Pat Boran was born in Portlaoise in 1963 and currently lives in Dublin where he has been Writer-in-Residence with Dublin City Libraries, Dublin Corporation and Dublin City University. At present he is Programme Director of the Dublin Writers Festival. To date he has published four full-length collections of poetry, the first of which won the 1989 Patrick Kavanagh Award. As the Hand, the Glove, his most recent collection, was published by Dedalus in December 2001. His first short fiction for children, All the Way from China, appeared in 1998 and was shortlisted for the Bisto Book of the Year Award. His non-fiction work includes The Portable Creative Writing Workshop (1999) and A Short History of Dublin (2000).
TSF: Could I begin by asking you how your writing career began?
PB: The first thing I’d say is that it’s not a career. I don’t think of it as a career. Maybe that’s just a safety net. If I thought of it as a career I’d be inclined to feel trapped in it. I may not always like it, and I may not always enjoy it as much as I could or should, but I always feel I can stop. That is not something I’d often say in a workshop situation because one of the things you have to be careful talking about in a workshop is stopping. Usually what you’re there to do is prod people into discovering new energies or new ways. But I suppose another truth is that sometimes you are better off doing nothing. For instance, about three months ago I had a new book of poems come out, and the way it works with a lot of publishers in Ireland is that the book is changing pretty much up to the last minute, so that poems are being finished, and not a long time afterwards appearing. That often leaves you with nothing because all of the current work is now in the book. In the beginning I used to fill that space as quickly as I could. Now I think: Jesus, that’s great, it’s all gone.
To get back to the question, I suppose I felt there was a pattern emerging in my late teens or early twenties. I wanted to play music. I was writing songs, and playing with various people. I was singing and playing guitar, not terribly well, but losing myself in it sufficiently to think that this is important. I wouldn’t have stopped if you’d wanted me to: I couldn’t have.
The change from that, which is doing something in the moment because you’re playing to someone directly opposite you, to making a poem or a story and letting it out and then hearing the splash in the canyon x months later, perhaps that came about through winning the Patrick Kavanagh Award. I’d started to send out a few lyrics, which were in essence songs that weren’t working as songs, to various magazines and then I put a number of those together to enter for the Kavanagh Award. And a book came out of that with Dedalus Press. That made me think that this is something to do. What I’m saying in a very longwinded way is that it didn’t come out of a book background or a book culture. When I went to school I had no interest in poetry. That was for all the usual excuses. Poets were dead men, and I was a young boy and I was still alive and full of energy and devilment. The whole punk thing was huge when I was a teenager, and before that the whole Bruce Lee thing was huge. Both those things were about turning over the old. At that stage I couldn’t have imagined wanting to fit in to any tradition that wasn’t less than five years old. I suppose I still have a problem with that. I hope it’s a healthy problem. It would be one of the things that gets me writing in the first place. Can you do something that has a connection to the culture but at the same time is giving it the odd poke with a sharp stick?
I remember as a kid at home in Portlaoise in my father’s Travel Agency, every spring the new holiday brochures would arrive, and it was myself and my brother Michael’s job to stamp the name of the travel agency, AirBoran, on the back page of all the brochures. This particular spring the brochures came wrapped in the off-cuts of some book and there were poems by Miroslav Holub, and lots of people, lots of living people, with strange names from other countries, writing these very simple things-evidently in translation but that didn’t occur to me then. A: they were simple; B: they didn’t seem to be overly concerned with form. They weren’t sonnets and they weren’t villanelles. They were built on something else. Maybe they’d originally been sonnets but when they’d been translated, they were stripped of that architecture. I ended up responding to them as if they were song lyrics; and imitating them, and robbing bits of them. But if you’d asked me any number of years ago, including five years ago, maybe last year, what are you going to be when you grow up, I’d never have said a poet, and probably never have said a writer. Like any of us involved in the business, I would have wanted to be doing something. I would have been too restless to just be a reader. I think readers demand certain levels and kinds of concentration-real readers I mean, readers who can connect and remember. I’m not necessarily one of those. I can get lost in a book and then a month later I can’t remember anything, so I keep notes about everything I read, like breadcrumbs from the trail where I’ve been. That has led me into doing a lot of reviewing in recent years because almost what I’d do anyway if I was reading a book is make notes on an envelope and keep it in the back page.
If there’s a career to it at all, that is what it is: book reviews for a number of Sunday newspapers and on the radio, the occasional script for Sunday Miscellany or something like that. That’s the job part of it. The rest I don’t know. It’s too mysterious or I’m too superstitious to think of it in that way.
So when these poems appeared in your father’s shop, did you start reading poetry books or buying poetry books after that?
Yes I did. I remember I probably went the next day to the library. I had visited it anyway and read all sorts of things but never particularly fiction or poetry. I remember going straight to the poetry section and reading Brian Patten, Brendan Kennelly. I didn’t know any of these people: they could have been alive or dead.
I remember learning poems by heart in the library: poems by Michael Hartnett and various people. I remember taking lines or stanzas out of poems and trying to fit them to four-and-a-half chords on the guitar. I suppose the fact that I didn’t know where it was going was exciting too. There was no agenda to it. There was no ‘Oh, I’d love to be like this.’ That didn’t enter into it at all.
At what stage did you move to Dublin?
I finished school in 1981. Then I did a year in a secretarial course-myself and another guy and eighty girls in the vocational school in Portlaoise. I suppose it was already obvious that I was interested in writing.
One teacher in particular persuaded me that journalism was the way to go. There was a free-sheet newspaper in the town and I wrote things for it. I’d go and interview the oldest man in the town, like this, with the tape recorder, and put it on the table and say: ‘Tell me about Portlaoise in 1900.’ I was barely able to understand what I was doing, but I wrote a few of those pieces and I suppose it got me into the habit of writing. Then I bought a typewriter. My brother remembers, and so I have to admit I remember, vaguely, putting a sheet of white paper into it one day and typing F U C K and calling Michael up the stairs. Look as this, the power of this!
I suppose I did think I was going to write journalism and I’m trying to remember how exactly I figured out that that wasn’t the thing. Anyway, I came up to Dublin and I busked on the streets for a couple of years. I used here as a base to travel around the country and I made a really good living. I made a better living then than I do now. This was in the early eighties. Everybody who wanted to busk came to the city, whereas I realised that the money was to be made in Claremorris on a Tuesday morning outside the local shopping centre, or in any little town that had a fair or a festival or a wheelbarrow-and-drink race or something like that. So from spring until October I’d be heading somewhere on a bus and when I got wrecked or tired, I came back here.
I spent a year in London then thinking I should get more serious about playing. I hated London. It was too big for me. I couldn’t understand a city that had no centre point. There was Stephen’s Green or the Liffey, or Main Street in Portlaoise, or the courthouse. There was an actual place that seemed to be the centre. What got me in London was that it was infinitely spreading in all directions-you went down underground and came up somewhere else.
My only connection with the Poetry Society was that I went one night to a workshop. Half the people there were wearing cravats. I don’t actually think it’s like that now, but then it was very, very stuffy and very pretentious. It was the first workshop I ever walked into and I came out screaming.
I came back to Dublin and fell into a workshop here, kind of by accident. It was down the road from me in Bull Alley and was run by Leland Bardwell, who became a great friend afterwards. As workshops tend to be, it was mostly women, people who wanted to talk as much as write or read. But I found the atmosphere very useful. I was the youngest, so I was given certain kinds of attention or allowed be a bit sillier maybe.
It seems to me that you arrived in Dublin at what was the end of an era in Irish poetry, or the tail end of an era.
Yes, I was really lucky like that because there is a different culture now. People are busier. It was the end of that literary pub culture, for all its horrors and all its good points. By complete accident a friend and myself stumbled into Grogan’s one day on one of those studenty skites. He was the student and I was his distraction. We fell in with John Jordan and Michael Hartnett, maybe Kevin Byrne was there, Tom Morgan. A lot of the Beaver Row people drank in there and of course the remnants of the McDaids generation. I don’t know how it came up in conversation but poetry was being talked about and I must have said I wrote poems. I was immediately accepted as a poet even though I probably hadn’t written anything that was any good.
Then there was a series of readings organised in Toner’s and I read with Michael Hartnett and various others. That was a big thing: I knew poems of Michael’s by heart ten years before I met him. So I was lucky I fell in on the end of that. A lot of it was very drunken and a lot of it was a bit sad because the glory years were over. I suppose there were, and there still are, one or two people trading on the glories of that past and yarns about what Behan said and what Myles did or didn’t do. We’ve all heard it, and it’s diluted and it’s silly, but at the same time there was real affection and there was space – certainly not enough for women – there was space for male writers in that culture. One of the big things that has changed is that there’s now much more space for female writers, for gay writers, for writers of all persuasions and passions and directions. But what there’s not – and I don’t regret it but you have to recognise it – there’s not that same community thing. I think there’s not, or maybe I’m just missing it.
It could be said that poets at that time were leaving the pub and heading to the workshop. Was it around this time that workshops were beginning to flourish?
Certainly there didn’t seem to be the numbers of them then that there are now. I suppose I didn’t know that. I didn’t know these were new. The attraction of going to them, and then shortly afterwards giving them, was that it was a place I could go and talk about things I couldn’t talk about in any other situation. I had lots of friends who were reading but I didn’t really know anyone who was particularly interested in talking about poems. Not that necessarily there’s much to talk about. But when you have a certain excitement about having read something, or on occasion having written something, it seems natural to want to have a place to go. The pub wasn’t a natural place for me. I like being able to take it that bit more seriously. I suppose the other thing, and it only occurs to me now, it’s like playing music: the group activity. It didn’t mean that the music ended up being a camel-a horse designed by a committee. It could mean that you got to places that you might get to on your own, but it would take a longer time, or that you might never get to on your own. It was a way of cutting through certain stuff. You got to learn to read what people were saying. The stock responses: ‘That’s very nice,’ or ‘I’m not sure if I like it.’ All this kind of nonsense. But there was enough insight, even if only on occasion, to make me think this was useful. And I didn’t go to a huge number of workshops myself after the half dozen with Leland-maybe another half dozen one-offs.
Then the residency came up in Dublin City Libraries, and to my surprise I got it. I seemed to be too young and inexperienced, but I loved it. And what confirmed to me that workshops have a purpose, is that as well as working with groups of people who call themselves writers, I was also working with groups of people who couldn’t read or write and who had no particular interest in literature. The gap between the two of those groups, and at the same time the connection between the two, was brilliant for me. It made me realise that I had abilities that I’d taken for granted. Either it was the ability to read and write, or it was the occasional ability to see inside a story or a poem, and to see what was happening or not happening. So there are all sorts of elements to it: there’s camaradarie; there’s a feeling of why can’t there be a space for people to sit around and talk about stuff like this? In the pub it just tended to degenerate far too quickly-which of course is what has made that earlier pub culture legendary. The Kavanaghs and the Behans and the way they abused each other and all the fun they had. You don’t hear much about them sitting around seriously discussing literature. It’s very hard to imagine that they did that at any time; in a way, they were all wearing masks. All these games were going on. I suppose the other thing about it is my constant companion, this guy Martin, was studying art and it seemed to me that if he could have conversations with his mates about the history of art or Mark Rothko in the canteen of NCAD, why the hell couldn’t I have similar conversations about poetry? It was no more weird or esoteric.
The Bloodaxe thing was happening at the same time. The attempt by Neil Astley and others to make poetry available and to put it out there in the same way as maybe Virgin Records were putting out albums, with covers that tried to say something about what was going on inside, with blurbs that tried to create an enthusiasm or connection. All of that was saying, why does it have to be a secret occupation? The act itself tends to be solitary, but so what? That doesn’t mean that people can’t share in it.
I think the reading more than the workshop is what has changed the scene so hugely in the last twenty years. I don’t think there’s any mention of Kavanagh ever giving a reading. He read for the Claddagh record and on television programmes, but a reading, I don’t think it ever happened. All those things have changed. In a way it was as if the rock n’ roll world, which I felt marginally a part of, was visiting the poetry world, and it happened on every level: publishing, design, readings, workshops. One seemed to take energy from the other. That was revolutionary in a sense.
I want to ask about your involvement with Poetry Ireland.
My involvement was entirely accidental. Poetry Ireland at the time was in 44 Upper Mount Street, in the basement and I got into the habit of dropping in there occasionally. One day I went in and Theo Dorgan had been appointed as the new director. We got into a conversation. I hadn’t much going on at the time. Theo had these ideas that the whole thing could me modernised and shaken up, that the Review could be made more attractive to people with backgrounds like mine and his. He’s exactly ten years older than me and there was a friendship, a connection, straight away. Before I decided what I was doing, I just started turning up there on a regular basis, and asking ‘Right, what has to be done?’ I did that for a year, maybe more, just went in, did bits of typing, or fixed up books. Again it was just a way to be involved. There was no great mission to it. I ended up doing a FAS scheme there and after that I did about a year as part-time administrator. I didn’t have a big problem with it as an organisation. But like any organisation it had, and I suppose has, its limits. Its agenda is to help poetry as much as to help poets. The remit has been to review every new book and it’s never been able to do that. Even in the old days when there weren’t as many books being published it could barely keep up. I think there’s lots of room for other magazines.
My connection with Poetry Ireland has gone on like that and now I’m about to join the board. I’ve never been on a board and I find boards difficult. I think that it’s useful to have at least one person like me who has a few problems. There’s always been the accusation about Poetry Ireland, sometimes very fair, that it doesn’t connect to new things. I think there’s a lot of space for things to happen. I wouldn’t see myself, just because I have had various incarnations of involvement with Poetry Ireland, as an automatic defender of the way it does things. But I think it’s a very necessary organisation and it has done some brilliant things. What it really needs is a location that is accessible to the public. Dublin Castle is a wonderful space but you can’t just walk in. There’s a great collection of books there but they’re just not seen by people. In Poetry Ireland’s defence, there have been ongoing moves for ten years now to find a way to finance a building where events and readings could take place. It sometimes looks like that’s never going to happen, but maybe it will come right. There are certainly some great energies in there still.
We were talking about workshops and readings earlier, and it seems to me that the height of that public experience of poetry in this city was about ten years ago. If you look at Maeve O’Sullivan’s column in the Event Guide there are a lot of things going on, but there are very few big international names visiting the country, except for festivals. Now I have a big involvement in the Dublin Writers Festival – that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about on a normal ongoing basis. I think we could be in danger, because there’s so much going on, of thinking that everything that happens here is important and good enough. I suppose those things are a question of money as much as energies.
But is the phenomenon of festivals also not a product of what you were saying earlier about things becoming more like the music business or show business, where everything needs to be big and glamourous and sexy?
Yes, it probably is. But having said that, I remember being at one-off Poetry Ireland readings by James Fenton, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, all in the space of a couple of years. Right up to Alan Ginsberg, that mad, fantastic gig in Liberty Hall. In a sense I can’t see those events happening now, unless as part of a festival. Obviously the thing about a festival is that people can take time off for the few days and go to events and it’s a way of discovering new writers in the shadow of better-known people. That Dublin didn’t have a festival for a period of years is unbelievable. But it would be nice to see other things happen throughout the year.
Bloomsday, and that period, there’s obviously big interest in that, and people like to be here for it. My fear about the Joyce thing has always been that it was in danger of being a museum. I can understand the attraction of Joyce and I feel it myself, but I think it should be used to bring in other writers, people who might have something in common with Joyce, or who might not. The thing to do is establish the continuum. Fortunately, with Dublin City Council, there seems to be enough belief in that idea, that you can’t just let the city be a Disneyland. And there’s no antipathy between the Joyce movement and the Dublin Writers Festival. The two form a good symbiotic relationship. There’s an audience in common and there are two different audiences as well.
There’s an essay from ten years ago that you wrote for a US journal and you said it was an exciting time because Irish poetry was coming out of the shadow of Yeats and Kavanagh. Yet in some ways those dead writers have become even bigger in the last ten years.
Well, they were there anyway. You couldn’t go into a pub without one of them looking down at you. But then the publicity machinery of the Celtic Tiger discovered them yet again, not just as symbols of former greatness, but as attractions in themselves, as the slides, the big dippers, and the bumper cars of the carnival that is literary Ireland. Most people who come here with an awareness of literary Ireland come here thinking about the past. That’s a real pity. That can’t be allowed to happen. Even if I didn’t continue to write, that’s something I’d still be involved in, working to counter that.
As part of my residency with Dublin Corporation in 1996/97 Peter Sirr and myself put together a CD of fifteen poets reading poems about Dublin in Dublin. Again apart from Claddagh Records fifteen or twenty years beforehand, amazingly that hadn’t been done. It was so obvious and yet it hadn’t been done. Nobody seemed to believe that the idea was worthwhile, and that I don’t understand. It’s almost as if we believe our own hype, that we are the city of Shaw and Yeats and Wilde and it ends there.
One could easily fall into the trap of reclaiming Joyce, et al, after giving them a bloody hard time while they were here, and simultaneously giving our own people a bloody hard time, or not paying attention until Faber & Faber or whoever discovers them. The publishing scene here has changed brilliantly, but it still has a huge way to go. The media, the print media mostly, really have to understand that things have changed, and that if something is made here it’s not automatically inferior to something that’s made here, exported, then imported back again. That’s an ongoing procedure. So as much as it’s about bringing in big international names into Dublin for Irish or visiting audiences, the Festival’s ulterior motive is to take somebody who knows Dublin as this literary city of Joyce and Yeats, bring them here and let them see we’ve all grown up. This is not David Trimble’s republic, things have changed. V.S. Naipaul seemed to think he was going to the edge of the colonies last year.
From my point of view the Dublin Writers Festival has really grown up. What I liked most about last year was that people came from the States, from Japan, from Europe, specifically for the festival. That proves to me that it isn’t a waste of time.
I want to get back to how you write a poem or poems. How is that done or how does it happen?
How does it happen is a better question than how is that done. For instance that book The Portable Creative Writing Workshop came out of a period when I was doing a lot of workshops. The other side of the workshop scene is you can get sucked into it and end up being so conscious of processes that are ultimately unconscious that you could kill them. The book was meant to balance that-to put a book out that would do ninety per cent of what happens in workshops because ninety per cent of it is the bloody obvious. It’s not obvious to the people hearing it for the first time, so it can still be worthwhile, but it’s very tiring to say the same thing over and over again. When you say on paper that this is how you make a poem, what you actually mean is this is how I remember making a poem, or this is the bit I was noticing while it was going on. In fact, at different times, over the twenty or so years I’ve been writing, the process has changed regularly. From writing in utter confusion and noise with the radio up full volume or on the train or in the middle of Bewley’s where you’re not thinking about it at all, you are just writing, and then you think about it afterwards; to occasionally saying what happens if I sit down and take on the direct challenge of a shape that has been current in poetry for the last four hundred years, like a sonnet, and seeing what I can do with it. That seems to be a more technical problem. But in either case I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have my eye on one particular objective and I’m concentrating on that, but I’m hoping other things are going to happen along the way. So sometimes there’s a shape and I think what will happen if I play with this. Other times I hear a one liner or I read a fact in a book, or see something in the garden and write that down, and things gradually build up. In the end though if I don’t like the sound of it, it’s no good to me. If I think I understand it, it’s no good to me.
The sound is much more important than the meaning of the poem. A poem can include a statement but a poem can’t be a mere statement. And very often what is a fact inside the poem won’t be a fact when you take it out. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. When you take it out of the poem it’s a bit of a non sequitur, but inside the poem it has some kind of magic, partly the sound, partly in that it conjures up and suggests this whole other world. But I think if it can be boiled down to a statement, it’s not a poem.
