from Poetry London, Spring 2012
Christopher Reid's Selected Poems is published by Faber. A Scattering was named Costa book of the year for 2009. Airs and Ditties of No Man's Land is available as a pamphlet from Rack Press.
Kathryn Maris: What was your experience of putting together a Selected Poems?
Christopher Reid: I had to be coaxed into it by Paul Keegan, my editor at Faber and Faber, who, ten years ago or more, suggested I might put a Selected together. At the time I was reluctant—I don't have that retrospective urge, really. But then I got the big prize last year and I thought, 'Come on, I've got to do it. There's no point in being precious'. And in the end it wasn't so painful, going back and rereading and coming to judgments about old work.
KM: What kind of judgments did you make?
CR: Numerous. How much to put in was a crucial one. First of all I made a much longer book. But the centre of gravity was wrong; it felt out of balance. In the end I think it was for the health of the book that I cut it sharply back.
KM: The first poem in your Selected, 'Arcadia', which is also the title of your first collection, takes a child's picture as its starting point. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood—you were born in Hong Kong—and the impact poetry had on you in your early years?
CR: The Hong Kong part was over by the time I was four. My parents came to this country, briefly, at that stage, so my memories of Hong Kong are very vague and probably more photographic than direct. My parents weren't especially bookish, but one of the books they had around the house was a volume of selections from the magazine Punch, which I loved for the cartoons. Then I started to notice that there were these arrangements of words in the corners of some of the pages. They were poems, little vers de société of the kind that Punch in the 1950s used to publish. I found the actual volume the other day, in a secondhand bookshop, and bought it as souvenir. But it's quite hard to be amused by it now. At the time, though, I was enchanted. I thought, 'Gosh, you can play around with words like this, can you?' and started doing so myself.
KM: Was memorizing poems part of your education?
CR: It was. I was sent to a prep school—a boarding school—because my parents went away again to live abroad: not back to Hong Kong, but the Middle East. And so my brother and I were parked at boarding school. It was a very old-fashioned boys' education including at an early age Latin and French, Greek later. And, yes, the English teachers required us to learn verses: bits of Shakespeare, bits of Keats, bits of Henry Newbolt.
KM: One of things you are known for is the Martian movement, a metaphor-driven poetry that emphasized the defamiliarization of the ordinary and the domestic. Can you tell me how it was started and who was involved?
CR: There was never any 'Martian school'. That was a kind of fiction, an invention of James Fenton's, who wrote a review of my first book and Craig Raine's second. Craig was very helpful to me in my growth as a poet and, in the early days, he and I used to swap poems and pronounce on them. Craig was a very tough critic and therefore an inspiring teacher. I guess it was largely through his predilection for the kind of metaphor that you just described that I got interested in writing like that. So to that extent he egged me on and I followed. But there was never any conscious school or doctrine or manifesto. Nothing of that kind. We were just pleasing ourselves, entertaining each other.
KM: So you weren't consciously reacting against anything?
CR: I think we thought we were reacting against a prevalent dullness in English poetry, as represented mainly by The Movement. But in truth I don't remember reading much poetry by The Movement, so I was probably reacting against something I'd imagined rather than something that was real.
KM: Were the Modernists important for you, in particular Ezra Pound and his mandate to 'make it new'? Because it seems as though that is what you were doing.
CR: The Modernists were hugely important, in particular Eliot and Stevens. Pound less so, though I liked his early lyrics a great deal. More than that, when I was a student at Oxford, I wasn't reading much contemporary British poetry, but I was buying that wonderful series Penguin put out, of Modern European Poets. So poetry from Poland, and what was Yugoslavia, and what was Czechoslovakia, and what was the USSR—they were the stuff I knew about. I'd read much more of Zbigniew Herbert than I had of Philip Larkin.
KM: How do the 'Martian' poems stand up now?
CR: Some of mine are awful, but I'm quite pleased with others. They have a sort of reckless energy.
KM: When I was a schoolgirl in America, my English teacher talked about 'Martian Poetry'. It was known internationally.
CR: Well, it's funny, that. I was aware of fame spreading abroad and I got invited to a few foreign conferences on the strength of it. But there was no huge impact at home. The sales of my early books were pitifully small.
KM: Craig Raine once said you have an impeccable ear for breaking a line. What do you consider your strengths as a poet?
CR: Oh, I don't know. Possibly my strength is that I'll try anything.
KM: Critics who reviewed your book Arcadia described you as 'unfeeling'. Was that commonly said about your early work?
CR: It's still said. I had a Selected Poems (Mermaids Explained) out in America about ten years ago. It got a review in the New York Times by somebody who more or less said that it was all to do with fancy wordplay, hard-hearted and shallow. Not quite how I see it.
