Episode 39

At Peckham Rye by Clare Pollard

 

Clare Pollard reads ‘At Peckham Rye’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Incarnation by Clare Pollard

Trawlerman's Turquoise book cover

Available from:

Incarnation is available from:

The publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

At Peckham Rye

by Clare Pollard

Lately, I see through a narrow chink in a stairgate.
I see doors and think: can I get my pram through that?
In the park, I dole out small snacks –
ricecake, popped grapes, elven cheeses.

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would be infinite
but I have closed us up in stacky cups,
a nursery and naptimes;
in a rhyme for snug.

On warm grass students sip their drinks,
filmy with last night’s drugs.

Sleeplessness, I’ve heard, can induce visions –
I try to let pale roses pool with supernatural light
but only think of baby-wipes.

Blake was four when God put his head to the window.
Four! I am thirty-five
and have wanted for there to be SOMETHING so long and so much –
and, yes, my child reveals the holy in dull reality,
but he makes dullness and reality my responsibility.

At four, I believed I too was destined to see visions.
On Rye Common, now, I scrub puree off my jeans,
knowing angels bespangle every bough of every tree
for my son, perhaps, or for someone not me.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Clare, where did this poem come from?

Clare: So, like a lot of the poems in my collection Incarnation, which I wrote the bulk of sort of the year after my son was born, my eldest son who’s now nine, and I thought when I had a child, I wouldn’t write anything. That’s what everybody warned me, especially that first year. But weirdly, I found it quite conducive to writing. Because it was very demanding of me sort of physically. I was constantly either breastfeeding or pushing a pram around, it seemed. But it wasn’t very demanding of my thoughts.

I was quite sort of bored and lonely and had a lot of thinking time. And I’ve always written poems while walking or swimming, or I often find when I’m sort of moving or doing something physically, but, you know, I have nothing to occupy my thoughts. That’s when a lot of poems come to me. So, I actually found pushing the pram around Peckham, I wrote lots and lots of poems that year, and this was one of them that I actually wrote whilst pushing the pram around Peckham Rye.

Mark: And, you know, I think the body can be a bit overlooked when it comes to writing poetry, can’t it? I mean, I was talking about Wordsworth a few months ago, and Coleridge, who famously did a lot of poetry writing combined with walking, because that was when it seemed to bubble up for them.

Clare: Yeah. I think perhaps it’s something to do with the rhythm of walking and swimming as well. But also, I mean, if you were the sort of writer who needs a pen to write, that doesn’t work. But for me, I’ve always written largely in my head, I don’t even usually pick up a pen until the poem’s nearly finished. So, I don’t have lots of first drafts in the bin because the first drafts happen in my head in a way. In fact, if I start writing a poem down and it’s not brilliant, I’m very disappointed. Because it would’ve sounded really good in my head before I even, you know, got to that stage.

Mark: Right.

Clare: So, yeah. And also, I mean, I was probably talking to myself, but people probably thought I was talking to the baby in the pram. But, you know, I quite like to sort of say things aloud, I like to hear things aloud as I’m writing. I compose sort of orally in a way, is what I’m saying, I think, which I think you can hear in my poems, which are perhaps more musical than some of my contemporaries. No shade on them.

Mark: Well, no shade at all. But that’s where poetry started, isn’t it? I mean, poets weren’t literate, to begin with. And if you couldn’t carry the tune in your head, then it probably wasn’t going to last, was it?

Clare: Yeah, exactly. And so, although this poem is free verse, I thought a lot about the rhythm of it as I do all my poems. And I think the rhythm… in my more free verse poems, the rhythm’s more emotional perhaps rather than tum-ti-tum, but it’s definitely still there.

Mark: So, I’m curious, how many drafts can there be in your head? Or how long can it be? I mean, does it have to be, you know, that afternoon or it’s you’ve kind of faded from your memory? Or could it be like a couple of weeks later that it’s been, you know, hanging around in your head?

Clare: I always think if I forget something, it can’t have been very good.

Mark: It’s a severe editor!

