Episode 23

Nothing the hedgerows say

by Mark Antony Owen

 

Mark Antony Owen reads ‘Nothing the hedgerows say’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Subruria by Mark Antony Owen

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets book cover

Available at:

Subruria.com

 

Nothing the hedgerows say

by Mark Antony Owen

I’m enclosed by encrypted conversation:
thickets of pulses and whistles and clicks. Songs.
Each border with a voice distinct as a man’s –
each tree, a tongue. I hear the grass gossiping,
repeating what it thinks the wind has told it;

hear it whisper a secret from blade to blade,
rush it away in all directions at once.
Silence from me and the water overhead,
now a dragon, now a sleeping boy. Dumb shapes,
fathoming nothing. Nothing the hedgerows say.


 

Interview transcript

Mark McGuinness: Mark, where did this poem come from?

Mark Antony Owen: So this poem came about because I was on a walk on the evening before my 38th birthday, which was a few years ago now, and it was, as of mid-April, it was a warmish evening. And I was walking through a field of ripening wheat, which I refer to in the poem as grass. But it was, in fact, very dark-coloured wheat. And as I was walking along, what I was hearing in the hedgerows and the trees around me were all of these conversations, as I said, in the poem of between the various breeds of bird.

And I became suddenly very aware of the fact that all of this was happening around me, and I didn’t understand any of it. How could I? I don’t speak bird. And it just sort of struck me as…I felt closed out of nature’s conversation with itself. And I then sort of started to think to myself, well, a lot of poems that I have written up to that point we’re very visually led. It’s about how I saw things and how they look like other things, and so on and so forth. But this poem felt like it needed to be about the sound of things. So the poem is all structured around the idea of the sound that I could hear around me at the time which is why I talk about this kind of thickets of pulses and whistles and clicks, which, you know, in many ways were song as many people would understand that.

And then, of course, once I become aware of the conversations that these birds seem to be having towards the end of the day, I then looked around and I saw the wind was blowing through this wheat behind me and it was kind of filtering up like a wave of wind through the grasses. And the image in my mind immediately was they’re talking to each other. Each bit of grass is taking what they believe the wind is telling them and taking it all the way through the field from one end to the other, which I thought was quite a nice image.

And then as I turned around, in the other direction to walk back towards home, I looked up and the sky had a kind of pinkish hue that it sometimes gets in the early evening as the sun’s going down. Where it says in the poem, ‘Now a dragon, now a sleeping boy’, those were literally the shapes that I saw in the clouds above me. And what I thought it would be nice to do as I came to kind of form this poem was take that idea of sound and almost invert it and kind of say, you know, these things were making no sound at all, and like me, could understand nothing of the sounds that were happening on the ground around me. So that was really the basis of the poem. It was kind of like a sound poem rather than a visual one.

Mark McGuinness: Listening to you talk, Mark, and also looking at the poem again, I’m really struck by this wonderful combination of precision and magic that you have. I mean, there’s a real accuracy in what you were saying, that it was literally conversation that you were hearing from the birds, and similarly, you know, the water overhead, that’s literally what it is. But there’s a magic in the idea that you’re listening into conversation from another species that’s kind of encrypted and you can’t hear. And similarly, there’s a riddling quality to the idea of having water overhead, which sounds weird, but then, I guess it is weird, isn’t it?

Mark Antony Owen: Yeah, I suppose so. I guess one of the things that every poet wants to do or tries to do is to find a non-typical way of expressing the things that we’ve all seen described in various sort of what are now cliche terms by, you know, the writers of lyrics all down the ages. We’re always looking for a new way to say something. So, I could have said ‘clouds’, of course I could, I could have implied clouds simply by the idea of, you know, seeing shapes in the sky above me. But I figured that the water felt more like it fitted with kind of the natural theme of the poem.

Mark McGuinness: And, I mean, did you write this down very quickly after doing the walk or, is this ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’, as Wordsworth would have it?

