Interviewed by Will Carpenter and Edward Sambrano
ES: Declan, thanks again for meeting with us today. So, the first question we have for you concerns the fact that you seem to be about equally well-known for your reviews and your essays as for your poetry. I want to ask: do you find that your prose and your poetry influence each other in any particular ways? And if so, how do you see that happening?
Yes probably—I’ve always wanted to do both, I suppose. I’m not massively prolific, it’s safe to say, with the poems, and so I think writing the essays and reviews—it’s something I really enjoy doing. Hopefully, eventually, it helps me to write poems as well, it definitely helps me to read and to spend time with this stuff. You read in a different way when you’re writing about something than if you’re just reading it for, I suppose, what we used to call pleasure. It’s always been something I’ve been drawn to, and I think a lot of the poets I really like and am interested in do a bit of both as well. I mean, someone like Ian Hamilton—whom I wrote about for my PhD—and obviously someone like Michael Hofmann or Ange Mlinko—you go back and look at some of the other poets that you read, like Randall Jarrell and people like that, and it’s part of the same job, I think, to read critically and to read as a writer. And, hopefully, it then feeds into the way you write your own poems, having been immersed, to some degree, in the work you’re most interested in. In some ways, the poems that you’re trying to write are made out of the poems you’ve read, and all that sort of thing. Now I know that’s not a new thing that someone’s said. It’s also nice—there are often long periods where I’m not really writing my own poems, as such – so it’s nice to have a, I don’t know, a stake in it all, or something, to have a foot in that world, to be writing something that’s tantamount to the writing you want to be doing. If you do it properly—or at least you hope that if you do it properly—there’s something creative in it as well, in writing the essay or the review. The book review has a way of trying to meet the writer on their own terrain a bit, as well. It’s not just hack-work, or at least you hope you’re not just doing hack-work.
WC: As a follow-up to that, you said there are long stretches—it sounded like you posed it as kind of a relief—in which you’re not writing your own poems. Do you find that you get sort of entrenched in one mode for awhile, and go with that one mode—that mode being an essay, a review, poetry—or can you kind of do it all at once, as you see fit?
More often than not, if I’m writing something at the desk, it’s reviews or criticism or something. I think, in the rare little periods where you feel you’ve got something going with the poems you try and make a bit of room for that, and give them ground. I mean, it has been the case that you can work on poems and things in parallel with writing essays. It tends not to be the case, though. I suppose it’s a bit more sporadic with poems; sometimes you hit a bit of a run, maybe. It’s a different sort of writing if you’re working on poems concentratedly. Increasingly, I find if I’m going to try and write poems, I have to clear the decks at least for a day or two. That has to be the only thing you’re doing. If you know you’ve got other stuff to do that day, it tends to spoil the whole operation, even if in the end you usually only manage to write for a few hours in the morning.
ES: So, speaking more specifically of poetry, you note of poetry pamphlets—or chapbooks, as I think we might call them—in your essay “Beautiful as a Butcher’s Window,” that “there’s a whole world here, an art form in itself; one parallel to, but neither kindergarten nor understudy for, the land of full collections.” I thought that was wonderful. From your writing here, I get the sense that you see a form of freedom in the form of the pamphlet, and I’m wondering: how have you found yourself engaging with that freedom in the pamphlets you’ve written—in your pamphlet with Faber and “Fighters, Losers.”
It’s true—I think there is something independently satisfying about it. It seems to be (I think it’s probably more the case in the U.S. than it has been over here until recent years) that it’s a really thriving thing. It’s not the case now that you necessarily write a pamphlet and it’s a kind of half a book, then you do a full book, and that’s your book. I think people tend to have different approaches now and you can write these little standalone things that you might never want to then put into a complete book later on. It’s nice, and I think also it’s probably linked a little bit with this slightly less poetic idea: presses and things like that, they’re quite slow-moving and there aren’t loads of them, and particularly some of the bigger ones—it takes a long time for them to get the gears turning. And it’s occasionally something you need to do quite quickly, you know? The pamphlet I did— “Fighters, Losers”—that was with a small press, New Walk, and we decided we’d do it and we edited it quite quickly. It was out 5-6 months after we said we’d do it, and that kind of speed of movement is lovely with a pamphlet.
It’s good to have the option to put a pamphlet out and get it moving a bit more quickly, and I guess it’s also probably linked a bit to that kind of pre-COVID universe that we’ve not got back to yet where people are doing readings and you might want to have something to sell at the table at the end of it, and you weren’t at a point where you’d worked on a big body of work, a big bunch of poems, but you had ten you were happy with or something. So, I guess there’s a bit of a DIY element to some of it. I mean, that year that I wrote that TLS piece—I was judging that Michael Marks Award for the pamphlets—I was sort of surprised how many there are, on a given year. Maybe I was a bit naïve. I think there was about 180 that we saw—everything from quite big, established poets doing something as a bit of a side project to really wacky, interesting, illustrated, DIY things with little indie presses. It feels like a much more dynamic publishing world, and obviously I’m just speaking for myself. I’m still sort of old-fashioned in some ways; I sort of think of the full collection as kind of your record that you’ve got out at the end, but there are opportunities to do the EP or something along the way, which can be quite fun.
WC: I like that analogy a lot. I want to ask you a little bit about “Fighters, Losers,” which you mentioned, your most recent pamphlet. If you’ll allow me the pun, it’s an arena I’ve not seen much poetry enter, and many of your essays deal with that too, obviously, including “A Puncher’s Chance,” which I believe is reprinted as “Escape to Glory: The Intoxicating Myth of Boxing as a Way Out.” Can you tell us a little bit about your interest in the sport and what you think its implications are for your poetry?
Yeah, it’s true, I think there’s a few bits and pieces, just in terms of poems that have dealt with it. There was a guy over here—his name was Vernon Scannell —who did a bit of it, and who had boxed himself. So yes, there’s been the odd thing—there are other poets over here who do bits on boxing, as well, so I’m not as unique as maybe I hope to be. But I guess part of the interest is just—you know, it’s prosaic—it’s just I’ve always loved it; I’ve always loved watching it. Lowell was someone who I have read and reread and he’s always been important to me, but I don’t have that kind of classical grounding, you know. He could reach for his Ovid, and all that, and I guess, to get slightly grandiose, some of these fighters in that kind of slightly epic scale felt like a way of trying to write a little bit about history and a little bit about glory and battle and things like that, that maybe a more classically trained type of person might’ve been able to do in a different way. It felt like boxing was a world I knew a bit about, and just a lot of those themes—there’s something in them that I’m always drawn to. This sense of exposure, I guess, that you get with these fighters—they can’t hide from their intention. There isn’t that ability to pretend you didn’t mean what you were doing as there is in some many other parts of ordinary life. There’s a writer that I really liked, Jonathan Rendall—he said at one point that “only the names change,” and it does feel like that; however you start off, whatever kind of trajectory you’re on, they all kind of ultimately go the same way. There are very few exceptions. You start off thinking you’re godlike and unbeatable and by the end of it, you know, someone’s beaten you, and you’re old and you can’t do what you used to do. And there’s something in that. Partly in the functional sense, it was something I was quite keen to get a bit more into the poems: this sense of history and experience beyond your own navel gazing, I guess. It seemed to open up a whole, as you said, arena: a whole world that you can access that’s just so far beyond my own experience. With someone like Joe Louis, he touches on so much: you’ve got the Second World War, which he served in, and you’ve got Abyssinia against Italy, into which he found himself co-opted symbolically, when he fought Carnera, and you’ve got the more individual Nazi aspect, when he fought Schmeling; you’ve got Civil Rights, and the Army and all of these grand palettes, but it’s just one man who’s, by the end of his life, sitting in a wheelchair ringside and being patronized. It felt like a way of trying to reach at something like the sort of thing you get in Lowell’s “History”, but with more of a Sports Illustrated bent, I guess.
WC: I like that very much—it seems really reflective in your poetry of many things that I find compelling about the human condition and many things I think poetry tries to get at in a novel way. In many of your essays, though, you note what we might call systemic exploitation in that arena, by the people who control it—by the promoters and the organizers, etc.—you could describe it better than I could. I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about that and about how those specifics, those unfortunate specifics, enter your work.
