The Golden Ratio, denoted by the Greek letter phi, is an irrational number that has intrigued mathematicians and artists through the centuries, featuring in geometry, number theory, physics, biology, painting, architecture, music and other disciplines. Its value to 20 digits is
The golden ratio forms the subject of a poem by Anthony Etherin, ‘Ratio’:
Old, rational ways gleam pictures I coil and frame in detained theorems and in the new score. In space, read the worth; read vines now as lines. Now a sad view or thread, thin space renews cores and, in the ore, mined. Theme in detail and fractures, I compile an always-gold ratio....
Reading this poem, we are struck by its crystalline language and musicality: the subtle rhythm and repetitions, the use of internal rhymes and assonance, and the evocative allusions. Exploring the poem more deeply will reveal an internal as well as an external dialogue. ‘Ratio’ is an aelindrome, an intricate variation of the palindrome that was invented by Etherin himself, and the number phi is embedded in its structure. (Can you spot the pattern?)
I’ve long been an admirer of Anthony Etherin’s poetry, so I was delighted when he agreed to answer my questions about aelindromes and influences, his creative processes and plans for the future.
– Your poetic voice is unique, containing strong mathematical and lyrical elements, while astronomy and mythology are recurrent themes in your writing. Tell me about your background, what drew you to writing poetry and who/what are your main poetic and musical influences.
I’ve always been interested in literature, and I’ve always written both poetry and fiction. But I was a musician primarily, and during my teenage years my main creative outlet, by far, was song writing.
Academically, I was interested in a lot of things, but especially enjoyed mathematics, science, history, and literature. Eventually, I decided to follow the scientific route and took Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry A-levels. This worked well; I took my final Maths exam six months early, leaving me only Physics and Chemistry to worry about — plenty of free time for music! I went to university with three A grade A-level results, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, beside make music. I started a Maths degree but switched to Physics shortly after. Meanwhile, my band was falling apart; we were now scattered around the country, and despite getting a record deal during my first year at university, we were finished by the time I graduated.
I was interested in too many things to make any one thing work. I twice started, and neither time completed, postgraduate degrees. I was directionless for a while, until I re-engaged with poetry.
I began with free verse, but I couldn’t get into it. I’d become too used to writing to music, and I still needed music to focus my words. This led me to metered poetry, which I knew a little about but was far from an expert on (prosody wasn’t taught at my school). So, I made myself an expert — and it worked! With the guiding rhythms of metre, writing became much easier for me. (Oddly enough, around this time I was also writing a lot of prose poetry, which for some reason came more naturally to me than free verse.)
It was clear that my work benefitted from structure. This set me thinking about other ways I could restrict my writing. First, I tried anagrams, then palindromes. Next, I began blending constraints together — the alphabetical alongside the metrical.
I had always seen the world in terms of music and mathematics; the melodic and the logical. Poetry — in particular constrained poetry — felt like the perfect midpoint between music and science. I’d missed out on being a rockstar, and I’d missed out on being a career physicist; with poetry, I could, albeit in a limited capacity(!), have a taste of both.
My literary and scientific interests have always been wide-ranging. I tend to get obsessed with a subject, learn everything I can about it for a month or two, and then move on to the next thing. I think this shows in my poetry.
However, it’s certainly true that some topics or fields are better represented than others. I’ve always been fascinated by horror, folklore, mythology, and the bizarre. I’m also interested in ancient and medieval history. And science, of course. (A great deal of my time is spent watching and thinking about sports; though sport rarely makes its way into my poetry — maybe this will change).
Basically, I’m interested in everything. I never know what my next obsession is going to be. I don’t particularly get to decide — something leaps out at me, and then I’m compelled to follow it!
I have many poetic and musical influences: I was a punk rocker, and that has influenced my attitudes towards art greatly — although much of my music in recent years has been influenced by art music and traditional music. I’m influenced by romantic and gothic poets — Coleridge and Poe can no doubt be detected in my work; less obvious might be the influence of Sylvia Plath, who I often read for inspiration. I love the weird prose poems of Russell Edson too… Who else? Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Christian Bök…
– You studied physics at university. What topics in physics do you find particularly interesting?
Physics deals with matter and energy on all scales, but I think most people would say it gets especially interesting at the extremes! As a child, I was fascinated by astronomy — and I still am. However, at university I focussed more on the subatomic realm. Had I continued in physics, I would have specialised in Particle Physics. I wanted to be the next Paul Dirac.
Astronomy, of course, lends itself better to poetry.
– Your writing features a dazzling array of constrained poetic forms –lipograms, palindromes, anagrams, aelindromes, redividers and various types of sonnet – including several constraints you have invented yourself. Please describe for me one or two of your innovations, what led you to develop the concept, with an example.