KM: Has your work become more sentimental in recent years? Larkin said he didn't understand the word 'sentimentality' and thought that Dylan Thomas's definition of an alcoholic—'a man you don't like who drinks as much as you do'—could be applied to 'sentimental': 'someone you don't like who feels as much as you do'. How do you view sentimentality?
CR: Larkin also said somewhere that the transaction between writer and reader is that you, as the writer, feel something, and you want the reader to feel the same thing. That's more or less my recipe. Maybe sometimes sentimentality—the corruption of sentiment—does creep into it. But I'd hope not. I was very aware when I was writing A Scattering that sentimentality was the trap.
KM: Let's play a game of Either / Or. Which is the more important component of a poem: wit or imagination?
CR: I think more about imagination than I do about wit—if by imagination you mean some quality of sympathy with whatever thing you're trying to get at.
KM: A poem's technique or a poem's idea?
CR: They have to be working absolutely together.
KM: Being daring or being in control?
CR: Being daring, definitely.
KM: Truth or inventiveness?
CR: Inventiveness is really a means at getting at the truth. That's the intention at any rate.
KM: Katerina Brac, your third collection, is a pseudo-translation of an invented Eastern European poet. And your fourth collection, In The Echoey Tunnel contains a long poem ('Memres of Alfred Stoker') in which you take on the persona of an old man reflecting on his strange childhood. What was the attraction of assuming different voices? Was it liberating?
CR: Yes. In the case of Katerina it was that I'd been writing, after my first two books, more poems and then immediately throwing them away, because they seemed to me stuck in self-imitation and not advancing the game at all. And this went on for a couple of years. Then I had the bright idea that the best way not to sound like myself was to write somebody else's poems for them. So I took an imaginative holiday to a distant part of the world and found Katerina Brac.
KM: Did the fact that you'd done so much reading of Eastern European poetries at university have any bearing on your choice of Katerina?
CR: I'm sure it did. Of course, one of the things that is problematic about reading foreign poetry, from a language you don't have, is that you're taking a great deal on trust, and the person you're trusting is the translator. So I had a sense that I knew what a translator's voice was more clearly than I knew the voices of certain Eastern European poets. What I was trying to catch in Katerina's poems was the hint that behind my inadequate English there was something rather rich and wonderful to which the reader lacked direct access but which was nonetheless present as a kind of ghost or intuition.
KM: In your collection Mr Mouth, you invent yet another character, but this eponymous protagonist, who is generally referred to in the third person, seems to be a metaphor or device. Were these poems written as a way out of silence? Did Mr Mouth become your mouthpiece?
CR: I had the idea for Mr Mouth when, in the notebook I used to keep in those days, I wrote down the enigmatic words 'Mr Mouth'. This seemed to me rather potent, though I couldn't yet tell how. Then a couple of years later I was editing Ted Hughes's letters and the words came to life. Somebody else noticed it more quickly than I did when I showed them the poems. They said, 'I can see what you're doing: it's your version of Crow.' Which hadn't been my conscious intention, though probably Ted's great, wild book had given me licence to go on a romp of my own. Obviously they're utterly different: Crow is dark, tragic, apocalyptic, about all the finally essential things, whereas Mr Mouth is constantly dodging out of the way and coming up with a clever comment rather than an authentic response. So he is a kind of comic inversion, maybe, of Crow. But I hadn't plotted it like that. Just one summer, whilst I was in the middle of editing the letters, I thought 'I must write something and enjoy myself', and that was the result.
KM: Do you have a favourite Ted Hughes collection?
CR: Crow is one of my favourites. And I love River. But my admiration for Ted spreads evenly across most of his volumes.
KM: What was it like editing Ted Hughes?
CR: Marvellous. He was so stimulating, full of surprises, very genial and candid. Being in his company was always fun. And receiving his phone calls and letters. Tremendous.
KM: And the experience of editing his letters?
CR: That was marvellous. I knew it would be. I actually suggested to Carol Hughes, his widow, at an early stage, that the thing that would most change public understanding of Ted would be a collection of his letters. Because I'd received a fair number myself and knew that the writer of those letters was out of sight for most people—I mean the Ted who was constantly encouraging you, interested in you, always asking questions, totally direct and without any side whatsoever. I thought 'That's the Ted Hughes that people ought to know about'. And there it was in abundance as I gathered the material.
KM: Seamus Heaney said, 'I think poets shouldn't work too hard at other jobs, because I think if you commit a lot of your attention and your tension in another place, you close the receiving stations'. That doesn't appear to have been the case for you. You were poetry editor at Faber for several years and, before then, you worked on Crafts, the magazine of the Crafts Council. You were briefly a professor at the University of Hull and you also run a small press, Ondt & Gracehoper. How has your professional life interacted with your poetry?
