Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?
I'm a vicar's son born in 1953 and brought up in a series of poor, urban parishes in the industrial north west of England. My birthplace is Salford, Lancashire, but with the exception of five years between the ages of 9 and 14 spent in Wigan, I grew up in Bootle and Garston, two different parts of Liverpool. My parents still live in the south of the city and I think of it as my home town. In 1996 I edited an anthology, Liverpool Accents: Seven Poets and a City, as a form of homage to the place.
Do you come from a literary family?
No. My parents are the first members of their respective families, and the only members of their generations, to go to university. They met at Durham in the immediate post-war years; my mother was there studying geography and my dad had discovered a vocation for the ministry in Bedford in 1942 while training for a modest role in the Intelligence Corps at Bletcheley Park. There were a few poetry books and anthologies in the house. I don't think they'd been looked at for quite a number of years when I started rifling through them in the second half of the 1960s. However, I do come from a fairly cultured and artistic family: my mother's parents played duets on piano and violin (come to think of it, they had a complete set of the works of Lawrence locked in a glass-fronted bookcase); my maternal grandfather was a serious amateur photographer; one of my mother's sisters went to Art School; my parents sung madrigals at one point, and are still involved with the performance of Church music. I was singing poems by William Blake and George Herbert and William Cowper before I knew what they were.
That seems pretty 'literary' to me...
Yes, perhaps it was, in comparison to what I read of Tony Harrison's childhood, for instance; but aside from a great-aunt who privately printed a collection of children's stories, to my knowledge I'm the family's only published author (though one of my brothers has co-edited a collection of papers on his research field in Physics). Mum reads novels; dad reads the papers. All I'm saying is that I'm not Gert Hofmann's son, or Roy Fuller's.
Did your poetry come directly out of that environment, or were there other influences that set you off?
That environment involved moving around a lot in my childhood. The poem 'On
Van Gogh's La Crau' in Entertaining Fates has these house removals in
it. I changed places at the ages of approximately less-than-one, three,
nine, fourteen, eighteen, and twenty-one... It crossed my mind recently
that I've lived in the same flat in Sendai, Japan, for eight years now -
and that's longer than in any other single place, including all my 36 years
of residence in England or Wales. I tend to think that the moving around we
did when I was young produced a sense of protective detachment from
situations that may have helped to stimulate a poet's stance towards the
world. Yet I don't believe my brother, less than two years younger, did the
same; or he found an entirely different way of managing his childhood
What then were the books or events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?
We were studying the Metaphysical Poets, Joyce's A Portrait, and Hamlet for A level. Alan Hodgkinson, the English master, gave me a copy of the newly published Penguin Ulysses. I was made the prefect responsible for the school library and read some of Virginia Woolf's more 'poetic' novels. I did another A level in Art and was painting and teaching myself the rudiments of Art History. Someone lent me what I then thought were the complete works of Bob Dylan from the first album to John Wesley Harding. Someone else lent me a facsimile edition of The Songs of Innocence and Experience...
What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?
Between 1969 and 1974, when I graduated from York University, I wrote reams of poems in a variety of styles, imitating whatever I was reading or studying. In the course of those years I went from knowing almost no poetry to having read a thick slice of the English canon, the French Symbolists, Yeats, the Anglo-American modernists, and then, to name a few, Pierre Reverdy, Jeremy Prynne, Elaine Feinstein, her translations of Marina Tsvetayeva, Edwin Morgan, Roy Fisher and so on and so forth. It was an education. The poetry I started writing was about my paternal grandfather (who died when I was five), landscapes of Liverpool and the Yorkshire Dales, the circumstances of my childhood and youth, girl trouble, student radicalism and Northern Ireland, paintings by Rembrandt...and it tended to be in patterned but usually irregular metres with varying degrees of rhyme - from full to hardly any at all. Though I like to think I've got better at what I do, the non-aligned formal eclecticism I picked up as a student writer has stayed with me.
How did you first get your poems published?
