David Lumsden, interviewed by Stuart Barnes

This interview between our poetry editor Stuart Barnes and poet David Lumsden first appeared in Issue Five of Tincture Journal alongside David’s poems “The Demographic Decides” and “The Next Turn in the Maze”.

David Lumsden

1. For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?

I started writing poetry in the last couple of years of high school, although the memories go further back: memorising A. A. Milne poems when I was five; really enjoying writing verse in Grade Three classes when I was eight. In Year Eleven I borrowed, from the local library, Poet in the Making[: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas], which presented in annotated form the contents of the four exercise books Thomas kept between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Thomas is quoted on the first page of the introduction: “my [work] method is this: I write a poem on innumerable sheets of scrap paper, write it on both sides of the paper, often upside down and crisscross ways unpunctuated, surrounded by drawings of lamp posts and boiled eggs, in a very dirty mess, bit by bit I copy out the slowly developing poem into an exercise book; and when it is complete, I type it out”.

As a teenager I of course emulated this, without the lamp posts and boiled eggs, but certainly the scraps, the exercise books, and the typing. I had an ancient Remington typewriter from the 1920s or before; a sticker on it read “To save time is to lengthen life”. I got good at an improvised form of six-finger typing, which later served me well for years as a computer programmer.

2. When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?

Overland Extra, which was a large format folded sheet included in Overland magazine. I was twenty-seven.

The poem was called “Storm Warning”; it was basically a single extended metaphor using the lexicon of meteorology and shipping to describe a relationship in trouble. The ending was: “The bureau forecasts gale-force distress: / we batten down our lives / and do not talk.”

3. How and where do your poems take shape?

There is no pattern or regularity. Quite often isolated phrases, which seem to succinctly encapsulate some interesting image or metaphor, some minor micro-scale insight, will come to mind. Certain phrases might seem to want to “go together”, or sometimes there will be some ill-defined matter or theme which seems to carry some as yet unclear significance; when this happens the working out of the poem is a sort of investigation. Sometimes an individual word will seem worth noting down; you can look at a poem as though it were a collector’s box of words. Sometimes a poem starts with a larger but vague sense of its music: its stanzaic structure, rhythm, and form; sometimes it starts with the trajectory of a narrative. Quite often the best ideas come late in the process.

4. Reading for a BBC Programme, Sylvia Plath explained: “[‘The Disquieting Muses’] borrows its title from the painting by Giorgio de Chirico—The Disquieting Muses. All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting.” (Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1981).

What art forms influence your poetry?

I have written a handful of poems centred around one particular painting or another, and in general the structures of baroque and classical music have provided ideas for the shaping of thought, and for the forms of poems, but far and away the strongest influence comes from other poems.

Every good poem, after the event, has solved its own unique problem. The problem has multiple constraints: sound, music, rhythm, counterpointing of quantity and stress, repetition, variation, meaning, narrative, syntax, lexicon, vividness, wit, freshness, memorability, resonance, reference, balance, proportion, closure, and coherence. I don’t imagine for a moment that poets work with all or any of these objectives in mind, but when the thing is finished you’ll find that simply at the technical level many of these aspects will have been addressed in wonderfully surprising and successful ways.

5. Tell me about your poems in this issue of Tincture Journal: “The Demographic Decides” and “The Next Turn in the Maze”.

“The Demographic Decides” has a corporate setting, like several of my poems. The language used touches various registers: organisational jargon (“floorspace”), North American everyday (“kid brothers”), and the Old World culture of classical music (“obligato”). Through all this runs the idea of a rapid pace of change and the rapid onset of irrelevance: we are quickly disenfranchised.

“The Next Turn in the Maze” attempts to present a narrative in condensed form. To some extent its successes and failures are bound to be the successes and failures of prose: how telling really is the supposedly telling detail? Small domestic narratives have interested me at various times; early influences included the poems of Douglas Dunn and Hugo Williams. I think I might have been reading Raymond Carver short stories around the time I wrote “The Next Turn in the Maze”.

In [Nocturnal Submissions], the magazine I edited, we published “Domestic Suburban Vignette”, a Stephen J. Williams poem. If I remember correctly, the title came from a rejection note Stephen received from some other editor as an apparently damning categorisation of the poems submitted. Stephen’s work was always more sophisticated than that, but I doubt if mine is: “The Next Turn in the Maze” surely falls squarely into the abovementioned circle of critical Hell.

