(Issue 59, September 2007)
Inevitably in any magazine interview with a poet there are cliché questions that readers like an interviewer to ask. How soon after you began writing poetry seriously did you get published in book or pamphlet form? How easy or difficult did you find it to get published?
To avoid that cliché, can I invoke the Fifth Amendment?
But has it got easier or harder to get published since you started? To establish a reputation as a poet?
Okay, okay – I’ll talk. But getting published means many things to me (poems in public, on walls as well as pages) and, anyway, you’re asking the wrong guy. Whatever the trend for reputable writers, I doubt I fit the bill. It seems, sometimes, as if they all wrote in the womb, gained Oxford PhDs with titles like Glittering Gimlets; Ancient Mariners, and had a many-headed body of work before they’d squeezed their first zit. I began late. Am still beginning. I’m an opportunist species, mostly making it up as I go along – like the poetry itself.
That aside, I do recall being told, back in the eighties, that if you got some good competition prizes and magazine publications under your belt, someone would eventually acknowledge that as evidence of merit and want your book. I was even led to believe it grated etiquette to be too pushy. I’m not sure any of that applies anymore, if it ever really did. Poetry promotion seems increasingly caught up in that populist slipstream dragging down the arts more generally: the economic branding of celebrity over merit. Top festivals and magazines are obsessed with the same few Beckhams, picking up new voices only if they fit some thematic prerequisite. The charmed circle of ‘known’ poets seems to be tightening, collapsing to a sphincter.
Which might seem strange, given that there are poets in schools, as much public funding for poetry as there’s ever been, and an influx of cash through the creative writing industry – all of which leaves me (as a beneficiary, I hasten to add) with mixed feelings. The under-funding of the arts is much bemoaned. But maybe they’re not under-funded enough. What’s the point of reputations, tied funding, or creative writing MAs, without a magnificent – perhaps even desperate – thirst for poetry? Instead, we almost have an ‘open samizdat’ in Britain. If you want to bury a subversive or challenging book here, simply place it on the poetry shelves. Or is that the manner of important things? – that they remain utterly in plain view while the culture peers elsewhere. As Milan Kundera asks, will anyone actually notice when poetry disappears, when the end comes? Not a bang or a whimper, but a snap, crackle and pop.
Do you foresee the day when all poetry will be self-published on-line and the readership will be an unknown number of persons surfing the net, not having to pay to read any of it?
Ah, if I could read the future, I wouldn’t need to! I suspect the driving forces behind your scenario are the rise of visual over textual culture, and decreasing attention spans. There’s probably a campus bestseller to be written about the demise of books. Entitled The Last Waugh, something like that. As for the poets, in the near-term, ‘print on demand’ looks like the canny option. Meanwhile, I just keep hoping for anything in poetry that feels like opening a family restaurant in a fast-food mall.
The vexed question of lack of an audience for poetry measured in terms of books sold, rather than in terms of books produced, has been discussed in poetry-oriented magazines many times. In this area where I live I found, during the Millennium year when I was charged with a residency here to promote an interest in poetry, that there existed what I came to think of as ‘the natural audience for poetry’. Until that year, there had never been any form of public poetry activity such as readings and the like, consequently I was able to empirically discover a general and unadulterated audience for poetry at a grassroots’ level. By ‘unadulterated’ I mean that this audience, rather like that which created the anonymous ballads, had an idea of poetry which, when it wasn’t manifestly anachronistic, would certainly be regarded by the élite powers governing education and the poetry world today as simply uneducated. This audience would buy Pam Ayres, Patience Strong and even Betjeman, but regarded much of what passes for poetry otherwise, as no such thing.
Those readers mightn’t have had access to the poetry they’d be converted by, or else lack the gumption to find it for themselves. Maybe all they’ve seen (or choose) is a taking of sides in the threadbare populist-academic tug of war. Think of Arundhati Roy’s “Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world… it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world.” Where does that leave education’s government-induced tick-box mentality or our publicist culture of hyperblurbs? In fact, I’ve real doubts about reading, as administered along purely commercial routes. My friend, Ray Clifford, says: “Commercialism requires us to fan the flames of the illusion that we are ultimately separate and individual”. Hence the dislocated self, isolated from what it really needs. Crucially, and this is a sure sign of where we are, hardly anyone in the general population reads modern poetry or cares about what radical poets are trying to do. Or was it always thus?
Is education the answer? Or do you think making poetry a part of education - a thing to be taught - has helped destroy the audience for it? I recently read a quote in a national newspaper from a well-known writer of children’s books: ‘Tying reading too closely into education destroys the pleasure of it.’
Could it be that children are losing the cognitive ‘codes’ by which to internalise and value the deeper forms of poetry? Those codes provide the means of discriminating between language that challenges and nurtures, and phrases which merely entertain or sensationalise. Every generation should rewrite the codes, of course; but if we can’t hand them on at all, society forgets one of its most valuable tools for self-examination. Yet I’m sanguine in supporting those forms of poetry which refuse to fall into commercial, aesthetic or pedagogic step, into the ‘cultural monoculture’. Genuine plurality is kept in the mouth by such ‘poetries’. And plural speech is freedom’s first seed, its final stronghold. Whether poetry in schools contributes to or destroys that freedom is a fraught issue. Thanks to the likes of Foucault and Illich, we know that all institutions (including educational ones) have assumptions to address and overcome, particularly when they embody a centre of power such as our influence over children. I have to say, it’s appalling how we herd our young, how we manufacture consent. For me, the fullest education leads you to what it lacks. Perhaps the best way now to encourage poetry, particularly in universities, is to ban it. Make it an imprisonable offence. Imagine, the police staking out student halls, losing the war on 3am pamphlet parties…
Simon Armitage recently said: ‘I’m reluctant to begin work on a poem unless I have the title, the first line and the last, or at least a clear idea of what they should contain.’ What leads to you generating a poem?
Perhaps only the poem itself can answer that; but let’s have a go anyway. I do thrive, as I did when I was a physicist, on unexpected results, apparent contradictions. Poetry as the fifth element: the element of surprise. Writing is a bit like learning to gaze in a pool to catch yourself unawares. And somewhere behind it all is that pungent, creative pressure generated by insight and its simultaneous insistence on taxidermy and flight.
I certainly try to invoke the poem, to consider it an independent being possessed of its own existence, its own purposes. Mostly, my ego has to duck out. Perhaps that’s why the moments preceding a poem, or lapping its flanks as it emerges, often seem inexorably ‘outside’ and meteorological – as if some condensate had spontaneously percolated the dark interstices of consciousness, the poem a dense vapour creeping under your brightly-lit, front door of brain, demanding that you investigate and experiment. The rest is trying to get the blasted door to open! That, unless the poem comes fully formed, is heavy, delicate work – a tricky heave and heft, tackling those immense, crane-swaying potentials of sound with little more than the thin guy-lines of language. Recently, though, I’ve become more ‘internal’ about that spontaneity, exploring forms of poem-oriented mediation. I now know, less than ever before, where the poem’s going, though I might sense its trajectory, somatically. I’m learning that initial, thought-free receptivity which allows you to pick out a language-thread into the labyrinth.
It can, of course, be far more banal than that sounds. During one of my classroom visits, for example, after asking a class to invent a futuristic voice, a snorting student raised a heavily-ringed hand and (face and gesture surging with Anglo-Saxon, four-lettered feeling) encouraged me to ‘do’ my own exercise. I did. The poem actually helped me towards a new voice. Angels, and muses, often come disguised as devils.
One last thing… the kind of linearity and rationality, the joining of dots, that seems to form much of contemporary verse interests me less and less. In a sense, rationality has a single voice. I mean, here, that form of transparent rhetoric I’ve certainly fallen into (and continue to) where the poem keeps checking you’ve understood what it’s trying to say, practically in the same breath as enacting what it says. It’s the poet wagging the tail of each image as he whistles it onto the street. I’m not merely advocating ‘show not tell’ here, but questioning that generic approach where the poet harbours the truth of a situation and wants to guide you, the reader, to it by controlled degrees, by your pale little hand. The payoff is that the audience ‘gets it’, together, at the same time, reaching (with relative ease) that one, unilateral ‘It’. I’ve been striving to get away from It, from narrative clarity and kitsch empathy, towards a plural compositional sensitivity to language co-evolving with more expansive implications for the reader. Put differently, away from the ‘ahhh’ moment of facile, punning accessibility. And, I dare say, towards a dwindling readership and bank balance.
