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The Poetry Kit Interviews Fred D'Aguiar

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?

Born in London, I left at age two for Guyana (my parents are Guyanese)and remained there until age 12. I lived for some of the time in the capital, Georgetown, but for the most part I lived in the countryside, with my paternal grandparents in a village some 40 miles away from Georgetown, called Airy Hall.

What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

In secondary school an inspiring English teacher, Geoffrey Hardy, encouraged me. My first contact with published poetry and with the disputed canon, happened during these secondary school years. Then the Liverpool poets and the first Penguin series of poets, came my way in book form and at poetry readings because of my English teacher wo pushed the poems and books my way or invited poets to my school or organised school trips to hear these poets read.
Before this and concurrent with it, I had the lyrics of calypsos by Lord Kitchener, Sparrow and other calypsonians as a result of ten years spent in Guyana. Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, thanks to a balanced 70's London musical experience, should not be forgotton, as well as the socially conscious lyrics of British reggae bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad and Linton Kwesi Johnson's poems set to reggae music releasd on the Island label.
The Anti-racist movement was big in the 70's. The death of Blair Peach at a demonstration I attended shocked and outraged me. Extreme right wing marches throughtout parts of South London was a fixture of these times alongside massive opposition by the local residents. Inner city riots and a general discontent among youth and blck youth in particular is typical of the mid-to-latter part of this decade. I was politicised by it. I became aware of the fact that my skin was a magnet for hate and derision. The antagonism made me inordinately proud to be black. Music by James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire among others, played to the dance hall of bass, brass and funk guitar, but included too, an element of consciousness-raising in their sloganeering lyrics: "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?

Confessional poetry. Love poetry. Political poetry. All during my mid-to-late teens. I kept a diary of thoughts, readings and feelings. I wrote little ditties, political tracts against racism and sexism; the usual inner-city teenage stuff.

How did you first go about getting your poems published?

School magazine, then local papers in Greenwich and Lewisham Boroughs of South London. Then in my early 20's, the usual suspects as far as British magazines are concerned. Local and BBC Radio should be counted too.

What kind of work was that - was it concerned then with black/colonial culture, or did that come later, when you were more established?

Poems based on my experience. Poems about living in Deptford, Lewisham and Greenwich in South London. Poems about my black male experience in those places. Poems about the police. Poems about government policy. Poems about the death of my grandmother. Poems about my memories of Guyana.
The style was loosely stanzaic (more like paragraphs in terms of their arguments) with an instinctive rather than technical knowledge for breaking lines and shaping the poem, or else free verse in the sense of a body of text arranged to clarify a series of linked thoughts and feelings.

To what extent do your 'roots' influence what you are writing now?

To the extent that I am a black male who grew up in Guyana and England during the 60s and 70s, I would say that the major influence on my writing has been those two locations and those two decades.

Yes, I guess that shows pretty clearly in your work. As well as being a poet you also write novels and plays. At what point in the process do you decide that a narrative you're working on is going to be one or other of these?. For instance, in the case of your book-length narrative poem "Bill of Rights", what attracted you to this theme? Why a long narrative poem and not a novel or play?

In writing poetry, fiction or drama (less drama the last seven years) usually I follow the lead of the subject I am writing about. The utterances of the main speaker or some enduring fragment from the event or situation tells me pretty quickly how it should be shaped. I try to stick to short prose-poem type passages and then I continue with the story of it or else organise it into a poem or some sort. This may sound vague so here is an example. When I hit on the idea of writing about Jonestown, Guyana, all I had to go on was the desire to tie in the destiny of that doomed colony in the Guyanese interior with my own late 70's experience of England. Why? Because I wanted to talk about Guyana and England using Guyanese versions of English - patwa, creole, nation-language alongside the standard vernacular. I wanted the whole idea to be grounded in character and these two registers of English. The other thing that struck me was how fragmented the experience must have been for a survivor of Jonestown as it is for those who have lived through Guyana's transition from a British colony to an independent state. So it could not be a work of coherence as many novels turn out using linear narrative. I found the long poem, broken and fractured as it can be, to be the best form for this subject.
I love what long poems do. They map out a territory with a depth not possible in short poems and with an intensity often lacking in prose. I picked up certain linking devices in my novel writing experience that I dearly wanted to deploy over the marathon distance of a long poem. Since the idea of the post-colonial has robbed the ex-colony of its continuing colonial dependence by theorising the story out of the situation of the colonial consciousness-- murdered the story and the condition, in effect -- I wanted to put both back into that situation. Although the fact of the colony is long gone, the hold of the developed world over the underdeveloped world continues to shape the destiny of those countries. For example, Guyana's IMF and World Bank debts still leaves it strapped for cash after it has paid off the interest on these loans. No amount of theory that extrapolates away from this fact (of colonialism's continued existence by other means) can ameliorate the need to explore it as an imaginative space. The caution here is that we should not murder the story of colonialism and it continued life with over-zealous theories of its presumed death.

How does the way you make a living influence your writing?

