Saturday, 26 October 2013

Interview With John Hartley Williams

   Having admired his poetry for many years for its wayward panache and linguistic vibrancy, I met John at Ronnie Scott's in the spring, where he was listening to his talented daughter Natalie perform an early evening gig as vocalist in the house band. The double-bass used in the performance was a handsome instrument designed and made by my brother Laurence (link here). This (at least in my mind) seemed to seal a bond of serendipity between John and I and, continuing our conversation in a curry-house around the corner with BowWow-editor and fellow-poet Michael Glover, we found we had much in common. This intermittent online dialogue took place over a number of weeks during September and October.
    You' re an eclectic poet and a cosmopolitan one. The distinctive quality of your work often derives from the fact that it's difficult to pin down your influences and reference-points. Which poets (or other writers) have been most important to you over the years and in particular who would you say kickstarted your interest in poetry when young?

   At school we read Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Gerald Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot for A-level. I think there were some novels on the syllabus but I wasn't interested in them so much. The poets had a great impact on me, even Matthew Arnold. (I saw a piece recently by that wonderful maverick American poet Ed Dorn in which he suggested that 'Dover Beach' was the single greatest lyric poem in the English language. Surprising, no? Or perhaps not.)
   We argued endlessly over the Eliot versus Pound question. I was fascinated by Prufrock and The Waste Land but Pound's slangy directness (which came, I think, from Browning as much as it reflected Pound's origins) appealed to me greatly. A friend of mine used to say: 'If you're still writing poetry after the age of 30, you must be a poet.'
   I suppose I made that discovery very slowly. I went to France after graduating and discovered André Breton and Benjamin Péret and the surrealists of the inter-war years. I read Baudelaire, Rimbaud...I think of myself as a surrealist, in the essential meaning of the term, not the usage that is generally employed in Britain where it means something like 'a bit weird'.

    That's an interesting alignment and one that again puts you 'out of key with your time'. Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Pound were certainly all formative influences for me too. I'm wondering what it was about surrealism that particularly fired your imagination. As you imply, while the word has entered our everyday vocabulary in a corrupted sense, the essence of the movement in the context of literary Modernism has been almost completely lost sight of. Was it only the original Bretonesque automatic-writing style that inspired you or did you also warm to the less pure anglified version of poets like David Gascoyne and later Americans such as Lamantia, Tate and Ashbery?

    I spent one summer absorbed in automatic writing. It released great energies (or so I thought). The problem with automatic poems is what do you do with them afterwards? Touch 'em and the bloom is gone. I wanted to publish a whole book full; in the end a few ended up in Canada. I did edit some of them. Funnily enough I found the notebook the other day and started reading the originals.
    Ashbery's early books certainly impressed me, but I suppose I've always preferred writing that tells you something about the beating heart of the writer. Ashbery was sophisticated in a way that I admired, but you don't get to know the poet, do you? Or perhaps you do, except there's not a lot of emotion. 
    DH Lawrence could deal with feeling. (God help me, I picked Nottingham University because Lawrence had been there. What a joke.) I'm still a great admirer of his poetry, though he doesn't get mentioned much in the snooty canonicals. I was a Dylan Thomas fan, and I loved WS Graham (still love 'em both). It was the fierceness of the writing that excited me; so much of what was going on in the magazines seemed tame and insipid. I forgot to mention that at school I read 'Howl' along with a friend and that inspired me to write my own howl - in the character, as I recall, of a tramp. It was an epic and filled two exercise books with expletive deleted writing.
     I think American poetry of the fifties and early sixties was a terrific influence. I felt very drawn to Paul Blackburn, for example. That might surprise you but I felt a kind of kinship because he had been teaching at the University in Toulouse a few years before I got there and I responded to his interest in old Provençale - Arnaut Daniel, Bertran de Born (whom I translated), Gaucelm Faidit etc etc.
    In contrast to then, American poetry seems nowadays very tame, indeed precious. There's an awful lot of preciosity about. That famous Donald Allen anthology (I still have my battered copy) introduced me to Ed Dorn, Kenneth Koch, Lamantia, O'Hara, Jack Spicer (I loved his work), Lew Welch. And then I found James Wright and Richard Hugo. All of that writing seems grown from life, not from the workshop, and it still seems that way to me.    
    I don't think there's anything 'pure' about surrealism, by the way. It's always reinventing itself. It isn't a method for writing poetry (or indeed anything), it's an alignment to the universe, so when you say you think I'm 'out of key' with my time, I think, well, poets usually are somewhat out of kilter. I didn't, by the way, come across Gascoyne's work till much later.

   That's an interesting cross-pollination of influences. I'd love to read your howling tramp! I was looking back at Christopher Middleton the other day for the BowWowShop festschrift and one of the main things that has made his work stand out so notably over the years has been his immersion in foreign poetries and translation. Nowadays that's more common but in the 60s and even 70s, when a very tame post-Movement parochialism held centre-stage, it was less prevalent, I'm sure. Of course Middleton's also lived abroad for much of his life so has kept out of the fads and bickerings of the UK scene. You mention studying in Toulouse and now you live in Berlin, while many of your poems are set in other countries: perhaps you could give a potted history of your movements as a writer and how you feel these different locales (and languages) have impacted on your work?

   I'd quite like to read my howling tramp poem myself, alas it is lost. One of the things that happens when you move around a lot is losing things. The art of losing isn't hard to master etc. Let's see: Potted biography: After University I went to Lille in France and taught in the Facultés Catholiques de Lille. (No, I'm not a Catholic.) I had a monk's room in the seminary and once smuggled a girl up there, but the priests were all academics and noticed nothing. I learnt to eat there. Catholics believe in eating well, and believe me these French fellows did eat well. A year later I was in Toulouse, drawn by thoughts of old Provençale etc, but the reality wasn't up to much. I recall Toulouse as being essentially damp and cold, which may surprise you. What was good about the place, if you were happy to get out of it, as I was, were all the Cathar sites you could visit - hilltop fortresses to which Simon de Montfort had brought blood and vengeance. Stirring and unsettling sites.                   
    Two years in France meant I had a pretty good command of French by the end of it, and I read French poets too. In French. (Though that wasn't so easy.) I was in France in 1968, year of les évènements. Having experienced the passion of the French students (I was tumbled from my Velosolex and given a few good luck swipes of the baton from a CRS man), I found England very milk and water, but I stayed for a year in Bristol.  I wasn't really writing much poetry at this time. I had decided I would become a novelist. Unfortunately I also had to earn a living and teaching in a Bristol school was inimical to novelistic enterprise.
    Then I went to Tito's Jugoslavija (a town called Novi Sad in Serbia, some 250 Kms north of Belgrade). I had a very light teaching load (for once!) and decided to make the most of it and finish my novel. (I didn't) After that came marriage and a British Council job at the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon. I'm not naturally an early riser but in the sub-tropical heat I found myself getting up at six in the morning to write a long autobiographical poem. It was never published as such, but I pillaged it for images and incidents in later poems.
    We came back to Britain in 1972 and I did a postgraduate degree at London and actually finished a novel (which no one wanted to publish). After that I discovered I had, as they say, over-qualified myself and after a series of job interviews that led to nothing (with not very humorously-minded people) I noticed a job going at the Free University of Berlin. I knew no German, apart from danke schön and Heil Hitler, but they didn't seem to mind. The spirit of '68 was still alive in in 1974. And this was West Berlin, of course, not the dreaded GDR. Instead of being interviewed by two men in ash-flecked suits (as happened in the UK), I was interviewed by everyone in the department, including the cleaning ladies, one of whom asked me if she would have to learn English to find out how I wanted my office organising.
     I kept abreast of UK writing by subscribing to periodicals. I was lucky to be working in university environments, and the libraries were usually good. I guess I was learning by doing, improvising as I went along. Of course the foreign languages that surrounded me kept me tuned to ways of saying things that were intriguingly different. I wasn't so much drawn to translation as to recasting things I heard said, say, in French or German, into English.

     My education as a poet was a series of accidents, some happy, some not so. The curriculum for Auden's daydream College for Bards was a) at least one ancient language and 2 modern ones; b) lines in these languages learned by heart, c) exercises in the writing of parodies, NO lit. crit; d) courses in prosody and rhetoric; e) students would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot. That's a provocation of course, but I've always felt my education certainly didn't prepare me for being a poet, and I'd have loved to be enrolled in Auden's college.

  You've certainly been peripatetic. In my College for Bards, travel would play a big part in the curriculum. I remember that Auden essay - it's a pleasant vision although you can't quite imagine Auden looking after a pet or tending a garden. I also recall you (and Matthew Sweeney) at the beginning of Writing Poetry quoting approvingly Louis MacNiece's "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of laughter and pity, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions". I approve of this too: to me it means poetry drawing from the full gamut of what grown-up averagely-adjusted men and women partake of and experience, the opposite of the academic prigs, neurotic primadonnas and semi-autistic delusionaries most poets turn out to be. This links to what I found in re-reading poems from your marvellous book Canada the other day: they work around speech-rhythms that are not dissimilar to how you actually speak, even when the subject-matter is not benched in your own experience. Could you say something about this interrelationship -eg. does this reflect how you compose? How do you bring together acoustic and page-lead aspects of the poem?