The problem, of course, is that one would like to be saying something, and not to be a middle-class twerp amusing him or herself with a passion for – if not a talent for – words. Do you know what I mean? There are lots of us, and I include myself sometimes, who are able to turn the odd line, and sound nice or clever, but there’s nothing in it, there’s nothing there. You don’t go back to it. It’s candyfloss. It melts as you spend time with it. On the other hand there are lots of us who have this great desire to say things, and to change the world by saying things-those people are not often very good poets. If you have a political feel for things or a desire in your daily life to change the way the world works, the way people are treated, if you have politics even on that simple level, of course that’s going to want to have its space in your poems. But writing poetry is not about naming something, it’s about trying to re-experience it. You’re not always going to communicate in a poem with the people who might be most interested in or appreciative of it.
You’re doing something and it’s a minority interest. I think you learn to live with the fact that it is a minority interest and maybe you learn to live with that disappointment. At some stage every budding writer or rock star thinks she or he will change the world, and thank God that hasn’t happened. I think the world is not that bad and I’m glad that certain pop groups, whatever about poets, aren’t running it. But what I’m saying is that if you have a mission, you often have to abandon the mission in the poem. The poem takes on its own life. Sometimes you discover you have said something very close to what you wanted to say. There’s a certain reassurance in that. Occasionally the will of the poem and the will of the poet meet but it doesn’t often happen. And what you discover in poems is not always more important than what you wanted to say. That’s definitely the hardest part-that the poem ends up wanting to talk about rabbits, and you have something much more interesting to say. All you can do is go with it. The security is that it all has some meaning, but maybe only to the ideal reader. You have to learn to be the ideal reader of your own work: as brutal as necessary and as kind as possible. If the work isn’t what you wanted it to be, then you have to accept that you’re going in this direction at the moment and just hang in there. The poem demands a lot of you. You have to be prepared to go to places that are not the places you’d like to be.
Reading some of your poems, there is a sense that you take an object or an action and just go off on a riff on it.
I think that’s true. When you’re writing, especially writing poems, the title is crucial and difficult. The beginning of a poem is an arrow, saying I’m going to go this way. But as soon as I-I, the writer and the first reader-think that I’m on this particular train, then there is a terrible and necessary temptation to derail the whole thing and send it down a few sidings, maybe cul de sacs, then bring it back again. I’d be inclined to have a link between the top and the bottom of the poem, the door in and the door out. Once that link is solid enough for me, then I think: Now I have a straight line, a straight line is no good unless I deviate from it. I don’t agree with Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It’s much more to do with-to use a terrible word-entertainment. Entertainment doesn’t mean to be liked. This is a mistake a huge number of people make, especially people starting to find their way. They are inclined to want to be liked in their poems or pitied. I’m a miserable bastard and I’m sitting out here looking at the rain on the window. It’s either that I want someone to like me or I want someone to feel sorry for me. Neither of those is enough. The most important thing for me is that the ‘I,’ the first person singular in the poem, becomes transparent after a while or that it allows someone else to say that they are the ‘I’ in this poem and test it out and ask if this feels right, or true to experience.
The thing about going off on riffs and sidings is that once you establish that there is a pattern or a shape to the thing, there’s no point in just ploughing on, absolutely no point. What that gives you is a license-you’ve earned the space to take a few wanders. Those accidents, echoes, occasional word plays, suggestions, reminders, memories, it’s down there that the poem really happens, because they lead you to other things. The shape of the poem or the narrative that gets you from A to B is not what it’s about. That was the biggest confusion for me for years: what’s your poem about? I can never answer that question. Even the simplest poem. What’s it about doesn’t mean what is it saying. It means what is it enclosing. I mean the bottle is about the milk, it surrounds it, it holds it. Then the room is about the bottle. If I think about it like that, then instead of writing I, Pat Boran, or I, Declan Meade, I can start over there with that plant, because the plant (obviously my version of it is different than yours) is a projection of myself anyway. So why not start from that anyway? So the things in the poem are much more important than the person, the ‘I,’ who is often at the centre of the Western lyric.
I’d always be suspicious of poems that have the word ‘I’ in them. Or poems that are based on something that actually happened: One day when I was a child x happened with my father or my mother. I think the real test for the writer comes after you’ve written the poem. Be yourself, don’t deny yourself, while writing the poem, but then try not to be yourself and read the poem as if the ‘I’ was someone else, or as if the ‘I’ was someone who didn’t exist, or might not exist. Does the poem still work? I don’t think the confessional thing is enough. I had a miserable childhood, which I didn’t, or I had a great childhood, which I didn’t. I had a combination of the two. Otherwise what would happen is that in the process of writing the lyric poem, which is mostly what I do, I would be making a version of myself fact. Sometimes I don’t recognise that version. My brothers and sisters don’t recognise half of the things, even those events in which they feature. I think you have to open it up a bit more than that. Persona, that’s what I’m talking about. I think even if you write autobiography in a poem, you are also writing through a persona. And if you don’t have an incredibly exciting life, and you haven’t crossed the Arctic or climbed the Himalayas, that doesn’t mean that the poems are lacking. It’s about recognising things other than yourself that are going on in the poem. While you are watching one thing, keep your peripheral vision on something else.
Having said that a lot of poems in your new collection are about the loss of your father who died recently.
It took a lot of fictions to give me enough freedom with the ‘I’ to be able to go back and write things that actually did happen, things that are almost factual. I couldn’t have written them before. That’s not because I couldn’t face them, I don’t think that’s the reason. I think I wouldn’t have been able to see the otherness in them. It would have just been, ‘here is my experience.’ Having said that the ‘here is my experience’ is well worth writing. I am regularly drawn to writing short things that are not fiction, that are about an event that did happen. But for it to make a transition to being a poem, I have to be able to step out of the ‘I.’
The new book is more autobiographical, much more so than, say, the first book. It also has more poems that are more of the tradition, not more formal but less free-shaped, and I think those two things are connected. I thought, I’m going to go with this desire to talk about this big event and I will use the armoury of the tradition and not be afraid of them.
I’ve done it other ways and I will again. I’ve made up the way as I went along and there are poems in this book like ‘Tears’ that purposely keep away from traditional shapes and try to find their own shape in the process.
You can see just by flicking through this collection that there is more diversity in the shape of the poems.
That certainly wasn’t planned. But when it started to look like I was getting near the point where I could say this is a book, and I could say this is in, that is out and I could put this there, and see how things were connected, and maybe write a few things to gel it all together, that’s when I saw that this was the pattern. I must say I didn’t like it. I mean one day I wake up and I’m starting to write villanelles. What’s going on here?
Now I’m very happy I did it and so far I still like the book. But the next poems could go off in a completely different direction. I purposely always try to move the goalposts. Maybe it might be wiser to say I can do this well and I’m going to get better and better at it, but the issue is bigger than that. It’s about discovering your way in the process, and constantly confusing yourself as much as anything.
Could I ask you how you make a decision as to whether a poem is successful or not and how much work goes into a poem?
It’s a really hard question. Not to just repeat this defensively, but the sound of the poem is really important. And for me there is nearly always one image-and I mean an image, something you can see-that connects to everything else in the poem, literally every noun, every object, every adjective, every adverb. If that doesn’t happen, then the poem is not successful. The poem can start out either as a decision to try something or it can start out from a deeper, more unconscious place, but either way it must in the end feel like a unit.
There’s a period I go through when there’s any number – twenty, fifty – drafts of a poem. Sometimes there are only two drafts and then a few changes and that’s it. Other times it goes on and on and on, and it gets to the point of being heartbreaking. It becomes a combination of a puzzle and an endurance test. There was a sonnet in this book and just before it went to press I threw away twelve lines and just went with the remaining two, and even they were chopped. I knew that what happened in those two lines was all I really wanted. The rest was preparatory. I’m not always lucky enough to see that. But I think a book is not just about saying, here’s one I made earlier, it’s also about saying, here’s the process. You don’t want it tidied off too much. In a sense that’s what a later volume of selected poems is about. A book is a thing in itself, and, without putting in a lot of dross, you want to try to recreate the process or the sequence of it.
Someday the poem just clicks. There is a moment when it hits. Very often the problem seems to be at the end but then you change something at the beginning and it’s all okay. You have to learn not to keep trying to fix it at the same point. Very likely, the problem is somewhere else.