BLP: You see creativity as moving things round, I
think? Trying it, seeing what happens. Starting with everyday life: what you
see and feel, experience (as in regard to rites of passage, eg); what you
read and what you think as well as whom you meet and respond to or come up
RML: I don't think I'd be alone in seeing my writing as a synthesis of what I
experience. I like to think my work also focuses on language itself, which I
believe is really how we experience, and indeed even create, the world around
us. We can't possibly write about what we haven't in some way experienced or
encountered - even when we write fiction we can only draw on that.
How do you see creative 'play' working for the artist/writer?
I'd see it as learning to handle the stuff they use to make what they make.
Playing with words, syntax, rhythm, visual layout for a poet all helps the writer understand how language
works. I also see play as part of what I do, and playfulness.
Eliot talks about finding the objective correlative to
channel/embody/utilise the initial emotional impetus by shifting it into
something else and finding a form for it (or allowing it to find its own
form), at which point it may become 'art' or 'artefact'.
It is not unlike what the sculptor (Hepworth, perhaps) does with a block of
stone, a pattern of seaweed, a pile if pebbles. It can be the found thing. But I am thinking more of the way
we use experience as a starting block for ratiocination and application,
producing something very different from it, but based on it, perhaps sparked
by it. You find things and move them around. Play, try trial and error, but
combined with analysis and reflection; making a long list of possibilities as
it were, as a chess player might, then sorting out what works best for you.
It seems to work for you.
Yes, I'm interested in pattern and form.
The shapes I've invented or borrowed for my poems don't strike me as that
much different from traditional rhyming or syllabic forms. I often use visual
shape, word and line count, or alphabetical devices to structure my poems.
I'm not that concerned with 'play' beyond the fact that I find language
pliable and exciting medium, one which I think a lot of people ignore the
You read a great deal, all the interviews with you bring that out; and you
think about it, relate and associate; give us a good many references,
implicit or noted. This can be great but I remember Gavin Ewart once
cautioning me against the use of too many proper names and references in
one's poetry. He felt it could create a barrier, deny access to some readers
and create a private world. We can none of us read everything and we can feel
second rate and marginalised by the sense of being 'unlearned'.
Let me stop you there! I put books down
as 'sources' in my recent books simply as a kind of nod towards acknowledging
where I have often found phrases or ideas, not as any way of showing off.
The whole purpose of our art is to touch common chords, is it not?
No, I don't go along with that. That seems the way to lowest common
denominator poetry; and I've no time for rhyming doggerel or such like, which
is where that path ends.
You don't go in for the bardic idea, then, that the scop or
minstrel crystallises the aspirations, griefs, rites, celebrations of the
community? Admittedly not too many poets perform this function today in
western society, partly because the religious and cultural consensus of
earlier centuries has broken up.
I think you've kind of answered your own question, because I don't think the
poet fulfils this role any more. I suspect our comedians or pop stars are
today's minstrels and bards, not the poets. Poetry has become something else;
society has changed. Having said that, I'd probably argue that what good
poets write of course reflects the society they are part of and the world
they live in - it can't do otherwise. But our world is fragmented and less
communal than ever before, which may be why we need lots of different types
of writing and song.
I'd be with Christopher Ricks in seeing Bob Dylan as a contemporary
bard, but one might also cite Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney in an Irish
context and, admittedly a few years back, the New Zealanders A.R.D. Fairburn
and James K. Baxter. (This leaves open the meaning of 'western' if it is not
music or film but society! As an old timer myself, I'll settle for The OK Corral and what I used to hear on
Folk on 2. That's misleading, of course, because it's nostalgia, largely, and
not dealing with contemporary society at all, yet can embody myths which
still pack potency.)
I'm afraid I don't know the New
Zealanders but the Irish poets you mention may function in that way, yes. You
probably agree that Irish culture is different? Also, is there a difference
between being popular and bardic? I mean Les Murray is certainly touted as
being popular in Australia, but I'm not sure he functions in the way you
suggest in your original question. Dylan is interesting, too, and certainly
is still popular - though more with the over 40s I think. Isn't his work to
do with song though? I mean
it's his words and music together
that make his work important (or not). I can't see his lyrics as great poetry
I'm afraid, although they certainly tap into some big themes and stories. But
I wonder if they don't work in this mythical wild west way anyway? The idea
of the frontier man, the rebel, the outsider, somehow having knowledge of
society yet being apart from it? Anyone with a romantic streak is still drawn
toward this outsider role, aren't they? Most poets in fact!
However, I think you are right about cultural consensus being broken up, or
not exisiting, so that it's very hard for one person, or music group or
whatever to speak for all. In fact Dylan has never spoken for all, he just
spoke for a lot of people - if one was being cynical one could argue that
that was fashion and hype as much as talent or relevance. Even Ted Hughes
lost the plot a bit as Poet Laureate didn't he? Simply because many people
aren't the slightest bit interested in the royal family or such like. And of
course when events such as 9/11 happen which do provide a consensus of
opinion, or certainly a media event, for most of the population, it seems
that the arts are somehow inappropriate or not up to the enormity of the
Great answer, if I may say so! Yet I do sometimes feel with your
work that I'm solving a crossword puzzle. In your attention to syllables and
words, the letters that compose them, and the words' meanings, ideas and the
response to experience can be lost. Maybe it's the way your critics discourse
about semantic and morphological empathy, surrealist ethnography and the
All I'm trying to do in my recent work is order and shape ideas, but also
allow the reader to construct their own poem. I think my structures reflect
the way we think, which isn't in a linear fashion, but by skittering all
overt the place, in a strange network of leaps, bounds and regressions. My
poems hover around and above a theme or idea, throwing associative matter,
themes, ideas and images into a patterned whole, and - hope - slowly allowing
the poem and reader to move along.
