Poets write the past: interview

One of my questions on the Creative Histories of Witchcraft project is:

How do poets write the past?

My question led me to re-read the pamphlet ‘Eva & George: Sketches in Pen and Brush’ by Abegail Morley.  Morley’s biographical poem sequence is set in Weimar Germany and tells the story of satirical artist George Grosz and his wife Eva Peters – from 1916 until their emigration to the USA in 1933, to escape Nazism.  I was wowed by this pamphlet when I first read it. The poems just seem to exist. They merge the historical facts with an imagined personal perspective – each poem is vivid and precise. I wanted to discover more about the process of bringing this sequence of ‘historical- response poetry’ into being.

Eva and George – sketches in pen and brush, by Abegail Morley (Pindrop Press, 2013)

As well as a poet, Abegail is a great supporter of other writers, publishing their work on her Poetry Shed blog, and is co-publisher of Against the Grain Poetry Press. She generously agreed to be interviewed, and her really rich answers follow below:

You were prompted to write about George Grosz after seeing an exhibition of his drawings. How did this spark the sequence?

I took some creative writing students to see George Grosz: The Big No, a Hayward Touring exhibition from the Southbank Centre, London and challenged them to write an ekphrastic poem based on one of the pieces. The exhibition featured works from Ecce Homo from 1923 and Hintergrund of 1928.

I was bowled over by the harsh lines, what Grosz termed, “knife-hard lines”. They fascinated me, the way he dragged people and streets from his pencil. I knew more of Grosz’s paintings than his drawings, so after the exhibition I researched further, discovering the wide range of his work, from the early beginnings as a young man, until his death in 1959. Most of the subject matter is tough to look at, and this is how it should be; his paintings are full of cripples, prostitutes, warmongers and the bourgeoisie. Grosz’s summary of war is that “People are pigs”.  

It was quite a challenge I set my students, so I thought the least I could do was have a go at writing one. Somehow I found Eva’s voice and the poems just poured out.

In your introduction you say ‘The historical information in the collection is accurate and true’. How much historical research did you do? What kinds of sources did you use?

I used a number of biographies of George Grosz as my first port of call. I then wanted to dig deeper and contacted Frank Whitford, the art historian, critic and author of The Berlin of George Grosz, among many other books. He was one of the UK’s leading experts on 20th century German art (sadly he died in 2014) and he was able to guide me so I could further understand the art, but also the life of the man behind it. Whitford was also a close family friend of Grosz’s heirs. 

I contacted the George Grosz Family Estate to ask for permission to use his artwork in my book and also a number of family photos. This led to a correspondence with Lilian Grosz, who was married to George and Eva’s son Peter [who appears in my poem 1926: Stammhalter.]. Lilian has a love of poetry and was very keen on this project. She granted permission for me to use all the pieces requested and in a letter some years after Eva and George was published, she wrote telling me she turned to poetry very often for solace and calm.

How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out? (I’m guessing you know much more than you reveal in the sequence!)

The concept behind the book was Grosz’s artwork and without having seen the exhibition this collection would not have existed, but it certainly became something other than the ekphrastic collection I envisaged after researching so deeply. The biography at the back of the book was initially pages and pages long, because I learnt so much that was important I didn’t want to leave anything out. Of course, I had to cut it down in the end or it would have been unwieldy.  

My logical starting point was when Eva (a painter in her own right) and George met in 1916 and she began to narrate their story. I wanted to keep the dialogue tight and chose to site the most important political and economic events, tying the poems tightly to them, whilst weaving in the family events of births and separation. I wanted it to be totally three dimensional.

It really is. I love the texture of the pamphlet, with the added drawings and photographs. Can you talk about more about the ekphrasis?

I approached the artwork first, before the historical context.  When I realised this wasn’t going to be just the one poem, I began my research in earnest. I directly used some of the artwork and photos for a number of the poems, but lots of the poems focus heavily on the historical events of that period in Weimar Germany and painting techniques/terminology. The titles of Grosz’s artwork were also used as poem titles. 

When I first contacted the Grosz estate, I naively wrote asking if I could use “the picture of the two boys holding up their arms in victory” and received a reply from one of the boy’s wives [Lilian]! It was possibly that wonderful photo of the family arriving in America that made me decide to end their story there, having escaped Germany.

John Berger talks about the ‘intimacy’ of poetry as a way of approaching the ‘general’. Your poems take in intimate events such as the birth of Eva and George’s first child, and big historical events like the election of Hitler. You roll these two up together so skilfully! Can you talk about using the lens of the personal to view history?

If historians employ the social, political and economic lens to view their subjects – this is exactly how I approached this book. It is those three aspects that “explained” their life story. It would have been impossible to tell it any other way.

