An interview with Frances Presley

Photograph by Barbara Grosse

Frances Presley was born in Chesterfield in 1952. She says, "My defining moment in poetry came in 1969 when I first read Ezra Pound's 'Lustra'." Her first collection of poems and prose was The Sex of Art (North and South, 1988), followed by Hula Hoop in 1993, and Linocut (Oasis Books, 1997). In 2004 Salt published Paravane, a selected poems 1996–2003.

Earlier this year, in April, Shearsman published Myne, a companion survey to Paravane, with two new works, 'Stone Settings' which puzzles over the neolithic stones of Exmoor, and 'Myne', inspired by the Somerset landscape.

Frances Presley in conversation with Edmund Hardy:

EH: I'd like to ask you about puzzlement. 'Stone Settings', a new sequence published in Myne, begins with a note quoting Hazel Eardley-Wilmot's Ancient Exmoor – the stone monuments as "Exmoor's special puzzle". The title poem begins "per        pl  ex // moor". Through the sequence, it seems that you are not trying to solve this puzzle, by archaeological or occult speculation, but you are trying to see it from different perspectives – from the air, from other texts, from the mapped ground. What led you to think and write or trace out the stones?

FP: The 'stone settings' project came about for various reasons, such as my life on Exmoor and the desire to find a new aspect of it; as well as new ways of treating the visual layout of the page and its relationship to forms in nature and human invention. When I came across the existence of stone settings I was delighted: they were something extraordinary and unique and also rather comical. For those who don't know, what is unique about the stone settings is that they are not the familiar stone circles, longstones or stone rows, but they are a variety of roughly geometric shapes, and sometimes even apparently random. These characteristics make them particularly appealing to a contemporary poet and the curiosity of these strange configurations is part of the pleasure of being puzzled. The puzzle of the Neolithic stone settings is only one of the puzzles which I explore in the sequence, and it is the framework which opens out a whole series of associated concerns, which form the layers of debris and complication, both on site and in the archaeological texts. Although I came to know quite a lot about the archaeology of the stone monuments, and the work of estimable female archaeologists such as Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, it was not my intention to behave like an archaeologist. I was as interested in what we failed to find, and the process of that failure, as I was in the actual finds.

'Stone settings' do approach this puzzle through a variety of different means, and although this is not attempt to 'solve' the puzzle, and certainly not from an archaeological or occult perspective, themes do emerge. I approached the puzzle by various methods. These included writing on site and allowing the site to 'dictate' the formation of the language, a deliberate permission of non-sense. Unfortunately due to bad weather and the remoteness of sites this proved a more difficult technique than expected! I began to reconstruct archaeological texts and extract their sub-texts. I returned to the discontinuous prose poem, used extensively in Somerset Letters, and which allowed me to write off site: it can also incorporate narratives of community and history.

EH: "Debris and complication" seems like a poetics! To some extent it seems that the space between the stones is what interested you, or it's this space which has also provided a new way of thinking about the page, "dictating" the formation. How would you describe the new ways of treating the visual layout in 'Stone settings', and the ways in which your thinking about page-space has changed, or changes with each new project?

FP: You're right to emphasise the visual significance of this project, and my interest in the visual layout of the page has been influenced by developments in contemporary poetry. 'Stone settings' is a collaboration with the poet Tilla Brading, whose interest in the visual possibilities of poetry was already well advanced, and involves the use of digital technology. I hope that some of her images will be on display when we read at 'Crossing the Line' in London in November.

I've written about landscape poetry and the space of the page for a forthcoming book on British ecology, edited by Richard Kerridge and Harriet Tarlo. My interest in the visual arts and poetry goes back to my studies in modernism and surrealism, as well as collaborations with artists such as Irma Irsara, but my experimentation with layout on the page was slower to develop. I'm especially indebted to Kathleen Fraser for drawing my attention to contemporary women poets and the visual arts in a post-Olsonian context. The cross-over between art and text is very marked today amongst experimental poets and artists; although poets sometimes resent the fact that their texts are considered of lesser value than those of artists, because there's no money in poetry!

'Stone settings' did seem to provide an ideal focus for developing this interest, as it provided an actual layout or the remains of one, which I could choose to follow or re-interpret. There is the sheer physical pleasure, or discomfort, of exploring the layout of the stones, not to mention the sheer frustration of not finding them! We had plans to undertake various exercises on site, and amongst other influences was that of the artist Richard Long's traces and arrangements. Although some of these were undertaken, conditions were rarely ideal and there were all kinds of unavoidable interferences with our expeditions, such as the weather and the inclusion of other people. This probably says something about the purity of the art which was our model, and although, in a sense, the outcome was failure, it was also a strength that we engaged with the impurity of being.

To draw a straight line on a map or on the ground is a highly artificial exercise. It can also be an extremely satisfying one and appeals to our desire for order. One of the themes which emerged, in a prose-poem like 'Brer', is the power of geometry as such, and the appeal it has to those who feel most comfortable with computational exercises. I wanted to understand that drive, while placing it alongside other events and interruptions. The most geometric page layouts are those which are text derived, such as 'Stone settings' and 'White ladder', and these express both perfection and an underlying irony about perfect form. We were, for example, wholly unable to find the double quartz stone row of 'White ladder', even with the help of the Exmoor archaeologist!

EH: The failure, as you put it, could then be the failure of a Romantic art where a people is missing. Long is sometimes accused of wilderness Romanticism. The impurity you mention as a strength, seems to be a way of writing a landscape poetry which is complicated by being peopled; the prose poems a different

FP: Yes, that's right, and I think the emphasis here is on 'peopled': the multiplicity of voices that exist in any landscape, in any discourse, and our responsibility to listen to those voices, as well as the recognition of our own very limited line of sight. The contemporary prose poem can incorporate some of those voices while ensuring that there is no master narrative. To quote 'Brer': 'How can we follow these parallel lives?' I am much more concerned about parallel lives than about parallel lines. I also like what can be achieved by tight juxtaposition, or parataxis within the prose poem, and I think I also find it useful for oblique political analysis. Unexpected transitions can be more powerful, I think, because they are encapsulated within an apparently seamless style. They are small explosions on a calm surface, such as this one in 'Triscombe stone': 'She has been driven to many aboriginal sites. There is proof of global warming at last.'

It's also the case that this is a collaboration, and there was already a process of two voices engaged in a conversation, and the need to respect differing approaches and interests.

EH: The last poem in the sequence, 'Culbone (1 October 2005)', has a note mentioning Walter Wolfgang's ejection from the Labour party conference for saying the word "nonsense", and the word also appears in the poem. How did that event and the "one word" spoken strike you, as you wrote the poem the next day?

FP: This was an example of an external voice influencing my experience of a site. It's an example also of my concern with the present, and where I would diverge from archaeology, the main focus of which is a responsibility to the past. I was reading an account of the conference, and an interview with Walter Wolfgang, on my way to Porlock Weir. You can probably infer my feelings for the Blair Labour Party, from my use of 'New Labour' in the footnote, which you have slightly modified! I was working in community health when Alan Milburn took over, and the next two, very difficult years, were spent campaigning and lobbying parliament, trying to make our voices heard. There are references to this experience in the 'Paravane' sequence (published by Salt in 2004).

On the day in question I was hoping to reach Culbone stone row, but I was diverted by bad weather, and decided to take shelter and write in Culbone church. As is often the case when I'm alone at a site, I engage initially in techniques drawn from automatic writing, a controlled improvisation. I don't want to predetermine the outcome of the text, and I also want the site to influence the language that I use. However, another, local, voice had already entered into my mind while sheltering earlier at the Ship Inn at Porlock, the only visitor that morning: the woman serving me had begun to talk about her husband, who was in the army, 'on exercises'. From then on the political strand within the poem begins to establish itself. The 'point/ low' becomes primarily political rather than simply the turn of the season. Oppositional statements are voiced and revoiced in various ways. In the past, working in social welfare, I have been accused of being negative and even subversive, especially under the Thatcherite policy of slimming down organisations and stifling dissent. Within the text the negative moment is also defined by a paring down to a single word of protest – the only one that Wolfgang managed to utter before being bundled out. This process of reduction and attrition affects the language itself, and create examples of what some define as 'infraverbal minimalism' in which the words themselves are torn apart, such as 'commsate' or 'cr mmml'. In this poetics of 'nonsense' an oppositional energy is released. At the same time the focus of the poem shifts to a spiritual debate, imposed by the physical space of the church. It is, notably, a plainly furnished Protestant church, with an emphasis on 'white' space and transparency. The memorial inscription to 'Charlotte' in this poem can also evoke the spirit of Charlotte Bronte, the Protestant minister's daughter. I am amused by, and critical of this reformed religion, while retaining some allegiance to its bare philosophy. I leave almost the last word to Wolfgang, because I found his statement a powerful and moving testimony to the effect of words, of a word: the sense of nonsense. His phrase 'smooth words', applied to the rhetoric of New Labour, also has echoes for me of Edmund Burke on the ideal landscape (or discourse), as opposed to Mary Wollstonecraft's rougher response.

