Sarah Perkins
A Lot of Uneasily Placed Exacting Words Floating in Alien Space: A Conversation with Geraldine Monk on They Who Saw the Deep

The day after I finished They Who Saw the Deep, I went to help muck houses in South Carolina three weeks after Hurricane Matthew. The river had flooded. The homes were filled with water and mold; we piled everything in them on the side of the road for trash collection. A people sustained and destroyed by the water they built their lives against. The poetry seemed a fitting benediction:

Shattered the churn shattered the cup.
Shattered the junk shattered the ocean-going.
In the first water in the very first water.

I emailed Geraldine the Monday following. It was four months between that first contact and the end of the interview.

SP: It's a pleasure to talk with you about your collection. I found this work absolutely gripping. The scope alone is something to gawk at, to say nothing of your gorgeous, water-worn descriptions. I was stunned by the ruggedness and isolation of your first section especially:

Northerly or northeasterly.
Becoming variable then becoming
southerly or southeasterly. Wintry showers.

From all nautical directions lives held by a
thread of tarred wool. Matted animal hair.
Lashed planks. Bundle rafts.

Here, as in the bulk of the collection, you focus in on the sea and sea travel, but also on the darker, more dangerous potentials of the sea present in any sea voyage. The ability of the sea to isolate and even destroy seems particularly relevant in light of the contexts from which your collection emerged.

Your author’s note at the beginning of the collection indicates that the work was inspired by your trip to the Libyan Sea, and the realization there that the sea was increasingly functioning as a grave for many refugees attempting to traverse it. How has that first inspiration (the place and/or the realization) shaped this collection?

GM: In retrospect it was more a consolidation than an ‘inspiration’. For most of my writing life I have been trying to write a series about the sea and the nature of water. In my late teens/early twenties I began to have recurring dreams of tidal waves (tsunamis) in which I either woke up in a panic as a wall of water swept over me, or, it would sweep over me and leaving me unharmed but dreadfully alone in a massive expanse of water not knowing what to do next --and next I would wake up with the feeling of desolation still tangible. The dreams became so persistent I thought the only way to stop them was to go and live next to the coast. So I did. I moved just outside the fishing village of Staithes in North Yorkshire and it was there I began writing poetry in earnest. But despite several attempts at a substantial series on the sea I never got further than an occasional reference or several poem. The time had not yet come.

But in 2014 it all came together and that trip on the Libyan Sea was pivotal in making it happen. The day began with a scintillating light show of breathtaking loveliness but the mood of elation was suddenly crushed by the appearance of a military patrol boat on the horizon. The other reality of a deeply troubled world now inhabited that loveliness. The profound contrast of the sea as life-giver and the sea as life-taker makes our relationship with the sea deeply ambivalent and it was the realisation of that ambivalence which was crucial to the whole sequence. I wanted to try and understand water. It is after all a very weird substance.

SP: Since you have been planning on writing on the sea for a long time, I'm curious if you had any misgivings as you started out on this work, especially given the popularity of the sea as a literary trope. So much has been written on the sea and sea travel (as evidenced by the many sources you appeal to). Were you nervous at all in deciding to write on such a prominent subject?

GM: Not at all. Quite the reverse. I had finally got the angle I wanted on the sea so I was in my element so to speak! The eponymous poem developed multiple layers of reference which were topical, literary, historical, mythical, meteorological and personal. For me writing doesn’t get more rewarding than that. It’s the way I work and I love the research and the uncovering of hidden or cryptic narratives particularly when it results in being spooked by an avalanche of coincidences thrown up in the mix of verbal ectoplasm.

I do understand, though, where you are coming from about the popularity of the sea as a literary trope, but I think its very popularity makes it more challenging. If we ever get to the point when we think everything has been written about the sea (or nature in general) we will have stopped seeing the infinite possibilities of our unique consciousness with its complex language and its relevance to ourselves and our times.

SP: I would like to talk more about your layers of reference, but before we move on from the contexts from which the collection emerged I did want to discuss your relationship to “our times.”

You have mentioned before that you do not believe the poet has a role in the larger culture beyond that of the earthworm, churning language. Yet your author’s note seems to connect this piece to a political and cultural moment with the refugee crisis and the execution of Khaled as-Asaad. And you do seem to connect with the current culture and politics in other poems as well. For example, in ‘The Snake Goddess of Crete,’ the speaker explicitly addresses our time, and seems to search for better authority figures:

I don’t much care for the 21st century.

