Brian, what is your background and education?
I was born in Glasgow in 1953, so you can work out how old I am. I did my schooling in Glasgow. I left school in 1969 and went to work for the civil service for five years, who did me the favour of sending me to college on day release, so I did some more 'O' Levels and also did some business studies' certificates up in Aberdeen. And what happened next was that in July 1974, I left the civil service and went off hitchhiking around Europe and ended up in London in Christmas '74.
I never intended to stay in London, but I'm still here 26 years later and have worked in hospitals, factories, bookshops, record shops, I've worked as an artists' model, university lecturer, I've done a whole range of different things and also in London I went to Middlesex Polytechnic as a mature student. I did my first degree there, which was a humanities degree, then went to University of Essex and did a master's degree in American poetry. I did a teacher training course at London University and then went back to Essex to start my Ph.D. and, at the moment, I've registered for a Ph.D. in quite a different subject at St. Mary's College down in Twickenham in South-West London.
When did you begin to get influenced by poetry?
Not really until 1976 in London. For people in my generation, it was music that came first. I was about 10 years old when The Rolling Stones started and so 1964, when the Stones were putting out their set singles like 'Not Fade Away, It's All Over Now', it was that music, it was The Stones, The Animals, British R & B , that was what really got me. For a long time, it was music first and foremost - rock, blues, traditional and eventually jazz. And like a lot of people at seventeen, I wanted to be Mick Jagger. I saw him in Top of the Pops - skinny, ugly, can't sing, and saying "I'll have some of that please!" Around that time, in the late sixties, I was reading people like Allen Ginsberg so probably a book like 'Planet News' would've been the first poetry that I read.
In school we didn't do much. I think we read an anthology and it had things like 'The Dorking Thigh'. I think that was by William Plomer. The other one I remember was a cod-Italian piece called 'Mia Carlotta'. You couldn't possibly publish stuff like that now. As far as I can remember we certainly weren't exposed to anything contemporary. I don't remember being shown even say 'Pike' by Ted Hughes. I didn't know anything about people like Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon, until I started attending poetry workshops around 1978-79.
Around about June 1976, I started writing for some reason and it was pitched partly between poems and song-words - it was dreadful rubbish. The point is I knew this was rubbish and what I did was I went to Hornsey Library, which was my local library in North London and of the English poetry I looked at Milton, Shelley, Keats, and I thought yeah, very nice, then I looked at Philip Larkin and the stuff being published in the mid-seventies and I thought well if that's a poet I don't want to be one.
What I did, in the most literal sense, is that I turned my back and started to look at the American poetry which were on the shelves facing me and the first thing I found was William Carlos Williams, the old red & blue two volume set, then Gary Snyder's 'Turtle Island' which, at that point, was fairly new. Those two books made an enormous impact. I started reading through the other Beat poets, Ferlinghetti and Corso, but it was Snyder and also Phillip Whelan and Lou Welch. It was also the classic modernists, as well as Williams - Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Rexroth, Marianne Moore, then the Objectivist Poets - Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Rakosi, Oppen; they really made a really big impact.
I was reading Larkin and the sort of English stuff that was being published in the seventies and I was just horrified at how dull and backward it was. Looking at someone like Snyder and Williams just showed me that there were all sorts of possibilities, it was really those people that set me off. I wrote piles of doggerel, of which I took the first wodge and burnt it, then there was another big pile of stuff where I went through it, took out the good lines, and then compiled those into poems that were completely incomprehensible. And, of course, that's exactly what Bob Dylan was supposed to have done to make lyrics like 'A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall', and what Auden apparently did with his very early stuff.
I think I knew about Dylan, but Auden I hadn't realised. Even so, I then had this pile of things that were quite strongly influenced by Auden and Dylan circa '65, Dylan's first electric period, so I carried on with that stuff, which was really just apprentice work. In 1978, I figured out that I needed to do something, so I went and joined Dinah Livingstone's Camden Voices workshop, which was great. I was in that workshop for about six years.
About the same time, I also joined a workshop that Blake Morrison was running at Goldsmith's. I think The Sunday Times was on strike for a year and he did this to pay for his grocery bills or something, but that was a great workshop because it had a huge range of people - from those who were just banging out rhymed doggerel, people who might eventually get their best work in a little magazine, to those like Tony Curtis, who has now published five books and Vicki Feaver and Wendy Cope, who hadn't published but were definitely the stars of the group and were very obviously on the way somewhere, so I learned a lot just from sitting around the table and watching what other people were producing and how the group was interacting and, as with Dinah's group, I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts and practical criticism. So those two things, where there was a general involvement in the London poetry scene in the late seventies and early eighties, was actually very important to me.
Did you ever write poems about your experiences while travelling through Europe?
Oh yes, it's in some of the very early stuff. None of which survived into Armchair Theatre , but there was actually a previous collection which I spent several years trying to get people to publish without much success and some of the poems in there do deal with the experiences of hitching around Europe and some of the strange situations that you can get yourself into. There was one poem I wrote about two years ago which re-uses parts of it, because I met this guy in Germany who was driving a Mercedes and we were driving through the Ruhr Valley and he started telling me that he had been in a prisoner-of-war camp up in Scotland and he said to me "I don't know why they called us krauts, I never ate so much kraut in my life!", so that found its way into a poem, but by and large my experiences were not written about that much. A lot of the time, even if you're somewhere exotic, hitchhiking is pretty boring, a lot of it is standing around in the rain watching these people smirking at you as they zoom past.
What improvements did you make with your writing to consider it publishable?
First of all, it was the experience of just reading as much contemporary work as possible. As well as trawling the shelves of the local library, I also joined the Poetry Library, I think in 1979, when it was based in Long Acre, and I just read through the shelves systematically. If something looked interesting I'd take it home, I just read absolutely everything and at the same time I was going to workshops, I was going to readings and it wasn't an academic thing, but I just approached it in a fairly nuts and bolts way. I was doing this stuff and I wanted to learn how to do it better and I figured that I'd read anything that looks good, go to a few readings, go to a workshop and have more experienced people saying 'this works, this doesn't work so what happens if you do this!'. Those early workshops were certainly very important to me.
What was in the poems that you felt were inspiring?
It was partly subject matter and also the fact that people like Williams, Ginsberg, Snyder, Ezra Pound, were all a long way away from any of the English traditionalists, whether it's Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Romantics, or whether it's the Movement poets. It wasn't just poetry with Williams, his prose writing and the statements on poetry are extraordinary and one of the things I got from Williams is his insistence that you can make poetry out of absolutely anything and everything for the subject matter and also the fact that I didn't need to worry too much about meter, as long as the work had rhythmic intensity and vitality. I'm not that much of a formalist, although I can do a sonnet, a sestina, a villanelle, if I like, but rhythm has always been the key. I find that if I can get a good first line, I can take that rhythm down to the bottom of the page and whatever wants to be said about a particular moment would find its way onto the page. I don't worry about subject matter, or anything else. In the drafting, I can always clean it up afterwards. Likewise, Ginsberg had the same insistence that Williams did about making poetry out of your ordinary life, your 'ordinary mind' which is a Tibetan term for it. Again Snyder, who's a Zen Buddhist, an ecological activist, and who started off as a Marxist who had quite a lot of enthusiasm for Chairman Mao, influenced me a great deal because some of his poetics comes from Ezra Pound, in terms of being very tight and detailed. Some of it also comes from Yeats and there's a book called 'Left Out In The Rain', which is a sort of uncollected Snyder, and some of that is very Yeatsian. There's some very fine poems which I actually think belong in the main poetry of his published work. I also learned a lot from looking at Yeats, especially through the Collected Poems you can see how he starts off with the mythology and all the dreamy Celtic twilight stuff and then you can see, as you look through the books like 'The Green Helmet' then 'Responsibilities', his style becoming harder and plainer. Past 1916, and through all the events of the 1920s, you can see what is going on with Yeats and, as with Auden, just by reading those poems you could see how a contemporary style could be achieved. Other inspirations have been the Black Mountain poets, like Robert Creeley and Charles Olsen. Also the New York poets, I mean Frank O'Hara is still one of my all-time favourites, Ashbery - I like the early work. Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler again, I think are terrific, but O'Hara is taking the lyric tradition and bending it out of shape and yet if you look at his work which is apparently confessional, I don't think it's anything of the sort. O'Hara is playing all sorts of games. Not so much with his audience, but with the notions of what a poem is or should be and that's one of the things I love about O'Hara. You can note the Lunch Poems which he apparently wrote in his lunch hour and the story goes that he would go into an office supply shop, use the typewriter, type a poem out and go home with it. Again, it's that thing you can put anything in a poem and that for me was the essential starting point.
Do you feel that it is very important to have a unique voice in your poetry?
There's all sorts of things that go into making a voice. I mean it's partly personal, it's partly due to whatever education you've had, other poets you've read. If you're writing over a period, then that voice will change and develop and go forward, not backwards or sideways.
