Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
was born in London, studied at Swansea, Mannheim and Exeter, and after working for Hans Keller at BBC Radio 3, became a teacher, living in Egypt, Scotland, New Jersey and Cambridgeshire. Since Westerners (1982) there have been well over a dozen collections, notably To the War Poets (Carcanet, 2013), and several studies of poetry and poets. His Oxford edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War appeared in 2015, as did his music anthology, Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers. Subsequent publications include a major collaboration with Penelope Shuttle, Heath, a memoir of two years in Upper Egypt, Threading a Dream, a new edition of Geoffrey Grigson’s poetry, and the gift anthology Ten Poems about Sheds. The Silence appears from Carcanet in June 2019. He is a regular TLS reviewer and a judge of the Eric Gregory Awards. He has won the Bridport Prize, the TLS Centenary Prize and in 2008 received a Cholmondeley Award. He was until recently RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College. He is married with two daughters.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I suspect that the instinct to write poetry is in all of us at some level; but not everyone becomes as obsessed with it as poets do. The simple answer to what inspired me would be ‘reading other poets’, and that will have meant very early jingles like ‘What a clamour, what a fuss/Getting on and off the bus’ and some often surreal nursery rhymes (‘If all the world were paper…’), then ear-candy such as ‘The Jumblies’, and basically anything that entertained. I can remember now being given Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales by an aunt; it was a lovely pale, squarish hardback, with those slightly unnerving original line drawings. There must have been hymns that appealed too – the puzzle of ‘There is a green hill far away/Without a city wall’ (why would it have a wall anyway?) and ‘From Greenland’s Icy mountains’ (my sister and I liked to play at ‘Going to Greenland’). But as to what stirred me to write…? Those Jumblies were surely behind a rollicking ballad I produced about ‘Jehoshaphat Jim and Jehoshaphat Joe’ when I was at primary school. I had my first ever good review when the headmistress invited me into her study to congratulate me. Goodness knows where I found the word Jehoshaphat, but I clearly liked the noise it made, which is where poetry begins. But the first proper poem I wrote was actually about the Pyramids – long before I had any inkling that I would live two years in Upper Egypt, that my first collection would be entirely Egyptian in theme, that I would still be writing about it half a century later, culminating in my 2017 memoir, Threading a Dream: a Poet on the Nile*. I felt early on that poetry was something I could do, that it was the closest I could come to composing music. I would very much like to have been granted that gift, music is so important to me.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Perhaps it was my mother. She certainly helped me choose a poem when I had to learn one for a school competition: ‘Ozymandias’ – yes, Egypt again. I can still recite it by heart. But my father was very fond of certain poets and poems. He adored Betjeman (being a 9-5 Ruislip Gardens man himself) and was never happier than with an anthology, Palgrave or Wavell usually. He would quote Leigh Hunt. But teachers played their part. One English teacher was fond of Louis MacNeice, and he’s a poet I still return to. It’s probably at school I came to know the First World War Poets. But we looked at some surprisingly contemporary work too. One of the first poems that really affected me was by the American, Howard Nemerov, his ‘Brainstorm’, which I found and copied out when I was perhaps fourteen. When in 1990 I attended the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, USA , I actually heard and met Nemerov and was able to tell him this. He thought it rather a grim poem to have made such an impression on a boy. Meeting Jane, my future wife, when I was at university in Swansea, threw me headlong into Eliot, whose work I had somehow avoided. I learnt ‘The Waste Land’ off by heart in order to impress her.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I’m not sure that young readers even think of poets as alive, let alone dominatingly old. I naturally turned to the big names (male chiefly, I’m ashamed to admit), such as W.B.Yeats and Wallace Stevens. My first encounter with a Living Poet was when John Montague came and read at Swansea in 1974 . I had the sad task of writing Montague’s obituary for the Guardian in 2016. A bit later it was Ted Hughes I was most aware of: I even sent him some of my early poems and verse plays and he wrote back saying that he thought they were ‘the real thing’(one of his letters is in the Christopher Reid selection). He was always very encouraging, and whatever Hughes’s failings as a human being, one cannot lightly dismiss the kindness he showed to young writers. I’ve never felt hobbled by my elders. I’m of that generation that tends to look up to them and assume they have things to teach us. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent so much time writing about and editing other poets. Some of those poets have themselves restored reputations. Edmund Blunden (whose Undertones of War I edited*) was responsible for the first selections of Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, not to mention John Clare, whose manuscripts he found in a cupboard in Peterborough. I’ve just brought out an edition of verse by Geoffrey Grigson*, a man whose thumbs up or thumbs down could make or break a career. More often than not it was a thumbs down. Nevertheless, Grigson was an interesting poet and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten just because he was mean to those who didn’t impress him. Personally, I feel it’s important to encourage young poets, which is why I’ve been one of the Eric Gregory Award judges for the past ten years.