The Voyage of a Novel in Verse: An Interview with Arthur Allen

Interviewed by Hunter Liguore

Arthur Allen is the author of The Nurseryman (Kernpunkt Press, 2019), a verse-novel in polyphony and winner of the Eyelands Book Awards’ Poetry Prize 2020. He holds a master’s from the University of Oxford, which he undertook part-time whilst working in gift shops to support himself. It was in the gift shop of the Bodleian Library—having ventured underground and beyond the stockroom—that he discovered the original sources, accounts of voyages, herbarium ledgers, and alchemical texts, which quickly inspired The Nurseryman. He is currently living in Scotland, reading for a Ph.D. in grief and semiotics at the University of Edinburgh.

HUNTER LIGUORE:
How did you get started with writing? What was your early inspiration, a moment that you can point to as the starting point?

ARTHUR ALLEN:
I started writing stories before I knew what a poem was, but I wanted to write stories because of the cassette tapes my parents would put on in the car to stop my twin brother and I fighting in the backseats. Treasure Island, King Arthur, Narnia, Alan Bennett reading Winnie-the-Pooh and others enthralling enough to be peace-keeping.

When I was maybe nine, I wrote what then seemed to be a very long novel about little people who lived in a wood near my house and rode on the back of hedgerow birds. I was spending a lot of time in a rhododendron, using it as a small wooden cave that let in wind and sunlight. I was playing in the rhododendron pretending to be an inch high and that miniaturizing practice is basically the same way I play in writing today making palm-of-the-hand size poems.

HL:
Do you have a memory to share of the ‘deciding moment’ when you ‘chose’ or decided upon writing as a career/option: the moment you knew there was no backing out so to speak?

AA:
I really can’t point at a decisive moment when I chose writing, but when I meet the world—all parts of the world—my first instinct is to make a poem. Though, for the longest time I thought poetry just meant the best of things: bravura in football goals often is described as poetry.

HL:
Your novel in verse, Nurseryman tells the story of a…

AA:

The Nurseryman tells the story of a 16th century voyage to the arctic undertaken by the crew of several ships, amongst them a gardener. On one hand, it’s a kind of fable against the hubris of old empire but it’s also about wonder. The top of the world at that time was completely unmapped and called Meta Incognita, the unknown land. Most people in England would never have seen saltwater freeze and this handful of characters are now sailing among icebergs. There are many voices and one continual thread that is ‘the records of a Roote Gatherer, practiced in the spiritual use of fruit trees…’

HL:
Part of what makes the book so riveting is the ‘realness’ of it—the feeling of being dropped into a world that could exist. What was the inspiration behind writing it?

AA:
The realness and the inspiration both come from two books I discovered in the Bodleian Library gift shop, after an event held by the Hakluyt Society (publishers of scholarly books on voyages of discovery, history of navigation and nautical travels): The Third Voyage of Martin Frobisher to Baffin Island (1578), and Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820: Journals, Letters and Documents. The Hakluyt Society publishes the closest thing to facsimiles copies of such collected accounts, and these two were an unparalleled source I came upon quite by accident putting away stock after this event. The historical and nautical detail, but equally the formalistic details of how to arrange a page to look like a Captain’s log, for example, were all found there; the graphology would have been impossible without them. Martin Frobisher was sailing as part of the ‘arctic goldrush’ looking for special ore at the edge of the known world, and is set not long after The Nurseryman, and Joseph Banks was an explorer and naturalist who wrote with huge frustration when he ‘had seine no fishe and botanized no plants’. They’re both spectrally onboard this voyage.

HL:
As the reader, every page is a new discovery. In fact, as I turned the pages, I realized I couldn’t predict what came next, and was surprised time and time again what I found. At an early point, I realized I was reading a work of genius, by someone who didn’t just write a book, but actually imbued an entire world, adventure, characters, and infinite possibilities. How did the book evolve as you wrote it? What determined what went in and was included?

AA:
The process that evolved the book the most came after I was quite sure it was finished. After it was picked up by Kernpunkt Press, I was faced with the task of transforming the entire manuscript from A4 down to a very specific 6×8 inch format. Before I sent it out to publishers, I never did as much editing and cutting as while I was trying to make that change. A lot of the pages are totally self-contained pieces that I was then trying to figure as double-page spreads in this new format, it got very complicated. Black marker pen rectangles were drawn on the pages. The whole opening section was arranged on a horizontal axis for ages, I almost liked it better actually, but it didn’t really work on a smaller scale. I cut as much at that time I felt to be surplus but I can’t explain the process at all. Very intuitive and slightly frantic. But it was the shape that distilled the text over time.

