TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 5: LESLEY SAUNDERS
Lesley Saunders has been writing poetry for more years than she cares to remember. It was, almost inevitably, a teacher at her all-girls’ school in the 1960s who introduced her to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden as part of the A-level English syllabus. It was only then that Lesley realised that perhaps poetry had more to give, intellectually and emotionally, to an inquisitive but naïve young mind than she had imagined. She read Classics at university, but the magic of that modernist, engagé poetry strongly influenced her study of Homer, Sappho, Virgil and the rest.
Half a century on, and Lesley is the author of several books of poetry; her most recent collection, Nominy-Dominy, is a praise-song for the Greek and Latin literature she encountered in those early days; it was described in The Interpreter’s House as ‘an inventive and hugely convincing paean to an abiding relationship with the classics’. She has won various awards, including the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition and the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. Her most recent books aside from Nominy-Dominy are Point of Honour, a book of her translations of acclaimed Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta; and A Part of the Main, a dialogue-in-poetry with Philip Gross in response to the social and political upheavals of 2016.
Having retired from her career as an educational researcher a decade ago, Lesley now leads creative writing workshops – with a regular annual session at Reading Museum and Art Gallery to coincide with the spring exhibition – and undertakes reviewing, editing and mentoring work as well as occasional residencies and commissions.
Lesley Saunders writes:
One of the most reliable stimuli to my work is collaboration, in all its different forms. I’ve worked with painters, sculptors, musicians, composers and dancers, as well as other poets. My first collaborative poetry project was with Jane Draycott; the result was Christina the Astonishing, published by Two Rivers Press, which had recently been set up by Peter Hay. The book has his powerful, beautiful prints interleaved throughout.
I think it’s the combination of trust and resistance that makes working with someone else so beneficial to one’s own vision and craft – by which I mean that one has to feel a basic trust in the other person’s integrity as well as in her/his gift in order to play the game at all; and then the necessary resistance comes from having to engage deeply with that other person’s very different life-world, allowing oneself to be changed whilst not being swept completely away.
I am constantly finding huge pleasure, as well as challenge, in the process. When Philip Gross and I began our dialogue-in-poetry, it was out of my urgently felt need to ‘reconcile myself to others, the present to the past and future…’ in the wake of the Referendum and all its unlooked-for social consequences. We wrote about a stanza a day, back and forth, to each other, responding in the moment to whatever came up, for about three months. At one point I wrote in an aside to Philip: ‘I meant to pay you a compliment, about the knight’s-moves: each new section of the sequence is a bit like a mini-commission – “can you do this? and now this?”.’
We stopped when it felt right to both of us to conclude. And we decided not to go back and edit anything, apart from typos. This was because what happens in collaboration is not the work of two individuals nor even of both individuals, but is somehow a third thing, a creature that has grown in the space-between, impossible to have imagined beforehand. One has to respect its independent reality, and not tinker with it post hoc.
In my life these days, there are three visual artists with whom I am fortunate to have a close relationship – not so much friendship (though that may come into it) but a mutual commitment to an exploration of word and image which manages to be both serious and playful. One of the three, Philippa Dow, is making beautiful calligraphies of many of the poems in Nominy-Dominy; we are promised an exhibition at the National Poetry Society in London in the future ‘when all this is over’. You can see some of her other work here.
I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Rebecca Swainston, an artist who lives in Tilehurst, very recently, at the art exhibition hosted by Reading Museum in the spring term of 2020 – my visit was to be the last outing I had before the restrictions on movement were announced. I was immediately captivated by the haunted, haunting atmosphere of the two paintings on show there, and wrote ‘Symptoms’, published below, in response to one of them the next day. We have just begun writing to each other and sharing work-in-progress. Her work can be viewed here.
And so it goes – serendipity has become a better friend to me, in writing as in life, than waiting around for inspiration.
I’ve been experimenting with prose-poems over the last couple of years, and there are several in Nominy-Dominy. I’ve chosen this one, because so much of what we used to read in our Latin classes was about military conquest, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and all that – from which we learnt the word ‘comminus’, meaning ‘hand to hand [fighting]’; though as a girl I could hardly know what that entailed. The poem picks up the word in a sort of riff on the soldiers’ cult of Mithras and its initiation ceremony:
Hand to hand. Like a man. The grip and creak of knuckles; knowing the precise moment to hold, let go. A blindfolded naked man, a man kneeling with his hands bound behind him, a man crowned, a man restrained from rising, a man lying on the ground as if dead. In our barracks and bivouacs we share the soldiers’ meal, blood and oaths, in Rome as in Dalmatia, in Britain as on the shores of the Black Sea. Foot-sloggers, slingers, sappers, scouts, camel-troopers, tiros and veterans, in the stations of the night and scarred by old wounds we do not speak of what we have seen. If something has happened, it has happened between us. Nama. Shake on it.
after ‘Green Collar, Rabbit and Cat’ – Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel
Humans are most creaturely when they’re sick,
lying in their own muck and matted hair,
hypersensitive to smells and sudden sounds,
shying from the light. A wild thing comes crawling
out of hiding then, a self of bones and viscera,
twitching muscle, peristalsis, pulsings, pain –
sleep’s impossible for an animal that’s hunted
and held deep in the lair of its own flesh.
The breeze carries bad news, like the scent
of corpses of its own kin and kind. Often
the disease is mild; often it kills.
A girl stills the coney’s rigid quivering spine,
laying her arm along its fur, staying its escape.
The green jewels around her neck shiver
with the fever, and her fawn eyes come undone.