Control and chaos

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022)

Eclectic in its themes, subjects and forms, the poems in Life Drawing are bound together by the verve and verbal freshness of Spencer’s observations

Kris Spencer’s debut collection is chaotic and carefully controlled. Formally, the poems chop and change: classical odes sit side by side with free verse; sprawling lines reach across to prod the contours of narrow shape poems. Some poems contain recipes; others erasure and repetition, or enjambment and a jumble of references that span centuries and continents. All poems achieve a rhythm that keeps the reader turning pages.

The poet has a deep respect for odes but is not afraid to remodel and modernise. Part Two opens with a self-aware erasure poem, ‘Ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out’. In this poem, the self-effacing poet paints himself into the world by continually adding and removing lines even before the original has had time to settle. Brilliantly, in the closing lines – ‘This day is too light | Somebody SHUT the door’ – the erased verb could be an imperative in response to the light or an explanation for it. Through this ambiguity, Spencer creates more open doors than closed ones.

The ‘Ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat…’ also contains a stroke of genius in the positioning of an allusion to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) immediately before a crossed-out line from Hamlet’s address to Ophelia at the end of To be, or not to be. Such linguistic playfulness fills the pages of Life Drawing.

Alongside grandiose literary and classical allusions, small details of family life also nestle cosily into place. In ‘Enough’, the simple joys of the present are a refrain: ‘Today, we give our daughter some pencils… | Today, our son rides a bike…’. In these isolated instances, life is stripped back to its most basic foundations; the poet’s sincerity of expression propels the reader to adopt a childlike innocence too.

The intimacy between artist and subject suggested by the collection’s title courses through the poems’ veins. Life drawing requires attentive observation and a willingness to commit to seeing that which is right in front of us. Like an artist’s attempts to reduce the complexity and changeability of a real-life scene to a single (undoubtedly flawed) interpretation of it, the poet’s task is similarly imperfect.

Unsurprisingly, human bodies occupy large swathes of space in Life Drawing. Even so, some of the collection’s best poems have no human subject at all. One particularly interesting set of recurring images involves birds. The poet looks at birds with open eyes, steering clear of tired associations that plague too many animal poems. Instead, Spencer has a keen eye for observation and discovery, as well as a freshness of expression.

‘Magpies’, first published in Issue 6 of Briefly Zine, and ‘The Enormous Matter of Landscape’ provide contrasting examples of man’s destructive capabilities. In the former, humanity’s selfishness costs cackles their chance at life. The poem’s claustrophobic form, tragically paired with the image of the ‘plastic bag’, gives way to a much freer expanse in the latter. Nature has returned – ‘hills’, ‘old reeds’, ‘insects’ – accompanied by the poet’s much-loved ‘Brightness’. The human subject, ‘drunk | in the afternoon sun’, continues to embarrass himself, but now the panorama has zoomed out and rendered man an insect. Even if the inebriated poet is barely aware of wings soaring above him, he is at least self-aware enough to admit he does not control the surroundings: ‘I cannot say this is my place.’

A similar perspective-shift occurs in ‘We Need to Find a Forest’, one of the collection’s most subtly urgent poems,

In a moment, I see the world through my son’s eyes.
Following ants on the pavement,
crouched and earnest, he says:
They won’t ever know we are here.

The sincerity of the child’s words cuts deep. In a world on course for climate catastrophe, ‘with the light failing’, the poet cannot help but be affected by the innocence of his son’s remark. The title’s urgency comes from a stinging awareness of a future without the self and a recognition that chaos is close.

Indeed, the collection closes along similar lines, with ‘The Song of the Self’, a Sanskrit-inspired poem that sheds more light on the complexity of the human subject. ‘The Self lies beneath five layers, | felt through the scratch and flare of the Self’, the poet states enigmatically. As such, ‘When the five veils unpeel… | the Self lies revealed through the reflection of all that moves and changes’.

Life Drawing is a debut collection that doesn’t stop moving. Its poems flit between layers, keeping the reader guessing what is revelation and what is reflection. It is a collection that speaks to a changing world.

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022). Available here (US) or directly from the author (UK) via email:

Conversation with Kris Spencer, author of Life Drawing

Daniel: Life Drawing is a wide-ranging and far-reaching debut collection. For how many years were you sketching, shading, re-painting and putting the finishing touches to the book?

