For his essay on Poet-Novelists in our Summer 2015 issue, Dai George interviewed Christopher Meredith at his home in the Black Mountains. We’re delighted to publish the edited transcript of the conversation online.
Christopher Meredith’s first novel Shifts won the Arts Council of Wales Fiction prize and was recently shortlisted for the title of Greatest Welsh Novel of All Time. His second novel, Griffri, was shortlisted for the Book of the Year Award in 1992. His fourth novel, The Book of Idiots, was published to acclaim in 2012. Volumes of poetry include The Meaning of Flight and his most recent collection Air Histories. http://christophermeredith.webs.com
Dai George: How did you come into poetry and fiction?
Christopher Meredith: It’s hard to remember. I think in my teens I started to write some poetry, none of which survives, thank God – the world has been spared – and I also wrote some songs. Interestingly, I saw the songs and the poetry as being pretty separate from one another. And not a lot of fiction. When I was in university I remember reading Joyce, and I remember thinking, in that way that you do when you’re 18 or 19, that poetry was finished. I decided I was going to write fiction, and I started with short stories. I wrote half a dozen unfinished short stories, partly under the influence of Joyce and an American writer called James Leo Herlihy. What I noticed about their short stories is how worked they are – without being pat, how complete they are – and that’s what I wanted to do in the fiction that I started to write. And it was tremendously hard work. I didn’t write a lot, and I don’t think most of it was any good, but I learned an enormous amount. Much of that stuff feeds into what you do when you write a poem as well.
When I was in my 20s, a little bit later, I actually went back to poetry, partly because after various interludes and various other bits of work, I became a schoolteacher. I was put in a position where I was forced to stand up in front of classrooms full of adolescents and talk about poetry, and it made me look at poetry again, harder – including poems I didn’t much care for in some cases, though I had to be an advocate for them. Often it just seems like drudgery while you’re doing it, but what you discover is that you learn how to read attentively. A lot of that process is learning to read. My friend Jeremy Hooker is one of those people who’re good at teaching people how to read attentively, so that you see connections, interplays and patterns of imagery in texts, whether they’re intentional or unintentional. It’s like listening to music, learning how to hear the notes.
In terms of making a work cohere, there’s not a distinction between whether it’s a poem or a piece of prose fiction. To me, then, it seemed natural to work in ‘both codes’. Also, if you’ve got a day job, poetry is more amenable to get composed and get published. It was even then. So then I was writing poetry, though prose was always lurking in the background. Not short stories – I never really got good enough with my attempts at that, though I continued to try occasionally. I had a bit of success with poetry, when my first little book of poems came out in 1984, and as I’m sure you know, Dai, you feel you can die a contented man, that moment you first get the book inside your hands. It’s a wonderful moment.
At the same time, the early 80s were a grim time, politically. The poetry I was writing then, I’d defend a lot of it now, but it wasn’t connecting enough with other stuff, in the world.
CM: In the broadest sense. In one sense, everything’s political. You know, I had a friend then who was in prison without coming to trial. Those were grim times. The early 80s were much, much harsher than anyone remembers. Nobody was starving, quite, but they were politically tough times – a time of political fear. I was aware of that, and I just wanted to do something that would get away from me in the writing. The thing, then, that turned into Shifts – which had been lurking – got written.
‘Got written’, but while you were working full-time in Brecon High School. A lot of labour must have gone into it.
I’ve tried to add up how long it took. It was hopeless really. By the time that little book of poems came out, I did have – I don’t know how much, maybe 15-20,000 words of stuff. But that had been years of working at it in a desultory way. I made a decision, having published the book of poems, that I needed to do something more – something less personal. I think good writing has a kind of impersonal quality.
I decided to work on it every day. That’s how it got written. My rule was ‘you will write one sentence’ – even if it’s just a sentence. I think one day I did cheat, I just put three asterisks along the page to separate one section from another, but once I made that decision the draft was finished in about eight months, even with a job and a young family.
When did you carve out that time during the day?
I just made the space, you know. I mean, it was often in the evening – I don’t know if I’d have the energy to do it now, frankly. I used to have a little ritual on a Monday, when I’d go to my local library. I got in the car and I drove very slowly, with great pleasure in driving six miles on an empty road, till I got to the library and I had one hour where I would work, and I made myself work for that hour. Then I drove back. Routines, you know? I remember the poet Gavin Ewart being interviewed. Journalists tend to assume that poets are people who wear flowery scarves and prance through fields of flowers, and he was having one of those interviews. The journalist goes, ‘How do you become a poet?’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s just a sort of habit.’ I remember thinking, that’s a pathetic answer – but now I can see it as a great virtue.