6. How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By working “with the design of large computer systems”?

The poems of others have had the greatest influence. When I was much younger I was lucky enough to get a lot of helpful feedback and criticism from several poets: Chris Wallace Crabbe, Peter Porter, John Forbes, and Alan Wearne. At different times all have given me a great deal of detailed (sometimes—I suspect—despairing) comments on many specific poems. Their advice and of course the example of their work have influenced me significantly.

Amongst the illustrious dead and the celebrated living, the influences are legion: my early Dylan Thomas phase was soon enough superseded by [T.S.] Eliot and [Ezra] Pound, and there were numerous such “phases”: [Thomas] Hardy, [W. B.] Yeats, and [Philip] Larkin; the “Group” poets: Peter Porter, Ian Hamilton, Alan Brownjohn. While still at school I collected, usually at two dollars each, the whole twenty-seven volume original series of Penguin Modern Poets from second-hand bookshops. Then there were [John] Berryman and [Robert] Lowell. Lawrence Durrell’s verse was a major influence at one point. I lived in Warsaw for five years and read a lot of Polish poetry in the original: Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska would be the main influences there; I have boxes of translations in various stages of completion, but to publish them you’d have to deal with the estates and all that, so in this case it really is writing for the desk drawer, which—given the Eastern European context—is quite appropriate.

There are probably very few direct influences from my job in computer software design, but I do think the two activities—poetry and software design—use many of the same mental faculties.

There are a number of activities, including not only designing software and writing poems, but also doing mathematics or physics, and writing essays, which rely on two crucial mental approaches: seeing the essence of something (and naming it accurately); and seeing that two distinct things are in some important sense the same.

Seeing the essence of something leads you to using the right word in a poem, or the best name for an object or method or function in a piece of computer code.

Seeing that two distinct things are in some respect the same is the vital insight of abstraction, which allows you to make metaphors, write reusable software components, devise mathematical theorems, and make scientific breakthroughs. “My love is like a red, red rose” is the same sort of equation as [Sir Isaac] Newton’s realisation that the force that pulls a falling apple is the same force that guides the orbiting moon (that is, the discovery of gravity united the hitherto separate domains of terrestrial and celestial mechanics). Seeing that two distinct things are in some important way the same is the key ability of the human brain, and—in very basic terms—must be what allows us to learn from experience. As no two moments are alike in all details—as Heraclitus said, “No person ever steps in the same river twice”—we need that crucial power of abstraction to be able to see that the current situation is in some way the same as previous remembered experience. We need a fast, reliable memory, and dreams to train the pattern-matching neural networks, to support this essential metaphor-making ability. Mathematics and poetry are the highest expressions of that same basic evolutionarily-determined skill.

7. Tell me about editing Nocturnal Submissions, the literary magazine you founded in 1991, which published some of the world’s finest writers including Peter Bakowski, Billy Collins, Nicki Greenberg, M.J. [Maria] Hyland, Jill Jones and Alan Wearne.

It was an exciting time and a great privilege to be able to publish work by all those writers you mentioned, and many others besides.

I started the magazine when I was twenty-six or so, I think out of a sense of isolation and wanting to connect with the literary community, and of course having for a long time read about Eliot and Pound and all those early modernists and all their little magazines. For a couple of years in my early twenties it seemed as though the only stuff I read was either early modernist poetry or biographies of early modernist poets.

So starting a little literary magazine seemed the natural thing to do if I was going to continue to take the idea of “being a poet” seriously. Very quickly I met people who wanted to be involved one way or another. That was how I met Maria Hyland, and she and I soon became a couple, lived together for several years, and continued to be co-editors for a while after that. Justine Fitzgerald, one of Maria’s friends at uni (both were studying law at the time), was the third editor, and the most organised of all of us.

Maria knew Ian McBryde, who did the covers for the first couple of issues and contributed some wonderful poems. Ian introduced me to Peter Bakowski and that friendship has lasted ever since.

There were many great opportunities that arose from the magazine, such as spending a day with August Kleinzahler when he was out here one year for the Melbourne Writers Festival, going from bar to bar working on an interview, which I think turned out very well and could probably stand alongside those wonderful Paris Review interviews.

