LIDIA VIANU -- ANNE CLUYSENAAR
I delight in trying through my poems to make space for what can’t I believe be said perfectly in any language
Interview with ANNE CLUYSENAAR (b. 1936), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: You are a poet of dissimulated tension. Your lines seem in perfect balance, but the noticing reader will not fail to discover the restlessness. Is it a restlessness of the displaced? You were born in Brussels and came to England before the war, when you cannot have been older than seven or eight. Has England felt like home all these years?
ANNE CLUYSENAAR: I would say that I feel fully ‘at home’ in the natural world – wherever I experience it – rather than in any social world. There is no country where I feel I belong. I can’t be sure whether this is because of my history, though no doubt my history has suggested to me that chance has a great deal to do with where we can (if we do) feel at home, and perhaps that very thought accounts for a degree of distance from any one society.
LV. You studied English and French literatures at Trinity College in Dublin. You were an academic yourself until 1987, when you became a freelance writer. Were you not afraid of the tension this could bring to your writing? Have you ever experienced a writer’s block?
AC. Not sure what ‘this’ refers to in your third sentence, Lidia, so I will pick up on two possibilities:
(i) I wrote poetry from the age of seven. Teaching literature and above all poetry was never for me opposed to the act of writing. Rather, I have always been interested in poets, what makes their language effective, their varied processes of composition as illustrated in their comments on writing and especially in their drafts. I suppose that is the ‘society’ I feel most at home in! Perhaps too (with your first question in mind) that is because such society crosses boundaries of space and also of time.
(ii) Throughout my academic career, I thought of myself as a poet doing a (poetically relevant and interesting) earning job. So when I could see the opportunity of stopping full-time teaching, I gave up academic work without the slightest regret. I had seen my father work all his life as a painter, nothing else, so working full-time as a poet seems quite natural to me. Since my retirement from full-time academic life I have continued to do part-time creative-writing teaching, for many years at Cardiff University and also have taken workshops in the community and in schools. I still take occasional poetry workshops. I think of paid teaching as ‘earning’ and writing as ‘work’.
Yes, I have had writers’ block a few times. It has usually happened at the start of a new phase in my work. I am accustomed now to think of this block as a good sign, associated with both fear and excitement, together with some dread of the sheer effort ahead! Still, I find that I have genuinely to think ‘this time, I really have stopped writing’ before something new wells up. Meantime, all I can do is devote time to trying…that is, to doing (apparently) nothing!
The best description I have read of all this is to be found in Anton Ehrenzweig’s THE HIDDEN ORDER OF ART, 1967.
LV. Who, or rather what were your parents and why did they decide to emigrate from Belgium to England? Are you happy with this decision? Were they Belgian?
AC. My father was the sculptor and painter John Cluysenaar, from a long line of architects, sculptors, painters (there exists a Fondation John Cluysenaar in Belgium and an associated website). The male line seems to have originated near Clausen in Bavaria, and three brothers worked as journeymen-builders on Cologne Cathedral before one moved to Amsterdam, starting our particular line which eventually settled in Belgium four generations ago.
My mother was of Scottish-Irish stock. She trained as a painter at the Slade in London under Melton Fisher (who made a fine portrait of her), and did some fine work in stained glass as well as painting before she married. After her marriage, she found (as she told me) that ‘two temperaments in one house’ led to difficulties, so she gave up her career to support my father’s.
We emigrated because my father foresaw the war (when many of his Belgian friends did not). He had some contacts with England, his mother being of Scottish descent – a Gordon of Thrieve Castle – and he himself having spent some (not very happy) years in an English public school, Marlborough.
LV. Would you have become a poet if you had stayed in Brussels, do you think?
AC. I can’t answer that! Of course, there would have been a different sense of language. My first language is French, and I remember hating English when I first had to speak it (I had my third birthday in England and had to switch to English, shortly after the move, when my Swiss (French-speaking) nurse spent time in hospital – it turned out then that I had absorbed English from hearing my mother speak it, even though I preferred to use French). It is possible that my adult sense of the limitations of language would have been less strong than it is if I had remained French-speaking and that this would have affected my poetic themes. I can’t regret this as I delight in trying through my poems to make space for what can’t I believe be said perfectly in any language.
Because I reached the end of my schooling as my parents moved back to Belgium, I was (at seventeen) left very much to make my own way in Southern Ireland (where they had settled for a few years while I finished school).
I used to feel that my relative freedom from social constraints – certainly from those I would have experienced in Belgium, where the family is well known – was fortunate, if not always easy.
