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Elizabeth Briggs

1. How long have you had the idea for a work on migration? Is it the culmination of an ongoing interest?

It was a combination of things. The idea took shape in 2005 when I finished a critical book, The Poem and the Journey, which itself followed on from my journeys in Tigers in Red Weather. I read every poem as a journey and in The Poem and the Journey I thought about different sorts of journeys, exile, homecoming, exploration, and related them to the movement of different sorts of poem.

I then thought about the difference between the Odyssey and the Aeneid; how one – which was an imaginative touchstone for the 20th century – is a homecoming; but the other is a forced migration to make a new home when the old one has been razed and lost, which is the experience that is tragically charactising a lot of 21st century. And about my father’s grandfather from whom I inherit my name: a musician who studied in Leipzig and came to Britain as a boy.

But the last poem of my collection Voodoo Shop also uses the image of migrating birds: I think the last poems in each collection often point the way to where you are going to go next.

2. In such a complex and multi-layered work, how (in practical terms) did you go about handling your material and planning the structure and concept? How much did the work change during the writing process?

It took years! The whole process was seven years. The structure grew and changed. At first I thought of alternating prose and prose page by page, which was obviously impossible. I did masses of research on birds, masses of hard writing and false starts. Finally my editors called me in and said to send them what I had. They sat down with me, and a high pile of printed out inchoate stuff, which included poems, and notes, and tryout essays. And my editor said, Ruth, just write the poems! then you can add the prose. There was more of that than my editor had expected, but all the facts, and connections seemed to me so beautiful and important. Everything had to lead up to the all-important political section, the immigrations, detention centres, asylum seekers and how they are treated. But I wanted to let the birds, and other creatures, do the work, showing how dangerous and effortful migration is, so the poems about asylum seekers did not have to be message-laden, could be free to be themselves, to be poems, find out their own inner relationships and where they are going.

3. What is it you enjoy about writing?

Discovery. See pattern, below.

4. How conscious are you of ‘writing techniques’ while you are writing? Do you prefer to forget about them in the moment and go back to them in the later editing process once you have written your initial drafts?

I’m not sure I distinguish between technique and anything else. I draft and draft and draft; each time I hope it gets truer. In Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, In the Night Kitchen, the little boy steals dough from bakers in the basement, and kneads it and kneads it, “till it looks ok”. But the illustration shows him making a dough bi-plane, which he hops into and flies around. It’s that process that matters, that feeling of working “till it looks ok.” That’s the drafting, and redrafting. Then you can fly.

5. What do you admire most in other people’s writing? What living or dead writers have been most influential on your own writing?

Freshness – live language, a confident, singular voice that is aware both of language and of the world.

Influences are too many to say: I try and learn from anyone I admire, from Sappho to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I spent a lot of time early on with Greek choral lyic, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and also with Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote a study of them and was influenced by them himself. But I also love Elizabeth Bishop’s directness, her switches from confidentiality to universal insights, to wonderfully crafted description.

6. What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? What is the easiest part?

Easy? Nothing is. I think it shouldn’t be. But the most difficult part for me is the beginning, the getting into something new. It is also a thrill – but it has to be new, you have to make sure you are not coasting, resting on something you have done before, places you have been before.

7. You mentioned when you spoke to the UEA MA students that pattern is the key thing in writing, that we are all pattern makers trying to make or find a pattern. Could you say a little more about this and how it plays out in your writing?

is it poetry?’

In a Rorschach test, psychologists ask people to say what they see in, or make of, an inkblot. The inkblot is the world, really: poems are what we make of it. The stars are a very ancient Rorschach test: people looked up and saw mythical creatures in them, Orion the Hunter, the Little Bear. Then they saw ellipses, guidance, geometric patterns.

Human beings are hungry for meaning, and find it through pattern. We project our own patterns onto the world: pattern mediates our experience.

All good poets are obsessed with pattern, but differently. Paul Muldoon is a wonderful, very self-aware extreme example: he uses extraordinary patterning to interrogate history, language and experience. I think I’m particularly obsessive about how I pattern vowels.

For me, there is a point in writing a poem, as the poem finds its form, when I try and listen to it, to sense if it wants to be in stanzas or not, because stanzas are a special sort of patterning.

I once read Paul Durcan’s “A Spin in the Rain with Seamus Heaney” to someone who is soaked in 19th century poetry but doesn’t know much contemporary poetry. I was really shocked a week later when he said, ‘Remember that poem you read me: why is it poetry?’

Patterning is one place to start, to answer that.

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