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Hello Ira! Tell us about your upcoming residency, ‘21st Century Canto’
Ira: It’s a tie-in with a documentary I’m making on Ezra Pound, his crash and our crash, for Radio 4. One of the producers who helped me get my proposal accepted said “well, of course, you’ll write your own Canto for the show”.
“Will I?” I thought. Even though I’ve been fascinated by Pound’s Cantos for nearly 25 years, I would very much think of myself as a postmodern, Oulipo-like, poet. (Indeed, when I was first heavily immersed in the Cantos, the only way out for me, after about 18 months, was to read John Cage’s poetry, because Cage’s attitude to language was so different, so not theatrical and dense.
I’d say my career has gone in much more of a Cage direction, but I know that I remain devoted to Pound. I’ve just never tried to write like him. So, the producer’s challenge is a great one. But I need to set myself a training programme, and I hope others may want to train with me.
It’s early days, but how much of an idea do you think you have about how to start writing a Canto of your own? What are going to be the biggest challenges?
Ira: I have a strong feel for what I want to do. Pound makes some of the greatest word-music any poet has ever made. I remember (or mis-remember) William Carlos Williams saying about Pound that he may have been a fool but he had “the magic ear”. He studied the metre of poetry in many languages, not least Greek. He tried to create sound patterns that were not the usual de-dum de-dum of iambic pentameter (which often underlies lots of free verse). The language has to be muscular and fruity but with as few words as possible. I’ve also been recently dwelling on his warning: that too many poets work hard to get a fancy word in, then lose the movement of the whole. And I’ll be thinking of how classical music works: I went to a piano recital last week, which included Stravinsky and Chopin pieces. The Chopin really struck me, because there would be a great phrase (of the sort we would recognise in pop as a riff), and my (lazy) ear expected this phrase to repeat for a while. But no, instead, it ducked around, and swooped and ruffled. I thought to myself: who does this with words? The answer is Pound. So many poets have a regular beat. Pound has music, an overall mood, and extraordinary variation of phrase, but always staying with the mood.
So, I’m going to need to try to match up to that when I’m finished.
But, in the first place, I’ve written myself some rules, and I’ve also sent these to 3 or 4 poets who I admire, and who have Pound’s ability not to fear embarrassment, to be daring without being merely “look at me”, like a good community person who says what is or should be what’s on everybody’s mind (and isn’t a shy alienated wallflower):
1) use a line from a poem in another language, plus your translation of it
2) use some historical found text, which you have to find in a library (ie not easily ) and edit it to bring something eloquent out of it
3) use this and other fragments in a musical way, echoing and chiming against each other with the whole line (not just end word )
4) state or develop a strong opinion in the piece about political reform, deciding what you think about economics
One thing we spoke about while planning the residency was the impact the Great Depression had on Pound, and his anger about how the US money supply was being controlled, and where the hell it was all going. I was didn’t realise how these big economic considerations – like production, capital, labour, distribution – completely obsessed him; and his criticism of the banks was alarming prescient (‘private gain is not prosperity, and equity is the treasure of states’). Is Pound the poet we should be turning to given we are stuck in an international financial crisis of our own?
Ira: Yes and no. One reason I proposed the theme to Radio 4 is that for the past 25 years in which I’ve been reading Pound, I’ve been told that he supported fascism, was anti-semitic and that he had mad economic theories. These, it implies, rot his work from within, and so one shouldn’t try to read him much. Meanwhile, other writers who supported fascism and were anti-semitic are still read, and few could tell me what Pound’s economic theories actually were.
What interests me is that he had economic theories at all. I think poets should think about the big questions, if possible. But above even that, I hate condescension. I hate this assumption that we won’t even look into his economic theories. I can fully accept why people would want to ignore the strange faiths that writers have, their dietary fads, superstitions and cosmic explanations of the universe. I love Stockhausen’s music, but I can’t really take seriously his claim that he was reincarnated from the planet Sirius. I tend towards Boulez’s summation, that Karlheinz took too much acid in the 60’s. And I still love his music.
