Sunspots, a conversation via email

Simon Barraclough Sunspots 1200

Sunspots is the latest poetry collection from Simon Barraclough, Poet in Residence at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Below Barraclough discusses the collection’s origins and ideas, and plenty more besides, over the course of a series of emails with our poetry editor, Crystal Bennes.

 
 

—–Original Message—–
From: crystal bennes < >
To: SimonBarraclough < >
Sent: Wed, 1 Apr 2015 13:19
Subject: Talk about THE SUN!

Simon, hello!

I’ve promised to write something about your lovely new book of poems for The Learned Pig!

I thought it would be fun to have a chat more about the ideas behind the book and the research and the travelling about here, there and everywhere and why the sun and etcetera. Mostly for selfish reasons, because I’m similarly interested, and I thought it would be really quite genial to just have a conversation about interesting things and publish that. Rather than a review-type piece, of which I’m a little bit bored at the moment.

Does that hold any appeal?

Let me know and we can figure out how best to organise. Skype? Email chain? Simultaneous connection to the global mind telephone?

Cx

PS congrats on publication! It’s a lovely book!

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

From: Simon Barraclough < >
To:
Sent:
Wednesday, 1 April 2015, 15:45
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN!

Hi Crystal, it’s always a thrill to hear from you. Have you got your hands on the book already? I’m happy to do this and the format is good, though maybe some references to the poems would be good. Perhaps the most flexible way to do it is through an email to-and-fro? See where it goes. If that’s not working out we can always Skype or meet up (though I’ve no idea where you’re based right now).

Best, Simon x

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

—–Original Message—–
From: crystal bennes < >
To: Simon Barraclough < >
Sent: Sun, Apr 12, 2015 10:03 am
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN!

Hello!

So, to pick this up again, yes, of course – let’s discuss the poems and reference them. I haven’t got a hard copy, but Tom sent over a pdf which I read and enjoyed.

To kick things off, then: I think that cosmology has been a long-simmering interest of yours, but I tend to think of this interest as something largely mediated or expressed through other cultural forces – Holst’s suites or pop culture references littered like little focusing lenses, all the better to look back at Earth with.

On the one hand, it feels like Sunspots is a narrowing in of Neptune Blue‘s planets sequence, but on the other hand, there’s also a feeling of Sunspots as something different and new. It feels like a symphony, rather than a series of small, combined works. For me at least, I think this feeling of difference partly comes from the sense of the unifying theme, but also because of what seems to have been the process underlying the book’s creation – the traveling, the extended research, the poet-in-residence position at Mullard. Perhaps it’s counter-productive [for me] to read this process as being different to how you created the previous books. I mean, don’t you always undertake some kind of research when writing new works? Thinking of time spent in Italy, or elsewhere? So, I’m wondering why this theme? Why this almost symphonic form for the sequence? Why this research process?

That’s probably too much in all that for one question, but start somewhere and let’s see where it goes!

Cx

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

From: Simon Barraclough < >
To:
Sent:
Tuesday, 21 April 2015, 20:20
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN! [Bit rambling perhaps but let’s see where we go…]

The way Sunspots exploded into being reminds me of the theory of ‘inflation’ following the big bang: a sudden acceleration from something small and focused to something vast and expansive. You’re right to say that the process of writing Neptune Blue seems, or was, different to the new book: they feel very different to me. The planets in Neptune Blue – and this isn’t meant to diminish them – were like notes played on a flute (an ‘oaten reed’, to be pastoral about it), combining to create a melody, while Sunspots strikes my ear as a slightly crazy orchestra tackling, as you say, some kind of symphony. Those planets led to the poem in Neptune Blue called ‘Sol’, and writing that poem released a kind of furious energy in my imagination and I quickly wrote about 20 poems on a solar theme. I knew in 2011 that the next project would be a book-length sequence ‘about’ the Sun and the project became rather consuming.

The grander scale and my more energetic investment in the theme led me to look outside of my own research and references and to seek out contact with solar scientists, the places they work, and also places where the Sun does unusual things (unusual to me at least) like Tromsø where the Sun doesn’t rise for a couple of months. The absence of the Sun in the middle of a new obsession with it, was highly stimulating and very emotional. Everything about Sunspots has been rather ‘outgoing’ or expansive, and yet at its heart is the same old introversion of the writing process and the bending of fact and phenomena through cultural lenses. Of everything I’ve written, this book contains the most research and science but also the most ‘intertextual’ passages I’ve attempted. In the same way that a star is a balancing act between gravity and fusion, the book (and the process of writing it) seems to hover between imploding and exploding.

