• Hercules Editions

Updated: Jul 22

As Hercules Editions launches Hercules Papers, a new series of pamphlets of essays by poets, Clara Karlsson interviews David Wheatley, the author of the first title to be published, The Wandering Mountains


David Wheatley

What led you to the decision to frame each chapter with a quotation from Tim Robinson? How do his texts inform yours?

The commission to write The Wandering Mountains came just after the death from the Coronavirus first of Máiréad Robinson and then her husband Tim shortly afterwards, in London. I was aware that they had tried unsuccessfully to return to Connemara and felt terribly sad about their dying so far from the place where they had lived so long and had made their own. Tim’s work has always been an inspiration to me, so I thought it might be an idea to organise my work around quotations from his. The quality of haecceitas, or ‘thisness’, in his writings on the West of Ireland is incomparable, his God’s-eye-view of place and the ground below our feet. There is one small difference worth signalling, though. In all the chapters of The Stones of Aran and the Connemara Trilogy, I can’t remember Tim ever getting lost and scratching his head despairingly over a map (he would have been the map-maker anyway) – except in his cosmic sense of our aloneness on the planet, which comes through strongly in his more geological moments. Whereas with me, on the most banal level, I am forever going astray, as I describe in the text.

Since you are primarily a poet, what is your relationship with prose-writing? What made the subject of this text better suited to be expressed through prose rather than poetry?

I have written large amounts of prose down the years, much of it of the hack-journalistic kind. But not all. I’ve written a memoir in prose poetry, and suspect I have the soul of an essayist – I venerate Hazlitt and De Quincey, and think of some of my favourite poets (Elizabeth Bishop, Lorine Niedecker) as essayists in verse. So why not, I tell myself.

In the text, you mention that you have shared great parts of your life between Ireland, England, and Scotland. How have each of these countries affected your sense of nationality, and how have they informed you as a writer? Would you consider yourself or your writing to belong more to one place than the others?

Like ancient Gaul, my life divides into three parts, though life abroad hasn’t exactly been a Roman conquest. In fact, I suspect it has ended up delivering me to a strange hybrid of the three countries with an extra fictive quality of its own. Just as the German poet Johannes Bobrowski inhabited a mindscape he called Sarmatia (a Germanic vision of Eastern Europe), perhaps I am a citizen of Pictland, a place where Irish people come to look at Scottish mountains while worrying feverishly about Brexit English nationalism. A strange aspect of Irish immigration into Britain is how it remains unchecked, meaning my sense of difference never comes up against the harder realities of visa requirements or a citizenship test, as it would if I was Nigerian or Chinese. I therefore think of myself as a kind of sub-citizen, lurking below the radar here in Scotland. This allows for a certain freedom to breathe, I find.


Throughout the text, the lines between mind and material seem to be increasingly blurred. The most prominent example of this are the titular wandering mountains, for which it is uncertain how much of their journey is taking place in real life, or in the narrator’s mind. How would you say that your mindscape has affected the landscape, or vice versa?

I just praised Tim Robinson for the materialist haecceitas of his work, but I think physical journeys are mental journeys too. His philosophy of the step, for instance, lends itself very well to a phenomenological reading: it makes me think of the feeling you get when you walk down the stairs in the dark and think there’s an extra step, but there isn’t. You are already taking that step in your mind, regardless of what your foot does. When I think of the journeys I am not currently free to make up mountains for instance (for parenting reasons), I think of these tentative feints in the dark. “O the mind, mind has mountains”, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, in a slightly different context…

You mention in the text that the imposed isolation during lockdown has not affected your physical reality in any obvious ways. But as is also evident from your writing, the isolation has affected you in a psychological sense. Do you think the isolated mentality has informed your writing?