I used to read lots of little mags from all over, and that’s how I spotted several new voices before they were properly established: Billy Collins was one of those.

There are regrets as well: I had read a few Lynda Hull poems and wanted to ask her to contribute. I was busy with other things, and even when I eventually found out where she was, I didn’t get around to writing to her. Then one day I found out that she had died in a car crash.

There was the time I was at a sort of music/poetry gig where Steve Kilbey read a story that came across very well and I said to him afterwards that I’d like to publish it. “OK,” he said and—always the showman—right there tore the handwritten pages out of the old exercise book from which he had read the story, and handed them to me as his submission.

In the end I found I had less and less time for editing; also, I was starting to feel that I needed to change my reading “diet”: more and ever more submissions and not enough of the great work that had originally inspired me to write; I felt as though I needed a break. Maria took over the running of the magazine from that point and did a great job.

8. What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?

My house is full of books, journals and lit mags, and I love the physicality and quick random access this provides, but I realise that the durability of the printed medium is somewhat illusory. And the random access feature proves to not be scalable given the physical constraints of a house. Clive James somewhere writes: “I have just been checking up in my copy of Clausewitz—I had to buy another copy, because my original copy is somewhere in my bookshelves, which means that it might as well be on Mars.” I know the feeling.

Digital publication—when properly archived and indexed by central, generally accessible databases—offers a sort of permanence and searchability that cannot be matched by conventional means.

I think there are still potential gaps around accessibility of purchase-only digital material, and the inheritance and transfer of digital rights.

Cost and logistics of production and distribution were definitely a major inhibitor in the development of Nocturnal Submissions. I see that digital publication offers a new Renaissance with the possibility of unprecedented levels of publication, and new models of publication which allow for more involvement from readers and critics, and more active exchange between writers.

9. What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?

Naming favourites is like an Academy Award acceptance speech: it’s either going to go on far too long, or leave someone out.

If I think about poets I keep coming back to, Peter Porter would have to be high on the list. And if I think about poets whose next book I am always on the lookout for, August Kleinzahler would be near the top.

Three poets I do find myself returning to for very different reasons are Hall, Hill and Hull: Donald Hall, for his meticulousness in language, the stance of his voice, and inclusiveness of the real contemporary environment; Geoffrey Hill, for the durability and density of his language, and the pitch and difficulty of his thought; and Lynda Hull for the pure lyrical intensity of her work and the way in which her vision of situations and details quite transfigures the world. There is something uncanny and resistant to analysis in this transfiguration—in prose you might find similar effects in [Charles] Dickens or [F.] Scott Fitzgerald—an inexplicably evocative recreation of a world—something that gets in under your conscious analytical radar like a perfume or a taste suddenly remembered, Proust-like, from childhood, or the polyphonic complexities of a Bach oratorio or a passage from a Chopin Ballade. The simple word for it is “talent”.

I read a large amount of poetry from earlier centuries. One poet I have been reading a lot over the past year or two is George Crabbe; Edwin Arlington Robinson praised his “plain excellence and stubborn skill” and [Lord] Byron asserted that Crabbe, along with [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, was the first in that period in terms of power and genius. For me, there is something about Crabbe’s plainness, his direct relationship to the real world in which he lived, his attention to detail, and his novelist-like scope that seems both quite rare and particularly relevant to the present moment in poetry.

I also spend time reading in the sort of buried tradition of quantitative and syllabic poetry, which can be seen to run from [Geoffrey] Chaucer through [John] Milton and into Robert Bridges and Coventry Patmore, and on to F.T. Prince.

I realise I am going on like that bad Oscar speech, so before the orchestra starts up I’ll quickly mention that I have recently been reading a lot of Robert Graves and John Crowe Ransom, each of whom demonstrates how straightforward technical skill and craft can “lift” a poem’s language onto a higher level of resonance. A remark by [Theodor W.] Adorno comes to mind. I searched in vain for half an hour for my copy of his Minima Moralia[: Reflections From Damaged Life], so I had to resort to the internet for the details: “No improvement is too small or piddling to be carried out. Out of a hundred changes, a single one may appear trifling and pedantic; together they can raise the text to a new level.”

David Lumsden works with the design of large computer systems, used to edit a literary magazine called Nocturnal Submissions, and has had poems published in various journals.

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