Episode 53

Song about putting a bird in a pie by Luke Samuel Yates

 

Luke Samuel Yates reads ‘Song about putting a bird in a pie’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Dynamo by Luke Samuel Yates 

Dynamo book cover

Available from:

Dynamo is available from:

The publisher: Smith|Doorstop

Amazon: UK 

Bookshop.org: UK

 

Song about putting a bird in a pie

by Luke Samuel Yates

A relaxed mind is a creative mind,

says my inspiring teabag. Yours advises

to empty yourself and let the universe fill you.
We pick up the empty flowerpot on the road
and a man in a dressing gown eating tomatoes
leans out of a window and demands

that we put it back. I ask him if it’s his pot.
Put it back, he shouts. Put it back.

Each smile is a direct achievement,

I remind him. He replies that gratitude
is the open door to abundance.
We carry on walking.

We get onto the future.

When should we panic?

Reading the tea leaves, you say that
happiness arrives when we overcome
the most impossible challenge.

Your bag has exploded.

You look at things in such a way that you are not
distracted by being looked at looking at things.
The blackbird sings a phrase then repeats it

like a monolinguist talking to a foreigner.
You can’t believe anybody would even
write a song about putting a bird in a pie.

The man from the takeaway under my flat
has climbed into his bin to compress

the rubbish in order to fit more in.

He walks from one side to the other
then back again, like an animal trapped
in the hospitality industry.

 

Interview transcript

Mark: Luke, where did this poem come from?

Luke: Hi, Mark, thanks for having me. Yes, well, maybe it’s worth starting with the teabags. So, the dialogue in the poem is mainly actually, the slogans from the tags that are attached to several brands of herbal teabags, that are commercially available. And so, while I was interested in writing about this kind of state that I think we sometimes live in, where we’re kind of looking for answers, and the problem isn’t that there aren’t any, it’s that there are too many, and none of them seem to make any sense. And so, what do you do in the middle of a cost of living crisis when your teabag says, ‘Empty yourself and let the universe fill you?’ So…

Mark: That’s a good question. Yeah.

Luke: So, I found myself in the middle of a pandemic as we all did. Living with my friend who also didn’t want to live alone for the end of the world, drinking all this tea, and coming to terms with the idea as we all had to over a period of time. And a lot of speculation that this might be like, what it might be like from now on. Maybe it would just be on and off, kind of living indoors, lockdowns forever. And everything was going on as normal, which was something that I was already trying to come to terms with in my poems, with respect to things like climate change. So, it felt quite incredible, and quite confusing that we all had to carry on working if we were lucky enough to still have work, even though it was the end of the world.

And many of us had kids with us, and thousands of people were dying. And it was, the government was run by this strange cartoon character, and this very strange sort of self-proclaimed genius sidekick. And my teabags were kind of talking to me via the medium of these little tags, and saying the most profound things every morning, this kind of unsolicited, but perhaps crucial source of knowledge. So, so I started writing them down, and collecting them because I thought they were this really kind of potent and exciting mixture of mystery and blandness. And these slogans or idioms, I don’t know whether these philosophical teabag manufacturers just make them up as they’re printing the little tags, or whether they hire someone like a monk to speak sometimes in exchange for tea maybe. But these little snippets of advice sound incredibly poignant and important because they concern things like love and the universe, and the self, like poetry in a way.

But I was worried that they were just teabags, and perhaps they were wrong, and maybe it was a risk to live my life in accordance with them. ‘So, every neighbour can be a teacher’, one of them said. And which was interesting because I just joined the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, so it kind of felt strangely prophetic. And then one said, ‘Self-reliance is the greatest art’, which at first I kind of thought was contradictory because I’d just joined the neighbourhood WhatsApp group. But on the other hand, I didn’t think much of the government policy around COVID at the time. So, self-reliance took on a different meaning for me. And then I thought, well, that’s the kind of pernicious thing about self-help, and this kind of proliferation of messages for self-improvement, that we aren’t really meant to think about, where it comes from, or what the underlying philosophy of it is, or how suspiciously well aligned new age spirituality is with the business world.

We’re just meant to kind of reflect on the advice in an abstract way and learn whatever we can from it. Because of course, it’s important to be open-minded, and not think that we know the answers to everything already. But that’s what leads people to thinking that this kind of strange internet men, have something to tell them about the world and about women, isn’t it?

So by the strange internet men I mean the pick-up artist community and Tate and the lobster guy, Peterson, also all use this self-help style of writing, which I think everyone is relatively open-minded towards because we all want to be better people. There’s a slightly religious feel to it – here is some knowledge, make what you will of it, learn from it in whatever way you can. It’s quite different from the way that we read poetry, which tends to also involve a lot of uncertainty, but asks the reader to be very inquisitive and to question a lot.

And they tend to use the self-help register to smuggle back in some very familiar assumptions about the world: hierarchies are good after all, we shouldn’t fight or question them, we should just try and crush our competitors and then mate with some female lobsters.

So Peterson is like this strict and slightly frightening but eloquent father figure who tells us reassuring things like stand up straight with your shoulders back, which is of course fairly good advice in terms of avoiding back pain, but when you read what he has to say, it turns out he’s making a comparison between hierarchies among lobsters to suggest that social inequalities, perhaps of all kinds, are natural and positive for evolution. And that, although he deliberately stops short of spelling this out, suggests that patriarchy and racial inequalities, among others, are just normal, natural and positive for the continued flourishing of the human species.

This relies on a very selective and creative reading of evolutionary biology, and ignores evolutionary anthropology, and I think tricks the casual reader who is just looking for some reassurance, really.

So, the poem starts with a conversation in between two people, that’s actually a conversation between two teabags, which had kind of happened to me because a particularly odd teabag tag had said, ‘One day, you are my cup of tea.’ To which I said back, ‘No, you are my cup of tea.’ And then I realized that somehow the teabag had won by forcing me into actually having a conversation with it. So, when the poem starts:

A relaxed mind is a creative mind,
says my inspiring teabag. Yours advises
to empty yourself and let the universe fill you.
We pick up the empty flowerpot on the road
and a man in a dressing gown eating tomatoes
leans out of a window and demands

that we put it back. I ask him if it’s his pot.
Put it back, he shouts. Put it back.
Each smile is a direct achievement
,
I remind him.

And so, this poem starts with thinking about advice for life, and the kind of protagonists just sort of trying to help each other, but quite helplessly. And I think the teabags are meant to insert kind of a little bit of calm into our otherwise frenetic existence. Like a little meditation that comes kind of free with the herbs and the antioxidants. But actually, ironically, they’re just another one of this kind of thousands of messages, that we’re getting, most of them actually unsolicited, like those videos that start playing before we’ve even pressed play when you’re kind of scrolling through social media.

Mark: So, it’s the end of the world, but there’s still work to be done. And, listening to you talk about this poem in the context of the pandemic, it strikes me that quite a lot of your poems in the book have this sense of the surreal and the absurd. How many of them were pre-pandemic? I mean, was it just that the pandemic heightened that quality that was probably already there in your work, and gave you plenty of material to work with?

Luke: Yeah, definitely. It was something that kind of was already there, so that they’re quite surreal and, I’m kind of interested in Oulipo. And the surrealists as a kind of movement. And I think that probably comes through, but I think often I’m interested in surreal, I mean, I guess this is similar to the surrealists, but that it’s kind of everywhere, that the everyday life is kind of very strange, even while it’s very banal and normal. And partly what’s strange about it is that it keeps on going no matter what, doesn’t it?

Mark: Yeah.

Luke: So, as I was sort of saying, we’re in a situation where we’re all quite concerned in quite an existential way, and yet we’re all doing the very, very normal things that we usually do, with that as a sort of backdrop. And there’s a kind of irony and a kind of tension to that, a kind of a weird kind of cocktail of feelings that evokes, I think.

Mark: And, the speaker, the narrator of the poem is walking through this landscape. There’s quite a few journeys in the book and things are happening. This man leaning out of a window and demanding that we put it back, and he’s shouting, and it’s just kind of part of the scenery, isn’t it?

Luke: Yeah. I mean, it is and it isn’t. I mean, you’re right, there’s a lot of journeys, there’s a lot of movement in the book. I think it’s partly because I write when I’m traveling, and I write on trains, on buses, when I’m away.

Mark: And a lot of windows as well.

Luke: Yeah, yeah.

Mark: I notice quite a lot of people looking out of windows or being looked in at.

Luke: Yeah. Yeah. It’s that kind of that boundary between the kind of inside and the outside, and the kind of the private and the public, and the kind of the personal, and the societal that I’m kind of often quite interested in trying to explore. So, I think that’s the kind of the windows are that they kind of symbolize that kind of, that connection that we have to everything else, to everyone else. And we might feel very alone, we might… More people live alone now than ever have done before. But the window also shows you the lives of people. We have these new tower blocks in Manchester, and you can kind of see in the evening, where the kind of the light falls, and then there’s all these little boxes of people, leading their own little parallel lives together. And I can find that quite exhilarating, quite interesting.

I mean, the man in the window eating tomatoes, he’s kind of part of the background, but he’s also part of the foreground, I think, in the poem, because he’s not just an angry man, he’s kind of like the angry man, this kind of lonely, sad, but politically quite combustible character exercising this tiny bit of power that he might have arbitrarily in order to maintain his kind of sense of control over the world, with all that kind of rage and righteousness that, yeah, the political leaders of the main parties currently are really keen to listen to and organize their political programs around.

And so, you might think, well, what this angry man needs to listen to is these wise, urbane, middle-class teabags. And so, the poem kind of implausibly lets that happen. And so, the conversation between the characters morphs into this vague teabag life advice, because that, you know… And people like Peterson, is probably what he’ll conclude is commercially or politically available to soothe his anxieties. Because the good stuff is a bit quieter and probably a bit more subtle. And your podcast hasn’t made its way to him yet.

Mark: It will only be a matter of time! [Laughter]

Luke: We’ll get to him! So, the man in the window eating tomatoes, he’s a person who lives alone as I have been on and off for most of the last six years. And as I said, this is kind of, we’re in good company. It’s I think it’s a third of households in North America and Europe are one person, that’s three times bigger than 1961. Lots of them are older people, but lots of middle-aged divorced men as well. Some people very affluent, but actually really poor. It’s a really kind of polarized cohort, a really kind of complicated group. And so, in the kind of third kind of stanza, the poem goes, ‘We get onto the future, when should we panic?’

And this is that anxiety about being carried along in time and finding yourself out of place too. Partly the angry man’s kind of feeling that, but also the narrator’s. Where you find yourself, or where you find yourself collectively, you kind of feel out of place. And we’re not actually panicking because it’s more like, we’re wondering if we should panic, because the time scales don’t feel quite right for panic. Whether it’s the possibility of having kids slipping away, or the kind of existential anxiety about climate change that I mentioned, or becoming a country in which it’s not kind of legally permitted to protest anymore. It all kind of happens at the wrong tempo, and we all have to keep on going to work if we’re lucky enough to have work, and everything just keeps on happening as normal.

Mark: It’s like there’s different levels of information operating in the poem. On the one hand, there’s the evidence of our senses about daily life and what’s happening, and then there’s the overarching dialogue that you’ve talked about from politics and the internet and teabags, and it’s all kind of… But it’s all being broadcast on the same bandwidth, so to speak. It’s all seems to be part of the same poem. It’s a bit like John Ashbery where, he mixes up a lot of different registers and things, or Kurt Vonnegut where there’ll be some unspeakable act happening on a bed in a room, in a motel, but he’ll give just as much weight to the description of the empty can of soda pop on the windowsill, while this is going on, that it’s kind of almost you’re giving the same weight to things that feel like maybe they shouldn’t have the same weight, emotionally.

Luke: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s really… I think I can see that connection. And I think Don DeLillo is somebody who does that as well, the American novelist, really well. I guess it’s part of what’s sometimes called postmodernism, this kind of idea of a kind of levelling of different kinds of language and different kinds of messages, not kind of privileging one over the other. And how that feels to live when you wait where you are, you are being bombarded with messages still, it is a very confusing experience, isn’t it?

Mark: And I think the tea leaves are a really nice example of this because you talk about the messages printed on the teabags, but then later on you talk about reading the tea leaves, which in the good old days used to be, somebody looking at actual tea leaves swirling around in a pot or a cup, and reading involved a lot of projection or intuition, or channelling depending on which explanation you prefer. But here it’s much more literal. You are reading what’s written on the tea leaves. And, I don’t know, there’s something delightful happens in my brain when I read that line that on the one level, it’s much more explicit and spelled out, but on another, there’s all these kind of vibrating levels of irony around it.

Luke: Yeah, yeah, it’s quite playful, I guess. And I guess that that protagonist, the kind of the you in the poem, is also kind of the… I think it’s kind of where the hope is in the poem maybe. And there’s a kind of a bit of a kind of turn in the book, and I think there’s a lot of hope in the book, a lot playfulness and romance, and movement like I was saying. But, in the poem, there’s this kind of quite observing, principled character who’s looking at things within the poem. So, there’s the lines:

You look at things in such a way that you are not
distracted by being looked at looking at things.
The blackbird sings a phrase then repeats it
like a monolinguist talking to a foreigner.
You can’t believe anybody would even
write a song about putting a bird in a pie.

So, this character’s looking at all this, and they’re actually sort of saying, ‘No, it’s not okay to put a bird in a pie. That’s obviously a stupid thing to do or write about, perhaps.’ And it’s not the biggest grievance. It’s not the wrongest thing in the world, but she’s got a point. And so, I think I was trying to write about these little glimpses of clarity and among all the kind of advice, and arguments with angry monolinguist men who need to keep things the way that they never were. And so, I think you could say that there’s some kind of ethical possibility in that looking, in that kind of contemplation, and in that kind of clarity, in that kind of observation, in that willingness to say no, to call something, in that kind of refusal to be distracted from a sense of injustice. And I think that’s what poetry often does too, in a very subtle and very beautiful way.

Mark: And there’s also a lot of fun in the syntax of, ‘You look at things in such a way that you are not / Distracted by being looked at looking at things’. Again, my brain has to perform a kind of, what is it? The escapologist manoeuvre, where they get out the straitjacket. You’ve got to kind of untangle yourself to make sense of it in a really delightful way. But then we end up with this even more surprising and delightful final stanza of the man from the takeaway climbing into his bin and walking up and down on the rubbish, which I think is an urban scene that we’ve all glimpsed, but I would never have thought to end a poem with it. How did that arrive?

Luke: Yeah. I mean, from seeing it, and kind of loving this, loving it as a kind of a spectacle, but then thinking about it, it’s sort of about carrying on and needing to get by, but also needing to sort of transcend and get out, change the circumstances that we’re living in. So, it is kind of, it feels like it’s about the little tricks and negotiation strategies that we have to deal with everyday problems. There’s a French anthropologist, Michel De Certeau, who talks about the kind of tactics, of the kind of every day these things, where we are always seeming to kind of outwit or exceed, or evade the kind of grids, or the strategies of power.

Private bin collection and logistics giants like the who run these companies probably don’t count on as actually squashing down our commercial rubbish by getting inside our bins. So, it’s a kind of fun and exhilarating image, and there’s like rightly a lot of celebration of this kind of idea of ordinary people getting by, and this kind of heroic quality placed on any kind of sense of resistance to these circumstances. And obviously, resistance is the basis of change, it always kind of has been, or kind of previously unthinkable change that’s happened has kind of arisen out of it, but the guy is still walking around in a bin. The bin kind of hasn’t been abolished, right?

Mark: Yeah.