Clare: Yeah. You know, it wouldn’t have come word for word in my head like this, but the idea of Blake, some of the lines would definitely have come to me that afternoon. I think that one of the early lines that came to me was that ‘my child reveals the holy in dull reality, / but he makes dullness and reality my responsibility’, and sort of that sticks in my head. I think of that quite often, the rhythm of that as well.

Mark: And what a beautiful summation of the parent’s experience because you kind… Yeah, on one level, it’s all holy and it’s wonderful and I should be grateful. But on the other hand, I’m the one dealing with all this dullness in reality.

Clare: Yeah. And I think that’s the central sort of theme of my whole book Incarnation, in a way, which is, I mean, originally I’d thought I didn’t even want to write a motherhood book, you know, that it would be too predictable and twee, and so on. But actually, I found then suddenly in midlife you’ve got this huge new seam of human experience, and childbirth is this massive traumatic event that you want to write about. But also, you know, just the responsibility of bringing a child into the world, the way it makes you question how to raise them and, you know, what stories to tell them, and the way it makes… You know, it’s a big life or death theme.

And so, I started to think rather than, ‘I don’t want to write a motherhood book’, I started to think, ‘You know, why isn’t motherhood poetry as big a genre? Why isn’t it seen as important as war poetry or, you know, another genre like that?’ And I wanted to write motherhood poems that were not twee, or obviously domestic that grappled with these big philosophical thoughts, I suppose. So, this poem is a sort of… it came quite early on and I think it sums up a lot of themes of the book.

And there is, of course, me, as this sort of female writer, who’s always been very ambitious and intelligent. I always remember that line Doris Lessing has, ‘There’s nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.’ She solved the dilemma by abandoning her children, which I obviously didn’t want to do. But, you know, there is that sense when you become a mother. Even though I’ve been a feminist all my life, suddenly I’m very much pushed… suddenly I felt impacted upon by the general misogyny of society.

And people, you know, patronize you, tell you how to look after your child in the street, call you ’Mum’ wherever you go, you know, feel they can pat your stomach, and suddenly there’s that, you know, expectation that you’ll breastfeed if you’re a good mother, which means you’re basically tied, your husband ends up going out to work and you end up at home tied to… or your partner, you end up being the primary child carer, even though that wasn’t, you know, ever my plan.

And I remember another mum saying to me when I was pregnant, I was talking about wanting to go on a trip the next year, and she was like, ‘Oh, well it’s not about you now,’ you know? And there was that sense, that fear for me that I was getting pushed to this side of my own life in some way, and that I would never be able to fulfil any of my ambitions again, you know?

So, I suppose that’s all there in the poem, especially setting it up with William Blake who did famously as a boy live around Peckham Rye, and did see his vision of angels there. And suppose I was thinking about the indulgences that a lot of male poets get and the way they always get to be sort of centre of their own life, whereas the women often end up picking up the domestic and the drudgery.

Mark: Right. And I think that is one… and this is not just this poem, but all the way through the collection, you’ve got this wonderful tension between the visionary and the domestic. And here, of course, Blake, you know, what do we think of when we think of Blake? We think of the visions, we think of the stereotypical male romantic poet, and you’re contrasting that with your experience. And also I’m picking up your desire as well for that visionary realm, I’ve wanted for there to be something so long.

Clare: Yeah, yeah. It’s the smallness, I suppose, of domestic life and life with a child. I’d recently been reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, as well when I was pregnant, which was really interesting. I mean, I read a lot of philosophy. I’m interested in that sort of thing. I’m not part of any organized religion. And I sort of had an atheist phase when I was younger, but I’m mainly agnostic now. But I’m interested in thinking about, you know, the meaning of life, who we are, the big questions. And I’ve always been interested in sort of visionaries and mystics and more of that side of it.

Mark: And so, if anyone isn’t familiar with the Blake quote, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be infinite,’ Huxley picked that up, didn’t he? In his essay on perception.

Clare: Yes, he did.

Mark: Involving mescaline, I believe.

Clare: Yeah. He was experimenting with drugs, which is where the drugs reference comes in this poem, I suppose.

Mark: Right, right.

