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Transom:
American poets tend to take Pound’s dictum to “make it new” as a foundational principle, and as a result many of us have a short literary memory. The poetic culture in the UK seems far more conscious of the legacy of centuries of predecessors. What are the pleasures and challenges of contributing your voice to this chorus?

George:
That’s a fair observation on the whole, but I worry that it does a disservice both to American poets, by making them seem ignorant of literary heritage, and British poets, by making them seem hidebound and traditionalist.

I see all these transatlantic questions through the lens of the two years that I spent studying for my MFA at Columbia. I arrived in 2008, at the tender age of 21, having just finished my undergraduate degree in Britain, and I’d only been writing seriously for about three years. My tastes and style had been shaped by a small group of mid-twentieth century British and Irish poets: Philip Larkin; Seamus Heaney and the Ulster poets; Geoffrey Hill at the more difficult end of the spectrum. I think that John Donne, a big crush of mine since I first read him at high school, featured a lot too, giving some poems a weird high diction. My first few workshops at Columbia blew me out of the water, both in the positive sense that they were refreshing and eye-opening, but also in the sense that I was given a bit of a drubbing. Most of my classmates – many of whom would become good friends – thought my work to be traditional, full of received language, overly indebted to narrative and the British canon. I was shocked. I asked my assailants/workshop buddies what their influences were and received an eclectic list of contemporary names I’d never heard of. Partly this was down to meeting serious, engaged, practicing poets for the first time, where previously I had been writing to a narrow coterie of intelligent non-writers (English students, university arts magazine staff, proud family and friends). So at one level it didn’t matter that I was having this experience in America; I might have had it equally if I was on the famous UEA writing course in Norwich. But in hindsight, it’s clear that my new classmates were operating on a different wavelength compared to anything I’ve since experienced back in Britain. There was a thirst for difficulty and formal newness, and a resistance to what I thought at the time to be the simple pleasures of poetry - imagery that referred back to the real world; vignette-like emotional insights; compressed narrative; social solidarity. That sort of stuff.

But I’ll say this: my American friends were no less in love with a canon; it’s just that theirs was different. Wallace Stevens was the presiding saint, and yes, “Make it new” did nicely for a motto (alongside Stevens’s own “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself”). They also surprised me by being supremely versed in the Romantics, Milton, Shakespeare, and most of the older poetry that turned me on as an undergrad. I certainly didn’t witness much short-term literary memory, though maybe in practice theirs had become submerged, its influence more oblique.

This more complex picture cuts both ways, though. As soon as I got back to Britain, and involved myself more in the London young poets scene, I realised that my earlier loves (Heaney, Larkin, etc) were just as unfashionable here as in NYC. Active poets aged between about 20-35 were all finding their own ways to resist, or update, the traditions of the recent past, and many were looking to America for influence, through poets as diverse as Brenda Shaughnessy, CK Williams, Jorie Graham – loads more. It’s almost a truism among my contemporaries that the coolest names to drop are Americans, so I’d put pressure on this idea that there’s a big division. Well, it tends not to be true in the UK’s case; admittedly, most American poets I know are pretty unaware of what’s going on over here. Understandably, some might say.

As you say, when you add your voice to what goes before, there will be pleasures and challenges. The pleasures come in being presumptuous enough to write at all and go up against your heroes. The challenge comes in finding a way not to look puny beside them.

Transom:
What’s happening now in the UK poetry scene that you find particularly exciting – or frustrating?

George:
Had you asked this a few years a go, my answer would be a lot more factional and pessimistic. I’d probably have said that the UK poetry scene was a gerontocracy, with the established and middle aged being ludicrously privileged at the expense of plentiful younger talent. There was indeed a period when the main poetry lists were very skewed towards the over-40s, and my mentor and teacher Roddy Lumsden did a lot to expose and challenge that. Perhaps as a result of Roddy’s campaigning, or perhaps because of natural processes of fruition, that stalemate seems to have shifted over the last year or two. Many poets about my age or a little older have released well received books on major presses – I’m thinking in particular of Ahren Warner, Sam Riviere, Oli Hazzard, Kirsten Irving, Emily Berry, Jon Stone, James Brookes and Andrew Jamison (there will be more). So that’s all very exciting, not least from a personal point of view, as I’m currently readying my own first collection for publication in October with a press called Seren. An 18-year-old starting to write poetry for the first time needn’t feel, any more, that she’s limited to a few webzines and pamphlet series designed for younger writers; the sky is once again the limit, even if only a few will reach it. And there’s a very healthy scene of boutique magazines, cool reading series, blog projects and poetic happenings. I’ve written about it at greater length in an essay for Poetry Wales, which can be read in full on Poetry Daily.

Frustrations are harder to articulate – not because I don’t have any but because I’m wary of giving offence. One thing I will draw attention to is the quality of criticism you see on your daily trawls through the internet. UK poets have grown adept at offering sweeping, State of the Nation addresses, in which they diagnose the rights and wrongs of the poetry ecosystem as a whole, but rather less skilled at paying attention to poems. I’m a firm believer that the real act of criticism happens at the level of the individual poem – the rest, mainly, is noise. Admittedly, I’m guilty of generating some of that noise in the article I link to above, but I also hoped to move the conversation on towards more detailed readings. I’d like to see a blog devoted to close readings of the sort that Tom Paulin carries out in his The Secret Life of Poems, or Ruth Padel in 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem. I think it would cut through a lot of the bullshit and allow us to honour some of the brilliant poetry that is emerging from this younger generation.

Transom:
In “Hymn to Technique,” the speaker is fascinated by the trajectories that objects take as they travel through the air. The image of the “carpenter’s saw,” in particular, resonates for us both visually and sonically. Is it poetry’s function to render visible the invisible?

George:
Thank you for the kind comments. I’m afraid, though, that I’m allergic to talking about poetry as if it had a ‘function.’ Some poetry will excel by rendering visible the invisible, others might work in reverse. I think it would be an exciting challenge to write a poem that rendered invisible the visible.

In all seriousness, though, yes: one of the things that poetry does very well is draw attention to the objects and images that symbolise deeper, more numinous truths. It’s back to TS Eliot and the objective correlative, isn’t it? If my carpenter’s saw does that, then I'll chalk that down as a minor success.