Mark Antony Owen: This was scribbled into my phone, in my note-taking app while I was on the walk, and it was literally as each scene unfolded in front of me, I was kind of tapping it down on the phone. I took it home and this was around the time, and we’ll come to this a little bit later I’m sure, where I had just begun to write syllabically, which is where the structure of the poem is you’re counting the number of syllables in each line of poetry and you’re conforming to a pattern. And I had just begun to do this, and I had this form of hendecasyllabic lines, which is 11 syllable lines. And, I wanted to play with it, and this was the first poem that I ever took through that process in a really in-depth way.

And so, while the poem, as read today and as can be seen on Subruria, looks as though it’s been worked and worked and reworked, and that is true it has, it’s actually very close to what I originally wrote despite, I mean, literally years of tinkering and rewriting and even changing whole sections in the middle of stanzas. But this is essentially as I tapped it out in my phone all those years ago.

Mark McGuinness: And I’m not too surprised to hear that, Mark, because, obviously, it is like all the poems on Subruria, it’s very clearly worked and finished and polished, but it’s got this wonderful quality of freshness and immediacy. And, the book that it’s reminding me of is Ted Hughes’s collection, Moortown Diary, which I know from reading interviews and letters of his, he actually kept the diary every day of what he’d just been doing on the farm.

So, it’s a book about time that he spent farming living in North Devon, which is actually the landscape where I grew up. And it was one of the first books that got me into poetry, because it just had that immediate freshness of, this is a scene that I know from walking down the lane, you know, up the road from my parent’s house. And, a lot of the poems in Subruria, particularly this one, they’ve got that immediacy. It’s like, you know, you say you were taking field notes while you’re actually out on the walk. Is this something that you do a lot of?

Mark Antony Owen: Yeah, I think when I do the rural side of Subruria, and I’ll return to that idea in just a moment, yeah, it generally is when I’m out and about in the field, literally, sometimes. And so, there isn’t time to try to remember it all and get home and scribble it all down, I need to do it, you know, as I’m going along. And it probably would be worthwhile to talk about what I mean when I say ‘Subruria’, because we’ve used the term a few times in this interview already, but…

Mark McGuinness: Yeah, please do. Because it’s part of a wider project, isn’t it, this poem?

Mark Antony Owen: It is. Yeah, I mean, Subruria is not a term that I coined, but I hadn’t seen it on the internet or anywhere before I’d thought of it. So, you know, they say that there’s no such thing as an original idea and that somebody out there’s probably had the similar thought that you’ve had. It was only years after I’d first thought about the spaces in which I’ve always lived at, which are mainly suburban, but always with some rural element in them, that I found out that this word had been used for a very similar reason, I think somewhere out in America originally. But I take it and I try to own it, you know, I bought the domain name and I had this conception of a project where two-thirds of what I wrote were going to be more suburban poems, and one-third would be more rural.

Because what I found as I was looking around various writers that I admired was that, there are some very classic suburban writers and there have been, you know, for many, many years. There are equally some great writers of rural poetry, countryside poetry, call it what you will. There are writers who focus on the metropolises and the cities, there are writers who focus on the coasts, on the wildernesses and the highlands and the mountains. But nobody, as far as I could see was combining this very quiet, almost middle-Englandy sort of view of small…what we think of as suburban spaces, but right up to countryside and the two types of lives that go on in those spaces almost kind of intermingle.

It’s not unusual to see a horse walking along the street here or, literally, a tractor parked in somebody’s front drive, in what would otherwise be a very ordinary housing estate. So, because I’d always grown up in these spaces, because this was really all I knew, I thought, well, I’m going to be honest, I’m just going to write about these things and I’m going to bracket it all under one single title, which is, Subruria.

Mark McGuinness: And, you know, when I saw Subruria.com, which is the website where this is all hosted, by the way, folks, do go there and check out the poems, I just thought you’d nailed something, and it was almost like the guy, isn’t it the guy in the Molière play who realized he’d been speaking prose all his life without realizing it? I realized I’ve been living in Subruria most of my life and that’s where I grew up.