My first published poem (a pastiche ballad) was in an anthology made on a hand press the school had acquired; another appeared in a mimeographed sixth-form magazine. I was involved in publishing two pamphlets with a student poet called Hugh Macpherson at York, and also appeared regularly in issues of the student magazine. At Cambridge in 1976, I started to edit with a series of co-editors, the magazine Perfect Bound, and early poems that I've kept went in there. By this stage I had started sending off to little magazines, and towards the end of the 1970s began to appear in the likes of Stand, in the New Poetry anthologies, and a couple of times on the BBC's Poetry Now programme. My first separate publications were The Benefit Forms, a pamphlet published by Richard Tabor with a grant from the Eastern Arts Association, and Going Out to Vote, a broadsheet done by John Welch's Many Press, both in 1978. By this stage I thought of myself as up and running, but it would be another decade before a book came out from one of the larger specialist presses, Carcanet. Looking back, it seems to me a standard 'paying your dues' kind of apprenticeship in the days before the big competitions and the leaps to public notice of the 1980s.
How did this breakthrough to a collection come about?
I'm not sure about a breakthrough...I can clearly recall offering manuscripts to Anvil and Bloodaxe in the very early 1980s, not long after a first book with a spine, Overdrawn Account (1980) from the Many Press had garnered a surprisingly large number of reasonable reviews. In both cases I got the usual reply. At which point, I seem to have gone into hibernation, emerging in 1985 with a pamphlet again from the Many Press called Anaglypta. This came out at the same time as the Cambridge Poetry Festival of that year, a big event with a performance of Ezra Pound's opera, Villon, and a tie-in exhibition at the Tate Gallery (I did one of the essays for the catalogue) on the 100th anniversary of his birth. I was the chairman of the organizing committee. Anyway, I think it was at this festival that Peter Jay talked about doing a selection of Vittorio Sereni's poems and Michael Schmidt (who'd published some things in PN Review) said, in passing, something like: 'You must send me a manuscript...' The former took five years to come out, the latter three.
How was it received, critically, and by buyers? How did that influence your writing?
This Other Life did surprisingly well: it was positively reviewed
in most of the big places. Martin Dodsworth gave the book a very positive
description in The Guardian, where I was paired with Les Murray. He was
asked to nominate the Cheltenham Prize in the same year, and generously
gave it to that book. I did a host of readings, was paired with Jo Shapcott
in the New Voices series at the South Bank, and did three radio broadcasts.
The book had sold out some time early in the next decade. I don't know the
exact print run, but it can't have been that large.
You were involved in some of the developments in the '80s that led to poetry being described briefly as 'the new rock and roll'. Can you say something about that involvement? What lasting effects do think what was done then has had on the readership for poetry?
It was all part of 'paying my dues': I arrived in Cambridge in the autumn
of 1975 and found that there had been a large poetry festival (organized by
Richard Burns) the previous spring. The organizer for 1977 had decided to
concentrate on the avant-garde poets of Cambridge, London, Europe and
America. I was made the secretary of the organizing committee, and learned
a lot. This event was something like a luxurious poet's conference: money
being spent lavishly on travel, hospitality, and the elegant festival
programme, while the tasks of getting an audience to pay the bills were
neglected. The inevitable result was that the society ended up deep in
debt. At this point I took it over, went for a pluralistic approach, found
a brilliant treasurer and colleague in the person of Alison Rimmer (as she
then was), now a director of Heffers Bookshop. With the 1979 festival we
got the society back into the black and put together a programme that could
include a Sound/Performance poetry day, a debate on poetry and politics
between Jon Silkin and Donald Davie, and with readings by such poets as C.
H. Sisson, Josef Brodsky, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, it was
Ginsberg who helped us most with our debt problem: he did a sell-out
Saturday night performance with Peter Orlovsky and a guitarist for the
price of one-way air tickets (he was finessing a European tour) and £50
Living and working in provincial Japan is obviously quite a contrast from your original background. How has this move influenced your work?
