Home Poetry Interviews Reviews Links Contact
Interview
  Andrew Duncan
Andrew Duncan was born in Leeds in 1956. He co-edits the poetry magazine Angel Exhaust, and his critical works include The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry and Secrets of Nature: Origins of the Underground (Salt). He has been publishing poetry since the late 70s, including In a German Hotel, Anxiety Before Entering a Room, Surveillance and Compliance and The Imaginary in Geometry (Salt). Forthcoming in 2006 are two books of interviews with modern poets, Don't Start Me Talking and The Lambeth Marvels. His website is at www.pinko.org.
 

Many of your poems are apparently inspired by historical and anthropological research. How does the incorporation of this information influence the shape and overall form of the poem?

I agree that a poem like 'Anglophilia - a Romance of the Docks' (in Geometry) came out of historical research. I was looking at the history of design and came across a book called The Projection of England, by Stephen Tallents. Then I was editing the selected poems of Joseph Macleod, and read his memories which are more about Tallents than anything else - he was completely paranoid about Tallents, who wrecked his career at the BBC. I was amazed by this coincidence. Tallents was controller of the Image of Britain in the 1930s - so I wrote a set of 15 poems set inside English myths. Were these poems influenced by the documents I used? Hmmm. Yes, but the poems are fantasy, they are a kind of 'evaporation' into a mythical condition, a self floating around inside a narrative from some advertisement or a Thirties film. The individual poems are actually Browning-like monologues by a historical person, aren't they. Or, some of them are. In 1974 - I remember this very well - I read lots of Browning and thought I would be a poet of his kind, writing about episodes in history. I can't analyse the influence of historical material on form because none of my poems pre-dates 1974. I began writing poems about my own life when… when I grew up.

Social anthropology starts with individual descriptions of individual people, which I suppose we would define as anecdotal. One of my poems has the line 'What is social structure' and I think the step we've reached here is to ask is there any 'structure' or just an endless surface? Perhaps the structure exists because we withdraw from teeming microbial detail and think about what we have seen. A poem can allow that while also showing concrete scenes and individual people. David Gascoyne wrote in his 1930s diaries about an intense wish to become the voice of his era, the conflicts in his psyche reflecting the turmoil of the Age. Then he wrote a lot of Christian poetry, imitating Eliot, speaking as a prophet. (This is still part of the 30s research.) Abstract ideas in the English poem replaced Christian typology as the link between the eternal and the temporal. At the same time, he was part of the team which set up Mass Observation, the sociological research club. The wish to be typical is like the wish to be Christ! 'The drugs I take will free all men' (a malicious line I once wrote about someone I knew). Things went really badly for Gascoyne. I am interested in thinking about history, anthropology, and politics, even if I'm just one stupid individual, wandering around an endless surface most of which is meaningless.
We could ask 'where is social structure'. One answer is that it is carried around inside the head of everyone in that society. Which could mean that recording my own consciousness unpacks the rules of British society, if you wait for long enough.

Science has to do, not only with ideas, but also with collecting objects. Two of the poems in Geometry are actually about collecting - 'The Builder of Follies' and 'Wonders of Classification'. In Derbyshire, and near my home town, is a stately home called Calke Abbey. The family which owned it never acquired a title or took part in London politics, but they were big landowners. The thing about the house is that it is completely stuffed with objects - it was inhabited by several generations of collectors who had lots of money and never threw anything away. It reached the National Trust as a kind of warehouse of Victorian significant objects, and they left everything in place. The land-owning families used to have the precious objects in their houses, then you had museums which sort of replaced them. A cultured person has a sort of home museum - and a book of poetry is like a personal collection. I think making a collection of scenes and objects of knowledge is basic to what I do - this pressure of memory and classification may make Theory possible, but in itself it's infantile, a primitive accumulation.

I was walking through Hockley, the Bohemian shopping quarter of Nottingham, the other day, and saw in a shop window a set of tableware from the 1950s. I recognised the pattern because it is on the cover of the Shire book of 1950s ceramics, which I bought in Brighton Museum and frequently read. I felt this pang and knew I had to buy some of them. Which I did when I went back and found the shop open. I was born in 1956 and I can remember the 1950s, in flickers, only in terms of objects, such as tables, plates, formica, wallpaper, because you have no abstract mind at 4 years old. I have a longing for that period. The pattern is called 'Homemaker' and is from 1957 and the reason for the pang was that our family moved from Leeds to Loughborough in 1958, making my home, and I moved from London to Nottingham a few months ago and am making my home here. The pattern shows images of furnishings which are very specific to 1957. For example, I read a German book on 50s design which said that 'the kidney table is to the 1950s what the arch was to romanesque architecture', and the plates show kidney tables. Which appear in abstract paintings of the time, allegedly. The photo litho printing which lets you apply those very sharp images had only just been invented in 1957, which is why those plates are so evocative of a moment - they really contain time
This isn't a poem. I put it in partly because it shows how history and fantasy go together, partly to show how my imagination works, in patterns which are completely meaningless to another person, and the work I do as a poet is to find complexes which are simple enough to write out in words.

The idea of poetic 'craft' for a follower of, say, a Glyn Maxwell is not the same as it might be for a follower of a Steve McCaffery. What does craft mean to you? Is it possible, or desirable, to reconcile in a critical framework the various uses of the word?

The air around 'craft' might imply someone who always has the right number of words in the line, always has the words in the right order, etc., but this is also compatible with someone who sticks to familiar themes and registers because they are afraid of the unpredictable. I think there is a class of poets who seem to have wandered into a stagey, Home Counties drawing-room comedy around 1958 and failed to wander off. Obviously when they say 'anyone for tennis?' they get the words out in the right order. Although maybe they didn't the first few thousand times.

Why not use the word 'art'? I think poetry is an art.
Maybe craft has to do with the unconscious rules you use when rewriting. I certainly rewrite very slowly, over a long period. Geometry took 5 years. It took 16 years to finish 'Surveillance and Compliance' as I wanted. There is a version after about 6 months, in 1987, which has most of what was there in the book as signed off in 2003.

Steve McCaffery came from Leeds, I think, which is where I was born. I have this vague fantasy of what life would be like if we'd been forced to stay in Leeds. I'm sure Steve found a much more receptive scene in Canada and the USA. English immigrants get a fair go in Canada.
The focus of your question is about rehabilitating a word which has gone into detox. Maybe this word should be thrown away? The problems of writing about me, McCaffery, and Maxwell within one aesthetic and lexical framework are extreme, and frankly a solution is not on the horizon.
Coherence is probably a fault line you can track. In 'Anglophilia', each of the 15 poems follows its own pattern and is unlike any of the others. I can imagine a more mainstream poet would have set up an idea and then followed it through over 30 pages. Since Tallents was the inventor of the British documentary movement and the boss of the GPO film unit, you could just re-create one of the documentaries his employees made for him. This is my notion of artistic integrity or 'craft', that you have a different concept for each poem.

I've been reading Ehrenzweig (The Hidden Order of Art) again, and where he discusses the random, the psychotic, and the empty as features of good art. I agree with him. This would be part of my criteria of craft. Information and resolution thrive when surrounded by their opposites. (I don't have 200 pages to explain why this works.)

Your poem 'Coastal Defences of the Self' examines the ways language can be used to mediate the self. Can a poem written in the first-person save itself from lapsing into the anecdotal?

I don't think poetry is about knowledge, which is enduring but without metabolism, but about experience - which you can't keep, which dissolves, but which is where you live. I believe that all human experience is significant.

I think this belongs together with the first question, as the exit from the anecdotal obviously implies entry into the demon world of specialised knowledge.

Let me make a crack about this - Charlie Parker had a pop hit once, with a vocal number called 'This isn't sometimes, this is always'. As if some moments of experience were monumental, raised to the level of philosophy.

Maybe anecdote isn't such a good word, although Andrew Crozier's essay talking about 1945-75 as the era of 'domestic anecdote' in poetry remains classic for me. It points to the banality of much poetry published in that era, but this is a subjective term, not hard science. Hugo Williams presumably didn't think his domestic anecdotes were banal and inept. Anecdote suggests something like a scene in The Archers, something inconsequential, familiar even before it starts, linguistically bland, apathetic, without ambition, without even conviction, and dispersing attention. Surely a poem about a poet doesn't have to be like that?
I think 'anecdote', which means unpublished, originally referred to collections of the sayings of philosophers, gathered by their disciples after their deaths. The Gospels would fall into this category, I suppose. Reliance on the living word - it would be sort of stupid to decry collections of sayings while thinking that an interview is a good thing!

I think it's easier to write a poem about a human self than about, say, a bird or a saucepan. A work like Speech! Speech! seems to me wonderfully profound and yet always about a Self and the things it bumps into.

'Coastal Defences' is a very emotive poem. I think it's more about the poet realising that the poem is owned by other people and that the poetic process is dominated by a hostile audience and can only under certain circumstances come back to and belong to the poet.

Repetitively completing
the spiralised gridiron, the tormented conduct,
a shrine of bones where energy becomes cult;
its burnouts of meat, gutters to drain off heat;
a space that always empties itself,
death as a form of measurement
that waits to be seized.


How much is this one?
does it capture the artist's life?
But is it good of its kind?
It has that feeling of exhaustion because Geometry went on for too long and Surveillance was so hard to finish, and I took on too much on. The 'tormented conduct' is the poem, where you are being compared to a thousand other poets who have completed the same course. The twists and turns (root of torment is twisting) make it art, it can't be straightforward. Perhaps I was thinking of the scene at the end of Book XIV of the Iliad where Hector's body is burnt - the hero completes the course and is burnt on a gridiron (and his grave becomes a cult site). But the poet is also appearing as an animal which the connoisseur has hunted down. The height where your lungs fail is interesting to you, but too interesting to other people, as well. I'm fascinated by situations where the audience is hostile - maybe every poem has to be designed as an act of conflict as well as one of complicity.

There was a poem which split in two - the other half is part of 'Savage Survivals' and is called 'Self-reproducing Programs, Property Regimes'. That half is about the effects of being a younger brother. The idea is of little behaviour programs that copy themselves and so expand to fill up the available space and block out other programs. This might be the origin of style; the character in 'Coastal defences' has built these huge verbal structures, and completely exhausted himself, and at the point of blacking out he realises that he has made his self visible to the hostile, over-cultured, audience, and that what is visible is tiny programs acquired in childhood, or which acquired the neural space, and sit there reciting themselves, and which perhaps appeal to a child. It's like the end of autobiography. And all the poems which follow in the book are non-autobiographical.

For me, there is a Strip of land between scenes too abstract and scenes too cluttered with dull detail, saucepans etc., and in that Strip you find the poems it is legitimate to write. A kind of walking the roof-ridge, to use the German phrase. Which is not quite walking on thin air If you cross the terrain where poetry is distorted, unfruitful, etc., you can find the terrain where poetry is shining and faultless and abundant.

To what extent does obscurity have a place in modern poetry?

This is a divisive question and can get people angry very quickly. There is a simple truth, that what remains obscure is not part of anyone's artistic experience or pleasure. It is a failure, a cinder that belongs on a heap of cinders.
If anyone finds any of my poems obscure, I would like to apologise here and now. The whole poem is an explanation of the poem, it has to take you by the hand.
However, truth is revealed by Time, and what is obscure on one day may reveal itself on the next. The experience of communication breakdown involves three things: speaker, the receiver, and the process. All three may evolve radically with time. Failures can perhaps be fixed by tinkering with the receiver or the process.

I read Geoffrey Hill's first two books in about 1976 and had no idea what he was talking about. I re-read them in about 1993 and found them quite transparent. So had the poems changed in the interim? I don't think so. The real issue here is about pop culture. Everything 'mass' is aimed at 15 year olds. That's dandy when you're 15, but what happens when you grow up. Once art becomes adult, it's also going to be less sweet and sticky, less egocentric, more complex and curious - and some people will find it hard to follow. If you want pop culture, you've got Radio 1, haven't you.

It's fair to point out that the hard-line Cambridge School regards my work as unsubtle, over-explained, populist, dependent on familiar emotional situations.

My early commitments had massively to do with rock music and Socialism. Neither of these has much time for obscurity. If my poetry of around 2000 is fairly obscure, this may be because I got more complex. Or it could be the influence of living with a tiny specialist audience who really don't want those eternal human situations over again, who are only turned on by reflexive formalism. This was the concrete situation I was in. Maybe there was a fatal curve - I grew to be part of my period, but grew away from classical standards of art. I don't know.

I find some Cambridge poetry utterly obscure. There is this social background of a very strict power hierarchy based on intelligence rankings set by competitive tests. The poem works as one of these tests. It does not matter if no-one understands your poem because that means you've won!
When I say that, it's bad language because the subjects would indignantly deny the truth of it. But I still believe it to be true. Cambridge students of 22 or 23 now are writing poems exactly like Cambridge poetry of 1977. Just as bristly, just as few doors and windows. Flawless black cubes.
Let's take a less adversarial approach to this issue, where we say that at line zero the poem is totally unknown to you. The extent of the unknown is what limits your experience as you read the poem. A completely familiar poem is not friendly, it shuts you out from any experience. Reading is about a motion from the unknown to the known. Poetry has to go close to the Unknown and the Unknowable, as 'Only the prisoner shall be free, only the poor shall be rich, only the weak strong, only the humble exalted, only the empty filled, only nothing shall be something' (Luther). Language at the edge of breakdown is not language breaking down. I am deliberately engineering situations where there is a lot of information you don't have at the outset. You start out in a totally darkened room and I bring you drops of light in a glass one by one until finally you can see the entire scene.

The suppression of innovative poetry and the monopolization of most outlets for poetry in the 80s and 90s is now a well-documented phenomenon. You've mentioned that this temporarily affected your exposure to poetry. Does the situation seem healthier now?

I'm not sure. If the test is whether my poetry is available on the shelves of high Street shops, the retailing world still fails the test. The unorthodox books get published but not distributed. Computerised stock control has chased poetry off the shelves, not produced a wonder landscape of generous pluralism. The test case is poets we've never heard of, isn't it - the poet born in 1973 who can't get published. So, what is the outcome of this test. When Keith Tuma published that classic anthology of 20th C poetry, there was uproar from the gatekeepers. I think the resistance to poetry with claims to be art, in this country, is obstinate and in control of the institutions. Most of the professionals are there to prevent diversity. I can say this because I'm an outsider. Actually there is an anthology of the new generation, in the process of being edited by Keston Sutherland, which should shed a shower of light on this issue, if it ever reaches daylight. Is the work of gifted young poets easily available? can they hear their own generation? Maybe you should ask them.

What do you think is the role of metre in contemporary poetry? Does the incorporation of found or random elements, or the fracturing of syntax in the poetic line require a rethinking of the way rhythm is theorised?

I think this question is much more about Allen Fisher than about me.
Let's start with the absorption into poetry of organised knowledge which exists essentially in a prose form. The idea of taking poetry away from stylized, idyllic, elevated scenes involved bringing in this material on a large scale.
Another possible start is the rhythmic variety of everyday speech. Prose is far more monotonous than this. Poetry bears a fluctuating relationship to this teeming variety. Bringing ideas in is not distinct from the documentary impulse.
The wish to take on the real world drags swathes of material into the poem which is unassimilated by its nature - assimilating it would break its nature down. This is where you get a new rhythmic basis - the poem stops in order to expand, taking in this heterogeneous material. By now the poem is something long and open, a patchwork in which the individual cells each have the rhythmic and linguistic patterns fitting to them.

I can't theorise about metre. When I look at a line, I unconsciously scan it to see if it's a good line. I look at 20 parameters at once, I'm not theorising because I'm thinking of hundreds of alternatives to fix the problems. This is really what I do all day as a poet. Writing by now, what, 20,000 lines, 22,000? It's like putting an object on a computer screen and using CAD to swivel it around and see it from every direction. I got to think about this more when I was translating a long German poem by Jürgen Becker, the Journal of Repetitions, 700 lines of it. A completely wonderful poem. Some of the lines didn't come out well in English straight away, and I had to spend hours fixing those lines. I could think about what a line is because I didn't have to write the poem.

