Soil - an interview with Tim Cresswell

Soil - an interview with Tim Cresswell
Published: Jul 01, 2013
Academic, novelist and poet Heidi James speaks to Tim Cresswell (also an academic, novelist and poet) about Soil, about his debut collection of poetry, published today by Penned in the Margins.

Heidi James: Here at the Journal of Wild Culture we're very much interested in the overlaps in human culture and the environment. Your poetry explores this interaction beautifully – is it your intention to draw focus to our relationship with space, or is it a case of being unable to write human experience without properly situating it?

Tim Cresswell: The human relationship to the earth is right at the centre of both my creative and academic interests. How do we dwell in and on the earth? I am certainly interested in, and delighted by, what people refer to as natural landscapes, or even wilderness, but I am much more interested in the spaces where the human imprint is obvious. And then I like to reverse that and think about how the wild is present in even the most human of spaces. I fixate on weeds and moss and lichens.

For example, I've been working on a poem about an old Morris Minor that has plants growing out of it. You know when you see those old cars with wood frames and signs of moss beginning to emerge? And that just leads to the image of buddleia growing out of the smallest bit of crumbling grout in between bricks on the side of a house. I'm not sure I would say that it's my “intention” to draw readers’ attention to our relationship with space as that suggests poems that are a bit too prefigured – but the way that poems emerge and then the way that the collection emerged certainly centres on these themes.

Heidi: Both your scholarly research and poetry are concerned with place and human experiences/encounters – how do you approach these different types of writing? Is there a difference for you creatively?

Tim: This is both a problem and an opportunity. It is almost a truism encountered in poetry workshops and ‘training’ that it is bad to prefigure a poem with a clear thought – we are supposed to let things just happen from some place deep within. Well, I find that difficult, to tell the truth. I have lived as an academic for over twenty years where clear thoughts are at the heart of my particular enterprise. So to suddenly be confronted with the possibility of writing from some place that is not a clear thought is something I find pretty much impossible.

Having said that, I do try and play around with writing practice that has different driving factors. So a poem like Possible Pubs is one which I am very fond of – I was just doodling with the sounds of paired words that turned into things that sounded like the names of pubs. Then I just made it get a little more sinister as it went along for no particular reason. The poem is driven by sounds and an emotional affect rather than something intellectual.


British poems are like little epiphanies. North American poets seem much happier with abstraction and ideas.

But I think there is something to be gained from starting with ideas, even abstract ideas, in writing a poem. I read TS Eliot, for instance, and I can’t help but see something like the Four Quartets as emerging from a philosophy of time that may not be thoroughly prefigured but is certainly abstract in nature and remarkably sustained.

North American poets seem much happier with abstraction and ideas. Someone from the US described British poems as little epiphanies. I think this can be true – and sometimes these little epiphanies are all we need. But then there are these American poets tackling huge issues. I've recently begun to understand Jorie Graham after years of not getting it. And she is really dealing with massive abstractions at the same time as she excels at minute attention. So what I am trying to say is that I think I need to cautiously embrace an idea- (and even abstraction-) based approach to (some) poems as something that may end up being a strength of my particular poetic practice.

Interestingly, the reverse is somewhat true. In my academic work I am looking to embrace a more creative side that is not so clearly charted out. I want to share thoughts and have no interest in confusing readers or obfuscating – but I do want to give readers of my academic work a choice of outcomes rather than insisting that they follow my logic. I have just started to play around with this following some of the writing experiments of Walter Benjamin in particular. I increasingly have very little time for the kind of writing that is referred to as ‘social science’. It seems to revel in destroying our delight in the world.

Heidi: The poems (in particular, Phase Shift) describe the infinite connections and accretions between all things, reminding me of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Does any particular theory inform your poetry?

Tim: This goes back to the previous question. I presume most poets (except those working in the tradition that is still referred to, somewhat quaintly, as ‘modernist’) would run a mile from the idea of a theory informing their poetry in any but the lightest way. I certainly read Deleuze and Guattari and write about their work in an academic context. I keep finding that I suddenly understand aspects of their work that made no sense to me for ten years. I certainly didn’t have their work by my side when writing Phase Shift or any other poem but it is entirely possible that their work may be lingering in the background.

As it happens, the evolution of Phase Shift reflects some of my anxieties about the poetry/academia interface and the final product is the result of me trying to shrug off the idea that started it. It comes from my interest in the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ – a name given by geologists to the period we now live in, an era that has been so influenced by humans that it is named after us. The argument goes that there is nowhere you can now go where the influence of humans is not evident in the material that makes up our world. A future geologist – ten million years from now – would be able to point to a layer of the earth and say, “This is due to humans!”


I wanted to create vertiginous shifts between forms of language and between the everyday and the abstract.

Well that thought is interesting. On the one had there is the idea that we humans have so influenced the stuff that makes up the world that we are the major defining factor in its constitution. In this sense the label “anthropocene” should alert us to our hubris. On another level though, the label itself is hubristic – to add insult to injury even the name of the era has us at its centre. How arrogant is that!

Anyway, I wanted to write a poem about the anthropocene. This is supposed to be a bad way to start a poem. I did it anyway – a very long poem by my standards, with words all over the page. The next stage was to take the central idea out of it as much as possible and centre, instead, on a man ironing. From there I decided to enact some shifts in language between the everyday and observational and the text-booky and even journalistic. I liked the idea of a man with an iron being a geologic force to be reckoned with – or living in a period marked by mammals and flowering plants. These are both true, but not the way we normally think of an individual human doing the ironing.

I was reading and beginning to understand Jorie Graham’s wonderful collection, Place, at the time and it was her, rather than Deleuze or Guattari, that most influenced this poem. I wanted to recreate some of those vertiginous shifts between forms of language and between the everyday and the abstract. This impetus is also true of the central sequence, Soil, where I wanted to mix up points of view and languages – science, mythology, the lyrical in a discombobulating way.

Heidi: Poems such as Rare Metallophytes and Dogfish, 21 are elegant critiques of rapacious human consumption and destruction of the environment (without any didacticism). Did you set out to write a collection with a theme in mind, or did you gather the collection from existing poems and the theme reveal itself?

Tim: I didn't set out to write a collection at all! I just wanted to write poems. The oldest poem in this collection, Dogfish, started in around 2008. I had been writing poems since my late teens but started to take it more seriously around 2008 after speaking with an academic colleague about creative writing and its relationship to our livelihoods. It was then that I started to attend workshops and seek the opinions of established poets as well as peers. I was in the first Faber 'Becoming a Poet' course with Daljit Nagra and have enjoyed the (very) critical support many of that group ever since. I did an Arvon course with Philip Gross and Susan Wicks as well as a week in Banff in Canada working with Canadian poets who have a different starting point from most British poets I think. I have been working with Jo Shapcott as a friends and mentor for three years and she is just wonderful in understanding my different impulses and imperatives. I have undoubtedly been extremely lucky to be able to do all these things.

The collection is a group effort and its themes only became apparent at the end of the process.

I started to get poems accepted in both traditional national poetry magazines such as the Rialto and more experimentally inclined places such as Poetry Wales and Tears in the Fence. It was only recently that the idea of a collection became possible as the poems accreted. The poems in the book are drawn from about twice as many that I thought good enough to share with Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins who has been another huge stroke of luck. He has been a proper editor. He recognised particular elements of my writing as a whole that I did not even recognise myself. He gently led me to dispose of many poems and include some that I originally thought marginal. He led me to the final edit of Phase Shift.

We went through about four rounds of edits to end up with Soil as it now stands and much of its coherence is down to him. Some of the sequencing of poems that he suggested took my breath away when I realised some ongoing conversations between poems for the first time. This is a wonderful gift. Many poets manage to produce collections without an active editor these days. Tom spends the time and makes you recognise yourself more in the poems.

So the collection is very much a group effort and the themes that run through it only became apparent at the end of the process. And, by the way, there are more themes than the consumption and destruction of the environment here. One I insist on is hope. This is a hopeful collection in which elements of the stuff of the world insist on persisting despite, or even because of, our influence.

Tim Cresswell was born in Cambridge in 1965 but didn’t stay there long. Since then he has travelled, first as part of an Air Force family and then as a student and academic. As a geographer he is the author of five books on place, mobility and other key ideas in geographic thought. Since 2006 he has been Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He lives with his wife and three children in Acton, west London, but that is about to change as they are about to relocate (again) to Boston where Tim will transform into Professor of History and International Affairs at Northeastern University. Soil is his debut collection of poems and is available from Penned in the Margins, Inpress Books and all good bookstores from July 1st, 2013.

Heidi James’ novel Wounding will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2014. Her novella The Mesmerist's Daughter (published by Apis Books) was launched in July 2007. Her novel Carbon, was published by Blatt in October 09 and is published in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre.  Carbon is currently being made into a film by British film company, Institute for Eyes. She has collaborated with artists including Delaine LeBas, Gwyneth Herbert, Mike Chavez Dawson, Marisa Carnesky and Tara Darby. Her essays and short stories have appeared in various publications and anthologies including Dazed and Confused, Next Level, Flux, Brand, Mslexia, Another Magazine, Undercurrent, 3:AM London, New York, Paris, Dreams That Money Can Buy, Full Moon Empty Sports Bag, etc. She has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature.


Image credit: Bradley Garrett

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