HL:
As a writing professor, I often tell students that I’m not teaching writing, but rather ‘trust.’ Nurseryman is an infinite compendium of trust by an author—you—who didn’t censor the work or give in to what may or may not be ‘acceptable’ or marketable. In fact, it’s probably the most original book I’ve read in quite some time! To me, this is part of the genius involved. Did you have moments where you questioned your writing and if so, what can you share with others to overcome it? What kept you writing, even though maybe possibly you wondered would anyone read it?

AA:
It’s probably the most unmarketable book you’ve read in some time! Set in the age of Shakespeare about a gardener who disappears.

I read somewhere that with a novel you can’t choose what will not be read. I was trusting to that a lot, and I chose to write large passages of The Nurseryman in the style of historical manuscripts that are really best read when skimmed, when the spontaneous particulars can leap up, and do, even under the slightest glance. Sometimes just a word. I can’t begin to name everything that collides to magnetize me in the word event: glacier, or North Star. But not every word is intended to be read, and some are almost too small too.

HL:
Nurseryman is also an immense work-of-art: from the very tiny script that tells the reader some tender information, to illustrations that don’t appear, to sideways script, to inclusion of new books or threads, to mirrored text—which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a book—to announcements, all wrapped around a seamless story told in verse. . .can you speak to the artistic inspiration that went into creating/assembling the story?

AA:
Honestly, the original source material, the Hakluyt Society’s authentic arrangement of these collected accounts of voyages were just endless inspiration. I did a lot of trial and error. Also, William Blake; another treasure of the Bodleian Library. Obviously, I couldn’t paint any of the pages but I might still hand-make a version with ripples of marbled paper, or something like that. The color and fullness of Blake, and his weaving of mythology and history were both in my mind; Blake was writing about the “spiritual forms” of contemporary figures like Nelson and William Pitt the Younger and I’m aiming after that.

There really is a great and terrifying permanence once something’s in print though. I’m yet to open The Nurseryman and find something that horrifies me, but I still question some spatial choices I’ve made.

I really enjoyed having all the typographic and graphological materials performing but my favorite space is definitely the margin. The joy of marginalia is something most researchers know, and as a poet you have very absolute power to arrange over a full canvas of a page—it’s all speaking, even if it’s white and marginalia have a hand-written, secret, whispered feeling to me. In the margin of the musical score of a late Mahler symphony it reads, in pencil, Alma I miss you, running perpendicular to the bars. Alma was his wife, but I think he creatively stifled her and she left him for Walter Gropius.

HL:
One of my graduating students, Brendan Dyer, at the MFA program at Western CT. State Univ., who is also working on a novel in verse, had this question for you: Did you have a specific meter, rhyme scheme, or alliteration that you followed, and if so, did those factors determine how you told the story? Did they ever inhibit you from moving forward or the opposite?

AA:
There is a breaking down of forms over the progress of the novel, inhibitions from England, ideas of home, of hierarchical orders, all dissolve as the crew disperse over the ice leaving behind their ships, their emblems of self; they do not retain the meter or the rhyme schemes of their vanishing world and so to serve the story there is an essential dissolving of strict schemas.

I wanted to keep a semantic openness to the increasingly abstract sections so they can be read in different moods and at different angles, as opposed to the formally constrained voices contained in the logbooks that are dated and precise in register. It can be inhibiting, maybe in beneficial ways, to be so tied to an historic register, but if you read enough of them, you slowly develop a confidence in teasing the stylistics of voice free of their historical texts. It starts in the listening ear and expands so the signs of that time of expression can perfume (or pollute) everything after. This does require serious immersion, but once you’re deep in it even the tiniest incongruities go off like flashing lights. The hard thing is balancing subject- specific lexis with alienating a current audience; there is a lot of poetry and magic in all the words for sails and all the old names for the stars but it’s easy to get off course. ‘The Rejection of Closure’ by Lyn Hejinian is a great essay on the possibilities of form and constraint. The Nurseryman starts off with a lot of closed forms like rock pools and slowly they join and open as the tide comes in. Also, Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an awesome act of alliteration, consistent with the original Pearl poet style which is also alliterative.

HL:
What was the most difficult part of writing Nurseryman? What about the most fun—or the part you loved the most, that really synced for you?

AA:
Most difficult: Trying to decide what was important, and what was just important to me.

Most fun: Writing old magic. There’s a chapter called “The Undiscovered Isle.” It’s very Arthurian, with a wizard and a witch and a spell of sleeping. Since my childhood I have such a love of a kind of English magic to do with stones and valleys and seasons outside of time, you find it in Thomas Mallory, T.S. Eliot (‘between England and nowhere’), and Alan Garner, and I got to play with it then.

HL:
What do you think is the hardest part of writing a novel in verse? Do you think there will be a future for novels in verse, or we’ll see more of them published?

AA:
I’m seeing lots of new prizes and opportunities for work that opens up the possibilities of the novel form, and for hybrid/graphic/concrete poetry. An interdisciplinary strain of academia is very gently growing too, but certainly, graphic forms of storytelling are skyrocketing. There are lots of authors making graphic-novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Angel Catbird is a recent example, Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip: Including an Explanation of the Afterlife is an older one. I like the idea that the future will have less and less need for classifications and things can exist in much more free spaces, but everything seems to be getting more specific and hyper-categorized. I think there’s a huge market and developing interest in verse-biographies as an evolving nonfiction form, more aware of fracture and fragment as acceptable structures.

The Scottish poet, Robin Robertson was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018 with a noir verse-novel called The Long Take, which feels hopeful for the genre!

HL:
Though the book feels like I’ve picked up an antiquated journal in an old bookshop, there are elements that echo our society. For instance, “Dunbar & the Captain,” is a snapshot of a confrontation with huge implications, the brevity of a moment between life and death. You wrote, “Adrift in a situation that was more than he could or wished to understand, Crosse pulled the blanket over his head.” As the reader, I can relate with this human feeling and reaction; it feels very much part of today’s world, one where anxiety and being ‘hidden’ from others (e.g., behind a computer or false online identity, etc.) is quite popular. So tell me, how did our society or people today influence or inform your work, if at all?

AA:
The outer context of The Nurseryman is very basically climate change and conflict. During the editing process, I became increasingly aware of the ‘spectre of open water’ at the top of the world, which prior to now has always been a secure architecture. However, as we know, the polar vortex is weakening and as melting ice reopens northern borders there is increasing military buildup in the Arctic as new frontiers and trade routes are on the cusp of being established. Russia just had a conference about the sustainable development and consolidation of Russian territory in the ‘Arctic Age’. China are making infrastructure investments towards a Polar Silk Road, and referring to themselves as a ‘near-Arctic nation’. Regional powers are attempting right now to secure or exploit seas previously and until recently reinforced by a continent-sized division of ice whilst ignoring effective climate action in favor of economic expansion. The U.K. and the U.S. are both rotating military presence in arctic shipping lanes between Norway and Iceland.

I wrote The Nurseryman in opposition to the penetrative aspects of exploration that we’re witnessing for the first time now at the Poles, and its only global warming that is so radically changing the landscape of the Earth as to put unclaimed territory back onto the map.

HL:
How much hands-on research or travel was involved in crafting the story? Did you visit any historical sites or libraries involved in the story?

AA:
I’ve never been to sea—of course, I would love to—but advanced research in poetry is a very tough and seemingly mystifying reason to qualify for a berth on an Arctic voyage! As I already mentioned, I was working in the Bodleian Library gift shop and in there, not even in the library itself, I encountered the work of the naturalist John Tradescant the Elder who was a huge inspiration for the character of the Nurseryman himself, as was his son. They both travelled ludicrously extensively for the 17th century, visiting Arctic Russia in 1618. I think his title was eventually Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms, which is excellent in itself. And John Tradescant the Younger continued his father’s work, adding to their ‘arc’ of seeds and colossal trove of curiosities with painted botanical encyclopedias. He bequeathed the whole collection of their library and museum to Elias Ashmole, and it went to make up the core of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I also worked in the gift shop for a year prior to starting at the Bodleian Library. Somehow without going anywhere I was amongst all the right resources all the time. Many of my initial notes on The Nurseryman were made on till roll during a shift in the gift shop at the Ashmolean.

HL:
What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising? How has your writing process evolved?

AA:
Luxuriating in the starting phase is probably the greatest obstacle to me finishing things. I would like to say that I’ve become more disciplined about my writing, but I don’t know if that’s true. Curiosity is hard to discipline and schematizing the creative process too much can be very paralyzing. I try not to remember the routines of writers, if I do then I don’t follow them—at most I use them as a fresh form for self-flagellation. I keep editing poems that end up in magazines long after they’re accepted for publication, published and vanished into the stuff of other years. I’m part of the school preaching a poem is never finished only abandoned!
In that spirit, I keep my poetry as a huge amorphous Word doc. for as long as possible, all mixed up with quotes from books, and little autobiographical poems just for me, so it reads like a strange mosaic tapestry diary right up until I force myself to start to crystalize things. Little poems get strung together like beads on a necklace and once there’s a sense of an ending about the whole thing I save it as a dispassionate, unchangeable PDF and send it out or keep it in. That sending-out stage must be industrial and passionless in a way that’s exactly opposite to the big waterfall of a Word doc I happily swim in the rest of the time.

