Interview by Tim Relf
I’m after the truth in my poems… not some misguided loyalty to ‘what actually happened’. I don’t believe any of us are reliable narrators of events, even to ourselves
What the Doorman Says
With a nod to C.R. That he could kill for a smoke. That the punters get older every year. That really, he hardly ever has to lay a finger. That even arterial blood washes right out. That the fella with the dog sat at the furthest end of the bar is, all told, a cunt. That sometimes he dreams of jacking it all in, moving to Cornwall to open a fish ‘n’ chip shop. That booze, generally speaking, brings out the worst in everyone. That his wife could be anywhere now. That he’s been dry for five years, since she left, bar the one lapse. That he’s seen it all before. That you didn’t need to worry about a gang of blokes as much as a serious hen party rocking up. That letting punters choose the music from a jukebox with an internet connection is a stupid idea. That I should mind my own business. That he could kill for a smoke. That too many kids have knives on them nowadays. That the punters get older every year. That you learn a thing or two about life watching a grown man fall down on his own vomit. That he wouldn’t let his daughter near this place. That a good strong cup of tea will do him nicely, ta. That booze, generally speaking, brings out the worst.
Is the poem based on a real person (or even a few), or is it entirely the product of your imagination? What does your answer to that tell us about how you find inspiration for your writing?
Michael Donaghy once described the poet as ‘a ghostly compound of fact and invention’. The same inevitably goes for poems. I’ve worked in pubs and bars, and spent a fair bit of my life drinking in them. You meet some characters; the writer in me then tends to hoard this stuff in the instinctive hopes it might make for the beginnings of something. But it will only give you the basis, a solid foundation, which is what informs the composite character of the doorman. Much more of it is verisimilitude, which is where things get interesting. I’m after the truth in my poems – show me a poet who isn’t – not some misguided loyalty to ‘what actually happened’. I don’t believe any of us are reliable narrators of events, even to ourselves. My latest collection Same Difference returns to that idea in various forms: how our life is what the novelist Julian Barnes refers to as ‘the story we have told ourselves’. The doorman is also a difficult character, which interests me. I prefer poems that offer you speakers and characters as flawed, complex, morally ambiguous, whether they’ve good intentions or not. Real, basically.
The French poet, Paul Verlaine, is an important figure in your literary life. Why?
I started versioning Verlaine over a decade ago. First off, I’m monolingual, so my intention was never to faithfully translate from the French. I’ve included a candid afterword in Same Difference explaining the process and intention behind the poems ‘after Verlaine’ in that book, for those who might be interested. So long as they’re not written by a certain kind of bilingual Sunday poet, translations can be absolutely amazing, and at least in part proceed from a generous instinct, trying to create a convincing version in English, say, of a non-English-language poem, while retaining some genuine fidelity to the language and style of the original. It sounds impossible. But I think versioning is a bit more selfish, in the first instance anyway. You’re trying on a different voice, or voices, mainly to see what effect that exerts on your own poetry. The resulting poems can end up having little in common, at least on the surface, with the originals. But they often stand a better chance than translations in succeeding as poems themselves. Verlaine interested me because I got the sense that his best poems are full of contradiction and paradox: punchy yet tender, direct yet allusive, metaphysical but impressionistic. I wanted some of that for my own writing. Things that were maybe already there to some extent, but which needed license from a great poet to bring them to the fore. I’d recommend versioning to anyone as a means of stretching what they think their own poems are capable of. The C. R. that the poem here nods to is Christopher Reid, whose ingenious ‘translation’ project Katerina Brac has been a source of inspiration.
Your titles often have a naturalistic, conversational feel (other examples might be ‘Weirdos’ and ‘Kenny Dalglish’). How do you come up with a title and what are you hoping it will do?
I think it was Mick Imlah who said that a poem never recovers from a bad title. Honestly, it’s normally the last thing I pin on a poem! Most of the time, I’m looking for something that doesn’t ruin what follows. How’s that for ambition. Some poets are great with titles, whether they brilliantly magnetise the contents of the poem itself, or else wrong-foot in a surprising way. Michael Hofmann springs to mind. Simon Armitage has some great ones too, in the earlier work: ‘It Ain’t What You Do It’s What It Does to You’, say, or ‘Goalkeeper with a Cigarette’. But then I read somewhere he said he won’t start work on a poem until he has the title, the first line and the last, which I found baffling. So much of poetry is about discovery, about not knowing quite where you’re going, I couldn’t understand that. Anyway, I’ll admit to being chuffed with one of the titles from my first collection, ‘You Must Be Joking’, a dramatic monologue that’s a dark take on the life of a comedian. That one did some of the heavy lifting.
Part of what makes ‘What the Doorman Says’ so effective is what is left unsaid or hinted at – ‘bar the one lapse’, for example. How do you know what to leave out and what to put in?
I believe poetry says more with less. I rarely get on with any poem that seems to present verbosity as a virtue. The poems I tend to admire, for all their other differing qualities, manage to present complex emotions and ideas in the simplest possible terms – as simple as possible but not one iota simpler, as Einstein said of his own subject. Waffling on in a poem strikes me as amateurish. There are exceptions, of course. Purposeful repetition can be devastating: think about the final lines of Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. No sense steps into the same line twice. But if lazy repetition or piled-up adjectives or thesaurus toting are the order of the day… no thanks. Work harder. Do your poetry apprenticeship. I honestly think that’s the only way you learn, bit by bit, poem after poem, how to say things once and once only. It’s not the same as cabinet making or whatever, but honestly, the stuff some folks try to pass off as intentional, or purposeful, when it looks for all the world like it’s just badly made. If ever poetry frustrates – the little ‘poetry world’, for example, which hasn’t really much to do with poems at all – I remind myself of that journey. The pleasure in the effort of striving for complex simplicity, and the long road still ahead.