Review in The Irish Times, Saturday 17th May 2008
PATRICK CHAPMAN'S Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights, the poet's third collection, is a more conventional volume. Carefully and intelligently divided into five sections, its poems deal with the familiar challenges of an approaching mid-life: that stage where the pattern in the carpet has begun to reveal itself, but the speaker has not yet given up on agency. The volume's first part tells the story of a failed relationship; the book really comes alive, though, from its second section. In Recess: Requiescat in Pace is a series of seven short, crystalline poems about a fatal car crash in Recess: "And I can have no faith/ Or offer comfort". They include the keening Loss Chant: "The world is passing into Recess./ [ . . .] Evening, always passing into night./ Night is always passing into morning" Equally felt is the third section, telling of a passionate affair, where intense emotion impacts into images of death and decay. Here, too, is the book's best poem, Planet Virgo Collage: "'Are you in love with me/ Or with the strangeness, the exotic?'// Eat the sea". Chapman writes at his very best when, as here, his subject is un-mediated experience.
Fiona Sampson's latest book is Common Prayer (2007). She is editor of Poetry Review
Review in "The Fix - Short Fiction Review
Patrick Chapman's Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights
is a collection of poetry which functions as a continuous unit. If this were a piece of music, it would be a concept album. As the differences between songs and poems vary from vague to nonexistent, it should come as no surprise that this is a highly effective technique. The unifying concept is that of lost love, but the initial passion and hope that are presented show the pain of what is lost. It also allows for a variety of emotion that makes the collection more than a one-hit wonder.
In form, the poetry is free verse throughout. Chapman relies on imagery and double-meanings to create most of the impact in his poetry. In "Lovers," the narrator is struck with sciatic pain and lies motionless in bed. The poem ends with, "But I did not appear to be wounded / Until after my nerve had returned." The surface meaning of the word "nerve" is the sciatic nerve, but there is an underlying emotional current in the poem that makes it clear that he is also speaking of the courage to take action. These paired meanings are found throughout the poetry and add depth to the collection.
The elements of science fiction and fantasy are lightly sprinkled through Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights. They are a backdrop, rather than a main theme. A good example of this comes from "Hope of Ray" in which the ray of the title references a comet - "The comet's asleep / but the sun is awake"-but the theme of the poem is more properly stated in its first line "Thirty-six months to the day since we split." This is a drawback if you are hoping for a tale of tomorrow or yesteryear. However, if you are simply looking for some good poetry, the occasional elements of the fantastic are an unexpected treat.
Most of these moments occur in Part Three. The first poem is "Planet Virgo Collage," and other science-fiction/fantasy themed titles include "Shepherd Moons" and "Labyrinth." Of these, "Shepherd Moons" is the one that uses the most sfnal imagery with "A pair of bonsai asteroids" and "A spacecraft in the wilderness." However, these are once again tied to his central theme of loss. The small rocks (or bonsai asteroids) become reminders of happier times: "The moment passed. We were in love." They then land on the narrator's mantelpiece: "A pair of shepherd moons without / A planetary ring to keep in line."
Other elements sprinkled throughout include a judicious amount of vulgarity and "adult situations." "Planet Virgo Collage" has an "I'm so hot" line that is both risqué and funny, but you will need to read it for yourself. The profanity is realistic without being over the top. In "Trash," the observer responds to the situation of finding a raccoon in his trash quite naturally with the exclamation "What the fuck is this?" What could be more natural? And yet, the poet finds meaning even in a pile of rubbish.
Despite the occasional four-letter words, much of this poetry possesses a calming mood. "First Christmas by the Sea" exhibits this tranquility with a beautiful image. The poem begins with "Snow fell, layered on the house" and ends:
In the small hours, after wine, warm hearth and sleep,
They woke to find the television on.
Somehow, snow had got inside the house.
The language is unobtrusive and creates a cozy environment that perfectly evokes a night in front of the fire.
Chapman has managed to present amazing images of loss, without delving into pathos. By using spare images and double meanings, he allows the reader a moment to realize the emotions present in each situation. Real love, real pain, and real fear all have a place here, but none of them become overwhelming. While some poems have moments of brilliance, the true wonder is that of the collection as a whole.
An Interview with Patrick Chapman
By Sarah Jackson â‹… January 1, 2008
from The Fix - Short Fiction Review
Some of the highlights of Patrick Chapman's extensive and impressive career include being one of the co-founders of the Irish Literary Revival, writing a Doctor Who audio play for Big Finish, four poetry collections, and a short story collection. Here, he answers some questions on his experience of writing in such a wide range of forms and his opinion of literature in a modern setting.
Tell me a bit about yourself
I was born in 1968 and grew up in a small town in Ireland, Boyle. I currently live in Dublin, Ireland. When I was little I started to write. This evolved into writing my own comic books when I was about nine or ten, then stories, then poems. I have four collections of poetry, Jazztown, which came out in 1991 from Raven Arts Press here in Dublin, The New Pornography (1996) and Breaking Hearts and Traffic Lights (2007), both of which were published by Salmon Poetry, and A Shopping Mall on Mars, which has just gone to print and is due early this year from Blaze VOX. My collection of stories is The Wow Signal, which came out in 2007 from Bluechrome in the UK. I've written a film, Burning the Bed, which I adapted from my own short story. That was made in 2003 and had Gina McKee and Aidan Gillen in it, which was lovely, and it won some awards. The year before last I wrote a Doctor Who audio play for Big Finish. It was called "Fear of the Daleks" and featured Wendy Padbury reprising her role as Zoe, from the era of the Second Doctor. It also featured Nick Briggs doing the voice of the Daleks. I got to attend the recording, thanks to the director, Mark Thompson-that was a real thrill. Finally, I'm currently putting the finishing touches to a novel.
So you are pretty prolific and very flexible in terms of the type of stuff you write. What have you found to be the major differences between writing say a short story versus a novel?
A novel tends to be more complex. I have to weave more threads and keep on top of many more characters. The novel tends to be broader in scope and takes up a lot more of my life. With a short piece, I can often get the first draft down in a very short burst of writing. Burning the Bed took a weekend to write, and although I went back to it several times over quite a number of years before it was published, its basic shape remained the same. The novel has gone through a couple of major overhauls over the years, when I found the narrative heading into a dead end-I've had to keep paring it back and redirecting the plot and characters until the book finally showed me where it wanted to be. So, apart from the obvious physical effort involved in a novel, it's simply a bigger world to build than that of a short story. Sometimes, with both, you need distance and perspective before you realise that what you thought was a finished piece of work, is, in fact, still unfinished and needs more attention, so I often let something sit for a while and return to it with fresh eyes.
Burning the Bed was originally adapted from one of your short stories; would you say there are any major challenges to adapting an existing story for screen rather than starting from scratch?
Writing something original for the screen, as distinct from adapting, is a slightly different process. With an adaptation, you have to be aware that the two media are quite different ways of telling a story. You have to get over any preciousness you might have about the original and take what you need in order to make it into a film, while trying to stay true to the essence of the story. The major difference is that in adapting something, you have to break it down into parts digestible by the screenwriting process. That's only at the beginning, though. By the time you're done writing the script, it will have become film-native, as it were. It's a form of translation.
Was it an enjoyable experience for you? How did it feel seeing the characters from your short story being brought to life by the actors?
Yes, it was great fun to watch them on set, and seeing how the dialogue changed to fit the scene, as necessary. Also, seeing the finished film, it was interesting to note the changes made to the story in order to turn it into a film. They're great actors, and I think they did the characters proud. Aidan Gillen was great in the original Queer as Folk, and he's now in The Wire. Gina McKee is fantastic in everything I've seen her do.
Naturally, being the writer on set, I tried to not get in the way, but as it was only a four-day shoot, and I was there for a couple of those days, I don't think I was in the way, much. They did ask about some script changes. In the story, the character Stephen goes for a swim, but on the day, the water was so freezing that the director decided he wasn't going to put his actor through that. So, there was a quick rewrite at the last minute to give the film a different ending from that of the short story. Amusingly, I had the same idea for a different ending that the director had, which is what we ended up with, but he shot it differently from how I would have done it. That's the thing with film-it's a director's medium-and as a writer, I'm more than happy to let that be the case once I've done my best with the script.
Tell me about the Irish Literary Revival. What was the motivation behind setting it up?
Philip Casey and I set that up. Philip has a number of his own websites, including a guide to Irish writers, and we had long thought it would be fun to collaborate on something. The idea of the Irish Literary Revival is that it takes out-of-print books by Irish or Ireland-related authors and presents an electronic copy of them online. We have done this with the full consent and cooperation of the writers and publishers involved. Because most books that go out of print are not likely to be reprinted, those texts are lost to the public. We figured this would be a way for authors to present those books to a new, and possibly worldwide, audience.
