From Line-break to Heartbreak: an Interview with Naomi Foyle

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Charles Baudelaire says, “Always be a poet, even in prose.” As a creative writing lecturer, how do you look at this?

With complete agreement! From poetry, writers learn how to set concrete imagery ticking until it detonates with thought and emotion; how to pare back and polish work until each word gleams, and how to handle language like the amphibious creature it is — elementally at home in both the fields of the mind and the rivers of speech. That’s why poetry modules are mandatory for all students at the University of Chichester CW degree.

But I don’t mean to hammer Baudelaire into an academic box marked ‘transferable skills.’ He was urging writers to cultivate a visionary state of mind, one that transcends the linear narrative and perceives the ultimate unity of time and space. I teach his prose-poem, Be Drunk, which presses us to live in a state of spiritual intoxication, ‘continually drunk,’ whether ‘on wine, on poetry, or on virtue.’ As a lecturer, I can only advocate for the second option, but my students are adults and can make up their minds! 

Naomi Foyle, you are one of the co-founders of the British Writers in Support of Palestine, and you’ve recently edited A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry. Tell us about its reception in contemporary British poetry. Tell us if you could find a more considerable resonance that could match your enthusiasm for editing the anthology.

A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry, a bilingual anthology I edited in 2017 for Smokestack Books, has been wonderfully well-received. Thank you, I have enjoyed excellent reviews in journals including Poetry Review and London Grip. There were readings in nine cities of five countries: London, Chichester, Ripon, Brighton, New York City, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman, and St Andrew’s (Collective Read for the 2018 StAnza Poetry Festival). All the poems being read aloud at a special event by members of the festival audience. In its choral resonance and public presence, that event exceeded what I ever imagined for the book. It was given a warm reception in New York City, where anthology poet Farid Bitar has organized several readings, including poets from Jewish Voice for Peace. Interfaith and intercultural events like these have fulfilled my hope that the book, precisely through exploring the Palestinian narrative, would demonstrate and encourage our shared humanity.   

As a poet, could you help us how we can distinguish a line break from a heartbreak?

A good line break brings intellectual pleasure, making the ‘snapped’ line vibrate with multiple, even contradictory, meanings. While only poets, perhaps, can take pleasure in being lovesick, poetry also holds the key to healing from heartbreak: that is to say, enjambment. Life continues but, much as we might wish to ‘step across’ the pain, the future only makes the fullest sense when we read together with the past — and the rupture.

What salient features, according to you, distinguish a prose-poem from a lyric-poem?

Tough question! I suspect that the presence or absence of line breaks is the only undeniable different between a prose-poem and a lyric poem, which isn’t a new answer!  But I do think the ‘true’ prose-poem is essentially lyric – if it tells or suggests a story, it does so through images. So a more subtle difference might be that the prose-poem encourages a distinctive kind of lyric reflection. Perhaps you could say that each form generates a different relationship to time. The prose-poem briefly immerses the reader in the dense flow of time and ideas. Maybe it allows us to observe that flow like a glimpse of a familiar landscape made strange through a rain-streaked train window. The lyric poem, on the other hand, with its considered use of space and silence, distils time and, in a sense, suspends it. The line breaks allow the reader to experience a moment or two simultaneously from multiple vantage points. Reading an Emily Dickinson poem, we are out in the crystalline rain, watching a world shine and shatter in each droplet as the train roars by, and the ground rumbles beneath our feet.  

Congratulations, Naomi Foyle, your newest book of poems, Adamantine! Could you share with us some milestone moments from the journey that lead toward this immense accomplishment?

Thank you so much, Linda, and for your help in celebrating the British launch of the book! Adamantine has taken nine years to write, a long journey through varied terrain. The first milestone was the completion of my PhD at Bangor University in 2011. Exploring the topic ‘the warrior woman in narrative verse,’ I wrote many of the poems in the first half of the book. The second milestone felt more like a tombstone. In 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience that triggered a torrent of poems that eventually became the second section of Adamantine. The third milestone came literally on the road during my chemotherapy treatment. I was drifting like a wraith down a Brighton street when I nearly walked through poet and publisher John Davies. Kindly seeking to cheer me up, John invited me to read at an upcoming Pighog Press party. There, I shared the stage with poets, including Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale. Kate later invited me to submit a manuscript to publish it as the first joint Pighog/Red Hen book. As a British-Canadian citizen, I was thrilled when she accepted Adamantine. Further milestones occurred this summer as I launched the North American edition in New York City, and then on a Canada Council funded tour of Western Canada. 