With Pound, it’s different. As you say, he spent years hard at work on the subject. Sure, he has the Poundian maddening habit, almost of shyness almost of someone possessed, of talking in half-sentences and strange colloquialisms even when trying to persuade the world of reforms that he thought were simple but ignored (his equivalent of pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes). In some ways this is appropriate to the fact that economics is counter-intuitive. In other words, it doesn’t operate as you’d think it would. So, Margaret Thatcher would say, any many have since, that the state must balance its books like a housewife balancing the home budget: when there isn’t much money coming in, you make sacrifices and reduce spending. But a thousand economists will tell you that national economies don’t work like that. It’s confusing how they do. Printing money, spending beyond the budget, can get a country out of recession much more quickly than austerity. It doesn’t seem to make sense, using metaphors from household spending, because it isn’t like household spending. But it helped Thatcher do very well, in my lifetime, as the frontman for rich people who wanted to have council homes sold off so that they buy them from former tenants and charge high rents. They wanted her to privatise utilities so they could own them and run them for a profit. Pound has the great feel for writing in an earthy way, about tangible things. He’s a great sharer and de-mystifier (which led Gertrude Stein, the rich dandy art collector whose painter-friends felt mis-described by, who was resented by people who knew her as a self-mystifier aggrandising her own role, who is more of a Charles Saatchi than anything, as Pound never was). If you’re an earthy writer, how do you write about economics? Very tough. Should we turn to him for clarity now? Perhaps not.
But who’s we? I think he can speak to poets, and to the conscience of poets, with great power. He says in one passage
“The real life in regular verse is an irregular movement underlying. Jefferson thought the formal features of the American system would work, and they did work till the time of General Grant but the condition of their working was that inside them there should be a de facto government composed of sincere men willing the national good”
Now, I get this, as a poet. I get the idea that the form itself (the dreaded sestina and villanelle beloved of creative writing workshops) doesn’t work if you make it like a jigsaw, trying to be smooth and fancy. It only works if it has “irregular movement underlying”. So too, do states work. Rules are great, but there must be irregular passionate daring honest people inside the system.
But it’s not just that. I get the way Pound talks. I get that he will surge and take shortcuts. I get that he wants to keep the passion rolling. I get that he can concentrate, to read books in history archives and read theories, but that as a writer he wants to be passionate (in a sense to overcome ennui, self-doubt, the black dog). I admire people who can discipline themselves to be clear, but I also honestly think they risk a kind of soul-death. They suppress themselves so much to write “clearly” that they lose their soul. I feel that fear in Pound. Therefore, I get information from him, but I stay passionate, muse-driven, a bit barking.
Many would then reply: then he and you are irrelevant. We need sombre men of government, sombre leaders. No, actually, we need intelligence, and not over-complicating the simple things, and not making excuses on behalf of those with power and money that we are afraid or feel it is pointless to challenge.
Pound refuses to agree that we need to redistribute money. Or that we need to drop out and live like hippies. He says one simple thing: every year, we have crops grown, things made, and the talents of people. That’s our bank account. The flow and action of these things should not be governed by balancing the books, by whether it’s affordable on paper.
He also says that it’s criminal that anyone, anyone, anywhere, should starve to death. Not an unfortunate accident. Criminal.
It’s been alleged that Pound travelled to London in 1908 partly to further his acquaintance with the occult teachings of Yeats. Do you share, along with Pound, an interest in the esoteric and the mystical?
Ira: I’ve never heard the move associated with the “occult teachings” of Yeats. For his poetry, yes. I think Pound wanted to see Europe, he wanted to meet great writers and befriend them and he loved Yeats. He also loved Henry James, whom I love, and for me the influence of James on Pound is much more stronger than the influence of Yeats. Maybe Pound was nervous about speaking another language all the time when he was 23, although he loved it about Paris and Rapallo later. He did well in London.
I certainly do have an interest in the esoteric and the mystical, but it runs alongside Pound’s, and I’ve taken almost no spiritual comfort from that side of Pound. I find his theories about how his semen is mystical just another bit of nonsense from a randy poet who wants to get laid, and I resent that in his work it has no female equivalent. Pound and Yeats are spoiled for me by that kind of silly sexism. Sure, that side of them appeals to my self-pity, which everyone has, but it’s still silly.
But the way that signs are everywhere, yes. The Ovidian transformations, the magic, the uncanny. All of this appeals to me greatly. On the one hand, I love that in Pound there is a belief in the uncanny without any kind of hymn-like false solemnity: that his work is not priestly, but alive with mystery. And he loved to dance, which I love to do: he’s not some stiff vicar. On the other hand, Pound disparages Christianity (although it changes in Italy, where he says he warms to Italian Christians, because they sort of believe in everything else too). I like what I see in a tradition of mystical Christianity because it’s open to women and men, and I like some of the buzz and mystery in Christian writers. I generally don’t like too stuffy a poem, so I generally don’t read stuffy anything: stuffy Christianity included. But there are Christian writers with an ear and a music whom I love.
