The Poetry Kit

Competitions Courses Events Funding How-to Books Magazines Organisations Poets Publishers Who's Who Workshops
Home Search

The Poetry Kit Interviews Chris Emery

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

My mother's Cornish-Irish; my father was English, of Irish-immigrant descent, second or maybe third generation. Dad was on his second heart attack about the time I was born. My folks met when my dad was training as a Royal Marine bandsman at HMS Raleigh, and after their marriage and travels and nearly two decades away they'd ended up back at my dad's home with my dad's folks, eight or nine to a house, with him earning a modest living as an insurance salesman.
I was born in Oldham near Manchester in 1963, and brought up in New Moston. I attended a tiny convent-run primary school a few miles from home. A kid with chapped-legs and short pants walking the three miles to the nuns each day. I guess nothing has had a more lasting impact on my obsessions as a writer than this schooling. I loved it back then; its strictures and certainty, its rigour and sense of vocation. And the feasts, rituals, little denigrations.
Somehow I passed my eleven-plus and ended up at grammar school. I wasted five years there, but latched on to art and through this tenuous grip on painting and sculpture and drawing, I gained a place in Sixth form college to study fine art and sculpture. The college was set in Moss Side, a ghetto in the heart of Manchester. The nuns were there as well, dishing out soup and sandwiches to the needy all day.
My family began dropping like flies round this time. Grandparents, uncles, aunts - it was incredible how much death there was. I remember as we buried my dad, I glanced round the cemetery. That sense of ending-up, of being fenced in, of being the same as all the dead, became overpowering. I was fascinated by the gorgeous emptiness of it all. I had the blind recognition of the converted that life had no meaning.
The world changed utterly for me. Things became incandescent. It was as if meaning had drained away completely and the whole apparatus of the city and my life glowed with indifference, chance, possibility. It was beautiful and purifying at the same time. I never looked back really.

Do you come from a literary family?

Oh no, no, no . . . not in the least. I don't recall many books in the house at all as a child. I don't think I ever saw my mum or dad read. Certainly nothing further than newspapers and crosswords. Actually, I don't think my mother owns a single book of literature even today.
Literature is completely alien to me. I was never a keen reader as a child. Even now I get bored easily. I'm enormously impatient as a reader, if someone is being vague or taking too long, or just being too loose, I get bored. I especially dislike open forms which I see as an excuse for laziness and fake inclusiveness.
However, my mother did teach me to read and write. She was a real zealot, actually. One of her sisters was illiterate and this put some kind of fear into my mother, and she, more than anyone else, wanted me to read as soon as possible and to have this balanced and rounded kind of education. In fact she worried about the arts and literature and wanted me to focus on the exact sciences too, which I was pretty good at for a while. She worried I was being led astray by art teachers and English teachers. She worried that I was weak. I guess she was right in that respect.

When did you start writing poetry?

Like most writers, I started in my early teens. The school stuff was terrible, all magic and wizards. One particular piece was about an oubliette, after a history trip to Warwick castle. Nothing survives of it. Nothing really stuck. Nothing grabbed me. My impulses guttered, I suppose. The impulse to write, and in fact most of my energies, went into the plastic arts. I was about nineteen or twenty when I turned to writing again.
Some people liked what I wrote and encouraged me. I was, am I suppose, stubborn, and never listened much where my art was concerned; so things dried up again for a few years. I remember this guy trying to teach me scansion and metre, going on about villanelles and rondels and Swinburne. I wasn't really interested in structure and form, more in just scribbling things down as fast as I could. Poetry was like notation for me, like automatic writing, though I had no knowledge of surrealist procedures. The real kick came some time later round around 1987 after I'd been slumming it for a few years.
I'd visited Leeds, where I studied as an undergraduate, to collect all my work from the art school archives there, and in this kind of crisis, there I sat in my stinking South Manchester bedsit, surrounded by paintings and photographs and prints and drawings. I gathered everything together in my arms and rolled down three or four flights of stairs, out to the skips in front and threw everything away. Everything. It took a few trips.
I remember feeling completely liberated. From that day I decided I would only write. And that's how it's been; writing at the fringes of my various lives, my family life, my professional life. Sporadically. Periodically destroying large bodies of work.

