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The Poetry Kit Interviews Peter Howard

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?

I was born in Nottingham and lived first of all in the village of Nuthall. My parents were both teachers. When I was eight my father was seconded to the Nuffield Science Teaching project and we moved to London for a couple of years. The Nuffield Foundation provided us with what was, in retrospect, a fairly impressive flat near Regent's Park. (We were close enough to London Zoo to hear the wolves howling at night.) But my sister and I (my only sibling is two years younger than me) just thought it was small. Then we moved to Powick, near Worcester, where my mother still lives. Powick was a slightly embarrassing place to live, because it contained a mental hospital. At Worcester Royal Grammar School (older than Eton, and proud of it, though not at the time an independent school) you got the mickey taken out of you if you said you lived in Powick. Around then, they were doing some rather dodgy experiments with LSD in the hospital, but nobody knew about that until much later.

Do you come from a literary family?

Both my grandfathers were coal miners. My mother's parents were very religious and I suspect that influenced her to train as a teacher. My father was a postman and a butcher's boy before World War II, and then joined the RAF Regiment. (The RAF Regiment operated searchlights and AA artillery at airfields. The Army had previously done those jobs, but there were conflicts of interest and loyalty.) When he was demobbed at the end of the war, he joined the teacher training scheme, specialising in Science (he'd always been interested) and English (he knew how to read). In fact, he read voraciously. It's probably not surprising, given their backgrounds, that my parents pushed me quite hard. But the answer to your question, is probably "Not in the sense that most people would understand it."

When did you start writing poetry?

I was interested in poetry from quite an early age. I remember a book of poems I had when I was about six. In London, James Reeves' "Prefabulous Animiles" was a big hit with my sister and me. (My father got housemaid's knee from giving us Hippocrump Rides.) I had a bit of an adolescent reaction against it, but then an inspirational English teacher (Oliver Goldfinch) read us Shelley's "Ozymandias" and that got me hooked again. But I don't think I started writing poetry until my third year at Oxford. If I wrote anything in childhood or adolescence I have no memory or record of it. I started writing more regularly and prolifically when I was teaching (at Worcester Girls' Grammar School). I made friends with the Head of English (Margaret Smith) and she was very encouraging.

What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

I suppose it's fairly boringly conventional: I was very taken with Eliot, especially The Wasteland. I admired Donne, particularly the sexy and the scientific poems. Blake seems to have been a strong influence, judging by the symbolism I used in the first things I wrote. As to events, my first poems were influenced by the fact that my best friend had got off with a girl I fancied, and I was insanely jealous.

What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?

My first poems were formal: the first poem I wrote was a crack at a Petrarchean sonnet. I wrote quite a lot in sonnet forms; much of the rest of my early stuff was metrical and rhymed. I branched out into short, free-ish form things, and I've subsequently written both formal and informal stuff. Informal poetry is much harder. I've never believed in free verse - there's always a price to pay. The first things I wrote were about unrequited love (never about requited love for some reason, though I did have some of that) and social alienation. There were a couple of deaths I wrote about. Then I think it got a bit more interesting and adventurous: there was a colourful, surreal transformation of the Whitgift shopping centre in Croydon, and a philippic about a publisher of computer books who'd commissioned a series to which I contributed, and then weaselled out of the arrangement.

To what extent do your 'roots' influence what you are writing now?

Not much, fundamentally, but quite a lot in detail. Because I've lived in various areas of the country, I don't have a strong sense of 'place' or the need to write about one location in any detail. Nor am I rooted deeply in any 'class' sense - my grandparents' working class background is too remote to have any profound influence; by the time I went to Oxford, the class associations of that place were much weaker than they had been, or were popularly imagined to be.
But I do write a fair amount about my childhood: it's interesting trying to pin down the details not only of events and places, but also how I thought about things then, and what was important to me.

How does the way you make a living influence your poetry?

I make my living as a engineer designing radio systems for organisations who need more than a mobile phone: railways, ambulance services, gas boards, airports and so on. These days, it involves a lot of computer software. A lot of my poetry is influenced by that, either by the technical aspects of my job, or by the general business environment in which I work. They (especially the former) are perhaps areas which don't get a great deal of attention from poetry, so I feel it's a niche where I can maybe make a contribution. I wasn't trained as an engineer, though. I read Physics and Philosophy at Oxford, and I write about science, or use references to it, as well. It needs a bit of care though, to strike the right balance between using enough science or technology to be credible, and reducing the potential audience too much. The first poem I had published was rejected by Poetry Review on the grounds that people wouldn't understand the Physics. (It combined the concept of the diffraction of light by a grating with the story of Francesca da Rimini.) So I sent it to Physics Bulletin, who took it, but asked me to provide a gloss explaining the Dante references.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

I try to write every day, but don't always succeed. Often I'll spend my lunch hour at work writing, and then e-mail the results to myself at home to continue with. I tend to have spells where I can start things, but not finish them, and other times when I finish things off. I also have spells where I can do neither. My best poems (however you judge what 'best' means) tend to come out of nowhere, so I suppose you could call that inspiration. But I do think it's an over-rated term, used mostly as an excuse for not writing anything.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

I've gained a lot from workshops, whether they've been face-to-face, postal, or conducted in cyberspace. They can have their dangers though: once you get to know the group, you can be tempted to write what you know will please them, rather than what you ought to be writing. The most valuable workshops I've attended have been those on courses I've been on, at the Taliesin Trust. There, you're immersed for a week with a bunch of people who think it's quite normal to be interested in writing poetry, which is a very refreshing experience. I also go to a few one day tutored courses. Although by now I've done the exercises enough times to know them off by heart, it's still useful in giving a structured time to write. Writing circles where you read and comment on each others' poems are useful if you find the right one. You have to be careful how you take the comments you receive. Really, you should only change your poem in response to what someone says if your reaction is "Why didn't I think of that?" Otherwise you're letting someone else write your poem for you. And for me, at any rate, it's important that comments tell me what doesn't work (or does) and (maybe) why it doesn't, but certainly not how to change it. If someone suggests a rewording, then I'm reluctant to use it, because it doesn't belong to me. That's quite a difficult requirement, because sometimes it's easier to say how you think something should be worded, than to articulate what's unsatisfactory about the current wording.
I'm fortunate to know a number of poets who will comment on my stuff and give valuable feedback. I don't usually show work-in-progress in the sense of work that I've not got to a reasonable standard of completeness. That would be dangerous and presumptuous. But when I've got where I think I can with something, feedback from these people can be very useful. Even here, even with poets who have more talent and more experience than I have, I don't take their advice unless it works for me. They wouldn't expect me to.

To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?

My first attempt at a hypertext poem was Midwinter Fair, and I invited other poets to contribute, by linking their own poems or fragments. Quite a few did, and I like the result. (It's still open, by the way, if anyone else wants to join in.) I'd like to do a hypertext with a more close collaboration with other artists, but that hasn't happened, yet. I did once make a minimal contribution to a renga that was eventually published. My wife, Heather, is a painter (out of work hours - she is also a telecoms engineer by day), and I've written poems about her work. I keep trying to persuade her to paint in response to my poems, but no luck so far.

How do you decide that a poem is finished?

It's easiest with sonnets: if it's got fourteen iambic pentametrical lines, it rhymes in the right places, and makes some sort of sense, it's finished! Seriously though, if you've managed to do all that then it probably is fairly near completion. Really, the only way is to try as hard as you can to detect part of you telling yourself "I can get away with this." Once you've heard that little voice, you know it's not finished. Marion Lomax taught me this on a course. Every time I showed her a new draft of a poem I was working on, she'd say "This is an improvement, but you can't do that." I'd look to where her finger was pointing and realise that I'd known I couldn't do that, but thought no one would notice, that it was good enough. They did, and it wasn't. It's more difficult than it seems to admit to yourself that something won't quite do, but it's a habit worth cultivating.

Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?

My principal audience is myself. I don't know if that sounds egotistical: it's not meant to be. I think it's inevitable. If the poem doesn't work for me then I can't in conscience try to fob it off on anyone else. Having said that, I do sometimes write with a person in mind. Most often it's Heather - when I'm writing love poetry for instance. Sometimes it's for someone else, if they've asked me to write something, or suggested a topic. Most often, though, I write the poem first, and then wonder who might be interested in it.

Does poetry have to be 'simple' to get an audience?

Not at all. Some people prefer simple poems; others like the challenge, and perhaps the deeper perceptions of complicated poems. (Notice I said 'perhaps' - I'm not falling into the trap of claiming that complicated poems are necessarily deep.) But if you're talking about an audience in the strict sense of the word, i.e. at a reading, then I think you probably need the poetry to have a simple, accessible level. It can be more complicated underneath. Even here, it's assuming the audience hasn't heard the poem before. If you're an Immensely Famous poet, and most of your audience is familiar with your work, then doubtless you can read more complicated stuff and be appreciated. In my case, this is a purely academic point.

Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?

Oh, this is a difficult question. I notice you said 'admire' rather than 'like' or 'enjoy.' Those are all very different things, though there's a lot of overlap. Can I mention Miroslav Holub, even though he's sadly no longer with us? I admire him for his bravery; I like him for his celebratory use of scientific imagery; and I enjoy him for his wonderful sense of humour. I admire John Whitworth for his tremendous honesty and consummate skill. I like and enjoy his poetry too. I admire Ted Hughes but I don't like him (I mean his poetry) all that much. Same goes for Seamus Heaney, I'm ashamed to say. (I should make clear that I like and enjoy some of the work of both those admirable poets, but only some.) I like Matthew Sweeney's work a lot and enjoy it too, but where it comes in the admiration stakes, I'm less sure. Same goes for Jo Shapcott, almost inevitably. Les Murray is another I admire, for the sprawl, like for the sweep, and enjoy for the exhilaration. Reading him is like being deluged by a breaking wave of language and ideas. I could go on all night, but I'd better stop. If I answered this question tomorrow, you'd probably get an entirely different set of names.

Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?

I'm not very good with trends. I'm not sure I'd recognise one if I met it in the street. I suppose I'm interested in magic realism, if that's a trend and if I've understood the term correctly. Where a poem describes impossible things, but in a way that makes you believe them, and in doing so illuminates some real aspect of the world. Some of Carol Ann Duffy's poetry does that (I should have added her to my list of admirable poets) and much of Sweeney and Shapcott. Quite a different sort of trend is to use the characteristics of formal poetry, rhyme and metre and so forth, but in a more imaginative and less restrictive way. I think that's quite interesting, and probably a Good Thing.

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?

Poets tend to be a bit gloomy about this question, and worry that it doesn't. It's true that a lot of poetry is read largely by those who write it, and there are precarious livings being earned by poets taking in one another's washing. On the other hand, poetry plays an important part in the development of language skills in children; the techniques of poetry, at least, are widely used in advertising; some poets have used their talents influentially in the their advocation of political objectives (Ginsberg in the U.S., Adrian Mitchell in the U.K. to cite two obvious cases); and the reading or writing of poetry has comforted innumerable people in times of stress or crisis. Holub said that someone had once written to him to thank him for his poetry. The guy was on the brink of suicide, but after reading one of Holub's poems, had decided not to kill himself, after all. That's an important influence.

Do you see 'performance poetry' and 'slam' as sideshows or a return to the origins of poetry as story-teller and social conscience?

It's probably heretical to say so, but I don't think the origins of poetry are all that important to how poetry is done today. It's like arguing about the origins of a word or an institution: it can be interesting thing to do, but it doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the current function. And it certainly doesn't give any weight to how one ought to use a word or pursue an art to argue that that's how people used to do it. Performance poetry does different things from other sorts of poetry. (There's an implicit binary distinction here that I'm unhappy with: there is a continuum between poetry that only makes sense in performance, and poetry that only makes sense on the page.) Or rather, it does similar things, but in a different way. Like any other style of poetry, there are both good and bad examples.

Can poetry and science live together?

Many of the concepts of science are rather difficult, and this difficulty is sometimes masked by the attractive and apparently familiar terminology, especially that of mathematics and physics. It can be tempting to make purely linguistic use of terms like charm, force, chaos, energy, incompleteness, and forget (or not realise in the first place) that the technical senses of these word have only a tenuous connection with their everyday uses. Then it looks as if one has constructed a metaphor from science, when one has actually only constructed a metaphor from the language of science, which is a much less interesting thing to have done.
It's important that poets write about science and technology, because they're part of our culture, and we need to have poets commenting on all aspects of our culture. (Why do we need this? I don't know, but we do, I'm sure.) There's a lot of good imagery and metaphor to be mined in the area, too. I'm a bit depressed sometimes that the majority of poems about science and technology seem to be critical of it. I'm not against criticism, but there are good things as well as bad that have come from science and technology. The ending of John Updike's poem "Cosmic Gall" about neutrinos (which I otherwise admire (and like, and enjoy) greatly) irritates me intensely, and I always itch to rewrite it. Yes, I do think it's wonderful that neutrinos have the aloofness that they do, and that Updike finds it crass I find very strange.
[In case you don't know it, Updike's poem goes into humorous detail about the fact the vast majority of neutrinos that reach the Earth from the Sun pass straight through it without being affected. The poem ends: "... - you call / It wonderful; I call it crass."]
But more scientists and technologists have an interest in poetry than you might think, and that I find encouraging.

What use do you make of the internet?

I have my own web site, on which I display some of my poems, maintain a list of links to other poetry sites, and publish various hypertext poems. I subscribe to a couple of email poetry lists, which brings me into contact with other poets, with other outlooks, which is stimulating. I used to be very active in CompuServe's Poetry Forum, but I've not done much there for a while, because I found it was taking too much of my time. I've had some poems published on e-zines, though I'm afraid I'm reactionary enough to prefer seeing my stuff in honest print. That's totally illogical of me, as far as I can see.

Is internet publishing just a cheaper way of getting your poems seen by a wider audience, or is it liable to produce new kinds of poetry?

The concept of hypertext poetry is an extremely exciting one, and the Internet is an ideal medium in which to create and display it. Well, almost ideal: the way in which HTML has been developed, and the rivalry between browser developers has given rise to some very frustrating incompatibilities. But the ability to provide different routes through a piece, to make dynamic use of images, sounds, and layout, strikes me as providing the potential for new kinds of poetry. It also provides the potential for new kinds of silliness, but that's a risk with any technology.
On the down side, I wonder if there's a tendency for the attention-span of an Internet reader of poetry to be reduced. Some people prefer reading off the screen, but I tend to be too conscious of my 'phone bill ticking away to concentrate fully. One can download the page or print it, but some people don't like you doing that. That might result in a concentration on shorter, more epigrammatic poetry being preferred for Internet publication. Or it might be that people get used to reading on- line and receiving large 'phone bills.

What are you working on at the moment?

The requirements that the implementation of Mobile Station Energy Economy mode functionality place on the interface between Layer 3 and the Medium Access Control layer of the TETRA protocol stack in a digital radiocommunications infrastructure. Oh, you meant poetry-wise. I've been writing some poems using fairly simple scientific and mathematical metaphors, and trying to see if they might form any sort of coherent sequence, or are best kept separately. I'm investigating gently the possibility of producing a light anthology of poems about food; this is in collaboration with Diane Engle, a US poet I met via CompuServe. And I'm trying to win enough competitions, and publish enough poems to persuade a publisher what an excellent idea it would be to have a full collection of mine on their lists.

© Peter Howard, Ted Slade 1998