But I'm not interested in dictating something, even 'telling', the reader
something. That seems to me to somehow hold the author up as having something
to say; I'm more interested in discussing and sharing something with the
I think you make it sound much more academic and difficult than my work is.
It's a poetry of association and images, not some difficult avant-garde work.
I have to say when I read the new work at readings people don't seem to have
a problem with it, simply because I don't present it as problematical. I
think my work is concerned with the same themes my writing always has been;
it simply goes about dealing with it in a different way.
I don't feel we poets have any 'need' to do anything. Poets and writers make
things with language; that's what poets do. I'm not a lecturer, philosopher
or storyteller, I'm a poet and I'm interested in exploring this marvellous
thing we use everyday called language.
Your poems on your father are very moving. Is there not something
about their style as well as their subject from which something is to be
learned? And not only from your involvement/engagement, arguably?
Yes, they are moving. Yes, I admire their simplicity and clarity. It's not,
however, what I'm interested in achieving at the moment, or how I write
anymore. They seem like poems by someone else. I've written about death more
recently, and used the way I write now to do so, in a - I believe - just as
moving way. They strike me as somehow too confessional and experiential -
that the narrator/poet has something important to share, and the reader
empathises and is moved by them. They are genuine, heartfelt poems, and I'm
glad people like them, but they aren't mature Rupert Loydell poems.
Having said that, they and other poems about death and dying, are in a book
manuscript, The Smallest Deaths,
which is currently out looking for a publisher.
'Fool's Paradise' and the sequences in Frosted Light still please me a lot, though I have read
them over many years of course, and they needed getting into at the time.
'Dark Angel' and 'Quartet', for example, still seem to me very good indeed -
and you were only 21 and 27 then! They are short but create sequences that
shimmer and involve the reader, seem both exciting and to speak where we all
are in question and feeling. Yet have their own order.
You still stand by these sequences, I think, but in what way do you think
you've improved, matured and shifted, experimented, since then? Are there
other words than those you yourself would have put in this question?
Actually I think I see those as almost juvenilia. 'Dark Angel' seems to me to
rely far too much on Ted Hughes' Crow book for form and inspiration; I prefer 'Quartet', which was
interesting to write, drawing as it did on various themes and ideas, and
looking to the small poems of people like Robert Creeley for inspiration.
I think since then I've simply got to understand what you can do with
language more. Andy Brown and Tony Lopez, particularly, one as a friend and
one as an MA tutor, both introduced me to new poets and poetry which totally
shook me up as regards these possibilities. I think I've learnt to allow the
reader to make the poem with the author, and to not try and 'tell' the reader
something. If I have 'something to say' then there are better ways of doing
it than writing poems for the few hundred who might read my work.
I think the important word that's missing from your question is changed. More and more I believe we must be open to
change. Writers must read, explore, try things, open themselves up to
language. Language can befuddle, delight, bemuse, amuse, intrigue, exasperate
- when it's used to tell shaggy-dog type narratives, with some kind of
epiphanic ending, its just dull and boring. I'm still endlessly excited by
writing. I read more and more, buy more and more books, find things online. I
want to find out what other authors are doing, what is possible with this
word stuff we use every day.
You place a high value on the linguistic elements of
the poem artefact yet appear to discount the success of the word-and-sound
play and felicitous verbal effects that (without drawing attention to
themselves) convey the thought/feel so effectively in many parts of
'Quartet'. The clarity-cum-sparseness of certain sections is absolutely
'spot-on' and stands the test of time. One has to move on, yes, but by
denigrating this as 'juvenilia' you could appear to be justifying our friend
William Oxley's tenet that a poet is not the best judge of his own work!
No I don't! I still use all the poetic devices available to me, whenever I
need or choose to use them. I work particularly hard on the sound of my
poems, so I think you're missing something here. Read them aloud! You're also
being slightly disingenuous, as I seem to remember you didn't like 'Quartet'
when it came out - it's taken a long time for you to warm to it! In another
ten years you'll perhaps like what I'm doing now!
Sequences interest you, obviously.
I often write in sequences because I set myself writing projects. Sheila
Murphy encouraged me to think about making poems parts of things, be it short
series, pamphlets or manuscripts, rather than 'occasional poems'; to consider
the bigger picture. So I still often work in sequences. I also find myself
making variations upon a theme, coming at something from several angles, or
wanting to play with a form in all its possibilities, which a sequence
I haven't written another Easter sequence, if the subject matter of 'Quartet'
was part of the question, but I continue to write poems about faith &
doubt, the [im]possibilities of belief today.
Have you thought of adopting personae, as of course you do in 'Dark
Angel', but perhaps in the more direct way that Browning or Clemo might, that
is in a subject's voice as a 'dramatic monologue'? Or one might address some
other person or artist, as I do in my Giacometti sequence?
Well, I learnt a long time ago that the narrator in any poem is usually a
fictional character anyway! I don't trust this idea of the confessional poet
pouring his heart out - he or she has already created something else. I think
a lot of my poems invent personas, narrators; many certainly explore work by
other artists, authors and people. The three 'Ballads of the Alone' all deal
with not only concepts of photography and images, but specific photographers
who are named, and their work. My prose poem, 'Shadow Triptych' explored the
work of Francis Bacon; a recent poem drew on a newspaper story about Bono of
U2 flying home each night from the band's tour to sleep beside his dying
father - people assume the poem is me harping on about my dad again, but it
isn't, it's an assumed voice drawing on a real-life story.
I think if people look there are characters and narrators, explorations of
specified or unspecified people of all sorts, in my work.
'House of Gloom', 'River of Death', 'Further than we Thought', are
moving poems. This kind of honed brevity and surface simplicity suits you and
the reader, and many another poet, I suspect. But isn't easy to write
necessarily. Often one pares it down from a larger draft, doesn't one?
Actually just about all my work gets into shape quite quickly. My editing -
and there are many edits, usually for 2 or 3 months on a daily basis - are
more to do with twitching about small changes: punctuation, line length,
vocabulary and such. I rarely start with a huge poem and then whittle it
down. These kind of poems start small and lean and stay that way.
I know you are drawn to this kind of work, but I want to repeat that they are
written in the same kind of way as what you perceive as my more difficult
work. They are often collaged, they often contain assumed voices, asides, associative
matter, and aren't necessarily to do with me confessing or sharing. They
usually work with or around a core theme or idea - often the result of
something specific [but this may simply be something seen, heard or read
about]. It's usually this idea I want to explore, rather than having
something to tell the reader. I want the reader to explore the theme with me,
be drawn in to a discussion about, say, death, getting older, or the nature
of photography. I want them to enjoy the music, vocabulary, shape, rhythm and
visual presence of the poem - more than any traditional notion of content.
It's true that the more poems show that they are 'human', and are
about some recognizable situation, locale, person or mood, (or use this as a
springboard perhaps), the more they work for me and I can relate to them. The
closely cerebral and analytic, referenced poems seem artificial by comparison
at times, but maybe its me a generational thing, or simply the fact that it
can take time to come to terms with any new work.
Poems can't be human, they are an arrangement of words on the page!
Personally when things get too closely referenced, naming streets or
characters and such, that's when I feel shut out of a poem. I also think
people use such notions as a kind of emotional shorthand, invoking Dickens,
Chaucer, Francis Bacon, who/whatever, instead of attempting to invoke or
evoke the emotion anew.
None of my poems are 'referenced' in a kind of academic way. The books I
read, and I do read a lot, are an important part of the way I navigate
through [or get lost in!] the world around me. They are simply part of what
gets shaken down into my writing. I tend to think of myself as a sieve with
lots of 'stuff' [books, experiences, art, music, correspondence, events, etc]
put in the top, then shaken thru into the poetry I write. There's no formal
sense of doing research or finding out about things for a poem - my poetry is
What determines the value of a work of art is the degree of its
'inner necessity', Kandinsky says. And the degree to which we stick with it;
don't give up too soon, get off the train too soon - as he puts it in a
marvellous image - but keep pushing it around as we know Beethoven and
Picasso did (and Yeats and Dylan Thomas, for that matter), not being
satisfied too easily.
I'm not sure we can value art in this
way. A poem or painting may be important to us at a certain point in time, or
for a specific place. I'd rather hear Roger McGough being funny if I have to
go to a poetry reading than endure most poets reading what has been made for
the page, but it doesn't mean I think Roger is the best poet on the page; I
might not want to spend much time with his work at home. How can a poem tell
us how long it's maker has spent on it? There are criteria we can use to
discuss and explore a poem or painting, but for me they don't usually involve
content as a starting point, and there is little point in, for instance,
applying the wrong rules to something that has been made. No point in wanting
end-of-line rhyme in a concrete poem, for instance.
I think we have to start with the notion that what we are offered to read or
look at has been made with the best intention, and that every
mark/colour/gesture, every word/phrase/line/poem is as the painter or poet
has chosen. We can then start criticizing, but all too often we are actually
dealing with taste and what interests us at any given moment.
At the moment I'm interested in sequences of linguistically-innovative poems.
I am exploring Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Drafts, Robert Sheppard's 20th Century Blues, Tony Lopez's radical sonnet sequences in False
Memory. Then again, I've just discovered
the work of rob mclennan in Canada, who works in a much looser - or seemingly
looser - way, which has given me some new things to think about: the shape a
poem might take, for instance, on the page. Ten years ago I was reading
something else; ten years down the line, I'll be reading something else
again. The work I've just named will no doubt still be on my shelf, but it
may not have the same importance to me it currently does.
I don't think notions of genius, or a set canon, are at all helpful. What we
perceive as 'great works of art' are all to often bound up with fashion,
gender, race, money and such, usually in an historical way. That doesn't mean
Picasso isn't an important painter; it does mean we only know about him and
his work because of various things that have happened which have led to the
value [artistic and monetary] we accord his work and their place in museums.
Sticking or not sticking to something is a personal decision. I am someone
who works hard at what I do, other people write differently - sometimes
keeping first drafts - but produce interesting and accomplished work.
What gets you writing, and who's it for?
I think that I write as a way of sorting out the world around me: noting it,
documenting it, recording it, seeing how it, or I, ticks. I then choose some
of my work to enter the public arena via exchanges and dialogues with friends
around the world, magazines, booklets and eventually books. There is private
work I produce and choose to keep private. Usually because I don't think it's
good poetry, not because it is of a private nature.
The 'Ballads of the Alone' are very strong and spare, actually,
perhaps giving the lie to some of my misgivings about the cerebral distancing
elements. The engagement, the chorus like repetition, works well. But much of
A Conference... might be called
'ghost-writing' it is so dense with allusions and sources.
Well, what's wrong with being dense and full of things? Why can't poetry be
difficult? Surely it might continue to engage the reader and give up new
things each time it's read? Your construct of my poem is probably very
different to someone else's, which I think is brilliant.
Sometimes people make things more difficult than they are though! The first
'Ballads' starts with a very obvious image of the towers collapsing on 9/11;
the poem moves from there to discuss ideas of media and image. The italicised
lines are there to remind the reader this is only language, this is language,
this is how we make sense of the world, how we make the world; the
chorus/refrain reiterates an important point about photography and image.
Around that we can start to deduce strands of argument and discussion. The
whole thing is propelled along by the relentless rhythm of the piece. It
works well at readings, although I often select just a few sections to read.
Do you see yourself as belonging to the establishment or the
outsiders? The big show or the small? In worldly terms the bigger the show we
belong to the better. The Catholic writer and artist has a fair-sized
catchment from which he/she can find readers and common ground, and can draw
images from the liturgy that others of us may lack. Yet the non-Catholic
writer can draw images from quietness, bare walls, a simple meal (say) that
may be equally valid. You regard all this as irrelevant, I expect?!
I don't have any agenda of finding common
ground, I write - indeed, can only write - about what I experience, find and
know. I don't believe I use difficult words or anything that people can't
understand if they want to. I do rather think there has been a huge shift
away from previously established metanarratives in the West towards a more
diverse set of narratives and myths, a much less common common-ground. I
think this simply means we have to think harder if we choose to use images
and myths whether people understand what we take for granted. I am constantly
finding children who don't know the stories of, for instance, Adam & Eve,
Noah's Ark, Jacob's Ladder. On the other hand they know all about Dawali and
it's festival of light. I don't think we can assume that we can use this idea
of common ground as a shorthand any more; we must work afresh and find new
ways to express things.
I think everything is up for grabs as images. Anyone may be moved by the sea,
a quiet room, or a simple meal; that doesn't seem to me to be much do with
liturgy or whether someone is a Catholic or not. It's what the writer does
with those images that counts, surely? In the end all we are left with is the
words on the page in front of us.
As for establishment or outsider, I've worked quite hard to try and tear down
what Andy Brown terms the binary oppositions that are presented to poets at
the moment. Most poets in the UK sell a few hundred of their books, very few
are are establishment in that way at all. Most of us simply want more
readers. I think people have every right to write the kind of poetry they do,
but a lot of it doesn't interest me, and I am tired of people saying 'this is
the only poetry that matters'. I want variety and openness, which is
different from saying I want it all on my bookshelf.
I used to think there were conspiracies afoot in the publishing world, now I
just think there are market forces some people choose to be bound by. I also
know there are fairly obvious routes and ways of getting reviews in various
places - one simply has to buy the right people drinks or talk to them on the
phone often enough, basically attract their attention. If this kind of notice
is important to you then you will go schmooze; personally I prefer to keep in
touch with people around the world and have open, frank and opinionated
discussions about poetry and books.
But obviously I'm as pleased as punch when a major magazine publishes or
reviews my work - but it's not the be all and end all of my ambitions. I also
enjoy successful readings, when the audience is engaged and enjoys what I
offer them. I like it when people buy my books.
Would you agree The Importance
of Being Earnest has no 'agenda', overt or implicit; that it is
'play', purely and see that as its strength?
No, I'd see it as a satire on class and
relationships, which implies critique and mockery. I think it has a comic
agenda also, which uses both visual and written/said puns. It also, as you do
in your question, makes a statement about 'entertainment' and an audience's
expectations and own agenda[s]!
When you feel good (in head, heart or groin) isn't it easier and
quicker to express this in paint - and isn't your excitement fairly easily
felt/shared by the viewer? Why does one write (under the same impulse)? What
is one hoping to achieve? Doesn't the need to be speaking about something get in the way of getting
the emotion/initial impulse anchored/accessible/shared?
I don't tend to write when I feel good,
I'm that cliche melancholic poet. It's easier to write when something upsets
me or moves me negatively. I'm not sure I'd want to express excitement, I'd
want to move beyond that to understanding and a more complex reaction. My
paintings at the moment are pretty small, quiet contemplative pieces by the
way - I think the viewer has to spend some time looking at them to engage.
I suspect many of my poems are the same.
I'm trying to achieve a patterned grouping of words on a page which
synthesizes together something about a subject I am interested in, or moved
by (or both). I don't believe you can use any language and not be saying something, but if you set out to
proclaim or tell people something I think you are in trouble straightaway.
You are in the realms of polemic or propaganda, and I don't like either of
'Concrete' or 'abstract' patterned language texts test their own
capacity to convey ideas and sensations. This you would see as stimulus and
There are ways we can use language
differently which will affect the reader, and make poetry different from
prose or everyday speech. I believe we experience the world through language,
so we can create experience and ideas and sensation in language, because that
is how humans experience the world anyway. But I'm not sure I see my poetry
in terms of sharing or recreating emotion or sensation, its more an
exploration about something, which I hope the reader will create, or
co-create, from the words and lines I offer them. As I've said elsewhere
though, I don't want to dictate merely one simple reaction. I'm interested in
the complexity of the world around us, and the possibilities of language
Writing the fifty 15-line poems of Familiar Territory was a useful discipline/a way of
releasing what you felt/thought/wanted to say/finding and creating
variety/unity/ simply an exercise? Which phrases or others most relate to how
you see it?
All of them except 'simply'! More and more I plan what I want to try and do,
try and think ahead to what I'm producing, rather than write 'occasional
poems'. Even when I do write individual poems I'm constantly thinking about
possible groupings of work into sections or whole books. Sheila Murphy gave a
fantastic seminar at the Arvon course we co-ran, discussing this whole idea
of looking ahead and thinking about what we were writing - is it a pamphlet?
a book? a life's work? a long poem? or what? I've very much taken that on
I enjoyed typesetting Sheila's Stride book and was intrigued by her
vocabulary. So I made a list of fifty words from it, decided on a flexible
form (15 lines offers various possibilities of verse and line groupings) and
wrote the poems. So the titles came first, and the poems came from those
titles. But they are all to do with my life when I wrote them. There's no way
what a person writes can't be! I had a discussion today with someone who was
talking about people writing 'academic poetry', but when pushed they couldn't
name an example. People don't write deliberately obscure, difficult, or
pretentious poetry; they write what they want and we have the right to engage
with it or not.
Wouldn't it have been better to choose your own phrases or ideas?
Than what? I did choose the
titles, I chose every word, phrase and piece of punctuation that went into
the fifty poems. Each and every one of those poems is mine. My ordering, my
words, my phrases - even if they are appropriated phrases, they are given a
new context and meaning because I have put them alongside or with other
phrases. Collage is only a working method, not an end in itself.
In what way does collaborating with others help you realise your
own creativity - those elements that no one else can provide or have?
I love the push and pull of collaboration, the way poems are taken away from
where you think they're going and you have to deal with that. I like being
surprised, I like what the people I work and have worked with do with
language, their ideas and methods. I've learnt to trust what is happening and
'go with the flow'; and I like the discipline of projects underway, knowing
that I have two lines, or whatever, to write to send back to Bob or Roselle
or whoever. That gives a certain sense of urgency or responsibility which
focuses one. And I think writers write, so having projects like this underway
keep the writing going.
You say that Peter Redgrove, for example, has something to say
about faith (and I would say about the inspired character of life per se) in
his poetry without any specific Christian belief. Can you give a few clues as
what you (and he) mean?
I simply mean Peter explored the unseen
and occult, but I believe with a certain detachment and an understanding of
myth, ritual and sociology. These things inform our understanding of faith
and belief; christianity is rooted in myths and stories which have all sorts
of connotations and links to other myths and stories, humankind's history
since time began. If someone is sceptical about something it doesn't mean
they don't understand it. Peter's knowledge about sexuality and the senses,
how we experience the world, I rate as second to none.
He is optimistic, celebratory, would you agree?
Yes indeed. His is a delightful and totally original take on human
experience. A kind of indulgence and wallowing in what many of us simply
don't take note of. And I think he was far more comic and teasing than many
seem to realise, not at all po-faced or dull. He delighted in life and his
interpretation of it, which included invented fantasy, sexuality and ritual.
When you take phrases, words, slogans from magazines, adverts,
songs or overheard conversations or your own notebooks, what is the
associative/integrative process you are aiming at?
It differs I think. I may organise a poem through word count, syllabics, by
the alphabet, by the number of lines, or through a theme or concept. In the
end I think associative is the word - I believe that the phrases and
interwoven language in my poems gradually builds up a web of allusion and
intertextual and imagistic links which the reader can then assemble some kind
of meaning from. That is unlikely to be a narrative or a coherent argument or
statement. It is likely to be open-ended and not offer epiphany or
transcendence as any kind of grand closing statement.
Do you weigh, shape or savour phrases for their sound's sake and to
maximise these sound values (consonance/assonance and the total effect of a
phrase or several phrases) 1. not at all; 2. for its own sake; 3. consciously
but only in service, if not subservience, to the sense?
2 and 3. I rarely ignore the sense of what is being said [and as I said
above, I don't think words ever don't mean anything], but yes I do pay
attention to the music of the poem. Having said that I think many of us have
our own sense of musicality in language. My friend Andy Brown finds a lot of
my poems quite flat and unmusical; I think I hear a different voice in the
poems to the one he does.
As a poet one considers all the possibilities open to us, but different poems
at different times are constructed with a different main focus. Some poems
pay more attention to what is being said than how it is being said, others
are organized visually, others musically. I read all my poems out loud,
although I write mainly for the page.
A writer like David Miller uses words and phrases sparingly; rather
like Robert Lax's words are spaced on the page. This makes them count,
arguably, more than in a henrun of verbiage. How do you feel about that, and
how does it relate to your own approach?
I think at the moment the 'tesserae' that
David offers the reader interests me more than his minimal approach. But I
respect the care and precision of David's writing especially. Robert Lax's
work I feel is more playful, and focuses our attention on the few words he
has chosen, and the arrangements of those words on the page.
I think I'm working quite differently from Lax, certainly; both authors were
probably far more of an influence a few years back, when I corresponded with
In your 'Ballads of the Alone' the refrain works to firm up the
structure and to build an edifice against what destroys? Would you agree - to
the first point anyway? If to the second, I presume it was instinctive,
subconscious, but no less valuable for that?
Actually it's there to firm up the structure but also the content. It
constantly makes the same statement, and gets the reader questioning how the
parts of the poem interrelate on the given theme. They are a kind of
footnote, a reminder, a constant throughout. I don't see the Ballads being
about what destroys though, they are poems discussing photography, faith
& doubt, and our perception/representation of the world.
