Martha Sprackland talks to James Conor Patterson

Poetry London regularly dedicates a third of its pages to poets who are new to the magazine. Here, Poetry Editor Martha Sprackland chats to Poetry London first-timer James Conor Patterson, whose wonderful poem ‘Dead Cat Bounce’ is published in the Summer issue of the magazine, available to buy here. The Summer issue will launch on 18 June with live readings from eight featured poets; details here.

James Conor Patterson is from Newry. His writing has appeared in the Guardian and the Irish Times among others. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2019.

MS: Hi James! What can you see out of your window?

JCP: I’m spending lockdown at my girlfriend’s mum’s house in north Belfast, and it’s amazing to see how quickly the familiar can come to seem uncanny given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.

The normally busy road near the house has been reduced to a trickle of cars and a handful of walkers being careful to keep their distance. The sun still shines and spring still abides, as you’d expect, but the atmosphere is one of trepidation.

Birds chirp louder than usual from unseen corners of box hedges and tall oaks, and crayon-coloured rainbows adorn the windows of every second or third house. It’s not that the landscape is different necessarily, more that the context has changed from the last time I stayed here.

MS: Your poem, ‘Dead Cat Bounce’, which appears in the Summer issue of Poetry London, is an ambiguous account of a near-accident on a railway line, ‘seconds from disaster’. Could you tell us a little more about the origin of the poem? There’s something slightly Schrodinger’s cat about it, to my eye – the train both crashed and not-crashed.

JCP: The poem comes from a sonnet cycle I’ve been working on, which tracks the collapse of the Irish economy in 2008 through the eyes of a student undergoing his own form of mental collapse. Events in the student’s life seem to presage movements in society at large; where failed relationships echo the government’s failed attempts to rescue the economy, exam results are harbingers of skyrocketing unemployment figures, and in the case of ‘Dead Cat Bounce’, narrowly avoided railway catastrophes come to seem like small victories over death.

In financial jargon a dead cat bounce refers to the temporary recovery of an otherwise freefalling set of stock prices. The laughter at the end of the poem therefore refers to a kind of laughter of the damned, in which there is a collective sigh of relief at having survived a potential train crash on the one hand, coupled with an uneasy awareness that the crash of the economy has yet to hit rock bottom.

The real disaster, then, is not the collapse of the railway bridge at the start of the poem, but rather the prevailing socio-economic circumstances which allow its passengers to view their own survival as a bonus. The disaster is capitalism.

MS: It’s a sonnet – do you often write in form?

JCP: I do! Though I try not to stick to any rules too rigidly. Formal structures merely offer a framework by which something can be communicated to make it more memorable; whether through rhythm, shape, rhyming structure, whatever. Form offers the reader an incantatory blueprint so that the subject can insinuate itself more easily into their understanding. Like a song, say, or the call and response of prayer.

In terms of the sonnet specifically, plenty of poets over the past number of years have successfully utilised the form at length. I’m thinking of Terrance Hayes’s Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and Vidyan Ravinthiran’s The Million Petaled Flower of Being Here; both of which were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Those books really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be achieved with the sonnet form, not just as singular moments of compressed beauty, but as chapters. Fragments adding up to a fully realised, steel-solid whole.

MS: This is your first time in the pages of Poetry London – welcome! Have you been aware of the magazine for long? Are you a diligent submitter to magazines in general? Tell us a little about your writing life. Do you write on paper, or straight onto a computer?

JCP: I’m thrilled to be featured in Poetry London for the first time! And of course, like lots of poets plugging away at their craft, I’ve been aware of the magazine for many years. There are a handful of publications which stand out in my mind as being on the top level, and with Poetry London being one of them, it feels as though I’ve been granted access backstage to a gig with loads of cool bands.

Am I a diligent submitter? I’d like to think so, though in truth I probably tend to go through little flashes of sending stuff out followed by months of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Which of course isn’t very organised or productive.

The truth is that I don’t know how to build an effective routine, and whether or not working like that is conducive to the act of writing I don’t know. I do have habits though, and perhaps that amounts to the same thing.

I’ll write ideas, images, doodles, or line fragments into a notebook, or if I’m on the move the Notes app on my phone. Once I’ve mulled them over and I have half an idea for a poem in my head, invariably I’ll go straight to the computer. I like the cleanness of editing on screen without the imposition of ugly black pen marks or eraser stains clogging up the page. Writing is hard enough without the added visual trauma of scoring out an idea you thought was good but isn’t. The computer deals with that for you.

MS: How was poetry taught, if at all, at your school? Do you remember where you first encountered it?

