Jenni Fagan is perhaps best known for her fiction, especially following the success and critical acclaim of both her last novel Luckenbooth and novella Hex. However, her poetry is just as arresting; There’s a Witch in the Word Machine was my choice as Scottish Book of the Year for literary magazine The Bottle Imp in 2018, and her new collection The Bone Library has just been published. SNACK spoke to Jenni Fagan to find out more.
What can you tell us about The Bone Library?
It was written at a time when I felt like there were words written all over my own bones, in a way that was more visible than usual. I was in a lot of pain, emotionally and physically. I have a very weird relationship with my bones; they have ached for decades and are constantly varing between being really painful to outrageously fucking hideous. It is an invisible thing I live with, so I was thinking about that and the other unseen things we live with. I was also thinking about DNA and the words and wounds other people imprint upon us; how the injuries of those we meet can create fractures we struggle to carry on top of those we already have. I guess I was stripping my essence back to the bone, it’s something I do in poetry endlessly.
How did you come to be the Writer in Residence at Edinburgh’s Dick Vet Bone Library, and what did the role entail?
I was actually just Poet in Residence for Summerhall – it was the Gavin Wallace Fellowship – and so it was a really unique and brilliant chance for me to focus on poetry for a while. It’s rare that I get to do it like that.
When I started my residency, I went along to a staff meeting and introduced myself, and told everyone that I really wanted to find the things that are unseen by the public.
I had a feeling that the building held secrets and I wanted to find them. Someone mentioned that there were bones in the attic (from when it was the Dick Vet) and they were still there because they were ‘inferior bones’, so weren’t good enough to go on display at the new premises. I wanted to work with those bones. It was a way to link the history of the building as an extraordinary place for veterinary studies with its modern incarnation as a huge home for art, artists, musicians etc.
I then found out that the Bone Library was being removed from the corridor where it had lived for a very long time, and the area was about to be redesigned to provide disabled access to the gig venue. I realised I had to then honour the actual Bone Library because it was too good not to, so those two things became a main focus of my time there. I spent weeks taking bones out of the attic and down to my wee study, and then a year engraving them with poetry I was writing. They are now on display in beautiful old cases in Summerhall.
Did the building and its history feed into the poetry?
It did in some ways, but a lot of it felt more like a metaphor for the poetry written on my own bones, you know. The physicality of working with the bones impacted it a lot, though, and I used lots of scientific language. The history of the Dick Vet, and Mary Dick and her brother William (who founded it), really was fascinating. I wrote a long poem about Mary Dick using her journey to show how and why that building became the place it was.
Many of these poems appear intensely personal. Were they difficult to write?
No, the things behind them can be difficult to live through, but the writing is never an issue.
The Bone Library has the theme of reflection running through it – on the past, relationships, society, the modern world, and so much more. Does writing, whether poetry or fiction, help you to better understand yourself? Is it therapeutic on some level?
You know, I do wonder about that question – is it therapeutic? I wonder if Kelman, or Tom Leonard, or, like, Kafka got asked that often. I don’t write for therapy; I go to therapy for that. I take poetry and all writing deadly seriously and it is absolutely not a sort of self-development project. However, I am the human I know best and studying what it is to be a person begins with me and then pivots out. If I don’t have the ability to cast that eye – good, bad, critical or incredibly stark – upon myself, what courage would I be lacking?
One of the poems is titled ‘Fir Tom Leonard’. What is it about his work you connect with?
So much about Tom Leonard connects me to him. He was just a brilliant poet, so I was drawn to that. Totally uncompromising, absolutely himself, he had such a pinpoint laser sharpness for capturing life and people and the difficult things. He wasn’t scared to piss anyone off, and he knew his own worth as an artist and thinker. I was lucky enough to have a friendship and correspondence with him that I valued more highly than any other poet I’ve ever met. He was a one-off, and a great big fuss should be being made about his work right now.
Another concerns the aforementioned Mary Dick and her family. Did that involve much research on your part, and do you approach a poem differently when it is about others rather than yourself?
If I am writing about a real person I always approach it totally differently. I need to create a painting, if you like, in words, bringing that person to life. I think a lot about who they are, and of course I have to do as much research as possible to get the best chance of showing some of who that person was.
Mary Dick had an extraordinary life, really, with so many challenges that she turned and channelled towards so many brilliant endeavours. She should be celebrated. What she achieved really went mostly unseen in a lot of ways, or certainly without the honours that would have been bestowed on her if she had been allowed to practise as a vet and as a teacher. If she had been a man, basically.
I am very single-minded as a poet. I don’t read other poets when I’m writing a lot of poetry. It’s a thing that descends, like death or mania or something, it won’t be ignored, it arrives when it wants to, and I know far better than to mishandle it.
Being a poet is not a thing I do; it’s a way of being. It is how I see the world and there is never an instance when I don’t have one part of me alert for the poetry in any moment. I am so grateful for that.
The Bone Library is out now, published by Polygon