Have you ever approached writing poetry with anything like that deliberate ritual?
Not in the same way that I would write a sentence of the novel every day, or Browning – I think it was Browning – would write a poem. But there have been occasions where, yeah, you do work at it. I found it very helpful recently to have a couple of month-long residencies in Finland and Slovenia, and the great thing about those is that people actually expect you to write something. The rest of the time nobody gives a toss whether you write something or not. But there, people are watching you and expecting you to write, and that’s good! Because it makes you work. Occasions like that, I have actually got up in the morning and worked at poems, and you can. You can do that.
So even there, there’s not much of a distinction. With a novel, there’s just a lot of it, so you need to keep going, even on the days when you’d rather be doing anything else in the world.
Do you feel you can work on fiction when the muse isn’t there, in a way that’s harder with poetry?
I don’t know. You do have to keep working on the days that you don’t want to. The thing that’s asking to be written may not be asking to be written on that particular day. The question may have been asked some months ago. There are days when you have to be like a printmaker. You’ve made drafts of the piece, and today you’re just going through the drudgery of cutting this plate and moving it there, putting it through the machine and seeing how it goes. There’s a bit of you that becomes a slave to that other bit. You’d go crazy if you expected the muse to touch you every single day – or maybe some people do.
For the most recent novel, The Book of Idiots, I had very little time – I had a little bit of time away from my work in the University and I thought: I’m going to do this. I worked every day, I wrote a lot every day, I wrote more than I thought I had every day, and by my standards I wrote a first draft in a very short period of time. I can’t possibly have felt possessed by whatever it is that possesses you every day, you know? I’d be dead. There are some days when it feels humdrum.
I’d like to talk about Air Histories and Shifts, as those are the two books of yours that I’ve read within the last year. Your first novel and your latest poetry collection, and I’ve actually been struck by how – though in different genres, and at different ends of your career to date – you’re still covering a lot of similar territory, in terms of reckoning with your home patch, these mountains, a terroir.
Yeah – that’s depressing, isn’t it?
No, I think it shows that you’re the sort of writer others might want to write about in future, because you have a topography, a mythos. I just wonder if your investigations into place in the two genres – in those two books, if you want – how they’re different, how they’re the same, whether things circulate.
It wasn’t in my mind to compare what was going on in Air Histories with what was going on in my first novel, at any point.
What about ‘Birth Myth’ in Air Histories, where you have the social texture and you’re talking about the town?
The thing that tickled me there was how we hear the stories of our own births in the same way that we hear myths. In a sense, we weren’t there – we don’t remember any of it, and I use the phrase ‘infant amnesia’ in the poem. I was interested in that idea, that the story of our own birth is as impersonal as the story of the childhood of Hercules. It has a mythic quality because your parents tell you these stories – you know, ‘When you were born, you had a pee and then you went to sleep.’ The casual remark from somebody in the labour ward becomes set as a bit of narrative. I was interested in the way that happens, and in the way that as individuals we assume we’re the centres of our own universe, though really we’re not. [Laughs.]
The first half’s to do with all the famous birth myths, and how they’re a bit ridiculous really, and then in the second half I bring it to a particular story from when I was a babe in arms. Just to juxtapose those two myths, so that you’ve got a woman walking up Market Street in Tredegar with a baby in her arms, towards Saron Chapel on a snowy day – that’s set against all that myth stuff. I don’t know what the conclusion is. Well, the conclusion is that ordinary experience is important. The self-aggrandising stuff is funny but you know, an ordinary woman walking down the street in 1954 – to me it’s an extraordinary image, with all that whiteness.
And poetry gives you that chance to look into yourself and your own history? Even as you poke fun at your history, or at least the sense that it’s reliable history.
Yeah… though I’m not so interested in myself.
Put another way, then, would you write prose about yourself?
Only slant, I think. I’m not actually interested in confession or expressing myself – you know, expressing my self specifically. Lots of things do interest me. I’m interested in the relationship between how people spend their lives and their sense of themselves, and I think novels are brilliant at tapping into that. I don’t know if this is a banal idea or not, but I think of novels as like a Venn diagram. There are three circles: there’s the self – and I don’t mean my self; I mean the individual – then there are other selves, so the community or society, and then there’s everything else. The intuition of much 20th century literature, that we are utterly alone and trapped within ourselves – cosmic loneliness, if you like – is a very compelling way of looking at us. But then we do live in communities, societies, towns and families and so on – generations that interrelate, with the memory of past people and the thought of future people. It moves through time as well as space. And we do sit in a bigger picture of historical process, political structures and the big natural, ecological processes – that’s the third circle. I think the novel is brilliant at exploring between those spheres.
One of the reasons why the novel is so important – as I see it, and as I’ve tried to write it on occasion – is the way point of view evolves, maybe in a way that’s different to poetry.
There’s a vector of space and time that’s difficult to get into the moment of a poem.
I think that’s really important. Novels at their best can suggest and deal with process. It’s not just event. The distinction between event and process is a knotty one, and it’s a question in my third novel, Sidereal Time: do we have a particle or a wave theory of matter? The idea being that event is a particle and process is a wave. In novels, I’m not sure you can necessarily arrive at any answers, but you can explore how people live and move and change.
Does poetry enable more abstract thought? The word ‘mountain’ runs through Air Histories as a totem, activating all sorts of associations, but in a novel, if you talk about a character walking up a mountain, it’s a particular geographical mountain…
I don’t know if ‘abstract’ is the word. Generalisation, maybe, and it tends to be a boo word – ‘don’t generalise!’ we say, and I tend to be wary of generalisations. But the way you can isolate words on the page in poetry, and their ability to resonate… I suppose you could say their ability to generalise, and to refer more widely than to just what’s on the page, that can happen more readily in poems. I mean, there are a few very naturalistic poems in that collection, like ‘The record keepers’ and that poem about Torres the guitar maker, little short stories really, in poetry.
But with the other poems, a word that comes to mind is ‘gnomic’. Like ‘What Earth Thought’, which was a bit of a windfall. I’m one of those people who thought, ‘What’s the point in a sestina? Only a masochistic idiot would subject themselves to doing one, or a genius who could actually make it work.’ It’s so constrictive, how do you do it? Until I came across this extraordinary thing, where some researchers reckoned, through various techniques, that they’d worked out the proto language from which most European languages had arisen. It was spoken in Anatolia 9000 years ago or something. They came up with the ‘Dyen list’, which is a vocabulary of 200 words you’re likely to find in any language. So they look at the word for ‘stone’ across 50 languages, with a deep understanding of how sounds evolve and so on, and they find out how one word is related to another.
And it’s a natural occasion for a sestina, where the cage of the language limits you to a certain number of words.
Yes, and in a sestina the pattern of the words becomes, in a complicated way, rhythmic – or repetitive, anyway – like seasons, years, trying to scratch a living out of subsistence agriculture. Trying to get them to say complicated things with a limited vocabulary.
It would be hard to imagine a work of fiction set in that time, wouldn’t it? Because so much of that life would be inaccessible to our imaginations.
I think that over the course of a few pages in a poem it’s doable, but it would be much harder in a novel. The trouble with trying to sustain it for any longer is that it could get very wearing.
Well, they were tedious times – being a subsistence farmer 9000 years ago.
Yeah, and you may want to have a boring character in your novel, but you don’t want to have a boring novel.
I was looking at ‘Ridge’. The last lines of that are ‘The sky goes home, resolves to silence in the white noise of living air.’ There’s a reason why that’s a poetic utterance and would be hard to pull off as the end to one of those sections in Shifts, for instance. It wouldn’t be in the vocabularies of the characters – it would sort of come out of nowhere…
There might be a novel in which that type of language will work. In that particular case [‘Ridge’], you know, there’s a thread of music in the book – the title of the book refers as much to the idea of a tune as to the actual air. The idea of poetry, actually, is contained in that. Air is important. That poem ends on air, and the whole poem ‘Ridge’ looks at the ridge of the mountain as if it’s a line of notes, scored against the sky.
And air, by definition, is something that’s hard to particularise. I suppose you could talk about the smoggy air in Mexico City, or the clear air up in Brecon – but it’s by nature a very ethereal thing.
I think it’s a very important word because of its apparent emptiness. Again, it’s in the sound of the word – it’s the most onomatopoeic of words without you even realising it. There’s no consonant – it’s all vowel. It’s like a breath, more so than the word ‘breath’, because with that you’ve got a ‘b’. But ‘air’… it’s the sound of air escaping. I liked the contrast between that and ‘histories’, which is a much flintier sort of a word. It’s got the hiss and the hardness of the ‘t’ sound, apart from the idea of story and fact, and the idea of multiple ways of looking at what fact is – ‘histories’, you know, not ‘history’. I like the tension between the two words.
It comes in ‘The record keepers’, doesn’t it? Not quite ‘air histories’, but it says ‘they wrote the history of air’. The idea of air in this poem, then, is as something that’s antithetical to history. It’s something that comes to the fore when nothing’s happening in the world, during this weird four-year ‘interregnum’, when nothing’s going on.
There’s this extraordinary entry in a medieval Welsh chronicle. It just says, ‘Then there were four years when there was no history.’ It’s the epigraph to my poem, though I cheated a bit by cutting off the end – I think the original says ‘no history worth recording’. But it’s a very startling moment in the record. Chronicles are strange things, a mixture of bits and pieces. They don’t explain how one event connects with another. That to me makes them more interesting, as a novelist, than historians who actually shape the narrative.
There’s that, and I was out on my bike one day, on a little lane in the foothills of the Beacons here, and I stopped and looked over a farm gate at a field. There were hundreds of butterflies fluttering in the barley. I stood there and watched for a long time. I’m interested in the idea that official records – what we take to be the big processes that govern the way we live – are very tidied-up narratives. There’s all this stuff that doesn’t get in there. A lot of the time, I suspect, the real history is butterflies stunting over some barley in the field. ‘The history of air’ is all the history that doesn’t get nailed down.
It seems to be a poem that’s almost a death wish for the novel – that the real meaning is here in the stuff that’s generally thought ephemeral…
Except – no, I don’t know. Again, I think the novel can get at those qualities in experience that are missed out in histories. Once I talked to somebody about the possibility of making a film of Shifts, but he said, ‘What would the soundtrack be? I’ve been looking at 1977, and punk was just starting to happen then…’ I just thought, that’s not relevant, you know? That’s newsreel stuff. That’s not relevant to those characters.
So Jack doesn’t have a record collection?
Well, he has nothing when he turns up. They would have music, but the funny thing is that when you put the soundtrack on, it makes it seem an archive rather than something that’s happening now – something that’s the now of then. With a novel, you can create a sense of ‘now’, but you have to be very smart about the way you use historical markers. The opening of Shifts has a character get out of a black Viva with a loose exhaust, and he’s wearing flared trousers. I put the flared trousers in because by the time I was writing the novel, flared trousers were a historical detail. People had stopped wearing flared trousers by the mid-80s, the time I was writing that sentence, though most people were still wearing them till the early 80s. There’s a certain newsreel version of history, that in 1977 everyone stopped wearing flares and had safety pins, drainpipe trousers and spiky hair. No! Some kids in some towns started doing that. There’s this very slow process going on that the newsreel doesn’t admit – it shows you sudden changes, events. I think the novel can be cleverer than the histories at getting at the butterflies in the field – in the way that poetry can.
One of the little premises of my piece is that there’s a term ‘the poet-novelist’ that’s in some ways a bit of a pejorative. Because the novels that would be turned out by such a character might not be very readable, or very compulsively readable anyway – not the sort of novel that makes you turn the page. The characters all have thoughts and attitudes but nothing much happens.
I think there are novelists who write that way, and we might all be better off if they were poets.
It’s hard, though, to think of poet-novelists who write these sorts of page-turning, compulsive novels.
I’ve never been too troubled by the distinction, but I wonder if there’s a complex going on. Because ‘poetry’ is the sort of word, in some people’s minds, which is all connotation and no denotation. It can either mean ‘great’, as when a football commentator says ‘that shot was sheer poetry’, or it’s an utter condemnation, like that great line in Blackadder where Flashheart says, ‘I’ve had enough of this war, the blood, the suffering, the killing – all the bloody poetry!’ There’s that pejorative sense in which we use ‘poetry’ to mean airy-fairy vagueness. I was in a meeting once with filmmakers, and I realised that when they said ‘poetic films’ they meant ‘films that don’t have any narrative content’. It was actually another word for vague. I wonder if that’s tainting how some people see the phrase ‘poet-novelist’.
From my own experience navigating the economic realities of being a writer, a publisher knowing that you’re a poet is unlikely to be selling point. They’re going to think that you’re committed to literary craft and nicely honed sentences, ahead of writing the sort of story that people are going to want to read.
It’s a bit sad isn’t it, if publishers aren’t interested in literary craft and well-honed sentences? They don’t really mean ‘well-honed sentences’, in that case, do they – they mean ‘precious’ or ‘overworked’ or ‘fey’. There’s a value judgement going on in that. A ‘well-honed sentence’ can be Orwell at his best. He’s got that line, the opening of an essay called ‘Marrakesh’, which goes something like, ‘When the corpse was carried past my table, the flies left my dinner. They came back a moment later.’ That’s just great! That’s what well honed is. The problem is that when someone says ‘we’re not interested in well-honed sentences’, what they mean is ‘that’s a bit precious’. It’s just prejudice.
Poems and novels are different, and we’ve delineated some of the things that the novel is good at that poems are perhaps less good at. But in the process of making these things – poems or novels – I don’t make any distinction. I’m just making it the best way I can and getting the thing to cohere. I was once asked to speak on the subject of poetry and prose, and I said that in a way, creative prose is the most demanding sort of poetry to write. The formal constraint is huge: fill the page and keep on going – that’s a very difficult formal constraint. That’s just turning the argument upside-down – poets have big advantages because they can make the shape on the page much more easily than a prose writer can.
At an intuitive level, there’s a sense that poems ought to be the accessible things because they’re short. Yet I’m amazed by the bright, literate people I talk to who just don’t read it because they feel that they can’t get into it.
On the other hand, when I’m giving a reading, it’s much easier on the whole to read poems. Doesn’t matter who the audience is – it’s easier for them too.
Prose readings can be really turgid, can’t they?
I’m very aware when giving a prose reading that you have to choose the passage carefully. There’s the problem of taking it out of context when it’s a novel, too, which is a whole other issue. But what it shows is that we don’t read poetry enough with an imagined voice – why else should it be so much easier to understand at a reading? I think one of the great pleasures of reading novels and short stories is that sense of privacy. It’s all about what’s going on between your temples – you don’t even necessarily hear it in your own voice. What exactly happens? Do you hear a voice when you read? As I understand it we’re evolved for spoken language, so reading and writing are utterly unnatural. We’ve invented it. There’s something very strange going on when you read silently.
And prose is a wonderful mechanism for delivering that experience.
I must admit, in recent years I’ve gone back to feeling that reading can thrill me. I love the intensity of that relationship between the look of the words on the page and what’s going on in your mind – it’s all in that tiny circle between your head and the page, you know? I love that. Having spent my life looking at texts, of course I get sick of it in certain circumstances – you do a pro job, and read well for work purposes and all of that, but recently I’ve gone back to getting that sort of pleasure out of it. Maybe it’s harder for people to get that with poems. Maybe because poems nowadays are short things on the whole, that works against it on the page. That sense of immersion is less possible.
Do you have any favourite poet-novelists? Here’s a little thought experiment: we could probably think of poets we love who’ve also dabbled in fiction, and vice versa, but it’s harder to think of someone who’s equally strong in both fields.
I wonder if that’s the economic nature of things, as you were hinting. The ‘market’, whatever that is, generally likes people to do one thing reliably.
Maybe it is unusual to do both things well, but for your thought experiment there are writers you’d be unfair to call ‘dabblers’ in one or other of the forms. Thomas Hardy has to be a major example. In Welsh you’d have to consider Caradog Prichard. He was a poet, made a good living as a journalist – in his second language mainly – and apart from his big novel, Un Nos Ola Leuad, his autobiography, Afal Drwg Adda, is better crafted and more novel-like than a great many things calling themselves novels out there. I’ve often fancied translating it. I don’t know other languages to judge, but Goethe’s got to be on the list hasn’t he? George Mackay Brown comes to mind among poet-novelists. Magnus is pretty interesting, I think, though not perfect. Glyn Jones’s Island of Apples is a masterpiece in my opinion, probably more significant than any of his poetry. Sheenagh Pugh’s written a couple of good novels which maybe aren’t as well known as they should be because she’s so well known as a poet. And among novelist-poets there’s maybe Margaret Atwood and Helen Dunmore. D.H. Lawrence is unignorable. Wrote too much too fast, sometimes badly. He published a collection called Look! We Have Come Through! and his supposed friend Russell said I’m very glad to hear they’ve come through but I don’t see why we should watch. One of the sharpest ever bits of criticism. But of course Lawrence, whatever you make of what he had to say, was often brilliant in both forms, and others.
We may see a tension, some sort of opposition between poetry and prose, but to see them as actual opposites is lazy thinking. The onlooker may feel a tension when a musician turns from playing the piano to playing a guitar or something. But for the musician there’s more a sense of cohesion than opposition between the instruments. When it works, the tension between them is creative rather than obstructive. It’s all making the air vibrate in the end.
Dai George’s first collection of poems The Claims Office was published by Seren in 2013. His full piece on poet-novelists is published in the Summer 2015 issue of Poetry Wales. He’s getting there with his historical novel.