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

—–Original Message—–
From: crystal bennes < >
To: Simon Barraclough < >
Sent: Tue, 12 May 2015 6:49
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN! [Bit rambling perhaps but let’s see where we go…]

Let’s talk about the ‘intertextuality’ aspect, then. Perhaps the increase in cross-referencing is inevitable in a work with a narrowly-focused central theme, but certainly the ‘At a push…’ and ‘Mercury’ sequences are, again overworking the musical analogy, part of an effort to repeat certain motifs across the whole work. Or at least, you say ‘attempted’ with regards to the intertextuality, as if it was a deliberate decision on your part. Are you trying to signpost certain things? Or is it a less-structured process?

The ‘Mercury’ sequence is a riff on the ‘Monday’s child’ nursery rhyme, I gather. In your way of filtering and bending through cultural lenses, I would imagine there’s quite a lot of mileage in things like nursery rhymes, partly because they’re so instantly familiar, yet I reckon that many people don’t know the text as well as they think they do. They know the form, but not the content, which must make it easier to riff on? With ‘Monday’s child’, everybody knows the first couplet, but I certainly didn’t remember the last two lines: “But the child who is born on the Sabbath day / Is fair and wise and good in every way.”

I like that you’ve taken this nursery rhyme form for the ‘Mercury’ sequence and applied it to the planets. “Mercury’s right up in my face, / Venus is a hellish place.” Or, “Mars would love to be a slut, / Jupiter has a massive butt.” There’s also a long link between this kind of personification of the planets and the pantheon of Greek gods. I keep reading the sequences with the planets as stand-ins for cranky gods.

The other sequence repeated throughout is ‘At a push…’, which is where the sun seems to describe his various preferences for certain artistic descriptions of his own brilliant self. There are quite a few sun-voiced poems throughout the book, but I like this sequence particularly because it takes it outside the ‘I’ and brings it into the realm of how others have seen the sun. I like, also – and again this seems to crop up quite a bit in your work – that it’s through the lens of how others have described something in a visual media. I like this process of translation from a purely visual representation – in this case, painting – into a text-based representation. So, you have, for example: “At a push, I’d have to say / that Vincent was my fave, despite his weakness for starry nights”, or of Miro’s ‘The Flight of the Dragonfly in Front of the Sun’: “His gaze never left / that inner sunset; his watch never let me off / the hook.” I’d be curious to know how this sequence developed.

There are also quite a few riffs on prayer/s, but perhaps we can talk about them later??

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

From: Simon Barraclough < >
To:
Sent:
Friday, 22 May 2015, 8:56
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN! [Bit rambling perhaps but let’s see where we go…]

Hi Crystal, I’m desperately trying to catch up with all my deadlines and emails. As for the prayers: yes, ask away. Here we go x

There are certainly motifs and themes that come and go and reset the path of the book after diversions or fantasies, but the organisation is organic rather than programmatic. For me a star is about balance: of gravity crushing inwards and the energy from fusion powering outwards and somehow between these two extremes (and obviously the science is far more complicated than my summation here) the Sun is able to exist in a state of temporary equilibrium. I wanted the book’s structure and tone to reflect this on a formal level. Similarly, there’s a sonnet in there (“The summit of your art was the sonnet”), which mimics the intensification and release of magnetic fields within the Sun. I wanted my research, and such knowledge that I have, to shape the form, the core, of the poems: to connote as well as to denote.

Regarding the nine nine-line poems about the nine planets, I was attracted to the numerical game involved in writing them and also to the personality of the Sun, which is, I hope, hard to pin down: changeable, ‘mercurial’ (ho ho), lunatico (like the Moon): basically a highly complex combination of the astronomical and the human, if that makes sense. The Sun’s reflections on painters and its representation in the history of art address the vanity of the Sun but also its fear of fading importance and, ultimately, extinction. Writing the book made me acutely aware of the importance of the Sun (and light) to artists and writers alike. Everywhere I looked, I found other artists with an obsession. I re-read Lolita and realised that almost every paragraph refers to the Sun and to its effects. I wanted to include these artists and writers in my book as ‘fellow travellers’ and also to hint at the importance of art. The Sun has fun telling fibs about these works of art but my feeling is that it is clinging to them for immortality. The irony, of course, is that when the Sun dies our art will die too. Unless we have transported it, and ourselves, elsewhere by then.

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

—–Original Message—–
From: crystal bennes < >
To: Simon Barraclough < >
Sent: Sun, 21 Jun 2015 16:11
Subject: Re: Talk about THE SUN! [Bit rambling perhaps but let’s see where we go…]

Hello Simon,

My turn to apologise for the long delay! I’ve been avoiding emails as much as possible of late. Wish I could throw my computer into a ditch most days…

Anyway.

Let’s talk about the prayers and then I think we can end there. A good subject to close on.

