Unlike some big name writers, Sir Andrew Motion doesn’t have a PR hound chained to his ankles to fend off any awkward questions. Instead he’s a proper gent. Before interviewing him, a nana - oblivious to the queue of hacks patiently waiting to speak to him - pushed through and started asking him questions. Instead of telling her to do one he was genuinely courteous and they had a right old natter. They were talking poetry and that was all that mattered. Respect. Us hacks on the other hand were raised by dogs, so we lobbed the nana out and got in a few words.
Tell us about writing Treasure Island and your day in general?
I’ve written a sequel to or rather a push-off from Treasure Island, moved on twenty five years and really it’s a sort of hinterland between a children’s book and an adult book as the language is quite complicated and the themes are dark. But then the themes in Treasure Island are quite dark. It’s really taken all of my imaginative energy and all of my ideas - all the feed from the unconscious, all the stuff that normally goes into poems - has gone into this.
Then there’s the Creative Writing MA programme at Royal Holloway. I get up, you don’t really want to know what time I get up do you?
What time do you get up?
(He smiles, laughing gently) I get up at six and I’m at my desk generally by 6.30-6.45, depending on how long it takes to eat my Weetabix and shower. Then I try to write for three hours and I try not to look at my emails but I’m not always very good at that for reasons that I’ll come to in a minute and then I go out and do stuff and that comes under various headings. A lot of that comes from being chairman of the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) partly because it’s a very demanding organisation and I have to work very closely with my chief executive. No matter how early I get up he gets up earlier! He used to be in the navy so he’s used to not sleeping. So I know when I turn my email on there’s going to be half a dozen emails from him - often about quite complicated stuff - particularly given the wider political picture.
And at the MLA?
I do various stuff such as archiving the poets online with an educational wraparound which I set up with my friend Richard Carrington a while back. It’s a big thing now. We have a monthly audience of 175,000 who every month listen to a million and a half pages of poetry. So next time you read an article about people who say they don’t read poetry it’s a lie. They do. They might not read books but the internet and poetry is a fantastically happy marriage.
Erm..I sit on the Advertising Standards Authority so there’s a bit of work every week to do there and I’m chairing for the Arts Council group of people who are trying to find a way of spending money that the Arts Council have reserved for poems so there’s a lot of committee stuff.
Do you think being caught up in so many rational, bureaucratic circles can have a detrimental effect on, let’s say, emotional creativity?
Yes it does and that’s why I reserve the early part of the day for writing. It’s always seemed to me that there’s an interesting relationship between your, for want of a better word, dream life – the life that your mind leads when you’re not completely in control of it when you’re asleep, and your writing life. Even if you’re writing poems that aren’t quite nailed down and as it were - realistic and formal as mine are, they still, for any vivacity, depend on what’s happening in your life and the other part of your brain that you have no control or knowledge over. So it’s important for me to keep that thread unbroken in the early part of the day.
And when the thread snaps…
But really, how many hours of the day are you going to write poems in? Three hours is enough for me. Any longer and I get tired. I’ve exhausted it, whatever it is. If you do have an appetite and some sort of opportunity and ability to do ‘good in the world’ as Keats would say, be it poems or culture, then go do it.
Is politics feeding more into your writing? The Cinder Path took us off to war...
Not really, although ‘everything is political’ as the old chestnut goes. But what I would say is this; I’m absolutely with Keats in saying ‘we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’. Keats was a man of the left, but we don’t, when we read the great Odes, think he’s a leftie.
Tell us about Laurels and Donkeys…
It’s been done by a very interesting, dynamic, new publisher of pamphlets. An outfit called Clutag which I think is Irish for meadow. They are also about to take on Geoffrey Hill. He’s the best I think. So I’m very pleased to be in the same stable as Geoffrey.
The poems are set in WWI and WWII in which my father fought, which was a very big thing in my childhood, and has remained, equally large, in my imagination. Then quite a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan, too. A lot of these poems are in a sense ‘found’ which is to say that they use verbatim in a lightly arranged way or depend very heavily- and all of this is credited of course - on the reported experience of soldiers who were there. So what I wanted to produce was a kind of egoless lyric poetry which is of course, in a sense, a contradiction in terms, but poetry which wasn’t so much about the reflecting author but the experience.
So using first-hand accounts makes the poetry more ethical?
I’ve always found there is something awkward at least, and often embarrassing, about writers, however well intentioned, who weren’t sitting on the frontline having their heads shot at, writing poetry about it.
Photograph Andrew Crowley
This seems to be happening in literature at the moment, not least because of the supposed death of the novel, but in the way that writers are drawing on real life experiences to create a more authentic narrative. Dave Eggers immediately springs to mind. It’s almost as if fact has suddenly become more unbelievable than fiction.
I think you’re on to something. Music does this of course through sampling, quoting others, and I think it’s a characteristic of our time that the old boundaries between distinct forms and methodologies and voices are being crossed. And I hope that these poems are seen to be a part of this I must say. There are some dyed in the wool people who think that sampling is plagiarism but that’s really not the point. It would be a plagiarist if I didn’t acknowledge it but if it’s what you’re trying to do, then plagiarism is not the appropriate word.
Jenny Swann of Candlestick Press collaborated with a school to make graphic poetry out of Yeats poems which in some quarters raised the old high culture/low culture debate.
To object to that on the old principles of high and low is ridiculous. Having said all of that, and as an admirer of Geoffrey Hill, I also think we must not content ourselves merely with access. The classroom full of refuse-neck kids who curl their lip up at the thought of poetry have to be coaxed - so you try and engage them with a poem about football because they like it or rap because they think it’s funky, that’s the beginning of the journey or the process.
Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves recently did a project with women with literacy issues. He gave them a poem by Wendy Cope and they objected on the grounds that they wanted to hear something deeper!
Poetry exists, for among other reasons, to put us in touch with things that we don’t know.
It’s Southwell Poetry Festival soon, where you’ve performed. I believe the cathedral also has fond memories for you…
When I was a late teenager my first girlfriend and I came here to Southall because our way around parental objection was to say we were going to tour England via its cathedral cities. Who could object to that? So I think of it as a very conspicuous place.
Talking of sex, it was recently the 25th anniversary of the death of your good friend and biographical subject, Philip Larkin. Why is he important to poetry?
He writes poems which are beautiful and true. That’s my short answer. I love his poems. I loved him and I miss him. And it seems to me extraordinary that he has been dead for twenty five years - and I don’t quite go to the doormat every morning and expect to see a letter from him - but close to that. Getting a letter from Philip was a red letter day. I think these are poems which a lot of young people might find gloomy but as they get older they will find a lot of this is true.
Tell us about an important line from your poetry that you are particularly proud of…
Well I would like to say the poem I wrote last as it were but I’m going to say the poem I wrote first. That was the first poem I came anywhere near being the poem I was trying to write, a little poem called In the Attic which ends with me going up into the attic of my parents’ house after my mother had fallen ill and going through her clothes which says:
a green holiday; a red christening;
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust.
Those lines arrived in my head in a way that was new to me. It hadn’t happen before. I hope I’ve written better poems since but it has a certain meniscus. I’m not the man I was when I wrote them.
Andrew Motion Return to Treasure Island. 7 June 7.30pm. Nottingham Playhouse. Tickets: £13 Concessions £11
This interview was taken at Southwell Poetry Festival.