The Write Out Loud interview: Sean Borodale

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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.


◄ On Becoming A Fish: Emily Hinshelwood, Seren

Poetry London magazine launches £1,000 competition ►


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winston plowes

Thu 18th Apr 2013 16:22

I thought that this was a great interview. Good questions answered in a way that means I now have a great insight into the thought processes and artistic method of this writer whos work I will now search out. Thankyou Francis / Sean.

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Julian (Admin)

Wed 20th Mar 2013 17:47

I do not regret that you had a go, as it were. It does raise some interesting questions; about poetry, about this site and about the live poetry movement of which you are an indispensable part, Sir Kenneth.
We have been in existence for just over ten years - Write Out Loud that is - the website eight. We started off wanting to promote the live poetry scene, mostly places where anyone could read their work. The best open-mic or similar nights have a diverse range of folks reading their own - occasionally others' - poetry. The scene enables anyone to have a go, regardless of experience, qualifications, publication, etc. It is an eclectic mix, which is one of its great strengths. Folks with little experience but bags of ambition get to read and get applause. They hear stuff they had not heard before, not thought of. They might chat to the writer/performer in the break, pick up ideas and go away to write something new, or to read someone's work that they might be inspired by.
Thus many of the regulars at nights like Middleton go on to improve, get published, or just enjoy finding new ways to express what they want to say. The features like Frances' interview with Sean add to the opportunities for learning about others' work, their ideas and opinions, so forth.
Of course, some are not open to other influences, but many do appreciate learning more about poetry via the articles.
I am delighted that you read this and were moved to write to us to express your frustration at not being able to immediately understand it. Neither could I immediately understand it all, but it reminds me of a tutor we had when I did an MSc at Lancaster. We all - the students - struggled. Some complained to him that what he said was just at the edge of our comprehension. He replied that his job was to stretch us, leave us wanting to understand things we did not previously, rather than to reinforce what we already knew and understood; and that is the purpose of some - though not all - the articles like this one. We want to show that Write Out Loud folks have as much right to hear what top poets want to say as anyone else. And we are not afraid of that.
Thank you for providing us with that opportunity Frances. Appreciated.
Thanks for being open and honest in your comments, Ken. Appreciated.
Hope all that makes sense?

Kenneth Eaton-Dykes

Wed 20th Mar 2013 12:15

Hi Julan. Frances.

Suppose I was a bit uncharitable toward Sean
without sampling his wares.
I was (wrong,you might say)To anticipate his style based on an interview with Frances, from which to me the answers, like John Darwin notes are, "nigh incomprehensable"Surely I can be forgiven for assuming his work, based on the anwers given, would be of similar construction, and on a plain well above your unsophisticated da de da de da Poet like me,not having yet attained the level to understand enigmatic bamboozlement.

See you Sunday Jules. (On the car park)

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Frances Spurrier

Wed 20th Mar 2013 11:09

Thank you Julian and Isobel.

Kenneth I think you have strong views on someone you have not met and whose poetry (I presume) you haven't read.

I am certain that Sean would be nothing like as uncharitable about your work, if he were to hear it.

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Julian (Admin)

Wed 20th Mar 2013 11:04

Ken, we aim to be inclusive on our poetry nights and on the site. If we always stick to what we know, we won't grow much. Lashing out at others who have had opportunity to study poetry in greater depth than have we, is hardly a valid response. Better to try to understand than to dismiss. Sean's work is on the same continuum as yours, and we all have things to say and ways to say them. Sean has different ways from yours perhaps; not wrong, different. I for one am grateful that Frances has persuaded top-drawer poets to be interviewed for Write Out Loud. it matters for us, our profile and our survival.
And I look forward to hearing your offerings on Sunday.

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Sun 17th Mar 2013 10:34

I think you may be being a bit harsh there Kenneth. I’d agree that Sean’s responses are hard at times to get your head round – that’s possibly because he didn’t get the opportunity to put them into writing himself, break them down for the less academic mind to grasp more easily. It’s hard reading an interview such as this with no knowledge of the writer’s work. I think you’d need to read it to understand where he is coming from.

To me it seems that Sean is primarily an artist and then a page poet, so I think it would be hard to criticise him for not engaging as a performer. I imagine the T.S. Eliot prize would be designed for more ground breaking types of poetry that you couldn’t necessarily ‘get’ on first, second, or third reading ;)

I have enjoyed the interview for the discussion it has created as much as the insight into how another poet works. The poetry world is a big one – I think there has to be a place for the intensely academic as well as the entertainers and those who present more immediately accessible work.

Kenneth Eaton-Dykes

Sun 17th Mar 2013 00:47

I like most people on this site make contributions up to my level of competence,and in doing so, learn by way of sharing and appreciation of fellow bloggers works.

In short, have a bit of fun on a wonderfully encourageing social scene, culminating with local monthly, eagerly looked forward to, wonderfully entertaining,open mike gigs.made rich with amateur Poets deserving as much
recognition as your over sophisticated Sean Borodales, whose answers on being interviewed confuse the normal brain by inviting an interpretation of something only he understands. In other words he (from an entertaining point of view) would be a miserable flop at an open mike event.
His talents only appealing to the ones who can't see he's got no clothes on

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John Darwin

Sat 16th Mar 2013 21:46

The questions were excellent. Don't understand any of the responses though, c'est la vie

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Greg Freeman

Fri 15th Mar 2013 17:13

It may be tricky to follow in Sean's footsteps at times, but the interview is engrossing, as you say, Julian. It stretches the boundaries. I like the ideas behind Notes for an Atlas, and the poetry of topography. I'll try and track it down.

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Julian (Admin)

Fri 15th Mar 2013 16:52

What an absolutely fascinating interview, Frances! It's like earwigging the sort of erudite conversation I imagine I once wished I could hold; a conversation that draws me in wanting to be a member of this club whose bouncers would spot me a mile off. I love the way his replies inspire me to step to the side of my tramlines to try to view them anew.
Thank you.

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