Clare: I think that’s an interesting little rhyme. ‘In a rhyme for snug’, I was obviously thinking of ‘snug as a bug in a rug’, which is something I said to my children quite often at bedtime or, you know, you’ll be snug as a bug in a rug. Now, it seemed to me like the ultimate sort of tweak, obviously a little rhyme. But then you can see my mind wander rather jealously in the poem as I glance across and see the students and see the telltale signs that they’ve been on drugs.

Mark: Right.

Clare: So, I think that rhyme is quite interesting really.

Mark: I love that. And I think rhyme is a kind of a… maybe can be a bit of an overlooked form of wit.

Clare: Yeah. It is almost a joke there I think, and it shows I’m not quite the cozy mother, you know.

Mark: Right. There’s a rhyme joke genre here, rhyming snug with drugs. You know, last month I was talking about Christina Rossetti with her critique of a male artist. And I just wondered if it was a coincidence that she’d rhymed ‘him’ with ‘dim’, and, you know, whether that was a subtle dig.

Clare: Good one! So, there’s another thing in here as well, which is, I’ve written a book called Fierce Bad Rabbits, which is a history of children’s picture books. And my favourite book as a child was Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry. And Hilda Boswell was a brilliant illustrator. And there’s a poem that ends, this little girl runs through all these fields and she only realizes why at the end. She says, ‘I only knew at last why I’d run so far so fast. On every branch of every tree, a fairy sat and smiled at me.’ And there’s this most exquisite picture in the book of this tree just shimmering with hundreds of fairies.

And for me, that’s always been sort of the… It was a picture that filled me with such longing, such longing to see something, you know, beyond the natural. And it’s an image that just recurs in my work. And I think it’s there at the end when my son’s seeing angels in the tree, that Blakean image. But it’s also that image that I long for of those fairies in the tree. And the fairies are there at the beginning with the tiny little picnic I’ve made for my son with the rice cake and the popped grapes. You pop them so they won’t choke on them. And the Babybels, I was thinking, the ‘elven cheeses’.

Mark: So, ‘elven’, is that how you imagine elven cheeses would be?

Clare: Well, I just was thinking of these sort of tiny, cute cheese. There’s something adorable about the smallness of… You know, I didn’t hate having small children. In some ways, there’s something quite magic about it. You do see the leafiness of leaves again, you do stomp in puddles, you know, you do blow dandelion clocks and press… There is a sort of magic in it, which I wanted, but at the same time, it’s tedious.

Mark: Yeah. It’s that, but, but ‘he makes dullness and reality my responsibility’, and that really is. I don’t know. I mean, my memory from when our children were small was, on the one hand, I was thinking, ‘This is a really magical time. You should remember this and treasure this, but I’m just so tired and I’ve got so much to do!’

Clare: Yeah, that’s the other thing, the sleeplessness, which is actually a state that some people try to do. You know, it maybe is a visionary state, being that sleeplessness, maybe you do see beyond the veil in some level.

Mark: But alas, not this day on Peckham Rye.

Clare: Yes. I mean that’s a funny rhyme as well, isn’t it? I think it’s funny. I try to let pale roses pool with supernatural light but only think of baby wipes.

Mark: Yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of those, isn’t there? When you keep looking at the poem, you find more of them.

Clare: Yeah, yeah. And also the base loss of the sort of longer line, and then the shorter line I’ve done there creates a sort of punchline I think, sort of flatness, it’s a sort of punchline.

Mark: Yeah. So, maybe you’d like to say something about the form because, you know… And again, I’m curious because, like, visually on the page you can see… Folks, check out the website if you want to see the text laid out. It is quite bold, isn’t it? The way you’ve used long and very short lines. Quite a lot of time, you’d be told to tidy that up, wouldn’t you?

Clare: Not by me!

Mark: Not by you.

Clare: I mean, I do a lot of poetry teaching and I would not tell anyone to tidy that up.

Mark: Right. But, you know, there’s a convention, isn’t there? That sometimes you’re…

Clare: Yeah, I mean, that’s a visual convention you see. People like things to look neat to the eye. But because I mainly compose in my head, I don’t really give two hoots about how it looks to the eye. And I mean, who needs little neat boxes all over their books? Not very interesting that. So, for me, I break where I breathe, or where I need the emphasis. It’s all oral really.

Mark: Right. And I think this is really important for us to bear in mind because some poets will be very visually oriented the way they like to lay it out on the page. But for you, it’s very much a kind of a nudge towards that oral recital.

Clare: Yeah, you can always hear my line breaks when I read, always. I read the line breaks. You know, you can hear there’s always an audible pause for breath. And that’s how I like my line breaks. Even when I’ve done a concrete poem, I read the line breaks. So, it has to work for me both ways. Like, I’ve done one shaped like a whale’s tail. But for me, I have to be able to put the pauses where I’ve put them and it to sound right, or I’ve failed. Otherwise, I’ve just shovelled a poem into the shape of a whale’s tail.

Mark: Right. And a lot of poets will say about concrete poems, ‘Oh, well, I can’t read it.’

Clare: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s not good enough.

Mark: That’s not good enough for you. Brilliant. And so, I usually, at this point, I would ask the poet, you know, how did this evolve from the first draft? But it sounds like most of that evolution happened in your head. I mean, could you maybe say something about the process of how long it gestated, to coin a phrase, in your head, and then, you know, how much editing and changing there was once it was on the page?

Clare: It’s very hard for me to remember. I had not had very much sleep! [Laughter] I’d not had very much sleep at the time, you know? I would say something about the form I should say, but I mean I’m almost afraid to flag it up, but a very Clare Pollard cliché is to end with a rhyming couplet. And probably the end came early, that’s what happens to me. I know a lot of people like to just start with the first line and see where it takes and go on a journey, but I’m almost the opposite. I find so often I almost start with the end. I know I’ve got this strong line I know. I think, ‘Ooh, yeah. That’s saying something profound.’

Mark: Right.

Clare: And then I have to almost find my way to it. So, it’s the opposite way. I have to sort of work out how I’m going to get there. And I like big endings and I can’t resist a rhyming couplet at the end the way it sort of clinks a poem shut. But I have to sort of ration myself out now and only allow myself, you know, three or four in a book or something. Because, you know, I would go for every time if I was allowed.

Mark: But they’re so satisfying.

Clare: Like Shakespeare was.

Mark: Yeah. I mean, it’s satisfying, isn’t it?

Clare: Yeah. So, it ends with the rhyming couplet there, which is very typical of a lot of my free verse poems. It is very satisfying. And so, that probably came… I can tell you that that probably came really quite early on that ending, and then it was thinking about how I got there. I imagine the second half of the poem came first in a way, the bit about Blake because I was on Peckham Rye thinking about Blake.

Mark: Right.

Clare: And my sort of jealousy of him seeing visions and then remembering that image of the fairies in the tree and having that thought, ‘angels bespangle every bough of every tree / for my son perhaps, or for someone, not me’. That probably was the first draft of the poem, but then I was thinking that I need to get there somehow, I need to start. Like, ‘Whoa there, Clare, let’s step back. How do I get into that place?’

Mark: Sure. But I imagine it would be quite motivating knowing that you’ve got a great ending to lead up to.

Clare: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s my main motivation when I write a poem.

Mark: You’ve got to pave the way for the ending.

Clare: Yeah. And I think I wanted to put something more of the setting of Peckham Rye itself, which is a really interesting place, and a place I was spending, you know, going to most days. I was pushing around Peckham Rye most days. And it’s a beautiful park, and it’s got this history.

Mark: Maybe say something about that because there’s quite a few of our listeners who will not have been to Peckham.

Clare: It’s just a really nice big park with a massive common. But it’s also got, you know, Japanese gardens, and beautifully laid out gardens and ducks. We did a lot of feeding of the ducks. And Peckham’s nice though. It’s much greener than people think it is. Yeah. I… Let’s think, what else? ‘Narrow chink in a stairgate.’ I think that’s a good first line. That probably came quite late because I was thinking about ‘The Doors of Perception’ there.

Mark: Oh, I see. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a door, isn’t it?

Clare: Yeah. But it’s very… not even just a stairgate, but chink in a stair… Suddenly, your house is full of bars, you know.

Mark: But also it made me think of that image of God putting his head to the window, you know, your head at the stairgate looking in. It seemed to be a lovely symmetry there.

