Peter Hughes

August 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

Interview with Peter Hughes by Aaron Game

Oystercatcher Press – Editor’s Page

1. Where did it all begin?

I was encouraged to explore books from an early age. My parents talked to me. We went all over the place camping, walking, exploring. Curiosity about the world and curiosity about books was seen as a continuum. I had one excellent primary school teacher who took us out to write, and gave us music, pictures and artefacts to write about. He let us explore language, have fun with it, follow our own interests and see where they would lead us. Later I was drawn to song lyrics. When I was a teenager I played a lot of music and wrote horrible songs. I spent a year in the Isles of Scilly, working on farms and reading. That’s when I started writing. From there I applied to do a degree in English, at Cambridge Polytechnic, there I was lucky enough to meet Nigel Wheale, and through him a host of other poets.  After a year in Brighton, where I met Andrew Crozier, I went up to Scotland to do an M.Litt in Modern Poetry. Then I went to Italy. Becoming immersed in a different culture and language gives you some valuable perspectives on your own language, I found. It reminds you how arbitrary and provisional language is, and identity too.

2. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing? Do you have a favourite?

I have been lucky enough to collaborate with some wonderful writers (and artists from other disciplines). In the last few years these have included John Hall, Carol Watts, Nathan Thompson, Gene Tanta and Simon Marsh. Clearly, when you’re collaborating the input of the other artist is directing your next contribution. So their influence is explicit and immediate. I think there’s a danger in assuming more contemporary poets are more useful, inspiring or influential than older ones. I think there’s usually more to be gained by re-reading a Shakespeare play, or Dante say, than in perusing the winner of the latest London poetry prize. Thence Wordsworth, Keats, & leap towards the Modernists.

3. What kind of environment(s) do you enjoy working in when creating a poem?

I tend to have a notebook with me wherever I go, so I jot things down anywhere. But you have to write where you are, don’t you? When I used to spend lots of time traversing Rome on the underground (in the days before emails – I had to physically collect and deliver translation work) I got a lot of work done rattling through the crowded darkness.

 4. Do you allow other people to see your work before it is complete?

I don’t think anyone has ever wanted to see my work before it is complete, at least in terms of poetry. With painting it’s different. When I used to do Open Studios, I’d have bits and pieces of work in various stages of completion. This made a lot of sense then, because I worked in layers. Having pictures at different stages of completion made it easier to talk to visitors about the processes involved. With writing, I’m not sure how useful or interesting that kind of thing would be.

5. How do you feel about making up your own words? Have you ever done so?

I have no objection to the idea of making up new words. There are so many thousands of words in the English language that I don’t know, especially from areas of technical and scientific discourses. That vocabulary hoard is all buried treasure, interesting in its own terms but also for metaphoric value. So I suppose I feel that it’s more productive for me to continue exploring the vast resources of the English language rather than making up words. So I read about the flora of Siberia, or flying, or geology, or astronomy, or goats. I’d say that my aim is to make up my own line: that is the unit of poetic composition for me.

6. Italian is a whole different language to conquer; did you find yourself writing in Italian?

I sometimes wrote in Italian, in an exploratory kind of way, just for myself, in notebooks. I didn’t try to publish it. Mainly I contented myself with reading Italian, and sometimes translating from Italian into English. 

7. Did you find that writing in another language differs in the way we write in English (e.g. rhyming words)?

I hardly ever use end-rhyme in English. I tend to think of rhyme as one of many acoustic effects, which weave in and out of poems, appearing and reappearing at any point in the line, rather than going bang/clang at the line end. So in Italian it was interesting to find myself sometimes seeking to avoid end-rhymes. This can be tricky in Italian, where so may words end in the same vowel sounds, especially a, o, i and e. So now and then I would just give in gracefully, and let the poem go where it wanted to. 

8. How did you feel when your first pieces of work got published? Was it instant gratification?

I was talking to Nigel Wheale one day at what was then the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. I was doing a degree in English Literature. We chatted about writing, he lent me some books and I showed him a few pieces I’d written. He asked if I ever tried to have anything published and I said no. Well, he gave me a few addresses. One of them was that of John Welch. I sent him a batch of maybe half a dozen poems and he said he’d like to do a pamphlet. So that was very exciting. Nigel also involved me in other readings. He was incredibly supportive and generous. I think it was thanks to him that I read at the first C.C.C.P. too, with David Chaloner and Ralph Hawkins.

9. Has your work ever been rejected? If so, how did it make you feel? Does it knock you down?

After I moved to Italy in September 1983, I started sending work off to magazines in the U.K. and in the States. It would often take months to hear back, what with the vagaries of the Italian post office and the crammed in-trays of poetry editors. Things would often be rejected but I got into the habit of having something always out there, being considered. Rejection didn’t bother me that much. You just try elsewhere. And over time you refine your sense of which publications are appropriate. For me it was more important to get on with working on a whole sequence of poems, such as The Metro Poems, when I lived in Rome, than to fuss about placing a single poem here or there.

10. As a poet, do you always enjoy what you are doing?

Writing is a tiny part of being alive. If I don’t feel like writing I don’t write. I chop up some kindling, prick out some leeks, listen to the cricket or take the dog for a walk. Or read, or plan a trip, or look at some Oystercatcher manuscripts, or update the website. Or make a pasta sauce.

11. Do you think poetry/poets were more common when technology was not as developed as it is today?

No, I think the opposite is true. Many more people now have access to writing skills and technologies than ever before. They also have access to forms of publishing, however modest, which didn’t exist in the past. Some old fogies get very sniffy about this and complain that there is too much poetry around; too much is being published, and standards are slipping. They hate the idea that the whole process is less of an exclusive club than it used to be, and they no longer constitute a privileged elite. To me this is like saying ‘too many people are dancing these days’. The more the merrier, in my opinion. I think the present government would like to reverse this trend (of increasingly democratic access to participation in the arts) by restricting educational opportunities and arts council funding.


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