This is a series where I interview poets about their process in regards to a single poem. Today I am honoured to have the fantastic Liam Bates, whose pamphlet Working Animals was one of my highlights of last year. Today he’s discussing a poem that was first published in Anthropocene on 20th December.
I’m expecting the doctor’s call at eleven. I answer
at ten past. She asks me if it’s me who’s answered.
I say it is as if I’m sure of it. Her voice is wooly
and small, like my neighbour’s rabbit. I’m taking
two a day, that’s right isn’t it? That is right. I’m doing
well, I say, as well as anyone. It’s a strange time,
I agree, laughing as if I’ve said something funny.
In a not too different world, we could be two friends
drinking red wine in generous fireside armchairs;
I can almost hear the spitting of logs and feel
the orange heat rolling across me, only it isn’t true.
I no longer allow myself to drink and the doctor,
I bet she hardly ever gets a day off to spend with friends.
DL: Where did you start with this poem? Was it based on a real moment you experienced?
LB: I think this is the closest thing to an explicitly Covid World poem I have. I started it I think during lockdown 1. Most of my poems begin in a surreal place I think, and I guess this one did too, it just also happened to be real.
DL: You say your poems begin a surreal place, where do you typically pull inspiration from?
LB: Yeah, I think I’m interested in surreal and absurd ideas generally, though admittedly didn’t come to that through any academic route, though I’ve tried on occasion to learn more about the poets and other artists who describe themselves as Surrealists with a big S. In reality, I think things like cartoons, weird music, cinema, some stand up, those are the early entry points to the surreal for me, along with maybe having a certain sort of brain.
DL: Does the surrealness come to you on the first draft or is it something you dig for? How did you revise this poem?
LB: It’s there in the first draft, usually, yeah, though I think digging’s a good word for what happens. I’ll set off chasing down a thought without any ideas in advance of what I’m going to unearth. Revision then is usually about trimming to hone word choices, rhythm, images. In the case of this poem, I think a lot of revision came down to nailing the rhythm and a couple of images which went through two or three different iterations. A large percentage of the words here are very conversational, everyday almost ‘filler’ words, with direct quotes of the sort of niceties that were floating around at the time, and the sort of niceties that come with having to balance any conversation with a doctor about mental health, so I wanted to try and retain some of this everydayness, without losing momentum.
DL: Yeah the conversational tone balances really well with the strangeness of the situation. Is your revision process similar for each poem?
LB: I’d say generally yes: my typical approach is reading things aloud, trying things out to try and make everything sit better on the page and sonically, making sure the imagery and word choices chime harmonically in the overall structure of the poem, or reaching for dissonance if that’s what’s needed; I’m feeling more comfortable recently employing dissonant and ugly sounding lines on occasion, if that’s what fits conceptually. I’m also much better now and stepping back from poems for a while and coming back to them with a fresher perspective. I’m still not at the point where I can put a poem in a drawer for 6 months, like a lot of the craft books recommend, but I definitely feel less in a rush lately to get a poem out there—it definitely helps to walk around and fully explore the terrain before making any final decisions on what to include in the postcard.
DL: Awesome, I really like that final description, jts a great way to think about it.
Final question: have your feelings about this poem changed since you wrote it?
LB: Ha, thank you. I’m happy with it actually, came a bit out of nowhere. But yeah, my feelings have changed I think, as they inevitably do. I’d say I’m in a big state of flux, as far as my writing process and more importantly, my writing skill, at the moment, and I’m very good at coming back to old poems and picking them apart. I still like this poem though. I think it works as at least an accurate journal entry from a specific time in my life, and even if it becomes nothing bigger than that, I’m happy.
DL: Thanks so much.
Liam Bates is a poet originally from the Black Country. His pamphlet ‘Working Animals’ is available from Broken Sleep Books. He can be found on social media @wordswithpurple