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Interview: Jeremy Clarke, poet

09 March 2011

'I will go into a church when it is empty'

I've always written. But about 15 or so years ago I decided simply to be brave enough to commit myself, thoroughly and properly, to it, whatever the cost, as it were. There's a fine line between bravery and in­sanity, I believe.

My most recent book publication is Devon Hymns- a record of my time spent on a Devon dairy farm some years ago. I'd left London with the vague idea that a bit of quietness might facilitate some creative thought. The book was one of the things that came out of that time.

Much of my other work is rather urban. I'm interested in what I feel most people dismiss, disregard. There are countless moments of eye-watering beauty in the simplest of urban realities. Stand on any patch of pavement, and you'll see and hear it. It is happening underneath what we normally register. In the smallest details.

"I'm a perfect stranger/passing through the commonplace, amazed." If there's anything that I hope might happen through my writing, it is that people might walk through this world in that way, almost with a sense of awe, which certainly in an urban context gets lost. Partly be­cause we're inundated with so much wow factor technology, the lights, bells and whistles of the urban experience, we have to constantly make choices as to what to attend to and ignore. Attention spans get neces­sarily shorter. The small details of life begin to be dishonoured.

I'm looking down right now, and in the street I see a flashing light of a zebra crossing, and that's a simple thing. If a child looked at that, it would stand amazed for some time, till it was tugged away by its mother saying, "Come on: we've got to do something else." It's not immaturity, it's awe and wonder that we're born with, that we eventually have edu­cated out of us.

If you walk in the world as a perfect stranger, as a child does, everything is worthy of attention, is examined, considered, picked up, put down. If we walked through the world in this way, it would change everything.

I see God's creativity in every single moment in human interaction, at the lowest levels that people often don't consider or think of as creative, of bringing something into being - a half-smile between strangers, a dog looking up into its owner's eyes, the slow fall of a leaf, a breeze stirring a puddle, all randomly occurring, generally dismissed. It's that creativity that I'm trying to express all the time, and point to as worthy of our consideration.

I live in central London. At times, the relentless energy of the city can be challenging, and lead to sensory overload. Perhaps that's why I'm a night owl. Night is when the city boils down to a level of freneticism one can just about relate to.

I'm not sure where my sense of obligation to write comes from. Finding a reason for a particular compulsion is never straightforward. I believe that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. It's enough to simply know that.

What makes it worth it? Finding that something you have done has been a blessing. In whatever way or ways.

Paying the bills is always difficult! I need acres of time to think and pro­duce work (ideas too big, brain too small); so I simply can't do too much other work without being diluted and delayed in what I'm trying to achieve. I work a few hours in a second-hand bookshop, which makes a dent in the rent.

And I'm about to add a little some­thing else: poet-in-residence at Eton. I'm not a teacher, but rather will be hoping that my one small example of a way of working, of paying atten­tion, might offer something to inter­ested boys in pursuit of their own individual voice. We will learn from each other. I'm looking forward to it.

Blake thought education had a lot to answer for in making us grow up, learn to run businesses, have families, rule the world. Well, we do need to grow up - doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible "Now I have put away childish things"? But it's vital to re­tain an openness to things. All artists walk through the world in this way.

I think it would make the world a gentler place if we all did so. If you're honouring everything, whether it's a leaf in flight or the flashing light at a zebra crossing, you can't help but have an empathy for the person be­side you, whether you know them or not.

I've just published a long piece in the journal Artesian called "Walk­ing In Beauty". It's about a street sweeper walking through his day shift and then a night shift. He is himself un­noticed and disregarded, and yet sees, hears, and understand every single thing. For me, the street sweeper is a kind of reference image of how to pro­ceed through the world. If we walked through the world in that ground-level way, paying that kind of close attention, it would change everything, make us more worship­ful, appreciative, more acknowledging of each other, and of God.

When I talk about my search for truth, I suppose it is linked to the search for beauty. But beauty is so threaded through the ordinary one is tripping over it at every turn.

I have a rather simplistic way of walking through the world as a Christian. I rarely attend formal church services. I will go into a church when it is empty. I very much like being "attached" to a church, and having a spiritual guide (I have both at St Pancras Old Church, London). I regard that kind of home base vital.

I consider my working to be prayer, and what I produce to be an exten­sion of my faith. I think I have in­vented a new kind of urban monas­ticism. . . It's important that I maintain a connection to a par­ticular church: a rootedness in an otherwise un­rooted life. And this great sense of peace I feel when I walk in to that place, or any church - a traditional church - if empty and alone. I feel that I have come back, in that par­ticular moment - this small home­coming. Then you go out, leave home, carry on.

The most important choice I have made? Well, the one where I decided to embrace poverty, obscurity, lone­liness, and rejection by deciding to write full time [laughs]. And regrets? I have no regrets about making that choice, of course. I regret the loss of certain people - some through faults and weaknesses of mine. But, in the end, it's difficult to have re­grets. What I've been through has led me to here: to what I am, to what I've produced, to where I'm growing. What­ever the journey you're on is, it's the right one.

Posthumous fame would be lovely: I hope I get to enjoy it. It would please me to think that one or two pieces of mine might continue to resonate and have meaning and relevance to a few others in the future - if people could walk through the world in this way.

Tutelary or kindred spirits? Milton, Van Gogh, John Berger, Emily Young. They are mentors and guides and quiet supports, both for what they have done, and the way in which they have gone about doing it. Milton wrote Paradise Lost when he was 68 and completely blind. I'm on my knees.

I don't have a favourite place. Having one would mean having to tell every­where else: "Just so you know, you're not my favourite." Awful. I tend to move a lot: 13 times in 17 years. I love to be able to look and listen and learn in a different street, engage and adapt to new circum­stances, difficul­ties, differences. It all goes in, and changes you. And some­times it comes out, on the page.

My favourite part of the Bible is the Psalms. Well, it's the only part I read, really. I'm sure that makes me a pretty useless Christian. I take some con­sola­tion from the fact that Jesus read them. And that monastic tradi­tions use them as a focus of their worship. Whittle it down further? Psalm 1. It's like having one poem. How many do you need?

When did I last get angry? Good­ness, what time is it now? I get angry all the tedious time. Usually at my­self, and quite often at uncooperative inanimate objects, They have their sly way of provoking you.

I'm happiest when I've just put down on the page - after weeks and pages of workings out - a line that finally seems to work. I'm un­happiest immediately afterwards, when the newly blank brain says, "Yes, fine, fine. Now what?"

I don't actually pray for anything; I usually just give thanks. Quietly, rather too quickly, perhaps. I pray the Jesus Prayer often; and the Lord's Prayer.

Locked in a church with someone? Well, it would have to be Jesus, wouldn't it? If only because I'd like to know if I was on the right track (or, indeed, travelling in the right direction). If he paused before an­swering, I would immediately know that, up till then, I'd been slightly missing the point.

Jeremy Clarke was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.jeremyclarke.com  



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