Like I say, it was in North Devon, Hughes’s Moortown poems are really the hardcore, what it’s like to be farming out on the moors. But I was living on the edge of a housing estate and there was literally a field over the road, we would go and play football, the farmer would come and chase us out of it occasionally or, sometimes there would be, you know, more or less cows in there, so you had to take account of that. And, I think you’ve really captured something with these poems about what it’s like, you know, the intersection between civilization, suburban normality and banality and the mystery of nature.

Mark Antony Owen: Yeah. And I think, like yourself, I’ve lived always in these kinds of spaces. I mean, I grew up on a large new council housing estate that was built on the edge of the town of Bournemouth, which people traditionally think of as seaside, but go further inland and it’s very sub-rural, it really is, there’s a big housing estate and then you just butt straight into farms, and that’s the life I had. My house, literally next door to it was the field that started off towards the farm, and there was a play park right outside my front door.

So, these things just always coexisted in my mind, they were my frame of normality, I suppose. And I suppose I wanted to capture it, but what I didn’t want to do with Subruria, and what I’m always mindful of not doing, is trying to write a poem which encapsulates both the suburban and the rural in the same poem. I kind of want it to be that two-thirds of the poems are going to have a more sub-rural, human, everyday personal relationship type focus, and the other third generally will be something from the natural world and the world around me in which I live in.

Mark McGuinness: Yeah. That was very much my experience of reading it, that, you know, some poems are really, almost… there’s social comedy or tragedy, lots of everyday human details, and then you’ve got something like this, which is, you know, the realm of Hughes, or I don’t know, Emily Dickinson. There’s a kind of a sense of mystical communing with nature almost, with the idea of the grass whispering a secret from blade to blade, and, you know, it’s really wonderful.

So, could you say a bit more about Subruria the project? Because you’ve taken quite an unusual and a bold approach, I mean…so, for one thing, anybody who hasn’t seen it, listening to this, please go to Subruria.com and check it out. For one thing, Mark has done a beautiful job of presenting poetry online. He’s got lovely, understated, but really atmospheric graphics…

Mark Antony Owen: Thank you.

Mark McGuinness: …beautiful typography, and audio recordings of every poem. And then you’re doing this quite bold thing Mark, aren’t you, of saying that you’re going to release the poems on April the 12th. Is it three years apart?

Mark Antony Owen: It is. It is. That’s where it started.

Mark McGuinness: So, what’s behind the significance, is there any numerology involved here?

Mark Antony Owen: I turned 45 on the day that I started it, and I released 45 poems, and it just felt like that was a real landmark for me. I always wanted to publish a book and I’m doing air quotes there, and I figured what better time than my mid-forties? It’s time to kind of, you know, get a hold of this thing, stop procrastinating, actually build something and put it out there.

And that is the reason why it is self-published as well, is because I wanted complete creative control. Having worked in the creative industries for many years in advertising particularly, I found that whilst you can get terrific creativity in a collaborative sense, sometimes you want a singular vision just to deliver what it is that, that person wants to put into the world. And so, as you say, the graphics are very understated, the typography, all the rest of it.

What I was trying to do, particularly in the desktop version more so than with the limitations of mobile, was to create an almost coffee table book feel on a web page. Yeah? Lots of white space, lots of spaces for the poem to be the main focus. And you’ll notice that, you know, from the red coloured titles to the darkness of the text for the poem itself, everything else around it is muted because I want you to focus on the words, that’s what matters.

Mark McGuinness: And you put the word ‘book’ in air quotes just now. Will there be a book, a print version of this, or will it be forever digital?

Mark Antony Owen: My aim is to keep it digital. Now, I’m not saying that I’m not open to approaches from anybody who says, ‘I’ve got a great idea of how we can do this as a book’ or whatever. But at the moment, my focus is very much on the digital side of things.