To start with a sweepingly over-generalised statement, I think the prayer or the gospel as form is something that has always interested poets. Propertius, Pound, Blake – the whole canon is littered with various experiments and appropriations of prayer as a kind of scaffolding. More recently and locally, you’ve got people like Jen Hadfield and Toby Martinez de las Rivas drawing quite heavily on religious literature or prayers as form. A few months ago we published a series of anagrams of Genesis 4:9-13 by Luke Kennard which are brilliant. Despite supposedly being very much on the decline, religion and its trappings still seems to captivate.

Simon Barraclough Sunspots cover

Throwing the sun into the mix, you have an interesting triangulation between the sun and poetry, the sun and religion, and religion and poetry. This also harks back to something I mentioned in my last email about the long association between the planets and the ancient gods. You’re probably more familiar than I, but didn’t almost every ancient culture have a deity linked to the sun? I think the idea of sun worship is actually very compelling. That expression is now, unfortunately, most often used in a ridiculous way to refer to people who holiday in Spain or wherever. But I often remember myself thinking, face turned up on the first sunny day after a long, miserable winter, that I could completely identify with my ancient forebears who positioned the sun as a soothing, sometimes scorching, life-giving, life-destroying thing.

It also makes me think about different behaviours associated with worship, specifically in terms of whether we’re talking about the level of the individual or group behaviour. On the one hand, of course, what is group worship but the mass accrual of individuals, but there’s something quite lovely about the idea of the sun as one’s own, very personal kind of god. I think that comes through quite strongly in the poem that begins:

For I will consider my Star Sol.
For I am the servant of this Living God and daily serve her.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East I worship in my way.
For this is done by fixing espresso and watching the pinkening light on The Shard.

I think it’s interesting that religious tropes and forms are so strongly ingrained in Western culture that we don’t quite seem to be able to sever the link between thankfulness, gratitude and religious ceremony. Even nonbelievers regularly manufacture their own small ceremonies and alternative deities by which they give thanks.

But another godly poem, the one on page 88, is a bit more melancholic in its assessment of the shift in our relationship with the sun (and perhaps more broadly with religion as well?) – how sad it is that the sun was once the centre of various religious universes, but has now been completely sidelined:

They used to live in awe of me:
the godhead, the fulcrum of perfection,
the prime mover, the alma mater
… Now, I’m just the buoy, the marker
that indicates the exit from the harbour.

By and large, however, it seems that the way you use prayer in Sunspots is not to convey some kind of weighty feeling linked to the meaning and history and significance of religious belief, but it’s, again – to come back to this idea of a more playful sense of using prayer as another lens – changing the filter on the camera so to speak, to understand this strange burning ball in the sky. I’m thinking specifically of poems like, ‘Our Fusion / Which art in Heaven / Stelliferous / From Evil’. I actually think there’s a very strong provocation here – what does it say about the gospel when one starts looking at it as a facet of popular culture. Is this something you’re thinking about?

As with the ‘At a push…’ series, I was pleased to see the prayer poems scattered throughout as part of a broad cacophony of references, because it keeps the whole thing from falling into what I view as the trap of thinking that scientific mystery and magic is the only valid approach for thinking people when it comes to physical phenomena. You see this a lot at present, partly, I think, because science has become the standard-bearer for anchoring our relationship to the natural world. We’re still allowed wonder, as Brian Cox so often reminds us, but only if that wonder is strictly within the purview of scientific research. I’m not at all religious and I’m strongly interested in scientific research, but a degree of plurality tends to make any subject infinitely more fascinating. For me, almost more than anything else, what I appreciate about the book is this feeling of a great sweep of different views and viewpoints by which one can approach the sun. I like that the sun, as Simon Barraclough sees it, can be an object of scientific study, a source of power, a deity, a diva, an artistic muse – any number of things.

I’m not sure how many questions appear in all that meandering mess, so feel free to comment on or address anything that takes your fancy. Let the poet have the last word!

Cx

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

From: Simon Barraclough < >
To:
Sent:
Saturday, 27 June 2015, 19:26
Subject: Response.

Hi Crystal, do tell me if this makes no sense or makes me look foolish. If you want anything more, ask away! Simon x

That’s a gorgeous plasma of thoughts and questions. I’m just going to plunge in. It seems to me that without the Sun we would have no notion of god. Of course we would probably have no notions whatsoever, as the life we know would be impossible. But an all-powerful entity whom we cannot look upon for fear of harm, whose presence, absence, actions, changes, have a profound effect on every element of our practical and emotional lives: for me you have the Sun and God right there. It’s no surprise that so many cultures (I don’t know if it’s every one) have Sun deities, or that the Sun has been a battlefield for metaphor, hypothesis, blame, worship, and curiosity. In the middle of writing this book I experienced chill nights of missing the Sun like a lover but being excited by its inevitable (or seemingly inevitable) return. A primordial ‘fort-da’ game, which Freud positions as the source of language in humans; the need for the lack and return of some powerful thing (the Sun, Mother, the Other) to power the whole movement of desire and communication. Thinking about the Sun can rapidly become a heady process. It’s also the simplest, most powerful thing sometimes just to feel its near miraculous light on your face. Without wishing to belittle such terrible crises, I sometimes wonder that if more suicides could make it to another dawn … It may have saved me a few times. There’s a line that goes, “For she will kill you with the loving of you”, which approaches your life-giving/destroying point.

Maybe the Sun was a simpler god? Depending on where you are on the planet, it is more or less changeable, intense, strong, weak, sometimes it disappears for months and sometimes it won’t leave us in peace! I wanted to get all these aspects into the book. Maybe these changes, this changeability, makes it seem less fundamentalist? I don’t know. The book is a very personal act of worship, enquiry, and supposition, although much of it is written from the Sun’s point of view. The day, the year, the century: all these things are rituals and all dominated by this massive, gravitationally overwhelming object we evolved near to. But gravity will do for us all in the end, including the Sun, who becomes increasingly worried about mortality as the book draws to a close. Personally, I was raised in a gently Catholic family and observed certain rituals and routines until I was old enough to decide to stop going to church. But it’s never stopped flirting with me and I’ve never stopped flirting with it.

While Sunspots contains several references to other works of literature, and is explicitly influenced by some of them, there is an invisible ‘precursor’ text lying behind it all. This is Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, perhaps my favourite poem, and an object which, like the Sun, has a massive gravitational power over me (and all poets). I resisted referencing the delicious moment when Satan sets foot on the Sun and Milton pours all his imaginative, theological, scientific and alchemical verse into it:

There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps
Astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb
Through his glazed optic tube yet never saw.
The place he found beyond expression bright,
Compared with aught on earth, metal or stone;
Not all parts like, but all alike informed
With radiant light, as glowing iron with fire;
If metal, part seemed gold, part silver clear;
If stone, carbuncle most or chrysolite,
Ruby or topaz, to the twelve that shone
In Aaron’s breast-plate, and a stone besides
Imagined rather oft than elsewhere seen,
That stone, or like to that which here below
Philosophers in vain so long have sought,
In vain, though by their powerful art they bind

(Paradise Lost, Book III, lines 588 – 602)

Milton occupies, for me, the fascinating midpoint of the different types of ‘wonder’ you describe: the current tendency towards the rational (the ‘Coxian’ type of wonder grounded in the astonishing things that physics reveals to us) and that other magical, possibly religious, wonder that permits of more metaphysics, more fluid, alchemical, or imaginative experiences. Also, here, Satan is described as a sunspot, which were relatively new phenomena in the late 17th century and challenged notions of the perfect and perfectible universe. In my Sunspots, the Sun reveals towards the end its disgust with the Satanic activities of humankind and the ‘Earthspots’ that mar our particular orb. Some of this comes from the fact that the Sun is intensely sensitive and hates to have its imperfections revealed.

And again, the great Creation in Book VII of Paradise Lost takes the rather brief telling in Genesis and expands and enriches it in such a way that Milton seems to accommodate both revealed truth and (current and yet-to-come) scientific truths: the fascination with science and theory amid the poetry is clear and the mental space he creates seems to me peculiarly fruitful and fecund.

I started writing Sunspots in 2011 and that summer was bookended for me by two incredibly powerful yet very different films: Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Sometimes I think that my book swings between the committed faith of the former and the depressed atheism of the latter. It certainly reflects the Sun-obsession of Malick (just watch any of his films, but particularly this one) and the notion that “Life is evil and only on Earth”, which is the conclusion that Kirsten Dunst’s profoundly depressed Justine reaches in Melancholia.

I’m overjoyed that you like the different facets of the Sun I’ve tried to illuminate and allowing myself time and freedom to approach the subject with as much latitude, seriousness and fun as possible has been the most enjoyable project I’ve worked on so far. The Sun is now burning my forearms through the open window and I think it’s telling me to wrap this up.

 
 

Simon Barraclough – Sunspots is published by Penned in the Margins.

From 2015-16 Simon Barraclough is also taking Sunspots on tour!

 
 

The Learned Pig
 
 

Crystal Bennes

Crystal is a writer, curator, editor, artist, publisher, maker, researcher, classicist, poet, copywriter, cook, wannabe dramatist, etc etc etc. She is Poetry Editor of The Learned Pig; Contributing Editor of Icon Magazine; Co-editor of Pages Of (a printed triannual culture + urbanism magazine); and 1/4 of the London-based centre for food research and experimentation, The London Research Kitchen. She has a PhD from King’s College London in Latin Literature – specifically the Latin poet, Lucan – and its reception in 18th-century France.