The Write Out Loud interview: Sean Borodale
Sean Borodale is a writer and artist. His first collection of poems, Bee Journal - a poem-journal of bee-keeping kept over two years - was shortlisted for both the 2012 Costa and TS Eliot awards. He talks to Write Out Loud's Frances Spurrier about walking very slowly into the night, the time-whirring metropolis of a bee colony, reading in front of 2,000 people, and how poetry is “a kind of haunting”.
You work as both a writer and artist. Have you always been a poet, or did this develop out of other artistic work?
I have written for many years, and poetry really stood at the centre of my work as an artist, as a kind of haunting. I gravitated towards the tensions and scale and physiology of the poem, as a thing in itself, but as an artist I concerned myself most with breaking the confines of the poem, often using the page as a support to be challenged – through scansion, length of line, typographic arrangement. I never called those works poems though, because they worked more at the level of thinking about how a poem begins, how a poem materialises, how a poem drifts out of sight. I am increasingly interested in the time-properties of a poem, how a poem can run along with the pace of experience, literally, and this, gradually, has led me to the point where I have somehow to admit that what I am doing is close, very close, to being a poem, in shape and sound.
Who would you say were your main poetic influences?
Main poetic influences change over time, but a gathering today might include Joseph Beuys, ST Coleridge, Sophocles, Werner Herzog, Les Murray, Samuel Beckett, William Blake, Osip Mandel’shtam, Sappho, Andrei Tarkovsky, Rebecca Horn, Leonardo’s notebooks, the artist Volkhardt Muller’s approach to materials and aesthetic.
How many miles did you walk to write Notes for an Atlas?
Fifty miles, very slowly – at about a rate of one mile per hour. It was a wander; there was no prescribed route, and each walk – they are consecutive, making a continuous route – walked through the evening into the night.
The presentation of Notes for an Atlas as a 370-page poem presents its own challenges and rewards, both for writer and reader. What was the thinking behind this idea?
I wanted the reader to become lost; I also wanted to mirror that feeling that the literal environment of the walk expands out beyond the capacity of any individual to hold it all simultaneously. As a line of text, as a walk, it cuts across the grain of implicitly thousands of narratives; other life-paths wandering across the text, and physical places in states of transience too, which it enters and leaves, or changes position among, at every step. The point was to write whilst walking; on one level it couldn’t be more simple, but there’s a charge of consideration, a need to catch the move from sensory exposure towards the reflex into a poem. Its mechanism is the need to articulate, to make sense of, whatever that sense is. Of course, by walking, it only logs these incidences of transition; and abandons them almost instantaneously.
Your method of working must, I imagine, involve constant notetaking in situ. Do you have a favoured notebook or method of working which enable you to keep track of so many images?
I work, often, in cheap hardback notebooks, about 14.5cm by 20cm, maybe a hundred pages in length, writing with biro, or felt tip or soft pencil when it rains.
“The trick is life”, as you say in your poem, 26th February. The trick for the poet is getting it down on paper. Notes for an Atlas couldn’t be more city and London, while Bee Journal is concerned with cycles of bee life which (rightly or wrongly) we associate with rurality. Both city and hive environments involve intense movement. Is this part of what attracted you to write on these themes?
With Notes for an Atlas, I’ve described the experience of going by foot through the city; I felt like a ghost entering my own native city – which it is, in fact – but without physically touching it, only footfall. I simply passed by, did not shake hands or embrace, or eat. With Bee Journal, there was an immersion too, into the intense activity of the colony; a metropolis in its own right, quite literally. What excited me about both places was that constant jarring of so-called quietness, or repose. I like that sensation of putting the head into the waterfall. And with bees, everything is just so much closer together, time whirrs like the mechanisms inside a wristwatch whilst the clock’s hand feel more akin to human speed. The difference I think was one of immersion. The city sprawls and moves endlessly as the journey moves along its physical route; with bees, their organism, their city, expands and contracts; and the journey moves on a temporal route. Their life is airborne too, in the medium of light. I was very struck by light, and its swift near immediacy.
I loved your description in 10th February: Queen, of the bee as “part animal, part flower”. Can you expand on this idea?
That’s what bees seem to be. In terms of that particular poem, however, it really does seem that the bee is physically a hybrid. When you get very close it is composed of forms and textures which appear not entirely its own. Its body talks in plant and insect. Dry dead bees don’t seem so very far away either from the dry hollow heads of thistles or knapweed in the winter. It’s like people, I think sometimes, physically reflecting animals they spend a lot of time with. It comes out in the face, or the posture, or the voice. I was thinking of the whole life of the bee, too – and the expression of symbiosis in myth, in which some creatures are composed of various others.
When he introduced your work at the TS Eliot readings in January, Ian McMillan said your work “changes what a poetry book can do”. No pressure then! Equally the nomination for the TS Eliot award itself for a debut collection is quite extraordinary. How did you feel when you found out you’d been nominated?
I was surprised of course and had to check reality. It seems such an unlikely book to have been shortlisted but on seeing the shortlist: well, there’s a breadth to poetry which is often underestimated and I think the shortlist reflected this. It was very generous of Ian McMillan to say that, but if I’m honest, I have been interested in breaking the conventions of the poetic “book” for some time – I just haven’t worked within the conventions of the book much. Previous work, for example, includes pages as maps, or as intervention in architectural space; space as page, charts depicting weather change, or with a recent work, Mighty Beast, the poem hijacks the auctioneer’s voice at a cattle market. The journal is a journal, it has its own usefulness, if only as record.
For those of us unlikely to ever have the experience, what is it like reading your work in front of 2,000 people?
I can’t remember. I only remember thinking, whatever I do now I have to do something so I’d better read the poems. After that I only recall a sense of the dark space full of listening.
Are you currently working on another project? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?
I made the decision two years ago not to talk very much about the subject of the piece I am working on; partly because I hadn’t quite worked out who was writing it, I mean the identity I was trying to discover, so I prefer to keep that working rule. I can say, however, that it’s a sister piece to Bee Journal inasmuch as it shares a similar approach to method of writing; possibly at the core of their respective contexts is a similar image, or question.
Sean Borodale graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art and went on to be a fellow of the Wordsworth Trust and guest artist at the Rijksakademie Kunsten, Amsterdam. He has since taught at the Slade and was selected as a Granta New Poet in 2012. Books include Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass, 2007), a long, topographical poem written while walking around London, and Bee Journal, (Jonathan Cape, 2012) his debut collection of poetry, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the TS Eliot Prize. Notes for an Atlas was performed as Monument for a Witness at Southbank’s first London Festival of Literature in 2007, directed by Mark Rylance. Radio work includes Mighty Beast, a documentary poem for Radio 3’s Between the Ears.