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I tend to have spells of intense work, in which case I can find myself getting up ridiculously early or versifying late into the night, oblivious to the world around me. This happened with my recent ‘Huntingdonshire Codices’ (a group appeared in the last Poetry Review) which I began on Boxing Day 2017 and was still writing by 20th March, which was my 64th birthday. So I resolved to stop that day at 64 poems, knowing that I might find it difficult to start afresh. I do like a project – my chapbook, Knot (Worple 2013) was a planned operation produced at Hawthornden – but that doesn’t always bring out the best work. The ideal thing is when a poem or even a book just drops into your head. When Penelope Shuttle and I were talking after I’d read at Falmouth, we found ourselves reminiscing about our childhoods around Heathrow, and the legends of that area. I laughingly said that we should collaborate on something… So a day or two after I went home to Cambridgeshire, I sent Penny three new poems. She replied with some of her own. After six months of obsessive writing (and many emails) we had a 200-page book, Heath, which Nine Arches brought out in 2016.* It was the first time I had collaborated like that, and I think we both had fun. But it was entirely unexpected and all the better for it. So, routine? There is something of that. I was a teacher for many years, so it was a case of doing what I could when I could, but I try and write something every day. I do a lot of reviewing, chiefly for the TLS. Like Eliot, I believe that writing prose should go hand in hand with writing poetry.
5. What motivates you to write?
Do you remember that poem of Richard Wilbur’s, ‘To the Etruscan Poets’? It’s only six lines, but it’s enough to make anyone give up. The Etruscan language is long extinct, so the point is that its poetry cannot be read. It’s a state of affairs that will come to all cultures in the end. There are considerable advantages to writing in such an enduring and internationally known language as English, but perhaps not so many in actually being an English Poet. Just as Seferis and Ritsos and Elytis always felt the ancient Greek poets at their back, so we can’t escape our own poetic heritage. We were born into an archive, and it’s guarded by… well, talk about dominating presences! I don’t think any poet considers posterity when writing, though it’s occasionally worth asking yourself how much what you write is going to date. Grigson complained about Robert Lowell’s work that it was full of terminology that would soon be incomprehensible. It’s rather like when you watch a film and the kind of computer or phone instantly gives the period away. What’s the poetic equivalent of the telephone in a film? Edmund Blunden maybe had the right idea when he decided to write in much the same way as a poet would have done in the eighteenth century. The equivalent of a film where there are no telephones. Read MacNeice and you’re back with the antique Bakelite in the hall. I suspect that a good few of us today (not only the young) will quickly find themselves sounding quaint for all the allusions to smartphones and apps.
6. What is your work ethic?
Once I get going I stick at it. But for most of the time I’m like the Scholar Gypsy, waiting for ‘the spark from heaven’.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
Yes, it’s interesting how tastes change. I seem to remember W.H.Auden saying something like ‘I can no longer read Rilke’, and there are poets who don’t cast the same magic now. In some cases we’re back with the question of ‘best before’ dates. I wonder whether Ted Hughes will end up becoming a marginal figure like … I don’t know, Thomas Beddoes, perhaps, or George Darley. I think Philip Larkin, many of whose poems are in my head, will survive the decades, and there will always be certain techniques and tonal slants that I can attribute to him in my own work. I got to know High Windows entirely from his recording of the poems which I had with me when I was studying in Germany. When I eventually saw them on the page I was amazed at the formal ingenuity, the subtle rhyme-schemes. There are poets who speak for their age, whose nuances have lost their impact. But it only needs one poem to end up in the anthologies. I don’t think I’ve written an ‘Innisfree’ or an ‘Adlestrop’ yet. Edward Thomas is still one of my favourite poets, perhaps the most widely influential of all the War Poets, stylistically at least. I still return to T.S.Eliot, especially Four Quartets, which has long been a touchstone, and Louis MacNeice, who holds up well, despite the ‘thirties trappings. Wordsworth is lodged deep inside me and is unlikely to go away, and the same is true of Marvell, and the much neglected William Cowper. Yeats was important to me in my late teens, and I recently read right through a new edition of his Collected (I was on a retreat on Achill Island, so it seemed appropriate). Since he always adopted a lofty tone (‘the rag-and-bone shop’ claim is a diversion) he has weathered better than many of his more colloquial contemporaries. Heaney I could not do without, although it’s a while since I read him in bulk (one of the most memorable days of my life was meeting the great man at Little Gidding). Being something of a pastoral writer myself, I have to make sure I don’t become too Heaneyesque. There are days when only Derek Walcott will do. Among foreign poets, I return regularly to George Seferis, admiring the way he can draw mythology into his personal preoccupations, and certain Germans such as Peter Huchel. Tomas Tranströmer too, though I came to know him later. Being of a certain age, there are women poets whose work simply didn’t come my way, although I was always drawn to Marianne Moore – perhaps less so to Bishop, much as I admire her. But Penelope Shuttle’s work I got to know early on (which is why it was such a thrill to collaborate with her) and Kathleen Raine has long been important to me. Nowadays there may well be more women poets than men that I read. I couldn’t do without Denise Levertov, Eavan Boland, Louise Glück…