Poetry and science are sufficiently distinct as to be regarded as separate disciplines. Have you personal or favourite definitions of the two terms, science and poetry?
Since my first book, Shrapnel and Sheets, I’ve been trying to lance that double-headed boil of a (supposed) arts-science duality. (It might actually be triple-headed, given the problems – as well as insights – raised by the famous Leavis-Snow-Yudkin ‘Two Cultures’ controversy.) Anyway, at the risk of platitude, let me say that, for all their differences, the arts and the sciences are – at their root – part of the one endeavour.
The corollary is that I’m also turning away from the ‘science poem’. That is, the Zeitgeist-savvy piece accommodating some quirky scientific fact or insight, or injecting science into its lines in an arbitrary or merely topical manner, as a sort of technological name-dropping. Science, as any other subject, is best used (and served) when fully, associatively absorbed into the writing process – towards what we might call (assuming you accept Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in the first place) a ‘re-association of sensibility’. It’s a combinative process, an amalgamation, whereby what might be thought of as two entirely separate ‘disciplines’ can – with an appropriate application of discipline as craft – begin to feel, as well as think, together. So, I’m thinking of poems that move the listener, that encapsulate individual corpuscles of scientific perception whilst sending ‘waves’ through an audience with their performance and resonance. Not so much poetry and science, then, as poetry multiplied by/with science: two synergetic strands, interlinked, interdependent, intertwining in an evolved organic balance – a kind of DNA, perhaps, with the life of the poet as the weather that surrounds, informs, adapts and is made by it. Or, if you don’t like my DNA metaphor (it has its limitations), what about interfaces? In matters of growth, the interface is all. A potato plant can sprout from peelings, but never from that starchy bulk we tend to focus on as food.
I’m not keen on definitions. As Alfred Korzybski warned, whatever we say a thing is, it is not that; it is both different and more. I spent much of my time as a physicist, it seemed, stringently memorising definitions, then (even longer) trying to absorb all the caveats and exceptions. If pressed, I might talk about poetry in terms of anatomy or biology. After all, it’s launched from flaps of skin in the throat. It’s a sustained, modulated vibration of a gaseous fluid originating in our lungs. We often think of art as abstract and cerebral, forgetting it’s somatic as well as intellectual. No body: no poem. I take great comfort from the idea that some of the most intense experiences of poetry can be pheromonal, where a room is filled with the sweet, subliminal scent of aroused communication. When that happens, audiences actually help to make the poem. Their biochemical response becomes an organic hologram within you, storing in your body chemistry (and in your ear) the shape and smack of genuine human interaction. Certainly, a poem is shared breath. If inspiration is the breath in, then the poem is the breath out. It has to be tested – out – on your personalised drum-kit of inner ear. Is that a definition? Or is it a statement of empirical evidence, of lived experience?
Which have you been most influenced by: the ideas of science or the poems of others? Have your principal mentors been poets or scientists?
The best mentors are fellow travellers rather than superiors. Apart from the occasional friend or colleague (most recently, that bastion of Perdika Press, Peter Brennan), my main mentors have been poems as opposed to poets, ideas rather than ideology. Best of all, ideas that wear the disguise of an emotion – or those that strike you as a lucid confirmation of something you somehow already knew, but had never got round to thinking (David Bohm’s holomovement is an example of the latter: his notion that everything we witness and experience unfolds from a deep, fluxile unity, a continuous, universal fluid). Science figures strongly for me among these ideas, I suppose, because (ecologist and lapsed physicist that I am) I’ve experienced its coal face, where I found that the reveries and faith-leaps of the poet are no more foreign to the scientist at his drawing board than the rigour-precision of the scientist is to the poet.
Poetry and science aren’t arch-rivals, but kissing cousins. They each ask deeper questions of what is superficially observed and, by the same token, adopt a hypothetical and provisional stance towards what they try to understand. They both demand that we pay full, plural attention. Clearly, it’s silly just to say science and art are ‘the same thing’ or that the types of rigour employed by poets and scientists are simply interchangeable; but, as someone versed in quantum physics, I’m fascinated by the way everything can become everything else. That’s the basis of metaphor and the engine-room of my writing – perhaps its major subject. Someone said: a physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms. Perhaps, then, a poet is the poem’s way of thinking about words.
