An interview with Camille Ralphs

Co-director of Hurst Street Press, Shoshana Kessler, recently interviewed poet Camille Ralphs about her poetry publication Malkin (Emma Press, 2015) for The London Magazine. They discussed language play, authorial presence and rebellious spelling…

SK: I recently read Leo Mercer’s essay on free spelling (‘Free Spelling and the Textual Vernacular: On Poetry After The Internet’, The Missing Slate 2014). Do you think that the ‘visual’ aspects of poetry on the page are more important now than for past poets?

CR: Yes. I think new technology has that effect, a creative shift in terms of how we view words on a page.

Yes, I suppose technology and language have always intertwined. Every new era of technology brings with it a corresponding new understanding of words.

Sure, sure. Or just a development of the way they’ve been understood previously. If you think about Mallarme’s shape poems, and other poets in the Oulipo gang of poetry, there are even new developments stemming from that now because of computers. There’s a poet called David Daniels, who wrote a poem sequence (The Gates of Paradise, 2002) all in an early Windows version of Microsoft Word, using very specific tools – his are bizarre concrete poems, with colours and typography that would only be achievable now.

But one of the problems of the internet as a publishing avenue is that it’s completely indiscriminate. And another, I think, is that we read differently from computers. We process information faster on a computer screen because the way the internet encourages us to meet with information is very two-dimensional. It requires you yourself to have a high-processing speed which poetry defies. Poetry asks for the opposite. So, to some extent, the digital age is at odds with the aims of poetry.

New shifts in poetry (and literature) generally have a political undertone. I would say Malkin [Ralphs’s pamphlet, published November 2015] is political. Witch trials are inherently political – scapegoating is an enduring theme. Was there a particular reason you chose to re-envisage the Pendle Witch trials?

Yes. I lived in Lancashire for three years. So I was well acquainted with the Pendle Witches as a presence there. A year or two later it became interesting to me. In part because, as you said, scapegoating remains modern, no matter where you are or who the particular scapegoat is at the time. And I felt drawn to them because I felt that they hadn’t quite been done justice in literature before. They have been ‘covered’, but somehow it didn’t seem angry enough. When Miller wrote The Crucible (1953), that was angry. But I felt there was nothing said about the Pendle Witches in the UK that was comparable. If you’re going to ventriloquize people whose suffering was so immense, and who symbolize so many others in history who have suffered, it’s not a matter of using but a matter of representing. In a way that allows access. I don’t know if I can claim to allow understanding. But some level of access to the things that we have put other people through, that we continue to put them through.

From an initial reading – without hearing it performed, or reading it aloud – there’s the potential to get lost in the free spelling. Are you ever worried that you could lose something of the potency of your lines? How can you know where to draw the line, or when it goes too far?

It’s meant to go too far, that’s the point. In this case, in poems where unorthodoxy is a deliberate goal, obfuscation – as well as the ability to shock the reader, to make them question what they’re reading – is absolutely paramount.

And sometimes standard spelling has a very strong effect when placed in against the non-standard. Jennet Device probably has the most orthodox spelling in the pamphlet, for the reason that she sought to distance herself from her family. Sometimes it’s the words that are spelled correctly that have the greatest emotional resonance, just because of their placement.

For each case of free spelling that works very well, there’s also one that doesn’t work as well, simply for the purpose of making a mess. Of saying “No, I’m not going to spell that in the way that is expected.”

So, if you are the ‘poet’, your ‘rebellion’ against the order is your particular authorial goal. And yet you’re also trying to project and present a variety of different voices. So is there a tension between your authorial presence throughout the text, and the representation of a multitude?

If we look at spelling and use of language as a metaphor for the orthodox situation, then the unorthodox spelling, the use of free spelling, is a subversion of that, akin to a subversion of social norms. If you consider the fact that language has a history, etymologically at least as rich as our own history, then it can be seen as a metaphor for society.

Avant-garde poetry very rarely has an obvious theme, and when it does, it seems to obsess itself with the miniscule. Contained experiments. Oulipo, again. Christian Bok’s attempt to preserve a poem within an unkillable bacterium (The Xenotext: Book 1 2015). Maybe that’s in some way religious, sociological. But it’s not a political comment. What I wanted to do was different. The reason that Morse code is present in the poems. That blimps are present. That there’s a black box. Connections. At the end of the first reading I did in Oxford, a man came up to me and said “But did they have clocks in the 17th century in rural Lancashire?”. And I said “No! They didn’t have blimps either!”.

Fact dictates.

But I don’t know why people expect it from poetry, because it’s never been a thing. We’ve never been concerned with absolute fact, we’re concerned with expression. Or with the expression of a different kind of fact. One that doesn’t rely on objects being in the right place at the right time.


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