Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Ashbery, Iambics, and Ken Dodd - An Interview with C J Allen

Simon Turner: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. As per your agent's request, I'm going to avoid tackling your controversial time with the Bush administration's Propaganda Division, and head straight on to your current civilian role as a poet. I've noticed something of a resurgence of interest of late in poetic formalism: Penned in the Margin's Adventures in Form is probably the most visible example of this, but individual poets like Matthew Welton, Jeremy Over, Sam Riviere and Philip Terry (and plenty of others I'm sure) seem to be engaged seriously with questions of form's relationship with the construction of meaning, which suggests it's an exciting time to be a formalist of some stripe or other. Your own poetry seems to be comparably wide reaching in its formal devices - your new book has an exploded sonnet and a long sequence based on a chess game, among other approaches - so I wondered, really, if you saw yourself as part of this tide of formal experimentation, and, in addition, what draws you to play with form(s) in the way(s) you do?

C J Allen: Yes, those were crazy days in the Pentagon, but now it’s time to move on ... Form is pretty central to my poetry, I think. Matthew Welton comments somewhere that much of his time is spent thinking about how his poems are ‘organised’, & I feel similarly about my own work. I ‘came to’ poetry from two rather unliterary places, really: song and radio comedy. My teenage years were the heyday of the singer-songwriter genre & I spent most of the seventies listening to that sort of thing, writing my own sub-standard songs & playing them to occasionally generous & often quite justifiably hostile audiences in & around West Yorkshire. The Sunday afternoons of my pre-teen years were dedicated to listening to the likes of Ken Dodd & Al Reed on the radio & it was from that that I learned about the power of language harnessed to a keen sense of rhythm & timing. Both songs & jokes are ways of structuring & patterning language with a view to achieving a sort of heightened effect. And that’s essentially where I’ve landed with my poems. I need some kind of framework against which I can brace the use of words, as well as something to stop me saying everything, if you know what I mean. The sonnet, for example, has been serving this purpose for 500 years (and of course has the additional benefit of somehow managing to be the perfect ‘size’ for the expression of an idea). Almost all the poems in At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms deploy form of one sort or another. They’re more or less all metrical & scanned, several use rhyme & the two long prose-poems (‘Kasparov versus the World’ & ‘Lemonade’) are actually written in a loose (if somewhat buried) iambic pentameter. It’s a bit of a chestnut, I know, but form forces you to work harder with the language, pushes you to extend your immediate vocabulary & disrupts your trains of thought. These are all essential things for those of us who aren’t Shakespeare. So it’s not so much that I feel part of any movement or fashion for formal experimentation, it’s more that I don’t think I could write poems that didn’t use some sort of form.

ST: Yes, that's been my experience, too. There's a cliche, I think, that suggests that form somehow restricts your language and your choices - and in many ways it does, deliberately so - but it's equally liberating to use it: it opens up new channels of language and imagery that might otherwise have been closed to you. Free verse is sometimes - often, I think - a trap, which allows you to say what's already been said, in ways that can be over-familiar. That might sound counter-intuitive but it's been my experience, and anecdotally from other writers, I've noted the same thing.

Interesting that you mention music and comedy as the starting points for your life as a poet. I find that the most exciting work in any field tends to be that which acknowledges innovations in other media and forms. Burroughs (I think it was in The Job, a collection of interviews) noted that his cut-up method was nothing new, that it was old hat in modernist composition and painting, and film is basically collage turned to narrative ends. Do forms and genres beyond the bounds of poetry continue to inform your writing? Are there any particular artists, musicians, etc, whose sense of structure have been a particular influence on your writing?

CJA: I always wanted to be a painter. At first, I think, because I liked the silence & the aesthetically concentrated atmosphere of art galleries, & later because art students appeared to have the best time. I liked the smell of linseed oil & the way they hardly ever seemed to do anything. I envied what I thought of as their cool insouciance. Sadly, I was thwarted in my ambition by a complete lack of talent. My fascination with visual art has continued though & I’ve often written about it. There’s a poem in the new book, ‘Wooden Boulder’, which is based around a film and a sculpture of that name by the great British sculptor, David Nash. After it won the Ilkley Poetry Competition I sent a copy to him & it was one of the many unexpected pleasures of my writing life when he wrote back & we engaged in a correspondence about the work & the poem. I was also fortunate enough, a few years ago now, to be commissioned to produce some poetry that was used as part of a sculpture project in the Peak District. I worked with the sculptor Val Carman & came up with some verses that were engraved onto a granite piece she designed. That’s now installed at a permanent site at Curbar Edge in the Derbyshire Peaks. Knowing that what you write is literally going to be carved in stone really focuses the mind, I found. And going back even further, I wrote a piece for the Retina Dance Company’s production, ‘Eleven Stories from the Body’, which they somehow (I never figured out exactly how) interpreted in their choreography. Dancing to poetry. It really happened.

