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QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Ray Liversidge (part v)

It has been a real thrill talking with Ray Liversidge this past couple of weeks and I am now looking forward to seeing him step on to the QPF stage so that I can hear his ‘dead-poet-portraits’ come to life. Ray and I wrap up our conversation today, talking the art of collaboration and future projects.

Catch Ray Liversidge live at QPF 2012 in the following sessions:

Strands Upon The Pillow (Sat 25 Aug 1.30pm) and Unseen Strings Connecting (Sun 26 Aug, 2pm). Ray will also read as part of A Million Bright Things, along with every other artist on the program, on Saturday August 25 from 8pm.

ALS: As I have mentioned before, with No Suspicious Circumstances, you collaborated with artist, Kathryn Bowden. I would love to hear more about how you worked together to produce the book and how you found the experience.

RL: When I first set out on this adventure of writing about dead poets it was always my dream to have illustrations of the poets to complement the poems. I did think that the dream would remain just that as it is hard enough to get a book of poems published let alone have the luxury of it being illustrated. Well, the planets aligned when I found Littlefox Press which is the publishing arm of Alice & Co run by Christine Mathieu. They specialise in books which may not be suited to the commercial requirements of larger trade publishing houses.

Kathryn would consider herself more of an artist than an illustrator, however she accepted the challenge of producing the portraits of the poets. We sourced photos and images of the poets and Kathryn insisted on reading my poems and even undertook research to find out more about the poets. The best way to describe our working relationship is to say that we were on the same page from day one! I couldn’t be more happy with the illustrations, and working with Kathryn and Christine has been the most exciting, satisfying and enjoyable experience of my writing career.

ALS: Will you be incorporating Kathryn’s images into your live performance of the work?

RL: Yes. Unfortunately, the book will not be ready for the festival, but at least the audience will get to hear me read some of the poems and see the relevant illustrations projected on a screen.

ALS: With No Suspicious Circumstances due for release, what projects are you currently working on?

RL: I have recently finished a 400 line poem on an incident which took place in Oradour-sur-Glane, France, towards the end of WW2. I am currently doing reseach for a poem on a 4th century martyr. I’m experimenting with the long line… And so it goes!

**********

Ray and I both agreed it seemed most fitting to sign off with a poem and one of Kathryn’s images.

The path ends where the wood ends

Like Dylan, you died in your thirty-ninth year.
Like Dylan, born with the same name, the same
Urge to live the writer’s life, however austere.
Yet, to you, nature was no metaphor, feigned
Or fabled dingle; but dell, down, wind and rain
Of your beloved Hampshire. Robert Frost moved next door.
So did the war. More than a hundred poems came.
In one you stepped out … into an April morning, called
Into a dark and cloistered wood on your last Wordsworthian walk.

[Edward Thomas was born in 1878 in London to Welsh parents. Although a Georgian poet he wrote with a modern sensibility about the impact that time and war have on country life. Thomas enlisted in 1914 and was sent to France in early 1917. On the first day of the Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917 he was killed by a bomb blast.]

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QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Ray Liversidge (part iv)

Ray and I keep the co0nversation rolling, talking festivals and their importance.

ALS: Speaking of influential poets, how does being part of a festival such as QLD Poetry Festival, affect you as a poet?

RL: I have been involved in several festivals over the years such as the Melbourne Writers Festival, Tasmanian Poetry Festival and Overload Poetry Festival. I see them as a wonderful opportunity to meet and see poets who you have read and not read, and heard of and not heard of. I’m not sure how it affects me as a poet. You sometimes hear of major writers whineing that their agents make them attend festivals. However, for us lesser known writers it’s a chance to be part of the Commissariat of Poetry.

ALS: Are there any poets on the program that you are particularly excited to see?

RL: There are some familiar names on the program and a lot I’m not familiar with so, as I say above, it’s a great chance to rub shoulders with the known and the unknown.

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QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Ray Liversidge (part iii)

Last time I spoke to Ray Liversidge, there was talk of Spenserian stanzas, so let’s pick up that thread and keep the conversation rolling.

ALS: Can I ask what drew you to the nine-line Spenserian stanza as form?

RL: Without sounding wanky I wanted to set myself a challenge. I have written poems using traditional forms before but have not attempted anything on this scale. As I see these portraits as ‘biography as a thumbnail sketch’ (Peter Porter) I thought it might be interesting to discipline (punish?) myself by using the same poetic form for all 30 poems. The traditional Spenserian stanza uses a specific rhyme scheme and has the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the last as an alexandrine. That final line of six feet gives the poem a stately and meditative movement which I thought ideal for  writing about the lives – and ultimate deaths – of the poets. However, my poems are not Spenserian stanzas in the purest sense as there is a mixture of rhymes and half-rhymes, and I employ a syllabic count for the lines rather than the traditional five and six beat metre.

ALS: I am also interested in whether any of the poets you have written about have become influences since discovering more about their lives and work?

