KEATS Meets … James Brookes
In our live link, KEATS, the Astronaut Zine on-board droid talks to James Brookes, Dylan Thomas Prize nominee and English teacher at his old school in Surrey.
We still haven’t fixed the fault, The man came to fix KEATS, but couldn’t find anything wrong. It seems to be intermitted. But the satellite window was booked so we pressed ahead.
Hello, James. Welcome to the live link. I am KEATS the Astronaut Zine on-board android. I will be conducting your interview today.
If you had to write a “how to use this book,” for Sins of the Leopard, what would you say?
As a sort of ultra-cheesy pun on the title, I did have in mind Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘zibaldone’ and the idea of commonplace books. The thought of trying to make a cipher key or technical manual for this agglomeration of ideas brings back the memories of trying to write brief notes to the end of my Pighog pamphlet ‘The English Sweats’ back in 2009. I wanted to be very helpful and I ended up with about 6 pages of sub-York Notes nonsense. I made a conscious decision not to put notes into ‘Sins of the Leopard’. If a reader wants to go digging further at passing mentions of ideas or events or figures then that’s wonderful; those things have a presence in the poems (if I’ve done something properly) because they’ve moved me. I suppose not telling people how to use things could be seen as wilfully unhelpful, but frankly the book is my own attempt to get at a feeling of what it means to be living now in amongst the presence of things past and things struggling to get born. That’s probably a cop out, and not a new one. I remember reading, when I was just starting to write poems, Michael Hoffman’s introduction to the Faber Robert Lowell Selected Poems in which he scoffs at the idea of a “useful poem”; what on earth would that be?
Your poems have a great love of language. What is your favourite way of exploring and finding [new] words when you are writing?
I read everything I can, really. There’s nothing more to it than that. Outdated dictionaries are good. So are old encyclopaedias (the more specific the better). I’m lucky that the shelves I grew up with were full of that surrounded by that kind of thing; Sir Charles Oman’s The Art of War in the Middle Ages, Henri Lachouque’s The Anatomy of Glory, Diseases of the Inner Ear (a good one for tone-deaf poet!) … it’s easier than ever to pick such stuff up for cheap, if you’re so inclined.
How do your teaching and writing interact?
It doesn’t keep me honest exactly but its does keep me on the receiving end of good, awkward questions. My favourite scourge, which the sceptic pupil always has ready, is that old classic “but did the poet really mean to do that? Aren’t we just reading too much into it?” To which the proper answer is, of course, “I don’t know, go away”.
*(“&£”The poor dogs had been starved&^”£
Truth’s a dog that must to kennel,
the dogs go on with their doggy life. A dog’s obeyed in office.
the dog crying out all night behind the corpse house.
I imagine you writing in a sort of trance … is that right or how do you go about it?
Less a trance, more of a sustained fidget… and it’s mainly fits and starts, late at night, in red Sylvine Memo Books. I often get up, sit down again, wander upstairs, walk into the bathroom and wonder why the hell I’m there, then think “oh shit I had a great line there and now all I can think is Harpic cleans right round the bend“.
Quite a few of your poems – perhaps most – are set in the past or inspired by past events or people. What is it that fascinates you about history vis a vis poetry?
Family is probably is the best way to an answer. I grew up with many great storytellers, but my grandparents especially would maintain certain careful silences about their own experiences of WWII, for instance. And there’s this huge gulf between their young realities and mine. My mother’s mother was the daughter of a Battersea publican who would periodically lose all his furniture after a bad day at the races. My father’s father was a Cheshire farmboy who flew supply planes over Burma in the war. One great-grandfather was a pit boy and a blackleg in the 1926 General Strike. Trying to find a way to reconcile that silence, that gap between those selves and me, the public school Southron poet, is something I’ve been doing since I was a teen. To this day I probably read more history than poetry, but I can’t write history – not in the modern sense. I like that early sense with which Aristotle and Euripides used ἱστορία to mean intellectual enquiry of any kind; that’s as much what I’m trying to as ποίησις. I think my sense of dealing with history as it’s more commonly understood is pretty broadly Herodotan: I’ll write “so that neither what has come to be from man in time might become faded, nor that great and wondrous things … might be without their glory”, stolen or specious or wholly bogus though that glory may be.
Which comes first, sound or meaning?
Or “sound is meaning; one kind of meaning, along with the shape of the letters and where they sit on a page and the other words with which they’re sitting and whether”.
Or “the word ‘hedgehog’ isn’t necessarily any more or less meaningful than Igel or hérisson or ёж or ἐχῖνος. & the fox in the adage can know all the things he likes about hedgehog/Igel/ hérisson/ ёж/ ἐχῖνος, but what about the one big thing hiding under all those spiky phonemes?
Or “I don’t know, go away.”
&£”I can’t walk in high-heeled shoes.*^”£
Can’t help you there kid. If you want to talk poise, balance and lethal potential, you should talk to Charlotte Newman. I’m a loafer; she’s a stiletto.
You mention the fact that you were brought up close to Shelley’s home and you write about Elizabeth Lavender, the hanged killer of her own child. What does your home area mean to you and how does it influence your work?
The influence is the importance of family again, really. Horsham, where I’ve lived for most the years Elizabeth had on this earth, is much more famous for other executions: it was the last place in Britain that a woman was burned at the stake for the ‘petty treason’ of killing her husband; the last place a man was crushed to death under the practice of peine forte et dure for refusing to plead either guilt or innocence; the last place that two men were hanged for sharing a sexual relationship. Elizabeth is an obscure historical footnote; hers was the desperate, not uncommon act of a woman in extreme poverty who could not hope to feed her child. The child, that lost future, has means more to me than the Horsham connection. The poems in ‘Sins of the Leopard’ that follow histories of lost- and almost-children are, for me, the most autobiographical things I’ve written.
So yeah, it’s fair to say that my poetry is deeply rooted in my home area (probably rooted in the Australian slang sense, too). & Its landscape, flora, fauna, the works. I’ve lived there nearly all my life and I love it in the intense difficult way you love family. So it doesn’t stop me sometimes sympathising that the young Shelley got the fuck out of there as soon as he could.
When can fans see you in the flesh?
If there really are persons who want to see my fleshy self, I’ll be in the Swansea area the week of 3rd November, reading with other shortlisted writers for the Dylan Thomas Prize. And I’m up in London on 23rd November at the beloved Betsey Trotwood with the fantastic Annexe Press for their latest ‘Interrobang!’ escapade. If you’re into serious planning ahead, I’ll likely be in reading in Paris in February of next year. It’d be a pleasure to see any of youse.
For FEB, chained to the gate of Buckingham Palace
The world cannot be otherwise
than as it is; nor can it be
made otherwise by force of wish,
or deed, or inactivity:
it draws these cooling certainties
from each of us. Magnetic north
allows the compass. Rules are rules;
there’s nothing else to rail against.
Remanded into such a state
We put trust in the tensile strength
that policy has coalesced
in something human, something made
to be impassive, maybe just.
The measured world meanwhile is full
of everything that we allow,
of law and bylaw, bar and gate.
Between the upright parallels,
it may be that you see a face
working its way from rage to hope,
a world that is not finished yet
of rightful silence, of held breath.
The blush that’s iron in the flesh
troops its colour. With no release,
from core out to capillary,
each cell has pled its own small case,
the iron rising unappeased,
defendant of an inward grace,
restrained, impossible to police.