Thursday, 22 May 2014

Where Have You Been?

Festschrifts and translations of Gottfried Benn are all well and good, but I can't help thinking this absence in my life isn't going to be filled until Michael Hofmann publishes another collection of his own poetry. In the meantime, here's this appropriately titled book of essays to look forward to. Published by Norton later this year, it looks like being a reprint of his prose selection 'Behind the Lines' (Faber, 2001) for a U.S. readership. The original volume didn't go to a second edition, and with the spread of Hofmania in the U.K. in recent years, it's been difficult to get hold of a copy at a reasonable price. In a way its publication is reassuring since it means Hofmann hasn't yet completely 'done a Rimbaud', but his long poetic silence, if not a repudiation of poetry, still haunts and fascinates other poets in equal measure.

Readers of Hofmann's poetry naturally hope he will publish more again one day. Dig a bit further, especially among poets, and it's possible to detect that Hofmann's apparent estrangement from his muse has an unsettling effect; as though there is something frightening about contemplating the possibility of a life without writing poetry. Without poetry, some poets fear they will be overcome by 'a deluge of nothing'. Others simply cannot believe that writing poetry might not represent the be all and end all in a person's life; that someone might not be able to explore their full potential only by writing poetry. But what of the man? Unless you happen to be speaking to someone who knows him, rarely is any attempt made to empathize with Hofmann's circumstances. Again, it's as if it is impossible to imagine that he may have discovered other, necessary ways of being, or a more satisfying way of living than writing poetry.

Who knows? He may surprise us all some day by publishing a backlog of poems, or simply carry on what looks like a commitment to translate the entire oeuvre of Joseph Roth. Either way, I'm grateful for the poems we have. I'd feel excited at the prospect of new work, of course, but in no way could I begrudge someone for acceding to whatever changes it was necessary for them to make or adapt to in their life. On the contrary, just as his poetry has been influential to so many poets, his not-writing might also inspire if it encourages us to question our lives, to ask of ourselves - of the person we think we are: where have you been?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Blog Tour

Blog Tour

Nick Murray - poet, biographer, founding editor of Rack Press and publisher of my last pamphlet 'Spring Journal' - kindly asked if I wanted to participate in a blog tour by answering these questions. My first thought was not really, but like most poets I couldn't resist a turn in the spotlight.

1. What are you working on?

In Iron Age settlements, bards stayed up all night making merry and spent the daytime napping beside a fire while the rest of the tribe went off hunting and gathering. Thank goodness for Ocado, I think, as I pop an ibuprofen with my coffee and watch my family remount the treadmill each morning.

My work ethic was shaped by the Counter-Reformation and involves growing a beard, a demand for more consumer products, and whiling away afternoons at the theatre or cinema. When I lived in Rome, I used to see Nanni Moretti sheltering from the afternoon heat at the Nuovo Sacher cinema in Trastevere. He owns it now, so watching matinees was clearly a positive career move. Growing up in Surrey, I spent many afternoons holed up within the velvet sanctum of the Cranleigh Regal. On two occasions, I sat behind Eric Clapton who is the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times.

At the moment I'm concentrating on building a private counselling practice. As a sometimes writer of poems, and a non-professional one at that, I feel unburdened by the need to always have a literary project on the go. I suppose you could say I'm working on assembling another collection, but only in the way people using Twitter can be said to be at work. As models of practice, W.C.W. and Jean Follain are close to my heart. Rimbaud's presence/absence is never entirely out of the picture.

I imagine novelists feel supported by the structure of the novel they're writing, however vaguely it's plotted. Though reassuring, such a way of working seems counter-productive to me. I prefer the freedom to sit in a near-empty cinema, eating popcorn and gazing at the screen until I'm the embodiment of awareness, attending to whatever passes across it. Outdoors, I look and look, collecting images, feeling uplifted despite the evidence. I won't know what I'm working on until the next poem breaks cover and surprises me. I last wrote a poem 26 days ago. I'll probably write another one.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The plagiarism goes undetected.

The serious answer: probably insufficiently.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Because I feel ground down, reduced, and in need of a release from whatever oppressive forces, personal and political, are at work in my life - including our enslavement to causality and explanation.

Be that as it may, here's the romantic explanation. The signal to write is compelling; poetry arrives like the emergency services with a defibrillator to revive the ailing heart.

But most of the time it doesn't. The imagination stews, a daube of undifferentiated thought. Or sits cross-legged on a stinky mat, half-convinced (hoping?) that 'The poem is already written, / but the page is blank.'

Also creative individuals are afforded a special status I haven't quite cured myself of the need for.

As for the language of my poems, their forms and preoccupations, these are simply the result of who I happen to be and the life I've lived. Most likely, all my poems are just the wringings-out of a sponge that has absorbed the work of other, superior poets.

4. How does your writing process work?

I am the world's most uncreative person. Left to its own devices, my mind atrophies. I point at flowers and make perfectly banal observations. Without others I have no language. However, if I'm reading someone else's poems, that's another thing all together. If I read, I write. Simple as that.

When I stopped smoking almost ten years ago I sacrificed a fairly disciplined writing habit. Or at least the habit of sitting still in one place with a pencil in my hand. Then my wife and I had a daughter which further affected the amount of time I have to write and the forms my poems end up taking. Now the moments I find most conducive to writing are in the gaps between other commitments; unexpected moments like waiting at the dentist's, being in a meeting, travelling on public transport.

I tend to write most when I'm on a train, homeward-bound, in the late afternoon. Then, I'll jot down a few lines or, if I'm lucky, a first draft on whatever's to hand - I gave up the encumbrance of carrying a notebook some time ago - and finish it off on my laptop the same evening. Once engaged, I love the intensity of writing a poem - the rhythms and images pulled together by some centrifugal force; a line scanning; the sense of play and element of puzzle-solving involved. Afterwards, I can see it was the self-forgetfulness that helped bring the poem into existence, and which felt so good. Other times, the poem accretes slowly, line by line, maturing in the darkness of an old folder.

It always comes to an end too soon. I write mostly short poems. I think of them as commemorating the creative impetus itself, and I dislike trying to extend it beyond its natural life. It might also be to do with the fact that I start losing control of my material after about 30 lines. If it was a respected enough form in the UK, I would happily write only haiku.

Poems will sit on my hard drive until it becomes important to me for someone else to think I'm still a poet. I know I'm at a low point when I discover motivation. Then, I'll send them off. If they're accepted, I make sure I let myself feel pleased. When a complimentary copy of a magazine arrives, I store it in an old banana box without reading my own contribution.

Next stop on the Blog Tour: Carrie Etter and Charley Barnes.