Adelle Stripe is a poet who also writes articles for magazines. She has a very cool name. I was really impressed with her last collection of poetry, which was called ‘Cigarettes in Bed’ and featured a cover that had real cigarette burns. It was a very cool book. We met up in Bradford for a chat about her new collection, ‘The Dark Corners of The Land’, first of all in Sparrow Bier Cafe, then onto The Boy And Barrel (as featured in the film Room At The Top). She was wearing a red leather trench coat. She looked like one of the hip young scenesters that used to attend parties at Warhol’s Factory. What follows is a ‘tidied up’ account of our conversation.
Your previous collections have focussed on urban subject matter. There is a very obvious shift in this collection to the rural. This coincides with your recent move to Mytholmroyd from London. But is this the reason for the change or is the move indicative of something else inside you taking place?
I started writing Dark Corners in 2010; it was a difficult time for me personally as my father was critically ill. He collapsed in the milking parlour and was diagnosed with a rare condition called Boerhaave’s Syndrome. He had a torn oesophagus, and it ripped a hole into his lung. The survival rate is low so it was very much touch and go with him. I think he was in hospital for 110 days, so I spent a lot of time talking to him and drifting through various intensive care wards.
At that point I didn’t know if he would make it, so I started writing down some of his stories as a way of preserving him. I’d write down little snippets of conversations and memories on the train journey home. They gave me some of the raw material for the collection.
I’d also been reading a few writers that stimulated recollections about growing up in the countryside, D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney – but mainly Robinson Jeffers. For me, Jeffers is the master of nature poetry, but is hardly ever mentioned in the UK.
Mytholmroyd is surrounded by incredible landscapes, and I spend a lot of time walking the crags, hillsides, and moor tops around here. It’s impossible not to write about what surrounds you when the scenery is so dramatic. Some of the poems in Dark Corners are set in Calderdale, but most of them were written about Tadcaster and its surrounding areas. I also worked on my cousins’ farm during lambing season, and kept a diary. All of these elements fed into the collection.
Yes, you write touchingly about this in ‘Hospital Corners’ (one of the dark corners the title refers to), the once ‘hard father’ who ‘wrestled mad bulls’ now ‘withered’ and as ‘fragile as a small cold bird’. Your book reminds me of Hughes’s Moortown Diary (a favourite of mine), in its unsentimental and sometimes visceral look at farming life. We live in a country not just torn in two geographically, or along class lines, but also along the rural/urban line. How do you feel about that division?
I’m in a fortunate position, in the way that I experienced farm life until I was in my early 20s, but lived in London until a few years back. Agricultural shows, driving tractors, mucking out, milking cows, bottle feeding; all of those things were part of everyday life. The great thing about growing up in a farming family is the way that you are exposed to life and death every day. You learn to respect the animals, to read them, and work alongside them. But you also learn to give them affection, or try and look after them when they are sick. On the farm man and beast have a symbiotic relationship, some of the poems try and touch on that idea.
City life is so different, and many people are ignorant about the hardships that farmers face. They have this idea of farmers pratting about wearing plus fours, driving Range Rovers and getting subsidies from the government. The farmers I know are some of the hardest working people who get no thanks for the graft they put in. Milk prices are criminally low, and dairy farmers barely make any profit from milk. Most make a loss. We pay less for milk than we do for water in the UK, and I think that’s a disgrace. My father used to work six days a week, 14 hours a day for most of my childhood, for a very low wage. His father did the same. My family have always worked for the gentry and lived in tied houses. I’ve been very aware of my ‘place’ at the bottom of the class barrel from a young age.
Farming is unsentimental and visceral, so the poems needed to be in total opposition to the urbanite pastoral view of the countryside. I wanted them to be bloody, violent and harsh. They needed to be authentic, to reflect a life that is rarely acknowledged in the chattering classes. Aside from Hughes, another poet who really influenced me was Patrick Kavanagh. When I first read his poems a light went on. He’s the reason I started writing poetry; I identified with him, walking barefoot from the fields into Dublin. Behan took the piss out of him for being a culchie, but I defy anyone to name a better rural poem than The Great Hunger.
I was having a discussion with another poet the other day who felt that there wasn’t enough ‘experimental’ poetry about and too much emphasis on craft. My argument was that every poem is an experiment and that in order for an artist to realise his/her vision, a certain engagement with craft and technique is essential. But to an extent, I agree. Where do you stand on the importance of craft?
For me personally, I think it was important to learn how to write a poem, in a conventional sense. Studying craft or close reading a poem is an effective way to make you think about your own work. You may choose to ignore it, but at least you know what the rules are, so you can go ahead and break them. At the same time, getting too involved with craft can rip the heart out of your poems, so it’s about making a decision on when to step away from it.
I’ve written sestinas, villanelles, terza rima, sonnets, ghazals, pantoums, haiku, and have really enjoyed using my own language in those older forms and structures. It helped me develop my own voice, and brought out some interesting experiments that wouldn’t have otherwise surfaced. But, they can become restrictive. You can become too obsessed with iambics – if that dactyl should really be a spondee, the syllable beats, the rhyming structure – and in some way, you do feel a connection to all those poets that have gone before you by using the same structures.
I’ve tried to shake off the straight jacket with my new poems, though haiku still feature in there. A poem like Bad Blood actually has a quite a strong meter, I recorded it with my friend using an 808 kick drum underneath and managed to hold the rhythm really tightly when I read it on the microphone. I think all those years writing in form has left me writing like a zig-zag wanderer, I’ve picked up various syllable hits and have spewed them out free jazz style.
Certainly in contemporary European poetry there’s plenty of experimentation going on, SJ Fowler’s Maintenant series on 3:AM has featured some excellent work from emerging poets. In England we are stifled by literary history and have quite a dull (if worthy) poetry scene that is split into ‘slam’ poetry or conventional ‘stiff’ poetry. There’s not much room for experimentation as so many editors or publishers are just looking for ‘the new Paterson/Duffy /Motion’ who can join the rest of the worms in the bottle and continue the yawn-fest for the foreseeable.
You write in a very honest way about being kissed against your will as a young girl by a pigman in ‘Stolen Kiss’. You are exploring something nuanced and complex, that at 13 you can be a victim of male lust but also feel some ambiguity towards what has happened. How do you feel about the current allegations around Savile and the way that Murdoch is using Savile to attack the BBC?
I was very aware of the predatory nature of men from being a teenager. Aged 13 I was a total dork, I had a mullet, terrible clothes, a moustache, spots, and a massive nose. It’s still a puzzle to me why any grown man would have wanted to get off with me. As an adult, you look back and wish you could give your teenage self a good talking to.
This whole thing about Savile doesn’t surprise me. We now know why he did all that charity work, because he was hiding from himself and wanted to cover up the bad things in his life. He was canonised in Leeds, they even laid his body out in state at the Queen’s Hotel. Savile was an old-school Loiner, a dodgy club promoter who got lucky. He used to have his hair cut at my Uncle Bobby’s salon in York. Apparently he used to chase all the young apprentices around the shop; they thought he was a creep, even in the 60s.
That sort of behaviour was commonplace with rock stars, look at The Stones, Led Zeppelin, always copping off with young girls who didn’t know any better. I think the BBC is only the tip of the iceberg; Savile was flaunting it in institutions all over the country. The one thing it really highlights is how blinded we are by celebrity.
Finally, I have a lot of affection for the chapbook format which you also favour. I feel the chapbook is a great medium for poetry. What advantages do you think the chapbook has over a full length single collection?
The great thing about chapbooks is that they are short enough to read in one sitting. Full length collections can be exhausting. Chapbooks are punk rock – fast and furious! You can read one on your way to work, and you can appreciate all the poems together in a cohesive way. Full length collections are like heavy fruit cakes, chapbooks are petits fours.
The Poetry Library in London has a magnificent chapbook archive, and I think it’s an underrated medium. They are the fanzines of the poetry world, and there are some really exciting writers out there who don’t follow the conventional publishing route. They’re cheap to buy, quick to produce, easy to design, and are a stepping stone for writers who don’t want to commit to writing 45 poems. I also think they are the perfect introduction for readers who might be interested in dipping their toes into poetry’s murky waters.
Dark Corners of the Land is a terrifically accomplished collection and is out now. It is published by Blackheath Books.
You can purchase a copy direct from Blackheath here: http://www.blackheathbooks.org.uk/48.html.
Find out more about Adelle Stripe here: http://darksatanicmills.wordpress.com/