   No matter what the received dialect of the age might be, you grow up speaking like the people around you. I grew up in London and the melody and intonation of London speech is still in my ears. I used to worry about being disconnected from everyday language. The sheer pleasure of sitting on a London bus and listening to the conversation behind me. I worked in a University, however, and I had native English speakers for colleagues (quite a few in fact), and of course Berlin is not far from London, certainly not these days. I had family in London as well, and so I was not disconnected in the way James Joyce would have been in Zurich. Would he have ever written Finnegans Wake in Ireland? There would have been no need to invent a new language for the tribe. Poetry always has to re-discover 'the real language of men' (and women) and I've always felt that any kind of writing that gets priggish about the force of the vernacular is lost. A great and abiding model for me remains Byron's Don Juan. How many poets these days could come within spitting distance of that kind of damn-my-breeches, devil-take-the-hindmost swagger?
     As far as composition goes, I'll usually start with a phrase, something someone has said, or an often heard remark, scribble an improvisation that begins with the phrase and then rework it into something that (I hope) still has the force of something that might have been a real utterance, by a real person. I'm glad you liked Canada. It actually became three books in one because Neil Astley said he could only publish me every five years. But don't get me on to publishers.

 That's interesting about Canada being 3 books in one as it does have a terrific range in there, both locations and experiences but also of forms and tones. There are the repeated stanzas of the first section and then the set fourteen-liners with a lot of variations in them of the 'Pistol Sonnets', in some of which you actually play with the formal constraint by making it part of the subject of the poem eg "How long to go on, then stop/A fine corrective, madam, to blather". Do you see form then as a necessary brake on the blather of confessionalist excess, or as (as Olson wrote in Projective Verse)"only ever an extension of content" (in your case, that "real utterance" of speech-rhythms you mention)?

   'Form is never more than an extension of content' has upturned a bucket of blather on our heads.
   The experience of automatic writing taught me a lot about the relationship between inspiration, improvisation and composition (in the musical sense). Sometime in the mid-eighties I sat in my wife's parents' garden in Jugoslavija (as it then happily was) and for about five weeks committed one auto-poem after another to a notebook and then typed them up without changing a word. (The not changing a word took self-discipline, I can tell you.)
   I followed Benjamin Peret's instructions to the letter: 'It will suffice, then, to chase away this bitch reason, to write without stopping, without minding the crush of ideas. No more need to know what an alexandrine is or a litotes…Forget all your preoccupations, forget that you are married, that your child has whooping cough, forget that you are a Catholic, that you are a shopkeeper, that bankruptcy looms…you do not know anything except what you are about to be told. Write as fast as possible so that you lose none of the secrets about yourself being confided in you. Above all do not re-read anything….' If you get stuck, he suggests, pick a letter of the alphabet – A for example – and choose a word beginning with that letter to force open the gate of the unconscious. Ariadne's thread, he says, will come back by itself.
   When I read the poems through, I saw that repetitions of syntactic structures and key words, strangely enough, often provided a kind of liturgical form to what I'd written. Some of them were funny, some hallucinatory. There was a kind of joviality about them I liked. However I didn't think anyone in well-mannered Grossbritannien would publish them.
    In the end, I tinkered with a few of them and they became the last section of  Canada. Breton and Péret keep quiet about the authenticity (or not) of this tinkering. (Touch it and maybe the bloom is gone.) I could see that my unconscious mind was still marshalling syntax and whipping errant vocabulary into line and I took my cue from that. I think because of those experiments, when I'm writing these days, I find it easier to access improvisational swoops and flights, but I'm still enough of a traditionalist to want the final piece to hold its shape (not be baggy), be succinct, use language with care, use rhyme if I feel like it, use more or less complex stanza shapes, above all, though, create surprise (which is what automatic writing produces). 