HL:
If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

AA:
That’s a hard question. The Nurseryman is the first thing I’ve written where I’m not present at all as any character but hanging mistily around them all. I’m very much the protagonist of my poetry, but without a singular sense of self, and I regularly meet someone different inside them when I reread them.

AA:
There is an unnamed character, the trumpeter onboard The Ayde. Having never played this high in the Northern hemisphere, he sabotages his trumpet after the cold makes his lips stick. Later, he takes a seal pup from a beach at night and keeps it. That’s who I’d be, I can’t quite say why.

HL:
Are there any tips you can share about writing, things that have helped you? Any books that you read that really made a difference in your writing development?

AA:
My only tips are books. I think one of the best gifts of reading is that you can slowly fill an invisible amphitheater with friendly writers who chime in forever, invited or not. Usually when I’m working on a project, I have maybe three books that I put in a pile dubbed; ‘I-wish-I-wrote-these’, and they kind of oversee everything. An aspirational stack.
The brief list below is a selection of texts that have been my lodestones before and doubtless will be again. From one angle or another, they all oversaw the production of The Nurseryman. Richard Brautigan – The Abortion: An Historical Romance. Anne Carson – Nox. C.S Lewis – The Voyage of The Dawntreader. Alejandro Pizarnik – A Musical Hell. And, The Absent Traveller from Penguin India, which is a newly translated selection from The Gathasaptasati: the very oldest example of secular poetry from South Asia, mostly written by women. Also, the films: A Field in England by Ben Wheatley, and Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky.


HL:
How do you think writing has changed over the years? Is it easier/harder for new writers to make a name?

AA:
I think it’s a mixture. There’s an immediacy about the viral-age which means someone or some work can go from invisible to massively observed in a very small space of time. I think that’s very hard for everyone involved! Including the avaricious watching crowds. But it’s really changed the nature of what making your name means. I like physical books, I like the craft of binding, paper-marbling, and I think there’s an equivalent surge of haptic engagement in subversive physical publishing that is very exciting and making names in avant-garde city-based scenes.
HL:
What are some of the advantages of working with a small press? Any disadvantages?

AA:
You certainly have a different sort of hands-on approach with independent publishing. Your cover design may be entirely in your hands which is exactly what some people want and may
not be at all what others do. I loved designing the cover! Having some significant say in the face your book wears for the rest of its life is truly important to how you feel about them when they’re all stacked on the desk.
But the hands-on aspects extend a lot further, and I’ve had a steep learning curve in Edinburgh soliciting independent bookshops as stockists for The Nurseryman, while whipping myself into very gentle social-media promotion, which I baulk from. That’s really why the proximity matters, a press in your city will have all sorts of preexisting relationships with bookshops and literary scenes that you just can’t forge on your own.

HL:
How has the experience of publishing influenced your writing? Do you find yourself considering an audience when you write and so on?

AA:
It’s very confusing to try and join your writing to the publishing, reading, self-promoting world of the literary present. Wanting to be a poet is different from wanting to be a poet who is read by the public; they are very separate strivings and neither necessarily rewards the other. I certainly hold global concerns and the concerns of my culture in mind while working on a book or poem but more as context than an audience. I try to keep only my own concerns alive while I’m writing.

The most generous thing you can do I think is to keep in mind the experience of editors, publishers, readers for prizes, etc. An incredible amount of invisible labor goes into every aspect of realizing a zine, or prize, or book into being—it’s the closest thing to collaboration for most authors and should really be thought of as such, with accompanying time, attention and respect given to those hard-at-work hands.

HL:
What’s next for Arthur Allen?

AA:
My father died suddenly when I was 21, he was 56, and that has absolutely defined my work in poetry ever since. My first chapbook Here Birds Are (Green Bottle Press, 2017), was written entirely in the week proceeding his death and is a very straightforward narrative of grief. The Nurseryman can be read as the simple allegory story of a man with his own way of seeing who disappears irretrievably into an unknown land at the top of the world, a land that anyone missing him from that time would not even have been able to imagine. I’m now embarking on the long effort of making and researching, with more years between his death and myself, the phenomenon of magical thinking in mourning. Society is quite used to giving the most admiration to those who display the least manifestations of their grief and there’s a lot of work now towards changing that attitude, to which cause I’m writing a book in poetry and prose about sudden death, cave paintings, memory, and fathers, after the ethos that pain really isn’t shareable but the desire to share it is.

HL:
One thing you want to leave readers with? Words to live by?

AA:
Words to live by! I don’t think any of my mantras are for general consumption! But there is a quote from Rene Daumal, the French pataphysicist and Sanskrit translator, which lives in a pocket of my mind all the time: “Your life depends to some extent on your shoes; care for them properly. But a quarter of an hour each day is enough, for your life depends on several other things as well.” And, think kindly about yourself.