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Brad Evans Interviews Ken Smith

Photo: Pete Stiff

Ken, what I'd like to ask you first is a bit on your background: where you're from and where you were educated?

I was born in '38 in Yorkshire, in a small village called Rudston. My father was always moving around, so I was in junior schools all over Yorkshire, then I was one of those kids who passed his scholarship, so I went on to grammar school. Stayed on until sixth form, got 'A' Levels, then got into university but before that I did national service in the air force. I then went to Leeds University, got a BA in English and that was it.

Would you like to mention briefly some of your previous occupations?

Teacher, bartender, potato picker, some work from time-to-time as a BBC reader, telephone salesman - I was lousy at that. All the jobs I got were crooked in one way or another. About twenty-seven years ago, when I came back from the States in '73, there weren't any teaching jobs so I didn't apply for one. I did supply teaching, bartending, anything that would pay the rent. Fortunately, over the last six or seven years, I've just about managed to cobble together a living just as a writer.

Do you have a religion or unique system of beliefs?

I don't have any religion as such. I go by life, I have a sense of morality, that's about it - it's a very loose dogma.

Personally, what is a poem to you?

A poem is something that moves me, something that sings, something that has a lyric line in it, something that asks a question and tries to pose an answer. That's about all I've got.

Who first introduced you to poetry?

It must have been in the school system, I don't remember having any particular moments of suddenly saying "wow, that's something!" Most of the poetry I was taught at school when I was a kid was pretty old-fashioned rhyming ballads, you had to learn the stuff by heart, which I didn't like doing. They probably did all they could to put me off it.

What was the first poem that moved you after school?

Again, I don't remember anything specific. I started writing poetry during adolescence, as a lot of people do, and it was really just about me and my miserable adolescence. The first poem that I tried to write I didn't think of as a poem. I was trying to imitate the sound of a blues clarinet, only later, when I looked at it I thought 'Oh, it might be a poem!'. It's long gone now - but that was what kicked me off and then I went on writing from there. And then, after a few years of that, I thought I'd grown out of my tortured adolescence and I stopped writing for a bit. Partly, I think, as a result of doing an English degree where I was reading a lot of poetry and literature and I felt 'come on mate, there's no way you can compete with that, quit it!'

Really, so you felt that there was a value in what you were reading at the time?

I did. But I got back into writing poetry in my last year. It's always a matter of opportunity, of what happens, a lot of it is coincidental. In Leeds, where I was, there was this great little magazine called Poetry & Audience, it came out every Friday, it cost one old English penny, and it was a very popular magazine that a lot of people bought. And the experience of, one day, sitting in the cafe and hearing somebody talking about a poem that I had in that magazine - and that I'd only written a week before, struck me suddenly, you know, this is relevant, this is current, this is what you call 'an ethos'. And I became more and more involved with the poetry scene.

Did you consider back at that time that you had a unique style in the way you wrote poetry?

I didn't think much about style, or what I was doing. I think I was an imitator, as probably everybody is, to begin with. I was probably in the school of Ted Hughes writing that bleak, nature poetry. Later on I got to know a poet who was in fact the editor of Stand, Jon Silkin, and I think I started imitating him then. He died a couple of years ago. But he was the editor of Stand for a long, long time and I got to work on Stand magazine with him. I found that a very useful thing to do, because you're reading submissions and you've got an idea on what people are writing and what they're concerned about. So you can start forming an image on what might be a passable poem, a printable poem or a publishable poem. That was all good experience.

Based on your experience as an editor, how did you go about sorting the promising poems from the not-so-promising ones?

There were occasions where you came across a poem and you thought 'this line is not good' or 'this phrase could be better' and then I'd sometimes enter into correspondence with people and try to discuss it, to see if I could get them to see it. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't, it's all dialogue and dialogue is good.

What are some of the things that motivate you to write poetry?

The usual clichés really - love, life, death, comic situations. Usually I'm trying to work something out because I don't really know what it is, it's hard to say what it is, just the broad spectrum of love, life, death and so on.

Do you have any poets/writers who you feel that you get a lot out of their work consistently?

Not many British ones: Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Norman McCaig - the Scottish poet. I like their rhythm, texture, density. For instance, with Geoffrey Hill, I like the phrasing but you have to really dig down hard to get anywhere near the meaning that he's after. He has become very obtuse, but I think he's a very fine poet.

Do you feel that you have to know their background, before you get a grasp on their work?

It helps a bit sometimes. For instance, Hughes' background in Yorkshire, I think that explains the terseness of the language in his poetry, but only in a general way.

Is the language in your poetry traceable to your upbringing in Yorkshire?

A lot of my poetry is 'local', in that I write a lot about London now because I live here. When I started writing, I think I was writing nostalgic stuff about my childhood - which was in the countryside. So it was nature poetry and then it occurred to me that since I will now be living in cities for the rest of my life, I should get out of the country. It's still in there on a deep level, I think. There's a very good review in the current Agenda of Wild Root and the reviewer calls me 'a rustic in the city', because I still have this 'rustic' outsider's sensibility towards the city. And I think he's right about that.

Do you feel that you're anti-city?

No, no, not 'anti-city', I think it'd be a waste of time being anti-city. The future lies with the cities for everything and cities give me all kinds of things that I couldn't find in a village as a kid. I like libraries, I like movie houses, I like theatres, I like music, I like crowds, it's all there and I just like to throw myself in it. I work with my ear, really, picking up phrases and things that I hear people say.
I like hanging around places like railway stations, where you get the drama of departure and arrival, and all that sort of thing. I sometimes consciously go out looking for images and language, like the city's a great, big supermarket and you can pick & mix as you like. I haven't done this in years but I used to go and stand up the back in magistrates' courts where, as long as you don't make any noise, you can listen to the most amazing stories - and it's a play really between both sides of the prosecution and the defense and the poor, old protagonist is the accused; and your just a part of the audience.
Places like that kick me off with some idea, or phrases that cling together. On the other hand, my work is so much wider than that, I've written about Eastern Europe, America. Usually when I go on a trip somewhere I, again, collect ideas, images, language, and it usually leads to something.

So you visit all those places that you mention before you write about them?

I can't write about them before I experience them, I have to go there and absorb, take notes, come back and mull it all over. Most of those trips have actually been made under the aegis of the BBC, which is how I've partly made my living for five or six years. I've been to places like Hungary, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Romania, in order to specifically write a text for a particular program - taking the tape recorder and collecting sounds and then mixing them all together, and I like doing that. I like working with radio, with microphones, and I like working with sound.

How do you feel when you've written something that really stands out?

Very happy. I walk around the room, I read it again and again. I read it out loud, I tape it and listen to it. I share most things with my wife, who also writes - we are each other's critics and first audience and that's a very useful relationship in that way. And then as I said to you the other night - reading the poem out loud and gauging some kind of response to it - you can tell whether they're bored, amused, interested, or whatever. So, you get some feedback off that.

How often do you re-work a poem?

It's a variable answer. Some poems need a hell of a lot of re-working, sometimes numerous drafts and still they sometimes never come out right. Other times, the poem's just there, right from the start and any tinkering you do is going to make it less of a poem. I've never managed to figure a rule for this, it just works out that way.

Do you ditch any poems that you feel are beyond salvation?

I chuck them in a basket and, sometimes, I go and plunder it and I go 'wait a minute, I want that phrase there', or 'there's a line there', or maybe there's just the nut of an idea there and if you've left it maybe for some months or years, you can go back to it and start afresh with the nut of an idea, but usually they die in the basket.

What moments and experiences in your life bring out the best in your poetry?

I was very motivated some years ago when I did a couple of years' work in a prison, here in London. I was writer-in-residence. I was actually the first writer in this country to do this job and it was very interesting, it made me think a lot about confinement, criminal behaviour, discipline, law & order, the whole bloody lot. I wrote out of that experience, basically out of empathising with the blokes I was working with, trying to see from their point-of-view and what it felt like to them. I mean, you can never get all the way with empathy but empathy takes you quite a way. So, things like that, the deaths of parents, friends, makes you ponder all the questions and sometimes it's nothing at all, it could be sitting here and looking at that townscape or sitting in my garden at dusk and listening to the blackbird. Just listening to the sounds of the neighbourhood sometimes.

What are some of the most important things that you would suggest to somebody who is starting to write?

< Laughter > My first thing would be to say quit now! Quit while you're ahead. But, actually, I've got to say that you have to persist, it's a learning experience, and you also have to read poetry. For me, the experience of editing magazines and anthologies gave me an overview of what's going on. So, yes, get involved and persist with it. Don't give up easily.

Where were you educated?

I went to grammar school in '49, when I was eleven and that took me through eight years to '57, with some good teachers. Teachers that constructively offered literature, made it come alive. It wasn't forced down your throat. I remembered this new teacher, he was called Stan Carter, and he was a great, dynamic bloke who came in and he said he would be teaching us next term and on the blackboard he wrote the names of twelve novels, classics like A Farewell to Arms, Grapes of Wrath, all that stuff. And he said 'I want all this read by the beginning of next term!' and that really kicked me off into reading, I've never stopped since. I'd never read books, as such, before that and suddenly there's whole worlds opening up in front of you of stories and literature, adventure, character and dialogue, which I've always valued. And I had an echo of that, which was many years later when I was working in the nick, in the prison, and I was working with this guy and got him into reading and he said to me one day 'I never really realised, until I started reading books, that other people feel like me!' .He'd been trapped in his own head thinking that only he had these thoughts, only he had these feelings and that was a bit like the rejoinder to Stan Carter, years later.

Did you find that a lot of inmates had some really good experiences that they could have put into writing?

They mostly have bad experiences.

You don't think they should write about that?

Yes, as part of my brief I was to encourage them to do so, because I think that introspection is useful. And the process, certainly with prisoners, was: 'How did I get here?' 'What did I do?' 'Why did I do it?' So some are writing from a biographic beginning, but they branch out into literature, fiction, poetry. And the other thing I found was that, in prison, writing poetry was a perfectly acceptable activity. It's not like out here, where you don't go around saying 'I'm a poet!'
In prison it's a perfectly acceptable because it has currency - it's like a bloke who can cut hair. If you can cut hair you can earn yourself some tobacco. If another bloke wants to send his girlfriend or his wife a birthday card, he'll get this guy to write a poem for him, obviously there's going to be some tobacco in exchange for that. And I like that: it's a respectable, acceptable thing to do, it has a currency and the guy can get himself a smoke from doing it. It was a great surprise to me! I found a lot of blokes, just ordinary blokes, like painters and decorators and plumbers, they write poetry and they'd be quite open about it, frank about it.

What was the difference between the poetry that you read in school and the poetry you read following that?

The poetry that I read in school wasn't terribly interesting at all. That has probably changed considerably in schools now. I know that quite a lot of contemporary poetry is being taught in a lot of places, which can only be to the good of it, I think. Otherwise, there's that artificial world of highwaymen, maids a-milking and all that bollocks, which was just a world that never existed anyway.

What censorship with media have you experienced with your poetry?


Do you find it easier to get your poetry published in the UK or overseas?

I don't really try to get it published overseas because it's so distant. I've got one or two contacts, one or two American magazines I send things to from time-to-time, and I've got a book coming out in Budapest later this year, which is all the poems that I wrote in and around Hungary. So that's a nice outlet when it happens, but by and large, it's very difficult to pursue the contacts I think.

Have you ever had your poetry criticised at all?

Quite a lot of reviewers have done things with it. I think I must say, mostly, it's been pretty good. I've not really had any problems with it.

Do you find that there's a consistency with the feedback that reviews' editors have been giving you?

I suppose so, but it's hard to say what it is. They say I have a particular style of language that's recognisable, I don't see it. Some people claim that I have a fair amount of influence over younger poets, I don't know.

