August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with John Greening by Sophie Wilshaw
1. You have many different responsibilities in the literary world, and are still publishing popular works; how do you manage your time?
I limit myself to a handful of commitments: judging the Gregory Awards, an annual creative writing workshop in Cornwall, and whatever readings I’m asked to give. Nevertheless, it’s true that I’m a teacher, and a school-teacher at that – I also have a family. So there is a great deal of time management involved. I live near my work, which cuts out commuting time, and being away from the metropolis means that there are few temptations beyond the notebook and the laptop. Poems tend to get written more when I’m not teaching, although there have been occasions when one pops into my head (during a lesson once), or some unexpected event forces lines upon me. Curiously, intense fatigue can actually be a very creative state. At the same time, the experience of having nothing to do but write (as at the Hawthornden retreat which your supervisor, Sophie Mayer, also attended) might or might not be a good thing. It’s a wonderful feeling, but the best work doesn’t always come when you’re feeling great. Reviewing and prose in general I find I can write whatever is going on in the rest of my life and I’m pretty good at deadlines (teaching helps that skill). Having said all this, I’m just taking on two new major book editing tasks which might well stress-test me to the limit.
2. Before you were such an influential and recognisable figure in society, how did you introduce yourself to people?
Again, I’m really not, thank God, recognisable and only the tiniest bit influential – the latter through my reviews for the TLS, I suppose, which I’ve done since the late 1990s, when the late Mick Imlah invited me to contribute. I don’t introduce myself as a poet. Who would? Auden refused even to have it on his passport (preferring ‘medieval historian’, wasn’t it?). To utter the word ‘poet’ in England really is the best way to strike people dumb or to clear the room entirely. I’m just reading a fascinating book about Anglo-German relations (Keeping Up with the Germans by Philip Oltermann) and he explores the reasons why the British have to make everything into a joke. Any mention of poetry is usually met with humour in Britain, which is why we are happier with funny poets or poets who behave in funny ways. Shakespeare knew this, of course: he has the mob casually beating up the wrong conspirator, Cinna the Poet, in Julius Caesar, and crying: ‘Tear him for his bad verses…’
3. With this prestige, have you ever felt pressure to finish a piece of work, or make it your best?
I don’t think any writer thinks of him or herself as prestigious (though I used to be a keen prestidigitator! – a fact that impressed Ted Hughes, actually.) I think that if you feel the compulsion to finish a work, then that’s a good sign. I recently tore through eleven poems in one day: I was being driven on by something. But that has nothing to do with deadlines or what people are asking you to write. I do admire the way Larkin worked, doggedly returning to ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ month after month, following the poem through stanza by stanza from beginning to end. How different from the process described in the recent biography of Peter Redgrove, whereby he had dozens if not hundreds of different poems on the go at any one time. And I can’t imagine how someone like Carol Ann Duffy produces so much commissioned work. Or perhaps I can. By avoiding the deepest springs. There’s no harm in a poet being able to turn out some decent occasional verse, as long as it’s not confused with poetry. A Poet Laureate has to, and Larkin knew he couldn’t have done that. Anyway, every piece of work feels like your best for a few minutes after it’s finished. But, as Horace said, ‘Keep your piece nine years’. That’s such good advice, though it only works if you live as long as I have. Don’t rush into publication. That includes the internet. It’s advice Larkin should have followed too.
4. How difficult was it to first get your work published?
Very hard. I had the outline of a book by the time I was in my mid-twenties and finishing post-graduate work on verse drama at Exeter. My work had appeared in a few prestigious places such as Emma Tennant’s Bananas and Lawrence Sail’s much-missed South-West Review, but I could not persuade any half decent publisher to bring out a book. There wasn’t much I could do to convince them, except occasionally get very stroppy. Somewhat ironically, I never managed to win an Eric Gregory Award and only started winning competitions when I had already been taken up by Bloodaxe. In the end it was going to Egypt that did the trick. The work that I produced out there, when Jane and I were teaching for two years with VSO in Aswan, seemed to appeal to editors and pretty quickly Roland John of Hippopotamus Press brought out Westerners. I suppose people are drawn to a book with a theme and the poems in Westerners (it came out in 1982) were entirely Egyptian. I’d originally wanted to mingle them with other pieces, but Roland is a good editor and advised me not to. I’m very fond of that elegant yellow book, and I’ve this year been revisiting it as part of a memoir I’ve written about those years in Upper Egypt. I occasionally remember the struggle I had to get that book accepted, and I have files stuffed with rejection letters. The struggle doesn’t end, however, and I’ve had my years in the publishing wilderness even after apparently bedding down with a major publisher. Where would we be without devoted individuals like Roland, like John Lucas of Shoestring Press or David Perman of Rockingham or Gladys Mary Coles of Headland? Mericifully, my latest collection (To the War Poets) is scheduled to come out with Michael Schmidt’s Carcanet (Oxford Poets ) in 2013, but already I’m beginning to worry whether they will like the follow-up.
5. Do you believe poetry is a dying art?
It is, if anything, the art of dying. Nadezhda Mandelstam said it was ‘preparation for death’. The moment hard times really hit us, people will return to poetry – as they did in the Mandelstams’ era. In communist Eastern Europe they used to fill football stadiums for poetry readings.
6. You have achieved so much already, but is there something you still strive to achieve?
Just one poem that will stay in the anthologies. That’s all any poet needs. There are dozens of poets we only really remember for one piece: from William Dunbar’s ‘Timor Mortis Conturbat me’ to Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’. But what do I really strive for? As Howard Nemerov said: ‘getting something right in the language.’