Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Andrea Goldsmith on Dorothy Porter's Love Poems

Love Poems is a collection of Dorothy Porter's most powerful love poetry. It was compiled by writer Andrea Goldsmith, the late Dorothy Porter's partner. We talk to Andrea about the collection.

Why did you decide on a collection of love poems?

Dorothy Porter – Dot – worked hard. With each new book, her poetry - which I always thought wonderful - seemed to get even better. Periodically over the years she would float the idea of a selected or collected poems. I would immediately dismiss the idea: collected and selecteds mean you’ve either run out of puff or you’re dead, I would say, and you, Dot, fit neither category.
With Dot’s death in December, 2008, everything changed. She left a nearly-completed collection of poems (The Bee Hut published by Black Inc in September 2009) and a long essay (On Passion, one of MUP’s little books on big ideas, published in May 2010), plus a number of unpublished poems. Dot and I often used to talk about the longevity of a writer’s work: who had it; whether their work warranted it, and most particularly what we would want for our own work. And Dot wanted what all serious writers want: for her work to live on. The time to consider a selected or collected had arrived.

I wish it hadn’t.

Given my long antipathy to selecteds, I knew I had to come up with a novel approach, one that was distinctly Dot. There are a number of themes that reoccur in her work from her first volume of poetry, Little Hoodlum, published when she was just 21 (with her looking like a little hoodlum in the cover pic) to her last poems. Primary among them was love. In fact love’s entire pantheon figures largely throughout her work: desire, sex, danger, flirting, humiliation, loss, rapture.
Love is Dorothy Porter territory.

How did you choose which poems to include in Love Poems? And the structure?

I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet. I gathered over the years an increasing number of favourite poems, including what Dot referred to as her Andy-poems, so from the beginning of this project there were certain poems that would automatically be included such as the sequence ‘Summer 92’, ‘Why I Love your Body’, ‘Lucky’, and many others. But making this selection took me deep into the whole of her work. Dot’s poetic imagination thrived on love. I found poems I had forgotten; I rediscovered old favourites. I had such a good time. And I discovered recurring patterns: when filtered through Dorothy Porter’s poetic imagination love always comes laden with risk, with edge, with the real possibility of humiliation and the eventual fall – even at the rapturous beginning. As I read through all her work it occurred to me to shape the poems to echo the arc of an affair: from the first excitement, through rapture, disillusionment and finally wisdom. Thus the sections in the book:

O flash! O honey!
The Big Sexy Risk
Hot and Cold
The Labyrinth of Intimacy

Throughout our seventeen years together I was closely involved with Dot’s work. I was her first reader and her last. Dot trusted me as a critical reader. Working on her work both in the past and now brings me enormous pleasure. I plunged into her work, all 35 years of it.

And the final selection? It was easy. Dot prized lucidity in poetry – and practised it superbly. I wanted lucid poems with punch and passion, and I wanted wisdom too. I wanted the collection to read with whoosh! I wanted people to experience the push and pull of love, the excitement and fear, the tremor and disappointment. I wanted readers to feel love.

I was faced with the problem of what to do about the verse novels. It just wouldn’t be right to have a volume of Dorothy Porter on love without the steamy affair between Diana and Jill in The Monkey’s Mask, the obsessive pull that Alex feels for Phoebe in Wild Surmise, and the charged eroticism in Akhenaten – between Akhenaten and Nefertiti and most particularly between Akhenaten and his brother Smenkhkare. Briefly I considered splitting up the verse novels and inserting individual poems into the appropriate sections of Love Poems, but this would have undermined the narratives (and by extension, the integrity) of the verse novels. So I have kept the selections from each verse novel separate, and have arranged them in such a way together with a brief introduction so that the poems can be read with a sense of the narrative.

And I have included many of the song lyrics written to Paul Grabovsky’s music and sung by Katie Noonan in their album ‘Before Time Can Change Us’. In fact, it was this album that gave me the idea for the structure of Love Poems.

Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?

The first poems of Dot’s I heard her read were from Akhenaten. ‘Scarab’, which is included in the Love Poems, remains one of my favourite poems of all time. At least once a year Dot would include it in one of her public readings as a private gift to me.

With her death it has acquired additional significance.

‘Lucky’, a recent poem, is another favourite. Dot wrote it as a private poem to me. As soon as I read it I saw that it had legs – that it could withstand a public outing. And it has. Many people cite it as one of their favourites.

Why is poetry important?

Dot, like many poets, placed poetry at the top of the literary pile. But then she would. I’m a novelist, I don’t. But I am a novelist who has always read a lot of poetry. Poetry concentrates and distills human emotion, indeed all of human experience like no other written form. It is this quality above all that lends poetry its mysterious power. And central to this effect is the use of surprising, sharp, flamboyantly imaginative imagery. Consider these images of Dot’s: Your kisses like ‘smashed glass’, or the wonderful ‘Strawberries Sonnet’ – all imagery, all edgy love.

You’re all bones
You’re all quicksilver skin
Rough as a wild night
You’re not strawberries.
Your hands are ice
Your tongue cuts my face
Into conquered turf
You’re not strawberries.
You’re a determined wasp
Dying on my sting
You’re my murder and my delight
You’re not strawberries.

Your fingers play my windpipe
You’re not strawberries.

Many of us reach for poetry in extremis. We do so because a single poem can illuminate an aspect of human experience with a clarity and punch that is without equal.

Was Dorothy inspired/influenced by any particular authors when it came to writing about love and desire?

Oh yes. Catullus. Sappho. Shakespeare. Lorca. Cavafy. Neruda. She returned to these poets over and over again. Dot read a huge amount of poetry. Her best poetry-reading time was in the morning while her mind was fresh. In 2003 she started learning Spanish in order to read her favourite Spanish poets in the original. And there she would be in the morning, propped up in bed, with a couple of dictionaries and a half-dozen volumes of poetry scattered across the quilt.

Do you see Dorothy’s love poems as part of a bigger tradition of love poetry?

Yes, I do. Her work is romantic without being sentimental; it’s lyrical, insightful and emotionally resonant. And it is sharply contemporary in its honesty, its imagery, its unwavering grasp of the jugular. Most of all it illuminates love, which is, after all, the most powerful of human experiences.

Love Poems is available in all good bookstores.

1 comment:

  1. EAV Pro Audio stock a wide range of Digital Mixers, Dynamic Microphones, Mixing desk, Power Amplifiers, audio interfaces, Wireless microphones and wired microphones along with a massive range of home and professional recording equipment.