Today, to celebrate publication day, I'm delighted to welcome writer Patrick Chapman to my blog with his new and selected poetry collection A Promiscuity of Spines (Salmon). Patrick lives in Dublin and his poetry collections are Jazztown (Raven Arts, 1991), The New Pornography (Salmon, 1996), Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights (Salmon, 2007), A Shopping Mall on Mars (BlazeVOX, 2008) and The Darwin Vampires (Salmon, 2010). His collection of short stories is The Wow Signal (Bluechrome, 2007). Also a scriptwriter, he adapted his own published story for Burning the Bed (2003). He has written episodes of the BBC/RTÉ children’s animated series Garth & Bev (Kavaleer, 2009); and a Doctor Who audio play, Fear of the Daleks (Big Finish, UK, 2007).
Welcome to my blog, Patrick and congratulations on the new book. I always think ‘selecteds’ are for mature (meaning older) poets and similarly I am always stunned by how young you are, considering how long you have been in print. Can you tell us about your path into writing and how old you were when you realised this would be your life?
Thank you, Nuala, and thanks for hosting me at your blog today. In answer to your question, my path began quite early on, as seems to be the case with many a writer. This New & Selected covers 25 years of work but it was much earlier that I developed the compulsion to write. It came over me rather like a medical complaint treatable only by more of itself. Back in the 1970s my nerd gene activated, and I wrote and drew my own comics and stories. Things really got started when Dermot Bolger took a selection of poems for Raven Introductions 6; that led to Jazztown in 1991. He and Aidan Murphy at Raven Arts Press were gracious, patient and kind, and I was very lucky to have them shepherd my first book.
Many of the older poems deal with love-gone-wrong, while a lot of the newer work takes science as its inspiration (I’m thinking of poems like ‘The Amnesia-to-Melancholy Ratio’ and ‘4°’). Talk to us about inspirations and how they mutate and develop.
It really is true that inspiration comes from anywhere – but it tends to mutate, as you say, over time. Some writers continue to focus on specific influences, or themes, often without realising it. Love poems started to come to me seriously in 1994 when I began the work that would be collected in Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights thirteen years later. So I lived with those poems, finished, for many years. I was getting my Berlin Wall Café in early and combined it with my Blood on the Tracks –sincerely meant love poems written at different times about different relationships but all in the same book. That was slightly disconcerting. There are only so many love poems you can write in a row without losing your mind or repeating yourself. So I turned to other subjects. A Shopping Mall on Mars collected the other poems I wrote during those years, inspired by memories of growing up in fear of nuclear annihilation; the Bush wars that were and are going on; the premature deaths of friends; Alan Turing; a sick horse; and an imaginary America that replaces the entirety of existence with empty blue spaces. Science has always been with me as a subject, because everything is science and I appreciate it more as time goes by. Science performs the role of explaining the world that art and religion used to attempt. For instance, I find the images coming to us through Hubble to be heartbreaking for the loss they represent, as well as beautiful.
The fragility of life seems to occupy you as a poet – the poem ‘Ouse’ is a reversed imagining of Virginia Woolf’s death by suicide; ‘Apollo’ delicately contrasts a baby in an incubator with the first moon landing. Can you talk to us about that?
As you get older, the fragility of life reveals itself, sometimes shockingly. I'm increasingly aware of other people's mortality and my own, of how little time we have and how much we miss. Friends have died young, some by their own hands, so suicide, as in ‘Ouse’, has started to turn up in my work.
‘Apollo’ takes artistic license to imagine my own early days but shifted by a year to tie in with the first moon landing. I was in an incubator for a few weeks after arriving, as if my luggage had been diverted to another womb by mistake and I had to wait. At the time, my cousin asked why I was in a spaceship. So for this poem, an image came to me of that tiny capsule in which those Apollo astronauts flew; of how precarious their situation was; how like a child coming into a new world. It’s a preoccupation, this fragility. How improbable it is that any of us should exist at all. The chain of cause-and-effect that had to happen to get each of us here, starts at the beginning of time. By turning up, we collapse the wave and become inevitable, but for the first fifteen billion years or so, it really is touch and go.
Poems like ‘Skydiving Narcissus’, a funny-yet-serious poem about a man who is sure he will make ‘a gorgeous corpse’, and ‘Covetous Foetus’, which ends with the line ‘I want an abortion’, offer stark contrast in terms of tone. How important is humour in poetry? Is it something you feel poets should employ only occasionally?
I never try to make something funny, as that wouldn’t work, but I welcome the humour when it happens. I'm all for humour in poetry and in life, as long as in both cases it suits the mood and works with the material. I do like it when a serious poem is leavened with a certain wryness, and my favourite flavour is 'dry'.
You have a rich vocabulary. Can you talk a little about language and its importance to you?
There are almost-rhymes and wordplay in my work, but often they simply occur as I write and I then see how far they can go without breaking. Much of this happens unconsciously. There's a poem in the book, 'Volcano Day', which contains several 'ea' sounds – heartbeat, tear, breast – which came out as the lines formed, and which I noticed afterwards. I enjoy music in a poem, even if it's not music you can dance to.
You write both poetry and fiction. Which poets and fiction writers make you think, ‘Yes!’?
There are lots of them but I’ll name a few. Poets that make me go ‘yes’: Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Early on they were an influence, especially Lowell. He gave me the permission to be personal while being fictional. A writer of prose: F. Scott Fitzgerald, for Gatsby, and his stories, and Tender is the Night.
What are your best three bits of advice for aspiring writers?
1. First drafts are allowed to be bad, so think of writing as sculpture. Drafts are the stone you chip away so the statue can appear.
2. If something's not working, walk away and come back to it later. You may find that the story or poem just needed you to leave the room while it changed.
3. The only one whose permission you need is your own. Time and resources, on the other hand, sometimes have to be stolen.