The uproar of many peoples who roar
roaring seas rumbling of nations
rushing on rumble of waters roaring mighty
uproar of many peoples who roar seas
rumbling of nations grumbling mighty
roar of seas of nations of up roaring.
I need to touch your transfixed snakes.
Stroke the sejant cat perched on your crown
and suck your startling tits as of a babe
wash away this here-now world to find a
kinder crew. To sail our tabernacle divine
with fearless balance at your fingertips.

What influence has our current cultural moment had upon this collection?

GM: I’m not sure where I said that about the poet not having an influential cultural role but I think we might flatter ourselves if we thought otherwise. I would like it to be the case but I don’t think it is. Poetry lacks the immediacy demanded from our media driven global village. It would be unthinkable for a poem to have the same impact as the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3 year old Syrian boy washed up on a shore in Turkey, his tiny body being cradled in the arms of a soldier. That photograph mobilised people around the world into doing something about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

Poetry cannot do that. But I’m certainly not saying that poets don’t engage with the issues of their day, far from it. Almost all the poets I know are politically erudite and engaged, they are also socially aware and concerned and this is often reflected in their poetry. So to answer your question the influence of the current cultural moment on this collection is massive. From climate change to the plight of migrants fleeing war, persecution or poverty, from the ever growing threat of global war to the unspeakable atrocities of the death cult of Islamic State militants. The whole ghastly panoply is there.

SP: Do you think there would be a way for poetry to become more immediate or more immediately consumable in order to gain more influence?

GM: Ironically and with sadness I’m answering this question on the day Leonard Cohen died. Cohen was a poet before he was a singer and I watched the footage of him saying he became a singer because he needed to earn a living and poetry alone wasn’t going to provide that. That just about sums it up. Bob Dylan also sums it up. Rap poetry also answers the question. For poetry to be really popular it needs to have music attached!

Away from the benign magic of music we have to accept that poetry is what it is: a lot of uneasily placed exacting taxing words floating in alien space. Of all the art forms it is has the least commercial potential even though millions of people write the stuff only a fraction of them actually read it. It’s unfortunate that the art form I’m most drawn to and am most proficient in is the least popular but I’m sound about that (no pun intended). I don’t write poetry for money, there isn’t any, or kudos,there isn’t any. I do it because it makes sense of the reality I live by which is bewildering, confused, fragmented, wonderful and scary as it lies in wait layered with meaning and unmeaning. If poetry isn’t popular or influential I can cope with that. All poets cope with that.

SP: I'm interested in the “benign magic of music” in your poetry. There seems to be a lot of music in this collection, even just in the form: you title and structure some of your poems after musical forms (sea shanties, duets, elegies, etc.). Were you pursuing a kind of spoken word music? How has music influenced poetry, current or past?

GM: Music, or the sonic aspect of language, is always operating at some level in my poetry. Sometimes it is overt and integral and lends itself easily to be perform with musicians, mainly the brilliant musician Martin Archer and the superb singer Julie Tippetts. My poem sequences like ‘Songings’ and ‘Fluvium’ from my book Noctivagations, West House Books, 2001, were works I adapted to be performed in collaboration with Martin Archer. We produced two albums Angel High Wires and the Fluvium.

In my early days I did a lot of performances with the British sound/concrete poet Bob Cobbing and although I never fully went down the sound poetry road I certainly integrated elements of it into my poetry. So the close relationship between music and poetry has always been present in my writing but I try to play down the importance of it because I feel it is often given undue focus to the detriment of the political, social and historical aspects of my work.

SP: I’m glad you pointed to the language of your poetry. Your language throughout this work is quite sonorous. I love the sounds of this section from ‘Three Versions of Three Ships’:

No Wonder we loved ghosts hiding
out in the hinterland or
stumbling along these biting shores
spooning fossils from their salt-steep
marinated longer
than our minds could stretch the
deep-North Sea-horizons
orisons --

How does music influence the creation of your poetry even when you are not intentionally adapting it to musical forms? Do you have any kind of process in creating the unique musicality of your work and language?