EH: I've been reading Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace recently – it's like an epistolary map of a conservative century to come, adaptation as political power. The other new sequence here is 'Myne' – each poem located by month and place, "in and around Minehead". I was interested by the literal lines which appear. I read the first one as a writing hand slipping – but others seemed like tracings. How did these get into the poems? Also, did you really read Martin Eden on a knoll?

FP: The 'Myne' sequence was written almost entirely 'on site' with some later revision. For that reason I used the kind of improvisation methods that are present in the 'Culbone' text. That means that every gesture is significant, and I try to revise and censor as little as possible. The 'literal lines' as you call them could be, as in the case you refer to, a hand slipping, or even the obscuring of words by the elements. I think that in 'December in St Peter's' I was literally dripping rain water onto the page!

I also sometimes sketch as well as write, and I include that process (though not the drawings) in 'June on North Hill', which is subtitled 'blind drawing'. The artist's technique of 'blind drawing' is one where you draw without looking at the page in order not to distract the eye. It's a technique I sometimes use when I'm writing outside, and, rather as in drawing, it produces a very different quality. I did try to discover if there was an equivalent technique of 'blind writing', but all I could find on the internet were some business brainstorming methods!

The rising curved line which begins 'March on North Hill' is an approximation of Dunkery hill, the highest point on Exmoor, but obviously it isn't a sketch. I'm not sure if I should include sketches, and that also raises the issue of incorporating handwriting. I can think of instances where handwriting has been included, such as the cover Dell Olsen made for the collaboration I did with Elizabeth James (published by Form books), and that too adds another dimension.

As for versions of eden on a knoll above the sea… Some years ago I was studying Martin Eden for an American literature course, while organising summer school activities. I had some delightful students who were picking blackberries further down the hill, while I could get on with my reading. I have a fondness for Jack London's Martin Eden: his lightly fictionalised autobiography. I have no great affinity with his autodidact's fascination with the Ubermensch, but his depiction of the difficulties of the working class writer are memorably described: there's that scene where he turns an editor upside down to get the money out of his pockets. I suppose a later equivalent for women would be something like Tillie Olsen's Silences. Eden is particularly incensed at the treatment of his poet friend (based on Hart Crane?) who only gets recognition after his death. As I remember, at the end of the book, Eden himself commits suicide by jumping into the sea.

EH: Is the image of a work by Irma Irsara (for the cover of Myne) your choice? If so, what attracted you to this piece?

FP: The cover image 'Una Finestra per un licheno' ('A window through a lichen'), by Irma Irsara, was chosen collaboratively. We have worked together for over ten years now, and we also live quite close together in Islington. Our main collaboration, 'automatic cross stitch', was a study of the fashion industry in north Islington. Irma originally comes from a mountain farm in north Italy, so we share a passion for landscape. Before I knew her, and not long after she came to England, she did a nature conservation course in Somerset, with the idea of becoming a forester, and she's quite an expert on lichen. This image is fairly typical of her work. It is abstract, multi-layered, and with an intense use of colour: a recent exhibition was called 'La Favella di Colore, and the old Italian word 'favella' suggests a more lyrical kind of speech. She uses a hand-made paper technique to literally build up the image, layer by layer, and will often incorporate other materials: this one has wool in it, and we picked up that grey-white colour for the background. Since Myne covers such a broad range of my work and life, I did not want an image which would reflect one particular sequence too closely, while retaining an association with the emphasis on landscape. Collaboration continues to play an important part in my life, and I wanted to thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation.

EH: Thank you, Frances.

Conversation by email, September and into October 2006.

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