Patrick Chapman has published eight poetry collections since 1991, including A Promiscuity of Spines: New & Selected Poems (2012) and Open Season on the Moon (2019), as well as a novel, three volumes of stories, and a non-fiction book about David Cronenberg.
His other works include a short film, television for children, and audio dramas for Doctor Who and Dan Dare. He produced B7’s dramatisation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles for BBC Radio 4, and wrote drama segments for audio docudrama, The Space Race. .
With Dimitra Xidous he founded and edits The Pickled Body. Chapman’s next poetry collection, The Following Year, will appear from Salmon Poetry in 2022.
Q: J. G. Ballard once suggested that literature “is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessels are the written mythologies of memory and desire.” Do you agree? I ask because you’ve been described (you may be interested to know!) as the J. G. Ballard of Irish poetry, but also because your work seems unusually cognizant of life (and art) as a physiological thing or process. I’m thinking of pieces like ‘Worm’ or even ‘Moon Sea Time’ here.
A: Ballard is right that literature is a branch of neurology and art is physiological. The moment we perceive something, it activates our flesh. Literature is information, one of the currencies on which our bodies run, the mind being a side-effect of physical events. Writing is one way of letting off excess information, words that the body doesn’t need in order to function but which can operate at a deeper level to create consensual meaning at a distance. ‘Worm’ and ‘Worms’ (both 1990) are from Jazztown, my first collection; that whole book was a young person exploring life outside the imagination to which he had confined himself. These particular poems were inspired by a trip to London, a journey that was a major deal back then when connections were not instantaneous and London felt exotic but familiar. ‘Moon Sea Time’ is from a decade later, and features a narrator standing on the edge of a sea, thinking of walking in and not turning back. Both poems come from the subconscious but are rooted in real events, which still holds today, as in a lot of my work I don’t interrogate what comes up, I just go with it. There’s a surrealism to these pieces which I enjoy doing – rather than trying to craft the perfect Grecian urn, I like to have something fun to put in it.
Q: Are you an apocalyptic writer? Maybe another way of asking that question would be to frame it in terms of a poem like ‘4°’, which imagines “A billion human bodies / Abandoned in the dunes / Of Italy and France”, the remains of a climate catastrophe through which we can discern, thinly, “The Lost City of Galway / The Lost City of Beijing / The Lost City of Memphis.” I wonder, then: is this an apocalyptic vision, and/or an exercise in realism?
A: Literature needs to be obscene in order to reflect the world with any degree of accuracy. ‘4°’ is a poem I wrote in 2008, when the future we’re heading for now seemed inevitable. It’s not particularly obscene except in terms of the implications of its desolate imagery. It portrays a kind of beauty that does not depend on being observed, the beauty of nature unbound. There’s a Ballard influence in this one, sure. The ‘lost city’ motif alludes to Atlantis, and reminds us that eventually all cities are lost. The classic Maya civilisation was enormous, and enormously sophisticated, but was based on organic material, which naturally decomposed. When westerners arrived, they failed to see the magnificence that had once surpassed anything they themselves imagined or built.
A 4° rise in global temperatures would be a total disaster for life on this planet and not as picturesque as it might be in the poem. If we don’t do something, we’re doomed, but we are already late to the extinction game we started. Human activity eradicates thousands of species all the time, which means trillions of deaths that nobody sees. To the insect, we’re a plague. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, posits a future where the Catholic Church has survived the apocalypse, and struggles to preserve knowledge in a world of ignorance. People have turned their back on technology after the ‘flame deluge’. Yet the book shows that the cycle repeats, that human history tends towards its own destruction. Leibowitz is one of the great novels of the Cold War, during which I grew up; every day felt like it could be the last. Now the apocalypse is ecological but it always was: nuclear war is nothing if not an insult to nature.
My latest poem on this subject, ‘The Archivist’, shows someone preparing for the end of everything. The tragedy of our time will be if we fall just as we were rising to a clear knowledge of the universe. Imagine our lifeless world orbited by one of our telescopes peering out into the beginning of time, sending back the secrets of eternity and no one here to receive them. We’re in danger of losing more than our lives if we don’t sort out the crisis; we’re in danger of losing everything we’ve ever learned. For some people that will be a greater loss than for others.
Q: I recognise the space and world you describe in your piece, ‘Empire Diner’, but from the riven, militarised, volatile planet I live on, rather than from the (Irish) poems I generally read about it. Can you tell us something about how this poem arrived, and what your concerns were when you wrote it? Likewise, I’d be interested to know if you felt, with ‘Empire Diner’, that you had expanded the map (or added a new, perhaps more political dimension) to that zone of artistic endeavour known as contemporary Irish writing.
A: A new dimension? Not really, as there’s always been a political dimension to Irish poetry. ‘Empire Diner’ stems from my fascination with New York, and anger at the endless wars that we in the West are still waging. I wrote it in 2003, during the ‘mission accomplished’ phase of the so-called war on terror, heralding the triumph of stupidity over civilisation. If Bush had accepted the Taliban surrender back then, Afghanistan might not be how it is today – but maybe it would. In Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, John Watson is a British Army doctor returned from the war in Afghanistan. A century later, in Moffat and Gatiss’s update for television, Watson is a British Army doctor returned from the war in Afghanistan. In a sense, it’s the same war. ‘Empire Diner’ was a protest poem, for sure, but like all protest poems, it changed nothing. Nor did it necessarily expand the map of Irish writing, which has never been a consideration when I write. The poem imagines the eponymous NYC diner raided in the same way that Western troops go into other countries. A taste of our own medicine. It was possibly a very different poem to read back then, just after 9-11. I still absolutely love New York. It’s my kind of town.
Q: Your poems are full of monsters and monstrosities. Can you tell us why? I’m thinking of your collection, The Darwin Vampires, but also a poem such as ‘Omertà’, which reads: “Toss the dead babies into the furnace. / Their fumes we will capture / to waft from our thuribles. // Throw the sick babies in with the sewage. / First we will gather and filter their tears / to power our petitions.” Far from gratuitous, however, this kind of work seems (I may be wrong) to be an attempt to face life and history more honestly than most of us are comfortable with: to provoke us into a state of honest recognition of certain realities.
A: ‘Omertà’ is angry. Really angry. It’s a response to the Tuam babies story, the horror, the callousness, the lack of compassion. I had to be honest and go with the imagery that’s in the poem – to throw it back in their faces. Look what you’ve done. Look what you did while pretending to be good. It was only later in life that I got a handle on how growing up rural Irish Catholic can disfigure a psyche. I once wrote that religion is ‘fan-fiction weaponised’ but it is more complicated than that. Some of it was useful to humanity, but we’ve outgrown it as a species. We can still enjoy the music of Bach or the great religious paintings, without having to take as gospel the myths they celebrate. In adulthood I’ve always been a radical atheist but I keep finding splinters of disbelief, if you will, at what our society used to be. It did help make me a poet. The Darwin Vampires, on the other hand, I had fun with. The title poem is trying to imagine vampires who use a different method of getting their blood. They’re discreet but no deadlier for that. Don’t ask me where it came from; I haven’t the faintest idea. Of course, I’m a big fan of vampires and often invite them around for afternoon tea.
Q: Part of what I admire in your love poems is how alive they are to entropy (natural and romantic) – all the decay and dying-out that lovers find themselves living with and threatened by – and yet they also record how memory persists, bringing up and sometimes sewing together the whole life of the past in compelling (and occasionally disturbing) ways. I have in mind poems like ‘Eidolon’ and ‘Giddy Andromeda’, or your collection, Slow Clocks of Decay. Could you comment on this interpretation of your work?
A: Everything has its time and everything dies, to quote a wise person. Slow Clocks of Decay (2016) was written during a period of chronic depression, now lifted, so it is hard for me to look into that book and see where my head was at. It wasn’t very bright and nor was I. A poetry friend died by suicide as that book was starting out, and this amplified the darkness in some of the poems. That feeling has been accessible to me since day one but it’s only become useful in recent years. Some of what appear to be love poems in Slow Clocks of Decay are not. Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights, in which ‘Eidolon’ appears, is full of them. The first of these came to me in mid-1994; two other sequences came later in the 1990s and the early 2000s, all of which coalesced as a book in 2007. The critical distance in Breaking Hearts had plenty of time to mature, though the poet still had some way to go. Decay is a natural part of love, and memory does persist, but a love poem is often an overreaction to a misapprehension, and by the time you get to write it, it’s an unreliable account of anything at all. Eventually the love poem becomes for the poet a distorting mirror. The hope is that the reader will come to it with none of the context the writer can’t escape. As for disturbing? Well, that depends on what your equilibrium is.