Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Tipping Towards the Light

A conversation on the poetic process with Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems. Her most recent collection, Minsk (Faber & Faber, 2003), was shortlisted for the Forward, T. S. Eliot and Whitbread poetry prizes. She has also published a novel, Mary George of Allnorthover, which won France’s Prix du Premier Roman Étranger. She lectures at Goldsmiths College and reviews for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) and the New York Times. In 2000, she was awarded a NESTA fellowship in order to pursue her interest in optical technologies and the history of perception. Her work for radio includes programs about the Arctic and the Baltic, and about the solstices and equinoxes, as well as an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day. She wrote the libretto for Ian Wilson’s chamber opera Hamelin and is working on a second opera with Elena Langer.

Minsk is a mysterious puzzle of a book, perhaps Lavinia Greenlaw’s most peculiar and oblique collection so far. It covers an encyclopedia of subjects and a great deal of geography—from childhood’s home to a classification of zoo animals to the Arctic Circle and onwards. This rewarding book explores place: how we see and are asked to see exits and thresholds and boundaries—these moments where change occurs. So what better name for such a collection than “Minsk,” a word that is foreign and mysterious, a word that “does not arrive empty-handed”; a word that became for Greenlaw “a parable about the place we believe to be missing from our lives, a place which we cannot get back to and which might never have existed.” It is also an extremely enjoyable word on the tongue— who doesn’t love to say “Minsk”?

I met Lavinia Greenlaw in London in the fall of 2003 at the announcement of the Forward Prize. We spoke via email about her writing process.




The Falling City


I was eight, I was atmosphere,

more than willing to take to the air.

The world was locked and clear.


For a moment the glass forgave me,

curved like a hand that absolutely

loved me, let me down so gently.


© Lavinia Greenlaw. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and Faber & Faber


S. E. Venart:
In the Fall 2001 issue of the Paris Review, Billy Collins, being interviewed by the late George Plimpton, opens the interview by describing his preferred writing tools in great detail. Writers are not often asked to describe their tools; I guess it’s assumed that a pencil is a pencil and paper is paper. This couldn’t be farther from the truth; writers spend entire evenings poring over Levenger catalogues or studying directions to certain pen shops on side streets in Edinburgh. Could you tell me a little about your preferred tools?

Lavinia Greenlaw:
I once borrowed the perfect pen from the poet Sean O’Brien and have been looking for it ever since: black ink, the finest possible nib and assertive enough to calm my wayward handwriting.

I carry three or four pens, in fear of being stuck without one. You can always write on the back of a bus ticket but you need something to write with.

My notebooks have to be unlined and roughly A5 size. That is the space I am comfortable working in. The paper has to be off-white and reasonably substantial, but not watercolour quality or I feel pretentious.

My favourite notebook was French and something like an old school exercise book. It had dark brown card covers and yellowish pages. I went through several before it was discontinued. They still make them in other sizes but they are just plain wrong for me.

I cannot use anything fancy. When I taught at Amherst, I discovered the town has made a cult of the notebook: leather-bound, Italian handmade paper flecked with gold leaf or autumn leaves, covers embossed with Great Thoughts. Although writers are particular about their tools, they go about the thing with a certain kind of avertedness which the fancy notebook would pre-empt.

The physical act of writing, its rituals and arrangements, is inseparable for me from the mental one. I cannot write poems on a computer, nor prose by hand. To write fiction, I still have to leave my desk and take to my bed with my laptop. I’m sure it has to do with years spent curled up with a notebook. It just won’t work otherwise.

I also depend upon several pots of tea.

SV: It’s interesting that you use the computer to compose fiction but use paper for poetry. I wonder what part of the brain decides these things and makes them habits. You also write for the Guardian and the TLS, and recently you wrote a libretto, Hamelin. How do these types of writing fit into your laptop-versus-paper habits?

LG: The libretto started out in a notebook, but I found giving it a formal layout on screen helped me to shape it. I could compare the length of different scenes and judge the accumulation of words (important for an opera) better once they were on printed pages.

Reviews and essays are done on the computer. I make a lot of notes, which are often (deliberately?) illegible, and then set to and end up saying things I would not have thought of until I started bashing the thing out.

I think, with all these things, it’s a question of scale, construction and momentum. I often scribble diagrams. A computer helps me write quickly and comfortably but not to see what I’ve written. I can only read and proofread on paper, with a pen in my hand. It always surprises me that many of my students never print anything off; they do seem to have little eye for detail as a result.

