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
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
What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in
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
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