I still love songs of course & I still find songs inspiring, but in a more roundabout way these days. It’s more a question of tone than content, I think. Having said that, there’s a lot to be learned from the wry intelligence of Randy Newman’s writing, for example, & some of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics seem to have an enduring value for me. I don’t mean to suggest that song equals poetry. It doesn’t; not for me anyway. But there’s definitely something about, say, some of Hank Williams’ songs – the words + the music + his voice – that results in a quality for which there isn’t really another word apart from poetry.

ST: Simon Armitage blew the whole gaff, didn't he, when he wrote that book [Gig, apparently] essentially outing himself as a failed rock star, which suggests that most poets are failed somethings: musicians, painters, film directors, cat burglars. Has anyone since Dylan Thomas really yearned to be a poet, really felt that it's a calling? Maybe, though it's unfashionable to say so. I suppose that explains why poetry is such a draw: it's an attempt - at least, this is how I see it; it might not be true for anyone else, really - to put into words something which transcends language, that cannot be transcribed in conventional terms - hence poetry, which supposes a degree of a- or anti-logic in its processes, as opposed to prose which is, with some exceptions, essentially a linear, logical mode of composition. Poetry is always at some level a record of failure: every poem haunted by the ghosts of their Platonic ideals. I was struck by the fact that many of the things that you say drew you to painting are at odds with or extraneous to language: the silence of art galleries, the smell of the paint. Is that why poets are often drawn to painters and musicians as aesthetic models - that music and the visual image are somehow purer expressions of what poems aspire to, but can never quite achieve? Or is it simply the more pragmatic matter of trying to kickstart the writing process with some external material?

CJA: A lot of male poets do seem to have that rock star manqué thing going on, don’t they? Paul Muldoon (great poet with terrible mid-life crisis garage band project ‘Rackett’), for example. I like to think I got a head start on that part of my mid-life crisis in my late teens/early twenties. But did I ever ‘yearn’ to be a poet? Well, I always sort of liked the idea of being a poet, but in common with the overwhelming majority of the population I had no real terms of reference for how you made that happen; whereas whilst I don’t think I ever truly imagined I could do anything significant with my song-writing*, I knew it involved getting a guitar, learning to play it, writing songs & then finding somewhere to play them. All of which seemed if not likely then at least possible. In that sense my interest in poetry was brewing & bubbling away underneath it.

[*I did, however, achieve 45 glorious seconds of radio fame when I wrote & sold a jingle to commercial radio for Morrison’s Supermarkets in 1976.]

I certainly feel an affinity with your comment about poetry being at some level a record of failure. In my poem ‘Poem’ (from the 2011 collection Violets) I talk about a poem being ‘... a doomed struggle against the world, a series / of failures that add up to something more important / than its success.’ Which is partly about accepting the difficulty of the craft, the limits of language, partly about the obscurity of the contemporary poet & partly about acknowledging the fact that poetry is something worth working at because, if you get it right, it will endure. As the Bard says, ‘So long lives this and this gives life etc.’

I think poets, like all artists, are – almost by definition – interested in creativity as much as they are in the world. So they’re drawn to other art works as examples of the creative act. And this raises interesting ideas & questions. Can music say things that words can’t? Well, yes, but then words can say things that music can’t, & so on. A dialogue between different art forms – like Wallace Stevens’ meditation on Picasso’s ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ or John Ashbery’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’– address the human condition through a discussion of how we address the human condition. Strewth, I’ve given myself a bit of a headache there.

ST: Don't worry: headaches are part and parcel with thought. I don't know if you ever saw Futurama, Matt Groening's wonderful post-Simpsons science fiction comedy, but one of the characters in that describes an idea as 'a headache with pictures', which seems apt. It also serves as a perfect summation of many of the middle portions of the Cantos, but that's by the by.

While we're on the issue of art about art, I've noticed a trend in your work of poems that seem as concerned with the process of making the poem as they are with the material that goes into its making (or perhaps more correctly, poems which see their own processes as valid and indeed valuable sources of inspiration in their own right). You mentioned 'Poem' above, but your new slim vol. has quite a number of pieces that are comparably self-aware, that serve as ars poeticae (is that right? I'm a product of comprehensive schooling, so don't have the Latin), even when they're dressed in the guise of something else entirely (I was thinking in particular of some of your animal poems* - 'Snail Explains', for example, or 'Hens and Happiness', which is aside from anything else a fantastic evocation of how it feels to be in the poetry-writing mood - though of course there are poems that deal with the issue more explicitly, too. 'Lines' is a particular favourite, though I'm biased, as I love lists). It made me wonder about your writing processes: do you find yourself with an itch to write about a subject, only for it to turn inexorably into a meditation on writing; or do you begin with an element of poetry composition that you want to explain or examine, and then go about finding a means to do so with a seemingly tangential analogy?

[*That makes you sound like Ted Hughes, doesn't it? Sorry about that.]

CJA: I hadn’t thought of ‘Hens & Happiness’ as being about the excitement of feeling inspired. It started out as a poem about ... well, nature, I guess. (The natural world seems to crop up in quite a few of my poems – which is itself a complete mystery to me, since my relationship with nature is almost entirely theoretical.) Then, as I was writing it, it started to feel like it was a poem about romantic obsession. But, now you’ve suggested it, it does seem to have a lot to do with the thrill of creation. If I remember correctly that poem started out, as quite of few of them do, with a title. I keep a notebook in which I write down what I think are great ideas or titles for poems. Of course, hardly any of them ever are, so I usually end up with a notebook full of titles for poems that never get written.

I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down with a plan to write a poem on a particular subject. You mention ‘Lines’ – in which I basically give myself a bit of a talking to about the sort of poems I should & shouldn’t be writing. In it I make the point that I should be writing poems ‘in order to get past my own experience’. By that I mean I really want to surprise myself in my poetry. It’s an idea that loops back to what I was saying about the use of form pushing you in unexpected directions. If I can say something that surprises me or is in some way new to me then it’s more likely to be surprising & new to the reader.

A poem will sometimes turn in on itself & start talking about itself as a poem. I think it’s largely a late twentieth/early twenty-first century sort of thing, isn’t it? I don’t worry too much about that; art’s as legitimate a subject as nature or love or anything else. But art coming clean & pointing out that it is in fact art has been around for a while – think of Tristram Shandy, for example, or the way Turner draws attention to the material reality of the oil paint in a painting like ‘Rain, Steam & Speed.’

ST: I think, to my mind, all poetry, when you get right down to it, is probably about itself as poetry in some capacity. Even establishment figures like Hughes and Heaney (especially Hughes) are concerned with language as a subject and as a material fact at some basic level; indicative of a self-consciousness that informs every aspect of their work. To read their work in that way is oddly counter-intuitive, but it's a means of building bridges too: yes, Hughes is a nature poet, but he's also 'language-centred', too, which means he's simultaneously engaged with the 'English line' (ridiculous shorthand, but you get the gist) and the more radical currents in Modernism and its inheritances. A round-about way, I suppose, of saying that the self-consciousness inherent in art shades over seemingly insurmountable aesthetic differences. The examples you give above are telling, from that point of view: Sterne, long considered a forerunner of Modernism and post-modernism, but somehow achieving this at the birth of the novel as a form; and Turner, who's been co-opted as a sort of landscape painter for the National Trust, but whose work is supremely radical in so many ways - the later work particularly pre-empting Impressionism and abstraction. The best work in any field - or, more correctly, the work I respond to most - tends to include within itself a dialogue between traditional and experimental elements: figuration and abstraction; realistic representation going hand in hand with an examination of its failure or impossibility; the sonnet or the villanelle being used for troubling or disruptive ends. A too-absolutist position in either direction (conservative or avant garde) always feels like a failure of imagination. It's why Hitchcock's a better director than, say, late David Lynch: Hitch's best films are a dialogue between the restraints of his chosen form - the escape thriller, the murder mystery, the melodrama, the spy flick - and the weirder, socially-psychically deviant things that he wants to say; late Lynch, meanwhile, is characterised by extreme oddity at the level of form *and* content, so there's no generation of tension in the same way. (This is of course a personal reading of the situation; others may well disagree.)

As for your assertion / question relating to self-conscious poetry being a late 20th / early 21st century tendency, I'd agree, though I'm not sure where it's come from: maybe an inheritance from the New York School? It's definitely po-mo rather than Mo, right? Are the Big Apple-ites an influence on your work?

CJA: I’m with you on the Hughes/Heaney thing, Simon. Along with Thom Gunn, they were the three contemporary poets on the syllabus when I was at school, & I distinctly recall sensing the agreeable chewiness of their language – which seemed to be at the centre of their poems. ‘The Thought-Fox’ of course is one of the famous poems-about-poetry, isn’t it? I agree with you too about the inevitability of art explaining itself as art – either overtly or covertly. John Ashbery’s classic ‘Paradoxes & Oxymorons’ makes the case with enviable directness & clarity, I think, opening with ‘This poem is about language at a very plain level. / Look at it talking to you ...’ & ending with ‘...The poem is you.’ Which brings me nicely around to your question about the New York School...

It took me a while to get into it. When I first started getting serious about reading & writing poems – in my late twenties, so that’d be the mid-late eighties, I guess – I worked in an office above a bookshop. I’d nip down there during my – ahem – ‘breaks’ & browse the poetry shelves. That’s where I initially encountered John Ashbery’s poems – in books like Self Portrait ... & A Wave & As we Know. I knew Ashbery was regarded as a major figure in contemporary American poetry & I remember being staggered by what I thought of as the general bewildering incomprehensibility of it all. It didn’t really sound like anything else I’d read that called itself poetry. I was attracted & a little bit beguiled by the strangeness (I must’ve been, I bought the books), but still felt kind of locked out of the poems. Then one day, quite by accident, I happened to hear John Ashbery reading his poems on Radio 3. That slightly camp, slightly kooky voice of his intoning ‘At North Farm’ opened the door the palace. I’m no longer so troubled by the – scare quotes – ‘difficulty’ of Ashbery’s poetry. I enjoy paddling around in it. I like the whimsy & the humour too, & once I’d relaxed a little I started to see seriousness in so much of it, the unflinching approach to the big subjects as well as the affecting, human tenderness that underlies so much of it.

I like Frank O’Hara’s poems – altho’ I have to be careful I don’t read too many of them at one sitting; his deceptively low-key, conversational voice is so infectious. And James Schuyler consistently amazes. He’s quieter & more restrained but every bit as charming &, when he wants to be, every bit as devastating.

ST: Schuyler, yes! He's not read anywhere near enough in this country. Ashbery, of course, is known, and known as an influence, too, particularly on the work of Lee Harwood, but I'd see Schuyler as every bit as vital an underpinning to Harwood's poetry - especially in the later work, like Morning Light (even that title's quite Schuyler-esque). I remember when I first read Schuyler - I think the poem in question was 'Moon' - and it was like learning how to speak, a realisation that modern and engaged poetry didn't have to be difficult in the conventional sense; that it didn't have to turn its back on the everyday, in fact could revel in it as a source of beauty and transcendence. Have you read David Herd's book on American poetry, Enthusiast! (the exclamation is in the title, that's not me)? It's excellent on all counts, but the essay on Schuyler's particularly good. Well worth checking out. What Ashbery I've read I've loved (I got very absorbed in The Tennis Court Oath about five years ago), but he's so bloody prolific: I don't know where to begin. Just slow down, John, for five minutes, so the rest of us can catch up!

I know from experience I could go on for ever about the New York crowd, but as this interview's already threatening to overflow the banks of a reasonably-sized blog post, I thought I would round off with a final question: Let's imagine that the Oblivion Tea Rooms are not only a real place, but are, sadly, burning down: which one of its poems would you rescue from the blazing wreckage, and why?

CJA: I hadn’t thought of it, but, yes, I can see the connecting dots between James Schuyler & Lee Harwood. I must try & track down the David Herd book you mention. If you’re looking for a place to start with John Ashbery, then I’d probably recommend Houseboat Days or even something a bit later & a bit baggier like Can You Hear, Bird, ‘My Philosophy of Life’ from that book is one of my all-time favourite poems.

Okay, now for the Desert Island Poem moment ... Well, on the one hand it’s obviously tricky, because it goes without saying they’re all absolutely indispensible poems & the fabric of English letters would be irreparably damaged by the loss of any of them, but, on the other hand, it is only a bit of fun, isn’t it? I’m fond of the lead-off poem ‘A small, unremarkable oil painting of doubtful provenance ...’ because I think technically it’s the most accomplished thing in the book. By that I mean that I think you could tap it pretty much anywhere with a small toffee-hammer & not find a hollow bit. And I like the long poem ‘Kasparov versus the World’ because I’ve never really tackled anything like that before & in writing it I did find myself saying things about my life which seemed both true & surprising to me. The rhymes in ‘Notes from 1975’ & ‘Starlings’ please me – in an inexcusably vain & self-regarding way, but on its own that’s not a good enough reason to keep them, is it? So I guess if I cd only save one, it’d have to be ‘Poets’. It’s a list poem &, like you, I love a good list. It goes down well at readings & I’m a sucker for playing to the gallery, & it’s funny (at least I think so) as well as true.

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