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Interview
  Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson was born in the north-west of England in 1953. Since 1989 he has taught English literature in Japan, at present in Kyoto, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters. Among his publications are six books of poetry including a Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2003), a collection of aphorisms and prose poems called Untitled Deeds (Salt, 2004), and three volumes of literary criticism from OUP, the most recent of which is Twentieth-Century Poetry: Selves and Situations (2005). Forthcoming in 2006 are Ghost Characters (Shoestring Press), There are Avenues (Brodie Press), Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni (Chicago) and The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems of Luciano Erba (Princeton). A critical Companion to Peter Robinson edited by Adam Piette and Kate Price is scheduled from Salt for 2006, and a collection of interviews, Talk about Poetry: Conversations on the Art, is projected from Shearsman Books.

 

Your most recent work of non-criticism is a book of aphorisms and prose poems. Could you say something about how these forms interact with your other work, the poetry and the criticism? Should we read them as marginalia to the poetry, footnotes to the criticism?

They could be read as both or either of those things, and as neither. Untitled Deeds is in three parts. The third one contains poems in prose, a couple of which date back to the 1970s and were written as experiments alongside differently lineated ones I was making in those years. Among the large number of others I've read, the three twentieth-century poets who have taught me most must be Pierre Reverdy, Vittorio Sereni, and Roy Fisher. They have all written imaginative prose, and prose poems, alongside or as part of their poetry. Though I hadn't published a poem in prose since 1980, that didn't mean I'd given up on the idea or the form. They're simply poems without line endings. Part two, 'The Draft Will', began life as a memoir back in 1993-4. It was the first piece of writing in which I began to explore the ways that speech acts might impact, or have impacted, on my father's family. So it comes before the critical writings that went into Poetry, Poets, Readers: Making Things Happen. The short sections were focused and revised for a projected small press publication in the form of a series of postcards attached to each other in concertina form. The publication never materialized; but the revision served thoroughly to define the piece and I kept it. The aphorisms were the most unexpected of all. They just began to accumulate quickly during 2002-3 - though some of them derive from earlier occasional pieces. I like the form, in as much as it is a single form. I've continued to jot them down in my notebook when one comes into my head. Some of them are like short prose poems, a few are haiku laid out without line breaks. Some are paragraphs of remarks. Others are aphorisms in the Oscar Wilde or Karl Kraus sense of the term. I find that when I pick up the book and dip into it, I tend to read them for what they are.

Though you have criticized elsewhere the binarism that characterizes the 'avant-garde' vs 'mainstream' debate, you were early on involved with writers who have subsequently received scant attention from the larger publishing houses. Has their approach to poetry influenced you?

One of the reasons why I criticized that stubborn binarism is because, as well as the three just named, I've been influenced by a great many poets, living and dead, English-speaking and in other languages. The large publishing houses don't, any more, have much time or space for contemporary poetry, and only tend to publish poets that they think they can sell in numbers that will make the decision seem justified higher up the corporation. It would be difficult, I think, to develop a real sense of what is being done, or might be done, in poetry now by attending only to the lucky few who write what the larger publishers feel they can risk trading in. I'm not sure I can really say if the others ones and their approach to poetry have influenced me. Some have a bit, and others haven't. They are such a various crowd, and hardly see eye to eye on anything anyway.

There seems to be little regard, on either side of the arbitrary dividing line between avant-garde and mainstream, for the methods of the opposite camp, which is, perhaps, dispiriting. Do you see any possibility of dialogue between the two?

Granting for sake of our conversation that there are such 'camps', I see possibilities in the hearts and minds of sensitive and intelligent readers or writers who can appreciate varieties of human behaviour, intelligence, and feeling. I thought that the two young editors of Poetry Review, who completed their stint earlier this year, tried their best to encourage such dialogues. There are entrenched interests on both sides of the supposed line, and they will not only insist that there is a line but that only those on one side or the other can be with the angels. There's a lot of this 'divide and rule' kind of thing in the world. But I don't think poetry and those involved with it should be mimicking such destructive discrimination.

In Untitled Deeds, you disparage Geoffrey Hill's comment that 'tyranny requires simplification' as a simplification itself. There seem to be at least two kinds of difficulty in poetry, the sort you find in Hill's work, which is often ultimately resolvable after a certain amount of legwork, and the sort found, e.g. in J. H. Prynne's, which seems to require a different kind of attention. Would you go along with this proposition, and how much work can a poet properly ask of his or her readers?

Hill's comment is not only that tyranny requires simplification, but also that difficulty is properly democratic. It's the entire complex proposition that strikes me as polemically simplifying a large number of interrelated issues. One simplification is the tacit shift from talking about politics and propaganda, to talking about simple and complex poetic surfaces. Can we take one area to be a direct analogy of the other? I doubt it. But sticking with poetry Prynne's supporters think his work is resolvable with effort. With critical help, or a search engine and some reference books, most of the difficulty you're talking about can be handled. The issue with much more recent poetry seems to me the relation between the elaborations of the language, the implied sensibility and attitudes of the writer, and the assumed relationship, however attenuated, with readers and the world at large. In such a context, Sylvia Plath is very difficult; Geoffrey Hill is painfully difficult; and Jeremy Prynne's difficulties have been all but edited out of existence. I myself don't think that poets can ask their readers to do any work at all. They can invite an attention to and understanding of their work that, if sufficiently gripping and rewarding, will draw further information and knowledge into that relationship.

I agree that reference works and the internet deal with the allusiveness of Hill and Prynne, but isn't there a more fundamental difference, in that the syntactic coherence and (usually) stable authorial voice of Hill is within the range of most readers' frames of reference, while so-called 'innovative' poetry questions assumptions about the uses of language through its refractory forms rather than through perhaps more intelligible argument?

That's certainly the defence, and one of the justifications, for some versions of 'innovative' poetry. The books of Prynne's that I read most closely and repeatedly were the ones published between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. In Kitchen Poems, The White Stones, and Brass, for instance, there is the sound of an authorial voice and some urgency in the address that suggests an aim to communicate information, value, and a view (or views) of the world. The styles which are justified on the grounds that they 'question' something by means of formal disruption insinuate a degree of exasperation about the condition of the world, reader expectations of poetry, and the contamination of communication between readers and writers that - while I can sympathize with, and appreciate the reasons for the exasperation - I can hardly believe that the therapy does more than aggravate the problems. One trouble with this sort of 'questioning' is that its hidden agenda of assumed answers can be, thanks to the method, left unaddressed. However, poets have to follow out what they take to be the track of their inspiration, and follow it where it goes. If readers don't care to follow them, that may be no one's problem. If you're somehow suggesting there is a rule that means Prynne should not write as he sees fit, then I can't imagine what it would be. If you mean that you don't find it congenial, then there are plenty who will see eye to eye with you.

I'm not positing the existence of a 'rule', but I was wondering whether a lack of congeniality was perhaps a bracing or necessary antidote to more marketable poetry which, according to the argument cited above, is too complicit with the interests of those who have power, though I note that you have elsewhere poured cold water on the notion that left-wing politics finds its correlative in avant-garde formalisms.

We're each of us to some degree or other complicit with those who have power. Writing a curiously asyntactical, dictionally heterogeneous, or oddly lineated bit of text has practically no relation to that difficult fact. It can perhaps signal the desire to be less complicit; but it doesn't in itself make you any less so. Since true and good poetry of any kind has such a Cinderella relationship with real power, I can see the politico-scholastic interest in calibrating its degrees of complicity - but it shouldn't perhaps be confused with a commitment to reading or writing poetry itself. As for left-wing politics and avant-garde formalisms, I am not alone in noting the embarrassing fact of Pound's literary and political complexities - nor of noting Brecht's. As for congeniality, or a lack of it, I assume that people read because, in some crucial way, they like what they are doing. Wilde said that James wrote novels as if it were a painful duty. But he was of course referring to the feeling he got from reading them. I take it that people who buy James novels and dwell on them do it because they don't agree with Wilde. Perhaps I'm just saying that few, if any, read for the rather masochistic reason that we need a bracing antidote; and, if we sometimes do, taking medicine is only sensible when you are unwell. The 'bracing' aspect of rebarbative styles is likely, one way or another, to wear off fairly quickly. Reading things that feel somehow uncongenial at first sight might be a good way to try and grow, though.

