16 March, 2015Issue 27.5InterviewsLiteraturePoetryThe Middle East

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An Interview with Jenny Lewis

Kristin Grogan


Jenny Lewis is a poet, playwright, and songwriter. She teaches poetry at Oxford University and is a Core Writing Tutor at Pegasus Theatre, Oxford. She trained as a painter at the Ruskin School of Art before reading English at Oxford and gaining an MPhil in Poetry from the University of South Wales. Jenny has published three collections of poetry: When I Became an Amazon (Iron Press, 1996), Fathom (Oxford Poets/Carcanet, 2007), and Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/Carcanet, 2014). She has also published two chapbooks of poetry in English and Arabic with the Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh (with whom she is going on a five-city reading tour of Morocco later this month), Now as Then: Mesopotamia-Iraq, and Singing for Inanna (Mulfran Press, 2013/2014), and her reviews and articles have been published in World Literature Today and Poetry London. Jenny has also written extensively for the theatre and was a songwriter in the 1960s. Her latest collection, Taking Mesopotamia, is inspired both by her father’s involvement in the First World War and by the Epic of Gilgamesh.

What struck me, first of all, is that this collection (or sequence) contains an extraordinary blend of both personal and historical material; it encompasses both historical epic and subjective lyric experience and expression. It is inspired by your family history—your father’s involvement in the First World War—but it also expresses world history. The personal and the historical are always closely intertwined. How do the two, the personal and the historical, or the lyric and the epic, relate? Are they ever in tension?

The book started with an exploration of my father’s role as a young Second Lieutenant in the First World War Mesopotamian Campaign at the suggestion of the late (and very much missed) Jon Stallworthy. Jon was Professor of Poetry at Wadham College and a leading authority on First World War Poetry.

My father, who was by then the RAF Medical Officer at Biggin Hill, died during the Second World War and had been in hospital throughout my mother’s pregnancy and when I was born. So the journey was as much an attempt to recover a part of myself (the lost father) as it was a way of documenting the First World War Campaign and drawing parallels with the 2003–11 Iraq War.

As I researched his regiment, the South Wales Borderers, and their war diaries at the National Archives, I was struck by how absolutely wars repeat themselves in stupidity, brutality, and incompetence. For example, the lack of intelligence about the way Southern Iraq floods in March and April in the First World War meant that troops were wading chest deep in contaminated water, dragging guns, provisions, and carts for the injured; the inadequacy and inefficiency of weapons and supplies in the recent Iraq conflict forced soldiers to deal with grenades that failed to explode and guns that jammed in the heat of battle; and the hubris of the military leadership in both wars resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It was this hubris that led me to equate the latter day fiascos with Gilgamesh’s arrogance in the Epic of Gilgamesh—an arrogance which caused him to challenge the gods and, ultimately, his own downfall.

I wanted to lay these strands side by side (like sticks to make fire) and allow them to speak for themselves. My intention was to create an almost three-dimensional effect that spans time, geopolitical distances, and emotional responses.

At times I felt like the sequence had been written in installments; I enjoyed watching the form change, evolve, and take on different shapes as it progressed. It is also clear that the collection involved a great deal of research—research into family history, into world-historical events, as well as interviews and journalistic work. Could you tell me something about the process of researching and writing the poem(s)?

I started by spending two years at the National Archives, the British Museum, the South Wales Borderers Museum, and the Imperial War Museum researching the Mesopotamian Campaign. I soon discovered the Epic of Gilgamesh and I started to write ‘matching’ poems around similar topics and themes. For example, some of the war diaries’ prose poems deal with floods so I wrote echoing poems about Enlil, god of Air who sends the Deluge to wipe out humankind (because of their propensity for war and conflict), and how Uta-napishtim, the Sumerian equivalent of Noah, survives the Deluge. Later, I started matching twenty-first- century Iraq War poems based on news reports and interviews that fitted the same themes.

There is an incredible formal range in Taking Mesopotamia: you play with structure, with stanzas and line length and typography; some poems are lists while others are paragraphs. What motivates your choices to move between forms? Do certain subjects require certain forms of expression?

I wanted to stretch myself as far as I could in experimenting with ways of dealing with the “poetic utterance” as it has been conceived over centuries. For example, the earliest types of poetry were probably chant and incantation used to curse enemies, bless the harvest, and aid the hunt. Early Celtic poetry uses lists a great deal. I chose prose poems for the diary poems as I thought them more suitable for reportage—to carry the voices of soldiers and child survivors.

A sequence based on interviews with an Iraqi from Mosul living in exile in the UK (Ramez Ghazoul) was written as unrhymed sonnets because his reminiscences were so elegiac. In ‘Non-military Statements’, a numbered list was a way of echoing the emotionally reductive quality of military euphemisms; for example, “collateral damage” for “civilian deaths”, “extraordinary rendition” for “kidnapping.”

I wanted to write about animals in war and ended up writing a long poem, ‘The Welsh Horse’, as a sestina. ‘Hints for the New Recruit’ is a series of found poems taken from a First World War pamphlet I found at the Imperial War Museum. I remember thinking “Oh, I haven’t included a pantoum!” so the poem ‘Learning to Love my High Heel Leg’, taken from a TV interview with a young woman soldier who had lost a leg in the Iraq War, was a fairly late inclusion.

All the linguistic and typographical experiments kept the process of writing fresh for me during the six years that the book was in development and I hoped that would come across.

The sequence is not just about the First World War; it also encompasses an incredible range of historical and literary material. The poem is in conversation with the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from 2700 B.C., but it also includes material from contemporary military events and Britain’s involvement in the Middle East: ‘May 2010’, for example, is an interview from 2010 with Georgia Watts, a mechanic in the British Army on active service in Basra in 2007, while ‘June 2010’ comes from an interview with Adnan al-Sayegh, an Arabic poet from Iraq now living in exile in London. What does this range tell us about history, about the changeability (or not) of events, attitudes, or emotions? How are the ancient and the contemporary in conversation in your poem?

My first book, When I Became an Amazon (Iron Press, 1996), set the imagined story of a mythical Bronze Age Amazon girl, Oreythia, against the modern story of a woman suffering breast cancer and mastectomy, so it seems to be an approach that comes naturally to me to use the ancient past to reflect contemporary issues.

Sadly, it seems that human nature doesn’t change and the same mistakes and atrocities get repeated countless times over countless centuries. I don’t know if reminding people of that helps in any way, but I find it fascinating to explore that territory.

Your poem ‘The Call Up’ is subtitled ‘i.m. Wilfred Owen.’ How important are the poets of the First World War to your work? How does your collection come to terms with their legacy?

I first read the First World War poets at school when I was coming out of a Keats obsession and they have been incredibly important to me. Wilfred Owen has always been my favourite because of the tremendous intensity of his later poems which I think he achieves through his use of half rhyme and other prosodic techniques.

He was born and brought up close to the Welsh border in Oswestry and, being half Welsh myself, I sense that he was influenced by the musicality, complexity, and sophistication of Welsh poetry with its use of echo, harmony, and cross-harmony (types of cynghanedd). In ‘The Call Up’ my line “boulevards cobbled with skulls” echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 (“They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls…”) and “we waited in the long grass, our shoes drowned in buttercups” echoes the famous line from ‘Spring Offensive’ (“where the buttercups/ Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up…”).

The First World War poets left a vital legacy and in fact I was going to use a line by the lesser-known Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge, from his poem, ‘War’—”I am Love and Hate and the terrible mind/ Of vicious gods…”—as an epigraph to the book, but I already had two so I thought a third would be too much.

The final poems in the collection are translations from Arabic. What importance does translation hold to your work or your writing process? How do these translated poems resonate with or complement the rest of the collection?

The Arabic versions of my poems are particularly meaningful as they have brought my work to a new, Arabic-speaking audience which has led to some wonderful new friendships and encounters. My meeting with Adnan Al-Sayegh and subsequent collaboration with him affected the book deeply and gave me new insights into what he describes as the “profound despair” of the Iraqi people.

Translating to and from Arabic has given me a better knowledge of Arabic poetry and an understanding of the challenges of translation. In fact, on 17 March Adnan and I are attending a four-day translation conference in Morocco on ‘Poetry and Resistance’, after which we are going on a five-city reading tour, ending in Marrakech on 27 March.

W. H. Auden wrote in his elegy to W. B. Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But poetry can also persuade, shock, entice, protest, move, or delight. I wondered whether you had specific aims—be it personal, historical, political—in mind? Are the poems of Taking Mesopotamia, with all their historical detail and lyrical richness, trying to make something happen?

A central aim was to find out about, and come closer to, my unknown father and in some ways that was successful. Another aim was to pass on to readers what I had found out about a lesser known episode in British military history, especially as the recent Middle East conflicts have their roots in that campaign.

Building a better understanding between Arabic- and English-speaking communities of the reality of the wars in Iraq and their aftermath has certainly been achieved through readings and events for both English-speaking and Arab audiences.

In the long term, as Gilgamesh says to Enkidu on Tablet III of the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, “As for humans, their days are numbered, whatever they do is just a puff of wind.” Yet however pessimistic we are made to feel by the fact of history endlessly repeating itself, it is still important to bear witness, to take notice, to connect emotionally and try to make some sort of a stand.

Kristin Grogan’s review of Taking Mesopotamia will appear in Thursday’s ORbits.

Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.