Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?
I’ve always loved long telephone calls with friends, relaxed enough to allow for moments of silence, knowing the other person, out of reach, is there, experiencing that same abstract space. The motif of the telephone plays on absence/presence, as if over the telephone a person’s absence can be, paradoxically, an emphatic presence. This fascination has certainly crept into the poem.
How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?
I began the writing whilst watching a film. In this instance I was watching Doctor Zhivago (Dir. David Lean, 1965) and something was sparked at the point where Yuri and Lara return to the abandoned Varykino estate, to the ‘ice palace’ where Yuri begins writing poems for her. Unbeknownst to me, I must have had W.S. Graham’s frozen landscapes from his poem ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ at the back of my mind – which is hardly surprising given that his work had been occupying me for several years. All that ‘printed snow’ must have got to me, not to mention his description of hearing ‘the telephone ringing deep / Down in a blue crevasse’ and being unable to answer it.
How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?
It wasn’t a conscious consideration. As with the subliminal influence of Graham, some part of my mind was busy making sure the poem would be appropriate, but the process was primarily about absorbing myself in the task and seeing what happened. I don’t like to overplay my role.
Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?
My dislike of modern technology, especially smartphones, has increased. They seem to me to run the risk of creating more absence and less presence. When there’s less presence there’s more room for miscommunication. Isn’t poetry partly about being extremely present in the world, and in what we say? Give me one of those corded rotary dial phones! Give me slowness! My interest in telephones of all kinds as mediums for an exchange and as rich territory for correspondences has also increased. The common ground between poems and telephones is that both are about making connections, about where the lines break or where they don’t break, and looking for some kind of receptivity or reception. ‘External Line’ is the record of an imagined telephone call framed around the notion that the ‘I’ of the poem is addressing an ‘other’ via a special number. Perhaps, in a way, that ‘other’ is present in the poem not by speaking but by listening. This is retrospective analysis on my part. There’s room enough for many interpretations, and leaving things open is part of the call.
Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?
I’ve just realised there’s a further connection or two to be made here: it was another Scot who invented the telephone, whose middle name was Graham, and, the Graham whose middle name was Sydney was part of the original Dial-a-Poem project. That’s a kind of crossed line. In his piece for the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (No. 64: Spring 1970), Graham wrote: ‘I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call. The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back.’ And indeed, with this project, our spoken words are on their own.