I mentioned earlier that I had been writing poetry since the age of seven. This was with the support of my mother, who read literature of all sorts to me from an early age. That would probably have happened even had there been no war and we had stayed in Belgium.
My own writing, and contemporary poetry, were already of central importance to me by the time my parents returned to Belgium. I think that if I had been brought up in Belgium I would probably still have been an artist, but maybe a painter or sculptor rather than a poet.
LV. You have quite a number of wonderful poems about a life partner. Tenderness is by far your forte. The poems about childhood are also very intense. But you have written none about motherhood. What has your life been so far, what is it now?
AC. Motherhood enters my poems through my mother. I have not myself had children but did experience being a dearly-loved child.
Love has several times been of importance to me but could not, until I met my husband, lead to marriage. I have now been married for over thirty years and my marriage is of great importance to me. Walt and I live on a smallholding, surrounded by animals, and live very simply from day to day.
LV. You write with an air of neutrality, as if you were hiding behind the page. You refuse to lend plot to your lines. Their movement is solely one of ideas. The emotions are stifled, as if you were afraid of revealing your vulnerability. How did you reach this formula of strong, intellectual poetry?
AC. I am more focused on my relationship with the world around me than on people, though there are people I love and admire and would give my life for.
Personal happiness is always at risk. Ultimately, each of us is alone. At that point, whenever it comes, it is what we feel about the world that matters most. The world is always there and we need above all to grasp the significance of our place in it. But not only intellectually – intuitively. The human intellect is there to help us avoid gross stupidities, including social/religious antagonisms, and to make space for intuition to work in. Homo sapiens can sometimes experience a sense of being at one with the force that creates life. The mystics of all religions have tried to express this. The danger lies in trying to express that experience in culturally and historically limited words, over which we may later come to fight.
I recently I wrote some autobiographical poems, which I may not have sent you, and I attach them here. But there are also in Timeslips ‘Poems of Memory’ which don’t fit your description. If my emotions are ‘stifled’, where did you find the ‘tenderness;’ you refer to above?
LV. You also paint, I understand. What do you like to paint? Your landscapes – in poetry – are remarkably neat, as if drawn in words. And yet your poems are not easy to visualize, because of their intellectual tension. Your mind is like a tight wire, which you walk while you write. Why is the poem such a place of desperate intensity with you?
AC. I have always been able to draw and sculpt. A talent perhaps inherited from both parents. My subjects? Animals, human figures, forms in nature – above all, the mysterious wonder of line as it emerges from the hand. It may be that, because my father was a visual artist and a strong personality, I felt freer, rather early on, while living at home, to develop as a poet. In the Cluysenaar family, there is a history of the sons getting away from the fathers in order to develop their art. And moreover, I am an only child and knew my father had wanted a son. By the time I lived alone in Dublin, as a student of literature, the direction was probably set. I have done some drawing since, especially after I retired from academic life, but my skills are less developed in that area, especially when it comes to handling colour.
Now, the poem is where my life is – bound to be a place of tension, where survival is in question! So I think that the poem is not a place where there is no feeling. Your question might rather be, perhaps, what kind of feeling?
I remember hearing about a poet in one of the concentration camps who knew that his poems would not survive. A friend who did survive said that this man continued to write because the process was central to his existence. I am reminded too of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankel’s account of those who survived Auschwitz with him – he observed that those who were able to develop ‘spiritual freedom’ and appreciate nature in such circumstances were those most likely to survive.
LV. You must hate confessional poetry, considering that all your poems in Timeslips (New and selected poems, 1997) reject any description of your own life openly. Your experience is veiled in your thought. I have noticed this to be a Desperado (my term for Postmodernism) trait: the poet takes refuge in a remote literary landscape, in myth, in science, anything but his own life turning into words. I confess I am a great lover of poetic confession. Do you consider that to be the wrong expectation of poetry?
AC. I am not at all averse to poetry exploring personal experience so long as I sense it’s honesty and an absence of any ‘look at me’ tone (any emotional one-up-manship). My favourable review of Myra Schneider’s poetry would illustrate that, as does I think my editorship of poetry for Scintilla. But I am also delighted by poetry that explores our sense of the world, as the later Wallace Stevens does.
In my poems, I hope moments of my life do ‘turn into words’ (I am moved by Rilke’s comment on turning the world – which includes ourselves – into poetry). But, to achieve that, it is not necessary I think to look inwards rather than outwards – we are after all matter become conscious and can see realities whether we look in on ourselves or out at the world. We are always present in whatever we see.
I think that the only chance one has of writing as well as one is able is to write about what one feels deeply. Others will then either find it relevant to their own experience, or not. Perhaps it is relevant to say here that the music I love most is that of Mozart and Schubert.
