a:link { text-decoration: none; color: #blue; } a:visited { text-decoration: none; color: #blue; } a:hover { text-decoration: none; color: #6ECDEE; } a:active { text-decoration: none; color: #6ECDEE; }
<Previous      Next>
Kiki Petrosino:
Quick, Dan, name as many contemporary British poets as you can. I’ll start the stopwatch.

Dan Rosenberg:
What? Sorry, I was napping. In my dream I was flying over the Atlantic. I had Long Island in my tail feathers (maybe I was an osprey?) and in front of me was nothing in particular. Just a vague yet very conventional cloud. Anyway, I can name eleven contemporary British poets and Transom contributors off the top of my head right now, plus, you know, some Irish folks, but I feel like I’m not answering your real question.
 
KP:
The real question is why we, as American poets, aren’t more aware of what’s happening on the UK scene. I mean, we share a language and a great deal of literary heritage. We should hang out -- if not in person, then surely in each other’s magazines, journals, and anthologies. While a few of the most celebrated British names – Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Geoffrey Hill – get through, I’m curious about the newer, emerging voices over there. What do you think?

DR:
I hear you. Maybe it’s related to the reason why many Americans outside of the poetry world don’t know much about poetry, period. As a product of a good public school, I can still remember being force-fed poorly-taught buckets of Wordsworth, the least sexy parts of Byron, contextless Tennyson, etc. Maybe that early unpleasantness, which I overcame only thanks to great teachers in college (who introduced me to almost exclusively American poets: their friends, immediate predecessors, and influences), is at least part of an explanation? I don’t know. What inspired your interest in the UK poetry scene, Kiki?

KP:
Before traveling to London in June 2012, I didn’t know much about the UK literary “scene” at all – in my imagination, the Inklings are still meeting in some corner of the Eagle and Child pub in St. Giles, Oxford. Beyond that? Pure question marks. So, in the short month I spent in London, I set out to meet as many young poets as possible. To be more specific: I attended the BroadCast New Poets Festival during part of my stay; it’s a three-day poetry extravaganza that takes place at a couple of pubs around the city. Organized by editor-poets Roddy Lumsden and Emily Hasler, the festival drew standing-room-only crowds on all three days. A big accomplishment when you consider that the city was also running an international poetry celebration as part of its runup to the Olympics. I was surprised by the level of pure excitement that preceded literary events in London – I felt a kind of electricity in the air that, in the States, is usually reserved for rock shows or movie premieres. What was most surprising to you in the work of the eleven poets we’re featuring in this issue?

DR:
What most struck me was something like what Wittgenstein called family resemblance happening among these poems. Within what might be construed as a family – descendents of the traditional sonnet, for instance – there’s such diversity: Emily Hasler’s ekphrastic “The Animal in Motion” (with elongated lines, but the recognizable stanzaic structure and a rhyming couplet at the end!) sets the stage for John Canfield’s anagrammatic revamping of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX, which bumps up pleasurably against Edward Mackay’s 14-line, caesurae-filled “But Still There Are Days.” A similar story holds for poems that are energized by a sense of voice as legacy: Nia Davies’s suggestively autobiographical “History of Our Bookishness” informs Sarah Howe’s more scholarly sense of inheritance in “Human Marks.” Many of these poets seem to be operating within, or tangentially to, some shared obsessions or concerns that they each approach in wonderfully idiosyncratic ways.

KP:
Agreed. One of the most exciting aspects of co-editing this issue has been uncovering the beautifully idiosyncratic ways that each poet approaches the blank page.

DR:
Now, since you asked me about these British poets, who you brought to my attention, let me ask you this: How do you see Claudia Keelan’s translations of the trobairitz, which I brought to you, fitting in with this crowd?

