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Anne Ryland: Distance and Intimacy

The moment when I sense a sequence of poems emerging is not dissimilar to the first sighting of the haar, the sea fog, as it rolls in on the north-east coast where I live: mysterious and irresistible! The original impulse is usually a character bearing an untold story, blended with a resonant image. There is often a geographical and historical landscape I want to explore from both portrait and panoramic angles. The attraction is to seek to create another world that I (and later, I hope, the reader) can inhabit, absorbing its sounds, smells and textures, while noting its absences and silences.

I am consistently drawn to the long poem’s spaciousness, which allows boundaries to be pushed or broken, and to that slight friction between the concept of ‘poem’ – compressed, intense – and the ambiguity of ‘long’. A sequence is generous: a narrative can unfold and within it, a relationship. Time-shifts and contrasting registers can be integrated.

My sequences Thrashing the Holy Linens and Touching a Sailor’s Collar (published in Long Poem Magazine Issues 3 and 5 respectively) ultimately formed part of an extended sequence entitled Haunting My Daughter, which included further sequences and shorter poems. Written in the imagined voices of my female ancestors, the poems entailed background reading into social, medical and economic history, as well as online research into census returns and birth, marriage and death certificates. The lack of family diaries, letters and photographs proved fruitful as it necessitated invention (women’s occupations were generally not recorded, for example). ‘My women’ were either barely literate or sparsely educated; I sought to give them a spoken and written voice. Recapturing her life in scenes, I grew close to the grandmother I’d never met. These poems probably laid the foundations for my subsequent sequence.

Dear Mr Millar appeared in LPM 15, and a revised version is published in my new collection Unruled Journal (Valley Press). The inspiration for the sequence was an antique desk I’d acquired, notably a brass plaque on its leather writing surface: ‘Presented to Mr John Millar MA by the people of Laggan in appreciation of his invaluable services to the parish – 20th Nov 1908’. The inscription evoked a man of a certain demeanour and temperament, a village elder perhaps, while the Highlands origin signified a link with my Scottish-born mother, who had never possessed a desk.

As I sat at the desk, writing and writing, a series of epistolary poems poured out, each addressing Mr Millar; I’ve always been fascinated by the repercussions of distance and intimacy in letter correspondence. Tercets seemed to echo the woman-man-desk triangle, but I varied the form to include couplets and single-line stanzas. The desk, in its physicality, evolved from a piece of furniture into a fresh chapter, a border: ‘When your desk claimed its place / it became the room. / I have crossed its threshold.’

After the autobiographical first poem, however, an altered voice surfaced, suggesting an imagined self from another era. Rereading Virginia Nicholson’s book Singled Out, and its moving stories of two million ‘leftover’ women in the wake of the First World War, nudged my poems in that direction. The speaker developed into a ‘surplus’ woman redefining her purpose in a life without marriage or children.  

It was possible to be more expansive in tone and voice, interweaving the woman’s disappointment and grief with playfulness and exuberance. As a rapport grows, ‘your desk’ gravitates to ‘our desk’ and finally ‘my desk’. The woman confronts Mr Millar: ‘Did you know, a woman can serve / too lavishly? She drains, to a vessel.’ She flirts, she teases (adding three sins to the conventional seven), but also confesses her guilt to him. At this desk, she may write on unruled paper and by implication in an unruled or unruly way. Mr Millar becomes her muse and, perhaps, mine. The adopted voice encouraged me to write more freely about ‘difficult’ themes such as class, religion and the role of the female writer.

Not far from a miniature book, a sequence of poems can grant a tantalizing glimpse of the novelist’s process: nurturing characters to life, sustaining momentum, monitoring motifs and unifying threads. Poems gathering within a sequence start to illuminate each other. One of my favourite stages – shuffling and ordering – resembles a tender marshalling. Doubts are constant, because ‘expansive’ can easily drift into ‘superfluous’.

I love making decisions about typography and presentation, such as whether each poem needs its own title, and how that determines the sequence’s overarching title. Should the poems be divided by numbers, letters, asterisks or simply white space?

My most recent long poem was a rather different writing experience from the sequences. In Um Glossário do BairroA Glossary of the Neighbourhood (LPM 27), the central character is arguably a place, a neighbourhood in Lisbon where I lived for a short while. The alphabetical order imposed by the glossary form generated some unpredictable leaps, while the Portuguese subheadings added further randomness. I enjoyed writing these entries in prose poem form.

For me, the greatest challenge is recognising the point at which to conclude a long poem! It could otherwise run on and on, deepening into a sanctuary I’m reluctant to leave.

Long Poem Magazine offers a wonderful home to long poems and sequences. The journal celebrates the unlimited spectrum of ‘long poem’ – its propensity to surprise, and the adventures open to us when we allow ourselves to stretch out.


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