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I Have Always Looked At Nostalgia As Something That Encompasses An Overwhelming Sadness | Interview With Sean Colletti
Sean Colletti is a native of Southern California but has lived in the UK since 2009. He graduated from the University of Birmingham (BA) and the University of East Anglia (MA) and is currently back at Birmingham, finishing his PhD and first novel
He has hosted and performed at various poetry and spoken word nights nationally and internationally.
Saeculum is his first pamphlet of poetry.
Where did the title come from for this pamphlet?
The title was an issue of, I would say, relatively heated debate with the publisher only in the sense that we didn’t have many debates, so if any of them existed, they were all heated to me. Robert Harper, who is the editor of Bare Fiction, and I went back and forth with title ideas. Some of them were words or truncated lines taken from the poems themselves, similar to how other poetry collections are named. I couldn’t use titles from individual poems, because none of the pieces have titles. So, in the end and on the morning of the deadline to submit to Robert the final draft that would go through major revisions, Saeculum came to me. Where it came from, I’m not quite sure. A lot of my work has been influenced by science and math, even though I never formally studied science except for what was needed at school. I did formally study math, though, and I came across a saeculum, which is a unit of time measurement that is meant to encapsulate a lifetime. It was used by the Etruscans in antiquity and, basically, in wanky references in poetry.
The idea was that certain amounts of saecula were prescribed to certain civilisations, so it didn’t only denote a person’s lifetime but could also be a lifetime of a community. When I came across the word, it felt like it was exactly what I was doing in the pamphlet. The pamphlet, to me, is split into four saecula, which kind of represented the changes we go through as people over time. They can represent past versions of us as different people, so that is how it applies to the poetry to me. I think, in this pamphlet, there are a couple of different past versions of me that I’m looking back on.
What was the thought process behind having no titles for the individual poems in the pamphlet?
I am notoriously bad at coming up with titles. I usually just crib them from song titles or lyrics. However, that wasn’t the reason why there are no individual titles in the pamphlet. Some of the pieces that have appeared elsewhere have had titles but, for this, they didn’t have any. When I read poetry, even by the most qualified and effective wordsmiths that I have come across, I always think they are doing a bit of my work for me when they give me a title. If it’s not direct work itself, it’s very empathetically guiding me in a certain direction.
I think that is good in a lot of cases, but what I wanted to do for this pamphlet was to have the poems be more open to interpretation. I didn’t want to do any of that work for the reader. I wanted to allow people to think that the ‘I’s’ and the ‘you’s’ in the poems were the same person, but that they could all be different for another reader or that another could think of it as one ‘I’ over several years. I like the idea that the poems are open to interpretation.
By having no titles did you envisage readers going through the poem as if it was one poem or elements of a singular poem, filtering the whole narrative?
Yes. I don’t think there is a specific narrative to the whole pamphlet but, as somebody who has been annoyingly adamant about listening to albums from beginning to end, I don’t like skipping tracks. One of the pieces mentions that specifically. When artists construct things like books or albums or TV series, there is a method to the chronology.
Even if there might not be, I think you give the artist the benefit of doubt. Because of that effort, I think that you ought to consume it from beginning to end in the order that they have produced it in. Thankfully, so far, I’ve had people come back to me saying they were just going to read this part or that part before bed, but they had to finish it, because the way it was written made it feel like they couldn’t put the book down. Even though it’s not a narrative, the pieces are thematically tied, at least tonally.
Luke Kennard’s quotation on the back of the book describes your work as ‘understated, good-humoured and near unbearably intense’, is that something feels right to you?
I think I most associate myself with good-humoured. I think, as I’ve got older and written more, I’m becoming less cynical, more open, good-humoured and empathy has been vital to me. I really appreciate the words Luke had to say about the pamphlet. From those three aspects, intensity is something that I don’t clock when I perform or write poetry. There have been times occasionally where I have become conscious in a reading or writing where the intensity is there, but it happens very irregularly. I’m not surprised, however, as I see intensity in other people’s work. That impulse to write comes from a place of intensity. We experience emotions very strongly. Even cynicism, which I’ve become more and more suspicious of, is its own kind of intensity and can be an uncomfortable one to be around sometimes. I think that understanding was what I was really hoping for, so I’m glad he picked up on that.
