Wake: Up to Poetry
“What Voice? Whose Voice?” An Interview with David Wheatley on The President of Planet Earth
We’re pleased to be publishing a new volume by David Wheatley for the first time in North America. The President of Planet Earth is Wheatley’s fifth collection, and his talent for a wide range of poetic styles and voices is on full display. Here we have prose poems, concrete poems, sestinas and sonnets, alongside more experimental forms. Wheatley draws inspiration from Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, Samuel Beckett, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, among others. The result is a fascinating and subversively comedic trek across land and time. In this interview, Wheatley tells us more about his daring new collection and the voices therein.
WFU Press: In the latest volume of The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, which you edited for Wake Forest Press recently, you combined poets of more, shall we say, modernist interests (like Trevor Joyce) with poets of a more traditional style. How do you think these two lines of poetic descent speak to each other?
Wheatley: Through gritted teeth, often enough; “Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start,” as Yeats once said. Irish poetry has its camps and turf wars, but I find it surprisingly easy to slip through their border checkpoints. I think of myself as a kind of tenth-century Old Irish lyric modernist, if only to cover all my bases. I was very happy to include Trevor Joyce in that anthology: he’s a fine writer, and a poet everyone should read.
This new book of yours similarly contains poems of an experimental nature and more traditional ones. Why did you decide to combine your two career-long interests in this volume? What is the influence of the Russian Futurists on your work?
I was trained as a musician (much more so than I have ever been trained as a poet), and can’t help thinking of questions of tradition and experiments in musical terms. Each poem requires its own orchestration. Is this poem a string quartet, a keyboard fugue, an orchestral tone poem? When my poems do slightly unconventional things on the page, they are only going where the rhythm, the timbre, and the sense of movement are taking them. So it’s something I feel on my pulse, rather than any merely intellectual compulsion. One example in particular illustrates this: the poem “Klangfarbenmelodie,” which takes off from a Schoenberg orchestral piece. The Schoenberg piece, inspired by the lake outside his holiday chalet, is remarkably static: it just hangs there, in sheets of sound. The effect is hypnotic and hallucinatory. I felt a strong urge to bring these formal possibilities to bear on the riverside landscape I was describing in the poem.
Where Russian poetry is concerned, Irish responses have largely followed Seamus Heaney’s lead in focusing on Mandelstam, Pasternak and Akhmatova. These are poets I revere, but I’ve always been conscious of other strands in Russian poetry too, from Blok to Esenin and the Futurists. Edwin Morgan’s Sovpoems and translations of Mayakovsky into Scots have also been important influences on me, in this respect. In Between Two Fires, Justin Quinn has written of the Cold War narrative Heaney joins in his presentation of the suffering Russian poet, living under Stalinist tyranny. Morgan by contrast sells Russian poetry to an Anglophone (or Scotophone) audience as an example of poetry willing to plunge into political as well as aesthetic radicalism, with all the risk that entails, and I can certainly see the attractions of that. [Velimer] Khlebnikov was a crackpot visionary, who called one of his books A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. He appeals to my more apocalyptic side, so I thought I’d take advantage of him to work off some of my own crackpot energies. The Futurists are the nuclear scientists of modern poetry, splitting the atom of the lyric line.
Following on this, the experimental verse seems to question voice in a way that makes the antiquarian and imitative poems seem part of a larger project as in their ancient packing (to borrow from Yeats); another type of impersonal voice is achieved. Do you think this is true?
Voice is central to poetry, but what voice, whose voice? There is the voice of the poet and the voice of the poem, and they aren’t always the same thing. There are a few poems in the book in Scots, which only in a strictly limited sense can be described as spoken in “my” voice. In context, they emerge from the ventriloquized voice of an eighteenth-century Scottish poet. With its three very different languages (English, Scots, Gaelic), Scotland is an excellent place to be reminded of the synthetic, artificial, and ultimately impersonal nature of all poetic voice.
You wrote your PhD dissertation on Beckett and have edited him as well. What draws you as a poet to his work, and where do you think it influences you and where does it not?
I believe in Beckett’s poetry, which is to say I admire it in its own right and not just as an appendage to the more famous prose and plays. The jagged cityscapes of Echo’s Bones speak powerfully to me, alongside their moments of strange, almost lunar calm. The later French poems of the mirlitonnades are, I think, among his more neglected masterworks: little flies’ footprints on the surface of silence. It was an honor and a pleasure putting some of the uncollected mirlitonnades into print for the first time in his Selected Poems in 2009: “bail bail till better / founder.”
We have always liked your translations, and were pleased to see more in this volume. Why Baudelaire, Lucretius, etc.?
I think nineteenth-century French poetry—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière, Nerval—was my poetic first love. I only wish I’d translated more of it. On the Latin side of things, Lucretius is too often demoted to “little brother” status alongside Virgil and Horace. Anyone who can extract a whole epic poem out of an Epicurean atomist theory of creation probably needs to be introduced to the nearest Russian Futurist, so why not have a crack at him too, I told myself. A. E. Stallings has produced an exemplary modern translation of Lucretius, but you can never have too much of poets that good.
Certain poems seem to represent the personal aesthetic you have created over the years, e.g., “Tunnels Through the Head” [pace Samuel Beckett?], “Remnant Land,” “Elegy for Any Occasion.” Does that seem fair?
“Tunnels Through the Head” is about a family member, now dead, who led a somewhat Beckettian existence in the Wicklow village of Kilcoole. And as chance would have it, there is an unfinished Beckett play of the 1960s called “Kilcool [sic]” that mentions “tunnels through the Head,” the last word referring to Bray Head and the railway tunnels along the Dublin line. My poem is an attempt to tunnel into the dead person’s thoughts, which had spent the best part of half a century in a state of extreme opacity. “Remnant Land” is the name of a carpet shop. I think of it as a portal to a musty Narnia, full of gas lit real-ale pubs, vegan cafes, independent bookshops, and other features of my personal utopia. And also the buzzards I mention in the third poem, “Elegy for Any Occasion.” They are all quite personal in the sense that they describe states of isolation and neglect but in, I hope, a companionable way. The wardrobe portal to Narnia is surprisingly roomy, after all.
In “A Bittering” you pun on the word bitter. What was your thought behind this poem?
The poem arose from the experience of brewing some beer in a pub in Hull. Some mild and some bitter, those quintessential north of England drinks, thanks to which I found myself pondering questions of memory and preservation. When lager become popular in the 1970s, the commercial rationale was to mass-produce a beer which could be stored in cans. But pasteurizing beer kills off the fermentation process, whereas real ale is beer that continues to ferment in the keg. It is still alive. Applying this comparison to memory, I decided that mechanically stored memories (a photograph album) are preserved by being neutralized, or frozen in the past, whereas the deeper level of memory—Beckett’s “involuntary memory”—retains its mystery and elusiveness because it too is still alive. I wanted to enter the past as a still-living territory. The truth is bitter then (bitter real ale), but bittersweet.
“Unpacking a Library” catalogues (forgive the pun) as it memorializes your feelings for Dennis O’Driscoll. Dennis was a great reader of poetry in every sense of the word. Can you comment?
My wife Aingeal and I moved to Scotland just before Christmas 2012, living in a rented farm house on the outskirts of the city. I was looking forward to sending Dennis a first postcard from our new address when I heard the news of his death, just as our books were arriving off the back of a lorry [truck]. Dennis was everyone’s most devoted reader: he reminds me of something Robert Lowell once said about Randall Jarrell, that he gave the impression of being more interested in other people’s work than his own. A meeting on the street with Dennis invariably turned into an impromptu seminar on modern poetry, though “seminar” isn’t quite the right word, given his self-deprecating aversion to all things academic. Poetry is a never-ending dialogue, so despite Dennis’s death the conversation goes on. Sunt aliquid manes, as Peter Reading (whom Dennis loved) used to say about his own compulsion to talk to dead poets in his work.
You yourself are one of the great readers and supporters of poets in general and Irish ones in particular. What were you aiming to achieve in “The Wandering Islands”?
That title comes from the Australian poet A. D. Hope, but it lends itself very well to the condition of the Hiberno-Britannic archipelago these days. I used to think of myself as a wanderer between Ireland, England, and Scotland, but I now realize that the nations themselves are also in an advanced state of flux. I think the identity crisis of the Irish poem will be familiar to any young Irish poet—is so-and-so an Irish poet? Is so-and-so more Irish than such-and-such? Does it matter? Often though, in these debates, there is a temptation to bail out of the “identity politics” of the Irish question and revert to the default position of the “English lyric” because, you know, that’s just there. Not anymore it’s not, I don’t think. But I’m all for maximal decolonizing of the Irish lyric, so long may the islands wander.
“Making Strange” is one of the most ambitious poems in the volume and among the most experimental. Can you describe the genesis of this poem? At the opposite pole is a poem like “Warm Front.” To bring this interview full circle, what binds two such different poems together in the same volume?
There is a phrase—a possibly over-quoted phrase—from Beckett’s 1934 essay “Recent Irish Poetry”: “rupture of the lines of communication.” The syntax and style of “Making Strange” is, I admit, quite fractured and experimental, but it sits awkwardly with Beckett’s description of experimental writing for the simple reason that the text has so much to communicate. It’s an homage to the wonderful childhood I had in the 1970s. It’s also a text that goes slightly against the grain of the great parental elegy tradition in Irish poetry, since my parents remain very much alive, and I thought it was time they featured properly in my work. As for the other poem, there is a not very subtle reference in it to the change of life that inspired it: “a burden” (the burden so gladly taken on) is “Aberdeen.” The most important aspect of life in Aberdeenshire now is our son Felix, who for reasons of timing features only twice in this book, but who I suspect will feature quite prominently in whatever I write next. There are many ways of classifying books of poems but chewability is important too, as I’ve learned in the last year. Athletes have a strange habit of biting their medals on the podium, but any future poems of mine, traditional or experimental, that end up in my son’s mouth will be doing all right by me.
David Wheatley was born in Dublin in 1970. He is the author of four collections of poetry: Thirst (1997), Misery Hill (2000), Mocker (2006), and A Nest on the Waves (2010). He has edited the work of James Clarance Mangan, Samuel Beckett, and most recently was editor of The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, Vol. IV (2017). His critical study Contemporary British Poetry was published by Palgrave in 2015. His writing has won various prizes, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Vincent Buckley Prize, and the Friends Provident (Irish) National Poetry Competition. He lives with his wife and son in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
Wheatley’s book, The President of Planet Earth, will be published on December 1st.