Inhabiting: an interview with Ray Givans
My friend the Belfast poet Ray Givans published his first full collection, Tolstoy in Love, with Dedalus Press last year. The collection, which was one of only four books shortlisted for the Eithne Strong Award, is by turns playful, passionate and contemplative but always well crafted. I caught up with him over Facebook to explore some of the themes and approaches in his work.
Andrew Philip: The first section of the book consists largely, though by no means exclusively, of monologues. What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of that form?
Ray Givans: In my opinion the monologue can enable the writer to inhabit the person from the inside, getting an insight into the emotional and psychological machinations of that person. Also, it gives the impression that the person is speaking in present time.
Within a sequence of poems, engaging with one central character – real or fictional – one can take on the persona of others who rub shoulders with the main character, and thus give another perspective on that person. This may be at odds with the main character’s take on things; may shine a light on, for example, his self-delusions.
One of the difficulties of this technique is in finding an authentic voice to represent the speaker. Therefore, particularly when dealing with a historical figure, it requires considerable reading of biographies and the works of the individual, before attempting to inhabit that person. However, one has to be careful that it is more than simply potted biography, in poetic form.
One might be accused of misrepresenting and misinterpreting the words of a historical figure. Straying too far into speculation is something with which biographers also struggle.
AP: Is your use of the monologue driven, then, by a desire to understand the figures you write about?
RG: The answer is in the affirmative, but the important starting point for me is the figure’s belief system. I am interested, initially, in exploring characters who have a religious or, at least, spiritual outlook on life. I am fascinated to see how a character reacts to the adversities and joys that life brings, and how this impinges upon their belief system.
Sometimes the faith or belief system of the individual is tangential to the poems written; on other occasions it is directly confronted. For example, John Donne had at least two contrasting parts to his life. The younger Donne was interested in carousing and sexual exploits during his younger formative adult years; the era of his ‘voluptuousness’. In contrast, the Donne of later years was the conformist, pillar of society, as preacher within the higher echelon of the Anglican church. The Donne of this latter period was in denial or, at least, preferred the earlier episode to remain hidden.
It was, therefore possible for me to write two poems: one from the point-of-view of Jack Donne, and the other from the standpoint of Doctor Donne. In this way the two were able to interact, setting out their claims and counterclaims for the way they lived.
(In the example given the two poems are published in the poetry magazine, “The SHop”)
AP: The desire to understand applies to more than just the figures in the book’s first section. For instance, in “Going Home” you write: “I try to understand/ your need for certainties.” Would you say it is fundamental to your poetics full stop?
RG: This ‘need for certainties’, which you quote from the poem, “Going Home”, is less about a community having a clear and philosophical engagement with religion and culture, and more about maintaining tradition and the status quo. For example, when I was growing up in the village of Castlecaulfield, Co.Tyrone in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the majority of people attended church on a Sunday, mostly because it was ‘the proper thing to do’, rather than adherence to a well thought out set of religious principles.
In my poetry I prefer to present the situation to the reader, within its time and culture, and allow him to draw his own inferences.
AP: The poems in the first section also concentrate on the lives of writers and thinkers. In a sense, that makes it quite an intellectual book, even though the engagement is emotional, spiritual and imaginative. Did you write entirely for yourself or did you have an audience in mind when you put the book together?
RG: One of the delights of poetry for me is that I am not dependent on sales of my work to eke out a living. So, in many ways, I can opt to write about the subjects which are primarily of my choosing.
I am aware, however, that editors of poetry books usually like to see a collection which is cohesive, thus the concentration on the theme of exploring writers’ lives in the context of their religious leanings. Yet, even within this theme, there is great leeway to range over time and place.
Also, I suppose I have an eye on the small press scene, as to get a collection published it is usual to have a number of publishing credits to one’s name before submitting a book length manuscript. This may affect the content to a certain extent, but on the whole one overcomes this by searching out the magazines which fit one’s own content and style.
AP: Where do you stand on the endless debates about accessibility vs difficulty in poetry?
RG: I do not think that one should deliberately set out to be obscure or make it difficult for the reader to understand the work, but when writing, or for that matter reading poetry, one should be aware that the words are squeezing the most out of language and that poetry often deals in metaphorical terms.
I think it was Paul Muldoon who stated that one does not go to a crossword expecting to get all the clues correct at once. In the same way one should not come to poetry with the idea that because it is sometimes difficult then it is not worth the effort of working at it.
In contrast, some poetry may appear to be consciously ‘simple’ in diction and vocabulary, such as the work of Robert Frost, until it is read closely to discover the layers of meaning which lurk below the apparently ‘simple’ language.
AP: How do you view the relationship between faith and poetry — or faith and art more generally?
RG: In my opinion you do not need faith to make good poetry. I think this is apparent by the fact that the majority of the best poetry written today is produced by non-religious people. So, the question is, does a belief system have any effect on the individual poet?
I remember reading Francis Schaeffer’s response to this. He asserts that the Christian poet may choose to write on religious themes or decide to write about everyday topics which ostensibly ignore religious issues. However, he maintains, using examples from Philip Larkin’s and John Betjeman’s poetry, that by analysing a corpus of the poet’s work, the worldview of that poet will be evident to the reader, as to where he stands regarding a belief system.
Although there is a difficult balancing act between using God-given creativity as an act of grace in itself, and doing the sort of self-promotion which is necessary to get the work out to public view, the Christian should not primarily be engaged solely in promoting self.
I like, for example, the way the Australian poet, Les Murray, dedicates each poetry collection, ‘To the Glory of God’.
AP: Have you written much new work since the book came out? If so, what directions is it taking you in/are you taking it in?
RG: I have found that the publication of a first full collection has given me added motivation to write; in fact since the publication I may have written more than at any time in my life.
I am interested in writing poems about writers who have a strong faith system in their lives, although it may not always run parallel with established Christian principles. An example of this would be Wallace Stevens from the Tolstoy collection.
As there are a limited number of Christians writing in the 20th century I have gone back in time to explore such notables as John Donne, William Cowper and Samuel Johnson. Usually I prefer to write sequences of poems on the writers, rather than one-off poems.
Often I continue to write from the perspective of the women/men who form relationships with these writers.