Let me count the ways...

By Jacqueline Saphra

Poetry couples talk to Jacqueline Saphra about life, love and literature.

Are partnerships between poets a good thing? When poets live together, do they bring out the worst or the best in one another? Do they have to draw blood or be blighted by unidentified lung disease or end in suicide? Must they be passionate but painful, creatively productive but emotionally destructive?

Perhaps the earliest example of a working marriage of two poets is that of the Brownings, who fell in love with each other’s poetry before they had ever set eyes on each other. Their relationship inspired Elizabeth Browning’s series Sonnets from the Portuguese, which Robert called “the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare’s”. It could be that the love of a good poet is the best tonic: once Robert had wrested his beloved from her eccentric father’s clutches, she rose from her sickbed and was able to lead a normal life for a few years, rather than remain a chronic invalid.

Ted Hughes’ and Sylvia Plath’s relationship, now the stuff of legend and endless conjecture, was of course less happy and hardly needs revisiting, although that too began with love at first sight. Ted later said that early in their relationship “we were completely committed to each other and each other’s writing”. Certainly the anguish of their liaison became powerful creative fuel for both of them. This was the early 1960s when it was accepted that Sylvia, as wife, would look after the children and of course type and prepare Ted’s manuscripts. However, Sylvia herself was not an easy woman to live with – once maliciously described by her friend Dido Merwin as having “the conflicting drives and priorities of Medea and Emily Post” – but on the other hand Ted’s affairs were a constant source of conflict. A product of her time, torn between the desire to be the perfect wife and the perfect poet, when packing for her honeymoon Sylvia included a recipe book as well as her Olivetti typewriter.

I detected no such domestic difficulties when I quizzed contemporary poetry couples about their relationships. The lack of money, space for books and issues around housework were cited as drawbacks to setting up home with another poet, but it seems that today’s relationships are not haunted by the tortured ghosts of Ted and Sylvia, nor bound by traditional gender roles. In fact they seem to be very positive, providing support, growth and inspiration. And of course there is one thing that any poetic partnership seems guaranteed to produce, and that is good poetry.

Penelope Shuttle met Peter Redgrove in 1968. She admired his work already; he was especially attracted to her because she was reading a volume of Thomas Hardy’s poems and he was a big fan of Hardy. Penelope describes Peter as “tall and broad … an easy person to talk to”. Shortly after they’d met, Peter wrote to Penelope for the first time: “I thought we were different kinds of people and that if we could avoid quarrelling unnecessarily we would have some interesting things to say to each other, and that we were about a similar business, and that too many people about that business were too much alike.” Musing on his words, Penelope says “That business was both poetry and life, and his words were prophetic, weren’t they?”

Early in their relationship they “swapped literary hats”, Penelope says. She was fired up by Peter’s poetry and began writing more poetry herself; he was inspired by her prose and began to write more of his own. Peter was 16 years her senior and Penelope thinks the age gap was definitely helpful; they were at different stages in their careers, each doing rather well, and so there was little potential for competition. “Peter was a kind of human shield”, Penelope says. “He supported me and allowed me to write”. In fact their relationship allowed them to see their writing as a vocation: each “understood about writing” and gave the other space and of course they both had a passion for poetry, which gave them a great deal in common.

What did they bring to the relationship? “Partnership, consolidation, support, permission”, Penelope declares. Before they met, Penelope says, many of Peter’s influences were male. She brought him closer to the idea of poetry as Elizabeth Bishop’s “surrealism of every day life” and “he was able to get more in touch with his feminine side”, she explains.

As well as teaching together, they worked extensively on each other’s drafts. Penelope didn’t type Peter’s manuscripts as Sylvia did Ted’s; in fact it was he who used to make small bound notebooks of drafts of her poems and his own, which he dubbed “fascicles”. Penelope’s best advice is “Never work on each other’s drafts at home. You need to get away from the domestic, marriage-based roles”. They would sit in a café, somewhere neutral, to critique the work.

Since Peter Redgrove’s death, which was followed by a period where she couldn’t write at all, Penelope says her impetus for writing a poem has changed. Whereas it used to be the excitement of language that triggered the process, now a poem tends to starts with a memory. These days, she leads a more public life as a poet, doing more readings, running workshops and judging competitions. She and Peter had been quite a self-contained pair: “People say they did often feel as if they couldn’t step into our world, that we were slightly apart’. The benefits of Peter’s influence will always be present in Penelope’s poetry: “Being together as poets transformed his work and mine with completion, not having to justify my life as a poet”.

Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat met through music, not poetry, in a pub in Belfast in the early seventies where Cahal was playing the piano. Unlike Penelope and Peter, they were the same age: just eighteen. But just like their predecessors, Ted and Sylvia, Cahal says, “It was love at first sight”. In contrast to the Brownings, it was “love, not poetry” that drew them together. But they did move in poetic circles, socialising with people like Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, so the poetic influence was clearly present from the start.

Anne-Marie was “impressed” by Cahal’s poetry, but also “nervous of what might be revealed”, and Cahal says he quickly overcame his early feelings of envy for Anne-Marie’s work by learning from it “how to write more communicatively”. He says he came to realise that after all “one poet’s successes and achievements enhance – rather than diminish – the next poet’s chances”.

These days, after decades together, both of them are deeply engaged with the poetry world, not just with their own writing, but organising literary events and travelling round the country to various conferences and readings. “It’s great to be able to discuss poetry generally, the latest poem in the TLS, say, the Eliot shortlist, the winners of something or other … even Poetry Please when you’re in the car”, affirms Anne-Marie. They spend a lot of time on the road; not much chance of this couple being caught in a domestic setting, unable to get away from their “marriage-based roles”, as described by Penelope Shuttle. “Much of his work is in Belfast and we seem be permanently in transit between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire”, explains Anne-Marie.

They don’t get involved with each other’s poems “from the ground up” as Penelope and Peter did. Cahal says he shows Anne-Marie a poem only after it’s been aired in a workshop, reading or publication. Anne-Marie has similar instincts. She says she never shows a work “while in progress”. “Nothing kills a poem more effectively”, she declares, “than saying ‘I’m thinking of writing about …’”. But there is no lack of rigour in the criticism when it comes: “I would certainly give Cahal advice” says Anne-Marie, “usually about cutting a poem by two thirds!”, or as Cahal puts it “sometimes picking over infelicities can dislodge a whole house of cards”.

Competition doesn’t seem to be an issue because, Anne-Marie explains, “we’re both fairly happy with how much we publish and with who publishes us. We’ve both won firsts in major competitions … I think it would be hard if one of a couple were the more successful”.

So, another long-standing, fruitful and supportive relationship, and as Cahal puts it, “The fact that we have enthusiasm/endeavour and creativity/criticism in common seems to me, for all its possible pitfalls, to be more fulfilling than if we were say, a hang-glider and oboist respectively”.

Helen Ivory and Martin Figura met in 2004 at a poetry event and were married only a year or so later. Helen tells me, “On my list for an ideal man, a poetry connection was pretty close to the top”, but Martin claims “I was not looking for a relationship when we met, and the relationship I was most not looking for was with a poet”. He does go on to admit, however, “I was pretty much smitten before I knew she was a poet”.

Just as Penelope’s feminine influence awakened something new in Peter’s poetry, Martin says of Helen, “Her work .. opened up the world of myth and fairytale to me … of course you think you can handle it, a few wolves, the moon, giant chickens. The next thing you know it’s Vicki Feaver and Matthew Sweeney and there’s a slaughter house in your skull”.

This literary couple are very happy with their life together, which Helen describes as 90% poetry. They even keep new volumes of verse by the bed and read poems aloud with their morning tea. “Many of our nights out are poetry-related, our friends are poets, there are poetry books all around the house, we talk about what’s happening in our writing. This makes us sound unbearable” says Helen, but with a caveat: “Actually we can dispense with poetry as soon as Heroes or Ugly Betty comes on. The non-poetry is as important as the poetry”.

Do they share and critique their work? Yes, although Martin claims “Helen is far more use to me than I am to her”. Their levels of output are very different: Martin’s own process is very slow, but “Helen’s poems usually arrive quickly and fully formed … she recently wrote three poems while I was downstairs watching Match of the Day”. Sometimes they work in the same room, although “We have a half-hour rule of no interruptions so we don’t break each other’s concentration”. Of feedback sessions, he says “It’s vital that we are honest, but we are sensitive about it”, or as Helen puts it, “We are never over-cautious with each other, nor blunt”.

The fact that they often work in different arenas, Helen more in a page-focused kind of world, and Martin often in a cabaret setting, reduces the potential for competition. Besides, Martin explains, “It’s not like poetry constantly showers you with riches and affirmation, so we are always pleased for each other when there is a little triumph over the odds”. Do they ever argue about their poems? “We’ve never argued about anything”, declares Martin, “such is the purity of our love. Of course I haven’t seen Helen’s answers yet.” “It’s all bliss round here” responds Helen.

So why are there not more poetry partnerships? Maybe the legacy of Ted and Sylvia has made poets nervous. Or maybe two competing creative egos in one household can often be too much. A sense of humour seems add the necessary leavening (Penelope says that early on in their relationship, she and Peter would often stay up all night laughing over words), an age gap can be useful, a focus on different types of poetry can help, but mostly it’s good old-fashioned love and a mutual respect and admiration that seems to keep things ticking along. I think more poetry partnerships should be encouraged – look at all the hard work these pairs of writers do for the cause of poetry, not to mention the quality of their own work. In fact I’m thinking about setting up a matchmaking agency for poets. Each successful coupling will surely be followed by a dynamite teaching partnership, the birth of two or three literary festivals and at least two slim volumes of exquisite love poems.

Penelope Shuttle is putting together a new collection, provisionally titled The Repose of Baghdad, and will be tutoring a residential poetry course at Almaserra Vella from 4th – 11th Oct 2008.

Peter Redgrove published numerous collections of poetry and three posthumous collections have appeared: Sheen (from Stride), A Speaker for the Silver Goddess (from Stride), and The Harper (from Cape).

Anne-Marie Fyfe’s most recent collection is The Ghost Twin, published by Peterloo.

Cahal Dallat is working on his next collection The Year of Not Dancing which is due from Blackstaff in Spring 2009.

Helen Ivory is currently working on her third collection for Bloodaxe which is probably going to be called The Breakfast Machine.

Most recently Martin Figura recently performed as a member of the Joy of Six at the Kings Lynn Poetry Festival.

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