The Metropolis

"Ozymandias had nothing on us". Geographer-poet Tim Cresswell talks about his new collection, Soil

Mike Pollitt | Sunday 7 July, 2013 14:46

Tim Cresswell's poetry collection Soil, published by Penned in the Margins

Tim Cresswell's poetry collection Soil, published by Penned in the Margins

What: A collection of poems, many set in contemporary London
When: Get it now
Where: From publisher Penned in the Margins
How much: £8.99

Soil is Tim Cresswell’s first collection of poetry. The poems talk of foxes and geology and people ironing in Acton living rooms while the city hums around them and the world ages deep beneath their feet. We asked Tim about his poems, and about how his day job, as professor of human geography at Royal Holloway, inspired them.

Snipe: The collection opens with a fox at the top of the Shard eating pork pie crusts and looking down across the city. That’s an image a lot of people will instinctively be drawn to and find interesting and meaningful about living in London now – but they might not be able to explain why. Can you articulate why you wanted to write a poem about this, and to open the collection with it?

Tim: This is a poem I am very fond of. When I read the story of Romeo (the name the builders gave him) found on the 73rd floor of the Shard as it was being built I was astonished. All those stairs and ladders. I had a powerful image of this fox sitting looking at the lights of London, the planes descending from east to west, the glow of the London night. I wondered what a fox would make of it all. I also thought of all the stories of foxes in mythologies of the world and decided that this true fox story was possibly even better. Somewhere in the back of my mind were the poems of Ted Hughes…the much anthologised Thought Fox and the less well known but better poem where he encounters a fox on a London bridge. Finally there are all the foxes I see in the evening hours around my home in Ealing. They remind me of the incompleteness of urban London… Or perhaps the way in which London, to be complete, needs foxes alongside other characters from the book such as weeds and parakeets and blackberry brambles. So the poem does a lot of the work of the whole collection…reflecting on urban natures, dwelling, being displaced. At the heart of it is Europe’s tallest building with all of its steel and glass and a small fox. The juxtaposition speaks volumes.

“…feeling the clay wick the wet away / from the membranes in your mouth”

Why do you like the idea of people eating earth?

It seems elemental…cannabilistic even. Geophagy is widely practiced and the stuff of folk tales. It brings a very clear set of imagined sensations to mind. Perhaps it goes back to childhood experiences or eating unwashed carrots. It all gets mixed up with the erotic and issues of fertility in ways I cannot really rationalise.

“…a place that could spend millions of years buried / and still blackbirds wake me up in spring”

Rewilding is an idea that’s knocking around at the moment (George Monbiot has a book out about it). A lot of your poems are about plants and animals living in “human” places. Do you believe in the possibility of a wild, non-human existence? Or are we way past that?

It is commonplace now to talk of the social construction of nature. There is nowhere on earth that has not been influenced by our presence on earth. This is recognised by the invention of the anthropocene by geologists. I think it is unlikely that there is any segment of space that we can point to and call wilderness without a heavy dose of irony. I think, however, that we may be looking in the wrong way. There are bits of the ‘wild’ in everything. Right at the heart of the human body there is the wild. There is wild in the glass and steel of the Shard. There is wild inside the Large Hadron Collider. Put it this way… If we argue that nature is socially constructed we are pointing out that humans…and the way we self organise… are evident in every scrap of the stuff we call nature. If we reverse the argument and say that everywhere we look in the human world there is at least some element of ‘nature’ then we can also say that the social is naturally constructed. Choosing the former argument over the latter is just a political choice. There is of course a danger in making nature centered arguments as they can quickly become deterministic in ways that can quickly become eugenics or worse.

Chart of soil types, from Wikipedia. Tim’s collection makes great play of the scientific language of soil

Is geological time one of the last sublime thoughts left to the contemporary poet?

It is certainly one of them but not the last. Geology and deep time are awe inspiring in a sublime way if you sit and think about it. If you look at the creases and folds in a landscape with exposed vertical surfaces you cannot but be impressed by the kind of power that can fold the very earth. Some of that is going on in the poem Earthwork which is set in Banff in Canada where you can see the waves of sediments along the valley the Bow River has cut into. I think we are collectively doing our best to tame this sense of awe by insisting on calling our current geological era the ‘anthropocene’ – a name which suggests we are the prime agent in the creation of the earth around us at this particular time. This is an interesting perspective that serves the useful purpose of directing our attention to the Human influence on the global environment. What it also does, however, is point to a more prevalent sense of the sublime in our time and this is a narcissistic sublime…a sense that we are in awe of ourselves and our own accomplishments. Some talk of the ‘technological sublime’ in reference to the beauty and awe of a mushroom cloud or even the rainbow colors of oil on water. It makes sense to me. I remember this sense as I landed at Chicago at night seeing this endless grid if lights as we approached O’Hare. No one could deny the extraordinary beauty of such a thing. We did that! How terrible and beautiful! Ozymandias had nothing on us.

“Imagine lines around the world – his lines – her lines…they have pressed themselves on the earth”

You’re moving your life (I think I’m right in saying) from London to Boston. As someone who has studied human geography as your career, how does it feel to be a number within the global statistics of human migration? As a poet and an academic, how hard is it to find the personal in the great flood of numbers?

Such a question lies at the heart of do much that I write and think about both academically and poetically. It is also personal. I have moved constantly as an airforce child, a student and an academic. I don’t think I have lived anywhere more that seven years and I am constantly interested in what somewhere else might have to offer. I would be very happy if the next stop… Boston… was the last. I admire people who don’t move much. That seems brave to me. But I am very interested in the meanings that accompany moving people and things. Travel and stories were joined at the hip early on in our history and have remained that way. Numbers are interesting but the stories much more so. The quote you give with this question refers to the phenomenon of ‘desire lines’…the paths we make as we take short cuts that were unintended by planners. Those lines of bare dirt we see across the park, or cutting off a corner. I like to think of those globally…as paths that reflect some of our desires. I always had that image in my head of an automatic map that traces lines with every movement. Some times in strange cities I try and figure out if the line of the now us crossing over an old line from another journey I have taken.

More than one of your poems talk of blood and soil, of a connection between a person and the soil on which they were born and raised. That’s a powerful idea in human history – that there’s a vertical connection between people and the earth. Will this idea be as powerful in the future?

It’s hard to see it going anywhere. People still fight wars for an abstract notion of the soil. This is at the heart of Heidegger’s notion of ‘dwelling’..of being itself. What we are faced with now is a point in history when more people than ever are moving. Places are rarely purely vertical…they are also horizontal…produced by ‘elsewhere’ as much as by ‘here’. I grew up in a world where the location my family happened to be living in meant very little. Many poets we know and love – such as Seamus Heaney – have a craft of place that involved a deep sense of loamy, peaty rootlessness that really makes little sense to me except as an ideal of sorts. So I wanted to reflect on soil in a different way. In many ways soil is entirely inappropriate as a metaphor for belonging. Soil moves all the time. It is eroded and transported and deposited. It slumps and disperses. Soil is mobile. Bedrock is just one source of a soil’s identity. So, strangely, soil turns out to be a reasonable conceptual metaphor for place and belonging after all.

Filed in: