Interviewed by Sonnet Graham
Frequently your work demonstrates a familiarity with and respect for scientific ideas. Is this a conscious effort to mend the (contemporary) rift between art and science?
A respect, sure, but if there’s a rift to mend, I’m not the one to do it. My knowledge of science is scrappy to say the least, that of an interested layperson. I find biology in its various branches more hospitable, whereas even popularised physics continues to defeat me. As a kid I was greatly encouraged by a neighbour, the Liverpool Professor of Tropical Medicine, who took me to see their electron microscope and even gave me an old Karl Zeiss so I became interested not just in paramecia but also in optics, in an unconsidered way. Art and science have their own (various) ways of looking at the world but they can also look across at each other, and they share the hypothetical.
Michael Hofmann once told me that to be a poet, you must speak more than one language. How does your translating work affect your writing process?
Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, “…thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,” so maybe one and a half or one and a quarter languages would do the trick? But learning another language helps in knowing your own. In a round-about way. The world is shaped differently through other languages: heavier or lighter, faster or slower, brighter or dimmer, in different places. Unless it’s given you on a plate in childhood, and perhaps even then, the experience of learning and having to speak another language can be alienating (literally so) and disruptive, even bruising as it was for me, but a kind of enforced ostranye might be a good start for writing, and the culture it gives you access to is an inexhaustible bonus.
I don’t believe translating has affected my own writing process, if something as intermittent and random deserves that term. It’s a separate though parallel activity, in which problems that occur might be solved in similar ways, with whatever skills, luck, patience and persistence you have at your disposal.
Though I can’t put my finger on any specific instance, I’d say the experience of translating has been enriching, that the immersion in another voice and vision really has to have some transformative effect on your own, in the long run. I can think of several examples where a poem was sparked by someone else’s poem or thinking, but that isn’t so much process as prompt, and of course that can and does happen within your own first language.
It seems you’re always playing with form. Would you speak to your exploration of the haiku for the Quinces? Or, if you’re now in the headspace of something else, it would be fun to hear how you arrived there.
I’d only once attempted a haiku before, as it’s a form I find ill-suited to English rhythmic patterns. Or put more generally I have a prejudice against syllabics: I just can’t “hear” them.
One source for the first of these haiku was that a woman told me she’d noticed a dearth of love poems in my work, a possibly true remark I obscurely resented. Brooding on that, I noticed the obtrusive attachment “Sent by my iPhone” was 5 syllables, so I saw that three irritations (one formal, one personal and one circumstantial) might be addressed in three lines. A hatrick!
I’d also just written the sonnet-ish meditation on the painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán so quinces were on my mind. The others followed, unusually for me, in swift succession, and the last was a three line poem I’d been trying to translate from Leonardo Sinisgalli, serendipitously on the topic of quinces. (I’m afraid I changed his tenses, and adding the title “Exile” allowed me to shift the whole poem sideways from the original.) The straightened form of the haiku also sharpened that version. Then rhymes seemed to appear in them. Rhyming a haiku is probably philistine and goes against the form – though it’s not an original departure, just a small extra hurdle which might make up for the other elements lost from the Japanese. This is not a clear account, but it suggests my haphazard approach to form. Material can lie about inert for ages until it finds a shape or is found by it. Sometimes the poem has to struggle out of a form. Sometimes a form’s constraints provide wings and claws.
Actually, that failed Sinisgalli version had lain around for ages until it found its place here, so in belated answer to your earlier question, the two activities can occasionally be more than parallel: convergent.
How does being a painter influence your poetry? (Are you sick of that question? Tell me what a better one would be for the topic.)
I’m reluctant to call myself a painter. I’ve had the odd exhibition, so for me I guess it’s more than just dabbling, though only a grade up from that. I know enough real artists, and how they work, to see I’m not really one of their tribe. I came across a quote from Joni Mitchell the other day:‘I sing my sorrows and I paint my joy’. I think I can understand that. Painting, even black-and-white work, has an immediate sensual pleasure and that’s something I keep returning to. There’s sensual pleasure in poetry too, but maybe not that immediate.
I’ve always kept the two activities separate, until some years back I found myself thinking about art and artists (and architecture) in poems, so the wall I’d built between them is beginning to be dismantled.
