Things change, become home and we must leave them - Lavinia Greenlaw, 'Guidebooks to the Alhambra'
About Lavinia Greenlaw
Lavinia Greenlaw was born in London, where she has lived for most of her life. Her teenage years were spent in a village in Essex. She has published five collections of poetry with Faber & Faber including Minsk (2003), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot, Forward and Whitbread Poetry Prizes, and The Casual Perfect (2011). A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde (2014) was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. Her first novel, Mary George of Allnorthover, was published in 2001 and won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. A second novel, An Irresponsible Age, appeared in 2006, followed by two non-fiction works: The Importance of Music to Girls (2007) and Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland (2011). Her sound work, Audio Obscura, was commissioned in 2011 from Artangel and Manchester International Festival, and won the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and was Professor of Poetry at UEA from 2007 to 2013. She was Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at King’s College London 2015-16.
In her introduction to the poem ‘Night Photograph’, Greenlaw comments: “If I write about anything in particular I write about how we see and how we try to see.” This obsession with perception is at the heart of her work and the tensions within it. On one hand she has the coolly empirical gaze of the trained scientist who pays meticulous attention to the surface of things, on the other Greenlaw acknowledges that science’s attempt to explain the world through the analysis of observable phenomena is, at best, incomplete. Light is often the medium she uses to explore these contradictions – it is the means by which we see, but is prone to creating illusions. Different conditions of light suffuse her poems; the gorgeous colours of a polluted London sunset, the poisonous glow of radium, the extremes of an Arctic climate. Vision is for Greenlaw both the evidence of her eyes and what lies beyond rational modes of explanation, like the glimpsed lizard-tail of a dream, or as she says of her experience of an Arctic winter: “Because I couldn’t see I had to imagine…”
The intricacy and precision of Greenlaw’s earlier work is elaborated on a larger scale in A Double Sorrow, her “extrapolation” of the story of Troilus and Criseyde. Though she employs a variant on the Chaucerian rime royal, Greenlaw’s telling of this narrative is otherwise irreverent, loose, fragmentary, and highly original, and as such entirely in keeping with, in her own words, the “free borrowing and blithe reinvention” which has characterised the story’s development through time and across cultures. As she writes in “A form of speech”, neither the narrative nor the processes of mutation it undergoes in her hands are new, and neither is that recognition: “Stories change shape in the telling / As words alter through long use. / This is nothing new”. What is new is the work itself, which renders a whole world in a succession of luminous images and penetrating psychological insights, each of which seems perpetually on the verge of changing into its next incarnation:
It comes in a thousand forms.
A bull rises out of the sea.
A swan plunges. A gold rain falls.
Or a noble heart perceives in itself
What else is life?
Greenlaw’s voice is a precision instrument, tuned to the particular music of her lines, but it also has a hushed and wondering quality like a naturalist describing a rare creature they’ve been waiting a long time to study.
Her first recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 27 January and 6 October 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington. Her second recording was made on 1 June 2016.
Poems by Lavinia Greenlaw
Books by Lavinia Greenlaw
Eric Gregory AwardPrize website
Arts Council Writers’ AwardPrize website
Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (for ‘A World Where News Travelled Slowly’)Prize website
three-year NESTA fellowship inPrize website
Shortlisted T S Eliot for The Casual PerfectPrize website
Shorlisted Forward Prize for The Casual PerfectPrize website
Shorlisted Whitbread Prize for The Casual PerfectPrize website
Wellcome Engagement FellowshipPrize website
Shorlisted Costa Poetry Award for A Double Sorrow: Troilus and CriseydePrize website
Cholmondeley AwardPrize website
Society of Authors Travelling ScholarshipPrize website