So, science supplies much more than interesting things to write about; it can nudge literature towards the discovery of novel perspectives, fresh ways of perceiving and understanding ‘ordinary’ experience and its mediation through language. Reciprocally, literature provides one means by which society can engage with the various strangenesses science throws up: those new objects, ideas and situations for which we have no popular imagery (nor genetic instinct, for that matter), whose metaphorical space is tabula rasa. Maiden knowledge or experience brings with it this crisis of representation. Scientists and artists deal with metaphor on a routine basis – we need their metaphors to help us explain, experience and explore the unprecedented, whether it’s a scientific breakthrough, nuclear fallout, or 9/11.
I think you can be described as a poet of conscience, whether one thinks of your outstanding Chernobyl poems or, going back earlier, to poems like ‘The Confession of Borislav Herak’ or ‘21st August, 1991’ (in Shrapnel and Sheets). But a ‘social’ conscience is a difficult thing for it can lead to political activism, your ‘mandala of linked hands’. Such activism can become a distraction from one’s art, narrowing one’s perspective on life, draining away valuable creative energies. How do you feel about this matter of political commitment and activism?
Literature – the real stuff – is one of the chief ways a culture stays awake. Once we’re awake, by whatever means, we see the question you’ve posed more clearly, feel it with greater intensity, and detachment. Then, if we choose, we’ll set about resolving where we place our energies. The first thing is not to sleepwalk life, not to be a tourist in your own consciousness. There are different forms of activism and commitment: inner as well as outer, plus the transformational interface where these meet. For sure, that “full, plural attention” I referred to earlier is ‘political’. That’s not to say we don’t have to do anything; just that science and literature, carried through by the whole self, can’t help but be political in its most fundamental sense. True, we still have wars in spite of revelatory art and Brahmins. But we discover transformative energy everywhere, and in just about every one, if we trust the cosmos. “Everything we do is futile, but we must do it anyway” (Gandhi). The growth modes of the person and the interpersonal: those are the real breakthroughs, the best moments and outcomes of poetry. Our job is, in one sense, simple – to follow those breakthroughs wherever, whenever we can.
Tell me some of your favourite poems and poets, past and present.
Perhaps Elysium is to have no favourites, to be inspired by – and learn from – everything? Or is that Hell? But, yes, certain poets and poems seem to strike with almost frightening repeatability. Emily Dickinson. Roberts Creeley and Duncan. Bavarian Gentians. I could go on… so won’t. Who and what ‘gets to me’ keeps flowing anyway, like flux to the solder.
I noticed some very clever wordplay in the Chernobyl collection - almost performance poetry, as it were: poetry written to be performed aloud - but you seem to eschew traditional metrical forms. Is this a conscious decision?
For some, vers libre isn’t so much a case of playing tennis with the net down as dispensing altogether with balls, racquets and chalk. But is free verse genuinely ‘formless’? Having composed the Chernobyl poem relatively quickly, I then spent well over a year developing, refining and reinventing its linguistic patterning and structure. I’m not being defensive here, just making it clear that in my work you’ll find not only strict and near-strict metrical forms but also the ghosts of ballads and sonnets, concrete pieces, syllabics scattered everywhere. Is it that poets such as myself are somehow prosodically dyslexic or (worse) lazy, or that recognisable/ recognised form attracts acknowledgement and value? There’s something I call ‘formal prejudice’: the assumption that overt form automatically improves a work. Overt form can be used as a productive constraint; but it can equally signal a poet’s rigidity, insecurity or lack of imagination. What if the occasion demands not a ‘tight’ piece, but something with language-juices freely haemorrhaging? With modernism, I do enjoy the intellectual and linguistic rigour, the endeavour; but, even at its most bleak or experimental, modernist poetry is founded on generosity, on a foundation stone of gift as well as of quest. An essential part of that gift is the form you choose for it. Sometimes, a standard vessel works best; other times, you must cast it yourself. Done well, they’re both aspects of the craft, of the soul.
The film Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl, using your poetry, how did this come about? And how much were you involved on set, as it were, with its making?