In your view, does the average person appreciate and value poetry?

No, I think the average person doesn't, but I think far more people who we are not aware of do. Poetry is a minority sport, but I think it's a growing minority in that there are more and more outlets for it, there are more and more people who meet in groups and workshops, who develop their interest in poetry. A couple of months ago I was judging a national competition, set locally, about a thousand poems came in and, again, it's a way of getting an overview of what's going on. You can see the results of workshop practise and people are developing within this context and that's good, that's great.

Do you find that poetry is appreciated and valued differently by people in other cultures?

I think it is. In Italy, for instance, where I was about a month ago taking part in a festival in Salerno, lots of people come to these readings, they're not all pointy-headed intellectuals. They're all sorts of ordinary people. Last year I went to Colombia and there they have a huge, massive festival, and everybody turns out in these huge stadiums with between about five and six thousand people and I found that people there just had a healthier attitude, it's not such a rarified activity. They like people to do it, they like people to write, whereas I think the English are still a bit stuffy about that type of thing, although it's vastly improved from what it was years ago.

Do you feel that performance-based poetry is becoming more popular in this country?

I think it's becoming more popular. Sometimes it's okay, some of it is quite interesting. I've heard John Cooper Clarke, he's a real artist when he does it. It's not my style, but I appreciate it as a style - it's one more manifestation of a growing activity.

Do you think that young people in particular appreciate poetry?

Yes, yes. I think, particularly, young people.

Do you think that anybody can write poetry, or are there certain skills a person needs?

I don't think anybody can write it because it requires a certain degree of literacy to start with and, unfortunately, that doesn't include everybody. As a position you'd have to say 'everybody can do it!' but I think in reality everybody can't do it and not everybody wants to do it. I think what we all pray for really are more readers < laughter >.

Personally, what does poetry provide for you as a writer? What is its purpose?

On a personal level, it's my means of communicating to the world, it's my means of communicating with my fellow human beings. I'll tell you a story, which is some years ago, when my grandfather died my mother (who was the eldest child) and I, who accompanied her, were sitting in the car behind the hearse and we had to go from the church, where the service was, to the graveyard which was out on Flamborough Head about 5 miles away. It had been a beautiful day, but as we were driving along it suddenly starts chucking it down, and my mother says "blessed are the dead, the rain rains upon". And I don't know whether you know that line, Brad, but it's from Edward Thomas, a poem called 'Rain' which is about the dead in the trenches of World War One.
I didn't ask her at the time, but on a subsequent occasion I reminded her that she'd said this, it was a way of expressing what she'd felt, it gave her a great release to be able to say this. And then, underneath it, there was something else because I asked her 'have you heard that line before?', and she hadn't. She'd never heard of Edward Thomas either. So I told her where it was from. What I think, is that she'd heard that line some time in her life and she'd tucked it away somewhere, just for that moment when it's needed. And that, to me, is an illustration of the purpose of poetry.
On one level, poetry is a form of entertainment, on another level it's a sort of education in feelings and in how people feel, and what it is possible to feel. I don't see it as a direct, political consequence, I don't think it would change anything politically in people's minds, but it has an influence on people's feelings and opinions and that's what I see as its' role.

Do you feel the need to be published as a poet?

Yes, to be quite honest. If I didn't get published at all, I would probably quit.

Do you sense any pressure from people or groups outside to have your work published?

No. The only pressure I get, and that's not much pressure, is from my publisher to go on writing and provide more books for him to publish, which is a very nice pressure.

I first discovered your work in a book of poems titled The Poet Reclining back in 1995, which I think was a selection of your work between 1962 and 1981. Would you like to list some of the titles of your other publications?

All the work that was in The Poet Reclining, included all the stuff I did before that. The first book that I had here, which was called The Pity, is in there. A book that I had published in the States called Work Distances, is in there, and then a whole lot of small press stuff, fugitive stuff, is all in there. Since then, I've had titles like Terra, a book of prose poems that I did called The Book of Chinese Whispers, which are all mad, surreal things; Tender to the Queen of Spain, Wormwood - which was mostly concerned with the prison I worked in, and the latest one Wild Root all of which will be collected in this new book which comes out next year, Shed. It will be another complete edition. The Poet Reclining was a complete book of selected poems up until 1981, and this one will be everything since then. So, I'll only have to go to a reading with one book in each pocket.

What feedback do you get from magazine editors?

Not a lot, really. I mean, there aren't many magazines that I publish in, or take my work. It's mostly solicited, somebody will ask me if I've got anything and if I have I'll give it. They either take it or they don't.

Do you feel that editors should give you more feedback with your submissions?

If they can, but it's quite a lot to ask. I mean, I've worked on magazines and you end up with massive numbers of stuff to read and you just don't have time to go into a big critical bag of why you're rejecting it.

Were you getting many rejection slips when you first started writing?

Yes, quite a lot. Partly because when you start out you're not quite sure where to send things, so obviously there are magazines which are not going to take your work and it's a waste of postage to send it. I started out with quite a lot of rejection slips, including one which I remember quite well, it said 'not quite, I didn't think', which when you take out the negatives it just means 'quite'.

What was the first poem that you had published?

The first poem that I ever had published, not counting Poetry & Audience, was probably in Stand magazine and it did pay me something for it, a couple of quid, a fiver maybe. But it was the first thing in proper print.

Do you think that royalties for poetry in the contemporary scene have improved?

There's more money about. There's still a lot of magazines that don't, can't pay anything. But there are more magazines in England that do, there's just more money about.

Have you ever had to pay any money to have your poetry published?

I've never done the vanity press scene, where you have to pay for the publication, I think that's a complete waste of time and money and it's usually a racket - those publishing houses that do that by making money and keeping their printer supplied at your expense. So, I've never done that! But I have occasionally 'primed the pump' a bit. There's a long poem I wrote, which is in The Poet Reclining called 'Fox Running' and it's a poem some 32 pages long and there's no way I was going to get that published anywhere, but I had a mate at that time who worked as a technician at London University and he said 'let's just put it on the machines and print it up. So, we did that. I mean...
A. I was feeling very ignored and not published at all.
B. I was extremely broke and Christmas was coming up...
So I sold these off for a fiver, and we printed off a hundred of them, so we had a decent Christmas and it got some decent reviews, including a review in The Guardian. And then Bloodaxe, my publisher, was just starting out at that time and I think he'd done one little pamphlet of mine and that was his first publication as a publishing house. He was skint as well, but he said he'd like to publish 'Fox Running' again in a proper printed edition and, I think, I said out of this five hundred that I made from the first edition I'll buy the paper, which was two hundred quid, for the second edition - now that's 'priming the pump', that's making something happen where nothing's happening. But I think that's a different thing to vanity press.

Do you think vanity press is a complete waste of time?

Yes. What people forget is anybody can print a book, it's a matter of distributing it. I mean there're established publishing houses who can't get the books out to the right bookshops, so there's not much chance that the vanity presses will. And they don't. Usually the writer has to guarantee buying some fixed figure, which then pays for their printing bill and then you give them away to your relatives for Christmas. So what?

If you were offered the chance to have a poem published, but the editor suggested changes, to what extent would you make a change?

I'd consider minor changes, because the editor could probably see something that I've missed, and that's constructive, useful criticism. So, yes, I'd consider small changes - a line, maybe a word repeated too often that I hadn't noticed, something like that, but I wouldn't make extensive changes. If they didn't like it, they can get stuffed!

Aside from the general comments made by editors, do you feel that there are other motives for your work to be rejected in regards to content or whatever?

Sometimes I suspect they are < laughter >, but there are certain clubs that I do not belong to.

What do you think of writers who submit their poetry simultaneously to magazines?

You shouldn't do it. You just shouldn't do it, because it leads to confusion, embarrassment. If two magazines take the same poem, you're going to have to write an embarrassing letter to one of them. I mean I have occasionally, mistakenly done that and run into an embarrassing situation, but I do not consciously do that. I try to keep a close record of everything I send out. Of course if you never get a reply, you send it somewhere else.

What sort of time period do you think a writer should give an editor?

I give them three months. That's enough time. I may give a bit longer with some situations, but three months is enough generally.

Would you like to add anything further? Are you tired < laughter >?

No, I'm not tired. I think we've covered most of the posts really: childhood, education, experience, travel, prison work. What am I doing now, perhaps? How about that?

Yes, that's fine.

What I'm trying to do at the moment, is write just to the immediate situation that I find myself in. What I'm writing is a book of hours, a hypothetical day - which means there could be 24 poems, there's 13 so far and I don't really want to sketch out what I'm doing before I do it. I'm trying to write them left-handedly, almost unconsciously, without the fuss of 'I'm going to write a poem today!' or that sort of thing. So, sometimes, it's just a stray thought that would normally just go and I think to myself 'hang on a minute! What is that?' and I might just write it down and work on it. They're all fairly short poems - truncated non-rhyming sonnets, if you like. I always had a theory about the sonnet, it was fourteen lines, and the last two lines are the couplet at the end, which sums everything up. So I write twelve lines, semi-sonnets, with no summing up. It's really just incidental stuff that happens during the day, and where it happens to be where I happen to be. And I'm trying to do it in as relaxed a way as possible.
I think one of the things that happens as you get older, is that you get more clenched up into the posture of how you're meant to be writing a poem. I used to run workshops and some of the most successful workshops that I've done are where we don't approach the poem directly, we do something else. There was one I did in Wales, it was a week-long course, and I told them before they got there 'we're going to make masks', so everybody made a mask. Three days of glue, paper, wire and paint, messy, slopping it around, it was great stuff, it was like being a kid again. But then, by the fourth day, I said 'now, look at the mask. Who is it, what's in the mask?' And I got them writing from the masks and it was one of the best I'd ever done.
There's an American poet called John Haines and he talks about writing poetry, he says 'approach it as you would approach a bright light' - i.e. approach it, but not straight on, you have to work your way around it. He was in the navy during World War Two and he describes being on a ship in a convoy in the Atlantic - it's dark, there's no lights, there's radio silence, and you're up on the bridge and you're watching for the conning tower of a submarine and it's imperative that you see it as soon as it's there and that you don't see something that isn't there because if you do that, you end up getting the whole bloody ship alerted over a false alarm. And he says "you're looking, you're looking, you might see something. Don't look straight at it - look to the left of it, look to the right of it, you look in front of it and all around it, then you go in on it; and if you still see it, then it's a conning tower. And you hope to get the bugger before it gets you". And I like that analogy between that and writing poetry. If you approach it head-on, it blinds you.


  • The Pity (Jonathan Cape 1967)
  • Work, distances/poems (Swallow Press, Chicago, 1972)
  • Tristan Crazy (Bloodaxe Books 1978)
  • Fox Running (Bloodaxe Books 1981)
  • Burned Books (Bloodaxe Books 1981)
  • Abel Baker Charlie Delta Epic Sonnets (Bloodaxe Books 1982)
  • The Poet Reclining: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 1982)
  • Terra (Bloodaxe Books 1986)
  • A Book of Chinese Whispers (Bloodaxe Books 1987)
  • Wormwood (Bloodaxe Books 1987)
  • Inside Time (Harrap 1989, Mandarin 1990)
  • The heart, the border (Bloodaxe Books 1990)
  • Berlin: Coming in from the Cold (Hamish Hamilton 1990, Penguin 1991)
  • Tender to the Queen of Spain (Bloodaxe Books 1993)
  • Klaonica: poems for Bosnia - ed. with Judi Benson (Bloodaxe Books 1993)
  • Wild Root (Bloodaxe Books 1998)
  • Shed: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2001)

© Brad Evans, Ken Smith August 2000