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

As an undergraduate in the Eighties, Eliot's work I should think. I see Eliot as the poet of late adolescence. And a bit later Hughes. Hughes was a quite profound early influence really. I mean reading him at that stage, it all came as a complete surprise. He was a conjuror for me for sure. But I don't know if he really influenced me. That kind of influence is difficult for me to pin down. I did try to write like Larkin for quite a while. That was like poison to the soul, if I had one! In those early years my reading was really pitifully shallow. The real influences upon me were people.
One of my closest pals as an undergraduate was a painter called Dean Bailey. We shared a house together and painted and drew together, and holidayed together. Every experience was shared and redoubled. We raided art and music and stole what we could. It was very incestuous and intense, but we forced each other on in a combative sort of way. It was a very enriching experience, and one that I remember to this day with real gratitude. After that, I was on my own as an artist.
I guess that the biggest impact on my life as a writer has come from my wife and children. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has had so deep an impact upon me as a person as when I became a parent. I guess before all this I had some kind of liberty, but that liberty wasn't leading anywhere. Once my partner and kids arrived, my world was dramatically changed. I had new boundaries. Nothing would ever be the same again. My wife has absolutely no interest in poetry, so our relationship lies elsewhere, and this has helped keep a balance of some kind in my life. The different lives and boundaries help me to write.

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

Well, at school it was all magic and dragons and now that I think of it, I suppose, some early city pieces too. I did a couple of pieces on Breughal paintings. I tried to paint the pictures in words and that sense of imagistic writing still informs some my poetry now. When I started again in my early twenties I was trying to write these urgent surreal narratives, full of disjunctions and no plot to speak of. I've always like to have surprises in my writing, so I tend to judge a first draft by how many shocks I receive in terms of the vocabulary and sweep. I like it when the poem takes over. All those aleatory processes that you learn to invoke after a while. Back in the early days, it was all I looked for.
Thematically, the undergraduate stuff was very loose . . . I mean I don't recall writing on topics. I had a problem with choosing subject matter. I was a real enemy of overt subjects back then. Especially political subjects. I remember I was trying to read Marx and getting very bored and everyday lecturers would go on about left wing ideals in a low key kind of way. It was all about strikes and public disorder and revolution and coal miners.
I saw the whole process as too simplistic: Right and Left. I took a very trenchant and reactionary view of things. Such thinking seemed part of the fabric of our supposedly free, supposedly democratic society. Politics for me was life in its very broadest sense and in its most isolated. Politics was about social engagement. I wasn't free and had no illusions about personal liberty. Left wing thought seemed unbelievably weak and formulaic to me at the time. Extreme libertarianism seemed interesting, I toyed with the Right and its ideas about liberty and prosperity. My sympathies are still with the Left.
I liked the idea of the amoral universe, too, where the boundaries of the acceptable are built upon social conflict and survival. It's immature I know, but such thinking was characteristic of my undergraduate days. I resisted. You might say that resistance was my main theme and technique. I didn't want to be part of anything. I wanted to be left out. I wanted to be a number not a name.

How does this stance manifest itself in your poetry - in your attitude to your creative work?

I have some degree of ambivalence to my creative work, whatever impulses drive my writing they are, to a large extent, unavailable to my critical intelligence while I'm drafting something. I try not to interfere first off. Of course, once one begins editing and revising then there is a constant trade with one's critical sensibilities; all kinds of judgements are going on at a very intimate level. Both of these creative states are very mysterious and their interactions are at the heart of the craft of poetry. It's a question of judgement, what one leaves in, what one takes out. This is a deeply political question, too, as this is where the poet confronts censorship and the notions of corruption. But what informs these judgements is often illusive, random and paradoxical.
If you push me on this, I'd suggest that the poem is its own engine. I try to let the poem drive itself. I can always tell when my voice enters a poem and I know that I'm in trouble because I find my own convictions interfere and obscure the poem. I don't wish to sound mystical here, but one is true to the form that emerges, and if it works, and often it doesn't, then the success of the poem seems to emanate from that truth to form. The product has 'thereness' [laughter], it seems complete in itself. Its operations have been successfully freed from the poet. I ought to add that the form is as much music as anything else.
My reading of and thinking about poetry certainly impacts upon my practise, but I'm not writing out of my biographical experience. My work isn't confessional, nor in many respects is it personal. The feelings and sentiments expressed in my poetry are not necessarily, if ever, my own. There are some commentators who regard poetry as an honest art, something that deals in human truths, but I have doubts about this stance. Poets, like many artists, are fabulists. We're liars. It's been said to me recently that, within the context of the poem, there can be real integrity, but if this is so, it's certainly outside the control of the poet. This integrity is the product of chance and social circumstance. The integrity is the force of the engine. Certainly where my own work is concerned I have no intention of establishing moral or artistic values. But in the sense of achieving wholeness, completeness, well, I guess there's that.
As a reader, I described my three main markers quite recently as "precision", "subversion" and "betrayal". The precision is in the delivery of the poem. I cannot stand incomplete works. No matter how tantalising they are, I get bored finishing off someone else's crossword puzzle. There's a lot of nonsense written about unfinished work, as if these were so-called open forms, whatever that means. I don't buy it I'm afraid. Some poets are just too lazy to finish what they were saying. Too lazy to craft.
Moving on, all great art subverts us. I think I hold this as true. Again I've said recently that the construct of the poem should derail my sensibilities and leave me distorted, fractured from my everyday experience. This subversion is a form of removal: from oneself, from one's peers, from one's society. It is the recognition of one's meaninglessness. This is very liberating and purifying. Of course at one level, we all know what forms of control act upon us as citizens of the state, and we accept these constraints in order to live together and get what we want out of the system. Of course some of us get nothing from the system. But we all need to be reminded that we aren't free and that the perception of freedom comes from a recognition of the socio-political forces that control us. Poetry plays a part here as it is not a socialising force. Its recognitions and reminders turn us on ourselves and separate us.
Lastly, there's betrayal. Sometime after reading the poem the suspension of disbelief falters and we return to our normal mode of experience, but even though we've been duped by the poem, it's betrayal has left us marked. Perhaps even damaged. One's assuredness in the world has been altered and we are alone again, freshened and distorted. Of course we're momentarily free to re-adhere, re-invoke, re-integrate. But the political cycle, the continuum has been broken. So the poem is a liberating and debilitating force. It shows us the mechanisms and boundaries of our experience and dissociates us.

How did you first go about getting your poems published?

I sent a whole manuscript to Faber and Faber hoping to be instantly discovered as a radical new intelligence in poetry. Once swiftly rejected I decided to teach myself how to write, and sat alone for three years doing exactly that. Quite late on, I found out that there was this tremendously rich world of small magazines and I was in the public library in Manchester when I saw an advert for ZLR magazine, requesting submissions. I forwarded some pieces and got accepted. It was like a neutron bomb going off. From that time on I began finding out how the system worked. Subscribing to as many magazines as I could afford and shifting my reading into new exciting areas. It broadened me. I know it's stated everywhere, but the key to submitting your work is reading. I had a mental list of the magazines I wanted to appear in and I pursued the editors with a vengeance. I've been very lucky in the magazines where I've appeared. I'm forming a new list right now.
If people want some indication as to how to go about getting published they should read fifty different poetry magazines, sit back and reflect, then write.

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

I have no idea really. Aside from being reminded of it here, I don't tend to think of my past in any creative sense. It's dead. You can't have it back. There's only now to live in. So we ought to attend to the present. But I'd be a fool to say I wasn't in some way a product of my experiences, but I'm graced with a bad memory, and I try to forget everything I can.
Somehow poetry is at its most interesting when it transcends this though, isn't it? I mean if there was only nostalgic writing: memoirs and lamentations and guilt, it would be a desperately poor art. That's part of our problem I guess. I think that the city is part of my influence. So those roots in Manchester do inform my intelligence in some unconscious way. It's a great, tough, deep city, with good people in it. I have a lot of affection for it, but of course I don't live there now.

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

Quite a lot actually. I'm a businessman; a senior manager working in publishing and my experiences at work have given me greater balance and engagement in life. Work is obviously very social too, so for someone normally isolated, like a writer, it's very good to have to listen to others and motivate and lead people in doing what they do best, and trading and making profit from it all.
Capitalism has been very good for me. I should add that my publishing business is not led by profit, and this is an important note of caution: being profitable is not the same as being a profiteer. Profit is the engine of success, but it isn't the sole business criteria.

Just to interrupt - that wasn't quite the attitude of Oxford University Press in closing their contemporary poetry list - how did you react to that?

I share everyone's amazement at this decision and am still tremendously saddened by the loss of what I consider to be a major list. However, I do not believe that this was simply a cost-cutting exercise. The profitability of the list was not and never would have been a major contributor to the business. It is important to note that the list was adding an enormous amount to the perception of the Press as an institution. Measured in this way the money spent could be considered as marketing expenditure and the value of the list was far greater than its annual revenue, or lack of it. I think we have seen an error of judgement in what was probably considered a comparatively minor decision. Unfortunately there's no way back for the management now, they'll have to ride it out. They've been extremely unlucky at the same time in presenting a number of structural changes they have underway.
I sense that the decision was the result of two factors, firstly, where the list was situated in this highly divisionalised business, and secondly a reassessment of the core publishing activity. I doubt anyone imagined the impact the decision would have in tidying things up. It's set them back quite a few years. What is surprising is the degree of ownership we all feel we have for the Press. But coming back to my first assertion about profitability, it is important that one judges the contribution of all aspects of publishing activity as a whole and in relation to each other. One must judge lists in the context of the greater business, not in isolation. It still holds true that the overall contribution of each list must bring something into the business and the business as a whole must profit to survive.

You were saying.....

I enjoy being selfish as a writer, but I pay a high price for that time in almost every other part of my life. The little time I have left to write is hard won, so I take pleasure in both kinds of graft and the trade-offs involved. Looking back, the more time I have available to write, the less I actually do it, so having those boundaries has been enormously helpful.

