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“The past has not passed”: An interview with Stewart Sanderson and Samuel Tongue

Where to begin summarising an interview like this! We spoke to Stewart Sanderson and Samuel Tongue about their recent pamphlets and got much more than we bargained for. From thylacines to mountainside verse, sestinas, and the impossibility of originality…

Could you tell us a bit about your process and how your poems and/or collections take shape?

Samuel Tongue: If only I had something as structured as a process! It’s often everyday experiences and events that open up new writing interests. Or perhaps it’s certain abiding interests that are mapped onto new events. Or perhaps it’s simply an image that seems to bring these things together.

A few of the poems in Stitch were generated by trips to Tasmania, an island riven with conflicting visions of itself and its very distressing history, both as a colonial experiment as a penal colony and as a site of genocide. It also happens to be a very beautiful place, and trying to square these elements is impossible. It is haunted by two ‘extinctions’ brought on by British colonial expansion: that of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples, and along with that, the decimation of the thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial. My trips there brought colonialism and its environmental and human cost into very stark relief. How can the insatiable capitalist demand for more resources – particularly, in this case, land for the wool industry –  generate such human and non-human suffering? It has always been a live question, and trying to write poems about these themes helps me to process some of what I think about or don’t think about in relation to such ongoing events. So maybe my ‘process’ is partly to try and process my experiences through research and reading. I often feel like I don’t really know what I think about something until I’ve attempted to explore it through writing, attempted to shape it into some form that communicates something. But it is still artifice. The latter is important because I think there’s something humbling about the difficulty of representing such horrors or writing with such material; the ‘real’ experiences and historical events are not immediately available – how could they be? – but art and artifice can intervene enough to demonstrate that there are serious deficiencies with any smoothing, simplifying explication. Poems are made things that can be made differently each time. 

When I’m writing, the poems, in their first blush, often seem to exist in the singular, but then begin to form alliances with one another once there are more of them. A series or, eventually, a collection starts to suggest itself, but more around shared tropes, shared images, themes that demand more than one poem to engage with them. I am currently at work on my full debut collection and I already have a working title – this is proving really useful because I can use it as a measuring stick to decide where I want to take a poem, or discover another avenue that demands exploration. I do a lot of research which I find exhilarating – so many things are upturned in searching for something you wish to re-envision (to misquote Mieke Bal) that the process inevitably leads to me seeing things very differently from when I first jotted down an idea or a thought.

Stewart Sanderson: For me writing is a pretty unpredictable process, involving a lot of trial, error, and ink-stained fingers. I like to work with a fountain pen and An Offering was pretty much all written freehand, with each poem taking shape line by line and going through many drafts before I typed it up. With that said, digital technology does have its uses. Some of the newer poems I’ve been working on since An Offering settled into its final form have a strong visual element – and for these it can be useful to work with a screen so you can see how it will actually look. In 2018 I also began writing more on my phone, much to my own surprise (though as I’m rarely able to be at my desk as much as I’d like and seem to spend a massive amount of time on delayed Scotrail services, this is a development partly conditioned by necessity). Though it came too late to be included in this pamphlet – appearing for the first time in the January 2019 issue of the Dark Horse – I am quite proud of having recently written a poem in rhymed iambic tetrameter quatrains on my smartphone while climbing Ben Dorain.

Just as the poems gather line by line and, though they can come quickly, often have fairly protracted journeys from conception to delivery, so putting together this pamphlet – and its 2015 precursor Fios, also with Tapsalteerie – has been a gradual process, with many more poems discarded than made the final cut. It might be rash to invoke Norman MacCaig in the context of one’s second pamphlet, but like him I seem to write about ten poems for every one which ends up getting offered to the world. Wasteful as this no doubt is, I don’t know any other way to work.

I’m interested in the variety of texts that make guest appearances as epigraphs and in poems themselves in both An Offering and Stitch. What makes a text a good source of inspiration, and how does the relationship between that source and the poem develop?

(Also, more specifically: what led you to The Van Diemen’s Land News, Sam, or to Jamieson’s Dictionary, Stewart?)

SS: I think this is a really interesting subject to delve into. With an epigraph, I suppose you can either take a big, splashy, canonical quote and respond to that, probably subverting it, or try to find something a bit more unusual and off the beaten path. Both Sam and I seem to be more attracted to the latter approach, which is maybe unsurprising given that we are, I think, two quite different poets who are alike in wanting to undercut ingrained authority and traditional hierarchies in our work. This might not always come through in my case, but I like to imagine that it sometimes does!

For me, I’m particularly interested in wee things like the epigraph to ‘Olrig’, which I found at the back of Thomas Pennant’s 1769 Tour of Scotland. Delving into this and similar texts for a course I was teaching on Scottish travel writing, I wanted very much to bring out the voices which tend to be side-lined in metropolitan, Anglophone accounts of Scotland from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Negative capability is an extraordinary thing and it can often be the silences – in landscapes, life stories, and literatures – which, when you listen closely, speak the loudest. When I read this poem in North Africa recently, I was very gratified by the response it got from people in a very different cultural situation, who were nonetheless immediately able to recognise what the poem was getting at and see that in terms of their own inheritance.

In a more light-hearted vein, I just love Jamieson’s dictionary. There’s a fairly lively mini-tradition of Scottish poets using it as a compositional tool in various ways, and my own use of it is driven mainly by my love of the language I find between the battered pages of my own late-1800s copy, which I picked up for a few quid in Voltaire & Rousseau in Glasgow years ago. I expect that I’ll be mining it for years to come, though there’s always the challenge to come up with new ways of bringing it into poems.

