from those you make in middle age, as death leaves its card and you know it will attempt delivery again soon. As I get older, my love poems have become more reflective, meditations on the subject, although some began with fireworks. A few in this book had considerable latency periods, their first versions written decades ago and forgotten until I rediscovered them in an unused typescript. What is now ‘Ophelia’s Day Out’ started as a few lines left incomplete around 1990. They became starter material for the new piece. ‘Titania’s Reflection’ began as a short, unfinished fragment in 1995 and is now expanded and evolved—everything but the inspiration is new. It was waiting for an older perspective, for more of the story to happen; it needed to marinate. Those love poems are extreme examples of Wordsworth’s "emotion recalled in tranquillity". They’ve been put in suspended animation for a generation and revived when what ailed them could be cured. A love poem is always composed by an unreliable narrator; these ones were composed by two— different versions of the same poet. Beauty is truth, but only in science.

 

MG In contrast, another major theme in Open Season on the Moon is alienation and its corollary, breakdown. ‘The Archivist’ intimates a future where intelligent machines rule while ‘Wait for Me’ is a study of what awaits the newborn coming into this beautiful frightening world. The poems that follow explore states of despair and suicide. Can I ask you if you fear, as many do, and as your poems seem to suggest, we face into a very uncertain future, that humanity’s days are numbered, that we are doomed as a species?

 

PC: People have a tendency to think in an anthropocentric way, that we’ll always be around—but in historical terms, we’ve only just got here, and we’ve already trashed the place. If there were aeons in which the planet got on just fine without us, there will surely be billions of years in which it will do so again. Two curves intersect at this moment in history. One is that of progress. We are making astounding discoveries in physics, astronomy, medical science—leaps of knowledge that, should we survive the present century, will transform our species and secure its future in balance with the planet and eventually, the galaxy. It’s a beautiful vision of old science-fiction dreams. The other curve is the direction of travel towards our own extinction as Earth becomes Venus, and we take most other life down with us. That’s a terrible vision of old science-fiction nightmares. It will be unmarked that we came so close to clearing the way to a fusion-powered, technologically advanced, post-scarcity world, only to fall because we didn’t solve climate change in time. We have a decade or so, and it’s not looking great. That said, I believe the children are our future, and am immensely inspired by activists such as Greta Thunberg—even as the grown-ups who run the planet consistently show that they don’t deserve their power. We adults should be ashamed of ourselves. A virus with shoes, as Bill Hicks said, is what we are. Part of the trouble is, in the short-lived Anthropocene, some of us don’t even have shoes. So we need social justice and equality as well as ecological renewal. Meanwhile, the Sixth Extinction is underway. We are responsible for this, and for changing it.

 

‘The Archivist’ doesn’t necessarily feature intelligent machines, but it does speak about the end of humanity and the possibility that once we’re out of the way, some other species will have a go. That’s how we got our start, after all. Big asteroid, goodbye terrible lizards, hello terrible mammals. Nature abhors a vacuum, and some other species will become dominant should we vanish. What the poem says, really, is that there may be evidence of humans left but whichever species replaces us will have no means to understand what, if anything, those traces mean. There’ll be no context, no Rosetta stone. Who knows how our successors will think, or why they should think about us at all. They may be lifeforms adapted to living in a carbon-dioxide-rich, pressure-cooker atmosphere that our feedback loops have made of the Earth. In hundreds of millions of years, our only remains will be satellites and the artefacts we left on the moon and on Mars. They will cause our successors to wonder when the ancient aliens visited the solar system and why they didn’t tidy up after themselves.

 

MG There has been a longstanding debate in the Irish poetry scene on the subject of Art for Art’s Sake, whether poetry has any function in the so-called “real” world. Seamus Heaney, for example, came under pressure to address the reality of what was happening in the North and sometimes brought to task for sidestepping the issue. In Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, Dennis O’ Driscoll pointed to the innovative writing that has come out of Eastern Europe: literature that addressed the reality of life under Stalinism without falling into the trap of propaganda art. You don’t sidestep the issues. In poems such as ‘Pilot’, ‘Tonnchenform’ and ‘Orangewoman in New York’ you challenge the received wisdom of religion, war and the status quo. As you bear witness to the troubling direction you perceive humanity to be heading towards, can I ask if you believe poetry has any role in changing society?

