In conversation with Oxford student poet Natalie Perman.
Let's start at the very beginning: when did you write your first poem?
I wrote my first poem when I was 16, near the end of being 16 actually. And I won the Forward Poetry Prize at 17. So, from starting out to being in an established community of poets, that all happened very, very fast. I had no expectation or notion of how important winning the prize was and would be for my own development as a writer. Having that proximity to other poets, the opportunity to influence and grow from one another’s writing, has really shaped the way I write.
I knew I always wanted to write in some way but took a while to figure out the avenue that worked the best.
Poetry felt less daunting, more manageable almost because of its shorter form.
I like the way you can craft and fiddle with words in a smaller space. Prose feels too huge, too hard to encompass at times.
'Cataclysm' is your first pamphlet of poetry — another beginning. I’d like to know more about your choice of title — why ‘Cataclysm’?
It’s from one of the poems in the pamphlet ‘cataclysm (at the school disco)’. I didn’t work from that poem. That extraction of the title doesn’t reflect that poem being the point at which all the other poems originated from. I felt it was most fitting because I realised, retrospectively, the poems were preoccupied with these instances of adolescent cataclysm and how it’s common for the banal to take on that aspect of cataclysm when you are younger. The relationality of things is disproportionate, and I liked that warping of the mundane, the ubiquitous as calamitous, or feeling calamitous at the time.
Before we get the first poem, you give us a definition. Cataclysm as defined by the OED. What was the impulse behind this?
I think I’m conscious of the accessibility of poetry. I feel there is this pressure of how to approach a poem or to understand it instantly and in providing an angle — cataclysm — I wanted to see how reactive, how procreate that word could be in opening up the poems. I see the definition operating as a frame for the reader.
But the OED provides more than one definition.
That was the other part of the impulse: the way words twist in ways you don’t expect was on my mind when writing these poems. The slipperiness of terms is something that really excites me. When you look up the definition of a word, you are given options and I think the decision to include that in ‘Cataclysm’ came from a place of wanting readers to respond and read actively. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the twinned roots of response and responsibility, and I think that informed the decision a lot. I am more and more conscious of my responsibility as a reader and how much respect I owe a text, and that is inextricable from being able to respond to something. The definition encourages an active mode of reading and that feels valuable to me.
That dynamic of response/responsibility is especially present in ‘form at the simchat bat’. I'm thinking mainly of the introductory questions.
‘form at the simchat bat’ was always going to be the first poem in the pamphlet. Simchat bat refers to the Jewish baby-naming ceremony for a girl, so it felt apt to start with the first important life moment — the first cataclysm in a way. Again, that consciousness of etymologies and the ripples of those etymologies seemed to resurface here. The ritual of naming is the first instance of definition, too, so there’s a real, if latent, connection there between the way I’ve named the pamphlet and the ceremony of naming a child.
The introductory questions do, as you say, act out that response/responsibility twinness. Looking back on that rhetoric that reaches off the page, its demand for responsible reading is clear. It begins that careful approach I hope the rest of the poems encourages.
‘form at the simchat bat’ seems to ask another question as well — how does your Jewish identity interact with your writing?
It is definitely a mixture for me. Yiddish storytelling and Jewish histories of storytelling are a form of writing I will always return to — specifically Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s writings, his belief in every story having ‘hidden sparks of holiness’. The idea of a rediscovering, unearthing moments and histories in poetry, specifically prose poetry, is something I learnt from the Jewish short story tradition. Kafka is also, as anyone who knows me personally will see becomes self-parodic, the greatest literary influence and my favourite author. His anxiety continues to open up the world and storytelling in new, illuminating ways.
Some poems draw more overtly on Jewish themes or diaspora history, ‘tsar alexander II 50 versts from the western border’ or ‘great-grandmother takes London from the pale of settlement’, for example. ‘Tea party at the flood’ is another obvious one, one that I loved for its reading of the Zohar and the Hebrew alphabet but which I think in retrospect is far too violent in its sentiment. The Hebrew letters tell a history of the community, their shape and sound capturing a unique form of history. I think there’s a tension in Cataclysm between necessarily drawing on Jewish themes as something that has shaped my interest in writing as a form of storytelling and transformation, mining for ‘hidden sparks of holiness’, but also wanting to avoid the label of being a ‘Jewish poet’. Being stuck within a labelled identity seems suffocating to me. Equally, so would be trying to avoid addressing an identity that continues to lie on or under the surface of my work.
I noticed a recurring image of teeth and dentistry across the poems. Were you conscious of this when you were writing?
Yes and no. Now that you point it out, you’re right, there’s lots of teeth and gums! But I wasn’t overly conscious of making that a recurring motif. That’s a generative way of reading it though, especially in light of what we’ve been saying about beginnings, and adolescence, and the mundane being cataclysmic. Wisdom teeth pushing in where they are not accommodated is a kind of cataclysm, a flooding of the mouth. Considering the trajectory of the pamphlet is adolescence moving into adulthood — beginning literally with the birth naming ceremony — then teeth seem to me a natural image to latch on to. They mark out transitional phases in our lives.
I remember going to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection about teeth — I still have a childlike interest in evolutionary science and things of that sort. There was a quote somewhere from Georges Cuvier, the founder of palaeontology: ‘show me your teeth, and I will tell you who you are’. Thinking about adolescence, and these issues of self-definition, as my poetry does, then teeth are these strangely exposing things.
Conversation abounds in ‘Cataclysm': in dialogue; allusions are embedded quietly in titles; translation crops up frequently. Was this a stylistic choice?
The dialogue came quite naturally. Lots of the poems started as conversations, either with others or with texts, objects, discussions with myself. In terms of intertextual conversation, ‘a classical epidemic’ is the poem that comes to mind. I am directly engaging with ‘The Sandman’ by E .T. A. Hoffmann, the language of the automaton and the gothic, the horror of creatures with no eyes. But I was using that engagement to bear onto other things, primarily the COVID-19 pandemic. The act of translating language in that way is curious to me.
Of course, as a languages student, I’m sensitive to issues of translation. When I was in Munich last year, I took classes on translating dialogue, mostly from plays like Ayub Khan Din’s East is East and Brian Friel’s Translations, mostly from English into German. I think after these classes, I felt less compelled by narrative poetry. My newer poems are, for certain, focusing more on translation and how to translate dialogue between languages and into writing. The oral into the textual as an act of translation is something I am enjoying musing on.
a classical epidemic
on a balmly LA evening adorno kissed a student a la francaise with a
cigarette. trotsky gave a lecture on gardening revolutions. no politics,
they agreed. instead, they marvelled at the full moon. the weather
was very mild for an october night.
1966 was a year of alchemy. lawyers prescribed cinnabar and wore
black-inked tongues. a young volga german boy in breeches composed
a shostakovitch string quartet in an alley. furnaces burned long into
everyone sweated frightfully. they felt deeply within themselves that
the moon was a metal woman bearing sand. it was a glacial eye
through which someone’s mother knocks on a door and asks are you
sleeping will you please turn off the light it’s far too late. somewhere in
the dark there are human heads with deep holes where their eyes
should be. they roll around and grunt like pigs. oh, automaton! how
sad your creatures are. you are a resolute being. we are blue jellyfish:
no bones, no blood, no heart. we live east of fantasies, we are
nothing to them.
NATALIE PERMAN reads English and German at St John's. She's two letters and a Harvard degree away from Natalie Portman, but working on it.
Interview by Elizabeth Murphy.
Art by Alex Knighton