JCP: Lots of people have similar stories, but I reckon my GCSE English teacher Mel McMahon—who’s a poet in his own right—got me into poetry first. I had a fleeting interest in lyricism and could appreciate the dexterity of people like Tupac Shakur and Joe Strummer, whose songs were often threaded with social consciousness. But I couldn’t relate those things to poetry. At least not until I was introduced to the work of Seamus Heaney and found that literature contained pockets within which there were people who spoke like me.

It sounds odd, but Heaney’s work seemed to grant permission to the idea that the likes of Shakur and Strummer—and by extension a teenager sitting in his bedroom on the Irish border—had access to a world which, until then, had seemed unattainable. That soothing plainness of language. That lack of bullshit. Those are the things I still associate with Heaney and which still have the capacity to surprise.

MS: What have you been reading, this week? Do you have a favourite book from over the last year or so?

JCP: Right now I’m reading Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life and Catherine Lacey’s fantastic new novel Pew. Neither of them are exactly the most soothing things to read in the midst of a global pandemic, though they do strike me as oddly prescient.

Fisher’s work in particular has lots to say on the concept of ‘hauntology’ and the idea that capitalism is in the process of continuously eroding our hopes for the future. Given the dumpster fire of the UK General Election last December, and the subsequent handling of both Brexit and the Coronavirus outbreak by the Tories… I don’t know. He was definitely onto something.

In terms of my favourite book from the past year, that’s a tough one. But if you’ll permit me I’d like to give two answers: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton.

In the case of Mantel’s sprawlingly detailed and contemporary-feeling biography of Thomas Cromwell, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it. Mantel has a gift for inhabiting her characters and transferring their experiences onto us in such a way that you sometimes forget you’re reading a book at all. You can almost smell the damp hay and shit-strewn streets of London. You can hear the cogs in Cromwell’s brain turning.

And in the case of Stephen’s book, I only want to say that it broke my heart and it was beautiful. Especially seen in the context of the wonderful essay he’s written on the elegy in this latest issue of PL.

MS: I hope your copy of Poetry London has arrived in the post! Your poem looks brilliant. What else are you enjoying in its pages? (You might struggle to answer this one until your contributor copy arrives!)

JCP: It hasn’t arrived yet, though I’ve been anxiously busying myself reading and re-reading the outstanding poems available online. Particularly those by Raymond Antrobus and Maya Catherine Popa.

When my copy does arrive, I’m excited to read Scott McKendry, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal and Michael Longley, as well as work from other first-time contributors Daisy Thomas, Oakley Flanagan and Annie Schumacher.

MS: What’s next for you and your writing? Should we look out for poems appearing elsewhere, or a reading you might be doing? What are you working on?

JCP: I’ve no readings on the horizon, and I reckon it’ll be another while before I feel confident enough to stand in a room with lots of people, though I do have a few poems in the pipeline. One which is dedicated to the late, great Ciaran Carson will feature in the upcoming issue of Poetry Review, and one from the same sonnet sequence as ‘Dead Cat Bounce’ will feature in the upcoming issue of Poetry Ireland Review, which has recently come under the stewardship of the forever wonderful Colette Bryce.

I’m also working towards having my first collection published, though we’ll have to wait and see if and when it lands. It’s about growing up on the Irish border in what’s euphemistically been described by the powers that be as ‘post-conflict society’. Brexit has brought renewed focus on the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ in the north of Ireland, though for people like me, its shadow lingers long after the headlines have disappeared. My collection aims to reckon with that reality.

MS: If you have a pet, we’d love to know their name and see a picture…

JCP: I do have a pet, and I’m so glad you asked! Her name’s Thelma, she’s a Jack Russell/Chihuahua, and my girlfriend and I adopted her four years ago when we both still lived in Liverpool. Nick Laird has a poem dedicated to his pug in Feel Free, and someday I hope to write the Byronesque epic which Thelma deserves. But for now, please know that she’s as old as time, likes to eat ice cream, and answers to the aliases Douz, Mrs. Sou, Susan Sarandon, and Countess Barkievicz.

MS: If you could give an aspiring writer one tiny, seemingly inconsequential piece of advice, what might it be?

JCP: Write in your own voice. Don’t be afraid to be accused of sentimentality. People will tell you that to display any kind of real emotion in your work is cliche, but they’re wrong. So long as you’re honest and aren’t afraid to get right down among the weeds, “abstract” concepts like love and mortality can guide you through your own narrative. Detachment is easy. Committing yourself wholeheartedly to your own biases and admitting, in fact, that you are biased one way or another: that’s hard. Lean into it.

James Conor Patterson’s poem ‘Dead Cat Bounce’ can be found in the Summer 2020 issue of Poetry London.