Base Metals, Good Bells: A Conversation with Steven Toussaint

Composer Alex Taylor in conversation with poet Steven Toussaint

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Perhaps music is at the heart of all poetry, but this is certainly the case for Steven Toussaint. He completed his first full-length poetry collection, The Bellfounder, while researching the relationship between musical practice and language, questioning whether poetry can move beyond sound analogy and fall in harmony, of sorts, with itself. 

In light of the recent release of The Bellfounder, Steven sat down with Alex Taylor, one of New Zealand's leading young composers, to discuss sound, alchemy and the poetry scene here and abroad. 

Alex Taylor: What’s your experience of the poetry scene in New Zealand?

Steven Toussaint: I’ve been here four years now. It’s very different – that’s something that struck me really early on was how different not only the overarching aesthetic or dominant aesthetics are, but how there is a real interest and investment in community, and it doesn’t seem like just lip service; it seems like people do genuinely want to foster and support each other. There’s that in the States, but like the musical world it’s far more parochial, it’s incredibly partisan.

There’s the mainstream, then there’s groups within that; then there’s the avant-garde, and there’s tonnes of groups within that; there’s peace time and then there’s war time. I think right now – I try not to spend too much time following the rabbit hole of poetic politics in America but it seems like we’re very much in war time. There’s a lot of...

AT: Divisions?

ST: Yeah, a lot of debate, a lot of questions about inclusion, privilege, and how power and resources are distributed – and they’re important questions, I think it’s good that they’re happening, ‘cos they’re questions that have probably lain dormant for a long time – but unfortunately I think the way they’re being articulated at the moment is quite violent in some cases. It seems like maybe a necessary violence unfortunately. But it is refreshing at times to be in New Zealand when that’s happening and recognise that there can be...

AT: That it doesn’t need to be that way? Or maybe those divisions haven’t had the opportunity to form because there aren’t enough people, that you can’t define particular groups or schools of thought?

There seems to be a growing distancing between the generation that's currently running the show and the younger generation, which is trying to make a name for itself

ST: I am seeing little cracks – I’ve seen them recently – I don’t think it’s a war, or anything nearly as dramatic as that, but there seems to be a growing distancing between the generation that’s currently running the show and the younger generation, which is trying to make a name for itself – and that’s exactly how it should be.

I have seen a few younger poets gently trying to suggest that maybe something new is happening that people need to pay attention to – and I think that’s quite exciting; it’s cool to be around for that.

There’s probably an upside and a downside to peace – peace can also be complacency; it can also shut down conversations and...

AT:...Critical awareness.

ST: Exactly. I think maybe a little bit less peace in the name of change, development, just dynamism would be welcome, but then again I think that’ll happen – it’s sort of unavoidable.

AT: Where do you see yourself in relation to the scene or New Zealand or Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch – where do you fit in to that? Do you still see yourself as an American poet who’s living in New Zealand?

ST: Yeah, I still do. I think that’s changing and it’s not as simple as that any more for me. My first book came out in the US – I’m trying now to find ways of distributing it in New Zealand. People have been really excited about that, and really encouraging.

There are a couple of things that complicate it for me: my partner is a New Zealand novelist, who has deep relationships with New Zealand literature; I also have a PhD from the IIML [International Institute of Modern Letters]. At the same time the poetic lineage I identify with and come from is very American, and I don’t think it’s the same lineage that you would find many New Zealanders identifying with.

And so there are going to be aesthetic differences. What struck me when I first came here was that what you might call the experimental tradition was far more marginal in New Zealand – largely because of sheer numbers – but in the US what people tend to be talking about is the experimental tradition; that’s where it’s at.

In New Zealand it’s a little bit less simple – the influence of elders is very pervasive, and the influence of British poetry is far more pervasive. The more I learn about British poetry and its traditions and contemporary makeup, the more I realise how much kinship there probably is between British and New Zealand poetry, maybe even unconsciously.

AT: In what sort of ways?

ST: I think there’s a domestic interest – an interest in lyric meditations on daily living, anecdote, epiphany, recognising the spiritual richness of everyday things; I think that’s a real cornerstone of mainstream British poetry and a key component of mainstream New Zealand poetry.

There seems to be a real closeness to the ground that connects the two places. I can appreciate that – that itself is a vibrant lyric tradition – but I don’t always feel like my work fits into that scheme.

One thing that continues to strike me about New Zealand poetry is that there doesn’t seem to be an intertextual tradition – whether it's the Western canon – but also just a dialogic relationship between two poems of the same generation. One of the reasons for that is it’s less accessible. To write a poem to another poem you’re potentially setting up a situation where you have read more than the person reading your poem. I think that that can be really exciting, an invitation to the reader, but for a lot of people it can be a turn-off, a door closing: I think that’s a mistake but that’s often the attitude that discourages intertextuality.

AT: There’s a sort of latent anti-intellectual culture here that maybe gives rise to that a little.

ST: Yeah. It's funny because there's a huge anti-intellectual culture in the United States as well - 

AT: ...but the intellectual culture can still exist within that.

ST: There's room for subcultures – I'm not sure if subcultures have as easy a time proliferating in New Zealand, partly because of numbers, partly because of maybe certain kinds of predominant attitudes.

But again, I think this is changing – there are younger poets who are largely reading international poetry, not just American but British, Scots, translations from Scandinavia – I know Sam Carey who runs Compound [Press] is really into the Swedish poets, the grotesque poets – that's bringing new flavours into New Zealand poetry. That'll continue to happen – the internet means it’s hard to stay ignorant about what’s going on anywhere for very long.

AT: I suppose there’s also the particular thing mid-century when New Zealand writers were self-consciously trying to make a New Zealand thing, a New Zealand tradition that was distinct and separate from some other traditions – probably subconsciously English in some way but also [inadvertently] separated itself from a more intertextual thing.

I'm not sure if subcultures have an easy time proliferating in New Zealand

ST: That's Curnow, right? He's a very interesting poet to me – there's the real Auden influence on him, such a dominating influence, Auden's voice is so distinctive, but also taking that very British but also American voice and trying to use that to articulate New Zealand nationalism.

AT: The same in music, with Lilburn channeling Vaughan Williams and Sibelius...

ST: Maybe that’s inevitable, maybe the only way to articulate something that's yours, is to use the tools of someone else to do it.

It's been really interesting to me the proximity, or the distance I should say, from the West, or the rest of the West, must have such a profound effect on expression here, feeling the continuity because of a shared language and a shared lineage or history with these places that are so far away, it must yield such inner conflict: to at once remain continuous with an English tradition but at once articulate something distinctively New Zealand, that's a lot of pressure, and to be so remote physically from the rest of the world.

When I arrived here I was really curious about New Zealand poetry. The two touchstones that people pulled out were Curnow and Baxter. The reason they were often mentioned was not just because they were giants of New Zealand poetry but also because the differences between them are telling of the poles of New Zealand poetry.

Baxter was described to me as a radical, both politically and poetically, and to me his poems are incredibly accessible, they have a mainstream quality, very confessional, very prosaic in a lot of ways, there's not a lot of rigorous verse-handling, whereas Curnow seems much more of a versifier in a traditional sense.

I found it telling – although I wasn't sure what it was telling of – that for some New Zealanders, Baxter was seen as radical, that what constitutes radicalism is very different...

AT: Him being a prophet - maybe that colours people's idea of what his poetry was like. And also just the fact that there weren't many experimental poets well-known at that time – Alan Brunton would be an example...

ST: And then you get contemporaries like Michele Leggott, and Wystan Curnow, Allen Curnow's son and some of the other poets mostly at the University of Auckland actually, doing the post-Language poetry thing... it’s interesting what from American poetics New Zealanders have chosen as influences – Language poetry has certainly made an impact in New Zealand poetics... confessional poetry, anecdotal imagistic poetry.

But a lot of the poetry I identify with really strongly, the “Objectivist” tradition, late modernism of people like Creeley and his contemporaries, George Oppen, earlier poets like HD, the Pound tradition – that hasn’t impressed itself in the same way and that's curious to me – why – what does that poetry have, or what does it suggest about the relationship between language and the world that Kiwi poets don’t recognise or don't find compatible with their own?

AT: I think some of that might be to do with poets teaching at universities who have particular areas of interest, like Wystan or Michele, both of whom I learned from at Auckland. Maybe that's channeled into the poetic community, which like the music community doesn't exist to a great extent outside of universities.

ST: A friend of mine said something smart recently – poetry has always needed patrons, because it's not something that can generate wealth. We lament the academic nature of poetry now but in some ways, the university is just the latest version of the patron. I think that's smart, but the academy is a very particular kind of patron; the more universities become vehicles of neo-liberalism, commercial models, that's going to have an effect on the way poetry is distributed, and unfortunately on the way it's written. The way we relate to it is going to take on a competitive, PR quality – that's a risk.

Poetry has always needed patrons, because it's not something that can generate wealth

AT: Poetry is one of the last things that doesn't participate in the market economy to a great extent...

ST: But as a part of society it's going to absorb and – probably at times when it's not critically engaged enough with itself – reflect those same tendencies and attitudes. There are so many poets now and so few academic jobs that eventually poets are going to have to start doing things apart from teaching to sustain themselves. That could be really good – there's a fear of that... in some ways the university provides a haven for us, and there's a fear of going out into other sectors to earn a living – but it could also be a great liberation, it might mean we can write about things that aren't caught in this at times rather incestuous closed loop of academic highly theoretical research-based thinking... which has its place but it can also become quite... self-consuming.

AT: Are you going to be here for a little while?

ST: I think I'm here for the long haul. Ellie [Eleanor Catton] and I have this Lancewood Reading Grant and we're hoping to turn it into a non-profit and to expand its scope, have an effect on literary culture in New Zealand. Make New Zealand a more habitable place for readers.

AT: Could you talk a bit about how The Bellfounder came about, and what its relation is to Fiddlehead?

ST: Interestingly enough, although Fiddlehead was published before The Bellfounder it was actually written substantially later. In some ways if you read Fiddlehead first and then The Bellfounder it’s almost a regression back into earlier parts of my curiosities and even development.

I started writing The Bellfounder about a year after I finished Grad school at the University of Iowa. It was one of those situations where I had written a lot as part of my time there, and I was learning a lot: it really was the beginning of my poetic education. It was so traumatic that workshop experience, it really was the beginning of my learning how to write a poem.

By the time I left I was in a place similar to a lot of my colleagues from that time: we had all this work but you could see its practiced nature, that we were writing poems very often to each other, and based on aesthetic, political, ethical questions that were coming up in workshop and in our private conversations; our poems were laboured with that groundwork.

The Bellfounder was the first stuff I started writing after that, a clean break with that period of my life, the first poems I was writing post-Iowa. That felt liberating in a lot of ways – I had taken what I had learned and was able to apply it in a new setting and toward new ends. It took me about two and a half, close to three years to finish, and then a long gap, a lot of rejections, a lot of great feedback from friends and poets, and it’s not until now that it finally comes out. It feels like a body of work from a really long time ago, but it feels really cool to have a new relationship with it as published material.

Fiddlehead is much more recent: I wrote it in 2012, three years ago, and that was the first big poem after the Bellfounder poems, and it felt like a jump forward. It's probably the last poem I’ve written that uses the same resources as The Bellfounder – a terse objectivist lyric mode. In the poems I'm writing now I’m trying to experiment with longer lines, even with traditional metres and rhyme to an extent... my reading has changed a lot and that reflects on the changes I've been making since these poems.

AT: The interest in the longer lines, metre etc, is that related to your research in music?

ST: Certainly – I was trying to find out whether a poet could appropriate formal and structural components of musical practice. When I first started asking those questions I had a naïve understanding of what music was and how it worked. The more I've learned about it the more sceptical I am that that can happen, that poets can abstract musical method and technique and form and superimpose it on language: there’s so much that sound, tonally moving forms, can do that words can’t, and probably vice versa. Harmony for example: we can come up with attractive analogies, and pretty, largely metaphoric relationships for what harmony is, but it's always going to be an analogy.

There's a complete tragedy in that fact for me, that language can only ever be - 

AT: Monophonic?

ST: Yeah, and it can only ever say some thing, whereas music can evoke, it can be pure expressivity. There's something really tragic to me, that as a poet and not a musician that I'm limited to that. But in that tension, in that distance, difference there’s a lot of possibility for new things to come about. I think these long lines are at once the recognition of the limitations of language, poetic resources and tools.

One of the things I love about music is its ability to direct your anticipation. Composers can create repetitions and patterns that trigger us later on when we hear something similar or related tonally, and that's pleasurable; we also like when we’re frustrated, when that’s withheld, we like that feeling of suspension, and I really wanted to see if language could do something similar, and it can to an extent with patterns and repetitions, but it's so much more limited in that capacity, to play on the nervous system of a listener, to seduce and withhold, these things are the musician’s greatest gifts.

The Symbolists – Mallarmé, Verlaine, their contemporaries, had this very romanticised idea of music as being the ideal art form, because it could transcend banal mundane meaning – words can mean a few things at best, whereas a sound or a series of sounds can mean everything, or so many things, and so they idealised music and often tried to write poems that could approach the condition of music.

I'm sceptical of that kind of idealism while still being attracted to it – I find that pull incredibly powerful while still being enough a member of my own time to be sceptical of idealised, ritualised understandings of music, or anything for that matter.

AT: Reading The Bellfounder, you seem to be doing some of those things – trying to create an abstract language in a way, trying to get towards the condition of music in some way, do you think?

ST: I do, yes. I think for the Symbolists, and for the Modernists too, for Pound this was very true too, he wrote a lot about music, he produced quite a melomaniacal kind of writing: he was convinced that poetry could become as evocative as music.

For them that same adulation of music came with a denigration of material and of the world – that's not something that I'm interested in; that's where I stop - I'm very much interested in the stuff of worlds. I'm interested in that pull, that attraction toward that upper limit, of music, while recognising that it is largely impossible, and also maybe something I should be sceptical of in myself, and that that pull is something we need to be critical of, or at least examine, because I think it has political, ethical, spiritual implications, that yearning for something better than this world - I think that can get you into all sorts of trouble.

AT: That's a big preoccupation of The Bellfounder – the alchemical thing of turning something into gold, or an ideal unity state, which you treat very sceptically – there's something dangerous and dark about that in the book.

ST: My interest in alchemy started as a joke, I think one of the most overused metaphors for poetry is alchemy: This poet alchemises this, or a chemical wedding of this and this, it's a completely beaten-to-death metaphor. But at the same time I'm really interested in the history of alchemical literature and thinking. The relationship of turning something base into something ideal – that's kind of what alchemy is – base matter into gold, a spiritualised or divinised substance. It might be an overused metaphor but it's not entirely inappropriate for what poetry tries to do to language, to elevate it above its informational or transactional capacities. But there needs to be a check, something keeping you from a complete abandonment of the base matter, because the base matter is important too. My interest in that is...

AT: At a distance?

ST: Yeah there is a distance, but also I recognise my own interest in it, and I recognise the attraction. That's at once exciting but also troubling to me. The poems are me dealing with that in some way.

AT: There's a long poem about a piece of music, Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa – what drew you to Pärt? Are you attracted to that particular aesthetic?

ST: I started listening to Pärt around the same time I started writing the book. I think that I'm often looking for artists in other media than my own who are doing something I want to do in poetry. What he does in music, I would like to be the poet of that. Or more accurately, what would that look like – what would Arvo Pärt look like as a poet, how would his words look on the page, how would they sound. With Tabula Rasa, that was essentially the question that was guiding me... not so much what it sounds like but...

AT: What he's trying to do.

ST: Yeah... What is his effect on the listener? Could I compel a reader or encourage a reader to feel like I feel when I listen to that piece or think what I think or see what I see.

What I admire in his music is there's something so rigorously formal and constrained - Tintinnabulation, in some ways it's like serialism, it's so rigid and demanding of the composer and yet it's so emptied of all ambition, of all teleology, of all grandeur... it's kind of giving up.

AT: Almost as close to a drone or a single sound as you can get... 

ST: But also tonal. It's really beautiful. It doesn't have the demanding nature, the stridency or hygiene that Schoenberg or his followers have, which I admire and I think is interesting, but [Pärt] doesn't tax the listener in the same way.

AT: No, it's totally different; it's a meditation more than a question. Static music, music of a single thing, a single sound. Although I think the tintinnabulation thing is a bit problematic – the triad as a singular representation of the whole spectral realm of sound is very reductive in a way.

ST: Do you think by choosing that limited sequence of sounds he unfairly narrows the resources of the composer?

AT: They're his own resources... but I think if you listen to the whole oeuvre of Pärt, he has such minimal resources that it has limited capacity, I think, for expression.

ST: Certainly, that's true. Minimalism as an aesthetic ideal is kind of strange. “What's the point?” is an important question for approaching minimalist art of any kind. What impresses me about Pärt is the contemplative spaces created by that music. Which are external to the music or after the music; it seems quite incredible to me that he's able to do that.

Like I was saying earlier, in writing that poem I was confronted immediately by the limitations of that analogy, and also I can idealise Pärt to an extent, but when I'm actually confronting the music, is that minimalism, is that emptying out of other possibilities really what I want? And at the end of it, I've come to the conclusion that no, there are questions that I need more resources to ask.

AT: Your poetry seems a lot more heterophonic or polyphonic than the sort of singularity that Arvo Pärt is going for. Are there other minimalist composers, or composers in general, that you're interested in? Who did you look at in your PhD?

ST: In the critical component of my PhD I was looking at bebop, particularly Charlie Parker, modern jazz, but also Schoenberg's Erwartung, then also Ornette Coleman's ‘Lonely Woman’. Three very different artists...

AT: Although Parker was obsessed with Varèse...

ST: And Coleman had an incredible knowledge of contemporary classical music and his relationships with other artists, Buckminster Fuller, and poets of all kinds.

The reason those artists came up primarily though was because the poets I was looking at – Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest and John Taggart – these were the musicians they were trying to write to. I was largely bound to their own interests.

Steve Reich is a composer who I'm very interested in – his concept of phasing – something as conceptual as It's Gonna Rain - that piece is mind-blowing to me, so useful as a poet for me, as a symbol what it can evoke, what it can draw to itself.

Recently I've been really interested in Caroline Shaw –  she won the Pulitzer a couple of years ago for a piece that draws into it conceptual art but also early Baroque dance forms. One of the reasons I like her is that she seems to combine a very contemporary sensibility without being afraid of appropriating forms that are antiquated, which is something I like to do too. Both looking forward and backward at the same time.

A good model for a relationship between a writer and reader is like a romantic relationship... you have to trust in the intelligence and agency of that person

AT: How do you see your relationship to a reader or an audience?

ST: I think readers are capable of so much more than we often give them [credit for] – we're speaking about them as if they're one person or else some kind of monolithic archetype, and it's not, it's different people, and it's me -

AT: You're the ideal reader?

ST: I think I am - I want to write the poems that I would like to read but that I haven't encountered. I don't want to write the same poem I've seen hundred times, even those that I like.

A good model for a relationship between a writer and a reader is like a romantic relationship or a friendship – you have to trust in the intelligence and agency of that person.

But it's also a responsibility, and they can expect the same thing from you. In terms of where to set the bar - there's a kind of obscurity and intellectual distancing that's self-indulgent and masturbatory a lot of the time, and I'm not talking about that, but I'm trying to recognise that I'm a poet in this vast history, that extends backward in time but also outward in my own time, that I'm connected to these other people.

Poetry can only really be that – it's given so little place in the world to do anything else, let's let it be a lineage, a history, a tradition, a number of traditions. Let's speak to each other and for each other and honour where we come from and who's around us. Writing poems about other poems is the way I've tried to do that – just to acknowledge something that's true, that I want to be part of this greater thing called poetry that's way bigger than me or any individual poet... as a continuity poetry is pretty impressive.

A big part of ritual is apostrophe, invoking, calling out to something, whether it's God or the priest, or the members of the congregation. It's not an accident that that apostrophic tone is often hit by poetry – we're calling to each other across various distances of time and space. There's nothing erudite about that. It's just recognising what exists, which is this continuity.

AT: For me personally when I read the book I had to look up words, do my own research, and that was great, it was exciting. And I think that's important, that it's not easy, that poetry shouldn't be easy.

ST: The language of difficulty and ease, or accessibility, are mainstays, maybe unfortunately, of poetic discussion -

AT: The word accessibility can be pretty meaningless.

ST: A lot of conversations tend to revolve around transmission. How do we get poetry in to as many hands as possible? Whose hands do we want poetry to be in? Should we be pursuing non-poets – the reality is that poets tend to read poetry and not a lot of other people read poetry, or at least not contemporary poetry. Should we be accepting of that fact and write to each other or should we be -

AT: Writing to the layperson?

ST: Or should we try and cross these boundaries, and if that requires writing about something at what we imagine is this layperson's level - I think there's a danger in that, that you underestimate the knowledge... not the knowledge, but the curiosity of the reader. I've had a lot of experiences as a reader where I've been introduced to an author or a name that I didn't recognise; to me that's an invitation - I get to look that up, I'm expanding my own touchstones. The knee-jerk reaction that sees that as an assault, or a kind of...

AT: An elitism?

ST: An elitism, saying that you're not allowed to enter now because you don't know who this person is, that's more of an insecurity than it is the author's difficulty. That's not typically the issue. The poet wants you to read their writing, they're not trying to humiliate you. When poetry is so little read, why would anyone want to alienate one more reader? The point is to draw you into this network of people, this tradition that is really vibrant, if you let yourself be vulnerable enough to humble yourself before it... I don't think we like being humbled. We often see it as an act of domination or of restriction. We're over-sensitised to that feeling.

AT: It's something I come across at times when you present a new piece to performers, an orchestra, if they feel like they can't understand or don't have all the skills right at that moment to perform it perfectly, they can feel like the composer is imposing their dominance on them - 

ST: Their will - 

AT: That somehow we've pushed them away. Which can be frustrating.

ST: Evidence to me that this is not the right approach: I've had students that when you give them the typical intro to poetry fare, they're often bored, they lose interest quickly, a few learn how to replicate that, but when you get the best reactions is when you give them stuff that they can tell is challenging to their ability – You give them a difficult piece of Modernist literature - some of them baulk, say this is weird, bizarre, throw up their hands and walk away. But you get a lot of other people who find a determination, they can recognise your respect for them by showing them this material, and completely rise to the occasion, those are the best experiences in a classroom setting.

Music does the extremes of emotion very well, but it can't do irony and it can't do subtleties

There's a reciprocal relationship between reader and poet, both have responsibilities and both have unique histories of their own that they bring to the table. In so many other parts of our lives we're prevented from having that kind of relationship, even with an abstract person. Reader-writer relationships, or even forget about the writer, the reader and the text, these can facilitate that kind of relationship that's eroded and taken away from us in so many aspects of our lives elsewhere.

I'm sure that's similar for musicians... to be honest I've never felt more intimate with an artwork than I have with music, and I include poetry and literature in that. It's intellectual, it's physical. Poetry can only metaphorically be physical whereas music can actually be physical. You can say that a poem can “take the top of your head off”, and that's great, but it's a metaphor. But music can shake your body - 

AT: Make the inside of your ear go funny - 

ST: Make you weep, or laugh. And it's entirely visceral. That's the envy I was talking about before. There's a tragedy that language can't do that.

AT: But music has a very limited range of emotions.

ST: Do you reckon?

AT: I think music does the extremes of emotion very well, but it can't do irony and it can't do subtleties.

ST: Maybe that just says that I like those extremes more. [Laughter]

AT: They're powerful extremes, joy, sorrow, anger... but music can't articulate those finer shades that words are so good at pinpointing; it's a crude artform in many ways, it's more primal.

ST: I like the distinction. Maybe poetry has the shades, the subtleties between but it can't - 

AT: Knock you over.

ST: It has a harder time doing that. Maybe that's partly why it struggles in the world, to find audiences, that its concerns are with the in-betweens and not the extremes.

AT: Sound is a physical thing – everybody has a pair of ears, you listen to something, and you can hear it. Words have a sort of distance, they mediate, whereas sound is immediate, it's absolutely in your ear.

ST: Susanne Langer's philosophic distinction is that language can express, but music can only ever be the conditions for expression. It never gets to expression but it's pure conditionality. That's why it's so capable of the emotional [thing], because emotion resembles that in its pure potential energy.

AT: It can't express a particular thing. But it has this other power. 

To wrap up, what comes next for you, after The Bellfounder?

ST: I'm proud of The Bellfounder – it's an accurate representation of a period of my life, but it does feel like an earlier self. That's a weird experience, to see this mirror of yourself at an earlier stage of development.

A lot of the questions I was asking in The Bellfounder, I'm still asking, but I've cut away some of the ways I've asked and have gone into new directions to find better ways of asking, or I've realised that some of the possible answers aren't true or have had ones suggested to me that I wouldn't have thought of when I was writing it. 

In The Bellfounder musical poetry was of the ear, me trying to write a poetry of the ear. The way I've been thinking about music more recently is a lot less to do with the way it sounds and more to do with the way it thinks, a kind of musical thinking. The way that a piece of music understands itself and introduces ideas develops ideas, replicates ideas, challenges its own ideas, dialectically, paradoxically. I love the way music can be that; it does seem self-aware in a way that language can only perform, whereas music is self-aware. That's opened up to me possibilities of how to take a long poem and find formal analogies with music, that you won't necessarily hear... you won't hear Arvo Pärt - 

AT: It's embedded in the structure.

ST: There might be a structural continuity that I would never have foreseen when I was writing The Bellfounder. My appreciation [then] was very much as a lay amateur, as a sound junkie, whereas I think my intellectual appreciation for music has deepened since then.