I hope that anyone who's read a few of my poems would be able to pick up a magazine and say 'right, that's one of his!'. If you think about, say, a musician like Charlie Parker who changed jazz, there's still people who think it was a huge waste of time. Larkin, in his jazz criticism, was totally hostile to Parker. If we look at someone like Ornette Coleman, plenty of people would find his recordings from forty years ago too much to take. Even someone like Jimi Hendrix, I was reading a magazine I think it was Q magazine and it was a retrospective view of Hendrix and it said about 'Electric Ladyland' if you like this all the way through, you're weirder than you think. And I just thought oh deary me boys, because having listened to Hendrix since 1966 I don't think Hendrix's work is especially weird - for me that is the mainstream rock tradition. There has to be room for a range of voices, whether it's in music or poetry, and I don't really have a great deal of time for the sort of camps that people find themselves in. The people who say that everything that's labelled as mainstream is dull and not worth bothering about and the people who say that everything that's innovative or experimental linguistically and is too complicated to understand, these divisions don't do anyone any favours. Personally, I enjoy reading people like Carol Ann Duffy and Sean O'Brien, I also enjoy reading people like Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman. I enjoy quite a lot of J.H. Prynne's work for example and some of John Kinsella, who seems to be taking over the entire British poetry scene.
Brian, did you find that working in hospitals and factories impinged on your creative side?
At that time, not really. As far as I can remember, I was writing mostly in the evenings and on weekends. Those jobs I had were right from the start, before I thought of writing and getting published somewhere. I certainly didn't write much about the experience of working in a hospital store or working in a factory or record shop. Later on, parts of those experiences did filter back in slightly different ways, but the thing about making time to write is that that's what you do, and if that means for some people that they have to lock the door and ignore the children screaming, or they have to do an hour late at night after everything else's been done, or the first thing in the morning, that's what they'll do. That's something that Dana Gioia's written about, in one of his essays, about his experience of working as an executive in an American corporation, having to fill family life, and yet still having to write poems, essays and other things.
If writing is what you are going to do, then you will find the time to get on and do it. Fortunately, you can draft a poem in 20-30 minutes depending on the length. I always say to people that the difference between poetry and prose writing is the difference between jewelry and sculpture. Writing a novel is like making big steel sculptures - it's an industrial process, it's metal-bashing, that's what you do six hours a day as a job. Whereas writing a lyric poem is a bit more like making jewelry, it might be exquisite stuff that you find in Bond Street, or it might be the stuff that you find in Camden Lock for 3-99 a pair, but the point is that you can make your ear-rings and your rings, and if you make a good one that's nice, but if you want to make a living you have to make a whole tray of them to sell. I think that difference between jewelry and sculpture, for me, is the difference between poetry and prose.
What censorship with the media have you experienced?
None that I'm aware of, because I've never had any censorship from magazines or books. I haven't ever been invited to perform on radio or television. I do have one or two poems which used the ordinary Channel Four words. So I suppose if I was to go on say GLR, which is the local London station, and I wanted to read 'Cats Against Nuclear Power' they might say 'well, you have to change that line!' but that wouldn't bother me terribly because it's not an important thing, but I never had the problems that people like Allen Ginsberg had to face, or even Walt Whitman who couldn't put his books into the shops. Frankly, I'd like to be in the position of having a high enough profile for someone to say 'we don't like it, you can't do that!'.
Occasionally, magazine editors have asked me to change the odd thing, and again it doesn't really bother me because if it's the odd word or two, or a line, I let them take it out because if I think they made a mistake I can always restore the change if the poem's going into a book. No-one that I know of has ever objected on political grounds, because the thing about my work is political or social comment or whatever and I do try to match poems to magazines, I mean there are obviously magazines which I don't think would like my political or social views, so I simply don't bother submitting to them, or I've tried something which approaches those subjects in a different way. But by and large, British magazine editors just send a reject slip through, sometimes with an unreadable scrawl.
Even the smallest magazine, gets thousands of submissions, they don't have the time and energy to criticise and most editors do not believe that it's their job to act. Occasionally, I find editors saying some things that are very good, but at other times I find negative things that have missed the mark. Again, that doesn't bother me, there are 200 specialist poetry magazines in Britain and quite a few more which publish poems amongst other things, so it should be possible to get almost anything published if it's reasonably competent. Censorship is not something that I've ever had problems with, but if someone sends your work back and it just comes back with a standard printed slip, you have to guess why it didn't meet their standards, or else the editor had six other poems on the same theme, or he met you in the pub once and you didn't buy him a drink. Very often, editors will send your work back and not tell you why they didn't like it and that can be a bit of a problem. If you send to a magazine and on six different occasions you get it back, then you get the message eventually that whoever it is, is not going to print you. But that's all right with me too, because there's enough magazines out there.
Have you made any serious attempts to get your work published beyond England?
Not really. I'm very much a London-based poet and my work is very much specifically rooted there, but I've had stuff published in magazines from Scotland and in Ireland. I think I've only been published in one American magazine called Mother Earth Journal, I think either based in San Francisco or Bolinas, but that was because they appointed a UK guest editor who then asked British poets. But I've only ever tried American magazines on half a dozen occasions. It's really to do with the whole thing about postage overseas and having to wait ages.
I know quite a few British poets who do get published in American magazines, but they tend to be the better-known mainstream British poets or the better known linguistically-innovative poets, who are already well-published in both the magazine and book form in Britain. I think American magazines have got so much good stuff coming in from America and no doubt Canada, that I really wouldn't rate the chances.
It's not something which frankly bothers me. Obviously, if I had the opportunity to build up a list of magazine credits in the United States and then get a book out, then sure that's a nice thing to have as well. I'm really more focused on publication in Britain.
In your view does the average person appreciate and value poetry?
I think you need to define what your average person is first of all and then what we understand by 'poetry', because as Lawrence Ferlinghetti once remarked - people actually listen to enormous amounts of poetry but it's in the form of songs, whether that's Bob Dylan or Garth Brooks or Cole Porter. Poetry, in book form or even on record, is a minority taste but it always has been because the reading public is the same ten percent of the literate population that it's been for at least two hundred years.
If contemporary poetry is presented properly, if it is marketed well, I think yes it will be appreciated. We all know that when some of Auden's poems were included in the film 'Four Weddings and A Funeral', Faber printed a booklet of ten and it sold 200,000 copies, Seamus Heaney has had big sales, Ted Hughes posthumously sold 120,000 copies of 'The Birthday Letters', so it can be done, but it's about reaching the audience. Likewise, some of Wendy Cope sells pretty well. Pam Ayres, if you choose to call that poetry, or John Hegley, they reach an audience, now whether that means it'll be the same audience for, say, Carol Ann Duffy I'm not sure, although she is reaching a bigger audience. Poets are not going to reach the numbers that, say, Randy Newman or Tom Waits sell and the thing is they probably sell about five percent of the records that Garth Brooks sell, or even The Stones. Any poet around would be thrilled to sell as well as Randy Newman or Tom Waits.
I think it comes down to how you attract people to poetry, how do you draw their attention to it. And also, do it in a way that doesn't present it as boring, elitist, academic, and so on. There's plenty of that poetry around and it sells just as many copies as the stuff published by Faber or Cape.
Do you find performance-based poetry quite popular in this country than the written form?
I think those are two forms running on parallel tracks. There are certainly poets who publish both. I'm using the term 'publish' in the broadest sense of making something 'public'. People like Benjamin Zepheniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean 'Binta' Breeze, Patience Agbabi, and so on, they are very popular. And when, say, Maya Angelou comes over she will fill a theatre, she will sell two thousand seats. Again, it is down to how good the poet is. Regardless of what one may think of Benjamin's work, Benjamin Zepheniah is an extraordinary performer, but some of the performance poetry is a bit closer to stand-up comedy with end rhymes. I'm not so impressed by that. I enjoy it at the time because these people are very good performers, but sometimes on the page it doesn't stand up so well.
I think, again, you're aiming at a specialist audience which is drawing more on the alternative comedy circuit which has been around I think since the early eighties. In London, there are several venues which feature poets and, no doubt, there are other venues in Huddersfield, Glasgow, Newcastle, Cambridge, Bristol and the whole phenomenon of the poetry slam, which is a competitive performance situation, has been a great success. I've taken part in one or two of those and I've not only enjoyed it, I got to the semi-finals once, but it's not really what I do best.
I certainly enjoy reading in public and I try to do it as well as possible, but in that sense I'm not a performance poet, although I think the antithesis between the page and stage is a false one. I am first and foremost a writer, I want to write as well as possible and I want stuff to not only sound good when I read it, I want it to look good on the page and will stand up to reading and re-reading.
If contemporary poetry is to be successful and continue to be successful, then it has to be presented in as many ways and formats as possible, in as many arenas as possible, and if that means people are learning it by heart and using some of the techniques that stand-up comedians or rock and roll singers use, I say that is great. The fact is poets have to figure out whatever works best for them and if they are a good poet and can do that, or if you feel happier memorizing as a stand-up performer would, well go ahead and good luck to all of you.
What purpose does poetry have for you?
There's a distinction with what poetry means for me personally and what it means in general. If we take poetry as one part of literature, then I think the old classical maxim that it should instruct, delight, I can't remember the Latin offhand, but that classical theme where it should entertain, instruct, I think that still holds good.
Poetry is not a new rock and roll, if it's entertaining that's fine, it has to do something more than that. On the other hand, it is not a species of substitute religion, it is not philosophy, it is not theology and, for instance, Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis's hopes or fantasies that poetry would take a central role in English culture has been absolutely misguided.
Poetry's role, in some ways, has been the same as it always has been, but it's lost some of the roles it had for instance in pre-Christian Ireland, where the traditional bards, The Fili had a series of roles which we now hand out to lawyers, judges and a whole range of different people, they were incredibly important people in that pre-writing Gaelic culture. They had skills which they learned over years. I think the minimum apprenticeship for the lowest-grade bard was seven years. The full thing was twenty-one years of study, but that was because they were carrying the full weight of the culture. They were the law-givers, they were the historians, they collected the myths and legends, they did a whole range of things, and actually lyric poetry didn't arrive for several hundred years.