In Adamantine, you have straddled many geographies. Have you been to all those places? If you haven’t, tell us about how you have been such a compassionate commuter to the inner lives of people in political turmoil?

Thank you for that beautiful phrase, Linda. I have travelled a lot, yes, but I hope that my poems suggest I have not been merely holidaying but working to understand the world better. I have visited Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland since 1991, forging close bonds with the poetry community in Belfast. Having an Irish great-grandmother, it felt natural to explore my relationship to the place in my poetry during my PhD. I also got involved in human rights activism for Palestine and have now been to Israel-Palestine three times. I’ve visited New York City since the eighties, and also have a soft spot for Berlin, both of which feature in ‘Winterpause,’ a tribute to the German chanteuse and songwriter Nico. Apart from Egypt, I haven’t been to Africa. I hope the poem ‘Mama Africa’ makes clear my respect for this vast continent, which birthed us all, and continues to transmit its wisdom to the world through its artists and political activists. 

“the grave is rinsed by sunshine/ as we peel away wet leaves,/ tweak our bunch of flowers,/ wipe the headstone clean.” When I first read it, the verb “rinse” reminded me of rinsing vegetables or our faces. How did you come about this masterpiece of a line, “the grave is rinsed by sunshine”?

Thank you. I am moved to learn that this line, which describes the tombstone of my late friend, the Northern Irish poet and journalist Mairtín Crawford, has struck you so deeply. It’s a sensual image that emerged from the act of looking. It was a bright day when I visited Mairtín’s grave with his mother, Flo. Though we rinsed the tombstone with water, in my memory, it was the sunshine that came to cleanse and refresh it.  

 

In Adamantine, there are many concrete poems. Contrary to prevalent disregard for concrete poems, how do you infuse meaning and balance them structurally that they become such a delight to the readers?

It’s terrific to hear that you enjoyed those poems. Concrete poetry creates a fascinating technical challenge for the poet and a visually pleasing experience for the reader. It’s also a playful, versatile, and highly signifying genre that can powerfully liberate the process of reading. I love the way ‘The Swan’ by John Hollander can be read horizontally and vertically. In ‘reQuesting,’ the divided Canadian society I grew up in, is represented as a series of ruptures on the page, creating —  like the dominant culture that abuses and erases First Nations peoples — an artful pattern that systematizes fragmentation and absence. But poetic imagery is most potent when ambiguous, and the poem also suggests the patterns of embroidery, honouring traditional crafts and, I hope, the idea of mending.

A big shout out here to Mark E. Cull, Red Hen’s Co-founder and Executive Director, who designed Adamantine. Mark took incredible care with my concrete poems, down to replicating the shape of the province of Saskatchewan in negative space! 

Reading Adamantine has given me the feeling of being inside an ivory tower with so many concerns and voices trapped within awaiting a release. Readers can’t be at rest while reading your poetry. Do you agree? Justify your response.

This question gives me much pause for thought. The sense of an ‘ivory tower’ is not surprising, as Adamantine sprang from my doctoral work. But the term is often used as a criticism of academics in a white-dominated institution who are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and especially the experiences of people of colour. As a lecturer, I aim to use my privilege to battle against institutional racism in Higher Education. As a poet, I try to express my reaction to injustice – my anger and grief, my awareness of my complicity in structural inequalities. I don’t, for example, write dramatic monologues in the voices of oppressed peoples. The ‘I’ in my poems is always a white, educated speaker (though not still me – I am not the speaker of ‘Shaking the Bottle,’ for example). But I do look outwards ‒ I write poetry of witness, a form of ‘docupoetics,’ as Adrianne Kalfopoulou calls it. If my internationalist focus on other people’s suffering unsettles readers, hopefully, they will be motivated to take political action. 

Like Rushdie says, you want to prevent the world from sleeping. Adamantine converts a believer and a non-believer alike. What are your plans with those converted for the causes you care for on reading Adamantine?

I am pleased if you think my political poetry is persuasive. Yes, I would like it if, after reading Adamantine, people felt less afraid to criticize Israel, and emboldened to join the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. I would be glad if my Canadian poems play a part in a massive culture shift in Canada, toward a national show of gratitude and respect to First Nations peoples. Their traditional way of life has so much to teach others about justice and sustainability, and their human rights that the Canadian government still criminally fail to honour. But my poems are not blog posts or arguments. They only ask people to listen to the human stories that animate politics and history. If that makes me an ‘influencer,’ wonderful, but equally important to me is the chance to build a readership of like-minded people spanning politics and the arts. At this dangerous time of ballooning global fascism, we need more than ever for activists and artists to come into an alliance. 

They say, “Poetry is of no help.” But now that you overcome one of the fiercest battles of life, and being a poet, do you acknowledge poetry being any use in those bleak hours?

Who are ‘they’!? I could not disagree with them more! Down the years, I’ve faced many challenges, including the early death of my mother, emigration, family conflicts, chronic depression, and anxiety, failed relationships, sexual abuse, and severe illness. Against these difficulties, poetry has been for me, if not the only, the very best help. Poetry has brought succour in the words of others, and, in its continuous visitations and collective celebrations, enabled me to respond to despair with creativity and find value in my life.

As a young woman, I suffered from bulimia. It was writing and performing poetry that cured me.  The physical act of verbalizing my feelings in public was an emotional safety valve that lessened my urge to self-harm. Nowadays, dealing with ageing, career, relationship, and health issues, not to mention the state of the world, I still occasionally feel demoralized and irrelevant — but I know these feelings will pass, and pass into poetry, which accepts us as we are, beings of light and shadow. 

“The Horses of Hvolsvöllur.” When you look back at this poem today, what are you thinking?

First of all, Linda, I have to ask myself, is it a prose-poem or a poetic flash fiction?!? But I also think about other unanswerable questions, loss and pain and loneliness, and wonder if I’ve written enough about my attraction to the barren lava fields of the psyche. No doubt, there’s an element of emotional displacement in my political commitments. But I try to be honest about that in my work, and I also firmly believe that we should resist, as much as possible, the temptation to wholly privatize grief and anger.

We are all individuals with unique sets of circumstances. Depression and anxiety are, in large part, caused or exacerbated by social conditions. Taking action to change those conditions can be as healing as going to a therapist. For me, rebelling with XR, volunteering in Palestine, or canvassing for the Labour Party in this election, have been hugely energizing and empowering experiences. I seem to have strayed from the question. Looking again at that poem, I also think about horses, and how much I would like to spend more time with these beautiful, sensitive creatures. 

Do you have any thoughts you would like to share with poetry readers around the world?

Possibly I’ve overshared here, Linda! I want to finish by inviting people to explore the work of some brilliant poets in my internationalist community. Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Fawzia Muradali Kane, and Stephanie Norgate‘s works stretch from Greece to Trinidad and Tobago to the Sussex Downs. Carol Rumens, my PhD supervisor, who writes the glorious Poem of the Week column for the Guardian. Zoe Mitchell, my PhD student, currently writing incisive poems about witches and women. The sublimely talented Sea Sharp and Merrie Joy Williams. LIT UP (Waterloo Press’s new Arts Council England funded mentoring and publishing program for emerging poets of colour). published their latest collections. I’m proud to be involved with LIT UP as an editor and project co-manager and hope the program may run again. If you would be interested in applying, please sign up for the WP newsletter or Like our Page on Facebook! 

How would you like readers of Adamantine to connect with you? Any platform of your choice that you’ve opened for further engagement?

I’m on Facebook, the one and only Naomi Foyle – come and say hi and join the conversations. I might even get back to Twitter in 2020. Meantime, I blog occasionally at my website www.naomifoyle.com, which has just had a makeover by the glamourous digital wizards at SheShe. Please check it out!

Finally, thank you again, Linda, for these scintillating questions. I’m sure anyone reading this who doesn’t know your marvellous work will want to seek it out! 


Adamantine is available at any good bookshop in the US, Canada, or the UK. It can also be purchased online, here in the US and here in the UK