CR: My main aim from the moment I left university was to avoid the sort of job that would be wholly involving and eat up my time and stop me from writing. So I've had occasional full-time employment, but very little. My job at the Crafts Council was full-time and that's why I only lasted two years. Faber employed me half-time, which was fine: I used to do two weeks in the office and then two weeks away. Inevitably you take work home—that's unavoidable—but somewhere in the middle of my two weeks off I would have time wholly to myself and that would allow me to keep going.
KM: Who were the poets you took on at Faber, and could you say something, briefly, about what you admired in each of them?
CR: That would be difficult.
KM: Can you name a few then?
CR: Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jamie McKendrick, August Kleinzahler, Charles Simic, the wonderful Katherine Pierpoint (I wish she would publish some more poems!), Maurice Riordan, Wislawa Szymborska, a few others. And Fergus Allen. I'm delighted to have spotted him. They all stand for so many different virtues. What was I looking out for generally? Something distinctive, something that had authenticity. But I didn't have a template. I didn't have a platonic model of the Faber Poet that people had to match.
KM: Let's return to your own work. You published an attractive pamphlet called Universes under your own imprint of Ondt & Gracehoper which later became a full collection called Expanded Universes with Faber. Was it always your intention to develop Universes into a full collection?
CR: The reason I put Universes together was frustration. The maddening thing about being an editor at a place like Faber, and no doubt any bigger publishing firm, is that you're not in charge of every detail of the book as it passes through production and goes out into the world. In those days Faber printed on the most wretched paper and I found that hugely embarrassing, that great poets were being printed on rubbish stock which turned jaundice-yellow the moment you opened the book. So I thought I must gratify the perfectionist in me and produce a little book of my own where everything would be exactly as I wanted it. I worked with Ron Costley who designs for Faber and has an immaculate eye. Just for the fun of it really—just a hobbyish exercise. I had no idea that I would go on to do other books. In the case of Universes, I had a bunch of poems ready and a quote from Alexander Calder that fitted (it provided both title and epigraph). Then in due course I wrote more poems that clustered around those initial ones and the result was Expanded Universes. But whenever I've done a book with Ondt & Gracehoper in recent times it's been—well, sometimes it's been because nobody else would publish the damn thing!—but really the major purpose has been to please myself by making something that I thought looked lovely.
KM: You've written quite a lot of children's poetry (published by Ondt & Gracehoper), none of which wound up in your Selected.
CR: Only for reasons of economy. And anyway I put Mr Mouth in, who pretty well represents that strain in me.
KM: Your three most recent collections, Mr Mouth, A Scattering and The Song of Lunch seem very different from your earlier collections, with For And After (to my mind) a transitional collection. Were you aware of any shift in ambition? Or did external factors have a bearing on this change in scope?
CR: Mr Mouth was the first of the three and it came about as a break from working on Ted's letters. The idea was to have fun really, which I did, so much so that I had to make myself stop at a certain stage. It was a surprisingly fecund subject and I could have gone on endlessly, but a hundred and eleven poems was plenty. The second of those books was prompted by factors I could not have foretold: the death of my wife. If that's different, it's no doubt because I'd never had to confront that sort of subject matter before. And a lot of the book's qualities are Lucinda's qualities.
KM: Did you have any models for elegiac collections, for example Douglas Dunn's?
CR: No, I didn't really think about others. I had individual poems as models. They were all old, like Henry King's 'The Exequy'. Or there's the amazing poem by Ben Jonson about his son's death. None of the poems in A Scattering matches or resembles either, but they were reminders to me that if you're writing about grief you still have to rise to technical challenges, which are in fact essential to conveying the grief.
There are lines in 'The Exequy' where, if you're reading the poem aloud, King can make tears start purely through artful touches in the versification. For example, in the couplet—
But hark! my pulse like a soft drum
Beats my approach, tells thee I come;
—where he adapts the stresses in the second line to the beat of a funeral march. It's an extraordinary moment, the very highest kind of writing in that vein.
KM: What other projects, besides your Selected, have you completed recently?
CR: I wrote some songs for the composer Colin Matthews ['Airs and Ditties of No Man's Land']. They were performed at the BBC Proms in July 2011, with Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams and the City of London Sinfonia—a thrilling experience. I'd love to do more of that sort of thing, but commissions don't exactly overwhelm me.
KM: What's next?
CR: I've just delivered a collection to Faber, which they'll bring out in about a year's time. The working title is Nonsense and it's got a couple of narrative poems in it, developments from what I started in The Song of Lunch. Then there are more unpublished poems beyond that, but they'll have to wait.
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