Hilary Mantel says: If we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art. I love the way you bring Eva Peters back to life in this sequence. Your preface states: ‘It is the imagined voice of Eva that speaks these poems’. Can you describe some of your methods for speaking as another?

I don’t know the method behind it. It is just something that came from what I read about her, from the pictures I saw of her. I don’t know if I caught it right – I didn’t know her, but Lilian Grosz did and rated the book. It was good to move away from the autobiographical voice in How to Pour Madness into a Teacup and be completely someone else. 

As a poet I strive to write better and stretch myself and inhabiting another’s voice was a new way for me to write and was quite liberating in many ways. Imagining ourselves as someone different, and mining our own emotional reserves to do it is perhaps the process I took.

Both my colleague Poppy and I have felt on occasion as if we are ‘taking dictation’ from one of our historical characters. Did you feel in any sense haunted by Eva? A ventriloquist? A medium?

I think I did feel haunted in a way. The poems seemed to write themselves with great urgency and I remember thinking, “Will they ever stop?” Of course, they did, and it was then I turned myself to their editing and sequencing. I suppose it felt like channeling her words and I was inhabiting her. It seems really – sitting at my dining room table in Kent with Eva Peter chatting in my ear. It is odd as I can quite vividly see myself sitting there night after night – a silent house and all the turmoil in my head.

Keats says the poet ‘has no self’. Are you in these poems?

I don’t think I am there, though I must be. I know I became deeply embroiled in the times of the Weimar Republic through immersing myself in all the research. I have always been fascinated by this period in history and coupling this interest with art felt as if I was entering a new realm, but one that felt familiar, like taking off a jacket and throwing it on your favourite chair.

On our Creative Histories of Witchcraft project, we’ve considered the ‘audacity of empathy’ – the leaps we make when  speaking in the voice of someone removed in consciousness, time and space. Did you feel any ethical concerns about ‘voicing the other’? Whose permission (if anyone’s) does the writer need?

I did actually, especially when I discovered more about Eva and George, but at the same time I felt she needed to be heard… a painter who stopped painting. I don’t think she played second fiddler to Grosz, but his voice has been heard, so I felt it was her turn now. As you mention Berger, I will quote him here, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” In Eva and George she gets the lead role.

The shadow the Holocaust hangs over the work. In a poem set in 1917 you write ‘We are like cattle, all of us’. You are writing from a position of knowing. What tension did you feel between yourself as a 21st century writer, and Eva, the woman whose perspective you imagine?

My main concern was to get it right. To be authentic and ring true. I was concerned about language, tone and intonation. Word choice was more important than ever in this collection. I wanted it to sound new, as if Eva Peter was telling this afresh, as if it was just happening. I didn’t want it to feel laboured or a mimicry.

 I always admire the economy of your poems. Do you start with longer drafts or do they appear like that, like laying an egg?

Over time my poems are getting longer. My collection due out next year has poems that are so much longer than those in Eva and George and How to Pour Madness into a Teacup. I think the subject matter of these collections required harsh, honed, pared down poems for impact and authenticity. Both collections deal with disturbing stuff and perhaps this caused the poems to come out small and fully rounded.

What was the most difficult thing about writing the poems?

I think, once I started corresponding with Lilian Grosz, it was to produce something that would be an appropriate, realistic and thought-provoking collection that in some way paid homage to both Eva and George and also their children. I wanted to be hard-hitting and expose what happened to them, especially, as in 1959, a year before her death, Eva submitted a restitution claim for the loss of her husband’s life and medical opinion found that Grosz’s death was caused by his depression and therefore was found to be due to Nazi persecution. It seemed to be the crux of the story.

What did you enjoy most about writing the sequence?

I loved the research, the interpretation of the artwork, the discussions I had with artists and historians and the absolute generosity of Lilian Grosz; discovering George Grosz wrote poetry and his youngest son is a famous jazz guitarist. Peter Grosz, Lilian’s late husband, was an engineer and authority on German aircraft from World War I, and their late daughter, Karin, was a writer. I loved that the sequence didn’t actually end in 1933, but through Lilian has continued for decades.

Thank you to Abegail Morley for taking the time to answer my questions.

‘Eva and George’ is available to buy here

Sonnenfinsternis

You chronicle all that is sick in your satires,

wear a striped convict’s suit in your studio

to paint out your revolutionary ideas.

Fox-like you sneak up on chickens

in the hen house, scatter them into the rot

of farm smells: dung, sweat, faeces.

You’re the big bad wolf of fairy tales

blowing the roof off Berlin: a hunter,

a warrior, a battle omen of victory.

You howl at the black knot of sky,

scrape at the dust, the concrete city streets,

Nazi blood in your teeth and claws.

You warn the blinkered donkeys of Germany

that these are their last days.

‘Sonnenfinsternis’ – eclipse of the sun

from ‘Eva and George – Sketches in Pen and Brush’ by Abegail Morley, 2013

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