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In Conversation with Lorna Thorpe

Posted by Arc, 12th September 2012

In the run up to our Arc Ventures autumn tour I spoke with one of Arc's most popular UK-based readers, Lorna Thorpe, to get a feel of what she enjoys about performance and what else she's up to these days.

Given the raw subject matter of Sweet Torture of Breathing, I'm interested in your experience of how people respond to it?

It's probably fair to say most people haven't had a near-death experience but even so I often get people telling me something in my poetry strikes a chord with their own experience. That's great because it suggests that while I was writing about something quite specific - and rare - I've managed to bring something universal to the table.

Mostly, though, people talk about the tone and voice of the poems rather than the content, referring to their energy, humour and directness, for instance. Obviously that's good to hear because it means people are responding to my telling of the experience, rather than relating to the fact that I had a cardiac arrest. It also steers things away from the 'how awful, what a shock' end of things, which I never know how to respond to.

The poems aren't just about that, of course - there are also poems about sex, love, therapy and quite a lot about drinking as it turns out. So, you know, the usual things.

How did you respond to seeing the experience of your heart attack written within the book?

To be honest, by the time the book comes out the poems have gone through so much revising and proofing I'm fairly remote from the events they're describing. To a certain extent that distancing happens during the original crafting of a poem. Brendan Cleary once told me the important thing was the integrity of the poem, not the integrity of the experience and I agree with him.

Also, the book came out six years after the heart attack so I had the distance of time, too. I'd written a few poems about the experience itself in my previous book, A Ghost in my House, but the more recent collection looks at it in the wider context of what was happening in my life in the years leading up to the heart attack, and the year or so after it. In fact, I didn't actually realise I was writing about it until I had an inkling that the poems I'd been working on were coalescing into a potential collection. As soon as I began putting them together I realised they fell into two distinct camps, both in terms of content and tone - before and after the heart attack. That realisation led to another - that the series of poems I'd started writing about famous people who'd died before their time, and which I'd been thinking of as a possible pamphlet, would make a perfect bridge between the two sections.

Who were you reading when you wrote it?

Poetry-wise I was reading mostly American poets - Frank O'Hara, Lynda Hull, Matthew Dickman, among others. I had a couple of excellent tutorials with Linda France who noticed the American influence on my work and encouraged me to feed myself by studying the work of poets I admire. I think the idea of feeding yourself is crucial - and quite different from thinking in terms of influence or inspiration. Aside from poetry I was reading a lot of James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist, and American novelists - Richard Yates, James Salter, Paula Fox. I wouldn't for a minute say you can see any of these writers reflected in my poems but I do think everything you're exposed to filters through to the work in some way, whether that's poetry, fiction, cinema or music.

You're a very good reader of your work. How do you find reading the poems of this experience now?

I'm afraid I'm going to come across as a rather detached person if I say that I'm fine reading the poems. On the one hand it's the question of distance again, on the other I plan my readings pretty carefully as a performance so I'm thinking about narrative arc, if there is one, pace and getting a good balance of light and dark poems. In my experience, approaching a reading that way tends to move me away from being overly connected to any feelings I still have about what happened. Anyway, I'm much happier reading poems about the experience than I am talking about it.

Which are your favourite poems to read out? And for what reasons?

I do like to feel an audience reacting to poems and I particularly love hearing people laugh. For that reason I enjoy reading 'Please may I not have a man' and 'Why do you drink so much?' I also love reading 'Crime of the Century', the poem about the Rosenbergs, because it elicits the kind of hush you only get when people are really paying attention. There are also some poems I like to read because their rhythm lends itself to being read out. In the new collection I'm thinking of 'Forgive Yourself', which is a kind of breathless satire, and in the last collection, 'Top Rank Suite, 1971'.

What is the relationship between your prose writing and your poetry? How do they feed each other, if at all?

I tend to see them as somewhat antagonistic, jealous siblings - whenever an idea presents itself, each of them wants to grab hold of it and not let the other get a look in. There's a certain amount of what you might call poetic licence in that analogy, of course, because ideas tend to arrive with their form already packed and ready to go. But it gives a flavour of the conflict I have as a writer of both poetry and prose, and the sense I often have of acting as an adjudicator between the two.

Do they feed each other? I really had to think about this because the word 'feed' implies a positive relationship, one of nourishment, which doesn't exactly fit with the conflicted relationship I've just described. Then I had an image of them each feeding off one another, which is an entirely different, bloodsucking kind of arrangement. It's probably more accurate to say they feed into each other, in that a lot of my poems have a narrative element to them and the prose I'm writing is getting shorter and more concise.

Has the move to the West Country affected what you write at all? In what way?

I do think geography affects what you write but not always in the ways you expect it to. In his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes, "Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan." Also, in my experience it can take years before you really know, in a deep sense, what it is you've been writing about. It took the writing of my second collection, for instance, to realise that the chief ghost haunting my first book was entirely different to the one I thought I was writing about.

One thing I have noticed - although I hardly dare say it - is that since moving to the country references to the natural world have started creeping into my poems. But don't worry, I don't for a minute intend to become a 'nature poet'.

What are you working on now? And what are your ambitions for your poetry, both now and in the future?

As far as poetry goes I'm at bit of a crossroads. I'm pretty certain I'm not the only poet struggling with the tension between the urge to create and the need to promote. Obviously I want to get my work out there, I want readers. But sadly, I think promotion can get in the way of creation - on the one hand I have a real desire not to repeat myself, to break out and do something entirely unexpected; on the other hand, I have this voice nagging at me to build on what I've done so far, to stick with the formula that works. My hope is that something new might emerge in the tension between the two opposing forces. My fear is that it will be a compromise.

Meanwhile, I'm working on some prose. But I'm always horribly secretive about whatever I'm working on and I imagine it will be a good few months before I let anyone know what it is. It's a superstitious thing.

Lorna is reading at the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival on Thu 11th October, 8.00pm. Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick, Eire.