“To me, the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them.”- Paul Scully
Suture Lines by Paul Scully (Guillotine Press, 2016).
How did your new collection, Suture Lines, come about?
Paul Scully: In many ways, Suture Lines (SL) grew out of my Master’s degree at Sydney University. Many of the poems first found life there. The time and the shaping and filtering that aims at a viable collection have also played a part, but I hope it has attained an independent existence.
Putting a collection together is a strange process. You bring the pieces together, assemble them into theme or relationship groupings, prune sections or omit poems that are below the standard of the rest or that don’t fit well with the bulk of the collection, read and reread, and try to be your own critic.
I had one established poet look at my first collection, An Existential Grammar (EG), and two poets look at SL, at different stages. For Suture Lines, feedback at the earlier stage focused me on pruning more aggressively with a view to making my voice more distinctive. At the later stage, it concentrated my attentions, on reorganising and reducing the number of sections and aiming at a punchier and more concentrated presentation. I really appreciate the time and effort all three poets spent on me.
Then there is trying to find a publisher if you are not a poet with a well-established publishing relationship, particularly if you go out seeking when the Government announces radical changes to arts sector funding. This seemed to mean that lists were being restricted until some funding surety was received, although that may have been a polite way of communicating lack of interest.
An Existential Grammar was published by Walleah Press, so was naturally my first port of call. Ralph Wessman there advised me that he wasn’t necessarily going to continue publishing and was restricting new work at that time. I’ve since read that he doesn’t often publish multiple works by the same author. I don’t know what Walleah’s current state of play is. So I had to look elsewhere.
Guillotine Press is quite a new publishing firm and I approached them at a time when they were looking for poetry in particular. Mark Rafidi has been very enthusiastic about my work and supportive. One of my friends has a volume coming out with him later this year and Mark wants to grow the enterprise.
How does Suture Lines differ from An Existential Grammar?
P.S.: There are more themed poem sequences (five versus one) and, at this stage of my writing, I think I have a greater fascination with sound, individual words and language per se. To me the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them. Caitlin Maling’s blurb describes this as being “in thrall with language” and (very generously) in the nature of “birdsong”. To this extent Suture Lines is a somewhat more integrated read, I think.
On that score, David Musgrave made an interesting observation in his blurb that the collection deals with the “many forms and dimensions of love”. While I was certainly aware that love featured strongly in certain poems, I hadn’t intuited it as a more pervasive theme. I now think David is right and wonder how that came to be.
The title, Suture Lines, comes from a line in a poem, as did An Existential Grammar. To me, it speaks to what I hope is an unconscious wholeness emerging from the bits and pieces that make up the collection.
Can you describe some of the sequences?
P.S.: The ‘Librarians of Alexandria’ sequence in Suture Lines began with the ‘Cincinnatus’ sequence in An Existential Grammar. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator for the defence of Rome, then renounced the position when the job was done, though the detail is far more nuanced than that simple summary. I had enjoyed getting into the mind of an historical figure and creating a hopefully personal sub-text to the reported history. I had always been taken with the notion of storing all the wisdom of the world in a single place, one of the reported motivations for the Royal Library, and the sequence grew from there. The burning of the library on the order of a Coptic patriarch was an act of unspeakable barbarism. Maybe I’ll return to the library someday.
The ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ sequence in Suture Lines came from my master’s dissertation. It is based on the Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a Persian classic. I hadn’t read the original in full (in translation obviously) at the very early stage. I don’t really know why I was attracted to it, other than I’d read Rumi and about Sufism, and was intrigued about a mystical form of Islam when we read so much about fundamentalism. I was also fascinated by the whirling dervishes of a particular Sufi sect in Turkey and am a sucker for birds.
The plan had been to write an Australian version. I found that Anne Fairbairn had already done so, albeit in a stripped-down form, so changed tack. I was mightily relieved at this after I realised the enormity of my original intention. I wanted to use classic forms as well as free verse, the original having been written in couplets of fixed syllabic length and rhyme points, and mirror somehow the allegories that Attar inserts into the narrative. I came across Tim Low’s Where Song Began in the process of working on the poems and its thesis that the first song birds came from Australia and PNG. It provided a rich source of material to draw from. This was important in the end since there are so many bird poems out there and I needed some element of differentiation.
The ‘Face Value’ sequence in Suture Lines was originally two sequences. The first drew from a magazine article and the second, from something that happened to my brother in London. The magazine article was about a couple, the male of whom suffered from face blindness, the inability to recognise facial features. Sufferers use other cues to navigate the world of relationships. The article described incidents from the man’s life and the woman’s challenges in dealing with a beloved who couldn’t recognise her in a conventional manner.
As for my brother, he is a priest in the East End of London. Someone stole the crucifix from the wall of his church. After a few days, the guy found the Twitter world ablaze with news of the theft, was overcome with guilt, and returned the crucifix. They were the starting points at least. I put the two sequences together as part of consolidating the manuscript under the notion that things are not always what they first seem.
All this sounds a bit manufactured. While there is some degree of planning, the process for me is organic, whatever that means, and I’d like to think that quality persists.
What distinguishes your poetry?
P.S.: Like many people I am often attracted to the side-track and alley-way, even when the ostensible topic is well-covered. In the ‘Librarians of Alexandria’, I found that one of the librarians was credited with developing the first cataloguing system. I eventually landed on him whining to his regular courtesan about how the scholars annoy him because they can’t remember where things are and she comes up with the idea to give them a kind of guide to that effect. For the hoopoe/ sheikh figure in my take on The Conference of the Birds, the role is split between a marbled frogmouth, not “its tawny cousin”, perhaps the more obvious choice, and the reclusive bristlebird. The underlying element of duality in Sufism is hopefully more powerful because of it. For the religious part of ‘Face Value’, a garage sale at a convent around the corner from where I live gave me a new angle.
I am especially pleased when a poem ends in an unexpected place (even to me). For instance, the catalogue poem which ends with the courtesan reflecting on her role, not the librarian’s and a poem about a visit to the Arctic which ends with a comment that the greatest gods pray for irrelevance.
An Existential Grammar acknowledges your father, Kenrick Scully (pseudonym John Dawes). What has been his influence on your writing?
P.S.: A parent obviously influences in all sorts of ways. For me as a writer, in the first place, that my father wrote. Our place was always overflowing with books. Secondly, that he wrote poetry, as well as novels, non-fiction, plays, children’s verse and journalism. His work is not well known these days but, in his day, he encouraged poets like Peter Skrzynecki. My brother, Kevin, has written a book that covers Dad’s career (and many other things). I don’t think I write anything like my father, though, and I have never consciously sought to do so, nor not to do so.
You have worked in finance. T. S Eliot also. Has that darkened your writing as it is reported to have done for him?
P.S.: If I could write like Eliot, I’d take light, dark, anything!
The short answer is no. I came at finance as a professional choice when I was young out of an interest in maths (via actuarial studies). I worked in it full time for some 25-30 years and still work part-time in it. It’s conventional to think of a sector in unitary terms, whereas there’s considerable diversity and people of all sorts of opinions and interests. Some of the biggest supporters of action on climate change, for example, are in insurance.
One thing it has done is deepen my interest in poetry (and literature generally) if anything, as another means of being a more rounded person.
You asked about my view on the cuts in arts from this perspective. I don’t think there was any financial motivation in the original decision. It was purely political.
Paul Scully is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry.