Interview in The Rialto, 1998
My new book, Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, solved something for me about subject and form: the way they are together. I don’t expect it’s got solved for ever. But some things seemed to work that hadn’t before.
I didn’t start out as poet; or maybe I did but it went underground. For twenty years, most of my energy went into researching and writing a lunaticly large-scale book, whose first chapters eventually became two books about ancient Greek tragedy, religion, science and the mind (In and Out of the Mind and Whom Gods Destroy, both Princeton University Press paperbacks). This meant years of research into anthropology, psychology, and history of thought. Checking out someone else’s mental world pluges you into workign out some historically balanced view on where your own came from. I thought a lot about the relation of love and baffled tact between what you study and what you are, and was pleased the reviews picked up on this, in phrases like “making new connexions”, “portraying an alien mental world”, “making vivid foreign patterns of thought”. I lived by teaching Greek and lecturing in universities here, mainly Oxford; or teaching English in Greece. I didn’t apply for a job or think about careers: I just had to finish that work.
It was mad. But I suppose all that connexion-making and investigating foreignness was my particular run-up to poems. All that time, poems came only at odd moments. I’d written poems at school and learnt poets I studied by heart, especially Tennyson, Keats, Donne, Hopkins, T.S. Eliot. I discoveed Auden, Yeats and Pound for myself. I didn’t “do” English at college: every new poet was a major accidental discovery for me and I’d carry the work round with me wherever I happened to be. Plath, Bishop, Basil Bunting, Macneice, Geoffrey Hill. But I never sent poems anywhere and read new work very eclectically. Universities asked me for articles and lectures, and the energy to read new and think new went into that.
I was living a lot in Greece, off and on, and the poetry I took with me there was often Elizabethan – Shakespeare, Wyatt, Raleigh. There was also Greek poetry, Seferis, Cavafy, Ritsos; plus the ancient stuff I worked on. And Latin, especially Ovid and Virgil, when Oxford twisted my arm to teach it. My world then was a funny to-and-fro between Anglo-American academe and backwater Greece. I spent time with friends in Crete and Athens, but also travelled a lot alone, taking work with me through landscapes full of history but isolated and humanly inconsequential now. In the Seventies I knew Greek pop songs better than anything here. In the early Eighties I did try for a couple of years to be a professional academic, at Birkbeck College. I thought evening teaching would leave time to write but it didn’t: you had to do all that admin and preparation in the day. My first pamphlet of poems Alibi (published by John Welch at the Many Press, to whom I’ll always be grateful), came out the year I left Birkbeck. “Alibi” means “somewhere else”: and that was where I always was, place and work.
Aegean landscape, plus the anthropological compulsion to make the alien familiar and draw attention to the accidental, historical strangeness of our own ways of seeing, went into my first collection, Summer Snow. A lot of it was fired by Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, but the poems had little forward-moving music. My head was too full of other language somehow. I’d always done music. My father comes from a Central European tradition of music-making, there’ve always been professional musicians in the family. He taught us stringed instruments and chamber music. I found how crucial singing was to me, myself: as one poem in Rembrandt describes (“Will Ye No Come Back Again?”). I’d always learned songs by heart, always sang in choirs or informally with people everywhere I’d lived, especially in Paris (where I lived for a year on a scholarhiop, doing research) and in Greece, where I learnt a lot of songs and sang in the Heraklion Town Choir. We did the first Cretan performance of Handel’s Messiah in Greek. In Oxford and Cambridge I was very lucky to be in choirs that did wonderful a cappella sixteenth and twentieth-century stuff.
In Summer Snow there were lots of things I hadn’t joined up, above all music and poetry. But some personas there reappear in the next two books. Herodotus the traveller, remembering home in a foreign place, gave the background story to a sinister poem in Angel called “What We Did”. A European doctor caught in the Turkish siege of Rhodes came back in Fusewire as a Muslim doctor in the siege of Sarajevo. And the colonization theme was there from the start. A poem about Cyprus and its betrayal by Britain must have prepared the ground for the whole theme of Fusewire as well as many poems in Angel (say, “Indian Red”, “Trial”, “Rosa Silvestris Russica” and the Gulf War poems. Angel was a very battle-oriented book.) In Summer Snow, the colonization was mainly Balkan. In later books it moved closer to home.
I didn’t know then that foreignness, which I dealt with all the time in my prose work, brings with it questions of power and its abuse. “It is a hard responsibility to be a stranger”, says John Hewitt in a poem set in Greece. One of my brothers, an anthropologist, did his Masters degree in Delhi, whose anthropologists have a perspective very different from that of post-colonial Britain on who you study and why: on the power relations behind any anthropological enterprise. Which I think includes poems. Poets plunder other people’s lives: it’s one of the worries driving Heaney’s Station Island. You acquire unfair power over people by putting them in a poem. You have to be very careful.
A bit of this got fought out in Angel, whose background landscape is Thatcher’s increasingly alienating late 80s Britain. Reviews brought out the anthropological strangeness, saying it “explored the rub between two cultures or people: where imbalance of power leads to a corruption of relationship in which one voice persistently drowns out another.” I wrote Angel as I was writing Whom Gods Destroy, about madness in different cultures. Angel’s mad voices spotlight the inhumanity of Thatcher’s Britain as it hit me. Reviews also identified a “disturbed surreal” tone: the book “described an absurd nightmare-country, where things in equal parts ludicrous and terrible occur, then made you recognize contemporary England.” Now I look back, Angel was trying to find my way of making the familiar strange. People started using the phrase magic realism about the work.
I’d been very lucky to be invited by Matthew Sweeney to join his workshop, which he took over from the Irish poet Robert Greacen, and ran at his home and local pub. Matthew also asked me sometimes to teach with him. I learned so much from Matthew about listening truthfully to strangeness, and from his ruthless way of making words justify their place in a poem. He’ll frisk a poem with a 600mm scalpel for laziness of language or thought. Matthew kindly agreed to be an external editor for Fusewire and Rembrandt, and I’m always grateful for his criticism. He has an infallible infra red radar for the weak spot in a poem. In his group I met Mike Donaghy, Sarah Maguire, Don Paterson, Vicki Feaver, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott and other poets bringing out their first books. Their work and criticism, all very different, exploratory and original, was utterly exciting. I find their work, and that of other poets who started publishing the same time like Ian Duhig, and younger poets, some of the most exciting: because (I think) I identify with what they’re all trying, in their individual ways, to solve. And admire and learn from what they come up with.
I went to Ireland because it was where poetry came from. I now had a child and couldn’t get to Greece so much. Fusewire focussed my colonization/power-struggle subject (which I still wasn’t really aware of) into Ireland, found a way of eroticizing history, moved everything closer to home and somehow raised the stakes of what I wrote about. As in Angel’s “Tudor Garden, Southampton”, I was now writing about being child of an abusive colonizing power; about being held responsible for colonialism. The history of the victor isn’t easy to identify with. Irish and Scots poets can write about history – famine roads, clearances – with anger not guilt. What about descendants of the power that did all that abusing and invading? I read Roy Foster’s history of Ireland, and a book about the history and siege of Derry. (Another siege. There must be something about the image of the city, standing for human risk, that’s important to me). One Northern Irish journalist has called Derry “Stroke City” (as in Derry/Londonderry). The poem that came out of that is one of the weakest in the book, but was important for me because it blended the book’s two themes, the personal and the historical, sex and war.
Being asked, increasingly, to write and lecture on feminist issues in my academic hat, I was lucky to work out feminist things for myself first in that environment, not while worrying about being a woman poet – the sort of thing Eavann Boland explores in Object Lessons. I was in another country. For me, feminist consciousness evolved in a context of study, of history, classics, opera studies, among some very inspiring and generous women in universities (especially America), who were absolutely sure of their worth and what they were writing. Gender studies was a growing subject; their own institutions were promoting women. In both Oxford and Cambridge, most Professors of English are women at present. After being a research Fellow in various Oxford colleges, where I was the only woman (one college had to change its sixteenth-century statutes for me) I had met some nasty patches of velvet glove misogyny, but mainly ignored it – I just found it unteresting, and learned to recognize and despise men clutching the external tokens of power.
I think I was lucky to do this in an academic context (or in Crete) rather than poetry: in both, the only power that’s interesting is power that came from someone’s work. Power that isn’t earned by the work, that comes from someone’s command of PR or their position, isn’t real. I didn’t have to bother with kneejerk chauvinism in male-dominated institutions. Feminist issues came alive for me first in work; then in life. But when Jo Shapcott and I went to a lecture Eavann gave recently, and Eavann asked if it was still true in Britain that most poetry editors are men, we had to say it was. The three of us asked Michael Schmidt, Eavann’s editor: who was reviewing Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters for P.N. Review? We betted it was a man. (The male reviewing of that book has been extraordinary – a sort of boys’ club saying “these poems prove feminism is wrong” – or even, “Since, as we all know, feminism is a Bad Thing, these poems must be good”). Michael looked sweetly sheepish and said he couldn’t remember.
You meet instinctive male conservation of power much more in the poetry than the academic world. A lot of male poets who started publshing in the Seventies or early Eighties still can’t really hear women’s work. Sean O’Brien’s recent book The Deregulated Muse is a fine landscape of recent British poetry, but – as he knows – it is in a way very autobiographical, adn has the strength and gaps that come from that. It’s what excites him, what he’s learnt from. He’s a wonderful critic, he always comes up with a completely fresh and important angle on particular voices and style. But the imbalance of men’s and women’s work in that book is – let’s say, unrepresentative of the important work that’s been done.
By the time I wrote Rembrandt, I was living by reviewing and journalism, much more in this country than out of it. Rembrandt cares less about power-conflict. There’s sexual politics in it, a confrontation of self and other; but things are more equal. No poems about sieges for a start. It’s more to do with tenderness, with being together rather than opposed. “Waterloo Bridge” decides that despite the attandant sadnesses, it’s a good thing, whatever “city” is. Its tensions are constructive, not antagonistic. As with the relation of subject and form in these poems (I hope), personal tensions and misunderstandings work with rather than against joy. They become part of each other.