In that piece I wrote for Baffler, I think there is a sort of genuine parallel between that world of boxing (you know, obviously on a grander, more monied scale) and any sort of manual labor, really. It’s this sense that the people who are making the real money out of it are never the ones that are doing the labor. It’s not a very big leap to make it a smaller or grander scale. It tends to be the people who are hardest done by that aren’t necessarily getting any of the benefits. So, I think there’s probably something at the back, or not even that far at the back, of my head that links that all together with more personal stuff, as well. And it’s just that sense of—a little bit, I suppose—of anger and helplessness and all that sort of thing. There’s definitely a catharsis, I think, that comes with watching fights, that you don’t get in a lot of other places, because it is this little corner of the world in which it’s possible to go from absolutely nothing. You know it’s almost a cliché, this idea of the fighters that start out in abject poverty and end up mixing with kings and such—this idea that for a little bit at least, they can completely transcend their initial circumstances.
Not to make too great a lunge for it, but there’s that kind of Gatsby-ish fantasy as well—this sort of self-made character, and there’s something quite appealing in that, I think, this sense of refashioning yourself. And I guess maybe there is a bit of romanticism that comes into it—you try to find someplace where there’s a bit of transcendence, or whatever word we might want to use for that in our age. To bring it back to someone like Joe Louis, something that was so exciting about him at the time—he was a revolutionary figure, because he’s a Black American man in the 1930s and 40s, and all of a sudden everyone—or at least the very great majority of everyone—in America is cheering him on because, you know, he’s beating a Nazi. That wasn’t happening, the idea that you’d have the popular support of the whole country as a young, Black man—it was extraordinary, really. And there was even a headline, I think, at the time the gist of which was something like “A Black American is Better Than a White Nazi.” It was as cut and dried as that. And so, I suppose, temperamentally being sort of drawn to the underdog, in various ways, it really ticks a lot of those boxes for me. But then, I guess the undertow of that is that life eventually catches up with you. You can’t be a god forever; you have to come back to Earth at some point. And that’s as interesting to me, but you know, I’m a pessimist.
WC: Thank you. I like that: “You can’t be a God forever—you’ve got to come back to Earth.”
Yeah, you know, in some of those poems, you get Tyson or Joe Louis—again, that self-invention—they create a character that they play for a bit, but however much they convince themselves and others, there still has to come a time when you’re not the character anymore; you’re just the guy who’s been knocked out, and you’ve got to rebuild from all that. And to circle back to that idea about the links with work, I think probably in my head when I was writing it, there was a little chunk of Matthew Arnold—I think it was from his journal or his diary—Ian Hamilton quoted in the book he wrote on Arnold, “It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits – and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.”
I think there is something in that, again, that links back to the boxing stuff, it seems like it’s a very neat little shortcut to this idea of those people finding out how good they are at that thing. It’s a kind of exposing principle that you don’t get in a lot of other places, a full immersion. You’ve almost always got these various things you can hide behind or be distracted by. But if you’ve spent six months training and you’re standing there and it’s just you and this other person, you don’t have that kind of get-out—it’s interesting—it’s exposing in a way that I suppose not a lot of things still are.
ES: Zooming out from this specific venue of boxing, right, something we’ve noted is that much of your poetry seems to concern itself with venues for violence: places in which violence—in some form or another—is kind of accepted, and expected, even. “Keats Parade,” which will be featured in the newest issue of Subtopics, features several such places marked by the implication of violence. We have “grudge matches,” “a residual rusty bloodstain or two,” and fights over space, in particular, parking space. That’s something so interesting and mundane. In your poetry, how do you see violence finding itself in these mundane spaces, here and elsewhere?