As a poet who has, in addition to reviews, published three volumes of criticism, what importance to you attach to the role of criticism in the practice of poetry? How important is it that a poet theorize about his own practice?

I've said elsewhere that the desire to write poems and the capacity to finish ones, occasionally, that were acceptable to magazine editors, was something that came to me before I had worked out how to produce publishable reviews, and critical essays took even longer to learn. I recently read a remark to the effect that Wallace Stevens wrote criticism, when he did, to discover poetry. That makes sense to me. One way to put it might be that I have instincts and preferences and even obsessions about what I feel I can and can't do in poems, and writing criticism is one tool I have for finding my way around these 'tastes' as they impact upon my reading. It's also an opportunity to challenge and revise my own limits. If poets are theorizing after the fact of having written and published poetry, then it may be a harmless hobby. If they are constructing the theory before getting started I fear it may be a preemptive strike against making useful discoveries about themselves..

So does a critical essay sometimes act as a conduit between your reading and your writing, perhaps informing a conversation between your writing and tradition?

Yes, it almost always does. A critical essay can act as a conduit for stocking my mind in unforeseeable preparation for some future poem. It can also function as a spur to writing a poem - in the simple sense that I can become fairly disaffected with the business of pushing words around on a screen to describe and comment on someone else's already written poem. The blank pages of my notebooks or my blue and red pens can then start to seem like a tempting resort.

You have written that 'When the poems are read by others, and by those involved, the real situations alter again. Thus, as I do it, poetry becomes a part of life'. This is poetry as speech act, and as such is implicated in issues of faith and authority. Do you find it difficult to maintain faith in an art form which, due to lack of readers, risks becoming marginalized?

Well, there are two things here. I was talking in that aphorism about the way in which a poem might be received in an individual life, altering it and those around it, and helping to create the situations from which other poems might come. You only need a few real readers to experience those sorts of processes. I have no doubt that poetry can still be received in precisely this way. The other thing is that those words 'faith' and 'authority' seem too close to the terms of an established religion to have much connection with poetry's informal relations to readers, as I see them. Besides, the margins are, after all, as good a place as any, and probably better than some, for doing something different and perhaps lasting in the arts.

I was thinking of the means a writer might employ to alter 'real situation', which impacts upon the question of why writers write poetry, as opposed to, for example, fiction. Does 'poetry make nothing happen'?

Well, as I say, I've written a critical book called Poetry, Poets, Readers: Making Things Happen. I wrote the book to look again at Auden's claim and to lay it to rest. I have no doubt that poetry makes things happen - in the sense that as a human implement it can be used by people to effect how some of us think and feel - and so act. Nobody would raise the question of whatever or not a letter can make things happen, would they? Think of the function of the letter at the end of Persuasion; but then think, too, of the way in which Captain Benwick is using poetry. He's a very useful character for Austen, and essential for Anne (even if she does recommend that he reads less of it). After all, it's he who settles Louisa Musgrove's fate - Anne's apparent rival for Captain Wentworth. The book seems to hint that Benwick's feelings are transferable from the dead Fanny because he's a poetry addict. How fortunate for the plot, and what it makes happen, that he is one. All that has to take place for poetry to make things happen is for those involved to read it as a form of fully meant and thoroughly embodied communication. Novels are not usually communications of quite this kind; and poetry's relation to the fictive is both more thoroughgoing and more patently conventional. That's why poetry can be more directly about, and directed towards, lived and living occasions. My book is an argument for holding fast to what people may naturally be inclined to do anyway.

The long poem, or sequence of poems, seems to be more in evidence the further into your career we look; for example 'A Burning Head', 'Aftershocks' or 'Via Sauro Variations'. Does the initial impetus to write a long poem somehow feel qualitatively different from that which kick-starts a shorter piece?

Yes, I think it probably does ... But the three sequences you've just mentioned developed in very different ways: the first was an attempt to write my way through the first phases of a difficult convalescence taking any tiny memory of the period in hospital and then building it up into a little lyric while waiting around to feel better; the second began with the last piece and was built backwards, very quickly, rather like a shorter poem made of separate instances, and the last is a collage made up of poems, or bits of poems, written over the space of a decade and then revised. Something similar is true of There are Avenues- my longest work to date, due out from the Brodie Press early in 2006. So I would tend to think that every poem, of whatever kind, has a different form of inspiration and growth. But yes, shorter poems seem like a little knot of feeling with an occasion that needs to be explored and then pushed along to create something additional somewhere else. Longer pieces have more knots, more interrelations, and their trajectory is likely to take in more points - so the preliminary sense of a burden must necessarily be more various or complex.