Well, I had a conversation with a couple of poets on Twitter back in 2012 I think it was, and, when they were kind of listening to me rambling on about how I thought this thing was going to be, they said, ‘It sounds very Walt Whitman. It sounds very Leaves of Grass, where the thing will expand over time’.

And I thought, yeah, I hadn’t thought of it at that point, but then I thought, yeah, actually that’s probably quite right. It will be dishonest of me to release a number of albeit online collections with different titles, because ultimately, I’m always writing about the same things in the same spaces. I’m going through various themes and coming at them from different angles. So, it made sense to release one project with one title, and to then do it in what I’m calling releases, which are in effect, you know, collections/chaps, which builds together to make a body of work.

Mark McGuinness: And so, for anyone who’s maybe not familiar with the publishing history of Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass, he did several different editions didn’t he, so that it kind of expanded over time or changed over time?

Mark Antony Owen: It did. It expanded and contracted at one point; I believe.

Mark McGuinness: Right.

Mark Antony Owen: But yeah, he just essentially worked on the same thing over and over again. And I’m sure there are probably other people out there who’ve done it as well, but I haven’t encountered those. And, Whitman is probably the most obvious example. But yeah, the more I thought about it, the more I thought, this is the most honest way in which I can present what it is I’m trying to do.

Mark McGuinness: And why the releases every three years?

Mark Antony Owen: Well, I work very slowly, which is ironic because when I first came back to poetry, as I always say in my kind of late thirties, I was writing very quickly, I was barely editing. I had all these kind of free-form poems with no real structural metre to them, and I was initially quite happy to just leave it at that. But then poems, like hedgerows came along and other as in the early days of working out my approach to syllabic poetry. And, that was when I started to think, these things would be better if I took more time, if I crafted these things, if I lived with them, not just for weeks but months and even years, and some of these poems have taken me literally ten years to finish. And so, I figured that if I’m going to take that approach with my writing, then, yeah, every three years doesn’t seem unrealistic. I should have enough of a next batch ready to go for that release, and I can still be working on others forward in the future. If I set the cadence any shorter than that, I’d feel under pressure, especially given other poetry projects that I work on, and of course, just living daily life.

Mark McGuinness: Okay. So, the next release is due for April 2024, and that doesn’t feel like pressure, that feels like a good commitment to have on your horizon?

Mark Antony Owen: Yeah, definitely. And, you mentioned numerology earlier and I am a bit of a stickler for numbers and dates and so on, it’s just a side of me. And as I said, when I was 45, I published 45 poems. I then decided what’s going to happen because there are going to be nine main releases, plus what I call an apocrypha, the leftovers, but publishable leftovers at the very end of the project.

Mark McGuinness: Right.

Mark Antony Owen: Well, what I’m doing initially…at 45 I published 45 poems. At 54, I’ll publish 54 poems. And at 63, I’ll publish 63 poems. In the intervening ones, we’re going to get, as we just had last year with release two, that was 36 poems and that’s a fixed 36. So, every two, five, whichever it is, they’re all going to have a fixed number of 36 poems, and then, there’ll be another release after that. The third is one that’s coming up, as you say, in 2024, which will be just 27 poems. So that way, I’m also not putting myself onto too much pressure to finish too many poems too quickly as I move towards the next, what I call major release.

Mark McGuinness: And it’s going to keep the professors busy for years, interpreting all this significance. It’s like Shakespeare’s sonnets, there’s supposed to be a load of Elizabethan numerology, you know, the numbers of the different…you know, the grand climacteric or whatever it is. And different sonnets have got different numbers because of their significance. So, and…

Mark Antony Owen: I can tell you actually, yeah, sorry to interrupt. I can tell you that there is a lot of internal structuring going along within the poems themselves, but I’m not prepared to reveal that just yet.

