Mario Petrucci Interview
Posted on 19 May 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to the very prolific award winning poet and 'lapsed physicist' Mario Petrucci about his life and work, and his thirteen point plan for success
Tell us something about your background.
My writing background is primarily one of not writing. In childhood, I never thought of myself as a potential author. My parents had no books in the house, other than a Gideon Bible closed in a drawer. The first book I owned was Middleton’s Gardening Guide. In a way, those are still my formative texts.
When I did start writing (see below) I joined an excellent and supportive group in Putney (run by Carol Fisher) and, later, the Blue Nose Poets in North London (Martyn Crucefix, Sue Hubbard, Denis Timm). Till then, I’d been working and writing in relative isolation, without the usual English degree and lacking any contact with university literature or creative writing MAs. It was only in sharing ideas and words with other enthusiasts, in a grass-roots community of writers, that I first came to glimpse how vast the ocean of Humanities actually is.
My debut collection of poems, Shrapnel and Sheets, appeared in 1996 via Gladys Mary Coles at Headland. The PBS Recommendation it received was an immense encouragement to me. I’ve several other collections, including: Bosco, a book-length sequence on deforestation; Lepidoptera, an experimental ‘anthology’ combining prose and scientific poetry; and The Stamina of Sheep (based on a Year of the Artist project for Thames, Havering and Essex) which must be the only book of poems ever to have won a ‘Best Fiction’ prize!
I recently completed Heavy Water (Enitharmon) and Half Life (Heaventree), sibling collections both launched on 26 April 2004 to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. These publications form a diptych, two facets of a single extended piece, and are derived from eyewitness accounts of the disaster collected by journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. The repercussions of that fatal morning, the reverberations of those stories, are far from played out. I’m still absorbing, myself, the personal impact of researching and writing that work.
What other work do you, besides ‘conventional’ writing?
As an ecologist and lapsed physicist, I’m forever exploring the interface between poetry and ecology/ science/ war through a variety of forms: with ‘open-door’ articles, as well as within the stanzas of poems. It’s those interfaces which hold the key – or at least the imprint of the key – to grappling with the tragedies and opportunities of this fast, interwoven world.
Day to day, I engage with an eclectic mix of freelance writing, workshopping, competition judging, researching and essay-writing. I’m a writing tutor in schools, and a literacy and museums consultant; I teach for Arvon and Poetryclass; I moonlight as a voice-and-performance trainer, using a pick-n-mix approach of my own design; I co-founded, and run, both ShadoWork (experimental collaborative performance) and writers inc. (a London-based writing organisation). For 10 years I nursed my magazine, The Bound Spiral. It died anyway, but had, I hope, a noble illness. I’ve written songs for an R&B artist, though the bottom’s since fallen out the UK music business. I also play a little guitar (and I don’t mean a small one…).
A few years back, I began actively placing poems in public places. Communal sites are set to become important ‘books’ of the future. Put in a good spot, a poem might get thousands of readers each day – though, of course, the reception of poetry isn’t just about numbers. My first big project of this kind was at the Imperial War Museum, under the Poetry Places scheme, where I devised Search and Create, the museum’s only poetry residency to date. Walk around the atrium there, and you’ll see shrapnel-scraps of text imbedded in niches and behind artefacts. My mice, I call them, tripping up their elephantine, exhibitional counterparts. I still find it uncanny, seeing my poems on display like that. No matter how idiosyncratic the work is – however much of you is written all over it – it always feels as if it must have come from someone else. I’m not sure I ever want to ‘get over’ that feeling: for all the inferiority it implies, it’s quite a generative mode. During my time at the museum, I also got my first commission for libretto. I was asked to contribute a short piece to the BBC’s “Classic Challenge” programme featuring Stephen Warbeck (of Shakespeare in Love fame). A rush job, they said. I had half an hour to write it.
Currently, I’m implementing site-specific work for institutions as varied as Southwell Workhouse and Imperial War Museum North, where my lines can be found busily fusing with wall and exhibit. The Workhouse is a superb location for creativity. Its bald demeanour (walls, ceilings, stairwells, floors) make it profoundly receptive to silence. The echoey structure of the house serves, paradoxically, to amplify silence. In a peculiar way, I feel poems do that too – amplify silence through sound. I’ve just finished a lovely project at BBC Radio 3, its first poetry residency, engaging orchestras and their endangered instruments as part of the Listen Up! festival. Silence – the potentials of silence, even within activity and sound – became a theme in that work, too.
