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Astrology - A Very Poetic System

An Interview with Poet Rachael Boast
Rachael Boast

Worldwide Poetry Studio with Ryan Van Winkle

After reading Rachael Boast's highly-praised and extremely rewarding first collection, I discovered she was a star-gazing student of astrology. In our conversation about her Forward Prize-winning book, Sidereal, we examined her relationship to stars, sky, time, and patterns and how it affected the structure and content of her excellent debut. 

RVW: There are a lot of star/sky references in the book. You studied astrology, right?

RB: For the last ten years, yeah. It’s not something you can dip into. Modern astrology is a bit misleading, so you have to study it a bit .... To be honest, I like the idea of “as above, so below,” so it is not just the skyward-looking; it is a star-gazer’s book, but that’s not the point. Everything up there is reflected in an everyday, terrestrial way. It’s not a book about astrology, but had I not studied astrology, it wouldn’t have been written …. Even the title is just a word I’ve always loved, but it means “time measured by the stars” as opposed to solar time. And a sidereal day is about three minutes and56 seconds shorter than a solar day, and they say the further out into space you get the more accurate the measure of time. So somewhere we’re missing 3.56 minutes.

RVW: You’re blowing my mind!

RB: So that’s the meaning of sidereal. The basic gist of the book is to do with time and cycles of time. As I was doing my Ph.D., I had a lot of time to write, so there was a substantial body of work there. It did begin to congregate around certain themes, which reflected the content of my Ph.D. as well, which was on the Book of Job and contemporary ars poetica. The structure of the book much later on became very similar to the structure of the Book of Job in that the whole of Sidereal is like the shape of an hourglass. That’s to say, in literary terms, that it’s chiasmic. For example, the last poem in the first part ends with the word “decant” and the first poem in the second part starts with “incant.”

RVW: You are clever!

RB: As it was going on I maximised on this, but it certainly wasn’t there in the beginning. A lot of those themes weren’t. And it even got to a point at later stages that I was deliberately writing poems to mirror so that every poem in the book would be mirrored in the second part. Structure is as important as the poems themselves.

RVW: Looking skyward--in “Fire Shower” you end with your eye on Jupiter:

Lights from regal crescents, Brunel’s
ingenious shortcut to the woods
and rockets fired from the observatory roof
leave me cold--my eye’s on Jupiter just visible
through the cloud: first you see me, now you don’t.

RB: That last line is just to say how much we used to navigate by the stars; we seem to have lost contact with that, which seems like a dangerous thing. The stars are as beautiful as a fireworks display if we could be bothered to look, but with light pollution, etc., it’s hard to really appreciate them.

RVW: Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget to navigate by the stars?

RB: Because it puts us in a wider context. We’re living on a very small planet; there’s a really big world out there. It’s really to remind us of our limitations, and also of what we’re guarding, which is a very fragile, delicate planet. It’s a comment on short-sightedness.

RVW: As influenced by your study of modern astrology?

RB: No no, modern astrology is full of psychobabble. It’s really [about] getting to the roots of astrology and the history of it...because a lot of it is nonsense. In astrology columns in the newspapers, people in effect are reading the wrong sign because that’s sun-sign astrology, which is a different way of looking at a chart. I won’t go into detail about that, but it’s an example of how it’s being misused or misunderstood.

RVW: Somebody told me recently I’m not a Sagittarius anymore.

RB: Right, that’s progression. Your sun will have moved into the next sign, so you’d be a late Capricorn. But again, you have to study it for a long time to see how it works because I wouldn’t say you’re a Capricorn.

RVW: Good. Because if you did I’d knock you out.

RB: That’s very Sagittarian of you.

RVW: Where did your interest in astrology originate?

RB: I find it a very poetic system of looking at things, actually. I wanted to understand time a bit better because certain circumstances were difficult to deal with, personally, and I wanted to have a longer perspective on when that particular crisis might stop. So I looked at astrology, and it said “these things move on. There are cycles and there are patterns and nothing is ever fixed.” If you look at an astrological chart, you’ve actually got an objective diagram of when to expect certain things to happen, or when not to do certain things, and it’s just an advisory system. Saves you a lot of time, funny enough.

RVW: So this is a way of recognizing patterns and not thinking, “Well, this is a good day to buy a lottery ticket”?

RB: You could use it to buy a lottery ticket, but that’s not the best use of astrology, I think. So if you wanted to find a day related to luck, that might be related to Jupiter, which is the ruler of Sagittarius. So if it was making a particular aspect on a certain day, you could have a kind of luck, but it might not be the kind of luck you wanted to have. You might have a lucky conversation or encounter, but you’ve wasted your money on your lottery ticket.

RVW: It’s more about being receptive to a different interpretation of things?

RB: It’s kind of like writing a poem: I don’t know where things are going to start, or where they’re going to end. I’ve got certain likelihoods or certain themes or particular material that I want to use, but I can’t predict what I’m going to do with it. A lot of the poems in Sidereal--they all start from a position of cluelessness. It sounds very intellectual and mapped out, but to be frank I didn’t know what I was doing. I just trusted the work. And there are overlaps with poetry and what I’ve studied of astrology; it’s a very poetic system.

RVW: When I trust myself to get to somewhere interesting instead of planning it out, that’s when it works. That’s what you’re saying?

RB: Exactly. I like to think of it as playing piano with my eyes shut. If I opened my eyes, I’d look at what I was doing and mess it up.

Rachael Boast was born in Suffolk in 1975. She currently divides her time between Scotland and the West Country. Her first collection, Sidereal, won the 2012 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry and The Forward Prize for best first collection in 2011.

Extract from Sidereal (Picador) available on The Guardian.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.