Hi Julian! Tell us more about your course, ‘The Anti-Poetic‘…
Julian: Calling the workshop ‘The Anti-Poetic’ is a bit of a conceit. I want to see if we can write poems we might not normally write. These workshops explore what might be called (paradoxically) the anti-poetic, namely the writing of a poem which somehow escapes the straitjacketing of the well-behaved crafted poem, or the ‘conventional poem’, or the poem which seems like many others (sometimes this is to do with subject matter, voice, or just knack; William Cowper, for example, argued for a verse speaking ‘the language of prose without being prosaic.’) Is it possible to write a poem which surprises itself and steals up on reader and breaks the mould? Ultimately this might be a kind of conjuring trick, a piece of luck, instinct – a poem which comes through the back door.
Are poetic traditions a hindrance to poets?
Julian: No, absolutely not – learn the traditions and then find new ones? Or re-discover traditions which have been somehow marginalised. Since Larkin the English have tried to pretend that modernism didn’t really happen or that it was a kind of unwelcome foreign invasion that needed to be put in its place. Eliot was Ok because he dug himself in, made himself English. The American critic Marjorie Perloff argued, I seem to remember, that English poetry is burdened by a sense of tradition.
Can ‘unorthodox’ poetry still adhere to elements of structure like metre and form? Or should it be a case of anything goes?
Julian: Oh yes – almost impossible to escape intrinsic forms and poetry needs to have some kind of relationship with the ear, Pound coined the term melopeia. And in any case constriction can be liberation. But for at least a hundred years – see ‘The Imagist Manifesto’ – poets have privileged cadence and line by line negotiation (or free verse). Anything might go – if it’s good! Gottfried Benn argued (and I gloss) you either have a way with words or you don’t…
Why do you think contemporary poets choose to write in traditional modes?
Julian: Well, partly, as I say above, these forms are pervasive and comforting and useful. To step into hallowed sonnet space always creates a frisson, especially if you write a 13 line or a 15 line sonnet. Not all contemporary poets choose to write in traditional modes – see Sharon Olds or Frederick Seidel for example – though in any case a traditional form can be offset by a new or unexpected ‘voice’. I do half wonder whether the ubiquitous discipline of creative writing might, inadvertently or otherwise, encourage a kind of well-behaved ‘formalism’ in part, because it feeds into notions of ‘craft’ which – the pedagogy of craft that is – is bandied around like a holy relic. Craft, crafty – maybe the latter needs some nurturing too.
What are you reading at the moment?
Julian: Michael Hofmann’s essays Where Have You Been? It is a question we could ask of him. He’s the ghost in the English machine, a very welcome ghost I think.
When did you start writing? Was there a moment when you actively began moving away from poetic convention?
Julian: I don’t know if I have. I am not particularly experimental, not some kind of crypto-Language Poet. I lived in Genoa in the 1980s/1990s and realise now I was almost entirely detached from what was happening in England. There was absolutely no sense of being ‘a young poet’ in the way young poets seem to have a kind of cultural sponsorship today or are part of a poetic community. I fell in love with Genoa, and maybe this peculiar ramshackle mess of a city created its own kind of poetic estrangement. Guiglielmo Trupia made this short film poem which really captures the atmosphere, I think. I was very fond of the work of Giorgio Caproni. And sometimes I would send poems to Alan Ross, the then editor of the London Magazine. He would send postcards back saying ‘Almost there’. Though oddly enough I was also writing a book about Fleur Adcock (almost an outsider) – I liked the way her poems seem like conversations even though she is wedded to form, mostly. Poems which speak without too much poetic noise rather than poems which holler or make that self-satisfied moue sound. But then there are some pretty good noisy poems too!
What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?
Julian: The usual things, I think – a certain freshness, weirdness, luminous detail, a sideway look, atmosphere. I don’t like poems which beat their chests and demand a certain reverence. I don’t like poems which seem like poems, if that makes any sense. If we are going to have the cosmic poet, let him/her be one-legged or have a slight speech impediment. Performance poetry (an odd term because it suggests poetry on the page somehow isn’t a performance!) is sometimes really good but often it isn’t. I can’t bear people clicking fingers and shaking shakers… I like the way one might just give up poetry and move to the Horn of Africa, or perhaps Uruguay, or even Bournemouth…
What are you working on at the minute?
Julian: I am writing a novel – The Negroni Murders – it’s about a poet who gets involved with a sea bass so it’s almost certainly destined for the waste paper basket! But if anyone would like to have a look, blue pencil in hand, I’d be more than grateful.
Your poems have a very wry humour to them…Is humour an important aspect of breaking the poem-mould?
Julian: It might be. Poems which advertise humour don’t usually work – I like a poem which has a laconic or deadpan quality. Hugo Williams is very good at that. Certainly I don’t like poems which make me feel as if I’m in church. I spent years in church – as a kid that is – and my knees are practically worn out. Poems can be deadly serious without being deadly.
Who’s your favourite unconventional poet?
Julian: Hard one, I do like Frederick Seidel, but I’d also want to reel off a long list (mostly though not entirely American) which would have to include Ezra Pound somewhere. It seems to me The Cantos is a vast toolkit any poet might plunder, and I certainly like the way poems might move between languages. I had a Japanese student who wrote the most wonderfully strange English – everything she wrote was effortlessly poetic, sadly I don’t know what happened to her.
Want to write poetry without the safety net of the poetical? Consider how you can escape the straitjacket of the well-behaved with Julian’s new course, ‘The Anti-Poetic‘. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.
Great interview. Julian’s own poetry is so sharply observed and original and utterly true to itself. The Street of Perfect Love is one of my favourite collections of recent years – I keep going back to it for refreshment and the sense that here’s a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing and is enjoying himself without ever being complacent.