Rembrandt was a sort of breaking of form. After Fusewire, in that awful gap after finishing a book, I felt imprisoned in three-liner poems. Did I “naturally” think in that shape? Claustrophobia city. Matthew said, “You’re hung up on it. Try something completely different.” So I did the most unnatural-feeling things I could, capital letters at the beginning of lines, indentation, complex internal rhymes. It was great. I began to find my mind racing into formal patterns and relations ahead of me. One poem (“Don’t Fence Me In”) ends on the sound “go”. It wasn’t till I finished the first OK draft that I realized the poem had, on its own, prepared for that sound in every stanza all the way through – except one which pulled the “o”-sound into “Joseph”. It was amazingly freeing. I found I could get all sorts of things into a poem that I hadn’t before, especially teasing and humour. I found I could go over the top on the massed imagery that’s always been one of my vices; and laugh at my own language from inside the poem. The poems became freer to think, when I cracked a new formal whip at them. There was room for more longer poems. All my books have one long one; Rembrandt has several. Mixing disparate things like humour and baroque imagery gives you space, somehow. to have fun varying tones and tensions. This brought back the “magic realist” side of things, which Carol Rumens picked up on in her review.
I think it’s got something to do with the way my particular obsessions click on metaphor and image. In Colm Toibin’s preface to his collection of essays on Paul Durcan, The Kilfenora Tea-Boy, he describes how Durcan stopped using “like”. (“Paul, would you ever stop saying things are like things? They either are or they’re not”.) Metaphor is a way of connecting home and foreign. I know it’s what I think with first. If it’s so damn important to me it ought to be real. It’s more risky and alive to stand behind what you’re saying, as Durcan always does, if you drop the “like”.
The prose book I’m writing now is about women’s lovesong[ in fact, this got transmuted to men’s rock music in “I’m A Man”], and that’s everywhere in Rembrandt. Listening to people like P. J. Harvey, Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Michelle Shocked, Laurie Anderson, and see how they go at things, has been a revelation. They have the same problems women poets have, in a more violent form: the bulk of what’s gone before has been made by the boys. You value the work, but have to find yourself in reacting to it.
Most voices that influenced me early on were inevitably Their words in me gave a particular take on women-in-a-poem. I used to think this didn’t matter. Now I think that’s where you start: from your awareness that men’s creativity got there first. Before you sing out, you have know, in technicolour and 3D, exactly what that’s done to you. How male art made you see yourself.
Luckily there are now, increasingly, more lyric voices with a black laugh and strength in them, like Plath, Bishop and Carol Ann Duffy, who have led some ways. In Rembrandt I found I was writing love poems – a way of looking at a man which is I hope as strong as, but different (maybe more teasing) from male poems’ traditional ways of looking at women – in which love and sex became a new springboard for me. Into describing the world as a mix of ordinary-life objects, things you see in the street, the home and the media (CDs, faxes, Esquire, Jeye-cloths, Safeways, Guardian journalists, Spice Girls, Barclays Bank, the computer Deep Blue) and other things which were always important to me because I’d spent so much of my life doing all that often irrelevant-seeming research, but hadn’t found a live way of bringing in before. History (the French resistance, Cathars, Malory); science (the speed of light, the Periodic Table); ancient myth (Pan, Echo, the Mahabharata); ecology (doomed tigers and dolphins). Plus art. Rembrandt and his use of shadow. Peter Rabbit, Chrétien de Troyes, St Augustine, The Horse Whisperer. Billie Holiday, Mary Black, folk songs, Stravinsky, Bach. There’s also the weird way love makes you think about death. Loving someone, you don’t want them ever to stop being.
Death and dying are around me in a lot of places just now. The last three poems in the book are about that. Rembrandt solved (probably only for a while, I imagine) an unease I had about exoticism – that it can be too easily bought. What I wrote about in Summer Snow looked over here like exoticism, but it was actually more familiar to me than anything here. Because of how I’d lived, I was at home elsewhere. In Fusewire, two countries and people misunderstand each other across a sea of history. Going out from your own culture or self (or a sentence), into faraway places (or far-out imagery), seems to me a creative way of tackling central home things. In Durcan’s Going Home to Russia, Russia is metaphor for Ireland, like Argentina in Toibin’s novel Story of the Night. In Muldoon’s poem about mum washing his hair, “Brazil” stands for the mystery of sex faced by a kid. Elizabeth Bishop got there first, in her brilliant Crusoe poems. For me, poetry’s about going completely out there, into other places and people: a sort of muddle of imagination, generosity and risk. Creativity, like love, comes from being and staying at risk. I don’t see the point of playing safe, in a poem or anywhere else. You’ve got to risk losing what’s yours, what is you, by going out into the other: the lover, the other country with other maybe savagely different values. The worthwhile thing is making the connexion. What you find there, what you do with other people: that’s where the music is.