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Interview with Denise Riley

Photo of Denise RileyKelvin Corcoran Denise has your sense of what constitutes song changed over time, from the earlier poems to the more recent, and also perhaps, on the other hand, what are the constants in how song is made? If we take for example perhaps a shortened set and ‘A Part Song’, (LRB vol. 34 no. 4), they are 20 years apart and look and read very differently.

DR Those two examples do, yes. But If I glance back, that adherence to ‘song’ has always been there, altering only in shape as it goes along. It’s twisted and looped through kinds of lyric, not following any set path. The most recent work is utterly different again from ‘A Part Song’ – maybe closer in mode to ‘A shortened set’ or to even earlier work from the 1970s, such as ‘Marxism for Infants’.  
     The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope.  
     Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.
KC  I wonder also if there’s been a shift in the style of attentiveness in your writing, whether your poetic eye has come to home in differently, not just in the attention to different subjects but also a change in the style of looking?  For instance the mode of ‘A Misremembered Lyric’, from Mop Mop Georgette (1993), its interrogative form, the recontextualising of pop song lyrics and its anatomising of an otherwise unspoken experience, might strike the reader very differently to more recent poems such as ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ (Shearsman magazine issue 97/98) with its ballad-like succinctness, stanzas and rhyme scheme? 
DR No progress [or worsening, I hope] in this ‘style of attentiveness’ – and no programme.  
You mention ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’, which is a curious piece in that it’s so consciously thought-saturated, its thought was willed and imposed by its writer, and it sets down these thoughts quite baldly. The thinking in it might have lived instead as prose; it extends what began in my pamphlet ‘Time Lived, Without Its Flow’.  
     The speculation in ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ is, as you can see, about rhyme’s own relation to temporality, and how this links to that feeling of ‘time stopped’ that you might inhabit after someone’s unexpected death. Whereas rhyme, both anticipated and recurring, acts as a guarantor of continuing and perceived time, and of human listening, attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language.  
     Also, I wrote it [and its less didactic companion piece ‘You men who go in living flesh’] with an eye to the kind of affect that rises up from Isaac Watts’ boxy hymn quatrains. I was wondering about the ‘automated’ nature of the feeling that can shine through rhyme. I’m struck by rhyme’s capacity to lend its mechanical aspects to feeling.  For it to exist as feeling. There’s an impersonality in rhyme that’s, in the same breath, deeply personal. Like a marriage of the material and the ideal.
KC Is there a typical way you set about writing a poem, or how does it happen? Is it a quick process or not? Do you revise, abandon, often or rarely? Is there a back and forth in the act of writing between the given and what’s crafted? Are these even the right terms for how you might consider these matters?  
DR To answer in turn: No, and I don’t know. No, not usually. Yes, quite often. Yes. I’m unsure but they’ll do for now.
      Otherwise, after finishing each bit of writing, I don’t know if I’ll ever manage another poem in my life.  Probably many people feel exactly this, about their own work. At the same time, producing poems can feel like a hobby that’s better kept private, like making model lighthouses out of matchsticks. Such a long lonely effort and for what?
     Then sometimes a set of preoccupations might, in the end, appear not as poems, but laid out as analytic prose.   Recently I wrote a note about my history of lurching between verse and prose:
‘Readied to slink back into silence
One mode fights it out with another
Tethered together, both faltering 
Expecting never to be believed 
First in this form, then in that.’ 
KC 'A Part Song' opens with a question, ‘You principle of song, what are you for now…?’ Of course you’re asking this in a song. Here, ‘now’, gives the question immediacy and it’s poignant. I think your poetry from the beginning has always asked this question, it’s a constant in your work, and it’s helped make the poetry. Perhaps this is related to Peter Riley’s description of you ‘as a far from an easily categorisable writer’, perhaps because your answer to the question changes. It seems that, as with 'A Part Song', the poem is looking for that answer and that it proceeds through changes of voice and address, shifts in form and tone, to make and unmake itself, to assert and doubt its own validity as statement. Can the question, what are you for song, be answered in a poem or out of it, if at all? 
DR Perhaps song in general is, in the end, purely ‘for itself’. Whereas in ‘A Part Song’, its particular question was: what is the song for, in the teeth of this particular death. What can it do now? And what is its singer for, now? The only answer is: this instance of song is simply its own existence as voiced solidarity with the [not uncommon] experience of being left alive when your child isn’t. But this solidarity lies in raising that question of what it’s for, in concert with others’ questioning, rather than in anything averred inside the poem itself.  
     So an answer to your last query might be: There’s a universal impulse to ask, a need to know, however unlikely it is that any answer can appear; and here’s just another instance of that usual impulse, still making its noise.  
     This isn’t the soft noise of a rhetorical question, though. It really would like to know. So it goes on asking itself [much as its writer also asks herself]: ‘What am I for?’ And that question, if repeated seriously enough, turns itself into resigned statement. ‘It just is.’
KC  I don’t know if what follows can be asked or answered but I wanted to say it to you.
     And there it is, despite everything, the made thing of a poem, 'A Part Song', in which the mind finds something remarkable in the achievement, for its boldness and intimacy, its anger and its humour; a human purpose. This may only be there for the reader – but it is there. The only thing that I can think is like this is when you hear a singer who sings with the whole of his or her life and you can hear it in the voice. (Examples for me would be the Cuban singer Eliades Ochoa and the rembetika singer Roza Eskenazi.) I wondered if you know you have done this?    
DR  No. But it is good of you to say so to me.
Photo of Denise Riley from Reality Street.
15 March 2014