Greg Woods: 'Whatever your topic, you have to make sure that the writing itself is first-rate.'
Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University and the author of five collections of poetry published by Carcanet including An Ordinary Dog, which was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2011. LeftLion decided it was time to find out more about this private yet explicit poet....
When did you start writing poetry?
I guess I started writing poetry at school, then really got into it at university. But I became too self-critical. I threw away my first collection and stopped writing verse for a decade. So I didn’t publish my first poetry book until the relatively late age of 39. Maybe that was a good thing. Who knows what rubbish I would have tried to get away with before that?
Who or what are the main influences on your writing and do you have a particular preoccupation that you seek to address?
Thom Gunn was a major early influence: his command of traditional forms, his move into syllabics and free verse while going through the process of moving to America and coming out as gay. My more lasting influences, writing in English, are W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound. But also Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Yannis Ritsos, Miroslav Holub, lots of other non-Anglophone poets of the Twentieth Century. I read about a book a day, on average, so there’s plenty of scope for learning how major writers do things and for being influenced by them. My preoccupations? Life, death, desire, contingency, the inhumanity of humanity... All the little things.
You have had five poetry collections published by Carcanet – do you have a favourite collection?
I don’t think I have a favourite. There are things I love and hate about each of them. Odi et amo, as Catullus said. But, generally speaking, each one is slightly better than the one that came before it—which is what you would hope for, as a writer. You surely wouldn't want to be getting worse.
What brought you to Nottingham and what keeps you here? What are your feelings about the city as a cultural centre in the East Midlands?
Like many academics, I’ve followed the job opportunities. I came to Nottingham Polytechnic in 1990. This is a really creative and vibrant city, full of people doing all sorts of interesting things. I’ve had a close relationship with Broadway—I’ve introduced more than 20 films for them—and have done events at the Lakeside Arts Centre and Nottingham Contemporary, as well as most of the educational institutions. And the Nottingham press Shoestring has just published a booklet of my poems called Very Soon I Shall Know. About a decade ago, I served on the board of directors of East Midlands Arts and learned what an extraordinary region this is. People pay lip service to diversity all the time, but the East Midlands —from our great cities to our countryside, the High Peaks to the flatlands of the Wash— are a genuinely varied place, in which huge numbers of individuals and groups are active in the so-called creative industries. The region would be a much poorer place without these folk.
Do you perceive yourself as a Gay poet first and foremost or do you feel pigeon-holed or misunderstood when described in that way?
As an academic, I’m an authority on gay writing, so I’m perfectly happy to call myself a gay writer. I was one of the people who defined what that means. But I don’t write only, or even mostly, on gay themes or only for gay readers. Henry James didn’t. Marcel Proust didn’t. Why should I?
As Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University it is perhaps unsurprising that you are open about sexuality in your writing. Do you ever find this difficult or challenging?
Not really. Contrary to popular myth, poetry is one of the least personal of the arts. None of the poets I most admire write about themselves unless by detaching themselves from their own experiences and transforming them. I’m openly gay in my everyday life, but I’m also a very private person. My poetry may be explicitly gay—or at least some of it is—but it isn't about me. I cultivate a detachment from my subject matter, like Auden or Eliot. I am not the ‘I’ in the poems.
What advice would you give to other writers who seek to write about their sexuality or other topics that are perceived as risky, risqué, or personal?
Whatever your topic, you have to make sure that the writing itself is first-rate. All trivial, social controversies are mitigated by perfection of technique. Learn your craft. Put in the years of hard work. Samuel Beckett said it best: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Were you surprised that An Ordinary Dog was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2011?
It’s nice to be noticed occasionally. But I don’t win such things. Maybe I’m fated to fail. I’m confident in the quality of my own work. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t go on.
Other reviewers of your writing have commented that you do not receive the wider recognition in the poetry world that you deserve. Do you feel this is true and what might the reasons be?
Amazingly, for someone published by an important press like Carcanet, I have hardly ever been reviewed in the main poetry magazines. The reasons for this may be more social than aesthetic, but others are better placed to comment on this than I am.
Have you ever had a literary review that irritated or upset you and how did you deal with it?
It’s more upsetting not to be reviewed at all. But yes, I’ve certainly had some shockers. Most notoriously, a reviewer said he’d rather I wrote about trees or fly-fishing than about any gay themes. So An Ordinary Dog contains a pornographic poem called ‘Trees or Fly-fishing’, dedicated to that reviewer. Of course, his response was not just homophobic: it was part of that dreary pressure English poets are under to write about the so-called natural world all the time. Sentimental responses to country pursuits. Hello flowers, hello trees…
What has been the high point of your career as a poet so far?
Without a doubt, it was having my first book accepted for publication by Carcanet in 1992.
And do you have any ambitions that you would still like to attain?
My ambition is to retire some time between now and death, and to get on with my reading and writing. I have the whole of Modernism to re-read. What bliss! That’ll save me from golf and bingo.
If you were remembered for one poem or achievement, which would you like it to be?
I’m already a minor historical figure, having been, in 1998, appointed the first professor of gay and lesbian studies in the UK. But as a poet? One poem? I guess it would have to be ‘The Newstead Fandango’, in my 2007 book Quidnunc. It’s a monologue spoken by a randy and radical Lord Byron who somehow knows about things like 9/11 and the internet. Although it’s technically very complicated, it’s good fun to read out loud, and it deals with a lot of my pet themes. I don’t suppose they stock it in the gift shop at Newstead, but they should.
Gregory Woods will be reading in the Guitar Bar, Hotel Deux, Sherwood Rise, on Wednesday 18 July at 7.30pm as part of a Shoestring Press launch event for his chapbook Very Soon I Shall Know. His poem 'Possibilities' is the featured poem in LeftLion Magazine Issue 47 June/July 2012 which also includes a review of his latest collection, An Ordinary Dog.
Gregory Woods' website
Gregory Woods (Audio) Poetcasting
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