Writing something like this is difficult, as you’re trying to balance between giving the readers enough to work with and being too direct. It’s a really difficult balance. I think poetry traditionally has this air of being very difficult and convoluted and that almost has to be a part of its make-up. I don’t think everyone will agree with that. Some poets write like that well, but others don’t. That doesn’t mean one is more or less effective. When I sat down to write this, I knew this was going to be my very first longer work of poetry in print. So, I wanted to focus more on metaphor, making sure each word had weight more than in past performance or one-off pieces. I hope that it feels understated. I hope people can enjoy the pamphlet from a casual read but maybe, at the same time, get more out of the pamphlet from closer inspection.
Were there any specific poets that you were thinking of when you wrote Saeculum?
Yes and no. Most of the poems are new, so it’s harder to deconstruct those pieces that were written a while ago. With some of the later pieces, however, as I mentioned at the launch event, I have spent basically my whole writing life trying to not write like Luke Kennard. I meant that as the biggest complement I can give. Knowing whose work has a massive impact on you is really important. As a poet, I think you need to go through acts of imitation, as you end up a better poet at the end. However, you also need to know when to let go of those influences, and it’s harder with someone like Luke, who is so good at what he does. You get wrapped up in it and it’s so much fun. I was very much fighting with Robert about the cheetah poems. When I went back to look at them, I felt like it was somebody else who had written them. I didn’t recognise myself in them.
However, he felt that they should be included. When I sat down to properly re-read them, I realised that I actually quite liked them for the pamphlet, because it felt akin to reading and appreciating some of my personal past. And that’s what the whole fucking pamphlet was doing, looking back on the past with a kind of difficult nostalgia. So, there is no doubt Luke had an impact. There is a very Billy Collins piece towards the end about traveling in a plane. Collins writes a lot about travelling. He writes a lot about the mundane observations of everyday life but transitions them to other, more important and personal things in his poems. In terms of the rest of the pamphlet, music played a bigger role. It’s almost impossible to divorce the two for me. They are the most important art forms to me, even though I’m not a practicing musician or songwriter. In many ways, I think that I would be able to give up reading and writing poetry easier than I could listening to music. I think you see that in some references in the pamphlet and how it was constructed.
The only other poet that comes to mind is Emily Dickinson who, for me, is the high-water mark for short lyric poems. I knew, going into this, that I wanted to write shorter pieces and it’s so much more difficult writing shorter pieces because you have less to work with and every line, every line break, every pause means a lot more. Dickinson has always been in my top five favourite poets and she was very much in the background when writing this pamphlet.
How much did your academic work, PhD influence this work?
I consider them two different tracks, really. I almost needed do this pamphlet to progress with my PhD. I find it really difficult in my writing to focus on just one thing. My experience with writing a novel for my PhD has been really difficult and unsettling in not being able to just sit down and do it from beginning to end. I was very lucky in that the PhD helped me write this pamphlet and this pamphlet has helped me write my PhD. That said, though, poetry is the thing that matters most to me.
Weirdly, though I feel less pressure to perform at poetry, it’s one of the few things I know I can do it if I have to. I purposefully chose to write prose over poetry for my undergraduate and master’s dissertation to challenge myself and, to be honest, slightly cynically as well, since there is more potential money to be made through writing a successful novel. I really love prose, but poetry is essential to me. The PhD definitely put me outside of my comfort zone. Writing this pamphlet was like coming home.
One of my favourite poems was the Corrective Nostalgia poem, and can I ask you about Nostalgia? Was your aim in these poems to interrogate Nostalgia as a theme, in this poem?
One of the titles for the pamphlet that I wanted to use was Corrective Nostalgia but Rob was less happy with it. I think it was too direct. He had good reasons why it didn’t work as the title of the collection. I think the issue was in the word of corrective, something about it being mechanical which didn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the pamphlet. I have always looked at nostalgia as something that encompasses an overwhelming sadness. In many ways, I have an obsessive personality and looking back to the past is where I feel it most powerfully. The past few years, I’ve been desperately trying to fix that part of me because, if you get wrapped up in the past, it sends you into very weird places. When you are trying to re-live that past or connect with that past, especially with people in that past who aren’t like you and have moved on, that disconnect is really unsettling. You realise how far into it you are and how that doesn’t mesh with the world around you.