At the same time, my life has been constantly plagued by the uncanny, by coincidence and mystery, signs and wonders. I often accidentally have telepathic moments with people, and my sons have this with me. For a while intensely, and still now and again, I can see colour fields (an “aura”) around people’s heads, and the colour gives a hint about the character. Hilariously, I was on a walk with a fellow poet once and she said “is that an aura, there, on that cat’s arse?” And without comparing notes first, we saw the same field, in the same place on the same part of the cat. That was reassuring. Then she went to church that night and saw jets of aura flame coming out of the priest’s ear! And I think she stopped looking.
I find that the coincidences come when I follow my intuition, and they don’t on the rare occasion where I’ve followed the money, or done the sensible thing. I tend to be very intuitive as a performer too. I follow my (considerable) nose.
You are a self-professed ‘conceptual poet’. What exactly is ‘conceptual poetry’ for you?
Ira: I used the term before it became to mean one thing: a copy and paste person. I like art. I like contemporary art. I like conceptual art – provided that it makes something beautiful or moving. It’s what I said above, about economics being counter intuitive. Sometimes one must follow a counter intuitive path, trust in the path even if it seems not to make sense. And also, use unusual materials. And so, I love Bruce Nauman, because he used neon to make text art, and he made video art, and was told at the time it was non-commercial and wasn’t taken seriously. I despise Tracey Emin and others making neon text art now, because there is no leap in the dark. It’s just being a well-informed designer. It’s IKEA conceptualism.
So because I love maths, I was always going to have a go at procedures and systems. But I want a product. It’s the same with trad poetry. I like someone who knows nothing about metre to appreciate the texture and the final object as moving or thought-provoking (or funny). I don’t want the work to be boring to the public, and (possibly therefore) of interest for technical finesse: when, in so many cases, that’s just the self-pity gang making work for each other. So, ‘conceptual poetry’, for me, is being interested in concepts and trying to come up with your own AND being interested in poetry.
How do you feel about a modern day innovator like Kenneth Goldsmith, who basically espouses that authorship and originally don’t exist anymore?
Ira: There is nobody like Kenny. That’s the problem with his school. Pound inspired many people to their own innovations, and they were all different. If you look at the Active Anthology, in the 1930s, Pound picked poets who would go on to make lifetime bodies of work, all with distinctive voices.
Kenny remains someone whose 90’s work I adore. For all that he is giving himself elbow-room to speak without jargon, I fear that he is committing a classic Professorial steamroller move with his current position. It sounds a compelling theory, but is in fact only a broad brushstroke to tell a story with. In my opinion, Professors should consider the worst case scenario version of their equation: when all the abstract a, b, c is tested with number values that test it.
And also consider if much of the writing in the movement is in fact dire and laughable nonsense that will be swept away in the next generation.
I get very frustrated with Christian Bok. Compare him to Perec, or Queneau, and there isn’t the crucial aftertaste. Eunoia has sold very well, as Bok announced in his reading when I saw him but so what? It’s not a patch on L’Apparition. I know why Perec adopted lipograms and word constraints: because it helped him to get at the loss of his parents to the gas chambers. It’s not just a method. Queneau is smutty and brings in dark experiences, but keeps a beautiful levity, something thoughtful. In Bok, there’s flashes of real fascination with macho and nasty stuff, with coldness and dismissal of others. And he resolutely rules out the uncanny.
The two major collections of yours I’ve read are I, Love Poetry and Mustard Tart As Lemon. It’s heady stuff. I can’t begin to fathom the particular way you put words together. How do you think the poem-making cortex bit of your brain works exactly? Is this how you think all the time?
Ira: I’m very much somebody who waits to write, and get into a trance like mood when a piece of writing is coming, a sort of being aroused. In the evening class I teach, I write in the writing time too, but only occasionally will it produce anything. I’m usually on the right track when what I’ve started makes me laugh, usually along the lines of “this is silly, but I can pull it off”.
I’ll often start writing and then the first few lines will throw up a pattern, and then I’ll try to maintain that pattern. I certainly don’t write about a subject, usually. But words come in, and then I step back and think “I’ve introduced a subject, I’d better see if I can streamline it into the whole poem”.
So I’m a pattern-person, and into the uncanny, and I also love line breaks, surprising myself with them. It’s a little bit like making a crossword that makes sense.