RL: Several of the poets (Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Plath and Crane for example) were huge influences early on in my writing, but one learns – and indeed needs – to move on from these giants of the literary world. As I said in an earlier answer, it was a joy to discover and read poets who I hadn’t read before or for a long time but I can’t say they have had an affect on any poetry I wrote during the time I was writing the portrait poems or the ones I’ve written since.

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QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Ray Liversidge (part ii)

Let’s pick up the chat I started with Ray Liversidge last week, by talking about Yu Xuanji and the voices of the dead!

ALS: I loved that you made mention of Yu Xuanji in your response. She is a poet that I have only discovered recently by stumbling across an ebook of her complete poems. A poet from the late Tang Dynasty, it seems there is not a lot of reliable information to be found about her. What was it about her life that drew you in?

RL: As you say details about Yu Xuanji’s life are very sketchy. My research showed that during the Tang Dynasty women had a fair amount of freedom of choice and social mobility compared to earlier and later periods. Yu Xuanji played a number of ‘roles’ in her very short life such as concubine, nun and courtesan. She seems to have been a free spirit who was unflinching in what she did and I admired that about her. Many of her poems dwell on sorrow, loss and longing, however she never feels sorry for herself and celebrates the joy of living even if it involves pain and suffering. There is a playfulness about her poetry which I love. She died when she was only 25 but she was obviously a mature woman. However, the flirty, mocking tone of a lot of her poems suggests she loved playing the little girl!

NB: You can download a 120page ebook of Yu Xuanji’s complete poems here. And there’s some interesting reading about here life here.

ALS: I am also interested to know whether each poem you wrote in some way took on the voice of its subject?

RL: I think it would have been a mistake to imitate the cadence, rhythm, tone, etc of the poets I have written about as the portraits could easily have become like cartoons or caricatures, and this would have been very disrespectful to those poets. Having said that, the opening poem on Dylan Thomas deliberately echoes his “bardic, bawdy hwyl and yawp, syntactical high jinks”. Of course, there’s a huge nod to Whitman in that line too! Within the constraints of a nine-line Spenserian stanza – in which all the poems are written – I was more interested in capturing the essence of their lives and work.

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QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Ray Liversdige (part i)

As I have mentioned, QLD Poetry Festival 2012 is only weeks away, and I have the great privilege of interviewing several of the featured artists as a preview to what you can experience at the event. The interview with Max Ryan and WWYAL is currently rolling and now, I chat to Melbourne based poet, Ray Liversidge about uncovering the lives of dead poets.

ALS: Your latest book, No Suspicious Circumstances, collects together a series of poems that look deeply at the lives of some mighty fine poets whose words live on despite their passing. It also features portraits of each selected poet by the incredibly talented, Kathryn Bowden. How did you go about selecting the poets you wrote about? And though I am certain, you already had a great deal of insight into the lives of these poets, what were some of the surprises you discovered in your reading?

Ray Liversidge: When I first thought about the book the principal criteria I set were that the poet be dead and:

1. Have taken their own life

2. Have been killed by circumstances out of their control; and

3. Have died because of intemperate living.

With some poets such as Emily Brontë, Keats, Rimbaud and a couple of others I have taken liberties. Nevertheless, as Peter Porter said of Auden, my aim was to take on the challenge of ‘selecting the crucial moments in the lives of people and civilisations and forcing home their psychological truth’ – to channel the spirit of these poets, if you like.

Once I had set the criteria, I had to decide on which poets to include. This was not an easy task as there are so many poets which fit these criteria – especially the intemperate living ones! Selecting the obvious and well-known poets would have been easy; however my research revealed that there have been many talented poets who have not got the credit they deserve. So, one of the aims of the book is to pay homage to some of those lesser known and largely ignored poets, and in doing so enrich readers’ lives and my own by exposure to their writing, lives and times. I plan to have a biographical note in the book explaining what attracted me to the poets I have written about.

The life and work of poets like Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Plath and Keats were well known to me so there were no surprises there. However, as I said earlier, during my research I came across poets who I had never or half-heard of. It was a surprise – and a pleasure – to discover and read poets such as Charlotte Mew, Christopher Smart, Sidney Keyes and Yu Xuanji.

*****

Gravity and waggery

In the Age of Reason you just had to be mad:
Cross-dressing as Mary Midnight, hitting the bars,
Praying in public places, being a lad,
Punching out poems of unconditional praise.
‘I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else’,
Dr Johnson declared – but he was not your quack!
When Anna runs off with the kids you return to grace
Your prison walls with poems. Crazy, or not,
We give thanks for your song, and the adventures of Jeoffrey the cat.

*****

Christopher Smart, born in 1722 in Kent, England, spent several years in asylums mainly because his habit of praying out loud in public was considered irrational behaviour. His ‘A Song to David’ is considered one of the most original and powerful religious poems of the eighteenth century. Smart died penniless in a debtors’ prison on 21 May 1771.

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