I've been asked about this a number of times at readings and in other
interviews. The first thing to say is that I came to Japan because I hadn't
found regular employment in England and was offered that two-year temporary
job at Kyoto University, so took it as a break from a situation grim-ish on
various counts in 1989. After being here about a year, I was offered a job
with an annually renewable contract at Tohoku University in Sendai - and,
aside from almost a year away to have and recover from a brain tumour
operation, I've been here ever since. This has happened by taking one
decision at a time, and was in no sense foreseen. I didn't come to Japan
because I'm interested in Zen and archery, ukiyoe, haiku, or ikebana...To
me, it's the place where I earn a living, and, somewhat to my surprise,
I've started to feel that I know my way around - as well as learning
something about Japanese arts and crafts into the bargain.
Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?
I do both. Translations have to be done on a craft basis. So does fictional prose, so do critical essays - and interviews. Poems have to insist that they need to be written. So I carry around little notebooks, and jot down phrases, titles, and the like when they come to me, and then, if there's a need, I will find the time to bring them to a conclusion. I try to write as little poetry as possible: I don't enjoy the assembly-line feeling, and tend to think that over-production is bad for what I may be able to do.
How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?
I live in almost complete isolation from other writers here in Japan. I don't attend, or give, formal workshops. I don't think that other poets are always the best people to give advice because they have their own art to keep an eye on, so their comments are naturally shaped by their own way of doing things. When I send copies of poems or books to other poets, and occasionally critics, they tend to be warmly supportive or silent. However, I do show poems to some close and candid friends who are not poets, but are literary people, and I frequently withhold or revise poems on advice from anyone, poet or not. I also send them off to magazines and use the experience of rejection as a way of having second thoughts.
To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?
Hardly at all. I'm sure I'd enjoy working with film makers, visual artists, having poems set to music, or doing an opera libretto - but no one's asked me and I can't go looking for the work. I was once involved in the publication of a poem-card; but then I was the visual artist. I've usually enjoyed collaborating on translating poems and editing books or magazines.
Translation is itself a kind of cooperation, I suppose. How do you approach translating poetry? Have you had a chance to work with the original writers?
When I first started working on Italian poetry with Marcus Perryman I
hardly knew the language, but wanted to learn it, and so he provided me
with prose cribs or rough drafts to work up with an eye on the original.
That was in 1979. Two decades later, as I say, my wife is Italian and my
parents-in-law don't speak English, so I'm more or less able to set the
translation going myself and then ask for comments, corrections, and
How do you decide that a poem is finished?
There isn't one single way. I read it out loud over and over again. I agonize about whether this bit or that bit is bearable, or whether the whole thing should be quietly forgotten. I make adjustments, and read it again. Then maybe I go back to the earlier reading. I see whether it has takers when I send it out. If it doesn't, I agonize a little more. I leave it around for some time, forget about it, and then look at it again. This is just part of my managing an obsession as if it were a job. I may even make a few last changes on the proofs of the collection it goes in. I may even revise it before re-publishing...
Who do you write for? Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?
I have a shadowy sense of a small readership. It's got a dark centre of people I know well and a penumbra with no clear limit of people I may know to some extent, or barely at all. It's perhaps even beginning to extend into the light of people who are completely unknown to me, and whose responses are a total mystery. Do I write for them? Well, I write for whoever cares to read what I write. Occasionally poems are also dedicated to particular people, or include events that were shared with friends, or pay homage to other writers. I also write for myself, because the poems have to give me pleasure or I don't see how they could reasonably give anybody else any.
Does poetry have to be 'simple' to get an audience?
No, I don't think so. Nor do I think poetry that provides no obvious problems of surface understanding - like Blake's 'Tiger' - is necessarily simple.
Which contemporary poets do you most admire?
Roy Fisher. There are a great many others that I can enjoy reading (e.g. Mark Ford, Elaine Feinstein, James Lasdun, Bill Manhire, Jo Shapcott...) but I admire Roy Fisher.
