Having worked as a lawyer, to what extent do you wrestle with issues of truth, accuracy and authenticity when writing poetry?
I labour almost obsessively over all three with an eye to creating in the reader the core of the experience I’m writing about. For example, when you first visit Yeats’ grave in Drumcliffe churchyard, it looks and “feels” exactly as he described it at the end of Under Ben Bulben. If you know the poem, you have a sense of having seen it before, which was my reaction when I saw it for the first time in 50 years ago. It’s this I strive for in whatever I write. (See Auerbach in a 2013 Telegraph interview on how and why he paints.)
I doubt it was long years lawyering that made me concerned with conveying the truth of what I write. However, as the aim of legal brief writing is to persuade using the facts of a matter, law practice helped me acquire what little skill I may have in marshalling facts to engender in the reader the experience I’m writing about.
Law practice did impel me to accuracy, since it’s one of the essential elements in all kinds of legal writing. I dislike pretence in anything; if my writing is inauthentic, it has no rationale for being, and one more reason to loathe myself.
Lastly, working with teams of people to write legal briefs made it much easier to profit from the critiques editors give me.
For your first ever supervision when studying at Cambridge you wrote a 20-page essay on symbolism. How important would you say symbols and symbolism are in your poetry?
Symbolism in the sense it applies to Rilke, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Yeats, is not an element in my work. I don’t believe there are inexpressible eternal realms, only realities dimly perceived. The effort to reach non-existent planes of being leads to obscurity and insignificance.
Symbols and mathematical notation present an impenetrable though possibly hopeful (“the one bright patch”) form of script in your poem ‘The Institute‘. Can you say a few words on what inspired this poem?
A whiteboard at the Institute for Advanced Study occasioned ‘The Institute’. On one of my first stays at the Institute, the Director was showing me round the Mathematics Faculty’s hall. A whiteboard in one of the lounges where members and visitors gather for coffee and conversation was covered in mathematical notations; to me they might just as well have been hieroglyphics. A plaque saying in 3” letters “Do Not Erase” was prominently displayed on the board, and I was struck by the confidence in the potential for thought the injunction showed; for me it expressed an un-thought, deep belief in the potential value of an idea, a feeling I considered deeply optimistic, salvational.
‘Do Not Erase’ plaques are ubiquitous in lounges and lecture rooms at the Institute. The next time the Director visited me, he gave me one of them as a gift. It now sits on the bottom frame-rail of a contemporary memento mori that hangs in my set at St John’s.
A film that you return to occasionally is Alain Resnais’s arthouse classic L’Année dernière à Marienbad. What draws you to return to this film, and to what degree are you in accord with Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script, when he said: “The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it.”?
I first saw Marienbad sometime shortly after the abrupt end of what was, for me, an intense love affair. The 23 year-old Vassar College senior to whom I was engaged returned from visiting her grandmother in Dusseldorf. I called several times after I knew she’d have returned. When she finally took my call she simply said, I never want to see you again. Goodbye. For many years after I would think I saw her in a restaurant in New York, London, or Berlin, and look harder.
Marienbad always reminds me of her, and the aftermath of that affair. Its diaphanous reconstruction of a romantic obsession corresponds to what I still feel when I think of her, and what followed from her, 50 years on. The poem below from my first Carcanet collection, We Look Like This, is about her.
“I remember every detail….” (Rick to Ilsa, Casablanca)
Lunch a deux dwindles to shadows
in the quiet Sloane Square dining room,
where Bacons frame the afternoon
and a chatelaine’s soigné repose.
Talk drifts to exes’ legacies,
cues a track cut by a betrothed
who dumped him suddenly,
like a glass brushed to the floor,
and summons her in what she wore
the night they met;
gray A-line, scarlet hem and cuff,
collar fringed with white lace ruff,
matching grey Alice band to snare
her fall of shoulder-length red hair
sashaying down the Strong Hall stair
at Vassar, forty years before….
Madame interrupts the score:
Do you think about her every day?
He looks away,
ticks a tine whose chime recalls
gold leaves at dusk, a last curt call,
the click of tumblers as they fall,
lifts the tone arm from the platter,
rises to leave…Thanks; a busy week…
and in reply, as ever since,
scorns one more woman’s proffered cheek.
from We Look Like This (Carcanet, 2012)
I do not agree with Robbe-Grillet’s comment. If a piece has nothing to say, why bother saying it? Given his eminence, I accept I’m not a true writer.
In 2009, you collaborated with the artist Paul Hodgson to create the book Cold Eye. Can you tell us a bit about how this book came about and how you found collaborating with an artist?
I had known Paul for more than 12 years when we decided to collaborate on the book. We were talking one day in his studio, where I’d gone to see some knew work, and he mentioned a poem or two he liked from a recent chapbook of mine. The discussion evolved, and we decided it might be interesting for him to make a series in his new style sparked by poems in the chapbook.
We took the idea to his dealer, Marlborough, and they thought it had merit. And so it went.
The collaboration was loose, but satisfying. Paul chose the poems he wanted to work with, and I answered his questions about them. He asked for photos of people or places mentioned in the poems, which I supplied from family photos if possible. I had no input into the images he made; he’s an artist, I write. The best part, perhaps, was what I learned about the poems from seeing them through his eyes.
You have an interest in opera, and your collection We Look Like This references Rigoletto and The Magic Flute. Can you name one or two of your favourite operas and do you have an opinion on the music of Aldeburgh colossus Benjamin Britten?
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Bellini’s I Puritani, Halevy’s La Juive, and Verdi’s Attila, bel cantos all, are among my favourite operas.
I don’t know Britten well enough to have an opinion worth giving on his music. But I like some of it, and take every opportunity to see Peter Grimes.
His poetry first appeared in journals and periodicals in 2007, including, to date, Poetry Review, PN Review, the Forward Book of Best Poetry 2013, the TLS, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, the New Statesman, Commonweal and other periodicals. Lintott/Carcanet Press publishedSearched For Text, a selection of his poems, in 2008. Marlborough Graphics / Lintott Press published Cold Eye, a collaboration with the UK artist Paul Hodgson, in 2010. In April 2011 Lintott/Carcanet published Certain Windows, a new selection of his poetry and prose. More of his poems appeared in a Carcanet anthology, New Poetries 5 (October 2011) and Carcanet published We Look Like This a collected edition of his poetry and prose in the spring of 2012.
The Poetry Archive, the UK based repository for spoken poetry, recorded him reading his work in 2008, and again in 2011, and added it to their on-line archive.
Notting Hill Editions published his memoir You Think It Strange in 2013 and Overlook Press published the US edition in 2015, and Grantaexcerpted a portion of this memoir in their November on-line edition. The BBC has interviewed him about the memoir in October 2013 (BBC Radio 4 – Midweek) and November 2013 (BBC World Service – Outlook).