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Where to start? With those women mentioned above – they are fixed points. I admire those who have stuck at it, too, whether I like their work or not, and especially if they have produced a lot. There’s something about a mighty Collected that inspires confidence (see Glück, Levertov and Boland). The very prolific Charles Tomlinson was a considerable influence in the 80s and 90s, perhaps less so now, as was Iain Crichton Smith. I went through a potent Lowell phase, a C.H.Sisson phase. Living in America drew me to A.R.Ammons and James Merrill. But these poets are all dead now so don’t count as ‘today’s’. Of course, I’m always delighted to read the latest from the poets I know personally such as Penny Shuttle or (the one I see most often) Stuart Henson. Stuart and I regularly show each other new work, and we hope to publish a selection of our occasional ‘postcard’ sonnets in 2020. The real test, I suppose, is whether you feel you need to buy a copy of a living poet’s latest book – be it by Fleur Adcock, Gillian Allnutt, Alison Brackenbury, John Clegg, John F.Deane, Elaine Feinstein, Mimi Khalvati, John Matthias, Esther Morgan, David Morley, Andrew Motion, Les Murray, Anne Stevenson, Rebecca Watts or several dozen others. I wish I could buy another by my dear late friend Dennis O’Driscoll. Anthony Thwaite was right when he wrote that ‘we are too many’, but there’s something to be said for an embarrassment of riches.
9. Why do you write?
Alexander Pope asked himself the same question, and came up with one of his best poems (‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’). I suppose if I could stop, I would. Nemerov used to answer that question by saying it was to ‘get something right in the language’, which I like.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
I would say: don’t worry about becoming a writer. Just learn to write. And how you do that is by reading as much as you can. Then when you do write, make sure you cut out all that you dare. As Brahms said, it’s the notes that fall under the table that make the symphony. You probably have to write for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours before something really decent begins to emerge. I’m not sure I’ve quite got there yet.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m always afraid of that question because it makes me feel as if I should be working on something, rather than just waiting. I do believe that producing poetry is largely a question of making yourself ready to ‘receive’, remaining alert, tuning in: if you find the right wavelength, things will happen, image will connect with image. There may even be something in common with prayer. I’m very interested in spirituality and have more time than most people for the ‘silly’ side of Yeats (my wife belongs to the Society for Psychical Research, and I’ve attended the odd event). I wrote a piece on Poetry and Coincidence recently for the RLF where I talk fairly lightheartedly about the mysterious connections that poetry makes*. I have just finished a long poem about the British Empire, which was one of those that took me unawares, but I’m currently in thrall to no special theme. At Hawthornden last year I became very preoccupied with trees and Nicholas Ferrar, eventually writing a long poem, ‘The Giddings’, which combined the two. Then came the ‘Codices’, which were the fourth in a series of long-lined ‘local’ poems which I began in the 1980s. One day I hope to bring out the entire ‘Huntingdonshire Quartet’. Anyhow, I shall be leaving Hunts and going to the USA next month to do some readings and to talk about Edmund Blunden, so maybe some poems will come out of that. Travelling is quite good for prompting poems. I have a few possible publishing projects in the offing. I’m also about to begin the editing of my 2019 Carcanet collection, The Silence which features (along with much more, including a few of those ‘psychic’ pieces) a long poem about the composer Jean Sibelius. It’s essentially a study of the tensions within any creative process, and how the artist handles them. I keep coming back to musical themes, and I may write a prose book on the relationship between poetry and music.
*Books and articles mentioned above:
Threading a Dream: http://www.gatehousepress.com/shop/collections/threading-a-dream/ )
Blunden’s Undertones of War: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/undertones-of-war-9780198716617?cc=gb&lang=en& ]
Geoffrey Grigson, Selected Poems: http://www.greenex.co.uk/ge_record_detail.asp?ID=177
Heath (with Penelope Shuttle) http://ninearchespress.com/shop.html#!/~/search/keyword=Heath&offset=0&sort=relevance
‘Only Connect’ – RLF essay: https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/only-connect/
The Silence (June 2019): https://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781784107475 ]