Kris: I started writing poetry a couple of years ago and soon became hooked! I wrote five poems in quick succession. Thought I was Auden. I was writing to myself; getting that great feeling we all get when we create something. I wrote all summer. Sent my poems off to journals but nothing was happening. I realised I was off the mark. But I think it was useful to have written this off-the-mark poetry.

Then I got three poems accepted. It gave me a boost, at the right time. I wrote some new poems. Through the Poetry Society, I was able to show these poems to Rachel Long. Speaking with Rachel was crucial. She gave me some great advice. More than this, she was able to share and communicate her joy of poetry. It was a huge boost. That’s been my approach since. Work, re-work, re-work again. And, then, when it all gets a bit gluey, I show my poems to another poet.

D: These are some really helpful points about the need for collaboration and conversation. Poetry is essentially dialogue: speaking to other poets always helps unstick things.

K: I found, for Life Drawing, the Ode poems were helpful too. They gave the collection a punctuation. The chapter quotes were also useful. And I worked with a great editor at Kelsay Books. She was involved, and had an excitement for the project.

I have also benefited from your feedback at Briefly Write. Useful, warm, authentic. By the way, how do you approach feedback on poems?

D: Thank you! First (and foremost), we read with great respect for the words on the page. Writing can be a deeply personal experience and, as readers, reviewers or critics, we should never underestimate this. Second (and contradictorily), we try to read without fear. After reading the same lines time and again, familiarity can cloud the poet’s ability to “see” their own words clearly. Fresh eyes can help with that. Third (and crucially), we do not try to “correct” anything or find the perfect solution. Poetry is subjective; every writer and reader bring unique layers of meaning to a poem.

K: It is so good to hear your reassuring answer. I recognise that warmth and respect from my own experience of working with Briefly.

D: One meeting point between the individual and collective is popular references: we might all know the same names but we have different experiences of and reactions to them. The range of references you call upon in Life Drawing is vast, from Confucius to Iggy Pop, Pikachu to Goya. What common threads hold together these diverse creators and creations?

K: I think we have to be careful. Firstly, to give our readers credit that they can delve into and get references. And, then, to also guard against things that are obscure or highfalutin’. I do try for this balance. Referring to a work or a person can work in a poem as imagery – it’s also pretty concrete. Undoubtedly, it can also help to authenticate a poem (whether the reader buys into this is another thing). I would not want to refer to something or someone just for effect. So, in that, there is an element of curating. I think a fair bit of how I write is about curating.

I also think it’s more than just wheeling out our heroes. I wrote a poem about Elvis. He means much less to me as a musician than, say, David Bowie. But there is more space around Elvis, and so I was drawn to writing about him, and Priscilla. I once visited Graceland. Carrying all my British irony. The reality was that there was no irony for my fellow visitors, or in all the diners and bars around the site. Just love and respect. It was a sharp lesson. So my poem has some sadness and ennui, but no irony or postmodernity. (I still haven’t seen the film but I suspect Baz Luhrmann went the same way.) I wrote an ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat which aimed to mimic one of his paintings. So that was pretty literal.

D: That’s a fascinating way of putting it. For everything we write, there are a billion possibilities of words, images and references we could use… but ultimately we must settle for a select few in each poem. Can you say a bit more about your experience of ‘curating’ your first collection? How did you decide the poems and messages you wanted to include or exclude?

K: I was interested in colour and light. In this collection not every poem ended this way but that was something that I fell back on, probably too much. Colour and light are my happy places in terms of imagery. For this collection, these were all the poems I had, and I was writing up to the wire. My choice of inclusion, for the most, was based on whether the poems had been taken up by a magazine or journal. I have a very poorly developed sense of what poems will work for other people. I get caught up in the act of writing.

Quite a few poems are about my children and my wife. There were some which were more experimental (in my head, at least). And then some that were about art and creativity. I put each group together as best I could, and then tried to find a bit of rhythm in how they were placed against each other.

It may all be moot, all this time spent curating. Whenever I pick up a poetry book, I start in the middle. I can’t read a lot of poems in one sitting. But I do go deep when I find something. It’s a bit like visiting an art gallery – after four or five great paintings I’m looking for the café. In terms of messaging, in a way I am writing for my children as adults (they are seven and nine, at the moment). So, even in the darker poems I want to communicate a respect for people (and words). And, I suppose, the importance of looking up and noticing things in the moment and on reflection.