What is it about Roy Fisher's work that you find most admirable?
Much of the poetry I read, however different from what I could do myself,
conveys thoughts and feelings which I've either had, know about and would
prefer not to have, or which it's not too hard to imagine myself having;
with Roy Fisher I read the productions of a sensibility that either gives
me something that I don't have in my equipment at all, or which unearths
things in my experience and sensibility that I wasn't aware of having.
Whereas the poetry I enjoy tends to nudge me in stimulating ways I
recognize, his poetry positively elbows me out of my habitual thought
patterns. Being familiar with his writings doesn't seem to have changed
this experience of reading it at all.
Which trends in modern poetry do you find most interesting?
I don't find trends interesting; they're for the literary journalists to do crowd control exercises. Also, there are so many poetic cultures in the world, and so many different agendas, that if you think you know what the trends are, then you are probably excluding most of them from your picture before you wonder about the question. Cubist? Apocalyptic? Movement? L=A=N=G? Deep Image? Pomo? New-Gen? Who cares? I like individual works by particular poets.
Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?
The puzzle for me in your question comes from the spatial metaphor implied by 'outside'. This could mean either 'outside poems' or 'outside the poetry world'. Apart from the literal sense of the words in the text and the words not in it, I don't understand what 'inside poems' could mean. Also the words in the poem only have sense because they are part of a language that includes all the other words not in the poem: so the words not in the poem are necessary to the words in it, and the words in it need also to be understood as they are used when not in the poem. Then again, the 'poetry world': what is it? Just an intersecting sub-set of the one world we all have to inhabit. So I don't think there's such a place as 'inside' poetry or 'outside' it. As for your version of Auden's 'poetry makes nothing happen' issue, I believe it has no end of influences; but you can't touch them, or quantify them, and people don't like to talk about them.
In his recent book Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins claims that poets have not understood the poetry of science - the title comes from Keats' criticism of scientists. Would you agree that this antagonism still exists? Do we really still live in Snow's two cultures?
That brother nearest to me in age is a research scientist at the National
Physics Laboratory, and we played out the old two cultures argument as a
sibling rivalry theme. Does Dawkins accuse Goethe of not understanding the poetry of science? I haven't read his book, so can't comment on that specifically, but it looks from what you say as if he's using the word 'poetry' in the phrase 'the poetry of science' to mean not poems about
science, but the poetical as it can be found in scientific research. There
are good poems involving science and not so good ones, and then there are
poems not about science which simply take the applied facts of scientific
experiment and technological development for granted. My brother did some
research on the use of electron beam interferometry for the better
identification of metal fatigue in, among other things, aeroplanes (more
'jet lag and birdsong').
What use do you make of the internet? Do you maintain a website or use e-mail groups to display your work-in-progress?
I use it to try and keep in touch. It has eased the sense of isolation I feel living in Japan. I haven't set up a website yet, but one is in construction and it may be up this year. I don't belong to any e-mail group specifically for workshop-type activity, and the one list I'm on is too hairy and eclectic a place to ask for comments on the fine-tuning of a caesura. But, as I say, e-mail contact means that I can send new poems out to people for comment much more quickly and efficiently than in the past.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've just about finished a new collection of poems, begun in December 1993, which will probably be called The Colouring of the Past. There's the manuscript of the Complete Poems of Vittorio Sereni that Marcus Perryman and I are hoping to have published soon. I've a number of critical projects and translations manuscripts in progress. Just recently I've returned to some unfinished stories too. Then there are a couple of editorial projects in the pipeline, including books I'm involved with on Roy Fisher's work: The Thing About Roy Fisher: Critical Studiesed. J. Kerrigan and P. Robinson (Liverpool University Press, 1999), and News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher ed. P. Robinson and R. Sheppard (Stride, 2000). There's also a chapbook's worth of very new poems that may be publishable somewhere before too long. I've more, but that's surely enough to be getting along with...
© Ted Slade, Peter Robinson 1999