“I don’t believe in rules or steps”: An Interview with Lavinia Greenlaw

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Lavinia Greenlaw is a celebrated and highly accomplished author, winner of numerous awards in poetry, most recently the Whitbread Poetry Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize, her books include the poetry collection Minsk, The Casual Perfect, and the memoir The Importance of Music to Girls. Her newest, A Double Sorrow, revisits Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and offers a unique extrapolation of those tragic lovers’ actions. Set against the backdrop of the siege of Troy, Troilus is punished by the God of Love and is condemned to suffer an irresolute love for Criseyde, whom resides with the Greeks. When their plans to elope run afoul, Troilus realizes his love for Criseyde is doomed and is later killed in battle.

The poem is as complex as it is beautifully written, all the while using a corrupted form of Chaucer’s seven-line stanza. While remaining loyal to Chaucer’s tale, Greenlaw liberates the original form by providing the inner thoughts and perspectives of four characters: Troilus, Criseyde, Pandarus, and an unnamed narrator. Greenlaw is not restricted by Chaucer’s rime royal stanza form; rather, she moves beyond it to offer her reader a truth that remains unobstructed by the confines of Chaucer’s form. The result is a powerful, new perspective of the tale, one that augments the original in a way that lends itself to understanding the psychological motivations of not merely these two lovers, but of any two lovers.

I spoke with Greenlaw about A Double Sorrow. What follows comes from our email interview as we both sat and wrote the ‘dark-grey walls’ of our writing spaces.

You’ve published five collections of poetry as well as several other works ranging from short stories to novels. Is there a genre you prefer to write in?

I am primarily a poet. It’s where I started and where I end up. The other things come out of writing stuff that doesn’t fit the poetry mould, perhaps. What I mean is I didn’t decide to write a novel. I started writing something that was clearly not a poem and turned out to be fiction. I’m increasingly writing across or between forms and genres, trying to listen to the formal clues given in whatever first arises.

You have an MA in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art. What pushed you towards writing? 

I have written since I could write—poems, stories, plays. Studying art history was a way of extending my thinking about perception, which is my fundamental preoccupation: the imperative to fix images, to map and measure ourselves and the world. Seventeenth-century northern Europe fascinates me. It was the start of empiricism, the artistic study of the natural world, the use of telescopes and microscopes.

GreenlawLaviniaBookA Double Sorrow is certainly concerned with exploring multiple perspectives. Did your academic study affect the writing of your collection?

My studies have helped me to formulate what it is I write about and to extend my thinking into the historical. A Dutch painter could climb no higher than a church tower but they produced  amazing panoramas from a bird’s-eye point of view as well as intricate studies of insects. There was an unanchoring of vision, a freshening of perception, that really speaks to me as a subject.

What does the corrupted form you chose to write in add to the piece? Why stray away from Chaucer’s form? How did this influence your writing and extrapolation of the original text?

If I had rhymed the stanzas as neatly as Chaucer, they would sound rather bland and unwieldy to the contemporary ear. I needed to bring in some tension and to have them resist expectation so they would have some of Chaucer’s rough edges and friction and the feel of wet paint rather than carved stone. The form and tone I found for A Double Sorrow is heightened, essential and timeless—like dance steps rather than a dance. This seemed apt to me in terms of this being everyone’s story.

Some titles of A Double Sorrow seem to inform the reader of an action occurring in the stanza such as “She Lets Him Sink Softly into Her Heart,” while other titles seem to fit into the poetry as a separate line, like “There is Work to be Done.” Was there some overall design to having the titles perform different jobs?

I just wanted the titles to be active rather than passively descriptive or summative. Their function depended on what I thought the stanza needed. Some required a cue, others a frame, others a sub-title or the casting of a particular light.

Is the poem intended to be read like a story? It is rather fluid, but appears as if it could also be read non-linearly as separate vignettes.

I was hoping it would work as both.

Sometimes in A Double Sorrow you present the reader with an inner thought in the form of parenthetical text, such as (why no child?) in “Slub.” Are those examples of some of the “walls” in your text that the characters are confined by?

That’s an interesting observation. Yes, one kind of wall in this is the wall we build in ourselves—for those questions and answers we need to conceal.

What is it about the enduring appeal of Troilus and Criseyde?

The way it has been tossed from one poet to another down the centuries, always changing and yet also becoming something essential; what it has to say about feeling—that we never feel one thing at a time, and argument—that we have several reasons for doing or saying what we do.

While it appears as though a knowledge of Chaucer’s text would be helpful for a reader, it does not appear to be entirely necessary. Is this an attempt to bring Chaucer to a wider audience?

I just wanted to write a book that anyone could read without needing to have read Chaucer. I kept my lanugage clean and provided the titles and an introduction to give a way in. I would like it to be read as casually and familiarly as any other love story.

Like a novel, the collection seems to gain a large amount of momentum during the climax of the story—does this reflect Chaucer’s retelling/translation, or is it something you did intentionally?

I follow Chaucer, in that everything I say you can find in the original. But I edited him down severely and conflate a hundred lines into seven or three words into several lines. The rhythm and dramatic trajectory are a truncated version of his.

What projects are you currently working on?

Fiction about love in middle age, poems about my father’s death from Alzheimer’s, writing on the problem of seeing and not seeing further. They are deeply interconnected books but I wish they’d arisen one at a time.

Was this collection a singular, focused effort or were you working on other pieces of writing in between?

No, I happily stayed in its world for a few years. It’s a particular delight to enter such a masterpiece rather than just a world you’re building from scratch.

Your website, laviniagreenlaw.org, gave me a very professional biography, but I’d like to know more about you as a person: What inspires you? What’s a typical day of writing entail? Do you have any other interests besides writing? Pets? Family?

I’m inspired by myopia, migraine, weather, absentmindedness, light, sea, sky, photography, architecture, film, music, any thing about to take shape, including an observation, any pattern about to form. A typical day involves waking up, making a pot of tea, and not talking to anyone. There is family and pets—both necessary forms of interruption.

What’s your writing space look like?

A dark-grey wall.

What types of classes do you teach?

At the moment, I’m a visiting professor at King’s College London. I’m teaching seminars in how fiction works. I don’t believe in rules or steps, just natural laws which operate differently every time.

—interview by Rob Stoddard

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This entry was posted in Interviews on April 13, 2016