D: Projecting your poems into the future raises some intriguing ideas about time. One of my favourite poems in the collection is ‘Imagine’, in which you hypothesise a (Lennon-inspired) utopia… without people. ‘Imagine you were the last person on Earth,’ the poet muses, with the power to bring eight billion humans back: ‘Would you do it?’ Do you have an answer to that question?

K: The answer takes us out of the realms of poetry! I think this has become a central question for us all. Are we humans inexorably flawed? We do terrible things, as a species. But we also do beautiful, kind and wonderful things. I am of a view that, for the most, we do those great things for ourselves. And yet as a teacher and father I have great hope in our young people.

It is in my lifetime and my generation where we have messed things up in terms of the environment: the rise of central heating in every room, motor cars, affordable foreign travel, plastic, globally sourced supermarket produce… supermarkets! And, yet, having said all this I would be reluctant to give up any of these (apart from maybe plastic and out-of-season raspberries) for the greater good. That’s the problem. I am the problem.

It’s going to be around 10 billion people by 2050. Then we stop growing. 25 years, or so, to make things better. I don’t see it. The world seems to be dividing rather than uniting. The future looks to be a chilling prospect. We must believe that science and technology have what it takes to get us out of trouble (if we can’t trust our governments) but science and technology got us here in the first place.

D: Let’s return to poetry then! One of my favourite poetic techniques is enjambment (where meaning spills over the end of a line). You use this to great effect in the title poem where you write, ‘Like Velásquez looking at | the Infanta Margaret Theresa’. In this way, the end of the line opens up a hundred possibilities for seeing differently. The reader is forced to pause (albeit momentarily) to ponder where the painter is looking… and it is fitting that the answer is one of the subjects of Las Meninas, his enigmatic perspective-shifting painting. To what extent do you use spaces outside the poem to change meaning within?

K: That’s a lovely question. Not least, because it was so daunting to me, when I first started out. The basics that you need to write a contemporary poem. You have it spot on – to my mind the white space around the poem is the key. Certainly, to lyric poetry. I think the shape of the poem is everything. If the lines are boxed that means one thing. If you have a line jutting out – why? I am no expert on enjambment. I am more interested in the shape of poem: if you scrunch your eyes up what does the poem look like on the page?

But there is no doubt that you can have bad line breaks, and also good ones which, as you say, open things up or suggest a question – or leave something hanging which might even suggest a second meaning. I like to write long, thin poems; when you have lots of short lines it is mostly about sensible breaks but sometimes you might happen on something that adds to the meaning and flow.

As an aside, one thing that amazes me is the power of the tercet. You write a long, dense, single stanza poem – redress it as tercets (or couplets) and suddenly the poem has some air and it looks fresh. Why is that? And I should end by saying Las Meninas deserves a poem on its own. Such a thing.

D: This has been an illuminating conversation. Thank you, Kris, for shining more light on your (brightly lit) poems. Any closing remarks?

K: How to close things up? I have found our dialogue to be a lovely thing – beyond that, it has been enriching. I say this selfishly, on a wholly personal level (I have written two poems since we started this, informed by what we have talked about). It makes me think of dialogue and collaboration in poetry. I have been helped by a number of very well established poets. I wonder if there is any other art form where one can have access to the great and the good so easily. And with such warmth. Ted Kooser says there is no money in poetry, that is what makes it great. But, we do need enough green in the system to keep journals and competitions – and poets – moving happily along. Have you any thoughts on what a sustainable future for poetry might look like?

D: ‘The future of poetry’ seems beyond the scope of our little literary space! There are a lot of things we want to achieve with Briefly Write but the fringes are a comfortable place for a small journal like ours. It’s great to hear, though, that our conversation has fuelled more poetry! Do you know where your poetic journey is going to take you next?

K: My thoughts are now on my next collection, which I know is not a foregone conclusion. That great uncertainty that we talked about earlier. I do think poetry gives us an excuse to look at things, an excuse to notice. And then, the writing of the poem gives us the chance to measure ourselves against the thing – are we up to communicating what we see? From my perspective and experience, one can only get close if you listen to where the poem is taking you rather than force or lead the meaning. Easier said than done, but one might think it is there for a moment. And, that’s more than worth all the trying.

Kris Spencer, Life Drawing (Kelsay Books, 2022). Available here (US) or directly from the author (UK) via email: