James Byrne

August 8, 2012 § 3 Comments

Interview with James Byrne by Dale Kenyon

Wolf Magazine Editor’s Page

1. How long have you been writing poetry for? Why and how did you start, what was the initial attraction?

Ever since I was very young I always enjoyed reading but was a bit of a tearaway as a kid and I remember once being caught smoking outside the school gates. I must have been twelve or thirteen because I was not so long into secondary school. My English teacher—the only teacher I liked because she seemed more human and open-minded than the rest of them and, like me, liked books and music—sat me down during the resulting after-school detention and made me read ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg. It was the first poem that struck me as having at stake a level of emotionality that might correspond, somehow, with my own life (with all its pubescent and familial complications at the time). Of course, where I grew up in ‘The Shires’, a school poetry curriculum was all about the elite uniform of Tennyson, Larkin (who was immediately abhorrent to me) and Betjeman and so the space had been cultivated for Ginsberg quite perfectly to come along and do what Dickinson said that poetry might do and lift the top off my skull. My thinking about the possibilities of poetry as an art form really began around this time though I didn’t take the writing of poetry seriously until I left home to live in London. In the Conservative stronghold of Buckinghamshire it didn’t seem that I could be my creative self and moving to London gave me back my life.

2. How has your work changed or developed since you first started writing?

I’ve always maintained that it’s hard to endorse what you leave behind, but I feel that my approach to writing has changed immeasurably. Clear evidence of this can be found if you hold my up first two books. Passages of Time (my debut) was quite whimsical in places and romantic and written more for an audience, or so it felt (I was very involved with the London poetry ‘scene’ at this point and was actually asked to submit a manuscript by the publisher, Nii Parkes, after he heard me read my poems at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden). Compared to Blood Sugar, my first book might have been written with my eyes half-closed. I was 24 when Passages came out. There are Eliotic echoes in the early poems of that collection and there are echoes too of John Burnside (whose first few books made me want to write). And yet I hadn’t read half of modernism! So Blood/Sugar feels more like a first book to me, in some respects.

3. Does the notion of “publishablity” have anything to do with the sort of poetry you write?
Yes, if it is in a book, but only in the sense of it being published. But half of my poems I keep for myself (some because they might not be in a finished state—most poems for me are failed experiments, even the published ones—others perhaps they are unpublishable for different reasons?) And unless they are written for someone else I write them for myself.

4. In your poem ‘Dowry for an Aerophobic’ the sort of language you conjure appears to be very abstract and surrealist giving the poem a dream-like quality. Can you retrace your thought process when writing and/or editing this poem?

It was one of three poems I wrote for my partner Sandeep Parmar who was, when I met her, terrified of flying. She would have to consume vast quantities of alcohol just to board a plane and so I wondered if there was a precious stone which might have offered some kind of healing potential when held in the palm by Sandeep. I recall finding ‘Cymophane’, but it cost hundreds of pounds for a slither the size of a thumbnail, so I cheapened my resolve and wrote a poem about it instead!

Surreal-seeming or otherwise, this fairly simple premise behind the poem is what the whole of ‘Dowry for an Aerophobic’ is about. Sometimes we confuse the surreal with the ‘more real’ (readers of Peter Redgrove’s poems or Aimé Césaire’s have been doing this since the 1970s). Only this morning was I reading in a fairly waterish article on the BBC about ‘difficulty’ (written by Will Self) that we like our culture to be digested like fast food.

5. In the poem ‘Medicine’ you alternate between two and three line stanzas, suggesting some sort of form, which contrasts with another of your poems, ‘Widowed / Unwidowed’, which appears to have a much more sporadic free verse style. Could you explain why the poem is set out in such a way? Are they random or is there an intrinsic logic behind the indentations, spacing and stanza lengths?

The pauses in the poem are what I consider to be a kind of silence that speaks. And the way we speak is particularly important to poems that I write which like to move around the page. I try to push off from the margin if it’s not where the breath seems at its most natural for the poem. In the case of ‘Widowed/Unwidowed’, my hearing between the lines had to be very acute because the poem was written for Penelope Shuttle, recent widow of the poet Peter Redgrove. Penny is a dear friend, someone I care for deeply (my stepfather is also a Shuttle, she could even be a distant relative!). And of course the poem is highly speculatory in that it imagines how these two extraordinary poets shared a life together and Penny’s subsequent bereavement. Fortunately Penny liked the poem and so it went into Blood/Sugar. I was particularly pleased and it’s one poem in this collection that I like to read in public, in part because of the way that the form encourages the actual and the hidden voices intrinsic to the poem.

6. When Sylvia Plath was criticised for not being able to live up to the standards of John Donne she remarked that she felt the weight of the English language upon her. With so much historical greatness in poetry to live up to in modern writing how does one even begin to dare to write anything? What are your views?

I think it’s a dull view and one that is anti-imagination in that we should all cap our pens and look up at the stars and praise the old masters (though we should!). Frankly, I’m surprised that this idea still circulates. Despite what I’ve just said in the last question there are highly original poems being written all the time, across the world, and poetry is as popular as ever, in the way that there are more people writing it than ever before. What concerns me in the great global dumbsdown is that there won’t be enough good readers (beyond poets themselves) to enjoy these important works. Poetry has enough difficulty attracting an audience as it is. Our Tweety-FBupdate-Kindle-pie world is pretty terrifying if you’re a poet of the imagination. And yet we probably should embrace all these things at once as poets if we want to be visible at all.

7. What advice would you give to young writers to encourage them to write poetry or even tips on how to better their poems and individuality?

Read like a maniac. Disraeli was full of egoana when he declared ‘If I want to read a book I’ll write one’. Live alone for a while if you can. Travel too. Even by walking around your own city. Keats walked to Scotland once and got half his oeuvre from doing so (warning: it also sped up his illness). Go to readings, they can help you meet other poets and develop your own art of writing poetry. Find out where you want to publish (for example, if you’re in London read magazines and books at the Poetry Library on the Southbank—it’s free to become a member). Don’t worry about ‘finding a voice’, as Eliot told us: ‘many gods many voices’. Respond to the times we live in. Arguably there has been no more difficult and better age to be a writer than now.


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