SV: How do poems come to you? Do you uncover a poem in the process of writing it, or do you have sudden flashes of inspiration and fully formed poems, or both?

LG: I never go looking for ideas for poems. When one arrives, it is as a sensation, which I can best describe as a sense of connections being made. Sometimes there is a phrase to go on immediately; otherwise it might take a while to emerge.

This sensation may be equivalent to your “flash of inspiration” in that it is unprompted and mysterious. As the poet Michael Longley once said, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” Occasionally, the poem arrives entire but more often the idea waits years to find its missing part, and then becomes something altogether different.

The first words I have might belong anywhere in the poem and, although it’s rarely obvious, they bring with them the form and music of the whole thing. I don’t mean that they will be metrically ready-made, but that their metrical character is inherent rather than imposed.

All the matter is there in that first phrase, but it can take a long time for it to be revealed. I write more words, so the thing accumulates but the experience is more one of taking away—exposure, refinement, focus.

So it is working towards something rather than making it. It already exists but has to be reached through language. This is where it gets exciting because words spring their surprises.

SV: You spoke about the importance of detail. Do you enjoy crafting your work?

LG: I enjoy the revision stage. Once the poem has been netted, so to speak, I have part of it down on paper but the writing goes on in my head, often when I am walking or doing other things. Words, lines, emerge and are felt, tested. I know the right words are there somewhere, the gaps can be filled (I know there are gaps), but how is another question. Sometimes, they won’t emerge, and the poem has to be abandoned.

It is an odd balance of concentration and inattentiveness, the active and the passive. What is missing is felt not known; again it is a sensation and cannot be articulated or even imagined. This brings to mind Robert Lowell’s description of Elizabeth Bishop’s process—her extraordinary combination of practicality and perfectionism, getting it organized but knowing how to wait: “Do / you still hang your words in the air, ten years / unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps / or empties for the unimaginable phrase— / unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?”

SV: Elizabeth Bishop has been noted by critics to be an influence in your work. How do you feel about this?

LG: I am pleased that someone might detect the effect of Elizabeth Bishop in my work. She is the poet from whom I’ve learnt most. I go on learning from her. I have long been preoccupied with questions of vision, and so was thrilled to discover a poet who could (as she said about Gerard Manley Hopkins) make palpable “the releasing, checking, timing and repeating of the movement of the mind.”

This makes it sound as if she reduces everything to slow motion and single frame, whereas, however patient and precise she is, the excitement of her engagement is sustained and is vitally present in the finished work. There’s a rare sense of something having been completely grasped yet brought to us while still thrashing about—as if Lowell’s phrase “casual perfect” were a special Elizabeth Bishop tense.

Yes, she would wait for the “unimaginable phrase” but she would also go after the truth of the experience, even if it meant getting her hands dirty. By this, I mean she would pursue exactness beyond aesthetic comfort, which most of us find far harder than we’d care to admit.

This mix of restlessness and patience, inquisitiveness and engagement can be found in your poetry. It is a curiosity that is not quite innocent, sometimes wise beyond its years, sometimes humble. I’m thinking of the first line in “Guidebooks to the Alhambra”: “Things change, become home and we must leave them.” This line is a hard, grim truth, a one-line sermon. It reminds me how one precise line in a poem can be like a puzzle the reader unpacks, and once unpacked the words can make us see something—some part of our lives, for example—in a new way. Pound’s “make it new” and all that. This is all leading to a question about curiosity and the poet. What part would you say curiosity about the world plays in making poems?


I am more interested in wonder, which Heidegger distinguished from curiosity by its quality of unknowing. My poem “Against Rhetoric” concerns this—the moments when we come up against the limits of comprehension and articulation, and have to feel our way into something and then find a way to describe it.

Curiosity is flattering and reassuring; it is about saying “I know something new,” rather than “This is new.” It gives us more to talk about and less to think about, whereas wonder renders us speechless.

I like the way poetry acknowledges this fumbling towards sense in the ever-emergent qualities of its language.

SV: Wonder is better. It has humility, fragility and suspension. Wonder, then, is the act of creating a line, the moment when the word is as yet unchosen. It is a good note to end on. Thank you for speaking with me, Lavinia.


‘What Makes for the Fullness and Perfection of Life’

It only came back when I stopped to consider

the small ways in which a garden holds water,

and paused halfway through the door in suspense

like the dream which, early that morning,

had flicked its magnificent tail then was gone.

© Lavinia Greenlaw. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and Faber & Faber.