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

I wait until I am sick with fear and self-loathing, and then through the horror of the vacuum and annihilation, I sit down and bash at the keyboard. The distances between such episodes vary enormously. The degree of the horror is a by-product of the size of the gap between such incidences.
I've tried thousand of procedures, we all do I guess. I've tried getting up a 6.00 am. I've tried getting down to it at 12.00 am. I've tried 2B pencils and lined paper and 6B pencils and unlined paper. Black and Red notebooks, both A4 and A5. Yellow A4 looseleaf. Lap tops. PCs. Sticking things on walls. Sticking things in drawers. Sundays. Mondays. The game goes on. I guess I suffer procedures until I realise they're habit and then dismantle them.

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

Not at all. Gaining the support of your peers can be a very powerful and supportive thing. It's also a very dangerous thing. Success is best measured by your own judgement. That can be filled with doubts, but I hold that I will always be my harshest critic. We should be wary of group-think, it leads to writing by formula, and I've never liked running with the pack.
I've had many generous things said about my work by people I admire and this gives me enormous pleasure. It's the pleasure of having readers; that's our game. But opinions are cheap, aren't they? I do post some work-in-progress for pleasure. I don't expect critical feedback, other than someone saying, "Hey I really enjoyed that", or, "Yuck" or some such thing. If someone came back to me with a request for deeper critical engagement, I'd be surprised. Worried, even.

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

Never. Although I'm not opposed to this. I suspect that real editorial skill is lacking in the world of poetry. We don't have many striking editors and a good editor can make all the difference to a young talent. Collaboration across the arts seems very attractive. Poetry and music. Poetry and photography.

How do you decide that a poem is finished?

When the typos, literals, punctuation and misspellings are cleared up. Often, unfortunately, after being in print.
There's the music too. If the sound and tempo are right, you're halfway there.

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

I write for me. Then I write for a fictitious audience of Bacon, Beethoven, Carver, Tippett, Hughes and so on. The people I admire.
The hairy, unwashed bunch that usually turn up to my readings are always a bit of a shock really.

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

No. By audience I'm presuming you mean a readership? Poetry has a hard time, because primary and secondary teachers are, by and large, uncomfortable discussing poetry, and also many young English teachers haven't read a great deal of contemporary poetry either. Some I've spoken to haven't read anyone beyond Hardy. So part of the problem is access and permission.

Which of contemporary poets do you most admire?

There isn't room to list! I don't have favourites, I have fads. I mean recently there's been Simon Armitage, Sharon Olds, David Harsent, John Kinsella, Drew Milne. A motley crew really.

Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?

Precision is my favourite trend. The rest is just fashion.

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?

All poetry's influences should lie outside poetry. Most of my major influences certainly do. Poetry about poetry is like eating regurgitated milk puddings, with each vomiting the smell worsens.

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

I see performance poetry as a kind of propaganda and slam as a rather shabby game show. It's the dumbing down of poetry. But there's room for everything. I'd hate to think of such events being misinterpreted as something purer and more noble or even avant-garde. There's nothing Homeric about performance today. There's a laziness to some performance too, as if the audience should finish things off for you. Some people mistake such events as inclusive entertainment. It's a form of karaoke.
Story telling is best left to story tellers, and poetry isn't the exclusive domain for such concerns. I don't know what social conscience is really, and I can't confess to having read any poetry on the subject. But, coming back to sideshows, I really love the idea of that; of poetry being a sideshow. Something at the edges, a little dangerous and off-key and something gruesome to discover if you would only step right up and walk this way.

Can poetry and science live together?

They can't live separately, we're all in the world together. We need poetry and science to eradicate god and free ourselves from ignorance.

What use do you make of the internet?

I suppose it's an enormous part of my work. I maintain my own web site which I keep developing and extending. I join and leave and join e-mail lists. I tour web sites nightly, in particular this site, the Poetry Kit and John Tranter's excellent poetry e-zine Jacket. There's so much out there, it's endless fun.

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?

Internet publishing is a vitally important extension of publishing activity as a whole. Books will no doubt become by-products of the web and web publication may supersede book publication entirely in some areas of pedagogy. But where poetry is concerned I'm not entirely sure. After all books are beautiful physical objects, and that adds to one's experience of the poems contained. There's something ephemeral about web publication, something transient. It affects my judgement in some ways.
As to new kinds of poetry . . . I think not. No.
Our main problem is extending the value of the publisher's imprimatur to the web. The key is to build excellence in one's editing. It is always a question of judgement for poet and publisher. The quality of the judgement is the key thing.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two collections currently with publishers - Scally and Perfect Dust. And a book-length sequence of poems in hand, under the working title Dr Mephisto. That's it really. Dr Mephisto has become an all-consuming project. I've no idea where it is leading me. It's wonderful.

© Ted Slade, Chris Emery 1999