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Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed poet Peter Clive about his life, being inspired to write by the climate crisis, and the creativity that went into his new poetry book, The End Of The Age Of Fire.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I’m a middle-aged middle class mid-terrace man living in the Southside of Glasgow with my wife, our three kids, and one cat. The day job for most of the last couple of decades has been in renewable energy. I have worked for different engineering consultancies in the field of wind energy. I got to fulfil a childhood ambition of having a job title with the word “scientist” in it. My background is in physics and astronomy. I also spent a few years working for a software startup a couple of university friends and I founded. I’m very interested in music and history. 

When did you first WANT to write poetry?

I wanted to write poetry from my early teens, but my main creative outlet at that time was music. I have played the piano since I was 10 and found a lot of release from teen angst in the turbulent romantic repertoire.

I also found writing music for the piano was my main form of self-expression. I would say my whole aesthetic, my whole sense of what works, and what my objectives are creatively, are very much informed by my experience of writing and performing music.

The “musicality” of any creative endeavour is important, the relationship and interplay of ideas in whatever form. I would say that even takes precedence over the semantics, over what the words in a poem mean from a superficial, lexical point of view, over whatever explicit “point” one might take from it (although that remains important).

Peter Clive, poet, author of The End Of The Age Of Fire, interview on The Table Read
Peter Clive

In my longer form pieces this almost symphonic approach to the development of ideas guides my process, and this early musical background is probably one reason I find the long form attractive.

When did you take a step to start writing poetry?

I did have an attempt at poetry as a teenager, but I think I was aware enough of my own limitations as a wordsmith and my lack of life experience at the time to realise I should stick to music for the time being. Later in life, in my late 30s and early 40s, I returned to the idea of poetry as a creative outlet. It had the benefit of being something one could do without waking anyone, which was an issue at the time with a young family.

I discovered that the contemplative mode of thinking required by poetry was useful as a sort of introspective tool, and that writing poetry is also a process of self-discovery. It’s interesting looking at older pieces and remembering what they seemed like while they were still fresh and thinking about how they seem now that I have developed and hopefully grown in awareness.

I’d also say I am motivated by a desire to express something about my experience of the world that only poetry (and music) seem suited to. However, I wouldn’t say there is anything as clumsy as a political agenda. I’m more interested in connection, in communication of our awareness of being in the world. In a sense, poetry should attempt the impossible, by communicating something that cannot be described, to allow us to validate each other, to say “yes, this is all real, this is actually happening, uniquely, to you, and I know this because the same is true for me”.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

The process was actually very rapid in the end. I suppose it was one of those things that happens slowly, then quickly. Most of the material in the book had been developed over a few years, but the idea of the book occurred to me in relation to themes of climate change and environmental degradation, to tie in with COP26 in Glasgow last year.

Once I decided to pull something together on that theme, it turned out I could gather a coherent collection of poems with a clear, logical arc from beginning to end exploring those themes relatively quickly. The vast majority of the material already existed. The theme is one of my pre-occupations, naturally. I created the first draft of the collection in one night, then revised it a week later after reviewing a proof, and that was that.

What made you want to write The End Of The Age Of Fire?

The climate emergency has to be the key issue of our time. It is difficult to express the degree of urgency I feel about this. When COP26 came to Glasgow it seemed to present an opportunity to give this concern poetic expression in the form of a collection. Like most people, certainly virtually all scientific and technically literate people I know, who have engaged with this issue, I have had my “asteroid” moment. It was interesting to see precisely this metaphor used recently in the movie Don’t Look Up as this is how many scientists I know have described that sudden realization, although it might have happened to them over 20 years ago.

For me, it was when I was reading about changes in the relative abundances of carbon isotopes in atmospheric methane in relation to key climate tipping points. You really do experience the feeling of the floor of your stomach just dropping away into nothingness like a trap door with the sudden thought that “we’re fucked”. I still occasionally feel crippling anxiety and despair, like on New Year’s Eve a week ago after reading about the faster than expected collapse of the Thwaites ice shelf, then witnessing the wildfires in Colorado (where I have many friends and colleagues in the wind industry, as Colorado is something of a global research hub for that industry).

However, that is not a helpful or constructive response. It is vital that we are not despondent and do not succumb to fatalism. There is no primitive idyll to which we can revert, nor are we some plague that Nature is eradicating in order to restore balance. We are perfectly capable of responding positively to this crisis in a manner that secures a future for both humanity and the planet. This poetry collection is part of my response. I have my work, contributing to a sustainable energy infrastructure, and I have my words, expressing how I, as an individual, feel about these circumstances we have created and find ourselves in.      

What were your biggest challenges with writing The End Of The Age Of Fire?

In some ways the collection is a vehicle for the title track, “the end of the age of fire”. The particular challenges of that were those of composing a coherent long form piece. What I found was that, over the course of a couple of weeks in May 2018, I could think about it on the train into work in the morning. The experience of travel helped clear my mind and dwell on the topics I was contemplating and find expression for those thoughts in words. After my train got into Glasgow Central from Mount Florida, I would walk to a café and sandwich shop which was on my way to office, Piece on Waterloo Street, and sit with a coffee making notes based on my thoughts on the train before going in to work. Later I would assemble, recast and augment these notes, eventually working them into the final poem presented in the book.

Do you keep to a theme with your poems, or just go where the mood strikes?

Sometimes an idea suggests itself, and a short poem can be the outcome of that. However, as I’ve mentioned, I do enjoy the compositional challenges of the long form, and that can require sustained focus on a theme, and awareness of all the adjacent ideas that it sucks into the poem like a vortex.

What is your favourite poem in The End Of The Age Of Fire about and what inspired it?

The key poem in the book is the title track, “the end of the age of fire”. It is really the central piece around which everything else pivots, the single clear explicit and complete statement of the theme that is elaborated elsewhere, the theme from which individual motifs have been drawn in other pieces for more detailed scrutiny. Basically, if you only read one poem in the book, that’s the poem that I, as the author, would want you to read, to stand a chance of getting across my message.

Peter Clive, poet, author of The End Of The Age Of Fire, interview on The Table Read

That message is an attempt to remind ourselves of the context of this crisis, in the broadest terms. We live in the age of fire, the period of time defined by our use of fire as a tool, and all the ways of thinking that arise from that which have ultimately brought us to this precipice. Our response to the crisis has to be a radical re-evaluation of all the habits of thought we have acquired over the million or so years leading up to it.

It’s not just about the 50 or so years during which our economic failures have accelerated the crisis, or the 250 years of industrial capitalism during which we have plundered reserves of energy accumulated over geological periods of time, it’s about the 40,000 generations of our species that have found in fire the paradigm for reckless consumption and adopted practices that have conditioned us in behaviour we now need to change.

We now find ourselves at the end of the age of fire. We have alternatives to the fire. The age of fire can end one of two ways. We are still in a position to choose, and we need to understand what we must give up in order to get what we need to gain.

Does music help you write or is it a distraction?

Music can be helpful for clearing the mind of clutter, I think. When one is trying to find the right tone, and establish a conducive train of thought, music can be helpful. By the same token, the wrong music can be incredibly distracting. Music is helpful if the effect it has on your mind is the same as the effect of going for a long walk in the countryside. If that is not possible, music can be your pocket peripatetic, providing the strolling rhythms that settle the mind.

However, as I’ve discussed above, I see the relationship between music and poetry, indeed all creative, aesthetic production, as being at a different level, the level of finding a way to use universal relationships between the meanings of words, or the pitch, tempo and dynamics of musical sounds, or anything else in which these patterns inhere, to express something individual and personal.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The End Of The Age Of Fire need?

I didn’t get any support editing, although I would have welcomed it. What I found was that returning to a piece after an interval of time, say 6 months, could provide a sufficient sense of distance for some form of editing. So, when I was compiling the collection, there were some revisions with the benefit of the distance provided by not having looked at the pieces for a while. Most pieces had been polished already around the initial time of writing, and then subsequently tweaked if necessary, with the benefit of that distance that allowed me, I hope, to see them the way other readers might.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write poetry?

Do it! My first piece of advice would be to begin. Simply start, take the first step, even if the destination is not clear.

That’s not my advice, actually, but the advice of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus. He says, in his first Idyl (as rendered by William Carlos Williams in his Theocritus: Idyl I – A version from the Greek, subsequently set to music by Steve Reich in his cantata The Desert Music), “Begin, my friend / for you cannot, / you may be sure, / take your song, / which drives all things out of mind, / with you to the other world.” Everything is part of the beginning when there is no end in sight, all aims must be interim, so make the first objective be, simply, to start. At least that is how I choose to read Theocritus right now.

And then of course one must keep going. You cannot predict what you are going to learn along the way (otherwise you would never discover anything genuinely new), so one must summon up at least a modicum of bravery. The process might not always be easy, and you might confront uncomfortable truths, but the voices of all the other poets are telling you it’s worth it. Also, the path you will follow is not necessarily obvious, not one that you will see directly in front of you. It is one that often appears out of the corner of your eye, or one that you cannot see clearly unless your view of what you think you are looking for drifts slightly out of focus. So, a degree of openness is required, an ability to accommodate multiple perspectives and welcome new ones. One must be able to surrender the conscious mind to the flow.   

Remember too that this is a contemplative, introspective pursuit, an archaeology of the self. Do not be too alarmed at any personal growth or enhanced awareness that might occur.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I have a series of collections planned, in fact, organized around different unifying themes which seem to have pre-occupied me. A collection I’m hoping to be able to bring out later this year is called “Crossing the Minch,” based around themes associated with the Isle of Lewis, where I have spent summers since I was a child – my mother is from there. Again, this is a collection built around a central title track which articulates the overall theme of journeys, not just from the mainland of Scotland to the Outer Hebrides, but between myth an history, between hope and despair, and between mundane reality and a more transcendent understanding of things.

After than I have plans to bring out a collection of poems on the theme of love, called “love remains”; one of more metaphysical reflections, called “anointed”; a collection contrasting different representations of women in myth with historical realities of female experience, called “19 women”; and a collection characterised by somewhat celestial metaphors called “moonsong”. I also have a science fiction novel on the go called “tomorrow shall be my dancing day” which is intended to be sort of high concept whilst also being a bit of a fun, adventurous romp.  

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Definitely! It was a great learning experience, and there are a number of lessons I have learned which I can hopefully apply next time to the next collection. There is something about a collection that is greater than the sum of its parts, a solidification of would otherwise remain diffuse and more loosely connected, a statement that is made independently of any individual poem included in the collection. There is a great deal of satisfaction in feeling one has articulated that statement.

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