With Scots in general, one thing is that I’d struggle to write directly in the language, for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless find its history and literature an endless source of inspiration. It’s a living language and there are poets alive today who do excellent work in it. For me though, having tried, I don’t think I can be one of them; I’ve found that I’m happier skirting around the sidelines of the tongue, picking up the odd word I can do something with. Going back to the silences, I find the unfinished story of what else Scots might have grown into, had history turned in a different direction, both tantalising and very moving. It’s in those poignant and uncomfortable silences that I think my own response begins.

ST: This links with the research thing but I am fascinated by the way textualities work. I know that quite a lot of people are turned off by so-called ‘critical theory’, but I’ve always loved learning to read and write differently, with more depth, and to understand some of the mechanics behind this stuff called writing. I can’t remember which writer talked about a ‘citational economics’ at work in writing, but this is at work in knowledge more widely – I suppose it’s a variation on the idea that European philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Everything references everything else. For me, thinking and writing can never be ‘original’ in the sense of an ‘ex nihilo’ something from nothing; how could it? It would be unrecognisable. We wouldn’t know what to do with it. So, I bring in texts that have sparked something in my own thinking or that demand a response, or that add another level or perspective. There is artistry here – I am combining these texts in this way – but I think it’s also hugely important to dispel the cheap tricks or even social construct of ‘The Poet’ as some kind of quasi-divine genius. I am definitely not a poetic genius! I see poets as situated somewhere between creation and recreation, in all senses of the word. Re-creation, which is often seemingly demeaned as merely ‘leisure time’ can actually be a time out of the grind, a time redeemed for play and exploration outside of the expectations of ‘productive’ time (even if one hopes to produce creative work). Perhaps, if there were time enough, there would be links to explore between Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and colonialist expansionism, as I mentioned above. It’s too simplistic to juxtapose this with recreational poetics as a counterpoint, but our present crises demand more than simply business as usual and time as money.

In terms of the citational aspect that informs many of my poems, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s quotation at the head of ‘Mountain Hare’ (“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”) suggested an image to me – a white mountain hare caught in the too-early Spring melt, the season out of joint – whilst also then proving to be a guide to me for the exploration of whiteness as a racial register. The prose poem form also allowed me to build up tension and surprise within the seemingly documentary style prose. But this coalesces around and builds from the epigraph.

Quoting the newspaper clippings seemed to open up that ideological gulf between conservation efforts in the present and the targeting of an animal for extinction. They are so Victorian but then, perhaps, so are we. The shocking language of the colonial newspapers might still echo in some of our more right-wing media today. The past has not passed.

Traditional forms are well represented in both these collections. What are your approaches to using these forms, or reinterpreting them? And perhaps your thoughts in general about what using a stricter poetic form as the basis for a piece brings to the final product?

ST: I enjoy writing in form, although I am often not disciplined enough. There is a slightly deformed sestina in Stitch which, when I was writing it, proved John Ashbery’s famous quote correct: he talks about using the bizarre requirements of the sestina as a ‘probing tool’ and describes writing one as like “riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet”. The writer’s feet are pushed into places they might not ordinarily go. It’s not always successful, which is more down to my skill (or lack thereof), but the hope of making it to the bottom of the hill is there. And maybe that bike is a tandem, because you want to take the reader with you.

But this links back with what I was saying about originality; inherited poetic forms allow the writer to exist in that space between creation and recreation. Using such non-original forms allows you to recreate, allows you to communicate within a community that shares and recognises these forms but expects something new from them each time. What those much-maligned critical theorists might call ‘iteration’ – repetition with difference – rather than the tyranny of originality. Sitting down with a blank piece of paper and trying to be ‘original’ is well-nigh impossible. 

SS: I am a bit of a formalist at heart. Saying that, I don’t mean that I believe we should all be writing perfect pentameters or villanelles! All poetry is formal in one way or another, in that even the most leftfield poem will be actuated and enabled by a number of compositional principles – though these needn’t be fully articulated by the poet even as they write the poem, or necessarily evident to the reader. I think we’re always feeling our way into these things and that, at its best, form becomes instinctive.

However conscious it is, formal constraint can be a very useful way of inhibiting the part of the mind which prevents you from writing a poem. Patterns of metre and rhyme can suggest possibilities which might never have occurred to you otherwise. Traditions of writing in particular forms can allow for dialogue and productive argument with other poets and cultural moments. The sonnet as it currently exists is not the sonnet in the sixteenth century, just as the language and the people who use it are different. Few people now write (or, quite possibly, read) Spenserian stanzas – but the form is there for the rare poet who wants to do something with it. It may yet make a comeback.

I’m very interested in syllabics, rhymed à la Marianne Moore and unrhymed – both approaches are present in An Offering. I like that people might not notice that there is actually a very strict form underpinning a rhymed syllabic poem, because the lines will have different numbers of stresses and the rhymes will be falling, variously, on stressed and unstressed syllables. This feels to me to be a good way of escaping the rhythmical tyranny of the pentameter, though I do continue to write plenty of those too! With the latter rather well-handled form, the sound of the words, the assonances and consonances, are crucial, as is the way one negotiates the line breaks. Given that they’re basically using the same fairly simple form for large sections of their oeuvres, I find it amazing how totally different, say, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost manage to sound. It’s all an experiment, I suppose, and there aren’t really any rules – when someone’s chasing you with a knife you just, as Frank O’Hara memorably put it, run.

An Offering and Stitch are available now from Tapsalteerie.

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