When it comes to “all the time”, a lot of it is waiting, a fair bit Facebooking (where I think I write the most clearly), spending time with my kids, moments (fewer than I’d like) with my friends, some academic proofreading, teaching a creative writing evening class, doing some storytelling in schools.
The modernist writers seem much more heady to me. I often wonder if I get more of the classic reaction you often get to Cubist or Abstract Expressionist or Conceptual Art. That it’s wilful, simple, and a child could do it. I certainly utterly admire the greater ability of other poets to be grounded in the world and describe it, note it.
Your poems tend to be exceedingly rich in word-music, rhyme, repetition and rhythm. It’s quite hooky, a friend even described some of them as ‘eyeworms’…
Ira: I’m glad you said repetition. It’s one thing I’d urge people not to be afraid of. When you watch verse drama, or listen to songs or text set to music, it’s the key thing you notice they do, that poets often don’t do. It helps me anchor the piece in front of an audience. I love music, and make music, and that’s always going to be a part of what I do. As a songwriter, I’ll let a singable line through, that I might not allow in a poem. So I try to remember that and allow it in a poem, too, sometimes. I’m getting back into rhyme in my poems, from my songwriting. I like memorability: that you live with my poem awhile, a line that’s stuck in your head, or if you put one of my visual poems on a wall. I do think a lot of my poems are a bit like equations: trying to reduce the idea to algebra.
You wrote somewhere that you disliked the fact that ‘children are not taken seriously’. This struck me as quite insightful about your poetry.
Ira: I love the spontaneity of kids, and their affection. Adults can be much harder to be around, for me. Ted Hughes has a lovely passage in Poetry in the Making, where he says all children are mystics, and I go along with a lot of that. I like the honesty of kids. Sometimes, honesty can be a power trip in adults, but it’s never going to be when the teller is a child. I’ve loved being a dad more than almost anything in my life. The fact that my kids will come to me and tell me what they’ve been doing, or share, generally.
Are you happiest when performing? George Szirtes recently described one of your performances as ‘Harpo Marx meets Rilke’…
Ira: I do really really like performing. I sing better, when it’s to others; stand up straight, move better. And making people laugh is great. I often leave room for spontaneity in my set, and, quite often, there will be a moment when it feels as if the clouds clear, and everyone is listening closely, and I’m really heartfelt and the poem feels new, including to me. It’s like the moment of creation, writing, in front of people.
Being creative is such a big part of my life. I don’t feel I’m very good at a lot of life, but I know that bit of me is special, and I like to show people the creating, not just the performing. I like to post things when I’ve just made them. Of course, later, cold, it doesn’t look as good, but at least I can make a selection of what has survived.
I’m unhappy when I’m insomniac. I’m unhappy on the occasions that my teeth and back hurt. I like to keep busy, but I also like to let my mind drift, and then work quickly. I love writing, but it doesn’t come often. I love eating. I like travel, mostly. I could watch my favourite TV shows over and over. I love listening to classical music live.
In many ways, I can only wish I did more performing. Difficult to make the time, as a dad. Certainly, I look back on moments I’ve performed and treasure them.
Actually, while we’re on Rilke – I know you’ve been working on some translations of the Orpheus sonnets. I wonder if you could talk about that briefly?
Ira: I’ve found the sonnets a revelation. I started reading them last summer, and immediately wanted to try to reproduce some of what they were doing. The mad mystical openness, the outrageous rhymes. I thought, from many English translations, that he was pious, a philosopher. He’s much more naughty than that. I translated all 50+ poems, but I’m only happy with about a dozen.
When did you start writing? Was there a specific moment when you actively began moving away from poetic convention?
Ira: I started out Larkinesque, with maybe a hint of Eliot. The change came when I moved to New Zealand, where being Larkinesque cut no ice, and starting to read Pound and the postmoderns. I was publishing in London, in quite big magazines, in 1987-1989, working towards a first collection in perhaps an Andrew Motion vein. Then, in New Zealand, I couldn’t publish a thing. And didn’t publish again until 1994 or so, in a very different style.
Apart from pens, paper, laptop – what else do you regard as absolutely essential for you in order to write?
Ira: I don’t know if I think like that. Something to write on, but it’s been my smartphone for about 3 years. An idea will often hit me for a while before I can find time to write. Sometimes I like envelopes, sometimes fancy notebooks. I can write with other people around. The key for me is that I don’t write much. So it depends on the piece. It may need things to reach its final state. A costume. A musical setting. Being printed large.
What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?
Ira: Like many people, I like to be moved. I like to think the poem is part of a larger work, and that I’m going to get into a writer. I don’t like forced rhymes and cliches, usually. But I have broad tastes.
When it comes to my own stuff, after a few weeks or months have passed, I need to see a subject in it. At the time, I may be really enjoying interweaving all the components; but later, it can often look crabbed and congested. I like to hear need.
I wish I got more characterisation in my work. I like it in other people’s. More than just the self.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
Ira: Tall, with big hair., and looks quite like Tom Baker. Rather too yellow teeth (I’m fatally allergic to penicillin, and the medicine alternative of my youth turned teeth yellow). Grins at people a lot, but it might unnerve them. Bit of a monotone voice, and can often close my eyes while talking (I like the stories of Henry James talking in great paraphrases and getting stuck for ages waiting on a word). It’s important to me to listen, and to show people I’ve heard them.
In the way I act? Sometimes I like to hold court. Sometimes I sit in the corner of the room, sometimes on my phone, and often not sitting straight or standing up straight. On Facebook, I’m told I’m funny, so I try to do that in life too.
I want to know answers to things. I can seethe with repressed anger, but I often don’t like anger in others, and play peacemaker. I get very cross about bullies. If I hadn’t trained myself not to, I’d say “sorry” all the time: a quality I share with many of my closest friends.
What makes you laugh?
Ira: I love to laugh. I watch a lot of comedy. I like wit, and elegant weirdness, so I’m more of a Chandler than a Joey or Ross fan (though I’m probably easily outraged like Ross and some of my friends are more witty like Chandler). I like slapstick, but I don’t greatly like comedy of embarrassment. I like to watch comedy about shy people shyly nervous to say what they feel. I don’t like comedy based on saying nasty things with irony, on TV or film, but I quite like reading it. Paradoxical. I usually prefer watching comedy to watching serious art film drama.
What have been some of the standout moments in your career as a writer?
Ira: Getting booked on The Verb on Radio 3 the first time was huge for me. I loved and love being on radio, and I knew it would really help me. It always matters to me when somebody likes my work, whereas the thrill of publication can more quickly fade; I want to get on to the next thing. I was amazed to get a (temporary) lectureship in creative writing for 6 months in 2013. I was amazed when I got my first big Public Art job. These use my talents and pay (shallow, I know).
You also make public art. Are there any visual artists you particularly admire?
Ira: Nauman, as I said above. Chagall, Johns, Rebecca Horn. Ian Hamilton Finlay. All of them with something angular about them. But my work really isn’t based in anything but concrete poetry: trying to make text come alive visually and procedurally.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Ira: I’m reluctant to test fate, as I think I’d just get it again. I didn’t madly like working in McDonalds. Hot, zit-inducing, cramped and noisy. I’ve never been very good at finding jobs, and have led quite a penurious life. I can imagine others more bravely taking on money and making sure they had a healthy bank balance and savings, and therefore having much more lurid jobs that they had to stomach.
Which contemporary poets do you like? Let’s be mean – pick 5.
Ira: The one who I’d buy anything new by, or read the second I saw her name in a magazine, is Tiffany Atkinson. I really am in awe of her eye for detail and lyric music, and this earthy human voice that breaks through the poetry voice in her work.
I love Gregory Woods’s work: to me he’s the most accomplished user of traditional forms, constantly widening his knowledge of them: more blunt (and sexy) than Hardy, but gives me a similar impetus to buck my ideas up. (When I write a song, I can revise it right back to a Page One rewrite; he can do that with a poem, which I can’t). He’s very clear.
I’ve adored Denise Riley and Carla Harryman for years, though I’ve fallen out of touch with their work of the last few years.
I listen to every Bob Dylan album, though he drives me bonkers too.
I thought Angela Topping’s last book Letting Go was masterful, a really solid book about being human, with a unique attitude to language that only comes clear when you read a book of it.
I love the Language Writers, but only their 80’s work, and Prynne, but only his late 60’s and early 70’s work.
I thought Steven Waling’s poems about GCHQ were brilliant.
What advice would you give a young poet writing today?
Ira: Be prepared to live without much money. Be a decent human being, and care about others. Read other people’s work and find poets you want to read. Don’t believe poetry is dead. Change your head or stop if you do.
Really interesting interview, Ira, and a fabulous poetry challenge! Looking forward to reading it!