On Writing ‘Gardening With Deer’ – Kathy Miles
Gardening With Deer is my third poetry collection, and I was delighted to learn that three of the poems from it – ‘Red Kite’, ‘Veteran’ and ‘Vanishing Point’- were to be featured in The Lonely Crowd. Whilst in one sense Gardening With Deer is simply a compilation of the poems I have been working on since The Shadow House, in other ways it represents a considerable shift in style and subject-matter, moving from the personal, more introspective poems of the previous book to a much broader and wide-ranging perspective, and an increased use of a narrative style. History, archaeology and science have always fascinated me. I also like poems that tell a story, particularly one which is perhaps lesser known, such as that of the Sisters of Compiègne in ‘Elegy for Lace’. However, with a 9-5 job that very often seeped into evenings and weekends, it was never possible to develop these interests as fully as I’d have liked. In 2014 I resigned from my job in order to take an MA in Creative Writing. This not only gave me the discipline to change the normal work-routine into a routine of daily writing, but meant I had time to pursue my other interests with the intention of feeding them directly into the poetry. I have always researched my subject-matter intensively: ‘Vanishing Point’, ‘Re-Entry’ and ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’, for example, are all poems which took several weeks of concentrated reading before I was able to sit down and put pen to paper. Often, I will travel to the place I am writing about in order to ensure the authenticity of the poem in terms of setting and ambience. ‘Vanishing Point’ was written as the result of two trips made to Venice, and reflects my increasing sadness at the damage which the city has sustained, not least because of tourists like myself eagerly seeking the unique experience it has to offer. In this poem I wanted to present something a little different to the reader – since Venice is already so very well known and loved – and chose to incorporate the islands of Poveglia and San Michele Cemetery as symbolic of the decay of a once-great Venetian empire. ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ and ‘Collecting Fossils’ were again both written following visits to the Musée National du Moyen Âge and Lyme Regis, undertaken specifically for the purpose of writing the poems. To me, accuracy is very important: I like to get facts right, and for the places I am portraying to be real to the reader.
Landscape is another of my passions. Living in West Wales, I suppose that an interest in the countryside and the rural environment is inevitable, as we are surrounded with such great natural beauty. When I first came to Wales as a young student, straight from the city streets of Liverpool, the countryside didn’t much interest me: it seemed dirty, tediously green, full of sheep, and the pubs were packed with welly-wearing local farmers who smelt of cows and were only interested in discussing the latest milk quotas. I just couldn’t buy into the John Clare and Edward Thomas scenic idyll. And then we moved. To a strange, Walter Segal style self-build, a house standing off the ground on four raised legs, with a large garden incorporating a massive pond. And here I saw the red kite of my poem hovering in her ‘astonishing red’ with that distinctive call, a ‘high frail’ that makes you stop and look up in wonder as she circles overhead. I saw badgers, foxes, wild mallards and jackdaws, woke to the morning clamour of rooks, and I was hooked. I now sit for many hours in the conservatory just observing the wildlife, pen and paper to hand, or walk down the road to the sea to watch waves breaking across the sand, and that has been the driver for very many of the poems in the book.
Having reached a certain age, I also find that I am a great deal more interested in other people’s stories than in my own. My generation grew up with a huge sense of the after-effects of the Second World War. My father was at Arnhem: dropped with the 1st Airborne Division into a field under heavy gunfire, terrified for his life, he was forced to lie under the body of a dead cow for many hours until the shelling ceased. It was only when I was older that I fully realized what he had gone through and understood his constant nightmares, the weight of memory he carried through his life, which I wrote about in my poem ‘Veteran’. I was aware when writing the poems that many of them were also about loss – of friends, parents, loved ones – which again is a reflection of that ‘certain age’ and the knowledge that time spans are getting shorter, and that the small known and loved world that one inhabits is slowly shrinking.
I am currently working on a fourth collection which will focus on landscape and on our place in the universe, the ‘heft’ by which we become bonded to the land, and to that ‘usual abode.’ I am also hoping to expand what I have partially started in Gardening With Deer, which is my increasing interest in a re-enchantment of language. Using older and dialect words is something I’ve been doing for some time – the word ‘heft’ itself is an old vernacular term used by sheep farmers in the context of ‘belonging’ – and the loss of these wonderful landscape descriptors is something that Robert Macfarlane notes with some despair in his brilliant Landmarks. So many of our old words have been dropped from modern dictionaries and thesauri, along with common expressions remembered from childhood. I find it sad that future generations may not know the old names for the hills, meadows and wildlife around us. And if a writer cannot save our language, then who can?
Kathy Miles is a poet and short story writer living in West Wales. She has published three collections of poetry: The Rocking Stone (Poetry Wales Press), The Shadow House, and Gardening With Deer (Cinnamon Press). She has also produced and edited an anthology of poems and photographs (The Third Day: Landscape and the Word) for Gomer Press. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and magazines, and she has been placed in several major competitions, winning the Welsh Poetry Competition in 2014, the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2015, and the PENfro Poetry Competition in 2016. Kathy frequently reads at local events and festivals, and is a co-editor of The Lampeter Review.
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You can read Kathy’s three poems in our new issue, which may be purchased here.
© Kathy Miles, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.