KP:
I admire the recklessness with which Keelan handles the saucy, backtalk-y diction of these feudal wives (“should I hitch with that boy in the hood/or stay solo?”).  Her translation foregrounds the fact that these twelfth- and thirteenth-century women poets were, essentially, teenagers rapping about life and love. The British poets we have included in this issue are much more reserved in diction and choice of subject matter. But there’s no way we can read John Canfield’s anagrammatic sonnet and NOT take that with a dollop of sauce: “My revolt/tastes hot, tangy with crimson. Hang the ink, etc.”  In a real sense, these newer UK poets are engaging with canonical texts in similar ways to how Keelan approaches the trobairitz. Canfield literally moves Shakespeare’s text from past to present through his anagram procedure.

Speaking of making old things new, Dan, what did you think of our contributors’ responses to the Ezra Pound question in our Notes section? I feel that we’ve been politely yet resoundingly spanked on this one!

DR:
Yes, and thanks for that, Brits! I love April Pierce’s notion that the American poetic tradition privileges “Whitman and his motley crew” – which suggests to me a kind of renegade or outsider aesthetic (Whitman as cowboy poet?) that’s absolutely in line with the typical American fantasy about what it is to be American.

KP:
But ironically, that “outsider” image coincides with the mixed critical response Whitman received in the US during his lifetime. It wasn’t until Modernism, when Pound framed him as “America’s poet,” that his transgressively “renegade” verse gained attention as particularly “American” in scope. Whitman is the ultimate outsider-turned-insider, in some ways.

DR:
Yeah, it’s like our “experimental tradition” – American poetry seems to love its oxymorons. Perhaps Edward Mackay gave us the most generous reading for our admittedly reductive question, trying to make it a better question before answering it when he suggests that Americans got Pound and the British got Eliot as “the great modernist presiding spirit.”

KP:
Absolutely. And can I say something else about the UK poets I met? They are unfailingly generous. Not only did they welcome me to their readings, they reached out afterwards, in friendship. There were several late-night conversations in which we compared favorite poets and books of poetry, and in which we discussed what it means to be a poet in our respective countries. Valuable exchanges, all.

DR:
I’d like to think that generosity is something that can be found in abundance in the American poetry scene, too. We’re an odd crowd, but generally a mutually-supportive one. And maybe that’s why Roddy Lumsden’s comment that defying certain traditions would consign UK poets to a “niche readership” struck me as surprising: the notion of poetry having anything but such a readership is strange to me. But I think most American poets tend to embrace the niche, to understand that our audience is mostly each other, but that’s not so bad. After all, there are tons of us, and we’re a loud, boisterous, thoughtful … and yes catty, nepotistic, back-biting … community.

KP:
Maybe the difference lies in what readers of UK poetry expect. All I have is anecdotal evidence, but it seemed that poetry appeared in public spaces around London in ways that we don’t see in the U.S. I’m talking about snippets of poetry on billboards inside the Tube; passengers reading trade paperbacks on the bus; Seamus Heaney reading to a packed crowd at the Southbank Centre (which crowd cheered when he began to read “Digging”). The UK public appear familiar with verse, ready to embrace a new poem, yes – but delighted to recognize something of the tradition in it, as well. I should also add that Roddy reads widely across literatures, making sure to include a variety of American poets in his teaching. He’s also invited a few emerging and mid-career American poets (including myself) to read in the UK. We need valuable ambassadors like him to strengthen the bridge between our two literatures. Maybe Transom 5 can play some small part in that effort.

DR:
Yes, I was grateful to see Dai George confirm and complicate the point that you started our chat with: that though over in the UK, “the coolest names to drop are Americans,” we Americans don’t seem terribly aware of what’s going on over there. I’m glad we’re contributing to rectifying that situation here.

KP:
Exactly. What I hope Transom 5 accomplishes is to remind American poets that we haven’t cornered the market on “cool.” Not by a long shot! We should be paying attention to the myriad ways that our UK counterparts are unfolding their relationship to our shared language. I would say that both American and UK poets are responding – with care, playfulness, and enthusiasm – to the pressures of tradition. Let’s shine a spotlight on just a few poets from the UK who are doing this in unforgettable, inspiring ways.