Richard O’Brien

Interviewed by Hannah Whiteman

One of the things that drew me to “Closed Doors” was the personality that every location in the poem seemed to possess. It seemed (for lack of a better word) real. Does this poem draw heavily on your own experiences? If so, how do you balance that autobiographical strain with staying true to the direction that the poem is taking you?

Everything that’s described in the poem is as real as I can remember it. I think that’s key: what interested me about this as a project was the actual process of trying to remember different periods of my life through the specifics of concrete objects. Sometimes things kind of popped back into my memory as I went looking for them, like the map of countries in “1 Rue Sarrazin,” and sometimes what was engaging for me was the fact I didn’t know anymore—like the line about the floor in the same poem, or the internship in “Tintagel House.” Reading these over now I realize that the objects of memory have even receded again—in “30 Waterside” I’m surprised by that phrase about the “lime-green kitchen,” because I’d since completely forgotten there being a kitchen.

The idea, and this links to your next question, is that memory is fallible and also in some ways quite shallow—it wouldn’t have been that interesting to me to revisit the emotions I had in these places, because to some extent time has leached the life out of those. But trying to tell the reader directly what I remember being in a specific room, at a specific time of my life… I wanted to trust that the words, or the process of me looking for the words, would do their own kind of emotional work. Or to put it another way, the autobiography for me is subsumed in the objects, and that’s what the primary encounter is with for the reader, rather than me telling you the choices I made that got me to these places or how I felt spending time there.

Many times, pieces that explore past places suffer from an overbearing sense of nostalgia. While longing is one of the many emotions readers can sense among these rooms, there is a balance that shows the past for what it is. Could you speak to this (perhaps how it was achieved)?

There’s a line I really love from the song “Pink Slips” by Okkervil River: “This wish, just to go back, hey / When I know I wasn’t ever ever happy / Show me my best memory / It’s probably super crappy.” Because you can still feel nostalgia for something that was actually rubbish, or miserable, and for a time in your life it wouldn’t make any sense to go back to—I think that’s quite common, and maybe it’s because nostalgia is ultimately still just a desire to be elsewhere when faced with discomfort in the present. I know that’s a strain in myself—to revisit old ground—and I can see its dangers. I wanted, firstly, to show myself as the narrator as a figure who wasn’t always proud of his past: there’s the line in “Frewin II.10” about misogyny, and the implied shittiness of my behaviour in the third and fourth poems. Self-flagellation has its limits, too, obviously, and again for me that’s why I wanted to come back to the objects.

Through focusing on the rooms I wanted to reinforce the pastness of the past—that unlike the streets of a city, these are spaces I can only revisit intellectually and rework what they mean to me as I do so, sort of boxing them up as units at the same time. Maybe underlying this, actually, is a documentary I watched years ago about Pinter’s rooms—the idea that for him the room was the basic unit of dramatic experience. But it’s also in the epigraph, referring to John Darnielle’s song “Genesis 3:23” (by his band the Mountain Goats) which is a fantasy about breaking into a house you used to live in—it explores that sense of sameness and difference, comfort and threat, and it has these two overlaid vantage points. Another point maybe is that the rooms go on existing after me, and so there’s an inherent melancholy to that sense of passing through—but also I wanted to restore to them some kind of mental vibrancy as much as I could.

One of the things you said you engaged with in writing was the not knowing, or not remembering, as in questioning the floor at 1 Rue Sarrazin, or the conflation of time in Frewin II.10. (“…was that the same year?”) The objects seem to serve as a grounding mechanism for both the reader and the speaker. To me, the fairly fixed meter and rhyme provided that same sort of grounding. Could you speak to fixed forms, both in “Closed Doors” and in your other work? Did you have a reason for setting this poem in this form, or did it arise organically?

Well, I’d say most of my poems use some form or another even if it’s just blank verse. I think I find it hard not to reach for the stability of them in some way, maybe because so much of what I read early on was formalist, and it probably gets me over some of the self-doubt involved in working out what shape something wants to take on the page, though I often wish I was more confident in other modes. In this sequence specifically I knew I wanted the form to be the same throughout, to make each one its own little self-contained capsule—they’re not quite sonnet length but I did imagine it as something like a sonnet sequence. Where the rhyme gets a little fuzzy, for me that worked well with the idea of memory being fuzzy too, and I wanted the last line in each section to break the rhythm in some way or another, like a camera losing focus or a needle coming off a record—despite the capsule thing, I didn’t want them to wrap up too cleanly, I wanted a bit of messiness to come in at the end. I think the last of the eight is the only one which has a firmer ending, in rhythm if not in emotional content.

Speaking of form, this eight section piece pulls the reader forward. How do you manage to keep momentum in a longer piece?

I guess that’s partly for the reader to decide! But here it certainly helped having a sense of subdivision, so it wasn’t like writing one continuous narrative which I had to vary. Here there’s obviously the inbuilt forward motion of the things I’ve done in my life, if those are of any interest to anyone… but I would say it’s a particularly good question in terms of form because observing it quite neatly, as I often want to do, can just lead to a kind of deadening regularity if you’re not careful to mix things up either in rhythm or content. And hopefully some of the inbuilt raggedness here helps out with that.

Along with your poetic pursuits, you have also been involved in the theater through playwriting. Do you find that these different genres/interests inform each other in any particular way? 

Well I spent a few years really trying to explore the links between them, because my PhD was on verse drama. Without becoming too grandiose about this, I do feel like I prefer poetry which has some kind of engagement with the human speaking voice, and that that is the stuff of drama—and both media I think benefit from an attention to structure and contrast. Obviously what drama brings in is the sense of polyphony, of multiple, possibly competing voices, and perhaps that’s something I find easier to engage with embodied than it is on the page—which isn’t to say that that kind of contestation of the space can’t be done well, but I know I can find it difficult in a poem when I lose sight of the speaking position or positions entirely (“who is saying this and what follows and why?”), unless the poem seems to me to be about foregrounding language and sound and rhythm in a more obvious way.

You mentioned that your background was a bit more formalist. Whose work has had an influence on you? Is there anyone that you’re reading now that we should be?

I grew up reading a lot of canonical dead white men, from Donne through to Auden and Larkin, and those early influences are always quite embedded I think. I don’t want to prescribe “shoulds,” but some of the poetry I’ve been engaged with most recently include voices that foreground humour and self-consciousness with that: Luke Kennard, Jason Koo, Hera Lindsay Bird. I was really struck with Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches as well—such an engaging blend of styles and genres.

You were recently chosen as Birmingham’s Poet Laureate. (Congratulations!) Do you have any particular goals you wish to accomplish during your tenure? As a poet who draws inspiration from tangible places, what do you think you bring to/gain from this experience?

Thank you! I’m really interested in exploring what the city means to people today and has meant throughout its history—as with any city I think the layering of the past and present is really rich and worth digging into. Because the history of Birmingham has been so tied up in industry, one thing I’d really like to focus on is what gets made in the city today and how people feel about those acts of making. I’m still hashing out what projects specifically will arise from that, but I’m doing a residency in a really well-known building in the city centre early next year and I hope that the output from that will introduce the role and the ideas I have for it to a broader audience who might be able to help me make things happen. Honestly, I would like to write about place more—that seems strange to say in relation to “Closed Doors,” but I know that if left to my own devices, I will mostly write about myself: my own anxieties, insecurities, obsessions. The outward-facing nature of the role really appeals to me: being commissioned to write about things in the external world, which might have very little to do with me. So really what I hope to gain is that sense of being public-facing, and taking my poetry into places where it might have meaning to a greater range of people.