The moon and Philip Sidney

Anne Michaels's first love is poetry, but she won't talk about it. Suzi Feay meets the author of 'Fugitive Pieces'
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The Independent Culture

I had been warned that Anne Michaels, winner of the Orange Prize in 1997 for Fugitive Pieces, does not answer personal questions. Most notoriously, when giving interviews for that novel, she refused to say whether or not she was Jewish, a reasonable enough query one might think, since the book charts the laborious climb out of hell of the boy Jakob, orphaned by the Nazis. Michaels's latest book, Skin Divers, is a collection of poetry, her first to be published in this country though three previous collections have appeared in her native Canada. She is half an hour late for the interview in the Soho boardroom of her publishers, Bloomsbury, and as soon as she arrives it's clear that all is not well. She has just suffered a mauling in a radio interview. Misreading her mood, I assume she feels hurt by the experience. She is not. She is livid.

I had been warned that Anne Michaels, winner of the Orange Prize in 1997 for Fugitive Pieces, does not answer personal questions. Most notoriously, when giving interviews for that novel, she refused to say whether or not she was Jewish, a reasonable enough query one might think, since the book charts the laborious climb out of hell of the boy Jakob, orphaned by the Nazis. Michaels's latest book, Skin Divers, is a collection of poetry, her first to be published in this country though three previous collections have appeared in her native Canada. She is half an hour late for the interview in the Soho boardroom of her publishers, Bloomsbury, and as soon as she arrives it's clear that all is not well. She has just suffered a mauling in a radio interview. Misreading her mood, I assume she feels hurt by the experience. She is not. She is livid.

I ask if she'd like to take a break for 10 minutes before rushing straight into another interview, but she says coldly, "Let's get it over with." Someone whisks off to get coffee while I sit down opposite the author, whose eyebrows are still beetling formidably.

"Why didn't they warn me?" she suddenly bursts out. "Why didn't they tell me he would be like that?" I suggest that warning her wouldn't have helped; might have made her more apprehensive. "No, I just wouldn't have done it," she snaps. "I don't need to do this."

Not a very auspicious beginning; but Anne Michaels is not a rude or an ungracious woman, and almost immediately her face softens. "There were all these middle-aged women there with pieces of paper," she says. "My book had touched them and they just wanted to ask me a question. He was so rude to them. It's just arrogant."

As she cools down, I explain that I had to reach for the dictionary several times when reading Skin Divers, to look up unfamiliar or slightly off- kilter words - lamella, voltaic, cilia, corrading, travertine - only to find that quite a few of them weren't there. She frowns.

"I never set out to be deliberately elusive or difficult at all. Where a simple or a non-scientific word will do, I will happily and readily use it. But sometimes one has to use the word that means precisely what you wish to say. Some of the science vocabulary is used because it doesn't have any overtones or associations.The example from this book is 'apoptosis': it's when cells destroy themselves so that other cells can take their place. They know when to do this, it's fantastic! And it happens throughout one's life, but especially during gestation. 'Cell death' has a kind of negative connotation, and immediately we're doing something else in our mind with that phrase. I'd rather just use the word which is very much just the process without passing judgement on what that process is."

Overtones and associations - but isn't that just what poetry uses and what poets exploit, levels of meaning and the fact that words bring along baggage with them?

"Yes, absolutely. You must feel free to enter the poem at whatever level of engagement, whatever intensity, to whatever degree. Hopefully, if a poem is rich enough, there will be several ways in which a reader can be moved: intellectually, emotionally, even through the rhythm of a line that you can't get out of your mind, a visceral response to rhythm or sound. In fact, that's the aim."

Still, there's the niggling feeling that having been generous with her work, she is less than generous with explanations. It would be nice to know who "AW" is, the dedicatee of "The Hooded Hawk" and whether he or she is the "you" of the poem: "History: the silver spoon / in your kitchen drawer, / swastika on its handle." Just as it would be interesting to know if the author of "Fontanelles" really does have a daughter.

But, not able to pursue these questions, I ask: how does a poem form itself? How does she work?

"A poem usually arises out of a central metaphor or cluster of images that I know are connected, but haven't figured out how. And usually those clusters of images are a sort of net, and they have caught something, and it takes a while to understand what exactly is in that net."

That's rather how Anne Sexton worked, I say, constructing a grid of lines and rhyme-schemes and waiting to see what emerged. Sexton is a slightly unfashionable figure now, and perhaps Michaels doesn't see, or approve of, any connection between their work. In any case, she makes no sign of recognising the name and simply carries on.

"And then there's a lot of revision, and I let a poem sit for a long time, and then go back to it. They ferment in the meantime; some of them rot. Some of them dry up! Time is very useful. It allows you enough distance to be very ruthless about editing, moving things around. Again, you're hoping to catch something through hard work and discipline; something that is quite mysterious."

Many of the lines could have come straight out of Fugitive Pieces: "The immanence that reassembles matter / passes through us then disperses / into time and place"; "If love wants you, suddenly your past is / obsolete science"; "Where proteins assemble themselves / into souls". But mostly Skin Divers is strangely archaic. Her use of that hoary old device, Personification, is particularly quaint. Take the title poem: "Because the moon feels loved, she lets our eyes / follow her across the field, stepping / from her clothes, strewn silk / glinting in furrows." Later we meet Night and her sister, Memory. The treatment so relaxed it's almost daring. But there's a tradition of writing about the moon that goes from Plath to Ben Jonson and Sidney right back to Sappho.

"No matter how much reading one has done, at the moment of writing, hopefully Sir Philip Sidney's not sitting next to you in front of the computer screen. I don't mean to be flip about this. I don't think any writer sets out to speak from anyone else's heart. It is really astounding that the alphabet or musical notes, that such a limited set of elements in fact can be turned into so many things. It's truly amazing."

One of the poems uses photography as an extended metaphor. I ask her if photography is a hobby and get a formal exposition on the links between photography and poetry. Something very odd is happening in this interview. Can she really think that my question is straying into unacceptably personal territory?

And I have been trying for some time to get her to name a single poet she admires - or has heard of (Sidney doesn't count, I mentioned him first). Fugitive Pieces, I remark, was the title of Byron's first collection of poetry. Was that in her mind when she titled her novel? "No, in fact it wasn't ..." Has she come across Jo Shapcott or Lavinia Greenlaw, two British poets who most fruitfully and successfully incorporate scientific vocabulary and concepts into their work? "I haven't read them." Has there been a poetry renaissance in Canada like the one we've seen in the UK in recent years? "No, there's no sense of that." Has she heard of William Blake? "Ermmm..."

She taught creative writing for 13 years, for God's sake; whose work did she teach? "That was discussing the students' own work; we dealt with exactly what was on the page."

Who is she influenced by? "Writers always hate to answer that question, because one's formed by so many different things. It's hard for me to ... it would take me a long time to answer that question," she says.

I am forced to conclude either that Anne Michaels is a poetry ignoramus, or - as that seems scarcely credible considering the awe and reverence accorded Jakob, the poet- hero of Fugitive Pieces - that asking her who her favourite poets are is deemed as intrusive as asking about her sex life. I think again of all those uncritical, adoring middle-aged women, desperately waving their pieces of paper, and withdraw.

'Skin Divers' is published by Bloomsbury on 7 October at £9.99

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