I used to review art quite often, and have started doing so again. This time round I seem happier to let poems emerge from that – a recent thing takes it impetus from Giacometti’s sculpture “Falling Man.” I don’t really go in for the ekphrastic, usually a redundant exercise, and I’m wary of, even averse to, analogising these two arts along the Ut pictura poesis axis, but against my previous judgment – probably a general slackening of moral fibre – they seem to be merging along the edges. For a while now I’ve been preparing a book of essays and reviews that include painters and poets so maybe that’s a further sign.
Montale’s obscurantism or Ashbery’s ambiguity?
Both, if I may. Though I don’t find Montale obscure, just superbly compressed and accelerated, even when he seems to be dawdling. I’m more foxed by Ashbery but I read his Houseboat Days in my twenties and haven’t wanted to part with it. I have an image of his hand on the tiller of a poem, the lightest of touches to steer it through choppy tides of language – his canals have odd, lunar tides.
Some of your poems are quite funny, and the current selection in Subtropics certainly showcases that. Strike me down if I err, but have you been embracing humor (and joy-inducing silliness) increasingly as your career has progressed? If so, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on humor in high art (since sometimes we writers become so, so very serious).
I like the way we spell “humor” differently but it’s still the same thing. It’s often said that humor doesn’t travel well but I don’t see that at all. Even in prim Victorian translation Catullus is strikingly funny. Although some of Shakespeare’s punning passages are heavy going, Marlowe’s “…here come two religious caterpillars” is as funny today as it ever was. But humor isn’t just to puncture pretension, it can do what it wants – change direction suddenly, accelerate on a curve or stumble at the edge of a chasm.
What do you think is the worst part of the English language? And then, of course, the best?
Its vastness doesn’t manage an elegant equivalent for “embarrass de choix” but it has more words for canny or for quaint than you can shake a cat at.
But really, for most of my life I’ve lived inside English, so even if I’m speaking Italian, or faulty Spanish, I’m never really outside of it, or not far enough to say what’s good or bad about it. And anyway comparisons between languages (which would be the only way of judging this) always sound fruitless to me.
I’ve noticed a shy reference to climate change in some of your older works. Once such subjects become fashionable, then controversial, do you abandon them to the political hawks? Or if not, how do you reclaim them in poems?
Concern about climate change and other ecological matters have been around for far longer than they’ve been headlines. Poems take apprisal of the world, the present and the past, maybe even the future if we believe Shelley, so it wouldn’t make much sense to try to avoid the perceptions that surround us, except in the attempt to escape pre-formed opinions or cliché.
Long ago I read Evans-Pritchard’s book about the Nuer tribe of the Nile Valley and was taken by the short poems this pastoral people composed in praise of individual cows. Hardly longer than haikus, they were not only beautiful but often included a prescient sense of encroaching colonialism, and the transformation their world was undergoing. What I’m saying is that the lyric might be a small thing but it can be – should be – highly sensitised to everything around.
Your work turns a kind eye toward labor (repairmen, fishermen, painters). How would you pay the bills if you weren’t writing/translating/teaching?
I’m glad if that comes through. Perhaps because I’m a loafer and have generally avoided the world of work I have an admiration for any manual expertise and love witnessing it.
With the occasional exception of painting, my own activities don’t pay the bills that well, especially translating. Maybe I’m too slow, but I reckoned up the other day that for the last ten years as a translator I’d been earning under the UK’s minimum wage, while my publisher has been making (what I imagine to be) a steady profit on the sales. We should be out with placards. I’m not fit for much else these days so I’ll have to put up with it. In my twenties I worked for seven or eight years as a plasterer, hard work but not bad for the pay. All considered, though, I like what I do and wouldn’t want any other work even if it were better paid.
You seem to enjoy playing with the concept of time as well as its physical manifestations (endings, aging) and the objects humans attach to it (malfunctioning clocks and watches, spiderwebs). As a writer, how does a poem’s internal time influence its form and content for you?
