The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, conducts an interview with our ‘Poet of the Month’ for January, Rachael Allen.
Rachael Allen is a writer based in England. Her first pamphlet of poems was published by Faber & Faber. Rachael is the poetry editor for Granta magazine, and she coedits the poetry anthology series Clinic and the online journal tender. Her first collection is Kingdomland (2019, Faber & Faber).
Natalya: Tell me about creating and writing Kingdomland. How has the process felt for you?
Rachael: The process has felt long and short at the same time. The earliest poem in the book was written eight years ago, yet the majority of the poems in the book were written in the last three years, and the book’s assembly was all in the last six months or so before I handed in my final version of the manuscript. This makes sense when I think about the way I work, which is both last minute (in a practical sense, I often hand things in late), but I’ll find I have been thinking and writing about things for months before I complete them. I get bored easily, but I don’t like things to feel rushed, which is a bit of a contradiction in me. It usually means I use words incorrectly or the things I produce are riddled with typos, or they would be without the help of wonderful editors. This isn’t actually providing much of an insight into writing the book I realise, which was sporadic, mainly at my desk in the night, and hard to articulate. There was a point when the group of poems I had tipped into the feeling that I was writing a whole book, that was an enjoyable moment, but it took a long while to get to that point, which was the right thing, otherwise I think the poems might have felt a little stifled by the idea of a ‘project’.
Natalya: In your book, I feel a lot of connection between you and animals, food, fear, and yet also strength, kindness, quietness, and resolve. How do all these things coexist in your poems?
Rachael: Thank you. I think about all these things quite a lot, so I’m glad you have picked up on them in the poems. One of my favourite poets is Elizabeth Bishop, and when I read her the thing I take most is her exploration of uncertainty and the depths of ambivalence she plumbs. Her poetry is never certain or sure of anything, she’ll say something and then pull back or change her mind. Again, this is not answering your question very well! But I’d like to think the things you’ve mentioned coexist in a state of worried ambivalence.
Natalya: Yes, your poems, and your expressions, are somehow a beautiful precariousness. About a year or so ago, I found and was compelled to send you a talk show segment from 1990 (The Phil Donahue Show), featuring River Phoenix and Lisa Bonet. It was centering around vegetarianism, veganism, and climate change. The response from the audience was ignorant, rude, and full of thinly veiled rage. Do you think we have come very far as humans in our understanding of and/or our action amidst global warming and environmental disaster?
Rachael: I could talk about that clip for a long time, and re-watching it again for the purpose of answering this question, I was sad to be reminded of the same trite dynamic of the idealistic, young, hopeful (and in this case, a woman of colour), being attacked and undermined by an older white male establishment figure, something that is still so prevalent. It’s depressing how little has changed. I wish I could be less surprised about certain things, like when Lisa Bonet is questioned on how she manages to sustain her child on a vegan diet because of a lack of protein etc. In Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, she talks about the inherent racism and othering that exists in a comment like this, when entire sub continents, cultures and religions have been vegan for thousands of years, and points to what is underlying when we question a persons’ choice to be vegan in this way, that they are lacking – that somehow they will be physically or intellectually inferior to those who choose to eat meat. I don’t know if I could comment on people’s changing understandings of ecological collapse and disaster, because both ecologies and our understanding of them are changing constantly and rapidly. I think the largest and most accepted problem with environmental movements is that, like feminism, much has become co-opted within a consumerist framework. Ecologically sound ‘stuff’ can now be easily bought alongside un-ecologically sound stuff, usually from the same store. It’s moving away from a way of thinking or living and towards a way of buying, which is antithetical to how I believe we need to think about ecological spaces and what they require. I could talk about this a lot, but I’ll end on a lighter note, the video features three of my all-time people, including Raúl Juliá! An amazing man, who was Gomez in the Addams family films.
Natalya: Yes, I remember obsessively re-watching Raúl Juliá in Romero on the big movie channel in Toronto when that kind of movie channel was exciting to have. And, so in love was I with Lisa Bonet when I was a little girl, that I named my first puppy dog Zoë when I knew she had named her daughter Zoë. As for River… the term ‘first love’ feels inadequate and clichéd… my first crush ever. They were all ahead of their time, as exhibited in their eloquence on Donahue’s show. You’ve previously written about hypochondria in your poems, which, for me, has been hugely comforting. I suffer from crippling anxiety around food and illness, and I wondered how you cope with your own terrors. I’m thinking here about how many people see hypochondria, emetophobia, and the anxiety disorders related to these, as funny. Of course, they can be hilarious when we write about them, but can you tell me a bit about how they can also strike you down?
Rachael: One of my favourite poets, Sylvia Legris, writes incredibly about health, the body, and illness. The hypochondriac obsession with trying to figure out, not even what is going wrong with our bodies, but what is just going on in there, is written into the very fabric of her poems. She wrote this book called The Hideous Hidden, and it’s so corporeal, so material, it’s like watching someone perform a dissection or something. I have to include a bit!
Twinned. The Geminiic, the water-chambered. Kidney-symmetrical, gutted and lung’d. The piscatorian lymphatic.
When I read her poems I feel a kind of solace, not because they necessarily provide anything like an emotional or universal checkpoint for anxiety, which they definitely don’t, but because they dig around so excessively into what’s going on inside of us. In an interview she said that she freaks herself out ‘imagining what might be going on inside my own body. Blood streams afloat with islets of fat, bone islands, the recurring skirmish of muscle and bone in my shin-splints’. I think hypochondriacs are people who have a desire to understand and control things, like what’s happening in the body, and at times this can become obsessive. Sylvia’s poetry, (along with other things), in its kind of relentless anatomizing, sort of helped me in a way realise that my body is just my body, a material thing that’s pretty much failing all the time. And whatever is going on inside me is going to be as alien to me as outer space, and that’s just something I have to accept. Also, I just stopped googling things, which is really the plainest but best advice for someone with health anxiety.
Natalya: As someone who recently googled, ‘tingle vibration tendon butt crack death’, I feel and hear those words of advice, Rachael. It sounds, also, like Sylvia’s poems are asking herself, and possibly her readers, to listen to her/their bodies in a different manner, rather than cataloguing their very anatomic existence as an attempt to be certain of one’s physical reality or presence. Not easy to do! In your work with Granta, Clinic and tender, who are some lesser known poets you’ve discovered and would like our readers to look out for?
Rachael: Unsure if these poets would count as lesser known, and certainly not discovered by me! But if I could recommend some work, I am currently obsessed with Miyo Vestrini, a poet introduced to me by her translator Cassandra Gillig. There is a selection of her poems coming out in March with Kenning Editions (US) called Grenade in Mouth, translated by Cassandra Gillig and Anne Boyer from the Spanish. The poems are so full of rage and strangeness, they are essential. I am also very excited for two publications coming out from the Poetry Translation Centre soon, The Hammer by Adelaide Ivánova, translated by Rachel Long and Francisco Vilhena, and also a book by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, translated by Abigail Parry and Serafina Vick.