That’s a really good point—I hadn’t made the link, but I guess probably some of it is just circumstantial, you know; in anything where there’s a lot of people in not a lot of space, I suppose it’s that usual thing isn’t it? There’s always a struggle for resources and all of that, so that’s always there in the background, to an extent. I suppose, again, some of the ideas that I’m drawn to or some of the things that have been important to me poetically—things like Hamilton or some of Pound’s early imagist poems, Keith Douglas, or I guess to broaden it out Harold Pinter and things like that as well—I quite like that impulse: in a short space you try and condense things as much as possible, and you try and introduce some degree of tension, or whatever you want to call it. I guess a lot of the poems are often about a moment or two. I don’t tend to have any narrative, really. I mean, I suppose the boxing ones have a bit of narrative, but I tend to be drawn more towards momentary little snapshot things. And so, it might not even always be consciously, but if you’re trying to do that, if you’re trying to look at a moment, you want to find one that’s a moment of tension, or a moment where things are maybe about to boil over, rather than a moment of calm, not that that’s not possible, of course. But I’m drawn to some sort of generative moment of tension or antagonism.
WC: I’m glad to hear you bring that up, because another thing we noted is that in many of your essays you so generously divulge some of the personal details of your life, and many of those details are echoed in your poems. We’ve noticed these moments of tension, and how they often evoke specific and interrelated settings and speakers, many of which seem at least biographically similar to you, or geographically similar to places you’ve been. So, we’re wondering about your personal proximity to them—how do you see your relationships with your speakers and settings?
I mean, I think definitely they’re similar to my experience. Again, a lot of the poets I’m most drawn to write out of life, and the hope is that you’re trying to do it at least a little bit artfully. It’s definitely, most of the time, life-writing, unless they’re explicitly not about me—and even then—they often are. I’m quite self-involved, really. You’re trying to, if not to do the Lowell thing—it’s not necessarily saying what happened, not that he did that baldly, but it at least begins with what happened or something that you would like to have happened. Most of the time it’s drawn from life. There’s not a lot of making up. I do quite like the dramatic monologue, as much as the next person, but I don’t tend to write them very often. Those seemingly personal poems are generally actually personal poems. As I remember, the ones that are going into this issue of Subtropics are all pretty much cut out of life. Again, you hope that you can take some of the ordinary, mundane experiences and try to do something with it, though you shift things around a bit and try to make it work for the poem. You try not to get too hung-up on whether this specific thing happened exactly like that or not. At the same time, it often does begin with real life.
ES: With many of the characters that appear in your poems, like we’ve said, there’s this sort of personal proximity to a lot of the settings and characters; they seem too colorful and specific to be too very contrived, and if you’ve entirely imagined them then that’s a great thing you’re doing. They seem to collude with the speakers of the poems, as happens between the second-person presence and the speaker in “Pretty Boy Blues,” another poem that happens to be featured in this issue of Subtropics, and “i.m Colin Falck (1934–2020),” which appears in the Times Literary Supplement. Also, over the course of the third-person narration in “Five Leaves Left,” which appears in the New Statesman. This engenders a sense of intimacy or familiarity between speakers and characters. What’s the nature of your relationship with these characters, whether real or imagined?
With the Falck one, that was as straightforward an elegy as you could do. He was a friend of mine who died during the pandemic, so I couldn’t go to the funeral or anything. He was a really important figure—probably he’s kind of been eclipsed a little bit—particularly in the 60s/70s and worked with Ian Hamilton on The Review. He was a really brilliant essayist; I recommend his critical work as well as the poems. For a long time, I went to a workshop group that he used to run in North London—the poem was partly a little game to explore some of the things he was interested in as well. I remember I did a long afternoon interview with him about Hamilton when I was doing a PhD. We talked about what he was looking for in poems, and what Hamilton would look for. They were always linked a bit, like a sort of double-act, in a team, kind of telepathically linked in some ways. They liked a lot of the same things, and they couldn’t always explain why. The Keats quote from “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”—that’s the epigraph of “i.m Colin Falck (1934–2020)”—is about consciousness and a seismic shift, as Falck saw it, that occurred, it’s almost when modern poetry for him started. He thought that moment of empathy, of trying to imagine what it’s like to be the grasshopper, not just write about the grasshopper, was a really important moment, so I stuck that in as an epigraph; but a lot of “i.m. Colin Falck” came from conversations we’d had and things that were important for him. Writing that was an attempt to write in line with some of the poems that he might have approved of, and it contains allusions to poems I know he approved of. He only liked about ten poems, so that was quite easy. It’s also just a genuine attempt to write an elegy for a mentor figure.
