Melissa Lee-Houghton will be tutoring an upcoming online course on the writing of long poems (start date – Tuesday 2nd Feb 2016). And there’s a great interview with her at the Poetry School CAMPUS site, which gives the low-down on what to expect.
I wanted to do my wee bit in getting the word out. And since I am doing so with this blog post, here are a couple of questions I asked and Melissa’s answers:
EEN : After reading about your course and starting to ponder the long poem, I came across this podcast at Jacket 2 – Al Filreis and the gang discussing HD’s Helen in Egypt , a book-length lyrical “modernist epic — this radical revision of the Helen myth” HD seems to be giving us a new way to look at gender politics by reworking an old myth. And her Helen never goes to Troy with What’s-His-Name (Paris). Instead she & Achilles have some open-ended & ambiguous conversations.
What sorts of ways do you see that long poems can surprise and upend expectations and wake us up? Is the long poem suited for including both the personal and the political? Does the long poem need to be “about” something? Include a narrative thread?
Melissa: Years ago, I began reading Aristophanes and Euripides and became quite obsessed with epic poems and plays, and the first poem I ever remember reading was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, so it’s always been a fascination for me, how to create long and drawn out pieces of poetic writing and how to harness a theme or concern and work it into something expansive and vivid. Thematically, you can work just about anything at all into a long poem, though it needs to have a wide and broad concern at the root of it; love, death, war, like the Greek poets, like HD’s poem Helen in Egypt, which harnesses something new and revitalises old structures and ideas.
I think a long poem can be anything it wants, as obscure and experimental as the poet wishes it to be, but personally, I feel to hold the attention of the reader for a duration it needs to focus on something, or a few things that have depth and meaning. Narrative naturally lends great focus and structure to any long poem, but it’s not essential. And of course, a poem can be based on anything, an old Greek myth, a fairy tale, a personal memory or event, but within that there is always the possibility of doing something new and unexpected, and that’s one of the gifts of writing in long form, there will be accidents, you have to let it lead you.
You really have to trust in your inner thoughts and complexities, and use language as a journey, letting it guide you, not necessarily you guide it. More and more poets are writing long poems which are visual, grotesque, political, personal – there’s no right or wrong formula, you just have to enjoy the process and that will always show in your work. HD was invested in this work, and you can hear that as she reads, it’s very intense but her voice is quite fragile at times, and at other times very sombre and harsh – she went on a journey in the writing, she uncovered areas she possibly hadn’t intended to, and her subconscious workings pour in.
You can always tell when someone is writing from that difficult and complex place that blends personal concerns with global and universal concerns, and has drawn on all their energy to pursue it. It’s really not something to be taken lightly, writing in this way, as it can be quite exhausting, and is never easy but always, always fruitful. Even a bad long poem will feature phrases and ideas that can be reworked. I don’t believe anything can be lost in composing something of this nature.
EEN: A few years ago I was entranced listening on CD (and now we can listen on You Tube) to Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and Burton doing Dylan Thomas’s Milkwood. And when I was googling HD, I was delighted to find her audio for Helen on YouTube and Penn Sound. And recently I was pleased to hear on Soundcloud a powerful long-ish poem from you It seems to me that the aural/ oral aspect of long poems – The Heard Voice – is very important. It seems to tie in with the early roots of the telling of epics & tales, & the interpretation/expression of emotions & also, I suppose for the adaptability of long poems to verse-dramas in the theatre (Shakespeare for example!).
How do you feel about public readings/ performances of long poems; and the opportunities to present live & recorded readings via the internet etc.? Is the long poem ideally suited for serial postings/podcasts and/or collaborations – for example?
Melissa: It can be very difficult to read long poems to audiences unfamiliar with poetry or long poems. The listener has to be very patient, and let the poem envelop them, and trust in the reader that they will describe something worth sitting and listening to. The theatre is of course a venue and a vehicle for long poems and epic poems, and verse-dramas, so the audience understands what they are embarking on before it happens and is more willing to enjoy the experience. I find that the audience as a whole will either be patient or impatient, so it’s a gamble every time, but those audiences who are open to really listening to a long poem always give me great feedback about the experience when I choose to read something over ten minutes long.
I think that during the writing process, it’s essential the poet explores their own voice – that they read out loud what they are writing, to find rhythms and pace, and keep rooting themselves in that authentic inner monologue. The history of long and epic poems is so familiar to us yet for a long time as I’ve been working as a poet it has seemed it’s not really the norm to pursue this form. Magazines struggle for room, readings often lack the potential to try new, longer work as short and snappy poems dominate. Podcasts and recorded readings are a great way of expressing more intimate emotional poems and can of course be perfected before they are broadcast.
I think in today’s world we are so used to instant gratification that quite often we do want to consume in small doses, and have the immediacy of shorter work and easily transmittable ideas. I really want to pioneer a form of poetics that goes back to the roots of epic and narrative poems, but adopts things like social commentary and the philosophy of the mind, phenomenology, life and death, the important questions. The more I write long poems, the more I want to write them, it’s a very addictive habit, and I look forward to getting poets new to the form hooked.