August 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
Interview with George Ttoouli by Emanuel Gogarty
Author Page – Poetcasting
1. Did you always want to be a poet?
I never wanted ‘to be’ a poet. I still don’t, for different reasons. I only ever thought of myself as a person who wrote poetry, or had ambitions to write better poetry, never ‘a poet’. At one stage, a Shakespeare professor who I greatly admired described me as a poet. It was a surprise to be identified as such, not entirely unpleasant, but at the same time I felt like I needed to check myself for a cape, monocle, consumptive cough and syphilis.
2. Where and when do you write poetry, is it immediate?
Sporadically, energetically, when I need to wake myself up. It totally depends on how I’m feeling, when the mood takes me. Sometimes late at night with a little too much whiskey. One time, during a four hour wait in a Delhi bus station, I started writing about my experience of flying over India, to keep awake, because a stranger had walked up to me and asked repeatedly if he could have my shoes in an incomprehensible accent.
3. I have read your poem “Love on a Monday Evening,” can you retrace your thought process when writing this poem?
July 7/7 London. I was in Crete seeing family. My partner at the time was in one of the danger zones in London. She was fine, but I returned to a hysteria of Islamophobia.
The poem emerged from the experience of sitting in the front carriage of a tube train soon after, opposite a man with tanned skin (he could have been Greek, for all I know, like me, but terrorism is a specifically Middle Eastern prejudice these days, hence the character in the poem is generically – and à la L’Étranger – an Arab) basically the media’s stereotype of an ‘Islamist’. Purely by coincidence, I had been obsessed with that poem of Neruda’s, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” With foreign language poems that affect me so much, I tend to go back to the original and work on my own version, so I was in the middle of that, I think.
One notable edit I remember was the removal of all the physical descriptions of the Arab, replacing with shorthand references to a photo-fit sketch and news reports. The man on the train wasn’t ‘real’ to the poem’s narrator, a personality I wanted to avoid, was afraid of, becoming. There’s a real shortage of love in a society gripped by terror.
4. You released a book called Static Exile; what did it feel like to watch something you wrote being published? Are you planning to release another book in the future?
Bittersweet, like all good poison-cures.
Yes, lots, if I ever get around to writing them. The trouble with wanting to put out books is you have to write them first.
5. If you could be any poet (living or dead), who would you be?
That’s really tough. I don’t like the idea of wanting to be anyone else – I’m fairly fatalistic in that sense. That said, if I could have lived in Ancient Greece, I would want to be someone like Plato, or Socrates, but at the same time, I would regret not having the awareness I have today of how their knowledge (what survived) has stood so respected.
6. Do you ever think that modern poetry is sometimes too ambiguous to interest most young people?
No. I do think that modern poetry is treated badly by teachers who are forced to work with material that has lost its resonance for the modern world. Young people aren’t given permission to read it in a way that isn’t about meaning – they’re not given permission to feel the poem, before breaking into that classroom bullshit about ‘what it means’. Fuck making sense; that makes me so bloody angry. Falling in love doesn’t make sense; getting blown up by terrorism doesn’t make sense. Here’s a poem about both:
Falling in love with
terrorists. Your blown up heart:
debris / street sweeper
I don’t know what it means, I don’t need to. Do you? Maybe you can write a better one off the top of your head. Give it a go. Fuck making sense, or trying to make sense of poems.
7. Who would you tip as the next big poet and which poets should we reading right now?
I’ve kind of lost touch with hotlists – it’s marketing rhetoric, isn’t it? Stuff like that awful media article about ‘Facebook Poets’ from a few years ago! That made me cringe so hard I got a permanent kink in my spine. Those poor people! It’s heartless, cynical, brainless, anti-human rubbish. Stay away from such notions. That said, read widely, immensely, scattergunly. I recommend reading poetry by people close to you, as you have a very different relationship to their work than to that of poets who you have no access to as individuals.
Also, I should add, magazines. Go and subscribe to a few: Poetry Wales, Tears in the Fence, The Believer or McSweeney’s; and The Wolf is really interesting right now.
8. What advice would you give to young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
Do it because you love writing and reading poetry, not because you have any ambition to be published, famous, or whatever else. Guard this love of language as if it’s as precious as your heart, your brain. Protect it and let it beat and think and grow. Remember to play, to enjoy it, to keep a space where no one else can go where you store your early creations – make it personalised, an extension of your body. You never know how long a draft will need before it’s strong enough to stand up in a storm.
Give to your writing talent; let it grow through rewriting, through reading, through experiencing the world. Read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. That says it better than this. Unless you give yourself the chance, the space to write, first of all, you’ll have nothing to share.