Roz Kaveney Interview

RK Sorry I’m a bit late, dinner was delayed. I did a tray-bake of Brazilian black pudding, apple, onion and potato. That lost took a little longer to cook. My partner is out tonight, so I got to eat something she’d think rather disgusting. She’s not all that keen on black pudding.

96 It’s an acquired taste.

RK It’s one I’ve always had. It’s one of the things my father cooked when my mother was alive.

96 It is a standard feature of an Irish breakfast—

RK Exactly. And my father is the Irish side of the family.

96—along with a sad little broiled tomato.,

RK Which I’ve never really taken to. The thing is, everyone thinks of me as totally English, while I have no English ancestry whatever, My family are Irish and Scots.

96 That accounts, in some part, for your poetic ability.

RK I always say I’m an English novelist and an Irish poet. At some point people are going to have to take the plunge and read not only Tiny Pieces of Skull, but my ridiculously vast fantasy novel. It’s somewhat longer than Lord of the Rings. Nowhere near as long as George Martin’s series, but it covers a lot more ground.

I liked some of George’s work a lot, but I don’t like the big fantasy novel, to which mine is in part a reaction. Martin’s is so fucking sexist.

96 I only know it from the television adaptation—

RK —which, if anything, makes it worse, but not much. George and I have never been close friends, but I’ve known him for a very long time. I met George in about 1980, I reviewed his first novel and short story collection. Which is why I can say that Song of Ice and Fire is a long way from his best work.

For a very long time I wasn’t doing any writing of my own, just a lot of reviews and critical essays. There’s a gap between when I stopped writing poetry about 1974, and Tiny Pieces of Skull in 1988. I continued with journalism till ’93. Then I didn’t write anything until 2003 because I was busy doing politics.

96 Why the return to poetry?

RK When I was doing critical writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I decided I needed to engage the fan fiction, because there was a lot of interplay between it and the writers’ room of the series. I wrote some Buffy fan fic myself, so as not to seem patronizing. And that got me writing my own fiction again. Somewhere into that my acquaintance John M. Ford [SF author and poet] died. We had always meant to spend more time together, to get to know each other properly. A lot of my close friends were very upset at his passing, he had been quite important to us, and it fell to me to organize a memorial meeting in London for those of us who couldn’t fly to the States for the funeral. I wrote, and read, a poem for the occasion and people were quite excited about it.  So I thought maybe I should write more poetry.

Then came the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. There was a great historiographical row, from gay men who didn’t want to include trans people in the Equal Employment Act in the States. Various friends of mine, like Susan Stryker [American professor, historian and filmmaker], were doing historical work to show that trans people had been front and center in the riot. I decided what we needed was a poem—the Stonewall poem that’s in my Selected Poems. It was a polemic against the attempts to erase trans people from the record of the riot.

I started writing more poems, playing around with form a little more. I most liked writing sonnets, for they way they organized my thoughts. It lets my subconscious do a lot of the work.

96 You mention that you returned to poetry through an elegy. I notice that many of your most beautiful poems are elegies, for women you have known, particularly the Abigail poems.

RK The two Abigail poems in the Selected are from a cycle of fourteen sonnets, a complete portrait of  Abigail Frost.

96 You certainly know how to rise to a solemn occasion.

RK That’s why there are so many obituary poems, the “Poems for the Dead” section in the Selected. But thank you for liking the Abigail poem, it’s very dear to me.

96 Which English language poets do you most admire?

RK Pope. Yeats. Donne. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Marilyn Hacker.

96 I’m glad to hear you mention Donne, because I think you’re stylistically closer to him than to any of the other canonical English poets.

RK I’ve actually written about Donne. A series of articles in The Guardian, about Donne’s religious poetry. [These are accessible online.] About how I admire his spiritual verse without having any such beliefs. I wrote a similar series about Eliot, much more ambivalent, because I dislike him intensely as a person.

96 Millay puzzles me a little. What is it you like about her?

RK I like the fine-tuned wit.

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

—I love that, and that’s very much the sort of thing I like trying to write. She’s a role model.

96 I take it you are somewhat out of sympathy with modernism in music and painting?

RK Not really, it’s just not something I do. The twentieth century composer I love most is Shostakovich, who’s hardly a modernist. I admire the second Viennese school, listen to Webern. I’m not an anti-modernist, it just isn’t what I do, it’s not me. Which is why I wrote a vast unfilmable fantasy novel.

I like rhyme and form because they work for me. I don’t think they’re necessarily and inherently good.

96 I would suggest that form may have an intrinsic merit, because it’s not possible to convey non-ordinary experience in ordinary language.

RK It’s an argument I’ve had many times with Kathy Acker. She read an early version of Tiny Pieces of Skull  and couldn’t understand how someone so much a part of the counterculture as myself could be so traditionalist. C. S. Lewis said, writing about odd things in an odd way is one oddness too far. Thus my attachment to form. Because I’m writing about being a trans woman living a lesbian life as an impoverished bohemian in a ramshackle flat—that’s enough untidiness and disorganization already.

96 Do you have any religious or occult beliefs?

RK I was reared in Catholicism, educated first by the Benedictines then by the Jesuits, lost my faith when I was twenty—woke up one morning and it wasn’t there. I’ve been around occultists quite a lot without believing a word they said. Rachel Pollack [American tarot expert] was a very close friend who made a number of predictions for me which came true. In my thirties I dated a  Wiccan. When I say I don’t believe in magic, it’s not that I don’t know anything about it. I’d describe myself as an agnostic tending towards theism. I’ve had numerous visits from dead people—always in dreams—where they told me things I couldn’t have known independently. So I can’t be a simple materialist.

Photo of Roz Kaveney © Chris Jepson, Ms. Kaveney’s collection

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