 

PC: Art should always be for art’s sake. That’s all it needs to do in order to be honest, but that doesn’t have to be all it can do. So yes, poetry may hold up a mirror to society but society isn’t looking in that particular mirror; it’s drowsing in front of Netflix and getting worked up about pronouns on Twitter. That’s fine. No one owes any writer an audience. There are many more effective ways to make a difference in the world at large. Yet a mind can be changed by a single poem. If it can speak to an individual reader, even if just to communicate a perspective, provoke a thought, or to entertain, it has done its job. As for politics, in my view Seamus Heaney was under no obligation whatsoever to address the reality of Northern Ireland in any particular way. The only compulsion should come from within the poet. That said, a poem can be a booby trap that takes a reader to set it off—but it doesn’t have to be functional, or answer to anyone’s political agenda.

 

MG I read somewhere that you said poetry was your first love. Nevertheless, you have had fiction published successfully and have brought your scripts to the small screen—and indeed won awards. Can you talk to me a little about that?

 

PC: There was a long gap between collections after The New Pornography, and many of the poems in the next two books were completed by the mid-nineties. To distract myself I wrote a novel and some short stories, one of which was published in the Irish Times. Denis McArdle, a director I’d worked with, read it and suggested we collaborate on a film of the story. I wrote the script and Burning the Bed was shot with Gina McKee and Aidan Gillen. Around the same time, my story, ‘A Ghost’, won first prize in the Cinescape contest in L. A. All of this led indirectly to children’s television, a Doctor Who audio, and producing a version of The Martian Chronicles for BBC Radio 4. My most recent extra-poetical activity was writing for B7’s new series of Dan Dare audio adventures, directed by Andrew Mark Sewell. It’s got a great cast—Ed Stoppard, Heida Reed and Geoffrey McGivern, and the production sounds amazing. It’s lovely to be involved in something like that. As a writer I find it easy to shift between modes but naturally focus on whichever one I’m in. There are differences between having enormous fun and major panic writing Dan Dare, and risking my mental health in the process of making a poetry collection. I love to do both; one feels more dangerous.

 

MG How and when did you first start writing poetry? And who were the poets who most inspired you back then?

 

PC: I was always going to be a writer. In my late teens I switched from fan fiction and short stories to poetry, on the misunderstanding that it would take less time. Of course, it can take longer to write a poem than to make a movie. Inspirations back then: Macdara Woods, Philip Casey and Matthew Sweeney, all poets who died in 2018, were major touchstones as writers. In 1987, Macdara generously encouraged me to go for it, and his magazine, Cyphers was the first to take my poems. Philip was always a gentle, kind person to know, and an amazing poet—his work should be more widely appreciated. Matthew Sweeney’s collection, Blue Shoes, was wonderful to read at that stage. Eavan Boland was also an inspiration for her poems but also for the welcoming and rigorous workshop she held in 1989 for members of the public, in Trinity College. On that same workshop were poets who would go on to do great things: Vona Groarke, Conor O’Callaghan, Jean O’Brien, Noel Monahan, Mairead Byrne… it was a fine time to be starting out. Internationally, major inspirations were Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Fiona Pitt-Kethley. Later I found Larkin and Hughes and Plath. Paul Durcan was an early beacon, with his collection, The Berlin Wall Café. Cavafy, E. E. Cummings, Roger McGough, Emily Dickinson… This is all getting very name-droppy. That said, many of my influences came from outside poetry. Thomas M. Disch, Ray Bradbury, Ballard, Douglas Adams, Blake’s 7. Davids Byrne, Lynch, Cronenberg… Some antipodean film directors were bracing too, back then: Jocelyn Moorhouse, Jane Campion, Alison McLean. Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir… the usual suspects.

 

MG What kinds of reading nourishes your poetry and who are the poets writing now you most admire?

 

PC: Normally it’s other media than poetry that nourishes my work. Sometimes it’s an old diary, or a movie, or a science article, or the news. A few poets today I admire—aside from people with whom I’m in a workshop, or colleagues, or who have reviewed or published my books: (in Ireland) Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Pat Boran, Tara Bergin, Conor O’Callaghan; (outside Ireland) Kimberly Campanello, Tania Hershman, Kara Penn. There are others.

 

MG What next for Patrick Chapman?

 

PC: I’ve written segments for a new Audible drama-documentary series about the space race. It brought back all kinds of nostalgia about the future as it used to be. After this, I plan to sit still for a while before seeing what’s next.

   

 

copyright © Patrick Chapman & Maureen Gallagher