GM: I always read a poem out loud to see how it is working rhythmically. Apart from that I don’t think my process is as much intentional as it is innate. I’m just naturally drawn to poetry that embraces sound, rhythm and repetition which seems to generate multiple meanings or tantalizing undercurrents as the words and the sound of the words knot and fold around each other. It is poetry as incantation or litany. It may be worth mentioning that some of the earliest poetic encounters that had most impact on me were the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, the English poets Edith Sitwell and Algernon Swinburne and the American poet Gertrude Stein.

SP: Do you think your subject material influenced the musicality of this collection? Is there something about the sea that demands specific kinds of rhythms and sounds?

GM: No, I approached it the same as I would approach any other subject matter and I don’t really think emulating or evoking the sea through sound is possible in poetry except in the most crass and basic form of onomatopoeia which would be difficult to sustain over distance.

SP: I'd like to talk about your sources. Obviously this collection required extensive research. You pull in everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to British Maritime reports to your own family history. How did you go about your research for this project? Did you do all the research before you began writing?

GM: Oh no, I couldn’t do the research beforehand as I didn’t know what shape and direction the sequence was going to take. Research is an ongoing process which must follow the path the poem takes and the various strands which are interwoven into the text. After the central subject of migrations and sea travel had solidified, various strands were taken up and then more strands were generated until the whole thing becomes contagious with interconnections.

For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh which I happened to be reading at the time contains what is essentially an earlier version of the biblical flood including the sending out a various birds to scout for dry land. It was this that suggested the motif of the returning birds. But there was another reason the birds are there: the bulk of the sequence was written in December 2014 (which is why all the maritime weather reports are from that month) and the weather was exceptionally wild and wet, even by U.K. standards, with many floods occurring throughout the country; so I did further research into global weather systems (with the subtext of global warming) and integrated references to the sea from the bible. So the whole thing evolves in a riot of cross references which becomes so exciting and addictive as reality fuses with history and myth to create another reality.

SP: What made you decide to look into your own family history as a source?

GM: It is an extension of my interest in history but it is also a natural desire to want to know about one’s ancestors. They are the ones who make history real and in some curious way make us more real. We are the end result of all those aeons of human development which is quite daunting when you think about it. It has to be said though that I didn’t do the research on my family as that was done by my sister-in-law, Janet Monk, who has spent years of painstaking research into our families.

Much of it is of no interest to anyone except my immediate family but the story of my 3x great grandfather became extraordinary when he was dispossessed of his home and livelihood and embarked on a spectacular life of crime! But in the poetry sequence I concentrate on the fact that he lived near the banks of the River Lune the very river that flows into the seaside town of Morecambe Bay. The picture on the cover of my book is of the sands at Morecambe Bay. So The Bay Area section of the book is not only personal but also converges with the main subject of the book viz., water, rivers and seas. One detail which fascinated me was that my ancestors, on their death, were placed in boats and rowed across the River Lune to their final resting place, with echoes of Charon rowing people across the River Styx. That whole area is so full of ancestral ghosts, so full of my DNA it only really scratches the surface of how powerful a draw it has on me.

SP: You mentioned your sister-in-law helped to provide some of the research that you ultimately used in collection. Do any of your other friends or family members generally help in your writing process, (i.e. research, brainstorm, compose, critique, etc.)?

GM: My husband, the poet Alan Halsey is my main support. Whenever I’m working on something he will bring home all manner of books he’s found in second-hand shops or alert me to any articles that may be of interest. And I do the same for him. Poet friends generally are happy to help each other out especially when it comes to research.

SP: I was particularly interested that though you make use of Mesopotamian myths, the Quran never made an appearance (at least, not one that you specifically noted). This was an interesting exclusion, particularly given impetus for the collection and the dedication to Khaled as-Asaad, as well as the incredible breadth and diversity of the texts you do use. How did you decide what texts to research, and ultimately, what texts to include?

GM: It’s curious that you think I excluded the Quran. I didn’t exclude anything. I wasn’t writing a dissertation on religious or ancient texts I was following my nose in a poetic exploration predominantly concerned with water. As I pointed out earlier The Epic of Gilgamesh has a whole section on a deluge and the similarities to the biblical deluge or flood myth identify it as the evident precursor to the biblical version. Having been brought up as a Christian I didn’t need to do any research to make this connection and generally I just followed leads when they presented themselves because I’m a poet who uses history not a historian who uses poetry.

With regard to Khaled as-Asaad I had no interest in his religious leanings. My interest in him was solely as an archaeologist who had dedicated his life to the ancient city of Palmyra and who was so brutally and ignobly murder at the age of 81. I had spent the last two years totally immersed in archaeological studies of that region; indeed I have spent the last decade poking around ancient sites throughout Europe and Turkey, so the impact of his death on me was profound. Such a heinous act on such a learned old man still shocks me to the core.

SP: You have mentioned before that you were raised Roman-Catholic, and that your early religious experience made you hyper-aware of ‘the other world.’ In this collection you do make use of the Bible in your ‘Coda’ poems, but many of your poems are markedly pagan, particularly those in ‘The Abandoned’ which features several spiritual figures from various mythologies. You've already mentioned the connections between the Bible and Gilgamesh. Are there other instances where you see paganism and Christianity coming together in your collection? Does the spirituality of your upbringing relate in some way to the pagan spirits you call up in your poetry?

GM: Without a doubt pagan and Christian icons continually meet up in my writing. This is especially true in ‘Deliquium - Four definitions between Crete and Canterbury’. I was not long back from a visit to Crete and preparing for a forthcoming reading at the University of Kent in Canterbury when a tatty scrap of paper fluttered into my lap with the word ‘deliquium’ on it. I had scribbled it down in Crete and thought it a lovely sounding word but I had no idea what it meant but I had forgotten about it. Its sudden appearance was obviously a sign! I looked up the definition and I was so delighted as each definition was revealed that I stopped preparing for my reading and wrote ‘Deliquium’ in virtually one sitting. It was one of those out-of-body experiences where the poem almost seems to write itself and it became inextricably tied in to both Crete and Canterbury with their diametrically opposed sacred cultures. The ancient Minoan culture of Crete with its predominance of goddess/priestess icons and overwhelming evidence of a matriarchal society against the patriarchal Christian monotheism of medieval England with the added ‘attraction’ of the gruesome murder and sainting of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

The juxtaposition was irresistible even though I don’t personally believe in any religion or belief system. I am an avid star gazer (living in the city is a bit of a problem but it have never quelled my enthusiasm for astronomy) and follower of scientific discovery (my lunar sea shanties which interweave the eponymous poem list most of the chemical composition of seawater). The more we know about the universe the more enigmatic it becomes. I don’t think science has all the answers but I cannot see any gods or goddesses out there either because they are products of the human imagination and when we worship them we are worshipping our own creations. I do believe in ghosts though!

SP: I definitely sensed ghosts in your poetry; several poems felt a bit like a conjuring, especially in how you seem to actually interact with the figures that emerge. I honestly actually shivered reading "Freya's Torque" when you describe encountering her after a hunt: "Our eyes locked. A heartbeat away," and then "Unsought goddess shining / in the dismal light. Tiny as a one pound coin." The image is absolutely mesmerizing. What was your intent in summoning up these various ghosts, goddesses, etc? What role do you see them performing?

GM: Oh they’re not performing any role, they are what they are within the poems and the poems are me (sic) and I’m not performing a role. I’m striving to excavate language and through that excavation a whole phantasmagoria of troubling objects, warped narratives and off-centre characters arise. For me poetry is a science. It is an unearthing of mind and place and time: it is an arena of discovery. And now I’d like to quote from something I wrote about my poetry many years ago because it seems very pertinent to your question: ‘I want the physicality of words to hook around the lurking ghosts and drag them from their petrified corners.’ Quite!

SP: Several poems begin with the names of specific places. What is the significance of place in this collection? Is it different in some way than the significance of place in some of your previous works (which seem more focused on places you have lived in or are more familiar with)?

GM: I wasn’t consciously aware of how often I use place names until you mentioned it. With regard to the eponymous poem the place names are an integral part of the sequence because place is the very essence of migration: the certainty of a known place being re-placed by the certainty of an unknown place. As it references many historical as well as topical events place names are vital otherwise the sequence would be diluted by generality and abstraction. And of course the naming of the lunar seas was irresistible.

Place names summon such strong identities and characters they become a shorthand for entire geographical areas from the vastness of continents to the smallest village. The most famous cities across the world are good examples how names denote a whole locality and its citizens.

One of the most utterly delightful chancing of place names happened to me on a visit to Istanbul when I spotted a ship named The Irish Sea sailing up the Bosphorus. Wow! The sea of my childhood was sailing up the sea of legends. Life and language doesn’t get better than that.

I’m not sure how much difference there is regarding place in this collection and previous ones but it is an enduring motif in my writing. I was thinking the other day how the house I was brought up in, the church I went to, the infant and senior school I went to and many of my childhood haunts no longer exist. They were all demolished. My geographic past has been all but eradicated. I can visit a place where someone lived five hundred or five thousand years ago but I cannot go back to where I spent my childhood. Is that significant? Is that why I suffer from homesickness I wonder.

SP: Homesickness is an interesting idea to pair with sea travel. It seems like you are maybe disrupting the idea of sea as place, but more specifically the idea of sea as home. You give several examples of people who have made a life on the sea (like the Vikings, for example), but then immediately juxtapose them against images of you working or cooking comfortably in your own home. Do you think it possible for someone to be at home at sea (and what would that mean if they could), or are you suggesting otherwise through your juxtaposition of the two?

GM: I’m amused that you find the refrain of me cooking Sunday lunch in my home is portrayed as an image of comfort. I thought the refrain was besieged by apocalyptic mayhem, bad weather and mad birds! Although to be fair the meal preparation does form the only refuge in the sequence. However to answer your question I’m not suggesting anything when I write even if the writing ends up seeming to be suggestive. I collect text through experience and/or research around a theme or idea or historic event and then I collate those layers of text and what happens happens. I don’t want my poetry to be tied down to one interpretation or suggestion; in fact I want it to be contradictory and paradoxical. I’m always uneasy and suspicious about arriving at any one destination of “truth.”

But I do believe the majority of us crave a life of relative calm and stability as a protection from a hostile and uncertain universe. And quite a few of us do live on the sea or making a living from the sea but for most of us the sea is an arena of transit rather than a dwelling place or refuge. As a species we might originate from the sea but we are also creatures of the land and that is where most of us want to make our homes. Our relationship with the sea is unavoidably ambivalent as it embodies so many opposites, so we long for it with feelings akin to homesickness even though it is not our home. So I return to the conceit that the sea is both giver and taker of life: a place to escape to, to escape from and to escape across.

SP: On the topic of the Vikings and your cooking, I wanted to talk about how here and elsewhere you pair ordinary scenes against these incredible vast and violent seascapes:

The faraway comes near. Sea salt.
Cracked pepper. Surface effort.
Organic granules pour delicious
paradox. Gravy boat. Best china.
Displaced Polar vortex we hear
kindled in fractious love. Snowy owl flying
through a hail of crystal balls. Steering
its monogaze with a hint of uncharacteristic panic.

Beyond being simply beautiful, I think this pairing makes both settings become strange and surprising, especially as the refrain echoing throughout the section indicates the chilling disappearance of the familiar. Do you have thoughts on the potential for poetry to surprise us or make familiar things unfamiliar (either in this collection or in general)?

GM: I think I prefer strange to surprising. Surprise is abrupt and short-lived but strangeness has a more subtle and enduring quality. But yes defamiliarization through unexpected collocations of words and images is central to my writing. I can’t see the point of poetry that is purely descriptive with no attempt to strive for new angles or alter states of perception. It’s also the sheer fun of seeing what happens through the element of chance and juxtaposition.

Paradoxically I think this defamiliarization technique is also a way into articulating those familiar states of feeling or gut responses or indefinable atmospheres which have not yet found a home in language. It can create a language event that evokes our unspoken angst and awe and makes it concrete. This might sound very grandiose but the results are far from gloomy or ponderous and can be unexpectedly humorous or endearing.

SP: What is your experience of being interviewed about your poetry? Do you enjoy reflecting back and writing on your own work, or is it stressful? Is it similar in any way to composing poetry?

GM: Being interviewed couldn’t be more different from writing poetry. Writing poetry is predominantly spontaneous or intuitive whereas interview answers are studied and considered. Because of this you have to be on constant guard not to overthink answers and impose attitudes or intentions that weren’t there at the time of writing. They also give the illusion that the answers are somehow definitive when in reality the answers are often much more fragile and fluid. However interviews do concentrate the mind wonderfully on the process of composition and they also introduce biographical details and anecdotes which can further inform and illuminate the poetry. Do I enjoy being interviewed? From what I have just said above I think the answer has to be yes and no. They are both enjoyable and stressful!

SP: Thank you so much for your time and for responding in spite of stress. It’s been a sincere pleasure talking with you about your writing!

GM: Thank you for all your hard work and questions and the lovely comments about my work.