I’m a great admirer of the work of W. G. Sebald but am aware of a strange tic in his work, where the narrator goes for long walks, both rural and urban, but never seems to meet or talk to anyone. And yet what is his writing if not one long conversation with the shades of history? I wouldn’t want my musings on social displacement in the Scottish countryside to seem like exercises in splendid isolation. There will always be some kind of latticework of connections across these divides, however subtle or secret. On one level Bobrowski’s poems are unpeopled dreamscapes, but on another they crystallise the truth of the postwar GDR experience. How you translate the one into the other I don’t know. Maybe that’s the reader’s job, not mine.

The presence of Gaelic names and poetry also seem to play into the theme of how material and immaterial realities affect each other. An example of which is the misunderstanding of the name Gownie Hill, and how its name informs people on how to view it. How would you say that languages, especially languages that are so tightly tied to certain geographical areas such as Gaelic and Scots, affect the way in which people interpret the world around them?

In Tim Robinson’s work there is a constant delight in the ‘drunkenness of things being various’, of the layer upon layer of stories lurking in the smallest detail on the map. I will mention Nan Shepherd too, in the Scottish context. The Gaelic aspect is central to her work too, but a part of me worries about the transferability of this approach to other places – let’s say Tunbridge Wells or Milton Keynes – where these historical palimpsests are unavailable. The short answer to that is they are available really, just in forms we may not have found yet. I see psychogeography, if anyone still uses that poor, old, half-baked term, as an attempt to re-enchant the beige spots on the map (Tunbridge Wells and Milton Keynes again) and give them an occult dignity of their own. But the vortex of linguistic plurality is very appealing, yes. Maybe my next frontier will be Norse Scotland – the Scotland of the Orkneyinga and the Norn speakers of Shetland.



Lastly, an underlying theme of your text, apart from the isolation, language and nature, is your son, Felix. In what way would you consider that his role as your son, and your role as his father, has had an effect on your role as a writer?

My son has had a very noticeable effect on my writing, not least in the fact that he is physically climbing all over me now as I write this, in bed. He seems supportive of my efforts but surprised me the other day when he ordered me to stop reading a book because “you can’t do that, you don’t know words”. My daughter Morven is just at the stage of becoming verbal now, too, and greedily learning the names of wildflowers. In fact, she corrected me when I got one wrong on a walk recently. Children are wonderful sources of inspiration but take them for granted at your peril.

Clara Karlsson is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen and a translator from Swedish. Photographs © David Wheatley


'The Wandering Mountains' is available from the Hercules Editions online shop for £5

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  • Hercules Editions

Updated: May 26


Jacqueline Saphra at the launch of Veritas

Before lockdown, we’d been looking forward to the launch of Jacqueline Saphra’s new book, Veritas: Poems after Artemisia, at one of our favourite venues, The Cinema Museum in Kennington. The following afternoon, Jacqui was set to read at the National Gallery, as part of a study day informed by their blockbuster Artemisia exhibition, and to speak on a panel with the art critic, Jonathan Jones. After lockdown, when it became clear these events would not take place, we began to consider the option of a virtual launch. Many presses and poets had already shifted their gatherings to platforms such as Zoom – a way of keeping in touch with audiences and readers in these strange days of quarantine. That’s one of the many consolations of books – reading is a pleasurable form of self-isolation.

There are other consolations too. While we were disappointed not to be able to raise a glass to the book in person, or to hear Jacqui speak about the book in the galleries where Artemisia’s stunning and dark paintings are hanging, we were able to welcome a truly international audience of over 200 to our intimate space on Zoom. The writer Andrea Witzke Slot said, “I felt I was sitting in a large theatre, shoulder to shoulder in sold-out seats, watching a group of talented people on stage.”

Two wonderful speakers were on hand to introduce us to Artemisia’s life and art. Jordana Pomeroy, who wrote an essay for the book, joined us all the way from Miami. She was followed by Jonathan Jones (we were glad to be able to bring him together with Jacqui, at least on Zoom); they talked of Artemisia’s power, talent and determination, and why she has finally been ‘discovered’ and acknowledged as a great painter 400 years after her heyday.