The “Pretty Boy Blues” isn’t an elegy. It’s about a living person, though it’s in that sort of elegiac mode as well. That one as much as anything I’ve written is about wishing he were still as he was in his twenties, because then I would be too, and remembering being young and being in a band and that sort of stuff. Again, a lot of it is from life and a bit of it’s made-up, and you try to make it into something that’s coherent poetically, or through its images. The hope is that it’s at least true in spirit and to the person, sometimes deliberately not named, in case they don’t like it or just to avoid that sense of co-option. You’re drawing on what they’ve meant to you, and they remind you of, some blend of fact and fiction.
“Five Leaves Left” is doing some of those things, but it’s about the musician Nick Drake, so not someone I knew personally, but someone whose music meant a lot to me. It came about initially because there was a commission to write on an album for Rough Trade Books. I guess you draw on some of the same modes you use to write about someone you did know. You try to do the same sort of job—put together some elegy of sorts. Like any of these musicians who’ve died young and winsome, you’re as much, with someone like that, writing about their myth as you are about the actual person, because of course you can’t access the real person, but you can write about what he becomes as a figure, or the legacy.
WC: I’m sorry for your loss of Colin Falck; it seems like a rough loss, especially during this time.
Yeah, it was tough. The saddest thing was really the timing. He’s someone for whom there’d normally have been a memorial service, or a reading, and it just wasn’t possible at the time. There’s watching the funeral online, though it’s all very distant, a bit grim. But his last book came out around the same time, so that got a few reviews, and hopefully people go back to his essays as well. As with any of these people who dip in and out of view, you just hope that there’re enough people about who talk about them, so they stay part of the conversation, and the books stay in print. That’s about all you can hope, really, isn’t it?
WC: Certainly. You mentioned earlier how a connection to history of a topic can prevent you from navel-gazing. And I think you were probably being self-deprecating when you called yourself very self-involved in your writing. With that as a preface, we noticed that so many of your poems concern themselves, or seem to concern themselves, with things and people left behind, whether physically, socially, economically, culturally. The speaker might be left behind or leave someone or something else. Perhaps conversely, many of these poems’ textures seem to reflect history, suggesting a sort of ebb-and-flow, an interchange between “then” and “now.” We’re wondering—what do you see your poems saying in response to questions about legacy or interwoven histories? With what impressions do you hope your featured poems in Subtropics might leave your readers?
I think that’s completely right—the sense of being left behind. Another line from Jonathan Rendall that I keep coming back to, “I prefer losers. They’re more self-aware.” I guess probably not coincidentally a lot of my favorite musicians and writers are people like Denis Johnson or Tom Waits who write or sing about people on the fringes. I think being drawn to this sense of—I’m much less interested in people for whom things are going really well. I think there’s a lot less going on there, necessarily. I don’t particularly want to read about glorious victories a lot of the time. I think I am interested in figures that are slightly out of time or out of place, not for any grand philosophical reason or anything, but I just think it’s an interesting state to be in. Probably a lot of people feel like that, variously. In some of the poems I like most, there’s a little bit of memorializing or monumentalizing that goes on. The poets I like the most try to write about things that are important to them, and by doing so there’s a certain degree of trying to preserve, or make safe, or reanimate those things. Hamilton went so far as to think that poems could bring people back from the dead. I mean, he didn’t really think that, but he sort of believed it enough to get himself up in the morning. I think there is something in that. Think of Lowell or any of these poets that write out of life. I don’t think it’s egotism that makes them do it a lot of the time; I think it’s as a means of preservation, of trying to get down the stuff that’s important to them. I guess it’s simple sometimes: the topics of these types of poems are important and you want them to survive more than the already-disappeared moment, in whichever small scale you can do that. I tend not to write poems that often, so when I do there’s an impulse to make it about something I really want to keep hold of or have another look at. In the personal poems in Subtropics, there’s a sense of trying to keep something alive, or to preserve it in some way.