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“Synchronicity is everything”: An interview with Kate Tough

Kate Tough’s pamphlet of experimental and found poetry, tilt-shift, was published by Tapsalteerie in 2016, and since then has been named runner up for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award 2017, and noted in The Bottle Imp’s Best Scottish Books 2016. You might also know her as the poet behind a 2016 Best Scottish Poem, ‘People Made Glasgow’, which appeared in tilt-shift, and as the author of novel Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo, 2014).

Answering some questions about the collection and reflecting on her approach to poetry with her usual eloquence and energy, Tough gives us an insight into her processes: from fate to sticky tape.

The poems in tilt-shift are put together in a number of different ways, so how do you go about deciding on a method when you’re working from a source text or writing something experimental? Do you find you create rules for yourself when writing that kind of poetry, or is it more instinctive?

Most often, I come across a source text by chance (for example, the UDHR in Scots, which a PGDE lecturer handed out in a tutorial) and within seconds I’ll get that wee excited feeling: Oh, I could do something with that. With the UDHR, it was dealt with instinctively: on the bus home I read it and stared at it (working with found text can involve a lot of staring, to see what’s ‘in there’ ready to emerge) and couldn’t fail to see the poetic qualities – repetition, rhyme, rhythm. All it needed was editing, so I started mentally inking bits out (I couldn’t touch it with a pen until I’d been able to make a photocopy) to pare it back, and choose the focus and where to line break. I had a lot of respect for the original text and so it felt right to be coherent with the spirit of it and reinforce (rather than challenge) its message. More often, though, the various ‘erasure’ techniques are employed either to subvert the meaning of the original, or to create a new unrelated poem (for example, from a random page torn from an old book, with single words circled).

From the first draft I could see that the UDHR piece, ‘Equal’, was a ‘keeper’ because the more I treated it, the more it delivered e.g. the visual result was as effective as the linguistic. And coincidentally it ended up looking like the Amnesty candle logo, who had commissioned the UDHR translation into Scots.

On other occasions, yes, I impose rules, even just to manage the amount of source material and keep it relevant. For example, when producing the small pieces which used the index of first lines in a William Carlos Williams anthology (‘Maggie’ and ‘So Much Depends Upon Internet Dating’) there were so many ways all those first lines could be utilised, and I experimented to create many different poems. Similarly with The Diary of Hannah Lightbody, which resulted in ’20th Century Social Climactics’. But there’s a point when the joy of it becomes a burden, i.e. just because you can make a poem doesn’t mean you should, and just because you’ve ‘found’ a poem in a morass of material doesn’t make it a ‘good enough’ poem (same as the poetry you write from scratch!) So, it’s time to get strict. Which method is going to produce the best result, where the new poem has a resonance of its own, beyond simple comprehensibility? For the index lines I applied the system of only using pairs, and the pairs had to be found next to each other or very, very close. There were just too many possibilities without applying that system.

In terms of more formal systems, á la Oulipo, I did have a lipogram published once (which omitted the letter o – a flash fiction about a rebel penguin) and I love knowing that all those techniques are out there to play with but, because time is limited, I prioritise my preference for the intuitive approach.

As an aside, there’s so much potential to use Oulipo and other experimental text techniques in classrooms, to engage young learners with words and letters in a playful and/or systematic way, especially for those that aren’t drawn to narrative (not everyone is). I’ve run a few school sessions over the years; maybe it would be more efficient to run a professional development session for teachers…

The sources you use are extremely varied but many of them have an element of banality to them. The knitting magazine springs to mind, but even when your materials are more literary you use parts like the end matter to make your poems. Is that a purposeful decision you make? Do you think it’s perhaps more compelling to transform the prosaic into the poetic than it is to take something already poetic and rework it, in the style of a cento for instance?

That’s funny you should ask about a cento – I created my first cento not long before submitting to Tapsalteerie, and included it in the poems sent. And after Duncan came back with a ‘yes’, I negotiated removal of the cento! It seemed to lack the magic that other ‘less conscious’ pieces retain. Yes it ‘worked’ but it always read to me like an exercise rather than something worth sharing with others.

This relates to the previous question about creating rules. For example, ‘After Emmett’ is a piece that only exists because of the permutational form and word-system applied (inspired by Emmett Williams’ technique). However, the result acquired emotion and resonance (through sheer mechanics) to the extent that people assume it’s about a guy I dated one summer called Emmett…

The term ‘experimental poetry’ applies to such a broad range of work and they’re all valid, though my pieces tend to retain a quality of more ‘regular’ poetry which is an emotional tone (a journey, a punch, a laugh, an expansion, whichever). It’s a personal preference. I kind of like it when people assume the poem’s contents ‘actually happened’ when in fact it was produced from the spewings of Google translate, as in ‘The Hospital Was Not a Cartoon’, or Google predictive text, as in ‘Again Again’.

As for banality and working with non-literary sources: I imagine there’s a relationship between a writer’s nature and their writing – there’s no implied merit, criticism or otherwise in that observation – and generally, in life, I’m about making things more accessible. Less exclusive. I crave a reality where all humans are on a level playing field, all jobs are equally valued, the lives and experiences of all are recognised as a necessary contribution to the whole, and where everyone has a voice and a stake in their own situations and solutions. Also, in general, I’m allergic to inauthenticity and tend to puncture pomposity, hidden agendas, sexism, double-standards etc (thankfully I have tolerant friends!). But it doesn’t have to be done in a mean way – humour is such a natural vibe with which to level us, and make the truth feel safer.

So, in terms of the prosaic – if that’s my territory, I’ll take it. No bother. I’m not trying to impress anyone or prove anything or get anywhere. Some poets have said that my experimental poetry is very ‘accessible’, and I’m wise enough to know when there’s a veiled sneeriness in that comment, but I don’t mind in the least. If I can share the work in libraries, and pubs, and with writers’ groups, and unpick it, and show them how it was done, and have a good blether and hear ideas about how they could do it too – I couldn’t be happier. Some experimental poetry needs so much prior knowledge it wouldn’t mean a thing to most people. Or it’s ostensibly so ‘weird’ that insiders love it but most people find it off-putting or meaningless.

Fortunately, there’s room for everything, and we each have our own leanings and I’m content with mine; I’ve no desire to be academic about my poetry (whereas one day I might consider academia again for fiction).

I tend to make little political awakeners laced with humour. It’s just the way my brain works. Yes, the knitting magazine is about as banal as gets on the surface, but when you deconstruct it and study its language it becomes political and I wanted to expose that. We should have moved on by now from selling everything using female sexualisation. And we can talk to craftspeople and hobbyists like they have intelligence. Marketing speak is evil, sometimes.

Some of the poems in tilt-shift seem to have an almost fateful origin in that they appeared to you at just the right time – ‘Caitlin’ is an obvious one, but something like ‘Horse Sense for Sphincters’ also has it. Without getting into a discussion on fate, do you feel like these poems have a touch of the uncanny and a happy synchronicity about them? Or perhaps that’s true of writing poetry in general…

Oof, yes, synchronicity is an essential ingredient. And I’m a huge fan of thinking that way in every context. Can’t we have that discussion on fate?

For example, I was heading to a residency this month after a spell so busy I hadn’t been able to plan my project prior and thought: Oh well, I’ll decide what I’m working on when I get there. Not my usual approach to residencies! And on day one, an object left behind by a previous artist allowed me to move to the next stage with a piece I’d started in spring (I got the idea for how to integrate minimal text with maximum effect into a design I’d already decided upon). So, in the bigger auspicious picture, it would have been pointless preparing for the residency at home because the answer was waiting for me on-site…

Back to the knitting magazine… with regard to methodology, when you’re sitting on the floor surrounded by countless bits of magazine and wondering if the thing you thought had potential actually does, you’ll get a sign that helps you keep going. Because it takes hours and hours to build a coherent, cohesive case from scraps of text, which you can’t modify to suit your needs. With that piece, the sign was finding the ball of wool with the wraparound saying ‘blue wool’. When I had that I knew it would be the title, and I knew the piece would work if I persevered.

I’d picked up Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth (used in ‘Horse Sense for Sphincters’) in a Montreal book exchange because I sensed it had potential (and because I’m a hippy-earthy type who loves reminders that nature has an intelligent design that modern medicine can’t replace). As I read it I respected her work so much that I lost the desire to mess with it. A fortnight later I browsed a pile of old books in a disused lounge in a residency house, and Monty Robert’s Horse Sense for People stood out as just my kind of ridiculous. It was almost too easy as source material though, because its silliness was already apparent and didn’t need ‘revealed’. Until I saw the list, ‘Ideas to Live By’, and knew I could work with that, but how? By chopping lines or black-out etc.? Nope. Lightbulb – by splicing it with another list. I deliberately went back to Ina May, looking for a list, and there was only one: a gift of a list! ‘The Basics of Sphincter Law’. And I didn’t need to disrespect her work because largely I just borrowed the word sphincter from her, to substitute for horse, in Monty’s list. Then shaped the final piece.

On a tangent, I was able to share the great Ina May with a friend who was writing a novel about artificial baby pouches replacing wombs, and so the chance encounters ripple on outwards. Makes the world go ‘round. I love it.

Personally, synchronicity is everything in the found poetry process and how I approach it. I always want it to feel like there’s a magical collaborating force, and that I’m playing rather than writing, because the long middle stage of making the materials into a piece can be extended drudgery – cutting out text, cutting fiddly bits of sticky tape, arranging them, rearranging them. Entire days can be spent making one idea into a reality. So, you have to like the original idea a lot to suffer through the making. (Is that why successful conceptual artists hire studio assistants to actually make the pieces? Internship, anyone?) The sense of kismet and magic (real or not) has to carry me along.

It goes without saying that different writers would see potential in different source materials.