Jordana Pomeroy and Jonathan Jones at the launch of Veritas

We were then pleased to be able to welcome composer Benjamin Tassie, whose new pieces fuse samples of Renaissance instruments with modern synthesiser sounds. His music was the perfect way to set the stage for Jacqui’s reading. Using the formal constraint of the sonnet, she brings to life an artist trained in the methods of the old masters, but whose vision was entirely modern and dramatic. There’s no doubt that Jacqui’s poems illuminate Artemisia for a new generation of admirers.

Benjamin Tassie in his studio
Jacqueline Saphra reading from the book

If you missed the live Zoom event, or would like to watch again, the recording is now available on our media page here.

Meanwhile, the book is now in the world, and whizzing through the post to destinations all over the UK, Europe and the US (while we are all still sitting in our individual Zoom squares). If you don’t yet have your copy, you can order it here.

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Martyn Crucefix reads the opening lines of his poem 'Cargo of Limbs'. The book is available here.



LOOKING BEYOND PARADISE


Like love, a full, clear sense of our own context draws us away from the dangerous illusions of the absolute. In making judgements, in giving voice as writers, we ought always to say where we are coming from because – especially in these months of lockdown – we are having to re-negotiate our relationships with the world. On a daily basis, we are being caught in a paradox of distancing and a sense of community that may take us by surprise; a consciousness of our similarities and differences with others is even more important.

This is relativism writ large and it has long been part of my sense of self, more pretentiously, my credo. So when introducing Cargo of Limbs, my poem about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean (an on-going crisis, though reports of it have been side-lined by virus-related news) I wanted to detail its origins: in 2016 I had been listening to a reading of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. This is the book in which Aeneas journeys into the Underworld but, rather than the River Acheron and the spirits of the dead, the lines conjured up – at that time – the distant Mediterranean coastline I was seeing every day on my TV screen: desperate people fleeing their war-torn countries.

Some context: living in north London, I am more usually surrounded by an invisible fug and racket of noise from traffic, public transport, aircraft, people going about their daily business; of course, now all stopped. Even in such a unrelievedly urban landscape, I am noticing the birdsong about the house. For days on end I have no need of coins in my pocket. And yesterday, taking photographs of the apple blossoms emerging on the tiny tree in the corner of my garden – an area of twenty gardens backing onto each other and suddenly spookily quiet – I felt more than usually unselfconscious.


More context: last night we watched Location Location Location. The editorial angle was about a woman (looking to move house in Bristol) who had a PhD in something scientific. The commentary implied she was constitutionally going to find moving house difficult because she thought a lot and felt too little. Phil Spencer: ‘Too much analysis leads to paralysis’. She accepted this and garnered praise as she laid aside her intellectualising nature and began to feel more, felt less apart, particularly walking into a prospective property.

Likewise, within this house and – luckily – garden, I feel myself becoming a part, more embedded, partaking of a microcosmic landscape of noises, odours, light shifts, temperature changes that previously would have been swiftly interrupted (to spend money, earn money, to meet someone, drive somewhere). This week I have been mostly watching the apple blossoms slowly fill, break and open from their green buds. I take their picture. And promptly am ‘apart’ again – because photography is quintessentially the outsider’s view, the acquisitive view.

In 1977, Susan Sontag argued “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore like power”. I capture the blossom. And – though not my intention – I feel more powerful because of it. There are so many more photographs being posted on social media – a friend of mine is posting daily ‘beautiful things’; the National Trust has been running #blossomwatch; Alastair Campbell is posting images of particular trees on his morning walks. Who can blame us. We want to feel a bit more powerful towards a world that has turned suddenly, bewilderingly, as if viciously upon us.

Beyond feeling helpless, what do writers do in a crisis? I think of Shelley hearing news of the Manchester Massacre from his seclusion in Italy in 1822; Whitman’s close-up hospital journals and poems during the American Civil War; Edward Thomas hearing grass rustling on his helmet in the trenches near Ficheux; Ahkmatova’s painfully clear-sighted stoicism in Leningrad in the 1930s; MacNeice’s montage of “neither final nor balanced” thoughts in his ‘Autumn Journal’ of 1938; Carolyn Forche witnessing events in 1970s El Salvador; Heaney’s re-location and reinvention of himself as “an inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful” in 1975; Brian Turner’s raw responses to his experience as a US soldier in Iraq in 2003.

One of the film stills by Amel Alzakout illustrating 'Cargo of Limbs'. See below for more information


All crises differ but these writers were all wrestling with the opposing poles of witnessing and taking part, with finding their way around Sontag’s overly absolutist view: “the person who intervenes cannot record, the person who is recording cannot intervene”. Of course, we want to do both. But the current lockdown is dividing us along lines of those who must remain apart and those who are a part. And in one of those wholly unforeseen ironies of the historical moment, this is precisely the moral issue under debate in my Cargo of Limbs, between two journalists covering the refugee crisis.

One is a photojournalist who values and preserves his objectivity, his outsider status, remembering and admiring Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 reports from war-torn Madrid:

[…] let me file

untroubled as I’m able

to emulate a brother

sprinting the Gran Via

dodging smacks of snipers

let me not blink

at what rises towards me

His partner, Andras is a print journalist, a writer, who gradually succumbs to a sense of involvement as the horror and suffering of so many displaced people become clear to him.

The poem closes with his intervention, an attempt to disrupt his partner’s cool distance. As I was writing, I read about Don McCullin (the great British photojournalist, celebrated in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘War Photographer’). He said he was less interested in the technicalities of the photographic process: "All you have to do in photography is get the exposure right and then adjust your camera". But he added: "What you have to do is to adjust your mind, your emotions." Here’s a link to a BBC documentary in which McCullin speaks of witnessing an old woman in great danger during the Cyprus Civil War in 1964. Having taken one photo of her, he put down his camera and bodily picked the woman up and carried her to safety (see here). This is the sort of intervention I imagine at the end of Cargo of Limbs.

The strangeness of our current situation is that there is now a government edict against most of us becoming a part. Stay at home to save lives. On our little urban street, everybody emerges at 8pm on Thursday evenings to applaud the effort and sacrifice of key workers. No doubt, many of us have donated on-line to the National Emergencies Trust Coronavirus Appeal. But most other domestic commercial transactions are being conducted on-line or with contactless cards. I’ve no cause to carry cash and we will never do so in the same way again once this is all over.

The absence of those jangling coins in my pocket – that vanished sound of adult masculinity – is a sign of a change but too early yet to say of what kind. Will we emerge more distanced from each other after all this – will we forget how to converse? Or will the horrors of the present moment suggest that we ought to be revising the criteria by which we live, by which we are to be governed? I believe we should speak out from where we find ourselves, knowing others live differently. Together we will make a new kind of more inclusive, more compassionate chorus than the one we have heard too much of in recent years.

The film Purple Sea, directed by Amel Alzakout (whose images appear in Cargo of Limbs) and Khaled Abdulwahed, will celebrate its international première as part of the online edition of the 51st Visions du Réel festival. The films of the International Feature Film Competition will be accessible from the festival's website between 25 April and 2 May 2020, limited to 500 virtual seats per film.

Links to recent reviews of Cargo of Limbs:


Sheenagh Pugh: https://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/136445.html


Emma Lee in The High Window: https://thehighwindowpress.com/2020/04/14/reviews-of-recent-chapbooks-by-louise-warren-carole-bromley-martyn-crucefix-and-mike-barlow/


Ian Brinton in Tears in the Fence: https://tearsinthefence.com/2020/03/24/cargo-of-limbs-by-martyn-crucefix-introduction-by-choman-hardi-photographed-by-amel-alzakout-hercules-editions/


Martyn Crucefix's 'Cargo of Limbs' is available here

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Hercules Editions is an independent press combining poetry and prose with art and archival material, to create beautiful small books and prints. We’re based in Lambeth, the site of artist-poet William Blake’s last home and printing works in Hercules Road.

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