I think it was the Christian monks who invented what we would call 'lyric poetry' as marginal notes when they were making these wonderful, illustrated manuscripts.
If you think about English poetry from, say, Chaucer on or even from the Romantics because I think people like Keats and Shelley and Byron still provide the basic models for many people's understanding of poetry, and also for a lot of a poet's day-to-day practice. Lyric poetry, however it's deformed, will continue to be written. Poetry which has a social and political import and impact will also be written and that's always been part of the English tradition and if you look at Chaucer there's plenty of politics, it's just disguised slightly.
Milton - a radical political figure in his day. Blake. Shelley. Byron. There's a huge river of that type of poetry which has carried on and, for me, that's one of the things that's important because I don't understand how one can write non-political or apolitical poetry. Even if you take the Oscar Wilde role of aestheticising everything, that in itself is a political stance. If you look at his essay, 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', that piece of writing was deeply unfashionable. If you look at it in, say, a post-'68 situationist context and if you think about some of the things that happened in the Soviet Union, then I think parts of that can make a great deal of sense with working poets today. Especially those people who consider themselves political poets. So, I think it's a great shame if anyone seeks to limit the possibilities for poetry or the roles that poets can play and I do think that we've given far too much away to the novelists.
If you think about some of the controversies over narrative in poetry, I don't see why we should give that to novelists. I don't think you could ever see this revival of the nineteenth century narrative poetry, we're not going to repeat some of the things which Hardy did with The Dynasts or Longfellow had with Hiawatha or The Courtship of Miles Standish, there's no role for that sort of verse novel, but personally, I think poetry should tell stories of some sort because storytelling is a fundamental human activity and it's enormously pleasurable, not only for the audience but for the writer.
There is a school of thought amongst, say, the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets like Bernstein and Perelman and some of their English allies, the Cambridge people, who are really scornful about narrative in poetry and I think that that's a shame. It just means that we have to reconfigure the narrative elements, possibly do them in one-page formats. Personally, one of the things that interest me when I go to the cinema is watching the trailers, because they've developed a lot and nowadays the trailer is a mini-film in its own right, it's often more entertaining than the ninety minute film and I'm interested in a poetry that works in the same way that a film-trailer does, because a film-trailer can give the audience the essential information in, say, five minutes or seven minutes, then they may not need to sit through it all.
Likewise, if you can do something with narrative on, say, a page or two pages then I think that answers the objections of people who imagine that narrative poetry means what it meant in the mid-nineteenth century with Longfellow. I'm also interested in the use of cinematic techniques and of some of the techniques of, say, popular fiction genres like crime fiction and detective fiction, or even science fiction. I don't see why we can't incorporate some of those possibilities. That doesn't mean it will sell like crime fiction or science fiction, but we can have fun with it anyway.
Brian, do you feel the need to be published as a poet?
Yes, I do. I think anyone who takes their writing seriously, feels similarly. Of course, nowadays, publication - the act of broadcasting a poem can be interpreted in various ways and reading a poem to an audience is publication as far as I'm concerned and I enjoy that as well, I enjoy doing readings. I like to get work into magazines, anthologies, pamphlets, and eventually into book collections because it means that there is then a permanent record of your work. Even if you're only selling 500 copies, some of those will go into public libraries, they'll go into The British Library cataloguing system, they'll go into the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall, so those books and magazines will outlive me. I think that's wonderful that in fifty years time, if the Poetry Library is still standing on the South Bank, someone will walk in and pick up Armchair Theatre and say 'who was this guy?'
Yes, I like to get work into a range of different magazines, because magazines tend to have quite small subscriber bases - maybe a few hundred, in this way I can reach different people who might read one magazine but may not read another.
Do you sense any pressure from a person, or a group, to have your work published?
Unfortunately not I'd have to say. The fact is that the general public, even people who will buy contemporary fiction, often don't appear to take much interest in contemporary poetry. I read somewhere recently that the active readership for contemporary English poetry is about 20,000 people in Britain and if you think that most people who publish a book, with let's say Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, etc. probably sell a thousand copies or less, it means that your membership is very very specialised. So, from that point of view, there isn't a pressure.
Obviously, if you are active in the poetry scene, if you are one of those peculiar people who go to workshops, or run workshops, goes to poetry readings, subscribes to magazines, buys books and you're at all known, then well yes, people are going to look at you and say 'well I wonder if he's got a book coming out!' And, of course, occasionally with the sort of petty jealousies that you have, I suppose there are people silly enough to think 'well I hope he isn't going to have a book', or 'how come he's getting published and I'm not?', I don't have much time for that sort of attitude, but undoubtedly it does exist.
