Julian’s work combines the lyrical and political. Ambiguous, imagistic, it encourages us to see the world differently, encouraging multiple understandings and different readings. Here, he reads and discusses his poem, Home to the Hebrides, which was published in Ink, Sweat and Tears in June 2020.
I am thrilled that Julian agreed to be interviewed and to share this poem with us. You can listen to the interview in full below, or scroll down to read the transcript.
Poem: Home to the Hebrides
Where are you running to
what are you looking for
rooting in other people’s abandonments
scraping time off the earth into spoil
for stone some sign of burning
a flicker of bone someone’s
life to ponder their gut to digest
through a slice of tooth
a peck of seed
What is it with this yearning
for remote punctuations in the sea’s
as though the soul’s dark ink might talk
and you might hear more
than the chatter of gannets
see more than waves unfurling
a whale puff
From my perspective, the poem calls for multiple readings. I can read this as a poem about the physical practice of archaeology as well as a personal exploration of past. There’s also a reading which implies how transient the individual human journey is in the wider context of nature. How far was there a particular dominant reading you intended?
Julian: No, there wasn’t a dominant reading. And, and I suppose something that that I do try to do is, is to write in a way that opens up multiple readings. It would be an untruth to say that there wasn’t a starting point for me, but I don’t think that there was necessarily an ending point to the poem. And the poem, you know, it’s not punctuated. I do punctuate poems, from time to time, but on the whole I tend not to punctuate because I think that allows multiple meanings to be made much more easily.
The colours in the poem read to me as deliberately subdued, almost monochrome, with the contrast of earth, bone, dark ink and unfurling waves. How far is this intentional?
Julian: This question floored me because I don’t think colour came into it for me. I wondered whether you were projecting because from an artist background colour is extremely important to you. I think that the actions in the poem were more important for me. There is the action of digging, of archaeology. The sea is in there; the sea can be a grey place and the sea can be a wonderfully blue place. But I don’t think I was conscious of colour, I was more conscious of the action in the poem.
Although the poem hints at a narrative voice/journey in the first strophe, it doesn’t read to me as as a confessional poem, and the questions in it read as much as rhetorical questions, implying the transience of trying to revisit the past, as reflective questions for the narrator. Can you explain how you wanted the questions to work for the reader?
The questions are genuine questions. The impetus for the poem was that I’d been reading a book, it might have been Surfacing or Findings by Kathleen Jamie, a poet and writer who I very much admire. one of her themes is an interest in archaeology. There’s also an interest in remote places, and those are interests that, that I share. So the starting point for the poem was a genuine question to someone, and to myself. And it then became, I think, a question more broadly. And, and it is about, in the end, the search for meaning. Looking for truth is the digging within the poem.
I’m fascinated by the transformation of the sea to an open page in S4, which is startling and unusual. Can you explain whether there was a particular image or understanding of the sea that inspired this idea of the sea waiting to be punctuated, or where else the image came from?
If we go back to the root of the poem, it expresses a desire, in a sense, for islands, these tight clearly defined spaces. The islands are very much like punctuations whilst the sea is an ongoing thing that surrounds us. In real life you have places like the Faroe Islands, like this tiny dot and there’s an island not not far from me, part of a number of islands just off the Welsh coast that have the same kind of interest to me.
In my reading, you use internal assonance, alliteration and mid-rhymes throughout the poem, which, together with the images, bring a sense of ambiguity – a sense of place and histories intersected. Are there any particular writers who have inspired you to write in this way, and if so, who are they?
I wouldn’t say so. Particularly in terms of the things you’ve mentioned, you know, assonance, alliteration, mid rhymes, etc. I mean, those are things that I’m very conscious of when I’m writing, and I will deliberately try to do or not do at times. But in terms of writers who, who’ve influenced me, I think when I first started engaging with poetry in in a meaningful way there was a book called the poetry of survival, which was an anthology of poems by post war poets of Central and Eastern Europe edited by Yehuda Amichai. And, and that got me onto a train of reading particular poets. So poets like Paul Celan and Vasko Popa, Tadeusz Różewicz, Czesław Miłosz. And I think I tried to write originally or initially in the style of those poets, poets I read a lot of. Also Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Funnily enough, not many British poets. And I think I was drawn as much by the style of their writing as the content of their writing. So they were writers who are writing in tumultuous times, who are having to be very careful with the way that they used words, in order to get some kind of meanings across. So I think those were, you know, some of the people who, you know, have been sort of, in some way, foundational for me.