Aging is only a recent concern, and I’ll probably be done with it soon. But poetry’s a temporal art and stressed syllables are like the tick of a clock, only, we could hope, not as regular. Frost rather beautifully defined poems as “a momentary stay against confusion”; they might also be thought of as a stay against the momentary, in the way they can expand the moment, slow up time and give some more than passing shape to it. A recent poem of mine combines work and time, playing off Bhupan Khakhar’s wonderful picture “The Watch Repairer,” so I’d say you’re right that both these themes, work and time (and for now painting), keep recurring.
What’s the last book you picked up and could not put down?
Naples 1944 by Norman Lewis. To my shame I picked it up thirty years ago and lazily put it down. I picked it up again a few weeks ago when staying at someone’s house. I fought the desire to steal it, and ordered it from a local bookshop. So though I had to put it down again, I quickly resumed it. It’s not only a brilliant account of Naples, recognisable from when I lived in the vicinity forty years after Lewis, but uncannily observant about language and culture, and both comically and tragically aware of the conditions people live in during war. It’s a magnificent book.
Now that you’ve succumbed to the presence tech pop culture (“The Quince in Flower”), has your fall been total? Are screens destroying your solitude and/or your writing practice?
Like most people’s, my solitude has been eroded by iPads, iPhones and computers but sometimes that’s better than my own company. One pay-off’s the access to a great deal of instantaneous information useful for checking things. I’ve got better at using that without too much time-wasting, but then play mindless games and waste hours.
It’s hardly affected my writing at all. I write drafts on old envelopes, usually these days on the glum, brown, ever more frequent ones from the tax office (without opening them) and only when a poem is nearly finished do I type it up on the computer and print it. Usually I have to work a lot further on the typescript. At this late stage things are brisker than before. I have fond memories of typewriters from my first 25 or so years of writing. I became attached to the beautiful machine in a way that has never happened with the screen, even lugged it with me when I went abroad, but I also recall the frustration of having to retype because of a single misprint or the tussle with Tipp-ex. I’m wondering if the switch has reduced my carbon footprint. But if poetry is wasteful of space at its margins, it’s a condensing art form that, compared to the novel, saves a lot of paper. Actually, it really is a wonder how small and unwasteful, how undemanding of material resources, how free of expenditure, the poem essentially is. We could go back to manuscripts or samizdhat if required. Maybe that’s the future.
Is there a piece of advice you find yourself repeating to your students that you wouldn’t mind sharing with the broader (art/student) world?
What was that historian’s advice meant to thin out any competition from bright, aspiring youngsters? Find some dull and cobwebbed area of research and dedicate the next ten years to it. The poetic equivalent could be to immerse yourself in the stanzaic structures of Swinburne. There again that might have the unforeseen and unwelcome effect of fostering a genius.
I used to bartend, so forgive the question, but what’s your favorite cocktail?
I’ve led such a sheltered life, truth is I’ve only once tried a cocktail. A delicious mojito, actually several one after the other, in a Catalan village bar. The nearest I’ve got to Cuba.
Finally, but most importantly: why quince (the fruit, the number, the form)?
Years ago some friends cut down their beautiful quince tree, so I planted one in my own patch. It has flourished despite a fox making its home under it. Though I know little about botany and gardening, I find myself getting attached to certain trees and plants. My friend the Swedish poet Gunnar D. Hansson has written a huge book of poems about the yew tree, so beside him I’m the merest dillettante. Still, as with the agave, another plant I’ve written about more than once, thoughts about the quince have been accumulating over time, and I’m glad to have got some of them down.
Long ago I watched Erice’s film El sol del membrillo (his next film after The Spirit of the Beehive). It’s agonisingly slow. It may be another masterpiece but I couldn’t face watching it twice. But as you watch you look at the quince tree and it becomes a wonder. The film attempts to make the viewer see the world through the artist, Antonio López’s eyes and at least partly succeeds. Here I am offering all kinds of cultural and autobiographical references that are probably irrelevant!
As for the form, the last few things I’ve written have been shaped in sections, each a small adjustment of perspective or language. One of the first poems I published, never since reprinted, about work in a postal sorting office was sectioned like this, a kind of Cubist effect. I tried another one which didn’t work at all, then abandoned the mode. Only recently has it resurfaced and that’s been exciting. Again, not formally original but still satisfying in the way it helps to move a poem beyond a single perspective.