The other thing is that there's a Catch-22 system where if you want to get readings and get paid for them, or if you want to get jobs like the writer-in-residence, or the sort of things that The Poetry Society's been doing with the Poetry Places Scheme, then you need to be published and of course if you want to be published you need to build up a track record of activity, whether that's doing magazines or readings, so the two things go together. Regardless of whatever happens here, I will carry on writing. If every magazine editor in the country wrote to me and said 'Dear Brian, we are never going to publish you, go away and catch a medieval disease', I would carry on writing.
What are some of the magazines which have taken a particular interest in your work?
Sure, I've been quite fortunate to be published in a range of magazines. Like most people, I've got a little list of magazines which I'd dearly love to be in. Some of which don't appear terribly enthusiastic, but I've been in magazines like Gairfish, Southfields, Verse, The Wide Skirt, Smith's Knoll, The Rialto. I've also been in things like The New Statesman, which is nice and was seen by quite a few people. In that sense I've been lucky to have been in a fair range of magazines, as well as the more locally-based, workshop magazines. In fact, it was magazines associated with Dinah's Camden Voices Workshop, the magazine was initially called Medley and that became Camden Voices later and a pamphlet put out by the Goldsmith's Poetry Workshop of 1979, those were the places where I was published first of all. That was very much apprentice work and I haven't reprinted any of it elsewhere. Likewise, I'm associated with a group called Vertical Images and we have done a dozen magazines over the last ten or twelve years and I've had quite a few things published in there. The first thing I ever submitted to, where the editors didn't know me and I was published was The ABSA Annual Report, 1990, also Smith's Knoll published 'The Red Hand' in their first issue, that goes back to about 1990 as well. Since then, I've had about 120 poems published.
Did you find it difficult to have poems from your early submissions accepted by magazines?
Yes, certainly early on I had a lot of rejections, largely because I was sending out early work which really wasn't good enough. If I looked at the stuff I was sending out in the early eighties, none of that is poems I would care to put my name to, because what happened was I stopped writing completely for five or six years, from about 1983 through to about 1988. I didn't write, I had no contact with the poetry scene, I just went missing in action and when I started again, I just started from scratch and the work I was writing from about 1990 onwards is very different.
It still took me a couple of years to actually get things kicked into shape and because I've had periods where I've been reasonably prolific I've had quite a bit of stuff to send out so it was just a case of selecting five or six poems, writing a note, and putting it in with a stamped, self-addressed envelope and waiting.
I realised right from the start, that I was going to get a lot of rejections. I have a folder at home with a pile of reject slips which is about three inches thick. That's fine. Eventually, I might do what Craig Raine reputedly did, which was paper his toilet with them. Even at the moment, I think my ratio of rejections to acceptances is about six to one, possibly slightly less. I know at the moment I've got work forthcoming in about fifteen different magazines. Some of that will appear this year, some of that will appear in 2001. Even so, I've got about 60 poems on offer to various magazines.
Because there are so many people writing and expecting publication, if you don't submit, then you aren't going to get anywhere. I mean it's a different issue for the performance poets, of course, but then again they have to trundle around that circuit several nights a week to build a reputation, which is much harder actually.
Have you ever asked for feedback from editors when submitting your poems?
No, I didn't. Right at the start I read a couple of poetry handbooks around at the time. There was one by Norman Hidden, who edited a magazine called New Poetry, which lasted many years and had 11,000 subscribers, which is astonishing! I'd love to know where those 11,000 people went.
He produced this little handbook about how to get published and he had some very practical advice about keeping your submission letters short and not expecting feedback and being patient and so on. So I knew right at the start that I may just get a standard, printed slip and that's all right. I've always taken the attitude that I might have just sent to the wrong magazine, or they might be full, or they might be just publishing their chums, or they might have had a bunch of poems on the same issue.
Sometimes, something might come back because it just isn't good enough, but it might be for other reasons. Often, if you look at a magazine and you can see that there's a theme running through it because the editor's found several poems in the submissions pile which go together and then built the issue around that theme, and if yours is on a different subject, then back it comes.
What I do, if a poem comes back like that, I will put it into the working folder. If it's come back from several editors, then it might need revising or rewriting, or it just might not be good enough. Occasionally, I just have to accept that a poem is not publishable, it doesn't make the grade. Sometimes, it might be a matter of changing the ending or just tweaking it a bit, occasionally rewriting.
Several times I have had to rewrite something so thoroughly that I had to give it a new title afterwards, but that's not something I worry about. The fact is that if I'm putting my name to these things then there's a basic issue about craft skills, about wanting to do the best job possible because sometimes you look at poems in a magazine or even in a book and you think 'they said what?' and it might be something as simple as line breaks or line endings, or a simile that's a bit lazy or something that doesn't quite work and you think 'oh dear'.
Do you submit your poems simultaneously?
I do not actually. I think it's bad manners, bad practice. I've done it inadvertently on two or three occasions and when I've realised this I immediately wrote to the editors and apologised to them because someone once told me that some magazine editors have a little blacklist of people who do this and I just think that in this country simultaneous submissions is not acceptable. It might be in the States, I'm not sure about that, but I would say in Britain if you get caught doing that, editors take notice of these things and your reputation will be damaged.
I've only ever noticed it once actually, there's someone who I won't name, but managed to print a poem which had one very distinctive image in it, and I saw it in two different places and I thought 'you silly boy'. It comes down to a basic question about professionalism. Even though very few poets are professional writers in the sense that you make a living from it, I think you should approach your work, all aspects of it, in as thoroughly a professional manner as possible. This business about simultaneous submissions is something I feel quite strongly about, people should not do it.
What are your opinions concerning the vanity press market?
No poet, even if they're utterly desperate for publication, should have anything to do with vanity presses. They're a con, a scam and a rip-off. In fact, if you look in The Poets & Artists' Yearbook, The Macmillan Writers' Handbook, Peter Finch's book The Poetry Business, and one or two other places, they all have warnings. The basic principle is if anyone asks you for money to publish a book of poems or a pamphlet, then walk in the opposite direction as fast as possible because given that we're living in a late capitalist economy, we can't object to publishers making a profit out of poetry, but no-one should make a profit out of the poet. There is a perfectly good alternative, if you cannot persuade Faber, Bloodaxe, Cape, Hearing Eye, Katabasis or whoever it is to publish your book, then self-publish. Some people in the literary establishment tend to be a bit snobby about it, but Blake did it, Walt Whitman did it, Pound, Williams, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, I think R.S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas, all of them chose to self-publish their early work. Now these days, with specialist short-run printing and desktop typesetting, you can make a very impressive-looking book that, in terms of quality and the production values, is as good as anything which Bloodaxe or Carcanet can do. Your problem is distribution and marketting.
Any self-publisher who can figure out a way to do those, I say 'well, good luck to them!'. You won't make any money out of it, but at least you can publish. I don't see a problem with it, apart from the fact that if you self-publish, it means that you're not eligible to apply for any of the writers' awards.
For example, London Arts Board has a New Writers' Award, the Arts Council has something similar, and in both cases you need to have one book published but self-publication disqualifies you. Now, I think that's a shame, there is nothing wrong with self-publication, but vanity publishing as I've said, is a scam and a con, don't have anything to do with it. In fact Johnathon Clifford, who runs the National Poetry Foundation, has been waging a campaign against these crooks, he's driven a lot of them out of the market and has published a couple of books showing how he did it and telling you why. Go and read Johnathon, he tells you what you need to know about these people.
Do you think that poetry magazine editors fulfill their roles?
The role of a magazine or journal editor is quite different to that of a book editor from a publishing house. Obviously, to take the latter first, some editors like Neil Astley at Bloodaxe have a very vigorous, grant-supported publishing programme and manage to publish a whole range of new writers, from experienced writers, writers in translation. Likewise, Carcanet has got quite a big program. Recently Don Paterson of Picador, has been publishing quite a few new poets.
Now, some people say that poetry editors are narrow minded and they only publish a certain type of easily marketed, easily digested mainstream poetry, but there are editors like Ken Edwards of Reality Street Press who publish the more radical or linguistically-innovative people. So it is possible for the most radical and experimental poets to get their work into print.
Now, if we're talking about magazine editors, there is a huge spectrum of magazines from little staple jobs, which probably print about 100 copies, to PN Review, Poetry Review, Ambit, - big posh glossy jobs. If a magazine appears regularly and it publishes good and interesting new work, if its reviews are fair and informative then yes, those editors are doing their job. If a magazine appears late or it doesn't appear for several years, as with the case of Gairfish where I think there's been a five year gap, then you might say those editors aren't doing their job. It might be lack of money, commitment, ill-health, a whole range of reasons, but if it comes out regularly, if you like what's in it, if you find the reviews are giving you information about whether you might like a new book or whether you might want to buy it, then that's fair enough. If, however, the reviews are biased or uninformative, or if the poetry starts being dull, or they're only publishing one type, or they're publishing a little clique of their chums, then those editors are not doing their job they are not fulfilling their responsibilities and they should go and do something useful like sweeping the streets or running a vegetarian restaurant.
If an editor suggests changes to your work, how far would you take it?
If an editor suggests revisions, I will look at that seriously and see if it can be done. Occasionally, I've had an editor say 'if you lose the first line, I'll publish this poem!' or 'if you change the ending, I'll publish it!'.
On one occasion Jane Holland, who edits Blade, offered to publish a poem if I removed five lines from the middle. Smith's Knoll wanted a poem, I think it was 'The Red Hand', if I deleted the first line. In each of those cases, I looked at the poems and thought well actually it wouldn't damage the poems and so I said 'yes, fine, no problem'. So, if an editor makes a specific suggestion, I would think about it seriously because editors see thousands of poems over the years.
Now, they may get terribly jaded or rigid in their thinking, or develop very strange prejudices or fixed ideas. On the other hand, I do think that they are very skilled at pointing or picking up weaknesses in poems. Yes, I don't have a problem about that. I take the attitude of whichever French poet it was who said
'a poem is never finished, merely abandoned'.
I don't think poems have a fixed or definitive text. I'm not sure I would make major changes on an editor's suggestion, but certainly if it's relatively small things then I will accept that because if I'm looking at poems, say, to go into an anthology or to go into a collection, then I'll be looking at them very carefully and possibly rewriting it anyway.
Most of the worthwhile criticism I've had has not been from magazine editors, it's been from people in different workshops I've had, whether that's been Camden Voices, or the Goldsmith's College group, or the groups I'm in at the moment, like The Islington Poetry Workshop. I still workshop anything new, regularly, and if people have a valid criticism of the poem that's actually on the page I will have a good hard look at it.
Often, with a new poem, you can't make up your mind if it's wonderful or if it's a pile of weasel droppings. Unfortunately, I have the usual insecurities about quality of the work, but very often I do tend to think that whatever I've written most recently, is the most wonderful thing I've done in years. So, I always workshop things and then test them out at readings at places like Torriano Meeting House, because again I find standing up in front of an audience will expose any weaknesses in a poem quite dramatically.
Brian, what suggestions or ideas would you offer to new writers?
Any new writer who is starting to take their work seriously for the first time, it doesn't matter what age they are because I found it especially true that a lot of women start writing seriously in their mid-forties or fifties. So age isn't really a question, but it comes back to the basic thing of reading as widely as possible, reading as much as possible, going to readings, and subscribing to magazines to hear contemporary voices because if you want to take your work forward you have to know what's being done now.
It's no use knowing what Shakespeare did, or what Keats did, or what Ezra Pound did, or even what Sylvia Plath did, that isn't going to help you. You need to know what is being done right now, as well as having a sense of history and the literary tradition. So you have to get involved, spend a few quid subscribing to magazines, join a workshop group if there's one local and if there's one that suits you. Accept that your early work will be apprentice work, it will be limited, it will be influenced by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Don Paterson or Michael Donaghy, you have to accept those early influences and work through them.
I do believe in an apprenticeship system which painters had, where they spent several years copying old Masters' work, before the Master would allow them to do the left ear on one of his paintings. I still think that's a good system. If you can find an older poet to be a mentor, that is absolutely wonderful, it doesn't happen very often, but if you find a good workshop then older and more experienced poets will actually do that, often without you realising it. I don't think there are any short cuts to good, contemporary writing or even good modern writing which might not be the same thing.
Poetry, as well as all the unpredictable stuff about inspiration, talent, genius, all the stuff that you either have or don't have in the same way that a great violinist or guitar player has, there's still a craft aspect to it, as Yeats said to Irish poets 'Irish poets learn your trade, practise what's well-made!'.
You have to just do your apprentice's work, learn the craft skills. Even if you're writing the most avantegarde or linguistically-innovative work, you have to know what a sonnet is and what it does. Even if you'll never write a sonnet in your entire life, you still have to know that stuff.
I often hear a lot of jealousy, or envy, from people who haven't done the work to get a book out, or even into magazines, and they point to Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and then start moaning about how it's all a big conspiracy, they all know each other, they all went to Oxford together. Well, sure, there is still possibly a tiny minority of poets who went to Oxford together or knew each other at public school. Well Armitage didn't, he did a geography degree in Portsmouth, Carol Ann Duffy studied philosophy in Liverpool.
The fact is they've both done interviews describing how they started. Armitage talks about getting stuff into magazines, going to workshops in Huddersfield, then publishing pamphlets, and this is all years before he got that first book out from Bloodaxe. So he did all the necessary hard work. I think he did actually work hard pretty early on from what he said in an interview in Verse magazine. There is no substitute for that, I'm afraid. Again, people look at Andrew Motion and say 'oh, golden boy', but whatever you think of the man's poems he has actually worked pretty hard, he's written a lot, he's done literary criticism, biographies, and he's been doing that since about 1976. So, going to Oxford and winning the Newdigate Prize might have helped when he was nineteen, but it's absolutely useless to him now.
© Brad Evans, Brian Docherty 2000