Exploring Shapes and Sounds in Poetry with Emma Keanie

capsule stories summer 2020 edition with bike and flowers

Emma Keanie is a PhD researcher in Samuel Beckett studies at the University of Reading. She has a master of arts and bachelor of arts in English literature from Ulster University and is a reviewer for The Beckett Circle. Emma is interested in the shapes and sounds of poetry, how thoughts can drift silently staining the page.

Her poems “Sailing” and “Shifts” are published in Capsule Stories Summer 2020 Edition. Both poems play with white space, design, and sound to evoke a distinctly summery feeling.

“Shifts” by Emma Keanie in Capsule Stories Summer 2020 Edition

Capsule Stories: Spacing and design play such an important role in your poetry. Walk me through the process of creating these poems—do the words come first, or the shapes, or the sounds? What does your drafting and editing process look like?

Emma Keanie: It’s never the shapes that come first, it’s the words, and when I think about it, it’s also quite often the sounds from which the words stem. For “Shifts” and “Sailing,” I suppose their source does lie within the aural. I wrote these two poems specifically for the theme of Going Forward and summertime, and just as we can fall into the autumnal and darker winter months and then spring back into the delights of daffodils and lambs, I’ve always had the sense that I sort of slip into summer, just as a warmth slips, imperceptibly, into the (usually chilly) Irish air around me. So you see, this is my sense of “going forward” into summer, there’s something softly sibilant about it, ineffable and comforting, so these sounds came first which, of course, have their only comprehensible outlet in words. Hence the sibilant titles and gentle slipping of the words down and across the page.

Which brings me to the question of shape, something I cannot explain in my compositional process; once I have the words, usually scribbled sporadically and in no precise order on random sheets of paper, I begin to write (write initially—not type—I love the feel of the pen on paper, there’s something more intimate about it). Whatever motions my hand feels to be fitting on the page, that’s where the words end up. And I’m only really realizing that now, on being asked. Beckett talked about the “shape of ideas”—my shapes do not seem to be cast from the shade of ideas. I’ll not go all Keatsian and say that the shape comes as naturally as the leaves to a tree, for writing does require some form of labor in its development. My edits usually consist of scoring out superfluous words, and then once I’ve taken the leap to type the thing, I’ll have a few irritable moments with the space bar before the technology allows the words on the screen to replicate what I have conceived on the page. 

Capsule Stories: How does the shape of a poem affect its sound?

Emma Keanie: I imagine this depends on who’s reading it. The shape will likely have a varying visual effect for different people, which will subsequently affect its sound. For one thing, there’s no punctuation, so perhaps some reader will tumble through the sounds—whether aloud or within their own mental space—which could result in the words segueing into one another. This perception of the shape might have the effect of a continuous sound, perhaps lyrical, but with the fluctuations of the reader’s inner tone. Anyhow, that’s all speculation, and I suppose my honest answer is that I’m not sure. I think your mood affects how you read or perceive anything, so the shape could look and thus be read differently every time. My mother told me that she felt as though the words were going to disappear when reading them, so the shape might make the sound fragile; words fizzling in fear of their own oblivion.

Capsule Stories: In “Sailing” and “Shifts,” what sounds are you hoping the reader will hear in the poems?

Emma Keanie: The sibilance. That’s what (I feel) enacts the going forward (or slipping) into summer. At the end of “Shifts,” there are light plosive breezes and blushes and bliss—this is just something I enjoyed hearing inwardly when writing it, as well as the feel of it on the tongue, like the gentle bursts of little bubbles punctuating but not puncturing the warm sibilant flow into summer. In “Sailing,” the long vowels of “gaining quiet melody melting as one” followed by the exhale of “hums” (read aloud—maybe you’ll feel this effect in your breath)—that sigh into summer—I’d love the reader to be able to feel that.

Capsule Stories: As a PhD researcher in Samuel Beckett studies, how does Beckett influence your poetry?

Emma Keanie: My research focuses on how Beckett’s engagement with Romanticism influenced his creative development; therefore it’s not only Beckett but Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Rousseau, Goethe, Schubert, Leopardi (the list goes on) who I encounter every day. The opening image of veils of cloud dispersing in “Shifts” was sparked by Keats’s letter of March 19, 1819, to his brother George and his wife. He writes of how circumstances like clouds continually gather and burst—an analogy that I’m particularly fond of—and I wanted circumstance to depart in “Shifts,” to dissolve and make way for a blissfully free summer. After all, it’s something that can only really exist in writing—an existence without circumstance.

I spend every day reading. I love the research that I’m doing, and this reading does impact that creative itch. I’m alert to the sounds of words, and sometimes a specific word will trigger something; I’ll pause reading, make a quick scribble, and try to refrain from any creative efforts until I “have the time.” Beckett drew my attention to the word in a way that’s quite difficult to articulate—as a thing that at once reveals and conceals the essence of the ineffable something that it seeks to express. Words have meanings that will always interfere, whereas music seems to have direct access to the psyche; it doesn’t need to pass through the mediating faculty of the intellect, so sound is not as distant from us as speech. It’s what Schopenhauer said about the penetrating effect of music, while words speak only of shadows, music speaks of “the thing itself.” I came to this through Beckett’s attraction to the philosopher. I think it’s why I hear (although it’s not so much hear as feel) sounds first, in the way I knew that “Shifts” and “Sailing” would infuse sibilance to evoke summer, because the music is what comes first, and for this to translate into poetry I must use words, tuning them as finely as possible to the initial sound-sensation.

But it’s also Mina Loy. Before studying Loy during the final year of my undergraduate degree, I didn’t realize that words could move so freely over the page and still make so much sense, perhaps even more comprehensible than if they were contained within the strictures of conventional standards. This liberation of the word, its ability to move and meander with mazy motions, encouraged my own experimentation with poetic form. T. S. Eliot (whose name, when written T Eliot, backward—as Beckett so kindly pointed out—spells toilet) wrote some intriguing lines on the word in “Burnt Norton”:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

— T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”

I’ll leave the reader with that. 

Capsule Stories: What other writing projects are you working on now?

Emma Keanie: I’m currently happily consumed with research for my thesis, which fills that gap from morning to night. As stated earlier, I’m always jotting down words that I like, and when I get the chance they always work themselves into poems. So writing poetry is an ongoing process. There are innumerable writing projects in my head, but there is also that short space of time that makes up a day, and they just slide by filled with all that needs done.

Since 2018 I’ve been a reviewer for The Beckett Circle, and the past two years I have attended the Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival and reviewed very innovative and wonderful performances. However, this year, due to the pandemic and the subsequent safety measures, I doubt I’ll be able to do my usual reviewing, but I’d love to start book reviewing, so if you’re reading this and know of a literary journal that needs a reviewer, please do get in touch! I’d be delighted to hear from you. 

Capsule Stories: Where can readers follow you and find your work?

Emma Keanie: You can find my reviews in The Beckett Circle’s Autumn 2018 and 2019 editions. I have a poem, “Coping in Contagion’s Confines,” upcoming in Issue Two of Laurels & Bells Literary Journal. Other than that, “Sailing” and “Shifts” are my first published pieces of poetry, and I am thrilled to be a part of such a beautiful publication.

Grab a copy of Capsule Stories Summer 2020 Edition to read Emma Keanie’s poems “Shifts” and “Sailing.”