Three Poems (2018) breaks new ground in contemporary English poetry. How long did these poems travel with you before you arrived at this collection?
I wrote the first, You, Very Young in New York, in the summer of 2012, a few months after I’d moved back to the UK after a decade in the US. It was published quite quickly in Areté magazine. In fact, knowing that the magazine was having a ‘New York’ issue encouraged me to try putting together the short New-York-obsessed pieces I’d been writing. In the end I missed the ‘New York’ issue, and it was published in the ‘Failure’ one — which seemed to work almost as well! I started the second poem, Repeat Until Time, in 2014, and I wrote the last, and longest one, The Sandpit After Rain, in 2016. It wasn’t until then that I dared to explore the possibility of publishing a book. Before that I wasn’t quite sure what kind of ‘thing’ I was making.
The three long poems traverse a wide gamut of intensely personal experiences. Did you have to mine the personal for them?
For me, the key to re-beginning as a poet (I’d published in magazines in my teen years and early 20s) seemed to be learning how to mine other people’s stories, and my imagination. There’s certainly plenty of personal experience in both of the first two poems, but always transposed: things that happened in one place mapped to another (my own experiences in working in strategy consulting, for example, were all in London), fictional characters drawn as composites, and so on.
These poems, in the choice of their subjects — birth, sex, caesarean, death — are intimate and don’t state the obvious. Was this deliberate? Do the universal themes lend universality to your poems?
Certainly, I’d very much like to think that the poems are economical, not always insistently specifying ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘me’, etc. The focus on the idea that they are ‘long poems’, and the fact that I do, especially in the first poem, use long line lengths, might suggest the main quality is capaciousness and maximalism. I do have a weakness for long lines, especially rhyming ones, to list and denote drinks (Staropramen), habits, restaurant meals (tonkotsu miso ramen) and so on. But I agree in many ways with (Ernest) Hemingway’s idea — the iceberg principle — that ‘anything you know’, anything obvious, can be productively omitted, and that this heightens the impact of what remains. And these aren’t epic poems; they’re shorter than many ‘short stories’.
The landscape of these poems is intricately crafted. In a review in The Guardian, Kate Kellaway described you as a ‘sensual conjuror of atmosphere’. What do you do to get the right atmosphere?
The hardest thing is finding the right sound effect, i.e. creating the atmosphere through sound for someone else. I knew the atmosphere I wanted at the beginning of The Sandpit After Rain — claustrophobic, jumpy, a bit zany, self-ironising — but it took a while to hear how that might sound. Bubbles of spit on the black rosemary sticks and I took long baths in the penumbra of the streetlight were two phrases that I felt helped me get there.
In terms of landscape, the first and third poems are quite clearly poems of place, although in The Sandpit… this is sometimes one place (the hospital ward, the suburban garden) fractured across different times. The second poem, Repeat After Time, explores the problem of repetition in many guises, beginning with the idea that you can’t ever be in the same place twice.
You taught English at Stanford, US, and are now an associate professor at Oxford, UK. In what ways has your academic scholarship shaped your writing, especially poetry?
It’s hard to say. Sometimes I wonder if it’s been a hindrance, because during the eight or so years that I was working on my book The Work of Revision (2013), I hardly wrote a line. It was only after that was finished that I started writing again! On the other hand, I found it immensely encouraging to see — by poking around in their abandoned drafts — how hard many great writers have had to work to become themselves. And I’ve learned a huge amount from talking about poetry with my students, both at Stanford, and, now, at Oxford.
The shortlist included four other debut poets — Zaffar Kunial, Fiona Moore, Phoebe Power and Richard Scott. Are there more British poets today willing to experiment with the form?
Contemporary British poetry seems more exciting to me than it did 10 years ago, but this might be a function of my own exposure to it. During the 10 years I lived in the US, I found it difficult to get British poetry books — I remember trying with difficulty to order Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) to the Stanford book store — and I never saw the magazines. The terrific debut poets you’ve named are certainly playing with form, in quite diverse ways, but also with subject matter, and genre — what might be done with elegy, some re-exploration of the possibilities of storytelling. Of course it might also be poets who aren’t shortlisted for prizes who are the true experimenters! Most of my own experiments fail.
How has your understanding and appreciation of the styles of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, TS Eliot and others nurtured the kernel of your craft?
Most of what we know about prosodic phrasing is acquired unconsciously, and before we come to read poetry ‘seriously’ as adults. Some of what I know about lines, I definitely learned from my laborious and unskilled reading of Virgil as a teenager. And in English, too, I often prefer to read older poets from the point of view of ‘craft’, partly because there’s no risk of actually sounding like them.
In your last book, The Work of Revision (2013), you argued that we inherited our faith in the virtues of redrafting from early-20th-century modernism. Is Three Poems a work of revision?
Three Poems is definitely a work of revision! In fact, I felt a bit glum on the day the final press files were ready. This is true at the level of the phrase and line, but was certainly true in terms of open-endedness at the start of each piece about overall structure. I didn’t sit down and think: this is going to be a poem in six sections, about 15 pages, etc., with alternating line types. Over the years, I seem to have spent a lot of time looking with delight, bafflement, and occasional envy at the facsimile drafts of (Eliot’s) The Waste Land (1922), at Ginsberg’s copycat facsimile of Howl (1956), and at Whitman’s transformations across the different editions of Leaves of Grass (1955). I’m curious about possibilities of arrangement in long poems. How do you know which part goes where?