I teach Creative Writing and English Literature at the university of Miami. Since publishing my first book, Mama Dot, in 1985, I've led poetry workshops, read my poetry at festivals and other gatherings or taught at colleges as a way to make my bread. I have never made enough money from writing to be able to simply write. Some writers do. My poetry sells a little, the fiction sells a bit more. This can't be new to anyone.
Teaching helps me to put into words what I think is happening during that partly mysterious, partly labourious process of writing. I always respond as a reader to my work and the work of other writers, that is, most of the time I don't know what will come next. Teaching poetry and fiction helps me to account for some of the ways I read as a writer and write as a reader.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

Like everyone else in this game, I keep a notebook. I jot things down when I wake up, sometimes even before I take a pee or drink that first cup of coffee. Usually, these thoughts are from the night's stock of dreams which dissipate the moment I wake but which sometimes linger as a vague feeling or perhaps an image for long enough to allow me to write a few words.
The next thing I do is open my on-going project from the day before and plunge right in. Here again I try to listen to my head in case there is something I should be doing in obedience to the writing half of me that never sleeps but which is often ignored by the practical self caught up in daily living.
I try to do something every day to address the fact of my life as a writer.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

In the past I needed workshops to commit me to an idea as a real writing possibility and not just a hunch knocking around inside for ages and ignored by me because I felt unable to do it justice. These days I don't care if something is working or hurting, I try to follow my plans to the end, even if this means shelving them for months after completion or abandonment (depending on whether you think the poem drops us or we drop it).
Teaching students in the workshop format leaves me with workshop fatigue by the end of the university year. All I can stand during the holidays is quiet and solitude -- with the usual interruptions.

To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?

In my video and radio work I have cooperated with a director, musician and editor. This means dropping things and rewriting others mostly for clarity and economy.
In a video/poem about the Thames and black life in London, made in 1989, I had to write lines actors could say and rewrite lines for the surprises thrown up by location filming, in this instance, at dawn, at the Woolwich Barrier at Greenwich, or ankle-deep in London mud in order to get the right kind of morning light on the river as I recited a verse or two. In 1992, I made a radio version of a long poem about Columbus and spent hours reading it according to the stipulations of a very fastidious BBC Radio, director, the poet, Julian May. The poem, called 1492, for two voices, featured, Graeme Rigby. also a novelist and poet, as the voice of Columbus. I had to rephrase and clear up chunks of the text for him. He may well had added a thing or two of his own to it for the sake of a better delivery of the lines. The key to all this is of course flexibility. It's no good embarking on this kind of project otherwise.

How do you decide that a poem is finished?

Who was it who said that when you find yourself putting back a word you have just taken out it is time to stop revising?
I think C.S. Lewis said a poem is never finished it is merely abandoned. And Basil Bunting has a set of guidelines for writing and revising which I find salutary.
I know a poem is finished when I put it aside and take up something new. It's as if I have come to the end of an emotional and intellectual journey without any formal announcement of the fact.

Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?

No particular audience or person. I write for an un-pin-downable 'other' who I assume to be a reader rather like myself interested in the things I am generally inclined to read and think and feel.
I have such a small readership for what I do, namely, poetry and so-called literary fiction, that I am grateful for any new addition to the fold.

Does poetry have to be 'simple' to get an hearing?

The simple answer is no. A cultural and political urgency, a certain tone of an emergency in thought and affect often makes difficult poems eminently ear-worthy. The world of what a poem can and should be is such a big one that I am loathe to be prescriptive here. Isn't it best to read as widely as possible; to be as inclusive as ethically allowable?

Which of contemporary poets do you find most interesting?

Right now, I am reading and re-reading everything I can of the works of Lucille Clifton, an American. She is in her early 60s and manages to boil down complex ideas about race, gender and citizenship into a few telling images welded to a set of compelling rhetorical phrases that just takes my breath away. I've always followed Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott's work book by book and if I meet a poet and I shake his or her hands I am duty bound to read everything they have published. So right now Jo Shapcott and after the 1998 T.S.Eliot Prize shortlist reading at the Almeida back in January of this year(1999), all the poets who read there (whether I touched them or not).

Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?

Book-length poems. Narrative and dramatic monologue. Historically engaged poems. Three recent worthies were published by Les Murray, Anne Carson and W.S. Merwin.

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?

Everything Auden said in his eulogy to Yeats still holds true. I would add to that Shelley's dictum about poets as unacknowledged legislators and the fact that poems are public things, poems are 'out there' and just because there isn't a Dow-Jones index of their emotional and intellectual impact does not mean they lack one.

Do you see 'performance poetry' and 'slam' as sideshows or a return to the origins of poetry as story-teller and social conscience?

They continue from the gains of the Troubadours or old and the dadaists and the late 50s Beat generation and the marvellous 60s (Flower Power, Black Power, Feminism). They are a part of this big country that poetry is.
I enjoy slams and performances because of the immediate connection between a poet and an audience. The first poems I heard as a toddler and under 10 were nursery rhymes spoken to me by a parent or other grown up either from memory or performed from a book. I loved hearing these poems before I could understand them on the page.
Because of this crucial aural quality which poems have I find that I have to position myself in relation to the poem in such a way that I am able to listen to a poem whether read or said.

What use do you make of the internet?

I surf poetry magazines and newspapers, belong to a couple of chat groups mainly as an interested reader (since I have nothing to add to what people say but like to hear what sense people make of poems in the world) and rely on e-mail. I hope to publish on the internet at some point soon. I have two web pages, one posted by me, the other by Students at Humboldt University in California.

Is internet publishing just a cheaper way of getting your poems seen by a wider audience, or is it liable to produce new kinds of poetry?

A bit of both, especially with hyper-text. Poetry seems to suit the internet in the same way that tennis and basketball suit the t.v. screen.

What are you working on at the moment?

A long poem about a man who refuses to die until the world becomes a better place to live in. It's too shapeless and undisciplined to show right now.

© Ted Slade, Fred D'Aguiar 1999