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Answers to some interview questions

I’ve begun to take part in an on-line interview about my intentions and ideas in poetry for Andy Cochrane’s blog/magazine, http://as-I-read.blogspot.co.uk/: (or google Andy Cochrane As I read blogspot.).   I’ll also post it here as it develops, for your possible interest . For me, it gives an opportunity to try to clarify some ideas.

A.C.  I’d like to dive straight into your 2008 collection The English Civil War Part 2 and talk about ‘Postcards from Auschwitz’. The poems in this series share an insidious quality that seems to stem from the naiveté on both sides – Jewish prisoners and German officers. The Jews seem to trust that ‘all may be well’ (where the word ‘may’ is so much more devastating in its uncertainty than had you used ‘will’), while the Germans appear not to be much more clued in to what is going on – ‘My orders come from higher up the line.’ I’m wondering whether it’s denial at work here. Can you talk a little bit about what you hoped to achieve with ‘Postcards’?

K.C. Any poem which tackles this darkest of subjects must somehow mediate between Adorno’s question, “How can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust?” and Santanya’s assertion that “Those who do not remember History are doomed to repeat it.”  I  have tried to evade this contradiction, tried to hint at just some aspects of the experience,  by coming at them from a multiplicity of directions, viewpoints, styles.   About half of these mini soliloquies were written as if from the Jewish victims’ points of view…presumably some believed the official line that they were travelling to a work camp,  many must have sensed the dreadful truth, while others perhaps preferred to be in denial?  Another six or so of these overheard voices were written from a variety of non-Jewish perspectives – the train driver (part 4), the book keeper (part 6) the retired elderly guard (part 10) the Nazi Inspectors (part 5) etc, which mostly emphasise the ordinariness, the routine-ness,  of their contributions to the horror.   The overall design  for this piece was for a spread of voices, tones and styles .  Obviously, the main organising idea/metaphor is that of Postcards (as suggested in part 9) – postcards being brief and partial points of view.  Some may be crying out, some self-exonerating.   Partly this Postcards idea may have been suggested by Craig Raine’s “Postcards from Mars” collection, his “Martian” theory of poetry (1975?) suggesting that well-worn subjects and descriptions can be refreshed by being approached from alien points of view; it is strange to think of his essentially playful, indirect, approach  being applied to the Holocaust.

A.C. That’s certainly the sense I get with most of your poetry, a playful, indirect style that is applied to really complex, sometimes harrowing, events or issues. How do you balance that? I assume there is something going on in your mind about the dual issue of how not to make fun of important subject matter, but also how not to come across as morbid or sentimental.

K.C. Yes, its’s sharp of you to notice my  predilection for looking at appalling subjects in a quasi humorous tone.  In other collections I’ve written about cannibalism (in the Chilean air crash), Hiroshima, the Cambodian killing fields, a firing squad in the Phillipines etc etc  Come to think of it, I’ve  also written about a lot of unattractive individuals too – a Tourettes sufferer, an autistic boy, a paedophile (spelling?), a girl brought up as a hen, a Peeping Tom, plus innumerable disfigureds and cripples..all of which makes me a not very nice person?  I’m reminded of John Lennon’s memory of being fascinated by the assorted ‘freaks’ of Liverpool, often choosing to follow or sit behind them on the bus.  Except that I’d like to think my interest in the victimised is ultimately  sympathetic.  I guess I feel that we must be prepared to approach the darker aspects of our humanity, contemplating, for instance, systemmatic evil in Postcards from Auschwitz. (I’ve also written alot of celebratory poems, about the brighter side of the human spectrum, especially in my latest pamphlet, The Grandpa Years.)   With the darker subject matter I feel that it is best saved from becoming merely maudlin, mawkish,  by being served up with WIT of tone and style, – verbal humour which may offer a detachment, an ambivalence, towards its subject matter.  Wit is a quality I admire in much 17th Century poetry  – the way Marvell , for instance, presents the execution of Charles ! with such knife-edge equivocation. Wit seems to allow one to gaze at horrors  while remaining detached.   A sense of humour in general and verbal wit in particular may be qualities absent from a lot of post-Romantic poetry?  We tend to prefer emotional intensities and authenticities of texture,- poetry which is “close to the bone” (and the nerve)?  But I do think that humour can act as a corrective, almost a safety valve, to too much intensity.    Question: could Sylvia Plath have survived the horrors of introspective self-therapy if she had been able to laugh about herself…and would the poetry then have been less interesting?

A.C.  That’s very interesting, that you question Sylvia Plath’s ‘introspective self-therapy’. Is that how you see your own poetry: a kind of self-therapy in which you can make sense of your own experiences? I’m referring more specifically to the shorter poems about your life, taken from the section ‘Looking Myself Up’ in Civil War.


