Who will read me when I’m dead? Chris McCabe ventures beyond the cemetery gates to find out

Blog / Tom Chivers

In the Catacombs is the first instalment in a grand project to map the Magnificent Seven cemeteries of London in search of the unsung poets of the past. Nick Murray interviews its author Chris McCabe. In this first book you play literary detective in exploring West Norwood Cemetery. What is it you were trying to […]

In the Catacombs is the first instalment in a grand project to map the Magnificent Seven cemeteries of London in search of the unsung poets of the past. Nick Murray interviews its author Chris McCabe.

In this first book you play literary detective in exploring West Norwood Cemetery. What is it you were trying to find?

A great forgotten poet. The drive for the book was the idea that there could be incredible extant work from a poet buried in West Norwood waiting to be found. I’m intrigued by the tenuousness of how so much of my favourite poetry has been made available through chance or by the efforts of a few people after the poet had died. There is no automatic place in the canon: it needs to be read by the right people at the right time, published and made available to an audience, and somehow capture the zeitgeist of the reading culture at that moment. We know that the work of Hopkins and Dickinson – both light years ahead of their time – came to us in this way. I am fascinated by the idea of the dormant poets who are waiting to have their moment. The dead poets of the future are our contemporaries.

How did the project first come about?

In 2013 I was invited by Jane Millar to take part in Curious Festival – a site-specific art installation which invites 20 artists to respond to the Cemetery. I was drawn to the idea of researching dead poets amongst the burial plots. I found 12 and – surprisingly – also found existing poetry from all of them from which I selected a phrase and had it engraved onto a stone. This was then placed by their grave or as close to the known grave as possible.

How far will the project go? How will you investigate the remaining six of the Magnificent Seven?

I realised when I was underneath the cemetery, in the catacombs, that I’d gone further than intended, especially when my guide told me not to touch anything for risk of anthrax. It’s hard to plot the geographical terrain of the project because as much as we know where the other cemeteries are – Nunhead, Brompton, Kensal Green, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park and Highgate – the poets I discovered in West Norwood took me on various journeys out, following the River Effra and to Putney where Swinburne’s last home still stands. I’m open to the drift of chance and synchronicity: the dead poets laying claim to a collaborative new narrative.

The book jumps between literary analysis and a freeform text that recounts a poet-narrator’s journey and his interactions with a bodiless voice. Why did you choose this structure? Who is the voice and who is the poet?

One of the themes of In the Catacombs is what makes ‘great’ poetry, especially when so many approaches to the art are now valid. The voice comes from an imagined conceptual poet who has changed his name on a number of occasions (once to create an alter ego, on another because he’s been banned from the British Library for cutting out a page from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell) eventually settling on the name John Yarrow, who was a real poet and is buried in West Norwood. The character receives a phone call from Yarrow and later a letter. His final stunt involves a spade, Yarrow’s grave and a live streaming of a poetic happening. I didn’t consciously choose this as a form, it emerged from the landscape of the found text and narratives I was assembling and I was happy to see where it took me.

One important theme is language speaking from the past to the future. How do the dead poets of West Norwood speak to contemporary poetry?

In one sense they confirm what I see every day as part of my job as the Poetry Librarian at the Saison Poetry Library: the wider public only ever gets to know a fraction of what’s published each year. In her bibliography of mid-Victorian poetry, Catherine Reilly identifies over 3,000 poets who published a collection in this period. The Poetry Library catalogue shows that we collect around 1,000 UK poetry publications each year, which works out as substantially more authors over 30 years than Reilly’s 3,000. This is excluding ebooks and online publications, multi-art poetry projects and the explosion in poetry performance. This is hardly surprising given that publishing is much more at the individual’s disposal these days but what strikes me as not so different is the very small percentage of poets from the 1860s and 2010s that would be known to a large public – perhaps less than 5% in both cases. Then there are the poets known in a poetic community, who in the Victorian period would have been active, but have since been forgotten: perhaps 10%. The other 85% would be unknown to anyone other than friends and family: they are people who wrote poetry, of varying standards, that was sent out into the silence.

How has this investigation affected your own poetic writing?

A sense of getting on and writing and not worrying too much about what it all means for future readership. I said to a friend who’s also a poet, “We all wonder if we’ll be read after we’re dead.” He responded, “I wonder if I’ll be read in my lifetime?” He had a point!

In the Catacombs is out now in hardback.

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