Clare: Yeah. I hadn’t thought of that, Mark, actually, but you’re right. It works well, doesn’t it? And you are your child’s God in a way I suppose. And I see doors and think, ‘Can I get my pram through that?’ And building up to that ‘Doors of Perception’ image, aren’t I as well? Which is a problem. You can’t get into a lot of shops. I really hated that. I’m a very, very independent woman. And one thing which is in some of the other poems I really didn’t like, was this sudden dependence on strangers to, you know, help me onto the bus, and you’d sort of have to wait around at the bottom of stairs on the tube hoping someone would offer to help you up the stairs and so on.

Mark: Oh, that. That used to drive me up the wall because we had twins. And so, I had one pushchair. I couldn’t help Mami with the other one. And it was amazing how many people would walk past and not help.

Clare: So, you couldn’t get into any shops.

Mark: We did feel a bit kind of unwelcome in the world. I remember that feeling very distinctly of being, ‘Oh, we’re now a nuisance.’

Clare: Yeah, yeah. There is that and people seemed annoyed with you for blocking the pavement and things, so you are an inconvenience. Yeah. Anyway, that’s all there I think.

Mark: And I love the way it ends with ‘not me’. I mean, that kind of sums up that whole feeling of the poem. Like, you know, when that charming lady said to you ‘It’s not about you anymore’.

Clare: Yes, that charming lady. Yeah, I think that is the whole… I mean, it’s okay now everyone who’s in that space at the moment, I feel like I’ve come through it and my life perhaps is about myself again after all. But there is a lot of… at that time, you do feel you’re not the most important person in your own life. Especially I think pregnancy sort of begins that process because, you know, you can’t pick up a chair without someone looking at you very disapprovingly. You know, you’re just a sort of vessel. You’re just a sort of vessel. There’s always a lot of people are concerned from pregnancy on, and it feels like you’ve become less important than what you’re carrying.

Mark: Right. And you don’t own yourself in some way. People have this proprietorial interest in you.

Clare: It’s interesting as well in the last line I say, ‘My son perhaps.’ I mean, he was my son, but it’s something about he’s male. So, you know, perhaps he won’t have to go through this. I think it’s there.

Mark: Well, thank you, Clare, for capturing that really uncomfortable in between – but, you know, in an interesting way it comes across as… I mean, it does come across as a visionary poem. In spite of you saying, it’s not visionary, I do get a sense of the light peeping through the chinks. So, maybe this would be a good point for us to listen to it again and look out for those chinks of light.


 

At Peckham Rye

by Clare Pollard

Lately, I see through a narrow chink in a stairgate.
I see doors and think: can I get my pram through that?
In the park, I dole out small snacks –
ricecake, popped grapes, elven cheeses.

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would be infinite
but I have closed us up in stacky cups,
a nursery and naptimes;
in a rhyme for snug.

On warm grass students sip their drinks,
filmy with last night’s drugs.

Sleeplessness, I’ve heard, can induce visions –
I try to let pale roses pool with supernatural light
but only think of baby-wipes.

Blake was four when God put his head to the window.
Four! I am thirty-five
and have wanted for there to be SOMETHING so long and so much –
and, yes, my child reveals the holy in dull reality,
but he makes dullness and reality my responsibility.

At four, I believed I too was destined to see visions.
On Rye Common, now, I scrub puree off my jeans,
knowing angels bespangle every bough of every tree
for my son, perhaps, or for someone not me.


 

Incarnation

‘At Peckham Rye’ by Clare Pollard is from her collection Incarnation published by Bloodaxe Books.

Incarnation by Clare Pollard book cover

Incarnation is available from:

The publisher: Bloodaxe Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

Clare Pollard

Clare Pollard portrait photo

Clare Pollard has published five collections of poetry with Bloodaxe, most recently Incarnation and a pamphlet The Lives of the Female Poets, published by Bad Betty Press. Her poem ‘Pollen’ has been nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2022. She has been involved in numerous translation projects, including translating Ovid’s Heroines, which she toured as a one-woman show. Clare has also written a play, The Weather, that premiered at the Royal Court Theatre and a non-fiction title, Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books. Her latest book is the novel Delphi

clarepollard.wordpress.com

Photo: Sophie Davidson

 

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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