Chancing upon text is a great feeling – the schoolgirl’s note in ‘Caitlin’, brochures for paint colours, adverts for gendered learning magnets. However, I’m equally happy to be given a remit as part of a project and find the potential within it. For example, in the past I was allocated an item from the collection of the National Museum of Scotland (which became ‘Escaping the Selvedge’) and was also given a task to collaborate with a Norwich-based writer to celebrate its UNESCO City of Literature status. On both occasions my piece ended up riddled with found text from archives. That was before I thought of myself as a ‘found poet’ or had formally explored the genre. If you give me access to sources I can’t help seeing them as integral, as part of the voice and skeleton of a piece, rather than just a resource of information.

Your visual poetry makes me think of spolia: those pieces of ancient temples repurposed into new buildings to carry some memory of that old context over into the new piece. What attracts you to that kind of physical assembly and visible materiality for certain poems over others? And what do you think it gives the poem that it would lack if it were transcribed into plain text?

Thanks for introducing me to the term spolia. Glad to know it.

Um, the attraction of physical assembly, I’m not sure; possibly it helps me know which poetic territory I’m in that day (i.e. experimental poetry versus ‘regular’ poetry).

Like many people, I’m quite visual, with a good eye, but am completely untrained (as you can tell from my efforts). So, I enjoy making poems and working in a visual way, but sort of get a perverse kick out of the shocking naivety of my art skills – literally, scissors and sticky tape. And Microsoft 2003 programmes. It’s painful and hilarious trying to get the results I want from the skills and tools I (don’t) have. But I don’t want to change to a Mac (I don’t even use a smartphone) because the transition is beyond the effort I’m prepared to make. I’ll leave the slick, sophisticated stuff to other people.

And if it were transcribed into typed text… well, then it loses the obvious reference to the found element, and people could judge it on the same terms as a fully ‘written’ piece, and the two are not equivalent.

It’s not that found pieces are lesser, it’s just they arise from a different methodology, and have a slightly different purpose than ‘regular’ poetry, so the reader adjusts how they receive it, to accommodate the fact that a word or phrase was built around, and/or assembled, rather than 100% written.

Interestingly, I do type them out, so that I can read them aloud as I’m showing the visual piece to the audience. And typed out they never read as though they were fully ‘written’, to me anyway. You would never submit them to a magazine like that (well, of course many found poets do, and that’s fine; it’s back to personal preference). I’m a stickler for referencing sources for found poems; it’s a good policy in general, giving credit where credit’s due and acknowledging others’ contributions. However, it’s not considered essential to credit, and so lots of people don’t. So, you could end up with a typed-out poem with no source credited and then, to me, all the cues that you’re engaging with a found poem are missing, resulting in an unsatisfying experience of reading a wonky, unpolished ‘regular’ poem.

How does your approach to fiction differ from your poetry? Does it draw on observations and serendipitous discoveries as much as your poetry seems to?

Hmm, I sort of do know the answer to that but don’t want to give it; I guard it like an old family recipe for shortbread.

I think I guard it because it’s a bit like a relationship, i.e. no-one on the outside will ever fully understand the dynamics of another two people’s relationship. So why even bother trying to explain it? People always see things through their own prism anyway; their mind is already made up on what you do and how you do it, no matter if you explain your position in great detail.

To answer in another way, I’m good at ‘spotting’ the bits in other people’s fiction that are ‘found’ from life as opposed to entirely fictional. You can tell when something’s borrowed rather than made up, I think. But saying that probably makes me guilty of the prism mentioned a moment ago.

And is there any value in trying to distinguish between borrowed and invented? Does it matter to the overall piece? Nope. If the overall piece is a robust, internally sound, complete work of fiction then how it came to be so is irrelevant – Dorothy’s disappointment on looking behind the curtain to see the real ‘Wizard of Oz’.

And, including things you ‘find’ in fiction is still ‘writing’ because it’s about understanding how and where to use it. It has to be integrated into a narrative and then it becomes more related to the story, and more important in that new context, than it ever was as a blether overheard on a bus. It becomes the new thing.

Different writers knit and bled to a greater or lesser degree, but all writers’ lives are in their fiction, in some form or another. Some things are too good to waste.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve prattled on too long already but in brief, I’m progressing both fiction and poetry when I have time.

An unforeseen project arose this year, and is still moving along and carrying me with it, for which I’m very appreciative: a poem from the pamphlet, ‘People Made Glasgow’, took on a life of its own after it was named a Best Scottish Poem in spring. Often without any help from me, it found its way onto all sorts of unexpected platforms thereafter. And it would have been remiss not to make use of the momentum the poem was generating to help progress the issue it was highlighting (Glasgow’s unacknowledged relationship with the Transatlantic Slave Trade). So, in addition to connecting with academics, campaigners and councillors who are all motivated and moving the issue along, I also organised Glasgow’s first event to mark UNESCO’s annual day of slavery remembrance, and it was packed-out with people who care about this aspect of Glasgow’s history, and integrating it into Glasgow’s present in a more truthful, fair way.

It’s been a privilege to contribute to something practical and positive, as a result of writing a poem. If anyone’s interested, I tend to post about ongoing events related to the issue on my website:

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on my practice, Tapsalteerie, and think aloud. I’ve enjoyed it.


tilt-shift (2016) is on sale in the Tapsalteerie online bookshop.

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