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
Funnily enough, my first reaction to this question was to reverse its
poles – but then I suspect that says more about the exercise of gazing
idealizingly across the fence than it does about reality. My fuzzy
impression was that US poets have a sense of their place in a line of
American poetic inheritance, looking back to progenitors like Whitman,
Dickinson, Stevens, and so on. Perhaps it’s precisely the many
centuries of English literary history that make such a time span harder
to get a handle on. Picking up books of poems being written in UK right
now, I’ll detect echoes that stretch back twenty years in the poetic
memory, or fifty perhaps – that being the period,
aesthetically-speaking, with which our poets seem most urgently in
dialogue. With a few exceptions, the weight of a longer history doesn’t
feel terribly important. It’s hard, too, to think about this question
without thinking about form, and the break brought about by free verse.
But then doesn’t Eliot point out that the adjective ‘traditional,’ with
its whiff of archaeological reconstruction, is seldom a term of praise
when it comes to poetry? For a long time, I consciously kept my
academic work – as a scholar of English Renaissance literature – out of
my writing. It’s started to creep in recently.
What’s happening now in the UK poetry scene that you find particularly
exciting – or frustrating?
I’m happy that the scope of what the poetic ‘mainstream’ will encompass
seems to be broadening. It’s probably a bit early to start talking
about a ‘post-division’ era here, to use a term I’ve spotted in
American discourse. But there are poets around, especially young poets,
who will read Keston Sutherland and Don Paterson, Sharon Olds and John
Ashbery, with equal attentiveness, and without seeking to erode the
distinctness of their projects. It’s not that I would like all
aesthetic antagonisms to disappear, but this new spirit of synthesis
does excite me. Maybe synthesis is the wrong word – openness might be
better, since it would emphasise that poets have to be readers before
they can be writers. Which brings me to my main frustration, namely
that I think we have to be watchful about the quality of reading
contemporary poetry receives. Poetry magazines try hard to keep alive
the culture of poetry reviewing, yet we don’t seem to have enough
really strong critics – voices that can show a generation of poets to
itself, as well as to a wider public. I wonder if prize culture is a
response to that critical gap – though surely seeing the workings is
the whole pleasure of such judgments.
More briefly, things I love about the UK poetry scene now: so
many readings and events, so many poets who are great readers and
performers, a really exciting generation of new poets, pamphlet
culture, irony, collaboration, a growing internationalism, pop-up blogs
and zines. Things that frustrate me: economic squeezing of publishers
generally, lack of slots for first collections, magazine response times
(that’s just selfish though), the fact that any poem longer than two
pages is considered rather suspect, irony.
In “Human Marks,” you offer us a
concrete poem that takes the shape of a medieval manuscript marking.
Within the seemingly strict confines of this typography, spectacular
images (of “flame-buckled books” and “oddly curling ascenders”) abound.
For you, is image a starting point, or a byproduct, of formal procedure?
Image and form come together (uncannily, I’ve always thought) in the
shape poem, but I hadn’t really considered they might be connected in
my other work. Now I come to think of it, some of my forms do have a
visual dimension – a strictly aligned right margin, for example, is a
self-discipline more visual than sonic or metrical. I’ve just finished
a poem about Pound in his traitor’s cage in the US detention camp at
Pisa, where the poem’s monolith-like block, justified left and right,
tells an obvious story about constraint. Indentation is another
example: I often write in a pattern which indents alternating lines –
that form’s restlessness, winding visually down the page, feels like
the motion of thought.
‘Image’ is often the starting point of a poem for me, and I find it
hard to think without them. I have to remind myself that the world is
not purely visual, that vividness will involve the other senses. When
poetry succeeds in evoking that kind of bodily sensation in a reader –
the crackle as you turn a page of vellum – that’s when you start to
appreciate how writing might be a vessel for life and voice: writer and
reader are sharing an experience, even if the former is long dead. In
some ways, that’s what this poem is about – whatever human presence
clings to ink and paper down the centuries, how strong and fragile that
We are fascinated by the twisted fairytale that “Tame” seems to
articulate. Are you inspired by particular storytelling traditions? Do
you feel that poetry is a satisfying vehicle for delivering narrative?
I love ‘twisted fairytale.’ But I have to confess narrative is not a
natural mode for me, or the one I’m most drawn to in poetry today.
(Though without doubt – cf. Homer – poetry is the originary
storytelling medium.) As a reader, I’m generally happier in the realm
of atmospheric, fragmented, imagistic poems, where any narrative is
either submerged or elliptical. But ‘Tame’ is part of a sequence and it
felt right, at that moment in the larger frame, to emerge out of the
surrounding, denser poems into a parable-like clarity. A game of
opacity and transparency, like a windowpane in sunlight. Like me, the
poem is a hybrid affair, though it’s probably closer in spirit to the
Brothers Grimm than Chinese folktales – and the transformations are
straight out of Ovid. Not ‘wild swans,’ but a tame goose.
It weaves into a story various details I’d been reading about at the
time: the ancient Chinese practice of the midwife placing a box of
ashes next to the birthing bed, so the baby might be efficiently
smothered if female. Journalistic reports about Chinese state
orphanages in the 1980s and 90s, populated by abandoned girls and the
occasional disabled boy, arms tied to their highchairs with string. My
family history (my mother was such a given-up Chinese girl baby) made
me want to try to write about what’s been dubbed China’s ‘gendercide.’
I originally imagined this poem as a kind of lyric lament – a lullaby
perhaps, in the voice of the mother laying her bundle down on the
pavement – but I think you can imagine why that poem never got written.