Mark McGuinness: Okay. Well, that’s actually where I was going to go next, is to come back to this idea of counting the syllables. And I know that you write all your poetry in syllabics, is that right?

Mark Antony Owen: I do. Yeah, that part I can talk about. So, let’s sort of say how it came about, back in, I don’t know what year it was now, but it was early nineties, I had this sudden grandiose idea that I was going to try to rewrite the entirety of Thomas à Kempis’s, The Imitation of Christ, as rhymed, syllabic couplets.

Mark McGuinness: Wow!

Mark Antony Owen: And I did make a start on that, the archivist would be pleased to hear, I made a start on that project. And I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it immensely. And the reason I chose to do it syllabically, rather than using the more, what is it, more typical in English poetry, which is accentual syllabic, where you’re counting, not just a number of syllables in a line, but also the beats, or the stresses if you like, where they appear, according to whatever pattern.

I found that when I thought about the way different English speakers stress and unstress certain words in English, I found it a real stress, for want of a better word, to try to figure out where those beats were going to go. And I think it was a lot easier for me to focus on the imagery and the lyricism of the poems, if I simply counted the syllables, and that’s how that idea first came about.

Now, people often say, you know, you say you’ve got these nine forms that you use exclusively, and that is true, I have, and yes, I do vary them a little at times, if the poem requires it. But generally, there are just these nine forms and they say to me, ‘How did they come about?’ And I say, ‘The true answer to that is really not very exciting’. The first nine poems I picked out of my slush pile of everything I’d been writing for about six months, the first nine that I picked up, I literally looked at them and thought, how can I best break these syllabically? What kind of line structures will I get? And as soon as I got one that I was happy with, I said, ‘Right, that’s a form, and that’s a form, and that’s a form’.

And when I got to nine, I stopped. I just thought, right, that’s it, I’ve got nine forms. Every single thing I write from now on, and everything that I revised from the past, is going to fit one of those nine forms, and that was it. And the reason I constrained myself like that is because I am quite a scattered person creatively. There are lots of different directions that I could take. I mean, before I became a writer, I did actually want to be a visual artist, for example. So, there’s these other sides to me that would kind of be fighting each other to produce whatever it might be. But when I’m constrained, and this is true of my professional life as a copywriter, when I have very little space in which to do something, it forces me to be inventive and creative and to strain for that absolute right word or phrase or image, such that with just very few words from very few syllables overall, I can conjure up in the mind of the reader what it is I want them to think or feel, or see, or indeed hear.

Mark McGuinness: Okay. Because, if I can be devil’s advocate for a moment, the usual objection to syllabics in English is that English is a very stress-strong language. So, syllabics are usually much more common in Romance languages like French or Italian or Spanish, where there’s not such a strong pattern of stress in the language, so it makes more sense for them to do it. And so, the usual objection is well, but you can’t really hear it, if you’re a listener, you can’t hear it as much in English, you’re going to be distracted by the stress pattern. But, are you saying that for you the real benefit of syllabics is that forcing you to examine every line syllable by syllable?

Mark Antony Owen: So here is where I’m going to agree with you and say that, that is precisely the effect I was trying to get! So, having the syllabic scaffolding I’ll call it, is what allows me to say in an instant to the reader: ‘This is a poem. The thing I’ve just put in front of you is a poem, because it looks poem-y, it looks like poem the way it’s been broken up.’ But what I always say to people is, ‘pay less attention to where I have broken lines and broken stanzas, and read it paying close attention to my punctuation’.

Because my poems work in two ways, one is for the eye, you can see that it’s a poem, the other is for the ear, and that is far more important to me, poetry being an oral tradition. When you read it back, you read it disregarding where the line breaks are. I don’t want you to pause at the end of a line and do poet voice and that kind of hesitation which far too many poets do, I’m sorry, but they do.

Mark McGuinness: Yeah.

Mark Antony Owen: Just read on, follow my punctuation, stop where I stop, pause where I pause, try to express where I’ve put a semicolon or an end dash or whatever it might be, but use punctuation as the tempo markings of my work. And if you do that, you will get a performance in your own head, in your own space, similar, if not exactly like the one I wanted you to hear. And because I want my poems, though they are syllabic, and they are very formal in the truest sense, I want them to feel like free verse.

Mark McGuinness: Well, you know, it’s a recurring theme on this show, I always invite the listener to get the text to the poem from the website and read it aloud themselves, because I think you get a totally different experience of the poem when you read it, and it becomes a part of you as you speak it. So, I think that would be a lovely thing for us all to do, is to follow, listen to what Mark’s just said about how to read the poem aloud. He’s given us a great guide and we should all go home and read it aloud and test this out for ourselves.

I think it’s quite an original approach, Mark, and it’s also…I guess the other thing behind my question was, I really get the sense, you know, as we were saying earlier on there’s the freshness, there’s the immediacy of the writing that you’ve said comes partly from writing so close to the experience. But I also really get the sense you’ve gone through each poem with a fine-tooth comb, and there’s so many little details to enjoy and to savour.

I mean, again, listening to you reading it this morning, I was struck by the alliteration in ‘enclosed by encrypted conversation’, and ‘thickets of pulses and whistles and clicks’. That really does sound like mimicking the rhythm of the birdsong. So I really love the precision that you’ve got to, however it’s arrived at.

Mark Antony Owen: Yeah, Thank you, Mark. I mean, to know that somebody appreciates the effort that I have put in, even if the effort is not necessarily immediately obvious. I mean, I do write very short, very, as I call them, economic poems, and one of the things that people often say to me on Twitter for example is, ‘You manage to do so much with so little,’ which to me is the greatest compliment, because that’s precisely what I’m trying to do.

I want to distil everything, I want to get it as small and as compact as possible almost to dehydrate the essence of the poem and then give it to you. You can plant it in your own mind, you can water it, you can feed it, you can let it grow, you can gain something more from it by thinking about it. And I think it shows the relationship between reader and writer when there’s something for you to do, and it’s not all just about me writing words and then reading it out to you on the website.

Mark McGuinness: Fantastic, Mark. I think this would be a good time for us to listen to the poem again. And also, as I said to you, if you’re listening to this, do go to Subruria.com, check out the other poems, as Mark said. This is from the third that is about the natural world, but there’s also a lot of really engaging poems that are much more about the human suburban world. So, that’s at Subruria.com. So, thank you, Mark, very much. It’s been an absolute delight to be in the world of your poems.

Mark Antony Owen: Thank you, Mark, for having me as a guest, I’ve very much enjoyed it.


 

Nothing the hedgerows say

by Mark Antony Owen

I’m enclosed by encrypted conversation:
thickets of pulses and whistles and clicks. Songs.
Each border with a voice distinct as a man’s –
each tree, a tongue. I hear the grass gossiping,
repeating what it thinks the wind has told it;

hear it whisper a secret from blade to blade,
rush it away in all directions at once.
Silence from me and the water overhead,
now a dragon, now a sleeping boy. Dumb shapes,
fathoming nothing. Nothing the hedgerows say.


 

Subruria

‘Nothing the hedgerows say’ by Mark Antony Owen is from his ongoing poetry project Subruria, published at Subruria.com

 

Mark Antony Owen

Mark Antony Owen portrait photo

Poet and publisher Mark Antony Owen is the author of digital poetry project Subruria – work from which has been reproduced in several online journals and podcasts, as well as nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His poem Windmill Hill was one of only 200 or so to be chosen from more than 7,500 poems for the anthology, Places of Poetry: Mapping the Nation in Verse. Mark is also the creator and curator of quarterly poetry journal iamb (shortlisted in 2020 for the independent Saboteur Awards’ Best Collaborative Work) and the new online ekphrastic poetry space After…

MarkAntonyOwen.com 

 

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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