Do you give time to writing and painting pretty equally, these
I'm more of a writer these days, my domestic life means I write more than
paint. But I still do both.
Does the one influence the other and, if so, how?
It's pretty indirect I think. Like the
music that I listen to, I often feel that I absorb ways of working, the shape
and composition of art, the structure of work, more than anything. I rarely
explore the same things in my paintings and poetry at the same time, nor
write from/about my paintings or vice versa. But I do feel that the way I
write at the moment is much more how I paint than it used to be - I treat
language and paint in similar ways, as very pliable and fluid mediums.
Have you thought of writing some prose: non fiction on art, say, or
'theology' or something down to earth? Or fiction? I man as a change from
poetry when you feel like writing something of responding to something but
are not dramatically inspired? I share the work-ethic idea, but perhaps one
should vary the genre, so as not to risk going stale. In your case the
painting does this perhaps?
I think the collaborations and set projects do it for me actually. I also
write reviews and articles, remember, and prose poems, which I regard as
something quite different, too. I have never managed to write sustained
prose, I'm simply not interested in narrative enough. And I don't want to
reduce this idea of writers writing to 'work ethic', its more to do with
their engagement with language, which might only mean 5 minutes writing a
day. It would certainly mean lots of reading though!
Have I read you literary response to Italy?
Probably not. Although there is a poem in
'Fool's Paradise' about Florence and also one about Venice; and there are
some Italian poems hidden in A Conference of Voices. But I don't feel obliged to document every place
I visit! And when I go to Italy I'm on holiday and as I said being happy and
relaxed doesn't make for good poetry.
Plenty of poems around directly about the
cathedral and the city itself; numerous others drawing on where I live.
Recently a long poem on the Stride magazine website about The Well House, the pub on Cathedral Green,
with a riposte by Neil Annat - the Stride designer who is a writer too - also
on the site.
River/cathedral/Exeter book/postal black spot - goodness, the
pieces practically write themselves, per Roy Fisher or David Jones. Life at
Exeter Central? Roy Foydell? Rupert Exe? Latimer Fish? It's late, forgive me!
All I can say is I rarely write about things in this way. The river here
seems much like any other river, and although the cathedral is beautiful it
doesn't make me want to write about it. I don't feel engaged with the city
particularly. Even since I've lived here it has become more and more like any
other place, with the same shops in the high street, and a familiarity and
smallness I find quite tedious in contrast to real cities such as New York or
Do maths, science or astronomy influence your work? The idea of the
I don't think any of those directly feed in. I feel things such as
psychology, philosophy, theology, sociology and chaos theory have all changed
the way we perceive the world, which means we must reassess how we write
about them. If we understand to any extent the way we navigate our way
through the world, then surely it will mean we have to change our writing to
suit? I find the concept of linear narrative, for instance, strangely
inappropriate for our complex world; ditto the straightforward confessional
poem with some kind of neat epiphanic ending.
You won't give up the confessional/narrative poems, will you? They
will be the better, though, for your linguistic experiments.
In a way I think I have. The poems you see in this way I know I have often
written using the same processes as what you regard as more experimental
work. I am very aware that the narrator of my poems is not the author of the
Your writing has attracted its due share of jargonised specialist
criticism. This has the potential to be distracting, especially if a
writer/subject allows his or her work to be pushed in that direction.
I think like all 'jargon', or what gets accused of being jargon, there are
things to consider. Firstly it's a specialist language, which doesn't make it
pretentious, just something we need to find out about if we are interested in
the subject it applies to. It's simply a kind of shorthand for discussing, so
we don't have to keep explaining and re-explaining things.
Secondly, just as one doesn't expect to learn a foreign language without
applying oneself, so why expect to immediately understand different
linguistic and critical fields? Having said that I don't think anyone has
written particularly turgidly or incoherently about my work. Personally I
find it useful to have intelligent feedback.
How would you define 'surrealist ethnography' in the poetic
context? ('Scientific study of races' doesn't get us very far?)
I wouldn't. I think it's a surrealist term in itself. But you obviously know
what ethnography is, or have looked it up and do now, so I'd like you to think about how that might work in a surreal
manner. This seems to me an obvious example of where I have invented, or
appropriated, a term I find intersecting, or amusing, and want the reader to
conjecture the implication.
Juxtaposition/association of previously unrelated concepts remains
the bedrock of a post-futurist-surrealist art, I posit. Discuss.
I wouldn't want to be associated with futurism, which seems to me implicitly
fascist; and I'm not actually a great believer in much of surrealism once it
wanders into dreams and the subconscious. I simply think juxtaposition and
association is actually how the human brain thinks. Instead of trying to
present the reader with an answer, I'm interested in asking questions,
meeting the reader earlier on in the thinking process. Working together to
Post- or whatever terms are only handy labels. But humankind does regularly
find out more about how we think, why we do what we do, and what/why we can
understand about ourselves. This affects the arts, the sciences, the media;
everything. We can't pretend the world isn't different, or at least our
understanding of it hasn't changed. I'm interested in trying to make poems
that think about how we think.
As for bedrock, well I think with the invention of film, our traditional
understanding of narrative was taken away. We began to understand [and this
is obviously present in Joyce and Beckett, and in a more populist way
Katherine Mansfield] narrative fragmentation and reject closure. We
understand that we see the world in a fragmented way, not a linear way; and
being aware of our minds flicking from thing to thing almost encourages us to
think more obviously in that way, so media starts to work in that way, and on
it goes in an ever-closing cycle.
This doesn't mean traditional novels or poems can't and aren't written; it
probably means though that if we are thinking people then we understand 'Once
upon a time .../ ...happily ever after' stories as artifice. And of course we
have actually seen the popular novel change - look at the success of someone
like David Mitchell with his interlinked narratives. What you could perhaps
argue is that it has taken the general public and mainstream critics a lot
longer to accept some of these things in this country than in, say, Europe.
It seems to me we are a lazy and conservative nation. Only now does it seem
we are finally seeing the shake up of canons and lists to finally get to see
and read the important poetic works that have been going on for forty or
fifty years in the small presses. (I'm thinking of work by poets such as
Allen Fisher, Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood)
I was thinking of Boccioni's
States of Mind triptych - 'Farewells', 'Those who go', 'Those who
stay' - with its simultaneous viewpoints and a synpathy for the human
condition of his (and perhaps our) day. I can't see this as anything but
original and reverberating art; anything but a political statement!
Well I think all art has a political context, but I would see the Boccioni
paintings as having a lot more to do with cubism than futurism, with ideas of
multiple viewpoints rather than the supremacy of machinery and power. It is
perhaps where futurism has
become diluted, and moved on from the rather fascist manifestos it
issued? I mean, even the titles of the triptych paintings alert the viewer to
the human presence as the subject matter. As you know, I saw one version of
the triptych in Madrid, and very much enjoyed them. I remember alerting you
to the fact that Tim Liardet had also used the work and some of the ideas in
the paintings in his God of Rain
book, as you did back in the 60s in your 'States of Mind' sequence when you
were first struck by cubist, surrealist and futurist art.
Your work in A Conference of
Voices perhaps has something in common with the cubists and, in
passing, with Tim Liardet, in the way you use multiple voices and viewpoints?
Yes, I suppose so, although I think Liardet seeks more resolution in his
poetry than I do: I find his work still rooted in self-expression and
narrative closure, whereas my work remains more open and fragmented. I think
Liardet drew on certain aspects of Boccioni's work: the quotes Liardet has
used as epigraphs show Boccioni's interest in humanising machinery and in
turning the dynamics of both movement and sensation into 'quasi musical
harmony'. There's a sense here of trying to create order out of disorder, a
unity out of the various, which I certainly think is part of my work.
Similarity in difference (variation in unity, the recurring if
altered motif) is a crucial and formative notion. The composer does it all
the time. We see it in my own Victoria
Hammersmith and Goldhawk
Variations, if I may say so. We see it of course in human beings,
and in what we experience when we travel to different countries and/or cities.
Perhaps the ethnography comes in here?
The world is certainly more homogenized that when I first entered it. High
streets are the same, cities are more and more alike, the small shop and
hidden corner hardly exists any more. Mall culture has hit Britain big time!
But on the other hand it is easier and easier to contact people via email,
and have critical dialogue around the world, easier than ever to publish a
book, or get people to read your poems (which isn't the same as selling a
Your novels seem to me different from the networks of meaning we have been
discussing. Victoria Hammersmith
seems to be an episodic novel, where meaning accrues as we understand and
discover more and more about the subject. We also discover that she may not
be remembering correctly, so the narrative is questioned from both within and
without. Goldhawk Variations is
similar in some respects, but also draws on the idea of the musical
variation. But it is obviously clearly planned and worked over, it isn't - to
take a musical analogy - the chance operations of John Cage; it's still
working within mainstream composition.
The city is an interesting metaphor for poetry. I wouldn't want to push the
notion of ethnography much further though!
We've both recently read Cole Swensen's online article 'Poetry
Do you agree with her that collage, juxtaposition, variation within
unity/continuity, are crucial elements, together with pattern and sound
phrasing in relating to the city, as is dashing movement, break up,
remoulding, noise, confusion of scale and movement? is it this city-muse that
you are aiming at, or something like it?
Well, it would rather be like fitting something to a mould afterwards, but
yes it's a very useful article and idea. I certainly thrive on city life when
I'm there, and it is the prime example of disjointedness and juxtaposition,
isn't it. Where else do we see people living in such a variety of ways? Where
else is high and low culture seen side by side? Where else does media and
hype and fashion rule, as beggars ask for 10p in front of neon hoardings? As
the countryside becomes emptier and emptier, and towns and villages become
suburbs, true cities seem to be the only real place where people are actually
alive. Otherwise, like me, they order their music and books from the net,
correspond via the net, and occasionally venture out to a homogenized pub or
cafe to meet a few friends.
Is displaying the different person types of the city more important
than or as important as the language and style?
No. I don't write about person types or about physical geography very much
any more, although it's representation might interest me.
Would you emulate Roy Fisher's City
in modern terms, if you could? Perhaps you feel you have?
Well I have you to thank for even knowing about City pretty early on. I think it inspired, or fed into,
led me to, writing some early work about London and Coventry, but I'm not
that interested in conjuring up Exeter for others. That doesn't mean other
people couldn't do it though. But why would one want to emulate something? I
mean read and read and read, yes, get ideas and inspirations, find ways of
working, but I'd want to do something totally different.
Fisher was probably the first author I read who wrote prose-poems, too, which
have become important to me.
So you wouldn't think of writing villanelles, say?
