W.N. Herbert

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with W.N. Herbert by Nathaniel Wooding

Bill’s blog.


1. How did you get into writing poetry, who were your influences?

I was always writing because, from primary school onward, it was part of our ordinary school work to write stories – my English jotters are full of ‘compositions’. When I was 16 or so, we started to learn about poets and playwrights – Norman MacCaig, Bertolt Brecht, Shakespeare (of course), John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I bought poems by Keats and Auden from a little second-hand bookshop on the Hawkhill in Dundee, and, very gradually it seemed…I began trying to make these strange things myself.

MacCaig, Donne and Auden were so neat and elegant in their thinking it was like they were making striking buildings or fast cars, but each was designed so differently I wanted to know how they did it. With Keats and Manley Hopkins the expressiveness of what they were saying was so striking it was as though you were them: again, I wanted to be able to do that to a reader.

Poems were like model kits made out of words, like origami or punk singles or prog album covers or Renaissance paintings: something technical that captured something I thought was cool. So I took their poems to pieces and then I imitated them, and then I found I was making these other shapes of my own.

2. What can be expressed in poetry that can’t be expressed in other art forms?

Nothing, it just expresses stuff differently because it’s so focused on patterns of language and trying to make the reader experience that as a multi-sensory texture. The poem is the fastest, most direct way to do what music, stories, images and films do over time, but because it does this with words, the reader gets drawn into the language rather than just hunting for the meaning. Done properly, poems knock time out of the picture entirely, so you don’t know when or where you are, or how long you’ve been reading. Because words can affect us as immediately as smells, we can be thinking and remembering and processing experiences before we really know why.

What poetry is processing is what things, events and people mean rather than what they are. The value of being here rather than the monetary value of buying something from here. What they (things, events, people) actually are remains a mystery, but what they mean you can at least explore through language: what words filter and what they permit. So poems are full of symbols and fables even when they contain linear narratives and realist description. Jokes, tunes, dreams, jingles: strong verbal patterns that stick in the head and make you think the pattern itself has meaning, because it does.

3. You write poetry in both Scots and English, what does each language offer? What do you think a poem like ‘Beaker Man (Dundee Man)’ gainsĀ from being written in Scots?

English is a world language so it offers you the world; Scots is the language of a small country so it offers you intimacy, and not just if you’re Scots – it’s like all those near-Englishes we speak that someone tells us aren’t quite ‘proper’. English can go anywhere, contain anything, is almost infinitely flexible and curious; Scots can be, vividly, right here: that’s the way I try and use it in ‘Beaker Man’ – this skeleton is both impossibly distant in terms of who it is, and right here in front of us in terms of what it means.

Scots people don’t always use all the words we associate with Scots poems, but they often feel strongly about them, positively or negatively, and that can be interesting in itself, or it can swamp the poem. So you have to judge that carefully, but, usually, the poem has already declared itself to be in Scots or English before I’m conscious of the decision. ‘Beaker Man’, unusually, I decided would work better in Scots.

4. Poetry is often said to be untranslatable, what are your opinions on this? You co-translated the poetry of Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’, do you think that by translating his work it was made into something new? Has the process of translation affected your poetry in any way?

I’m always a bit bewildered by big categorical statements like ‘poetry is untranslatable’ – each poem can’t be translated into any other language by anyone at all? If they mean it’s probably quite difficult, I can confirm that it’s often pretty complicated because it’s not just about the meanings of the words, it’s also about their music, and what value different writers in different languages attach to poetry itself and to the particular patterns poetry tends to be written in. It’s also about what the images stand for, what the audience is used to, and the really difficult thing is when you have to find equivalences for these – usually you’re translating culturally. But that’s what makes it interesting.

So with Gaarriye we’re talking about long oral poems usually recited to hundreds of people with a single alliterative sound recurring in every line and imagery often drawn from the rural landscape of Somalia – I had to make that work for about thirty to seventy people who’d never owned a camel and might be hearing this just once with a little bit of explanation (but not too much).

I realised that his writing was made strong and confident by its clear shape and its connectedness to the audience: they knew how he was doing it even when they were astonished by what he came up with. So I tried to make the translation argue very strongly and explain its images as it went…, and it did alliterate, just not as often, since that would sound too relentless…in English.

It certainly changed my writing: I realised if you’ve made your pattern strong and your argument plain and your music distinctive, you don’t need to be too precious about being a poet because it’s not about you. The poem’s the thing.


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