Doing this kind of work isn’t the same as gaining a conventional book-based reputation; but it can influence the ‘unconverted’ public in powerful ways. It also shows that poetry can be alive in a variety of contexts. In this respect, I seem to have become something of a ‘frontier’ man of poetry residencies! That’s not to say I’m against paper. Apart from feeling sorry for trees, how could I be? I try to maintain a strong public presence through such outlets as The Spectator, The Independent and Resurgence, as well as via other media (BBC World Service, etc). I’ve just completed stints as the Poetry Book Society’s inaugural pamphlet selector and as Chair of the Advisory Fellows of the Royal Literary Fund. I lecture at Oxford Brookes University, offering students thought-provoking 2D/ 3D visualizations for essay structure. What’s left of me is given over to writing poetry – usually for an audience of one (or, if you’re a believer, One).
So, all in all, in spite of being self-fuelled and working mostly from home, my writing time and brain-space have become extremely precious. Freelancing can absorb all your freedom, but it does propel you into a new relationship with yourself. I’ve become more focused and productive, more adventurous. But it’s also precarious. You’re rarely more than a few months away from nil income. Without the grants, the odd boost of a big prize, it would all fall through for me financially. I had more time on my hands, I think, when I held regular jobs; but I also had less purpose, had the sharp edges knocked off me, became more regular myself.
How did you start writing?
As I said earlier, I came to writing alarmingly late. Having graduated in physics at Cambridge, I later taught science in a secondary school. I went on to do a PhD in opto-electronics at University College London and (after a break) completed further studies at Middlesex University on the environment and (informally) literature. I’ve also been an organic farm-hand in Ireland and a one-man band on the Paris Metro. In other words, for the first chunk of my adult life, most of my ‘writing’ was done with chalk on blackboard, or with an ion beam on a lithium niobate crystal, or a plectrum across strings, or with goat’s milk against the wrong side (the out-side) of a milk-pail. Reading the biographies of successful writers, you do get the distinct impression they all wrote poetry in the womb, gained PhDs at Oxford with such titles as Glittering Gimlets and The Ancient Mariner, and could boast a heady body of work by the time they were 30. All I had at 30 was a body. Having said that, I do feel there are some (though not that many) advantages in coming to literature with a combination of proto-maturity and tabula rasa. I’m also lucky in being a fast learner and (generally) a quick drafter. You’ll probably hate me for this but I seem to manage, most years, between 60 and 120 poems a year; so maybe I have a heady body after all.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I don’t have favourites, as a rule. Even when I do, they shift and change. I do refer to great writers, of course; but I prefer to focus on strong pieces of work, rather than on who wrote them. I don’t believe in the death of the author (even if we’re heading that way, it’s prematurely announced); it’s just that the moment we list/ classify/ fossilise ‘the best’ we’ve begun to exclude the worthwhile, the very good.
How did you first get published?
By sealing an envelope and licking a stamp, just like everyone else. I think it was with ‘First Time’ magazine, edited by Josephine Austin. I got a proper pound note for it (I held it up to the light). Bless that woman. Although I wasn’t quite stupid enough to frame it, I was unfortunately sufficiently sentimental to archive it.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The various ways in which the writing scene can fail to be a meritocracy. It’s not a total failure, by any means; and, in any case, the notion of ‘quality’ will always be subjective, socially constructed, depending on networks, trends, movements, Zeitgeist. But I do remember being told (either by Carol Fisher or Howard Sergeant) that if you got some comp prizes and mags under your belt, someone would eventually notice you and want your book. I was led to believe it wasn’t good practice – or etiquette – to be too pushy or self-absorbed. None of that seems to apply much anymore, if it ever did. Reputations can still be built quietly, perhaps; but apparently the rocket fuel is to market vigorously, establish your own phalanx of influence, and have some well-placed ambassadors/ agents constantly pushing your work. One aspect of this I certainly don’t like (and this probably says more about me than anything else) is that game of being forever on ‘literary guard’: incessantly sounding and looking the part, always coming across as someone of learning, one who constantly refers to life through the filters of literature. There’s much more to work, to life, than that; but I sometimes sense you’re dismissed or looked down upon if you show yourself as merely impassioned or as having ordinary concerns. Poetry now is sometimes a little too engrossed with itself, with linguistic intelligence. I’d defend that attribute to the death; but not at the expense of emotional intelligence. On top of all this (see what a can of worms you’ve opened) our culture, beyond a small enclave of reader-poets, isn’t actually listening much to its poets at the moment. Given that poetry can absorb anything you throw at it, demanding the best of you – indeed, everything you have to give it – you might reasonably expect, in return, to make a measurable impact somewhere. Ultimately, even when the evidence seems to the contrary, you just have to trust that you do. You certainly have a central part to play in the effects of the creative process on you. These effects do ripple out; and those ripples can’t be quelled – not altogether. If I’m wrong about that, the only responses available to most of us are endless striving, despair or Zen acceptance. For myself, I keep on believing that great poetry, like all great literature, can take the pulse of a civilisation. Wherever, however, such poetry occurs – it matters.