My initial reaction would be a loud 'no'! I couldn't see the point, although
slowing down, one can see there might be a playfulness in the form. Again, I
might want to try and understand what villanelles do and subvert, or
re-invent them. I wouldn't dream of stopping anyone using traditional forms,
it's when people somehow think poems have to do this or that that I get cross
- usually it means they have no understanding of poetry at all, just some
vague notion of end-of-line-rhyme or a wish to self-express. Not to actually
read and write poetry. We're back to language, I think, and finding ways to
play and work with it, and make it work for us. I think it's difficult to
write a villanelle in the 21st century, or a sonnet; it's perhaps becoming
difficult to write like Eliot or Auden - things have changed, including
Juxtaposition of fragments, angles, vignettes, bit like jigsaws
that meet at angles at their edges but, in this case to invite academic
Yes, a jigsaw is a good analogy. Both I, as author, and the reader, assemble the
work. But no, I have no interest in academic exposition. I'm not part of
academic circles and have no particular wish to be - the current academic way
of referencing references about references seems to me in the main tiresome
and unhelpful. I do, however,
enjoying reading about and discussing the whys and wherefores of how people
write. Poetics isn't necessarily 'academic' - plenty of it is perfectly
readable and enjoyable.
How do you pattern your mosaic? Order your (found) dislocation?
Same as all poets do. By theme, association, sound, rhyme, assonance, word
count, syllable count, visually, intuition.
Dislocation mirrors aspects of modern life, certainly. But is it
not the privilege of art to both enjoy itself and bring some order out of chaos, put some pieces
together? Any shaping does this, and can be art for art's sake or not, as you
wish: it is not a case of being didactic.
Yes, I agree. All writers have put together their work, brought order to
chaos. But that doesn't mean it has to 'declare' something. I simply feel
that when people think they have something important to say they are often
deluding themselves, or that poetry isn't the means to do this. Much better
to offer something than declare. Much better to see what language can do -
the word and sound play you mention above, along with every other poetic
device available to the writer.
Dislocation can form elements in a larger framework, of course,
just as in jazz or sonata form music. Or do you resist bringing them into association or under this sort of
Of course not. I'm in total control of what is in my poems. Every poet is.
One of the mistakes people make is by starting with the assumption that an
author doesn't know what they have written. One has to start with the
assumption that everything is deliberate and look for links and music and
form, before criticising. I'm not, of course, suggesting there aren't bad
Emotion must find its parallel, Eliot's 'objective correlative'
concept argues, yet the simplest statement: 'I love, I mourn', touches the
core still for most people. It is a truism that since Eliot's time, if not
earlier, art for one's peers has tended to diverge from the 'popular' or 'I
know what I like' variety. Do we ignore this factor? Or is not just in this
that the art of large-scale piano variations (say) - to which I've referred
earlier - has something to offer us?
The given theme is stated at or near the commencement of the piece; echoed,
hurried or slowed, stated again in some obvious way, in recognisable relation to the
original; restated at the close, usually eloquently, but in between there
come variations which are as distant
from the original in tempo, inversion, phrasing, atmosphere and emotion -
that is, as difficult to identify as having any connection with the original
- as the composer can manage. It is the second element that the composer and
his peers may enjoy most but it is the whole that is significant to the
performer and listener over the years; the whole that satisfies and thrills
us, creates catharsis, in effect; and the whole which appeals to a wide range
of people, and which balances both the recognisable and direct elements and
those that are most distant but which derive from them.
Do you think you do this or something like it; try to achieve the same effect
in your different way (how?), or aim at other goals (which?)?
Well, let's agree to disagree. I think it's very hard even in real life to
use phrases like 'I love you' any more, and on the page I think this kind of
statement is redundant and simply lazy. There is much more to language than
the simple statement, the narrative story or report.
I don't actually think poetry has ever been that popular, and even if it has
been or could be, I think that the supposedly populist stuff being published
today simply proves that it isn't at all interesting for the general public -
it doesn't sell and it doesn't interest many people. Actually the poetry that
interests people is the difficult stuff. Eliot's 'Waste Land' still intrigues
people, as does work by Pound, Olson, Berryman, and many others. It's not the
lightweight stuff C Day Lewis, Betjamen or Larkin offered us.
I think your exposition of piano variations is excellent, and I would
immediately say that something like my 'Ballads of the Alone' pieces do
exactly this - circle and return to their given theme[s], with a very
forceful musical statement in them. What worries me is your use of the word
catharsis. I also want to point out that music is essentially abstract, so if
people actually understand how music works [and I don't think people do, they
look for 'tunes'] then they know how to listen to any kind of music. It's a
familiar problem though: people look at art for the story it tells, poetry
for the content. If people bothered to read widely and understand how poetry
works then we wouldn't have this nonsense about people finding it difficult,
or claiming contemporary poetry is difficult. If people looked at the history
of art and understood the medium of painting, and some of the concepts of
20th Century art, then contemporary art wouldn't be perceived as difficult.
[Not that I think music or art or writing should necessarily be easy.]
Do you see yourself as conversing with your reader; talking,
declaiming; pouring out a monologue, or something else? Do you have/invent a
specific reader/interlocutor for a particular piece?
I simply write what I want to and offer
it to the readers in journals and books. The work can stand alone and find
its place in the scheme of things. I know there are people out there who
enjoy my work, I have correspondents and friends and contacts around the
world who say so. I also have other correspondents who criticize and
challenge, which is fine. And whenever I read my work aloud I meet new
people, some of whom enjoy the work. But I wouldn't dream of thinking
everyone will, or should, like my work; and, no, I don't write with an
audience in mind, I simply write what I write then think about where it fits
within my work, and where I might place it for publication.
(November 2004-February 2005)
© Brian Louis Pearce & Rupert M Loydell 2005