So you have a passion to save old and out of print works from being lost to the modern reader. What's your opinion of the trend in work being published in today's market?
Do you mean writers publishing complete texts online as well as in print? I'm all for that, actually, as I think it's the start of something really great.
What do you think of the idea that it will lead to a decrease in the demand for books, leading eventually to the majority of publications being published via digital media rather than in print? And would this be a bad thing?
I'd be in favour of both coexisting, as long as a way is found to reimburse the writer. There's nothing quite like having a physical object (I recently took delivery of some hardbacks of my poetry collection and that was a great feeling). I do think that having books available digitally is a good thing. Bluechrome, who published my collection of stories are currently investigating the possibility of offering individual short stories for digital download, but the book is still there to buy in a paper edition. Something tells me that there will always be a demand for printed books, but I'm all for having them available in as many media as possible. I would be curious to see how and if the medium changes how books are written.
That's an interesting thought. Do you think there has already been a noticeable change in writing over the past decade with the explosion in popularity of the Internet and the availability of online magazines, blogs, etc.?
The Internet has helped give a platform to people who may otherwise have not had that as quickly. On a very basic level, it's easier for many people now to get their work seen, just by posting it somewhere. With online magazines and blogs, you still get the editorial filter that you have with print magazines, and that, too, is a good thing. There are many great sites out there that publish good work. The temptation, however, is to publish before a piece of work is ready. As far as I know, I haven't changed the way I write because the Internet is there, but the medium allows for all kinds of collaborations that would have been more difficult in the past. For example, the book Messages by Sarah Salway and Lynn Rees, which is published by Bluechrome, was composed over the Internet by the two authors replying to each others' emails.
Are there any writers you would say have really influenced you in terms of your writing?
When I was growing up, I read a lot of science fiction. Old-school stuff, such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Frank Herbert's Dune books. Those works opened my mind to possibilities that you simply didn't get with mainstream writing. Just the sheer imagination of it all. Later, J.G. Ballard was a big influence in the way he introduced his own obsessions to his work. His taste for the surreal was something I found inspiring. Later still, people such as Ian McEwan-his short stories and early novels are amazing-and The Fat Man in History by Peter Carey, were among my favourites. Also, The Wasp Factory and The Bridge by Iain Banks-still his best work, in my opinion. I'm a big fan of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and I hope the new film does it justice. In terms of poetry, Robert Lowell's Life Studies was a breath of fresh air. Although it was written half a century ago, it still feels contemporary. I was also influenced by television and movies, especially the films of Hal Hartley, David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and some of Nicolas Roeg's work.
What inspires you, really gets the creative juices flowing?
The short answer to that is "everything." The slightly longer answer is "absolutely everything." Anything can set off a creative flow. Experiences, memories, conversations-but I have no set routine for writing. I take it as it comes and work it until the seam is exhausted, or I am. The blank page is inside my head and I am always sitting down to it. Procrastination, I find, is a useful tool for creativity. It means that something's bubbling away and when I sit down to write, whatever that is will come up. Travel inspires me-the sensory rush of new places and people. There's a good deal of travel poetry in my early books. Also, deadlines are pretty good at getting the juices flowing. Unlike Douglas Adams, who famously said that he loves deadlines and the whooshing noise they make as they go past, if I'm working towards something, I tend to keep going until it's done. Having a piece lying around and nagging me to finish it is inspiring too. There's usually no specific starting point that I'm conscious of; I just find myself writing a poem or a story and wonder how I got there and where it's going to lead. I have to follow the story, or the poem. Eventually it will tell me when it's done with me, but it often takes its time.
And what have you got planned for 2008?
In this past year a lot of work has come out or is about to. The poetry collections, the stories, and the Doctor Who audio. That wraps up everything I've been working on for the last thirteen years or so, except my novel, which is nearly done. I'd like to finish that in the new year. In January, I'm going to the AWP conference in New York with Salmon Poetry. We'll be doing a reading in the Bowery Poetry Club as well as signing books at the conference, and I'm very much looking forward to that. I may start more poems or try to get a film project off the ground. One of my ambitions is to write for the new Doctor Who series, which is probably the best thing on TV at the moment, though I do love the new Battlestar Galactica. Also, I'd like to write for Blake's 7 whenever it comes back.