K.C. Yes, there is a bunch of mainly personal family poems in one section and more scattered among other collections. I don’t know that I would go so far as to call them “confessional” (in the tradition of Robert Lowell and Ann Sexton) but they mainly describe an unusual childhood – being the son of medical missionaries in Northern Nigeria (in the area now devastated by Boko Harum). Such a provenance – the last days of the British Empire included – all feels politically incorrect these days, but I hope that, at least, it is an interesting background. I’m not sure whether these more personal pieces are “therapeutic”; the ones about a difficult relationship with my father probably are. As hinted in a previous reply, I have doubts about the health benefits of diving too deeply into oneself as in the later poems of Sylvia Plath (I rather hate her ‘Daddy’ poem) or in the Henry poems of John Berryman, which are really autobiographical. Both after all couldn’t live with what they had discovered. On the other hand, to contradict myself, I love Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’ holy excrescences, which couldn’t be more “personal”.  So, to answer your question, yes, I do write directly from personal experience from time to time, but does that make more personal poems more or less authentic? In theory I prefer the idea of art developing a Yeatsian”mask” for oneself, or, to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase, finding an “objective correlative” for the merely personal. But, again to be contradictory, I think that the most powerful elements in T.S. Eliot’s own poetry (the period from ‘Prufrock’ to ‘The Wasteland’) are much more personal than he himself would acknowledge. He liked to claim that he was a spokesman for the classically non-personal … but I suspect that the strongest elements in his own best poems are in fact the product of a sense of sexual sterility and confusion rather than, for instance, a vision of post-war Europe. Perhaps instead of “We are the Hollow Men” he should have written “I am a hollow man”?

A.C. In terms of Plath and Berryman, though, its obvious that their poetry wouldn’t have existed absent their dysfunctionality. I think for a lot of poets, and artists of all kinds, the art takes precedence over life, in the sense of making a lasting impression in the world and of creating beauty out of suffering etc. (maybe you think this a naive way of thinking?). And that’s what I love about their work, particularly Berryman’s Dream Songs – they don’t seem to hold anything back, or to be written in a Wordsworthian tranquility, but instead seem to have been direct and necessary to the two poets’ existences.  Does your own poetry take a secondary role to your life, or is it something constantly present in your mind, something necessary?

K.C.  The Art or the Life?  That does seem to be a recurring question for, as you say, artists of all kinds.  Yeats put it bluntly: The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life or of the art.  Reading biographies of artists does seem to confirm a kind of necessary egotism – that ‘chip of ice in the heart’ as someone put it.  Having just read Jonathan Bates’ biography of Ted Hughes, I am appalled by his attitude to the women in his life, for instance going off with one of many mistresses while supposedly on honeymoon with his last wife, Carol,  or spending that famously cold January weekend with yet another mistress during Plath’s final attempts to contact him.  Examples of artistic self-centredness abound.   As for myself, I seem to have drifted into the position of finding myself with a large dependent family without ever having had the courage to find an alternative.  Thus over forty years of school teaching, while trying to fit poetry into the interstices of holidays and weekends…  Does that make me an amateur – a “weekend painter” as it were, rather than a full-time “professional”?  Certainly it does.  It probably also made me an uncommitted teacher, thinking poetry while supposed to be marking or preparing lessons.  “Get real” as my wife hung around with kids might have said.   In more harassed moments I have envied the apparently family-free lives of such favourite gay poets as Ashberry and Edwin Morgan who seemed to have felt free to experiment with their lives as well as their Art.  But that is a silly response; gay writers must depend on a range of relationships quite as much as any “family man”.  Larkin, as you will know from several poems such as Self’s the Man, prided himself on his family-lessness while at the same time, with typical complexity, seeming to regret it.  Other artists seem to have been deeply touched/inspired by their family connections/constrictions.  In poetry I am thinking of Chaucer’s dedication to “Little Lewis”; or  Shakespeare’s wonderful sense of the vulnerability of children (maybe guilt-driven by the death of his son, Hamnet?]; or of Browning’s carer-role towards his wife Elizabeth; or the mutually supportive partnerships of Mr and Mrs Tennyson, Mr and Mrs Edwin Muir, Mr and Mrs William Blake… So that the Yeatsian Life/Art dichotomy may not be as clear cut as it would seem; probably the very tensions that it necessitates can be creative?   A clear case of the productive friction between having to earn a living for his family and yet being driven to abandon them for his art’s sake is that of Edward Thomas? And Wallace Stevens, to judge by the “fat cat” photos of him as boss of the Western Union Insurance Company, was happy to commute between work and poetic playfulness. I don’t know what conclusion to your interesting question all this name-dropping is coming to.  On the one hand you get the bullish misogyny of a Picasso, on the other the tenderness of a Rembrandt towards Titus and Saskia.  In my own unimportant case I have always felt a need to think of myself as a writer as well as an equally strong, often contradictory, need to find security in the idea of family.  And now I must go off and wipe the noses and/or bottoms of several grandchildren…


A.C. Is this why your poetry hasn’t achieved mainstream success, this juggling of your art and your family life; earning a living while writing? Or is it a part of your sensibility as a poet? Do you, perhaps, see poetry as a free enterprise, a way of life rather than a way of achieving fame/recognition/money?

K.C.   I guess that my poetry hasn’t achieved widespread recognition mainly because it hasn’t been outstanding enough. I’ve had more than my fair share of chances, being picked, for example, as one of “ten promising English poets” in 1970 by Carcanet, who then published a first collection. But I’ve found it more and more difficult to gain publication, never mind recognition, since then. The market for poetry has become increasingly crowded and competitive, for would-be writers almost more than for readers. The “poetry scene” of my youth was dominated by a few big names (Heaney, Hughes, Betjeman, Lowell, Thom Gunn – all men!) and a few (male dominated) publishers. The “poetry world” has changed hugely. For one thing there has been a proliferation of creative writing courses (alas, none available when I went to Uni) which in turn has spawned probably thousands of would-be “creative writers” all toting for recognition/publication (and sometimes, one suspects, for the academic sinecures – those creative writing tutor jobs – that go with becoming a published “name”.  In such an overcrowded field, it would often seem to be necessary to have some kind of personal novelty/gimmick or interesting back story – coming from a different ethnicity, for instance – to begin to grab attention? Or perhaps a knack for self-publicity? Or perhaps, as always, the right personal connections? But I do think that the plurality of poetry outlets these days is generally much more healthy than the old Faber and London Magazine dominated days of fifty years ago. Also, thanks to desk top publishing (and the Internet) there are such a lot of really interesting little specialist presses and magazines to be sampled, from the avant garde (Prynne et al) down to the very local. And the poetic energies seem to be more widespread too – often coming most distinctly from what used to be called “the regions”, i.e. not London.  In spite of this new more hectic, pluralistic, competitive atmosphere, I still do think, must believe, that the most outstanding talents, those with true originality of voice – Alice Oswald and Jo Shapcott spring to mind – can make it to the top of the heaving pile of would-bes. Almost every year fresh young voices emerge – last year Liz Berry and Jonathan Edwards particularly impressed. As for myself, I am probably one of thousands of 2nd or 3rd division “poets”, all fighting like cats in a sack for our brief moments of local fame and recognition… (but certainly not for any money!)

A.C. What influences would you cite on your poetry? Have these influences changed as you’ve grown older?

K.C. My first big influence was Chaucer; one of my A level teachers at school was David Herbert (who went on to edit the Penguin Book of Narrative Verse); he was very keen on Chaucer, going so far as to paint a mural of the Canterbury pilgrims around his classroom walls.  So I guess I can blame that influence for having tried  so many times to write long narrative poems  – completely out of sync with contemporary taste?!  My main tutor at New College was John Bayley, who also idolised Chaucer; his book on Troilus and Criseyde, The Characters of Love, is still a worthwhile read, I think, and must have reinforced my tendency to try to write those lengthy “story poems.”  But,  having decided to read nothing but poetry while at Oxford, I soon came upon other influences, especially Donne, Marvell and all the so-called “Metaphysicals”, which, hopefully, had a more healthy influence on my own attempts to write, tightening up metre and toughening up style generally.  The Oxford Eng Lit Syllabus famously stopped short of studying the 20th Century  (probably it has now modernised itself?) , but, since getting free of Academia and being able to choose what I read,  I find I  have rather preferred American poets – Emily Dickinson, John Crowe Ransome, Richard Wilbur, e e cummings,  Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Stevens, Ginsberg, Ashbery etc… but especially Robert Frost who, together with his English friend Edward Thomas, is still a favourite.  At best American poets always feel fresher than their European counterparts?   Of course, having been a schoolteacher for over 40 years, I’ve also had to get to know and teach a lot of 20th century UK poets and have developed a more than grudging respect for such near-contemporaries as Hughes, Heaney, Gunn, Larkin, R.S Thomas  and, more up to date-ly,  Carol Ann and  Simon A…   So, thank you very much , Andy, for asking about  “influences”.  I feel flattered… but also feel that  I should have dropped a lot more contemporary this-century names into the mixture!

A.C. Not at all. You’ve given a pretty extensive account of your growth as a reader as well as a writer of poetry there. For my final question, I want to ask you about your current work. I know you have a pamphlet – The Grandpa Years – out at the moment, but what are you working on now? What does the future hold in store for readers of your poetry?

K.C. I recently turned 70 – the  “allotted span.”  Having had your questions to try to answer has given me an opportunity to look back, sometimes mournfully, always solipsistically, over what could be called a “career”.   I seem to be writing as keenly as ever, mostly confining myself to shorter pieces; I have a collection of these, The Goldsmith’s Apprentice, for which I hope to find a publisher soon. I also have a dusty drawerfull of narrative poems which deserve an airing.  The question is when to stop.  Does one know when one is “past it” or, at least, past one’s best? I’d like to think that I’m writing as well, if not better, than ever… but maybe that is just the usual self-deception?  I remember when I was about 50 and  attending a poetry workshop which was full of pensioners, I used to think “Why don’t some of them just shut up? Don’t they realise how OLD they sound, – ‘old’ in terms of subject matter, out of date style, or somehow just lacking in verbal energy/ vividness?  Why can’t they be more open to change?”   But now I find myself in the position of those despised pensioners, carrying on regardless with a “writing hobby”, still trying to compete in what is increasingly a young person’s game… Anyway, to quote Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium”, Why should not old men not be mad?  Why not continue to experiment, to try to make poems, if only for my own interest?

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress”