Reading in the beautiful setting of Durham Town Hall for this year’s Book Festival, Frances Leviston’s calm, slow voice rolls musically across the room. ‘How have we come to know what we think we know?’, poses the blurb of the shocking pink book in her hand: her new collection, Disinformation. There’s no attempt to formulate an answer – the collection is an opportunity to probe the query. The result is a deeply textured, interwoven complexity that really demands time and patience from the reader.
“That’s one of the things I really like about poems,” she says after the reading, “the opportunity to meet them somewhere.” We’re in another grand room in the Town Hall, and it’s my turn to probe Leviston on poetry. Poems that induce this collaborative reading that she mentions, that “you have to bring your own assumptions to,” are plentiful in Disinformation. It’s a difficult book, tackling some massive ideas and spanning a timeline that seems infinite. And it all begins with making jelly, ‘bouncy cubes snipped and stirred into hot water’ in the title poem. How then, I want to know, does she manage to travel so far?
“I start with the specifics for poems, with something particular.” It might be an image, a minor event, or a specific line. Sometimes she starts out from “the way two words combine with each other in an interesting way,” or simply a quirky, irregular word. In short, she starts small, the ideas augmenting from the starting point itself. “Just working with the connotations of a particular word you can grow a whole poem, crystallising a whole structure out of one little dot of something.”
These little dots are scattered through Leviston’s work. One of the recurring images is of weight. A paperweight appears in her first collection Public Dream (2007), before reappearing as its own subject in Disinformation’s ‘The Paperweight’. There ‘it can stand / steady on my desk and keep my desk on the ground’, an image that is mirrored in her short story ‘Broderie Anglaise’, the paperweight substituted with a sewing machine. “The physical objects and the solidity of them are a way of grounding the work, of keeping it grounded in the world of the body and physical existence, whilst also being a way of introducing more metaphorical ideas of weight and heaviness, the burden of something.”
The broader application of weight works on many levels right the way through the book, from the humble paperweight to the weight of history, knowledge and power. But there’s “also weight as gravitas,” something Leviston was concerned with in putting together the new collection, writing always with the intention to bring something more of seriousness. “I don’t think I was as conscious about ideas of authority in the first book as I was in the second,” which shows in the work itself. Moving from exacting moments and crystalline images, the reader is led into territories of the political, the metaphysical, the unknown.
Also visited and revisited across Disinformation are images of water. Indeed, one of the book’s two epigraphs is taken from a section in George Seferis’ Mythistorema which begins, ‘remember the baths where you were murdered’. Many of Leviston’s poems recount bathing in an almost sacred manner, which is echoed when she calls upon Celtic goddess, Sulis, who was worshipped at Bath and to whom the baths were consecrated.
Water, to Leviston, represents the capacity for creation, but it also has the capacity to destroy. “I think water is a destructive force as well, water can turn on you and wears away at things and it reshapes things.” As in ‘Sulis’, ‘water like wisdom resists capture, / never complacent, revising itself / according to each new container it closes’. At this point it seems we’re talking less about water and more about language itself, poetry itself and the battle between form and formlessness that all poets wrangle with. “You want a certain amount of chaos and wildness,” she says, pausing, “but, you also want a certain amount of order and shape. Balancing the two is really important.”
The idea of form is central to the goddess’ poem. When the Romans conquered Britain, the goddess Sulis was merged with the Roman Minerva. “They call it Interpretatio Romana,” Leviston explains, “they would create composite gods, combining indigenous gods of conquered lands with one of their own, similar figures.” But in this poem, our goddess is empowered. ‘When Sulis rose from the ground / and entered Minerva, she mastered that shape / with such perfection’. The poet exercises her interest in femininity, and how women create themselves: it’s about “shapeshifting and growth, being able to grow and create yourself” and resist disaster or destruction. Sulis isn’t mentioned again by name until the end of the sequence, by which time the reader assumes her lost under the guise of Minerva, but she returns, again empowered and in control of her situation.
It seems to invite debate on the struggles women still face, given that the modern world is built on patriarchy. Yet can we reach true equality, I wonder, when we still utilise so much of antiquity’s decidedly gender biased mythology? Leviston refers to the author of the second epigraph to her book, Adrienne Rich, in answer. “Poetry is not a revolution, it is a way of understanding why revolution must come.” However, she does concede “we’re up against a lot. We’re up against social conventions, institutions, we’re up against what people think with. And people still think with quite fixed ideas about gender. But, that said, a lot of progress has been made. I like what Martin Luther King said, that ‘the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’ – and I think you can see that happening, certainly in terms of women’s rights.”
This opinion underpins Disinformation, the collection rewarding the reader who invests in a multitude of ways. Each poem seems to wear a shroud, I imagine tulle, shifting and rolling, veiling and unveiling their intersticies at each turn. The accessible, immediate images in Public Dream have morphed into a seriously inquisitive poetic practice. Her poetry is a pleasure to read, and she was a pleasure to chat with; Frances Leviston is always seeking, and there is no better path for a poet to take.
Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.