Nostalgia has been something that I’ve been trying to interrogate in writing for a couple of years. The corrective nostalgia poem, I think, has some of that humour you mentioned earlier. My familial past is great, and I poke fun at that, joking I’d have more to write about in terms of conflict if it was different. But then the poem kind of makes a swift turn, examining more of my early adulthood and I realized, actually, that was really crap. But whether it’s really positive things or negative things, I think I’ve always tried to go back and re-contextualise the past and I guess that’s where corrective nostalgia has come from. You go in for corrective teeth surgery or something, right? Something that you feel is physically of atheistically wrong with you. I think there is something that is wrong with me with regard to looking at the past. That poem addresses that and tries to imagine fixing it.
How did you come up with the order with these poems?
Without guiding the reader too much, I see this pamphlet as five sub-sections, so each one kind of has its own tone or theme. One of the sub-sections I originally thought was going to be the entire pamphlet, the one that deals more specifically with grief, but luckily when I sat down to write, that was only a small part of what I was trying to do with this pamphlet. Actually, it wasn’t even the most important part of the pamphlet. I feel like I am done with writing about grief or would like to be done writing about it.
There is a section more about friendship, one that’s more directly looking at romantic relationships and the last one addresses a lot of my experiences in childhood and where I grew up. It was nice to end on that note because it gets a little more optimistic near the end. The one that begins with the procession of cars takes place in my childhood home. The cheetah ones were stand-in’s for the family dog, which we had when I was growing up, before she died. There was an overall order which I tried to put together well but there was also a sub-order. Order matters a lot to me. In reading from this pamphlet, it has been really fun and challenging trying to pick certain pieces to read and finding a new order for the poems as I am yet to read any of the sub-sections in their entirety. It’s been very strange how some of these pieces in different sub-sections have connected with each other.
How important was autobiography for these poems?
I guess it would be what you would expect. No poems are entirely autobiographical. You make small changes to details or combine two memories or two aspects. Let’s say you were writing about a past relationship. You might bring in another event from a different relationship because it makes more sense for that poem. It’s kind of like patchwork. A lot of the pieces are autobiographical in the sense they are inspired by experiences that I have had. I’ve left out names. That was important to me. I wanted it to be a generic ‘I’ and ‘you’ but because the theme of the pamphlet is so personal, it’s inevitable that the content would be as well. There are a couple of pieces which are more invented than others, where I allowed myself more creativity. But I think the intensity that Luke mentioned on the back of the pamphlet comes from autobiography.
There is a poem set at the Raddison hotel in Birmingham at a crazy party, and now I’m going to sit here and explain a poem, which is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do earlier. The narrator is in the bar downstairs on the ground floor, who is just having a cocktail and deciding not to go to the party. So, that was a memory of the party I used that I combined with a memory from California of a friend who, during a bachelor’s party, kind of slipped away to have a drink by himself. These things happen in your life then you find them in your poems, and sometimes in surprising ways.
What next in your creative work?
Hopefully my supervisor doesn’t read this. I’ve start working on a full collection, which is tonally not too dissimilar to this pamphlet. I’m waiting on permission to use someone’s name, as it’s based on their music, so the poems in this collection are in conversation with their lyrics, as if it were two people writing back and forth, and, in that, I’m trying to explore how romantic loss and other kinds of loss feel similar a lot of the time.
I’ve been surprised, in my life, how similar some processes are. I’m hoping this one will be more inventive than Saeculum, since being in conversation with someone else’s work will make it automatically be less about me. I’m finishing my first novel, which should be finished in draft form by the end of Easter before sending it out for revisions. I’m still going to be doing readings from Saeculum over the next few weeks, which I’m writing a new poem for for every reading, and that has been a lot of fun.
5th November: Clickbait Jamcafe, Nottignham
6th November: On the Nail – Cez Le Fab, Limerick
7th November: Limerick Poets’ Society Brendan Obrien’s, Limerick
12th November: Oooh Beehive – The Behive – Swindon
16th November: Caedom Hall, St Hild and St Bede College, Durham
4th December: Poetry Alight – George IV Lichfield
13th December: To Be Frank – Bath, Somerset,
You can buy Saeculum here from the Bare Fiction Magazine Webstie
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