And the best? What was your breakthrough moment?
Breakthrough? I’m flattered that you think I’ve had one! In poetry, the rostrum of fame is decidedly small – only a very few have ‘broken through’ in the way you’re implying. I know it’s canny to always come across as though you’re one of those writers (it certainly pays to play the ‘self-fulfilling-prophecy’ card); but with print runs of under 1000 (not bad, actually, for poetry) I certainly don’t feel the subject of a breakthrough; and, even if I were, I’d have to ask “into what”? Or “what is it, exactly, that was broken”? Does ‘breaking through’ mean your phone keeps ringing? Or that you get the peachy commissions (millennium, royal wedding, etc); that you can make a living from your art; that you’re culturally ‘safe’ for mass distribution; that you’re celebrity-consistent?
Letting the freelancer’s PR instinct kick in for a moment, I suppose I ought to be saying my breakthroughs were winning the Bridport Prize, or the third time I landed the London Writers Competition, or winning the Arvon Prize in 2002, or securing consecutive fellowships with the Royal Literary Fund (= blissful security and time to write), or my residency at the war museum where (for the first time) my phone did actually start to ring, or the day Poetry London placed Heavy Water among the top five collections of the year, thus giving those testimonies a small, but real, chance of being more widely read. But I’m trying to get away from that career-/achievement-based conception of turning points. That day I picked up a pencil and made something entirely my own – now that was a breakthrough. Or the morning I stood bolt upright in the physics lab, struck by the sensation that the experiments of literature had become far more interesting to me than those of physics, far closer to my marrow. Or all the times I’ve sensed language as a constant falling-short – but miraculously so. Or, yesterday, when I became enraged by a freak typo that had crept (in spite of all reasonable efforts) into a piece I’d just published and, tracking down the correct phrase through Google, teeth gritted, found myself unexpectedly face to face with a beautiful contemplation on the genuine nature of human success.
So, I try to keep open to the fact that it isn’t only great poems that make us want to change and be changed. We can discover that transformative energy everywhere, and in just about every one, if we trust the cosmos. It is in our selves. I am a person, first and foremost. The growth modes of the person: those are the real breakthroughs, the best moments
What kind of response do you get from audiences? Does it influence your writing?
I’m told I read quite well. I do put a lot of work into it. I simply can’t understand readers who seem unconcerned about their audibility or delivery. Equally, I’m deeply turned off when performances become gimmicky or slick. I don’t have a great voice; but, when I’m reading, I invoke the poem as an independent being possessed of its own existence, its own purposes. My ego has to get out of the way. It’s the poem, not the author, that speaks.
Moreover, I always write or edit with a sense of audience, the idea that to properly exist the text will have to be heard or seen. At the very least, it must be formed in that small cavern of the mouth: must be cast off on air, launched into the swells of sound. After all, a poem both shapes – and is shaped by – breath. It is somatic as well as intellectual. If inspiration is the breath in, the poem is the breath out.
The very best readings, though, are pheromonal – when the room fills with the sweet subliminal scent of aroused communication. When that happens, audiences help to make the poem. Their response becomes a hologram within you, storing in your bones (and in your ear) the shape and smack of human interaction.
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