Our old pal Yen-Yen is back, and she brought a friend! The Emma Press poet Andrew Wynn Owen chatted to her about writing poetry, how art is like an alethiometer and his brand new pamphlet The Dragon and the Bomb.
Why did you decide to write an epyllion? How were you inspired by other poems written in this form?
Here, ‘epyllion’ is a loose term for a compact story-poem with some epic elements. Perhaps ‘mock- epyllion’ would be a better description for The Dragon and The Bomb, but it isn’t completely ‘mock-’. Epic is generally concerned with heroism and idealism – but there are also stylistic tics (e.g. epic similes, heroic epithets), interest in the probable and the marvellous, a concern with unity (and the reaction against that concern), recurring types of narrative machinery. I mean ‘machinery’ in a now-rare sense:
OED 1.b. ‘Contrivances employed for effect in a literary work; supernatural personages and incidents, or other devices of plot, etc., in a narrative.'
However, this poem also contains lots of ‘machinery’ in the modern sense. Where satire seeks to moralise by exposing vice, epic seeks to moralise by expounding virtue. (I should add, and this is a longstanding point: ‘to moralise’ is very different to being ‘moralising’.) I much prefer the epic road, but have not followed it far here.
This is lighthearted mock-epyllion, really. Its moral is, partly, its mockery of heroic idealism. It calls into question the invention-mania of the alchemist, Haplo Nous, and the overblown quest-hunger of the antihero, Armando. It ends with a decidedly antinuclear message. The set-up is counterfactual but, as in the real world, the creation of a nuclear bomb comes about due to lots of different kinds of insensibility, the reckless and the frantic and the overreaching and so on.
Has your process of writing changed since your first pamphlet, Raspberries and the Ferry (published by the Emma Press in 2014)?
Yes – some types of lyrical effect have become naturalised to a much greater degree. They just happen now, as when playing a musical instrument, and this allows for clearer focus on ideas. When I first started trying to write poetry, now ten years ago, I thought of the art as rather like the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s stories: at first, you do it naturally, the words overflowing; but then it is forgotten and must be re-learned by painstaking dedication. The benefit of this re-learning is that reliable control replaces shaky effusion.
So technique is important, but it’s only a beginning – what matters is thoughtful enthusiasm. As Robert Browning writes, ‘Enthusiasm’s the best thing, I repeat; | Only we can’t command it; fire and life | Are all, dead matter’s nothing, we agree.’ Nowadays I think much more feelingly in poetry than in prose. e.g. It is a sunny day and I am in the park. The words for the ecstatic appreciation of nature fall, as if ready-formed, with a particular cadence, out of the air. That’s a perceptual illusion, though: really the words rise from within, and the distinctive thought-cadence derives from the recognition of a worldly pattern correspondent to patterns in the mind.
The experience of writing and reading seems to me to affirm that, as Plato suggests, the light that blazes through this world is like the light that blazes from within us: ‘just as the good relates to the mind in the intelligible realm and what is perceived by the mind, so this body (the sun) relates to sight and what can be seen’ (Republic 508c). Apollo, god of the sun, is also the god of poetry. It is an enthusing thought.
Most of all, in the writing process, I feel very lucky to have been edited by Emma Wright and Rachel Piercey, whose poetical (and general) judgement I trust very much.
What did you enjoy about writing The Dragon and the Bomb and what were some difficulties you encountered?
Tuning the word-music is fun but getting ideas and narrative to cohere with it is tricky. If you aim at overarching unity/coherence, you have to be willing to cut swathes of poetry that simply don’t fit the story, passages written in tangential rhapsody. These challenges, which I enjoy navigating, are more usually faced by orthodox narrative artists (novelists, playwrights, tapestry-makers, etc). This piece is a purposively simple instance of narrative poetry, but I hope to extend this interest in some future works. Perhaps my favourite aesthetic thing (which I attempt here) is to see the effervescent tablet of a philosophical system fizzle and dissolve in the clear water of art. The tablet vanishes but its vitamins are now everywhere. It is tricky, though.
When you are writing poetry, do you think about how the words will be performed live/spoken as well? How important (or not important) is this?
Yes, certainly – music, rhetoric, and drama are crucial to poetry. So it is for performance, but not to be heard as a one-off (as, say, a news report might be) – it’s for listening and re-listening, interpreting and re-interpreting, without over-interpreting. More, sometimes poems that were not made to be performed publicly by the author are highly performable by others. I think, for example, the poems of Emily Dickinson, sharp marvels of sound and emotion, are wonderful to perform to oneself. I pace about the park reciting them, feeling new nuances each time. The music and rhetoric give a plethora of suggestions, but no pinioning directive, to the performer.
I do love acting but prefer the idea that other people might internalise the work of their own accord. It has happened, really very occasionally (though hope springs eternal), that I meet someone who has memorised a few lines of mine, and professes to have memorised them on account of enjoyment. This makes me much more lastingly happy than, say, the moment of brief relief when people laugh or smile or hum supportively at a reading. It’s the difference between enduring attachment and momentary amusement.
What do you hope the readers will get out of reading this pamphlet?
Enjoyment, and a space for some thinking about wonder and ethics and science. The heart of the poem, I guess, is a stanza (which seemed, illusion or not, to fall out of the air) about the inventor’s motivation:
Some vague belief in unseen energy.
Some hunch that if he were to break apart
The building blocks of nature, he might see
Creation as it had been at the start,
Schemata for the whole of time; a heart
Suspended in the lull between two beats,
From which the secret of the universe secretes.
Buy Andrew's latest collection here.