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Speaking to a Whole Bunch of Me

Posted by Sarah, 25th July 2012

With reminders for the Aldeburgh first collection prize abound, I spoke with Astrid Alben recently about her first collection Ai! Ai! Pianissimo, how she constructed it and what she felt towards it now...

SH: What do you think was the genesis of Ai! Ai! Pianissimo? Can you describe the journey it took to reach its published form?

Originally Ai! Ai! was intended as two separate volumes, each slim enough to fold in half and fit easily into a coat pocket. I asked a graphic designer I know to look into types of paper and bindings that would best withstand a coat-pocket-existence. Tea, which follows the course of a love affair to its end, allowed me to play with conventions of lyric poetry.

With the second book, I was more particularly concerned with applying formal control to the weird material of the everyday - poems about immediacy, the times we live in, and about feelings of not-belonging. I was going to call it My Name is Legion, or These Days. I was still in the process of deciding when, because of the financial cuts it was suggested I combine the best material of each manuscript to form one collection.

It took me a while to get used to the idea of the poems in these two different manuscripts coming together as a single book. I was concerned that the narrative integrity of the love poems could be lost, and that they might clash, in tone and subject matter, with the poems that make up These Days. But who can argue with an economic crisis? I had to let go of it, and anyway, I thought, that tension, that difference, between the two sets of poems could be something very dynamic.

SH: What was your intention for it? How much do you think this has been fulfilled?

It's an open-ended exploration of how to express the exact form of a poem without losing the different effects of a single line.

SH: Which poem do you think is the lynchpin of the collection, for what reasons?

Many of the things I find pleasing in a poem seemed to fall into place in 'Last of the Snow': the short sentences, the subject matter, the jazzy rhythm, the movements through scale and time.

SH: How would you like the book to be received by readers?

I was having dinner with Inti Hernandez, a Cuban artist friend of mine, and I spilled a big spoonful of greasy spaghetti Bolognese on the table. Embarrassed, I apologized for Pollocking his table to which he casually replied, "that's alright, the food belongs to the table." The published poems no longer belong to me - and the reader never has.

SH: Which are your favourite poems to read live and why?

'Schöngeist'. The first time I read it someone afterwards said, "I think that poem spoke to a whole bunch of me." A fantastically flattering line and one I will most definitely steal.

SH: The poems juggle a dazzling array of images, where do they come from?

Newspaper clippings, snippets of drifting conversations, facial expressions, a documentary on TV, a wandering mind, wandering legs, pure unadulterated theft, and if all else fails, my imagination.

SH: Your language is wonderfully agile, extremely elastic; can you explain what language means to you?

Plotlines, characters or even titles don't particularly interest me. Ask me what a poem or film was about and I will probably draw some shape through the air watching it revolve as I go through the alphabet trying to remember the first letter of the second word of the title. Reading a truly successful poem, and the same is true of any piece of art - the experience is like being sucked to the edge of a little abyss. Surrendering to that slight panic of comprehension that doesn't necessarily correlate to an understanding of what it is about. Maintaining and withholding tension between the images and the words is what interests me.