Leading up to the forthcoming launch of Flood-Junk by Sean Magnus Martin we asked Sean a few questions about this fascinating set of poems and his future writing plans. We begin and end this post with Flood-Junk poems to whet your appetite – Cannonball and Black Box. Please join us Saturday 23rd June at the Poetry Cafe in London to hear more!
I find you within a maze
of uprooted trees, half-hidden
in a nest of broken sticks
and lumber – the dark heart
of a dead forest, a bullet lodged
in wood and left to poison.
You were made to kill, rolled
on deck, hand chipped by sailors
to fly in a split-second brutality
before the splash and silence
of the abyss. Why didn’t you
drown like your siblings?
I heft you up and roll you
in my hands, feeling your pitted
surface. You are the world
before light, a black iron moon
fired in the atmosphere, falling
through the night to obliterate
the forest. You are the abandoned
egg of some deep-sea creature, freed
from the clutch and dreaming
of the world to come.
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for Flood-Junk, how it came about and the process of writing it?
Sure, so when I was studying the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa uni, I really wanted to write a book of poetry about the idea of flooding. Whenever I’m back home in Cumbria, we generally walk the dog near the Morecambe bay estuary and for some reason I’d begun to fixate on memories of objects from my childhood that we’d found washed up. One in particular was this piece of driftwood a bit like a longship’s prow, this one-eyed face, half-bird, half-man. I tried to write a poem about it, but started to obsess with the idea that this one-eyed wooden face was somehow Odin, lost in the well of time and coughed up by the sea in our world. It was a strange idea, but it stuck with me, this idea of objects drifting through a sea of time. But that eventually, at the end of the world, all objects would come to wash up in a single place. A kind of cataclysm of junk.
Who are your influences and how can we see this in Flood-Junk?
Hughes was always a big influence, especially the way he uses line break. It’s a huge part of poetry for me and I think one of the most significant differences between poetry and prose is a more intense scrutiny of the line. Poetry, with its intensity, its often inherently confessional nature, is a lifeline, and I love the way enjambment can expose, fragment and compartmentalize that line. You can see that compartmentalization in a variety of poems, but especially in ‘Cannonball’, the lines ‘You are the world’ and ‘You are the abandoned’. I also love form – a consistency of line and stanza length, which grants many of the poems a bit of bulk and I believe fulfils that visual junky aesthetic. But all in all I’d say many of the games I’ve played, TV series I’ve seen and books I’ve read, have made me really interested in speculative fiction.
I’m fascinated by how our world can be transformed, and I’m especially interested in how that quality bonds with poetry; a medium which I’ve always been told is best when it’s transformative. It’s one of the reasons I’m obsessed with poetry that plays with time, because there is no greater transformer than time, it will transform us all into nothing eventually, a sentiment which you can see expressed in ‘Black Box’. Think of the bog body in Black Box, how time has transformed a living neolithic human into a museum piece, has extricated him so far away from his original context – it’s like something out of science fiction. You don’t get much more transformative than that.
Flood-Junk is a very unified pamphlet – did you set about with that in mind?
I wish, but my original manuscript went through a number of different versions. I was trying to weave myth with future apocalypse, trying to add protagonists and narratives, but my failure there was treating the collection of poetry more like a novel – deciding what these poems were before they were even written. One day, when talking to my friend and classmate Ben, I realized that by focusing every poem around an object, I was effectively giving myself a brief for every poem, yet also creating a thematic collection, the primary theme being ‘junk’. This gave me a vehicle with which to explore the more speculative aspects of the pamphlet, whilst focusing on the concrete language I love and retaining an aspect of mystery.
Ash is a recurring theme in Flood-Junk with several poems with this title interspersed through the pamphlet. Could you speak a bit about the significance of Ash to these poems and what it represents?
So the whole character of Ash came about through the story of Ask and Embla in the Poetic Edda. I was exploring Scandinavian myths at the time, mostly because of that weird image I mentioned about Odin being a piece of driftwood. The story is basically a Scandinavian creation myth that talks about the gods happening upon a piece of ash and elm, which become the first man and woman. But I started to play with the idea that maybe they were actually pieces of found driftwood. I liked the idea that they had somehow existed before becoming the first man and woman – to think of driftwood as a living object. Anyone who has ever looked at driftwood will credit how it can look like many different things at once, which is perhaps why it inspires so many sculptors, but I liked the idea of Ash being one of these transient-organic driftwood creatures. I created my own twisted version of the myth, where Ash is forced to painfully take one form, that Elm never washes up, and that even after he is irrevocably changed, he feels that absence. I suppose it was the closest I could get to creating characters who belonged to the flood.
Are the flood-junk items in these poems (cannonball, beer barrels, ash, elm, lawnmower, car) real artefacts that you encountered and that inspired your poems?
Honestly, it was a relatively random selection. I was reading the Master and Commander series at the time, so that’s where Cannonball came from. I saw some Beer Barrels and thought they looked a little like sea mines. Ash and Elm came from the myth I mentioned. Car came about from the fact that I wanted a really unassuming object and title for what is actually, a bit of horrible poem. It’s a centre of gravity in the sense that, it’s the point most people will be like “something’s not quite right here”.
What are your future writing plans?
I would really like to pursue a PhD, with my proposal combining animal behaviour studies research with animal persona poetry, generating a representation of an animal voice. I’m also trying to get into paid games journalism at the moment, so that’ll be a focus too. In terms of poetry, I have an idea for another pamphlet, each poem written about a famous memorialized dog (I love dogs), and calling it, ‘The Book of Good Boys’. Though as my friend rightly pointed out, the title makes it sound like a book the Nazis might have given to children. So maybe I’ll work on that.
I think about the ash
people of Pompeii, still standing
testament to what fire can do.
They huddled together, but how
they chose to die, now reflects
how they lived. The blacksmith
clutching his hammer, probably
worried more about finishing
the horseshoes for Tacitus,
than a fiery death. I think
about the bog bodies, preserved
in peat, their black bin-bag skin.
The prehistoric men and women
who were cloud-gazing or chasing
mammoths when they took a bad
step, a trip to emerge thousands
of years out of context. I think
about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I think about the final seconds
that must be recurring in that
shadow-play, before cataclysm
scorched those memories in
permanence. There is nothing –
the soul is cinder,
the mind eaten,
the body pottery.
Our stories were never
anything more than just
stories, lessons gleaned
from ashes that we learn
Sean Magnus Martin