The aelindrome is now ten years old, but I remember its invention very clearly. Back in 2011, I was writing a palindromic poem about Albert Einstein and lamenting the fact that his name is not palindromable. Then, the anagrammist in me noticed that if the name ‘Einstein’ is reversed by pairs of letters, the phrase “Intense, I” appears. This led to my first ‘Palindrome-by-Pairs’: “Intense ion, Einstein!”. Discovering palindromes-by-pairs naturally led to experimentation with palindromes-by-triples (“Sky whiter: wine or winter whisky?”). Somehow, it took me nearly a year to realise that the palindromic ‘unit’ could be variable! And so the first aelindrome was born: “Melody, a bloody elm” — which is aelindromic in the sequence 1-2-3-4, with the 4-letter unit being the pivot around which the aelindrome reverses: [M][el][ody][ablo][ody][el][m].
A newer constraint, which I invented only this year, is the aelinslice. According to this constraint, a specific letter (‘e’ in the example below) is used to partition groupings of letters, with the groupings’ letter counts determined by a premeditated sequence:
“Euler, in number, evoking the open, infinite sea, drown the gleaming sun — equate now the logarithm.” (Thus, the number of letters partitioned by each instance of ‘e’ follows the pattern: 2718281828459)
– Do you ever write ‘free’ verse?
No; the closest I get to free verse would be song lyrics, but I don’t write too many of those these days. I don’t write prose poetry anymore either, though it’s tempting to go back to it….
– Have you ever experimented with AI in your writing?
No; I’m not particularly good at or interested in code. But there are fascinating possibilities out there, so who knows? It might be an obsession that grabs me at some point.
– Your output is prodigious. Your work has appeared in journals and anthologies and you have published several books of your own poetry – Cellar, Stray Arts, The Utu Sonnets, Slate Petals, The Noson Sonnets and Fabric – as well as a number of pamphlets. Subscribers to your newsletter are treated to four or five original poems each week. Tell me about your creative process. Do you have a fixed daily routine? What are your sources of inspiration?
I’ve been published in a few journals, but (with rare exceptions) this is only when I have been invited to submit something for inclusion. I hate the process of submitting work, so I simply don’t do it unless invited. I have Penteract Press as an outlet for my books and chapbooks, and I have Twitter as a means of sharing my work online. The reach of Twitter beats that of any journal.
My newsletter is very new, and I like that it gives me a couple of days per week away from social media, while still sharing work with my more dedicated fans.
Four of the six books you mention are part of a series: Stray Arts, The Utu Sonnets, Slate Petals, and The Noson Sonnets are collectively titled Knit Ink — it’s a tetralogy of experiments in formalism and a project that has, effectively, taken over ten years of my life. I guess it’s a sign I must be prolific that I’ve also put out two other books in that time!
I don’t have a fixed daily routine, and this is something I am constantly trying to correct. The trouble is that the workload required to run Penteract Press varies dramatically from week to week. I also prefer to not let this workload get on top of me, so I find myself dealing with issues as they arise, answering emails as they appear, etc. That makes it hard to stick to a fixed schedule.
Similarly, when I write poetry, I work until the job is done. Even though I’m an obsessive editor, I feel compelled to get a poem down in one sitting. I sit to start a poem, and I don’t get up until it is ‘finished’ (that is, there must be a completed project, even if this project will later be tinkered with beyond recognition). This has led to some days of 14-straight-hours writing sessions.
I take daily inspiration from many things. I go for a 5km walk first thing every morning (that’s the closest thing I have to a routine! That and evening drinks). I work beside a bookshelf of all my favourite books, so that literary inspiration is always near. And I listen to music whenever there’s a spare moment. I miss playing with my dog (she died recently); that always provided a nice break away from the desk.
Inspiration for new projects can come from many sources, but ultimately I just play with words, shuffle letters around and see what they have to say to me. It’s one of the nice things about constraint: inspiration isn’t as elusive as it is for other styles of poetry.
I should probably mention that I have no choice but to be prolific and no choice but to work hard. The poetry/publishing world is not easy, and certainly not lucrative; every opportunity has to be taken and worked on with dedication. Even then, it feels like the effort is not enough….
– Together with your wife Clara Daneri you founded Penteract Press, which publishes constrained, formal and visual poetry. What drew you into publishing? As a small independent press, what is your ethos and what are some of the issues you have had to face?
Back in mid-2016, I wrote a poem called “Wars of the Roses and Thorns”, a palindromic rondel. I considered sending this poem to a micro-press, as I felt it would make a nice leaflet. The more I thought about this, the more I began to ‘see’ the leaflet in my mind: the design, the typeface, and even the paper stock. So, I decided to go for it and make the thing myself.