LV. How did you come to poetry? Was it because you studied literature? When did you start writing?
AC. I don’t know how I came to poetry as an art – it happened before I was self-aware in that sense. But I would say that my earliest memories are of experiences which have a poetic quality, a sense of the numinous.
I scribbled unintelligible ‘poems’ from infancy, which I used to leave in hollow trees! But I attempted long intelligible ones from the age of seven.
LV. I am preparing an anthology entitled New Europe Poetry. I have often thought I should have called it Old Europe Poetry, because the idea of this new, homogenous Europe they are trying to propagate by their wooden language (new to you – but I have been through communism and do not want it again, the wooden language, I mean) scares me. I want my peculiarity. Do you want yours? If you do, wherein does it reside? And where? Brussels? Dublin?
AC. Well, I think I’ve indicated that pretty clearly. I want to write about what I want to write about! I don’t want to be told to write about politics, or love, or the city, or anything else. And I am committed to others having the same freedom which means the social/cultural/ environmental conditions that make it possible. Having escaped from Fascism does not make me keen on Communism, or on any other ism.
I am aware of being relieved that I live in a beautiful country, Wales, that is not ‘my’ country – with my English accent, I can’t be taken to be Welsh, so I am not (as I can be in England) taken to be a native – so, here, at least I am not in a false position.
I want my writing to have a positive influence on those who read it and feel some kinship with it. I want it to help counter the destructive effects of a materialistic and superficial culture. I do not believe in the saying ‘it will all be the same in 100 years’ – no, it will not, it will be different, depending on how human beings behave in their world and that, in turn, depends on how we understand the world and our place in it.
LV. You write forcefully. You are so strong that sensibility may be a hateful word to you. But I can see it, when you do not watch yourself, it shines through in some uncensored lines, here and there. Are you an independent poet? Or do you belong to a trend?
AC. Not sure I can answer this, Lidia. I feel we should be talking rather than writing. But I know myself to be easily moved to tears and don’t especially want to hide that or ‘watch myself’. But the intensity that goes into writing is less emotive than deep – ‘too deep for tears’.
As for ‘independence’ or otherwise: I suppose I am independent – certainly not aware of being part of a movement. But I hope that there are others moving in the same direction as myself.
LV. Who were your masters in poetry? Who are your poetic friends? I should think you have a voice that is related to Fiona Sampson, Eva Salzman, Carol Rumens. How would you define your poetic personality?
AC. Among the first poets I greatly enjoyed were Thomas Wyatt, Emily Dickinson. But I like a great many poets, past and present, whose voices are nothing like mine, both ‘classics, and ‘romantics’. If I am influenced, it would be by their ways of working rather than by their poetry – for example, Alexander Pope’s wonderful precision with prepositions, John Keats ‘loading every rift with ore’ (both of these can be witnessed at work in their drafts)…
The nearest to ’influences’ might be Henry Vaughan and also John Keats, Edward Thomas, Jeremy Hooker, and the prose of the great mystics of all religions.
It would be for readers to discover my poetic personality – which will no doubt strike different readers differently.
LV. You started as a French speaker. Is English your home-language, so to say? You write about chasms of words. I have an intense feeling of insecurity when I read you. Do you have it yourself or is it just my construction? Do you feel this integration into the European Community to be reassuring or a threat?
AC. Insecurity is (as the saying goes) my middle name!
Well, less flippantly, I am not insecure so long as poetry is at the centre of my life. But I am conscious that the risks I have taken in my emotional life have been possible only because I place poetry at the centre, but this is not poetry as publication but poetry as (initially at least) meditation.
As for Europe:
I feel I could live anywhere, provided I had access to nature. I value greatly what is special about the different areas of Europe. I would want Europe to respect and value its various communities and not seek to eradicate their differences, while helping to lessen the tensions that exist or may arise between them.
The same applies to the planet as a whole. We do need, I think, to develop a long-term perspective that values Homo sapiens as a evolved creature and understands how the species’ existence will in future be threatened not only by our own behaviour but by the nature of this planet (with its moving tectonic plates) and the surrounding universe (with its asteroids) .
LV. As a last question, why do you write? Is it a need, an escape, a self discipline?
AC. Poetry is my ‘country’, it is where I live – but this is not an escape, it is an adventure, a moving out into what lies, mysteriously, all round me. Hence my interest in science – science is a form of exploration which I admire for its questions, its discoveries and its sense of wonder. I see my writing as an exploration that takes, again and again, some new direction, but one which is also a development.