I’m delighted to be featuring writer Noel Duffy, just before the publication of his second poetry collection On Carbon & Light (London: Ward Wood, 2013).
This is the first of a two part interview and will focus on the collection as a whole. in the second interview we take a closer look at some of the poems in the collection.
Noel, congratulations on your second poetry collection On Carbon & Light. Tell me a little about the title and cover, they are both intriguing.
Well, I had the title for a poem called ‘On Light & Carbon’ for maybe ten years. I imagined it would be a kind of technical poem about photosynthesis and while it would crop up every now and then, I never managed to write it. When I started this collection in summer 2010, I finally approached it and the poem that resulted was totally different than one I envisaged, written in counterpoint and a naïve voice. That said, photosynthesis still made it in there. It struck me as I went on with the book and wrote quite a few science poems about light, as well as another about carbon, that this would be a good title for the whole book. In a way, the poem also poses the central question of the collection, as it moves between religious notions of the nature of life and scientific ones that sometimes seem to override those. So, it may seem like a strange title, but it suits somehow. The cover idea really came from talking to artist friend and he had planned to do the cover image by organically imposing the equation for photosynthesis onto actual leaves. In the end, we didn’t get around to it, but when I spoke to Mike at Ward Wood about the cover, I suggested we try do something along those lines. So the leaves in sunlight and the equation came from that discussion. I think it’s quite striking.
In what way do you feel your second collection links to your first, In the Library of Lost Objects, which was nominated for the Strong Award?
This book connects in some ways to In the Library of Lost Objects, exploring the intimate dramas of life against the backdrop of science. Here though, I’ve replaced Natural History with human history and anthropology for the most part, also exploring the role and meaning of myth and art in all this. So there is some cross-over, but I feel the tone is less lyrical and more metaphysical. I’ve also tried to push deeper into certain scientific ideas, but hopefully in a way that I bring the reader with me – whether they know much about science or not. That was part of the challenge.
Having read parts of the collection, it is, I feel, a challenge that you meet, Noel. Can you talk about your general approach to writing poems in the book, perhaps revealing a little about your process?
In the Library of Lost Objects had taken a long time to write as I often wrote fragments of poems and would add a bit and then leave it for months and then add something more. It was a very slow process, though oddly the three longer poems were written quite quickly in a kind of sprint over three or four days, and didn’t change that much after that. So, with this collection, it struck me to try that approach and see what might come out of it. One thing I found was when an idea or mood came it would immediately seem to suggest a title, but I also quickly realized I had to write a few lines down. This acted as a kind of key and a way back into the poem. Then, often the next day, I just riffed on the idea and wrote fragments down in a notebook.
At a certain point, when I felt a poem was beginning to suggest itself, I would move all this into the computer and generally very quickly find the shape and structure for the piece. I would then try complete a decent draft on that day. Working this fast somehow led to the poems being not over-thought and often the results took me by surprise. I discovered that once I started this process, other ideas presented themselves and I would gather momentum.
So I wrote like this for, say, three months at a time and would then stand back. Over three such (intense) spells of writing over a three year period, I produced the poems in the book – and a good deal more, I should add, that just didn’t quite fit the themes that came through most strongly over that time.
Thanks, Noel, for such in-depth answers. We’ll resume next week for a closer look at some of the poems in your collection.
On Carbon & Light will be published this month by Ward Wood Publishing and launched by writer Theo Dorgan in November. See www.noelduffy.net for further details.