I love the Peret quote. Your approach makes a bracing alternative to the tepid stylistic exercises of Creative Writing courses, which seem to have overspilled into the tepid generic poems, often highly competent but lacking in lived experience and substance, which are churned out these days. We seem to be in an oddly paradoxical position in the UK now: the scene is so glutted with would-be poetlings that they have flooded the market, while at the same time few can afford to go out and buy overpriced poetry books at a time when - thanks to the pernicious 'austerity-measures' of the Coalition - many of us can barely afford to pay our mortgages and bills. There are more poems being written than ever before but less people are reading them. Facebook and Twitter seem to have taken over from intelligent reviews as a way of forwarding new work. You implied in a previous answer that you'd had some bad experiences with publishers: what's your view of the current scene and where do you locate yourself within it (if at all)?
  You are damned right about the competent unlived-in poems people churn out. I knew we were all doomed when I saw you could get a doctorate for a volume of verses - to be judged by whom? By your lecturers? The only test of poems is whether or not you can find a real publisher willing to chance his arm on your work. This academic rubbish spills over into reviewing. Most poetry book reviews seem to be written by postgraduate students, in thesis language to boot. Hence no honest opinions, just a lot of linguistic flannel. (When did you last see a carefully honed hatchet job on some insipid volume or other? Everybody is watching their back.) Facebook and Twitter are grim organs of language destruction. Poetry evolves over time, in silence, with care.
   I don't really care for the current scene at all. The atmosphere reminds me of the theatrical world, where everyone is a 'luvvie'. I was at an Eliot prize giving not very long ago where the winner read from the winning book to a hushed audience a very bad poem. (I looked it up later in Foyles to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was, and I was right.) The poem was warmly applauded and I went round asking people what they'd thought of it. Most said they hadn't been listening.
   This ain't a scene I want to belong to.
   When Matthew Sweeney and I wrote our book 'Teach Yourself Writing Poetry' we were struck by a table concocted by Mick Imlah when he edited Poetry Review. It was a ranking list, putting poets in descending order of fame and glory (and achievement?), starting with Heaney, or was it Hughes, at no.1 and working down. This 'top ten' idea runs counter to our notion of how poetry might be part of any national culture. I don't know whether Imlah intended it as a joke or not. At any rate we amused ourselves with the idea that if we bumped off all the poets ahead off us in the league table, we'd end up Number One Poets. That gave us the idea for Death Comes For The Poets and started us on writing a novel. It began as a joke - but then we started to take it seriously, develop the characters etc.
    You mention the famous Coalition. Why is there no poetry (that I can see) conducting any kind of ferocious rearguard action against the imbecile politics of the Tories?
Can I ask you to say a little more about Death Comes to the Poets, an intriguing spoof-whodunit which I'm surprised hasn't reached a wider audience. Firstly, how did you and Matthew Sweeney come to collaborate together in the first place, since your partnership also produced the excellent guide-book 'Writing Poetry' we spoke of before, certainly the best of its kind? Secondly, how did the two of you go about composing a whole novel eg. did you each write sections/passages and then assimilate them, or was it a sentence-by-sentence negotiation all the way? I love the way the novel parodies both certain species of UK poets and certain familiar styles: did you and Matthew have particular figures in mind as you wrote ie, is there a sense in which it's a roman a clef? Not to give the plot away, but surely the ending leaves the dot-dot-dot of a possible follow-up ...any plans in that direction?
    In the eighties I invited many British poets to Berlin to give readings. When Matthew Sweeney came we struck up a conversation about the craft of poetry which has been going on ever since. I suggested we should write a book together and at the same time the Hodder Teach Yourself people got in touch with Matthew  and asked if he'd be interested in writing a primer for poets, so everything came together rather well. We saw the book as a continuation of our conversation, and that was the tone we aimed for. We used a cassette tape to monitor our own discussions because we'd get so interested in what we were saying we'd forget to write things down. We wrote almost everything together, line by line. We had to do it that way if we were going to sustain the talky nature of the thing.
    It wasn't so easy to apply this technique to the writing of the novel. It was still a sentence by sentence negotiation, but a lot more fraught. I can still hear Matthew sighing and saying: 'It's just not plausible, John.' Some of my suggestions were probably a little wild. We did and didn't have certain characters in mind when we wrote. Death Comes For The Poets isn't a roman à clef, but some characters are types or composites. I leave it to the reader to decide who the characters might be in real life. We were disappointed that so many publishers turned the book down. A typical response was: 'Great story, pity about the poetry.' And yes, there might be room for a follow up - but first of all the book has to reach that wider audience you mention. By the way, we will be reading together from the book at the London Review of Books Bookshop on 12th November, 19.00


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tagore in Shoreditch

Original Manuscript of Gitanjali in Bengali and English
 from the exhibition 'Tagore's Universal Allegories' by Anna Boghiguian and Goshka Macuga at the Iniva Gallery, Rivington Place, Shoreditch


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Forward Prize Winners

   Unlike last year's unexpected recognition of Jorie Graham and Denise Riley, there were no surprises at the Forwards last night with Michael Symmons Roberts' Drysalter winning Best Collection and Emily Berry's Faber debut Dear Boy getting Best First:
  I was an admirer of Corpus in particular but I have the sense as time goes on that Symmons Roberts is writing the same poem over and over again: and wasn't that "urge to find the immanent in the ordinary material world" an over-familiar trope in the first place? In this Guardian poem, from the predictable Biblical title on ('Through a Glass Darkly'), you can see the prize-winning qualities of what's held to be "real poetry": the reverential Burnsidean tone, the parsing of vague spiritual intimations onto a natural landscape in a way that's actually never far from a kind of pathetically-fallacious melancholy ("I pray for days like these"),the neatly-spaced inventory of metaphors and the clincher of a last line, snapping closed the poem's nebulous Pascal's Wager with a textbook, stars-as-heaven cliché.
    Come back Jorie Graham, we need you!