Colin Dixon chats with Charlotte about the things we know versus the things we understand; the intuitive ‘coding’ of coherence, and the spaces between words.
Charlotte Gann: The Understory Conversation all started with me writing a piece about how I felt I’d lived parallel lives: or on Parallel Lines. Was I the only one? I asked. I know you’ve talked with me and our group about how your working life is one life and your writing life another new, exciting territory. Perhaps we could start with your saying a bit about that? What’s so precious about it, for you?
Colin Dixon: I’ve always had two lives – so I recognise that duality. I speak two languages and have lived in two countries. I’ve spent a lifetime in business and information technology, but a parallel solitary lifetime writing, reading, exploring ideas, unearthing threads.
I grew up between two homes – between a mother and father, who struggled on a miner’s wage, and grandparents who were more comfortable, also less hectic. My mum encouraged my reading. I can still feel the door opening in my mind when she read me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was my grandad, though, who I feel really gifted me the world. My earliest memory of him was at the age of sixty five – my own age now – when he retired, although I don’t think he ever grew up! We’d go for long walks together in the country where he told me stories, played word games. I adored him. I’d spend the weekends with him. My grandmother died when I was fourteen and I went to live with my grandad. I loved my grandmother, but she always felt she needed to bring me down to earth. Once she told me I’d look at the moon until I fell in the mire, and maybe she was right. Another duality?
So I grew up with a foot outside every door, a palpable experience that there was an alternative to any situation. I set myself adventures, rather than goals, because I could vividly imagine alternatives. Meanwhile, I always read and wrote. I wrote prose, diaries, notes: text. I wanted to write poetry but somehow couldn’t (until now). What I wrote was always veneered by what I thought should be there, rather than what really was. And that’s the other great lump in the bed. I was the first in my family to go to grammar school, to go to university, to have a car, to speak a foreign language, to leave the village.
But why? Where was I going? I had no idea. I had no templates, no role models, just an enthusiastic family cheering me on, telling me knowledge meant success.
CG: So…. you grew up with two literal homes and alternative realities; which left you with a sense of freedom but also perhaps a sense of the grass always being greener somewhere you weren’t yet? And maybe only imagined.
You lived through reading and acquiring knowledge? But reality maybe posed more of a challenge…
Where does the writing poetry fit now? I know you’ve created a very successful living as a software developer – this then is your ‘story’ (or one version of it). But the Understory is more about a self hidden away who’s been allowed less, official airtime? Am I understanding, at all, what you’ve said?
CD: Yes, you understand. The grass (two homes, two languages, two countries…). My ‘background’ reading and exploring has been a search for an existential answer to a question which is always at the edges of my consciousness. Something like, what are we here for?
In a way I understand conspiracy theorists, who seem to be expressing a doubt about the appearance of reality. I mean, it’s strange beyond belief but we treat it like a bus ride. Your poem ‘Tunnel’ is funny yet expresses something quite profound for me:
Tunnel She and I, two farmers' wives, sit together drinking giant frosted lagers. Dotted around us the specks of other lives. The darkness is real, she says, leaning towards me. I glance around the room. An old sod in red trousers. A writer I know from the pub. Various others. These people are all in pain? Oh yes, she murmers, and smiles. And we dig enthusiastically into our carbonara as the dark tunnel opens, unzips the length of our table, the room, the restaurant, its lime-green tables-and-chairs, Charlie and Lola wallpaper, pseudo-Italian staff, its rows of optics and chrome bar stools, its black-and-white swirling floor tiles. The chasm swallows them all. Charlotte Gann, Noir, HappenStance, 2016
I’d love to know where that came from! That’s what I mean about leaving spaces…
Reading, studying, knowing… you can repeat a fact a dozen times without ever experiencing what it really means. Poetry opens the door for me. A door between the words.
I found a Greek poem by Titos Patrikios today that’s just thirty words, simply three questions, but I experienced something like awe. Since last summer I’ve had that same thrill of a door opening while I’m writing – almost like discovering another voice. That said, I’m trying not to fall into the trap of having to be good, to be judged – and that’s hard.
CG: Opening a door… This seems to be a repeated image in your thoughts. (It also takes me back to Tom Duddy’s wonderful ‘Doorways’.)
Like, there’s a surface ‘veneer’ – the bus ride we conventionally accept as ‘reality’ – but the truth feels far deeper and more mysterious to you: and may somehow be magically discovered on the other side of a door?
I often read a translation (by Stephen Mitchell, see ‘Other Resources’) of the Tao Te Ching – I find it massively calming – and one recurrent theme is ‘In the pursuit of knowledge, / every day something is added. / In the practice of the Tao, / every day something is dropped.’ (48); ‘The more you know, / the less you understand.’ (47)
The poem is packed with, for me, rich paradoxes, and talk of spaces. Tell me more about the spaces that draw you, in poetry.
CD: I think the spaces are to do with the delight of discovery, and the faith that something is there to be discovered.
Programming is the step-by-step, join-the-dots cookbook of how to get a replicable result. It’s a function of the intellect. Although it’s not as wildly different as you might think – coding and writing poetry are both disciplines where you start with an empty page and create a thing out of syntax that takes a semantic shape. In both cases you may start with an intent, or an exploration, and in both cases you have the joy of seeing the shape come into being from nowhere.
There’s a practice known as code refactoring, the rearrangement of lines and blocks of code into a more coherent shape, which parallels the editing process of a poem. Someone once said to me that when you edit a poem, take out everything that’s not essential and trust magic to ensure that it still vibrates with the things you have removed, and that’s my experience. This is hard for me to express.
There are things I know, and things I understand. The understanding comes as a revelation, and is somehow in the place where mind and body meet.
Here’s an example. I could write you an essay about how I feel like I have two selves, and I’d never get there.
But one day I was reading Model City by Donna Stonecipher (a 2015 collection published by Shearsman), where she asks a question – ‘What was it like?’ – then answers herself in 288 different ways. Model City offers a set of abstract signposts that point to something that can’t be said in words. She’s taken out the words that might explain, and left signposts – oblique, metaphorical, nonsensical, but exact.
It’s the feeling of truth that lies behind logic. It’s not just poetry that can do that. Sometimes I find ideas in philosophy, neuroscience – even economics (my first degree) – that seem, by clever paring back, to reveal a truth about something that matters. The words, then, can be a carapace.
CG: We live in such a noisy – wordy – landscape, often drowning in seas of ‘knowledge’, and words obscuring our view, not clearing it. AND then there’s this sense that it’s the quiet knocking of holes in this carapace that may open up, or give a glimpse of, the most enlightening spaces?
Something in your answer nudges me back to the poem ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice: ‘The drunkenness of things being various.’ (Which is a little how I feel, gazing at the beautiful Greek alphabet…. What a joy for you to have mastered this!)
I love and resonate with the idea of removing things in the editing process and somehow leaving their felt trace. And I get the comparison (I think) with refactoring: constructing intuitive understanding rather than purely reasoned. ‘There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.’
I love the satisfaction of feeling that I’ve been met invisibly, entrusted to resonate with something that hasn’t directly been drawn or stated or shown on camera – like the Donna Stonecipher, and its effect on you? And yes, where mind and body meet.
Somehow making use of the whole instrument of being human, not just the overworked brain. And this happens more in those quiet spaces; not in the noise and rush and hurly burly of surface life?
What a collaboration it can be – humans communicating (sometimes across centuries) through art? Building bridges quietly. A direct, felt, radical communication – of that ‘truth that lies behind logic’; ‘nonsensical but exact’.
CD: I didn’t know that poem. Thank you. What a beautiful choice.
In my final year at university I learned Transcendental Meditation. I stopped practising for many years, and began again only in 2021. It’s so simple. Something interesting happens. My thoughts carry on, but I see they are not my mind. I’m aware of them, but I am not them. They are not me. They grow quieter and louder. I let them be. Sometimes, in between, I catch just a glimpse of the self who is regarding the thought; it feels as heavy as the universe and as light as a breeze!
This is something Eliot explores? I think that ‘door we never opened / Into the rose-garden’. For me, this is the eyes-open version of being alive. When I try to frame it, though, I risk killing it.
Poetry can be a map to get me there, momentarily. That’s the buzz, the moment. And it’s not just the lyric. It doesn’t have to be world shattering. It’s just an intimation of immortality, the world beyond. The way things relate to each other under the separation.
CG: Ah, funnily, I too learnt TM when much younger. It’s a lovely and resonant link to bring in here.
I’m intrigued by that final word choice: ‘separation’, not ‘surface’. How we’re separated – perhaps from ourselves?
I’m getting this quite clear sense of an under-place (where there’s understanding) and an over-place where there’s knowledge, and a kind of skein separating the two.
Where are the gaps and rips (like Roland Barthes’ punctums?) that can lead us to glimpse the other side? Well, maybe one doorway is, or can be, through poetry? And we do feel we recognise it when we see it? I do.
Thank you, Colin – for engaging so richly. This is difficult to find words for, yet I really sense it.
Let’s close with the poem you brought to our group last time, with its lovely idea of each poem as a hopeful departure.
Scale I am not your poem; you read me wrong. You wanted warm earth and cobalt sky You wanted the earth and the reach of the sky Each new poem a hopeful departure Each hopeful departure a small boat Red and white and blue and sting of salt Of sun and gulls, of sky and landed fish How long is the moment I remember? This moment I remember holds forever Each bright scale a movement frozen The scale and the movement focused down To a flickering thing from the dark of ocean A flickering note from a dark sea song I am not your poem; you read me wrong. Colin Dixon