Does this 'sense of a burden' ever result in a complete poem in one draft, or is it necessary to work through the poem for several drafts before it's finished?

It strikes me as so rare as to be practically never that I've been able to write a poem in one draft. I may have been able to complete one in a single sitting, as it were; but that would probably involve three or four quickly written different versions of the piece. What most usually happens is that the burden is signaled by a few words, a phrase that someone says, a draft title ... whatever. From this germ, which might be only an aid to memory, or might be a key part of the poem, I'm able, with luck and time, to use it as a sort of magnet for other phrases and bits of evocation - until the poem-to-be starts to define itself in the air and on the paper. The burden is the urge or the need that is then converted into something else in the process of work, in such a way as to disappear with the completion of the poem. I suppose that learning to write poetry, and, what's more, to enjoy writing it, means learning how to behave in relation to words such that the work produced mysteriously matches, by supplanting it, that inchoate burden.

What role does diction have in your poetry? Could you say something about the issues involved in maintaining a coherent, often first-person voice within the bounds dictated by often strict forms?

These aren't things that I've ever thought much about as matters to be addressed in isolation. I write in a way that feels faithful to things in the world including myself, and I use the words that seem to do that best, to my ear. I've never had any great difficulty with first-person voice and form. The first poem of mine that I liked at all contains the line, repeated in each verse, 'for myself I only remember'. I have tended more to put my efforts into including dialogue, or interlocutors, or implied remarks that are prompting what the poem's voice utters. I think I'm saying that the issues are all in making sure that the coherence, such as it is, is shot through with materials and issues, and that the first-person is not shutting out the world. I recently read a comment by Luciano Erba to the effect that the first-person subject is 'dribbled' by the objects in the poem. Perhaps it's even kicked into touch by them sometimes. I'm as happy with a poem that doesn't have an 'I' in it as with one that does, unless there is an air that it's being left out for the wrong sorts of reasons, and then I put it back in.

When do you think the reasons for omitting the 'I' would be wrong?

When I was a very young writer, but one criticized enough to have become self-conscious, I could be tempted to write a lyric poem in the third-person, or to go out of my way to make a direct experience seem impersonal. Then a way of writing which would naturally include an 'I' - as the dramatic device for deploying the poem's experience - would be short-circuited by the sorts of critical or, worse, theoretical self-consciousness, I've just suggested. That would be one wrong reason. Another would be when you have a view or sense of things to articulate, one that contains something quite contentious, say, and from rhetorical defensiveness you formulate this abstractly, or you attribute it to a fictional 'we', or a stooge-like 'you'- or build it into some person-less writing. Then, to my mind, the poem is likely to come more alive, and be fairer too, if you allow a first-person subject to carry the can for what's going on. Don't get me wrong. It's not a question of being more or less true to the real me. The pronouns are part of the poet's toolbox; they need to be used with skill for the right sorts of job.

Insofar as you are both an academic and a poet, you are characteristic of so many published British poets, of whatever formal persuasion. What do you think of the relationship between these two spheres? Does the one inhibit the other?

The word 'poet' is an honorific, not a job description (as comparisons between what different poets do makes obvious). An 'academic' is someone who works in a teaching and research role in an academy. That is a sort of job description - though not necessarily a very specific one. If you teach a creative writing course, you need not be a writer; so there's still no necessary link between the spheres. I would have to say, I think, that there is no real connection between them. Maybe poetry isn't even a 'sphere'. It's an obsession. If your inspiration or need to write poetry is not very strong, then being a busy academic may well drive away the time and occasion that you could have found for your slight vein. If poetry is what you absolutely have to do, then it won't. At present I teach in a private women's university owned by a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. It's my way of funding a family life, and does allow time for my own work. As I say, the margins can be a productive place from which to operate. That's how it's been for me.




© Peter Robinson / Signals 2005