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Neil Fulwood interviews Joanne Limburg


NEIL FULWOOD: The first section of your new collection The Autistic Alice gathers together the brutally emotional poems from your Five Leaves Press pamphlet The Oxygen Man. Has the sequence been revised or reordered, or were you more concerned with retaining their raw immediacy?
JOANNE LIMBURG: I made the odd change here and there, but otherwise the sequence appears as it did in the original pamphlet. By the time the poems came out together, four years had already passed since my brother’s death, so they had already been very thoroughly worked over. Cathy Grindrod, who edited the pamphlet, and I had put a good deal of thought into the order in which the poems appeared, and I didn’t feel any need to change it. I have addressed my brother’s death since then, but in prose; I often find that I approach experiences first in poetry, and then in prose.

As well as forming an internal dialogue in response to your brother's death, the sequence also explores external terrain as you travel to America, where he lived and worked. What were your impressions of America then, and what are your thoughts on the country in its current political climate?
The America where my brother lived was very different from the America I’d encountered before, on the East Coast. The poem ‘From the Best Western’ is an attempt to express my sense of strangeness of alienation: the terrain was vast and mostly flat, the skies were fast and were very different from the skies at home, the roads were wide and there were often no pavements, the humidity was unbearable, the light was intense and there were little stinging things in the imported grass…. The people we met were mostly very friendly and polite, but I felt as if we were always talking at cross-purposes, the difference in experience was so vast. What I keep thinking about now is how difficult it was to access news of anything that was happening outside the States, and how easy it was to tap into what was comforting and familiar – food, chain stories, air-conditioned cars, friendly service, a ready-made community at whichever church you might attend… I accept that in many ways one could lead an equally protected life in the UK, but I feel that we’re less insulated from the rest of the world (even after the Brexit vote). And although we’re also held back by plenty of retrogressive national myths, we’re not burdened with the American one that we have the best and freest lifestyle in the world, and nowhere could possibly be better. The University town where my brother lived was a relatively liberal oasis in a largely conservative state, where they are prone to subscribing to things like creationism. We’ve been accustomed to communicating with the progressive, liberal America, the metropolitan one that lives on the East and West Coast. But there’s another one, and I can – just about, if I squint - see how they might have voted the way they did. 

There's an extraordinary poem which draws explicitly on characters from the TV series Heroes: it's one of the most intense and visceral pieces in the book. Were you concerned about inaccessibility to readers who didn't watch the show? Do you have any opinions on the interrelationship between modern poetry and popular culture?
‘Sylar and Elle’ is an unusual poem for me, in that I don’t often write poems inspired by TV shows. The scene in the poem, between those two characters, moved me very much when I first saw it. It was only a few months after my brother’ s death, and Elle’s superpower, which enabled her to send out bolts of lightning from the palms of her hands, struck me as such a perfect metaphor for the way ugly feelings can build up in us as if they were electrical charge that would seek to earth itself in the people around us. It also seemed to me that in the closeness of that scene, Sylar and Elle were like a brother-sister pair and his invitation to her to hurl her anger at him was a kind of act of brotherly love. It did occur to me that the characters would be unfamiliar to a lot of people, but I hoped that the poem would still work as a metaphor in the way that I described: I’d abstracted the scene from its original context – misused it, in a way – so I hoped that it wouldn’t matter that the context was missing. From my perspective, poetry has the same relationship to popular culture as it does to anything else – the poet takes whatever she needs to make the poem she’s trying to make. That said, I would be wary of anything that looked like cultural appropriation, but I don’t think that borrowing from a show on a mainstream American network, largely written by and starring white Americans, would present that kind of problem.

The second section of the book is the title sequence, in which Lewis Carroll's Alice becomes a guide/surrogate/alter ego [delete as applicable] as your childhood self struggles for a frame of reference. Can you tell us - beyond what's already described in the sequence - how growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's affected you?
I would probably go with ‘alter ego’… It’s hard to explain that kind of experience – which is why I resorted to poetry in the first instance (it’s always poetry first – see above). The two words that come to mind as I look back are ‘bafflement’ and ‘detachment’: I felt as if I were moving on a different plane from other people, that I was always either a beat ahead or a beat behind – or perhaps a beat to one side, if that’s possible! And although I was aware that it didn’t seem to be like that for everybody, I didn’t know that there was a definable difference between me and most other people. I just felt that I was somehow in the wrong just by being me. There was a sense that everyone else had had a lesson on how to be a person and I’d missed it.

What was it about Alice, rather than any other heroine of children's literature, that you connected with?
I’d always identified with her. Partly that was because I’d been identified with her, by my mother, who used to point out that Alice and I were both curious and logical, and that, like Alice, I was “a bit of a Madam”. The worlds that Alice moved through, which were so absurd and arbitrary, didn’t seem such a long way away from the non-autistic world I was attempting to negotiate , a world which kept changing the rules and shouting at me, and which exasperated me in its turn: I had little patience with silly tea parties! And then there’s the fact that Alice could be read as an alter ego for Carroll too, who may well have been on the spectrum himself.

Straying from the literary for a moment, do you have any favourite film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland? How well, or otherwise, do think Tim Burton did in his 2010 take on the material, where Alice in her late teens, played by Mia Wasikowska, returns to Wonderland?
My favourite version is the film Jonathan Miller made for the BBC (I think), in the late sixties. Alice is portrayed as on the cusp of adolescence, rather than as a little girl, but it doesn’t matter. And the casting of Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter is just inspired. The tone of the film is both funny and disturbing, which I think is just as it should be. I enjoyed the Tim Burton film – especially Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne Hathaway as the two queens – but I think it had more Tim Burton in it than Carroll.

The final section of the book collects a dozen poems on subjects as diverse as bus etiquette, mammography and Celia Johnson. Is there a particular theme or conceptual structure that informs them?
Not at all, I’m afraid! They were chosen because, although they fitted into neither of the main sequences, I felt that they were good enough to make it into the collection. There were many that didn’t.

In addition to your body of work as poet - three collections with Bloodaxe, plus your Salt collection “for the discerning cyber-kid” - you've published a memoir and an historical novel. How different was it reaching into your personal experiences in order to write The Woman Who Thought Too Much, compared with the autobiographical material (albeit used transformatively) in your poetry?
You’ve summed up the essential difference in the question, I think. In the poems, I took autographical material as my starting point, but as you’ve suggested, the writing of the poem transformed it into something other. When you set out to write a memoir, you’re working from the start on the understanding that you’re conveying something which you believe to be true to your experience, and that the reader will receive it as such. I’ve just realised that I misread the word ‘reaching’ in your question as ‘researching’, and I think I did that because I undertook a great detail of research for the memoir. I felt a responsibility to be as trustworthy a narrator as I could, and to convey accurate information about certain wider issues, so I researched OCD (the condition I was writing about), and I also researched my own life as if it were someone else’s, going through my medical notes and reading old journals. I also checked certain things with my mother, to make sure I hadn’t misremembered them. I felt that I had to inform in that book, in a relatively straightforward way. There were things that I wished I’d known about OCD and anxiety, and I wanted to convey them to other people who might need to read them. I wouldn’t want to take that approach again, though it was the right one for that book. I’m less interested in informing about issues, and more in exploring experience.

The Woman Who Thought Too Much is a brilliantly memorable title: it sounds like a Hitchcock movie. Was that a point of reference you deliberately wanted to make?
Thank you. No – in fact I hadn’t noticed that it could be Hitchcockian! It came about because when I was growing up, people kept saying, “Your problem is – you think too much!” The Woman Who… made it sound like a case history, which seemed appropriate for the subject matter.

Your novel A Want of Kindness has garnered some excellent reviews. More than one critic comments on your stated aesthetic of using, wherever possible, the written and spoken language of the time. How crucial was this decision as regards your approach to the material?
Absolutely central. I was interested in trying to explore how a 17th century woman – the woman who would become Queen Anne, in this case – might understand her world.  For that reason, I restricted myself to the tools that were available to her – the vocabulary, the ideas, the cultural references. I read her letters and used her turn of phrase in the first-person sections of the book. Of course, I’m aware that the mind shaping the book and making decisions of what to emphasise was a 21st century one – there’s no getting away from that – but my using her words was a way of feeling myself into her life, in the way that an actor might use a character’s clothes or walk or gestures.

How much research did you conduct, and how long did the novel take from commencement of first draft to completion? 
SO much. I read Anne’s letters. I read biographies. I visited palaces and museums to try and get a sense of the material culture. I read books on every aspect of 17th century life. I read books written in the 17th century. I read all the way through the King James Bible and much of the Book of Common Prayer. I read about 17th century medicine and midwifery, as poor Anne had many unpleasant encounters with both. I can’t remember when I first wrote something down, but I can tell you that from inception to completion the project took about five years.

Has there been any interest in adapting A Want of Kindness for the big or small screen?
Not yet …
Poetry; fiction; non-fiction. Are you planning on striking out into any new disciplines?
For the moment, I’m sticking with creative non-fiction. I’d always be open to working in other genres, if it’s what an idea needed (or someone asked me to).



Copyright © Neil Fulwood and Joanne Limburg, 2018