I added a press name and logo — I’m not sure why; to make the leaflet feel more legitimate, I guess.
A few months later, I felt the urge to make another leaflet, and so I asked a few people to submit work. It all evolved quite naturally. It was, for me, about making things; I wasn’t thinking about making money or creating a community. I just liked making stuff!
However, people don’t really buy poetry leaflets (they don’t really buy poetry books either, but books sell a lot better than leaflets….), so my enthusiasm waned.
By mid-2017, I had put together a small collection of poems, with the idea that they should all be typed out on an antique typewriter. As with the first leaflet, I had a very specific idea for this collection and saw no reason not to publish the book myself. That was Cellar, published in March 2018, the first perfect-bound Penteract Press publication.
Next came an anthology, Concrete & Constraint, in November 2018. I considered both of these books experiments by a micro-press, rather than the start of a small press — but their relative success soon changed my mind, and in 2019 we committed to abandoning our leaflet series and making the step up to books.
From the beginning our aesthetic agenda has been clear. We want to support poetry that foregrounds structure, be it through traditional forms, highly constrained forms, experimental forms, or visual/concrete poetry. We want to explore the variety that exists within these disciplines.
Other than this, our ethos can be summed up by two mottos. “Everyone is invited” and “Do what you want” (the latter stolen from the punk band Bad Religion). The first tells people that, if you want to be our friend, then we’ll be yours; we’re not going to exclude people because we disagree with their outlook on life. There’s so much of that these days and we don’t want to be part of it. Certain areas of poetry can be quite bullying and dictatorial; there’s a lot of talk around what people shouldn’t write about (or worse, what they should write about). There’s also much talk around the way poets and presses should and shouldn’t market and distribute their work. So we say, “Do what you want” and we’ll trust in the fact that most poets and publishers are good people who aren’t going to intentionally hurt others with their work. Poetry is at its best when poets write without fear and are allowed to follow their vision (even when this means applying their own shackles…).
That’s not to say that we don’t ourselves disagree with the actions and ethics of some poets and publishers — just that we understand it’s not our place to tell them what to do. If we don’t like the way someone’s going about things, then we won’t buy or read their work. That feels like the best response. They can do things their way, and we can do things our way. Just don’t try to tell us what to do.
We’ve had many troubling issues, across various levels of interaction: issues with poets, issues with printers, and issues with distributors. The main issues with poets relate to the submissions process. Some people take rejection very badly and will lash out, sending email threads full of abuse or trying to sabotage us online. Printers aren’t so bad — printing errors are, unfortunately, inevitable, but most of the printers we’ve worked with have been very good at resolving these issues for us.
– Your creative energies are not confined to poetry and publishing. You are also a musician, host a podcast, have written quiz questions, taken part in palindrome competitions and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. Do you have any plans for the future that you are willing to share?
I’m currently working on a new poetry collection — another ‘big book’ — though I suspect this will take a long time. I’m aiming for 2024, but 2025 might be more realistic. The Knit Ink tetralogy took a lot out of me! My next book is called The Robots of Babylon and is largely inspired by 20th-century pulp fiction stories.
I have returned to song writing and I am (very slowly) working on some acoustic pieces — guitar and vocals, with occasional piano and strings. I am also about to begin the third part of a trilogy of experimental music. The first part, Clyties of the Mist, focussed on MIDI piano palindromes. The second part, Redder, featured raw note-by-note palindromes for bass guitar and bongos. For the third part, which I am tentatively calling Six Are In A Zanier Axis, I am going to experiment with backmasking, and make musical palindromes that way. This time, I’ll be using electric guitar, bass, and MIDI drums. Stylistically, it will be a return to my punk roots.
We hope to have Palindrome Fight! back at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2023. This year’s was such fun. If we can do it, there should be an opportunity for me to perform some stand-up comedy there, so I’m contemplating writing a 20-minute routine….
I keep toying with the idea of writing another novel, but the three I’ve already written aren’t good enough to show to the world, so I don’t see why a fourth would be!
The future of Penteract Press is very unclear. We have books lined up until mid-2024, and we won’t be taking on any new projects between now and then. We don’t yet know whether that means quitting for good or taking a break and returning on a smaller scale (by which I mean publishing fewer books, not returning to micro-press publishing). I’d like to keep going with the podcast!
Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
Fabric by Anthony Etherin is available from Beir Bua Press.
Cellar, Stray Arts, The Utu Sonnets, Slate Petals and The Noson Sonnets may all be purchased from Penteract Press.
Anthony Etherin’s personal website is https://linktr.ee/anthony_etherin, which also has links links to the Penteract Podcast and the option to sign up to his weekly newsletter.