Daisy Lafarge is a writer, artist and editor. Her first poetry collection, Life Without Air, and a novel, Paul, are forthcoming from Granta Books. Her pamphlets include understudies for air (Sad Press) and capriccio (Spam Press). She received an Eric Gregory Award for poetry in 2017 and a Betty Trask Award for fiction in 2019, and her visual work has been exhibited in galleries and institutions such as Tate St Ives, Talbot Rice Gallery and Edinburgh Art Festival. Daisy is currently working on Lovebug, a book about infection and intimacy, as part of a practice-based PhD at the University of Glasgow.
Q: How do you connect your writing practice to the quincunx at the centre of this project?
D: I’ve been creating short texts using the quincunx from Thomas Browne’s theory of atomic relations. I started by thinking about it as a formal writing constraint, and later found this poetic form called the cinquain. I don’t usually write in set poetic forms, like sonnets or haikus, as I find them too restrictive. But the cinquain is formed from five lines and when centred on the page looks like a little lozenge, because it tapers at the top and the bottom. So it’s really tiny and I’ve been trying to fit things into that form recently, drawing on vocabularies and associations from research into medicinal plant properties and histories. As Rachel pointed out, a lozenge is also a small medicinal tablet, usually laced with something sweet, that helps the medicine go down. I like the idea of these ‘bite-sized’ pseudo-medicinal poems/throat sweets!
Q: Do you think poetry can be medicinal, like Socrates suggested by calling text ‘pharmakon’, and Jaques Derrida wrote about in his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’?
D: A lot of my writing comes from a need to process and deal with the world and things that happen, but I’m against the idea that poetry can be a final fix or cure. It is actually more metabolic, or like breathing: if something happens to me, reading or writing isn’t going to make it go away, but with reading, as with breathing, I can get through it. I’m also interested in poetry as a method of enquiry. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius says he uses poetry to write about science, because it is like the sweet honey around the rim of a cup of bitter medicine. Poetry seems ‘sweet’ and innocuous, but can smuggle in other ‘substances’ that may be more unpalatable if taken directly.
Q: Why were you particularly interested in air?
D: The epigraph that I used for the pamphlet understudies for air takes the pre-Socratic philosophers’ understanding that all kinds of matter derived from one primary element. I was interested in Anaximenes’ focus on air, as I found it a helpful metaphor to think that air connects us all. For example, the proximity and the overlapping nature of environmental and emotional toxicity, these two things are different discourses, but don’t occur in a vacuum. There is a continuity between how we live in the world and how we live among each other. We breathe toxic air in a bad relationship and in environments that we have polluted.
Q: Can you elaborate on how your interest in infection and plague finds its way into your poetry?
D: My PhD incorporates geography and molecular epidemiology. I accompanied several research trips to northern Tanzania, studying diseases passed from animals to people. It took me a long time to figure out how I was going to make anything out of this, because I don’t have a scientific disciplinary training. I just had all this new vocabulary and stuff that I’d been reading. Now I’m working on a book called Lovebug. I’m trying to think about infectious diseases in terms of species boundaries and intimacy. I’ve always been curious about the fact that infectious agents are thought to be inherently bad or malicious, so I’ve been trying to think about them in terms of symbiosis and interspecies intimacy.