Seventh Art, an outstanding film company in Brighton, were looking to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the disaster. Wanting to avoid documentary cliché, they wondered if my poem might provide a more unusual approach to the story. I felt a sweet-and-sour commingling of excitement and misgiving: happy marriages between film and poetry are rare. At no point did I point a camera, but I laid out a strategy for the voices, helped choose the actors. The learning curve was vertiginous, like moving from 2D to 3D chess. I recall a vital barney with the co-directors (David Bickerstaff, Phil Grabsky) about whether or not line breaks were appropriate in a film script. I was flummoxed. I’d simply assumed they should be there! Then instinct kicked in and, in the end, I was sufficiently persuasive. But I came perilously close to having to use my last-ditch defence: “Would you contemplate making a film without cuts?”
I was convinced, from the outset, that the film should reflect the poem’s emphasis on first-hand testimony. I’ve a theory that the sentiments and significances of a situation (real, imagined or abstract) are already there, in the relationships (the ‘angles’, as it were) between people, things and words: who did/ said what, when, how and to whom. Those relationships – related by the author through narration, perception and imagination – constitute a kind of geometry, ‘the geometry of experience’. This geometry is, I believe, a key structural instinct behind composition, especially in film and theatre. It draws a vessel in the mind, in the heart. Often, that’s all the writer need do; the reader will fill it for herself. But, if the geometry is strained or fractured, the audience senses something isn’t right. That can, of course, be used to advantage; but, in this case, I was concerned with upholding the balance and integrity of the given geometry, whilst welcoming the technical challenge of developing a cinematic language around, and for, narrative poetry. Indeed, the film opened for me a deeper questioning concerning how an artist can operate within a popular medium and maintain integrity. Thankfully, the directors were superb, creating a powerful visual poem to embrace and intertwine with the textual one.
How did you feel about actors reading your poetry?
They’re like plums. If you must have them, choose with utmost care.
In a famous outburst once the non-academic American poet Wallace Stevens described poetry readings as a most dreary and dreadful experience, especially for audiences. You have written about your experiences of poetry readings, of which you have much experience. What would you say is the most positive thing in their favour... and the most negative against?
Among the worst: anything gimmicky or over-slick. That sham of the reader on ‘literary guard’, coming across as the Great Poet who constantly refers to life through the filters of literature. They usually leave, the moment they’ve performed. Among the best: experiencing that somatic sink of a great poem. That pheromonal poem.
There is the well-known instance of Stephen Spender telling Eliot how much he ‘wanted to be a poet’. To which Eliot’s riposte was that, he could understand someone wishing to write poetry, but never simply wishing to be a poet. Yet, it seems, there is an attraction for very many people in becoming a poet - as though it has some special status. Or was implicitly Spender’s desire to be a poet simply an early manifestation of a trend that would eventually lead to poetry becoming a publishing career rather than a vocation?
Yes, there are those enamoured of the idea and prestige of poetry rather than the craft, who’ve fallen in love with being in love. I feel that distorting grip myself. I do mourn the way our lives get split into the separate tracks of ‘what we are’ and ‘how we make a living’. That phrase ‘the cost of living’ has more than a monetary sense. Actually, I had more energy and time, in some ways, when I held regular jobs, though I also had less purpose, perhaps – had the sharp edges knocked off me, became more regular myself? The (tired) enthusiast in me says: there’s only the vocation. I’m realising one’s audience – ultimately – is an audience of one.
Getting published is necessary, but also delusional. Will the Guardian keep ringing you? Will you get peachy commissions, make a comfy living from your art? Or does that kind of attention mean you’re now celebrity-consistent, culturally safe for mass distribution? I try (and often fail) to turn my attention to matters more pressing, for the self and for the globe, than my next book and its (lack of) reception. I recall those first awestruck months in my writing when even the worst turmoil was eased by a cheap biro and a scrap of paper. Or the morning I stood bolt upright in the physics lab, struck by the sensation that the experiments of literature had entered my marrow, become far more interesting to me than those of physics. Or those many occasions since that I’ve sensed language as a constant falling-short – but miraculously so. Many poets and students still see it, feel it, along similar lines.
Which of your books would you most like those readers unfamiliar with your work, to read?
I’ll not deprive my hordes of would-be readers the thrill of choosing for themselves.
© Mario Petrucci, William Oxley; July 2007