I agree that meter is inseparable from syntax (in English), because levels of stress are all about contrasting pairs, and syntax shows where the contrasts are and which is the more emphatic one in each pair. People have quite mystic notions about metre because they fail to understand it. I see it as subordinate and instrumental. You react to a voice because you have feelings about the person it belongs to. Semantics and interpersonal relations are much more complex than stress and pitch contour, and so much more likely to be the sites of the 'poetic essence'. Prosody is something acquired early in childhood, and if a three year old can master it it can't be very complex. It is reinforced by every (English) utterance you hear, and after being reinforced so many thousands of times it does not have any degree of autonomy. I think good and bad poets use the same rhythmic patterns, following distribution curves inevitable for the English language; what differentiates them is not simply in the phonology. People mumble about rhythm because it is physical and therefore seems to be objective, and this lets them mask their intense subjective feelings about the poet or the scene in the poem. Readers of poetry don't want to accept their own feelings of affection, identification and trust, which are actually some of the most admirable things about them. This is why we end up with reviewers explaining to you that someone's sensitivity and authenticity are in how many syllables they put in a line!
I think what reviewers say about metre is junk, frankly. The discourse in England around metre is fanciful, self-assured and is not serving poets well. People can't tell you 'what is a line break' 'what is stress' 'what is the base prosody of spoken English'. Fortunately you can be brilliant at reciting verse without knowing any theory.

There is an old conundrum about love poems telling you very little about the loved object (whose every word the poet is supposedly hanging on!). The question of incorporating a second voice is vital to poetry. Because one version of poetry is that it turns everything into a personal voice. The world is apparently varied but the poem always sounds the same. Maybe a more modern poem includes different 'self-reciting machines'. In a work like Place, Allen incorporates a huge amount about the history of London and the regime of its watercourses. This is magnificent because it includes so much which is outside the confines of the self, and the little tunes that populate the self- quietening them down so you can hear much larger, less familiar, more entrancing patterns.

Many of the poems in The Imaginary in Geometry trace the interaction and movement of linguistic components across geographical spaces. Is this related to the projection of the imaginary explored elsewhere in the book? Could you say something about the importance you ascribe to these ephemeral moments of language change?

I chose geolinguistics because so many different planes coincide in a fascinating way - a shimmer effect which I can't resolve. I am certainly interested in the distribution of related languages over such a wide area of Asia and Europe. This distribution belongs to deep time rather than the ephemeral. But you're right to talk about the ephemeral, because language also came in as speaking, the recreation of the social from moment to moment, where 'structure' gives way and you have conscious choice (with such phenomena as hesitation and improvisation).
The title refers to the projection of England, the idea that visual imagery presets ideology in a sizable way - so that you can point to an ideal England which is mixed up with features of the real one. Elevating poetry to myth might mean going through collective myths.
I am interested in imagining the pattern of Indo-European languages, from Sogdian somewhere in Central Asia to Gaelic on the shores of the Atlantic. 'The Ruins of Guldursun' is about an archaeologist (Tolstov, S.P.) in Khwarezm, and starts with Dar zamin dur dast, 'in a far-away land', the traditional opening of Persian fairy-tales, which is supposed to take us back to being three years old, acquiring language, where the neurology is working at its best, and to a kind of Persian dreamworld of minstrels and castles. I accept the reader won't get this (except through the Note), but it's precious to me. I like to think about that Eurasian continuum and about the discontinuities. Between Polish and its neighbour, German, there is such a discontinuity. What happened to the intermediate dialects? Are there any traces of them? What did they sound like? The difference between Irish and Scots Gaelic may be due to the Norse language once spoken by so many people in the Hebrides, who simplified the word endings a lot. In the north-east Caucasus is an Iranian language which has maybe, in some eyes, traits (l replacing syllabic r) intermediate between Iranian and Slav, as if there was once a connecting language which was both like Russian and like Farsi. I don't have the ability to imagine 1000 species of moths, but I can imagine the map of Indo-European languages. I allude to the facts in poems but I don't recite them. Does this overlap with the stuff about Tallents and the English imaginary? No, I would have liked to invent intermediate points, but I concede they aren't there. Phonology is invisible but not imaginary.





Note. Savage Survivals (amid Modern Suavity) is the name of a book of poems to be published by Shearsman later this year.





© Andrew Duncan / Signals 2006