Luke: The industry of hospitality that he’s kind of trapped in with terrible hours and working conditions, is still kind of operational, is still very much in the world. So, I think I kind of wrote the poem, and this kind of chunk of it seemed to sort of start to echo along with this, about this kind of anxieties that are associated with sort of trying to live life normally in very, in rather precarious and strange times, trying to kind of include a sense, like, let you say, of kind of how surreal that is, in quite a funny way that this sometimes is experienced as.

Mark: Right. That’s it. So, listening to you, it’s really foregrounding for me, the kind of the latent politics in the poem, but it’s not a polemical poem. You’re not hitting us over the head with it, with all of this. You are kind of playfully confronting of us with a lot of the absurdities of it. And I think the ending is another wonderful example of this, where you say that this guy walking up and down in his bin is ‘like an animal trapped in the hospitality industry’. So technically it’s a simile, and you’re comparing him to something, but actually, when you do a double take, you realize, well, hang on, he is an animal trapped in the hospitality industry.

So, you’re kind of comparing him to himself in a way that that just heightens the awareness of just all of this weird stuff that we’ve taken for granted. And how did I end up in this bin on a Monday morning? As being a kind of a productive thing to be doing. As I said, this is a delightful poem, and when you first read it, it’s very easy to read, it’s kind of deceptive. But then I looked again, and I realized every stanza is six lines, which is a really crude way of drawing attention to the fact that a lot of thought has gone into the construction and the composition, and the little decisions in the poems. Could you maybe say something about how the poems started out and how it ended up in this final form?

Luke: Yeah, sure. So, I’ll probably get to the stanzas last, if I may. But, because it sort of, it began playing around with these tea bag quotations. So, I started collecting them, and then those quotations as well about how much people like tea, so keep calm and drink tea, or you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy tea and that’s the next best thing. Then the characters initially, in the kind of the first draft that I had were all smoking. So this, the poem initially imagined cigarettes rather than teabags with these slogans attached to them, and bits of advice on them. So, it was very, very surreal, and possibly it would’ve been called, ‘You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy cigarettes.’ And that’s the next best thing, which I thought was sort of interesting to swap out in a kind of Oulipo way, this thing that no one disapproves of. It’s so uncontroversial, isn’t it, tea?

And which gives you lovely inspiring messages. And swapping that out for something, which is now relatively recently in historical terms, widely frowned upon and now normally includes messages and photographs about how it will slowly destroy, and disfigure your body before it kills you. Which is fascinating because you can’t buy anything else really quite as contradictory as that. But then I read that to a friend and they said they liked it, but why were the cigarettes all talking? What was going on with that? So, I left it for a bit and then came back to it and I thought, well, I’ll just make them teabags again, I guess, and see what happens. And then it started to become the dialogue. The dialogue sort of started to become colonized by the teabags, which was sort of what something that interested me because it was exactly as you were talking before about kind of Ashbery, and that kind of overlaying of different kinds of language and messages I was really interested in. And I had the conversation with the man about the flower pot, which is sort of something that happened on the street down from me.

And I had the guy in the takeaway in his bin. I also had this long stanza about the narrator talking about the Spanish Civil War with his dad, while doing the washing up. But it didn’t really belong anywhere, although it kind of potentially drew out some of the kind of political heft of the poem a bit more explicitly. But it was too explicit and started to feel quite strange. So, it started to settle again, once the teabags became the kind of conversation. And then the six-line stanzas I liked because I write a lot in four-line stanzas. They’re kind of probably the standard kind of form in the book is those, but the six lines it seemed to kind of pull the reader in, or it seemed to be more conversational.

It seemed to be more open-ended. It was like the kind of the first stanza kind of pulls you into the second. But by the way, that the enjambment works by the way that the kind of line breaks. And so, it kind of fitted, it felt a bit more prose poemey when I was writing it. And I did experiment for a little while with it as a prose poem. Because it’s quite sort of narrativey. It’s not very lyrical. There aren’t rhymes in this one. And so, I kind of tried it out as prose, and then it was too dense and too kind of stodgy. So, the kind of, the six-line stanzas it kind of fell into that and it felt right, I guess.

