These questions and answers are excerpts from an interview that first appeared on the Poetry Spotlight site, in 2016.
Hi Charlotte. Congratulations on your debut collection Noir. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it expands upon the themes of your pamphlet The Long Woman?
Thank you. A handful of poems from The Long Woman also make their appearance in Noir – so the seeds were there. I think what happened between the one and the other – apart from a lot of new writing – was finding the shape – an ‘envelope’.
In 2014, thanks to a small Arts Council award, I spent a fruitful time working on the collection with John O’Donoghue. By then I had written a lot of the poems, and pulled them into a draft collection. These shared an atmosphere – which remains – of rising black water, and a ‘sunken dream’ quality. This was also the point I first alighted on the title Noir, which then stuck, and really helped.
It was important to me to find an envelope – and the concept of ‘Noir’ provided that. It felt right because the book does explore sadness and darkness – the underbelly, the less acknowledged; conditions under which exploitation can and does occur. But I’m not trying to burden anyone. Maybe, more, shine a light.
This then was the manuscript with which I arrived at Nell Nelson’s door at HappenStance. Working with Nell has been an education. She’s a brilliant editor, and constantly illuminating – as well as irreverently funny.
Reading the book, there is a sense you are well-versed in film noir and many of the poems have a cinematic feel. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in the genre and are there any specific examples that have influenced you?
I do love film, always have, and remember ‘studying’ film noir – among other genres; ‘genre’ was a word I learnt there! – at an after-school club at secondary. (I also remember climbing those stairs, excited and afraid, to watch a film called Psycho.)
So, yes, films have always been there. And in workshops I kept hearing the same two adjectives applied to my work: filmic, and dark.
My collection does nod to a few iconic movies, if obliquely – among them, Blue Velvet and the third film in the Red Riding trilogy. None from earlier – but maybe the spirit of noir remains essentially unaltered from its roots in the 1940s:
‘A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident…’
It’s this essential subversiveness I think I’m drawn to: its willingness to cross the line and speak its truth, however unpopular – like Spencer Tracy turning up in Bad Day at Black Rock, or Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night.
These are my kind of heroes.
The collection is interspersed with a sequence of seven poems entitled ‘Dream’, which have an uncanny and nightmarish quality to them. What was the impetus behind these poems and are they wholly imagined or partly inspired by dreams you’ve had yourself in the past?
It was Nell who designated these poems ‘Dreams’. I’m glad she did. But of course the train of the book dips in and out of dream, in and out of conscious and ‘unconscious’ material. Dreams go about their business here, and I think noirish film also operates in a subterranean world where things are starker but simpler.
Of course, this can go for poetry too. If we could describe these things in other ways, we would.
Some of the dreams in the book were based on real dreams, some not. The first tries to capture a recurring dream I’m sure I’m not the only one to have!
Anxiety is a big theme of the book. I try to find, for myself, a language or way to distil that struggle. Perhaps my favourite novel is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. Here, stress and isolation have a very particular impact:
‘It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world.’
In the last section of Noir, things lighten. Nell felt strongly – and I agreed – that the book needed to ‘go’ somewhere else to close. The final ‘Dream’ – number VII, which does chronicle a real dream – I hope suggests movement. Different people read this poem different ways though – as for all work. I like that too.
A couple of the poems – ‘Private Eye’ and ‘The Letter’ – are more experimental with their typography and layout. The first incorporates dictionary definitions and IPA symbols while the latter mimics the layout of a formal letter. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of these poems and how quickly it took you to arrive at their finished forms?
Oddly, this question makes me think of origami… Or at least of this:
‘A bit like origami,’ writes Michael Maltby, ‘it may take an extremely complex series of folds, creases, and tucks before any worthwhile poetic shape can be achieved. In the meantime, quite a lot of paper is likely to end up in the basket.’ Quite.
I tried various forms in both these cases – but the poems only found their impetus, for me, in these versions.
‘Private Eye’ started out pretty much the shape you see. The sense of explosion on the page was pivotal and freeing – and I stuck with it in the end because it also, for me, felt in keeping with the ‘world’ of the poem. (I was thinking at the time of a summer spent on Orkney – in part reimagining a neighbourhood of physically far-flung houses as an emotionally ‘exploded’ street… )
The dictionary definitions are the glue in this poem. Without them there’s nothing but scattered remnants. And they also bring some small comfort – at least to the poem’s protagonist.
‘The Letter’ happened the other way round. I wrote it first in a more conventional form – in stanzas. The poem felt flabby – and yet I found myself weirdly unwilling to hack it back as I normally might. I let it be and then, later, stumbled on its letter shape. Suddenly, the script fitted.
I also liked including the solid object, or ‘prop’, of the letter here, on the page. The letter. The literal container, for me, ‘holds’ the emotion of the poem – which I think is then allowed to be rawer and arguably less stymied than elsewhere in the book.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s the title poem of the book – and I think rather different from the rest. I guess the ‘auditorium’ here could be interpreted as both cinema and self. Maybe I’m questioning what I’m up to in the book.
‘Noir’ is also the opening poem of the final section – ‘Eleventh Hour’ – and follows immediately on from one possible ‘ending’. For me, then, there is a dramatic pause at that point: the biggest in the book.
‘Noir’ is the poem that then follows.
I only ever catch a moon-thin glimpse
of the projectionist’s face as I wander down
my lonely aisle, glance back, before
he whips his curtain shut. In this deserted
auditorium, I park my own blunt
calf of body – let it sink, groaning,
into a rising trough of darkness. This is our
windowless home. Behind my head, nothing
but deep thick folds of milky black,
while my eyes, live though furtive creatures,
dart across the nuance of the piece
worn thin like hallway carpet. Inside this
bobbing car is where I touch the hidden seam –
as the last reel rolls, heroes rise before
the kiss – where my life and the darkness meet.