Mark: So, there was that moment where you tried on various shapes and sizes, and forms, and it just felt…

Luke: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s kind of one-and-a-half four-line stanzas. It’s one-and-a-half quatrains, isn’t it? And so, it kind of, it leaves things feeling a bit more open-ended, and a bit less settled upon, just decided. I think it invites more of a kind of open-ended reading in this kind of form.

Mark: Yeah. There’s plenty of room for things to spread out and happen, and it’s quite expansive. And yet I also love the way that you bring us up short at certain points like that, that line, ‘Your bag has exploded.’ You know, just after we’ve had all the stuff about the future and panicking, and tea leaves, and whatever, and suddenly there’s, like, a hard start. So, we can’t get too comfortable in the forward motion.

Luke: Yeah. Yeah. And, and that kind of the end stop and the kind of the abruptness is something that I think is really important for what I’m trying to do in the book. There’s a kind of a few quotes that I kind of think of when there’s the kind of Levertov, Denise Levertov, that idea that poetry is about kind of being in love with endings, I think.

Mark: Oh, that’s delicious, isn’t it?

Luke: Yeah. And a Chekhov kind of, something that Chekhov said to his brother when he was writing about his approach to plays. He said, ‘I keep everything calm and settled, through the first scenes. And then I punch the audience in the face.’ Incredibly violent kind of way of describing how he worked. But with Chekhov there’s this kind of pathos, and kind of bathos as well, like this, sorry, super kind of literary kind of language, but this kind of sense of, like, undercutting the reader’s expectations, and deflating them deliberately.

Mark: Well, I really like that description because I think there is a certain pathos in living a life which is pure bathos, which is a lot of what we find ourselves in the time. You know, there’s no real dignity in being the guy in the bin. It’s not like, you know, King Lear, had his faults, but at least he had this kind of tragic dignity, I can’t remember what Yeats described it as, tragic joy or whatever. We don’t get any of that, we just get bathos and advice from the tea bag and another set of instructions from the universe. So, maybe that would be a good point to hear the poem again and receive the instructions all over again.

Luke: Yes, sure.

Mark: Thank you, Luke.


 

Song about putting a bird in a pie

by Luke Samuel Yates

A relaxed mind is a creative mind,

says my inspiring teabag. Yours advises

to empty yourself and let the universe fill you.
We pick up the empty flowerpot on the road
and a man in a dressing gown eating tomatoes
leans out of a window and demands

that we put it back. I ask him if it’s his pot.
Put it back, he shouts. Put it back.

Each smile is a direct achievement,

I remind him. He replies that gratitude
is the open door to abundance.
We carry on walking.

We get onto the future.

When should we panic?

Reading the tea leaves, you say that
happiness arrives when we overcome
the most impossible challenge.

Your bag has exploded.

You look at things in such a way that you are not
distracted by being looked at looking at things.
The blackbird sings a phrase then repeats it

like a monolinguist talking to a foreigner.
You can’t believe anybody would even
write a song about putting a bird in a pie.

The man from the takeaway under my flat
has climbed into his bin to compress

the rubbish in order to fit more in.

He walks from one side to the other
then back again, like an animal trapped
in the hospitality industry.

 

Dynamo

This poem is from Dynamo by Luke Samuel Yates, published by Smith|Doorstop.

Dynamo book cover

Dynamo is available from:

The publisher: Smith|Doorstop

Amazon: UK

Bookshop.org: UK

 

 

Luke Samuel Yates

Luke Samuel Yates portrait photo

Luke Samuel Yates has published three pamphlets, was a Poetry Society Foyle Young Poet on four occasions, and was selected for the Aldeburgh Eight. His first collection, Dynamo, won the 2022 Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Prize. He has recent poems in magazines including Poetry Wales, The Rialto, Anthropocene, Ambit and The North, and he has performed at Aldeburgh, Ledbury, Kendal Calling and on Radio 4. A lecturer in Sociology, he teaches and researches political movements, technology, and consumption practices.

Photo: Simon Haworth

 

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