Our Poetry Editor can barely contain her excitement at being granted a rare photo opportunity with Alice Oswald. LeftLion can report she's still grinning now...
Do you consider yourself to be a poet following in a tradition or resisting a tradition of British landscape writing?
I’m probably more resisting it than following it. Obviously I’ve been influenced by Hughes and Clare, but I like to feel that I’m following the wider tradition rather than a particularly narrow landscape one.
Has your training as a gardener affected how you write about the natural world?
I think it has affected it hugely. Certainly at quite a formative time I was seeing the natural world in a very particular and practical way. I became quite impatient of poems that seemed to be surveying the natural world rather than getting down into it.
‘The British invariably perceive the countryside as being under threat…this makes our literature nostalgic…rural writers, by setting their work in the countryside, are suspected of being out of touch with the realities of modern life.’ (Blake Morrison, The Guardian 04/05/2012) How would you respond?
My hackles immediately go up. I think people forget that one can live a completely contemporary life without living in a town. Nostalgia tends to be the urban view of what it’s like living in the country. I respond to what is contemporary, energetic and alive in the natural world and I’m not interested in the anthropocentric sentimental nostalgic view of it.
In 2011 you withdrew your latest collection Memorial from the TS Eliot Prize shortlist over sponsorship of the £15,000 prize by investment management firm Aurum Funds, saying "poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions". Was this a difficult decision?
It was an incredibly difficult decision and has gone on being difficult, as you then have to live with the commitment you’ve made. Given that I take a lot of my inspiration from the struggle of ordinary people and in particular, in Memorial, my whole drift was against hierarchies, I felt it would be symbolically wrong for me to disregard what’s actually going on economically in this country. I knew it was a false step in my imagination. If I didn’t question myself on that it would somehow nullify the position I’d reached by writing that poem.
Image taken from philbrownpoetry.org
‘A false step in your imagination...'
Writing poetry isn’t something I do every so often, it is a wholesale way of living in the imagination. I know that the imagination sets certain laws and if you break them it then becomes impossible to write or pursue the next thing you are pursuing, so the only rule I have is that I don’t break the laws of my imagination. You have to be quite honest with yourself about what those laws are, but certainly after writing Memorial I was pretty clear what it was about and what the implications were on the way I was going to live my life.
Memorial is a reimagining of Homer’s 8th Century BCE epic the Illiad, set during the Trojan War. What captured your imagination about the poem?
I responded to its freshness, its liveliness, there is something about that poem that just won’t die. The fabric of the language itself is as alive as a hedgerow when you look out of the window. I see something beautifully democratic in it and I think it’s more than a poem about nobility. I think it’s more about the haphazard sadness of the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Memorial has been described as a kind of stark war memorial, which strips the glamour from battle. Do you feel this is a reflection of modern attitudes to warfare and is re-writing in this way a pacifist action?
It couldn’t help but be influenced by those double page spreads we get in newspapers of all the people who have died in Afghanestan, that’s been very much part of our culture for the last ten years or so. However, that attitude was always there in the poem, because it wasn’t just one person’s poem, it seems to have included everyone’s view in it. There is a lot of the feminine in the Illiad and I think women have always felt that war is not heroic, so to that extent I don’t think it’s a modern feeling. Maybe it’s been allowed to surface more in modern times because women have more of a voice. I wouldn’t say it’s a pacifist poem, I just wanted simply to say this is what it is: it might be Hector and Achilles being noble in their armour, but it is also hundreds and hundreds of people with lives that are just smashed to pieces.
You’ve called Memorial an excavation….
Because it was not written down for a long time, I see it as something that happened in layers. There are layers and layers of poem within it and you can dig down through the layers. It may have been written down in 700BCE but it had been around from 1200BC and probably it goes way back. The further you dig down into the language the more you get these little gleams of really ancient fascinating stories.
The first 8 pages of Memorial list the names of the dead, which makes it seem very real. Of course we don’t know that the characters in the Illiad were real people, but….
I strongly feel that they are. They feel like real people because we are told so accurately about their families and their countries. There is a long tradition of people – particularly women - meeting up after wars and telling the stories of people who have been lost. The professional poets who would have been compiling the Illiad would have worked in two roles, as storytellers and also as useful public poets who helped at funerals. They would have been amassing these stories and I think that’s what is extraordinary about that poem, there is something documentary about it.
Yes, it would make sense if the Illiad dates back to a time before writing that this could be part of an oral tradition – an oral war memorial - passed down through generations. You’ve referred to Homer as an oral poet and have said that you prefer your own poetry to be spoken rather than read…
I’m very particular about the tunes of my poems and I have often found, when I hear other people reading them, that they don’t always get the rhythms of it. Quite often English people seem to presume an Iambic rhythm and I’ve always worked against that tradition, I prefer something much more stressed and clashing. Although I like the fact that people can take a book away and think about it, I do regard my poems as a form of music.
In what way will Memorial be a performance rather than a reading on Friday 15th February at the Lakeside Arts Theatre in Nottingham? What can we expect?
No acting, that’s for sure. I like words to be just themselves, but I generally do the poem from memory. What I like about doing it by heart is that you don’t have the option of it not happening, it forces you to concentrate.
Will people who aren’t familiar with the Illiad be able to engage with Memorial and what does such an ancient story offer modern readers?
Because I have taken away the central story about Achilles and Patroclus and left the stories of ordinary people, I would hope that would have resonance with people now. When I was translating I was focusing hard on what felt contemporary and alive in the poem. Also, that central human puzzle doesn’t fade, it was there in Homer’s time and it’s the same puzzle now, one moment someone’s alive and the next moment they’ve vanished. That’s what that whole poem is about and it became so much sharper to me once I had children because suddenly it matters so much, you bring something into the world that could at any point vanish and so you become a bit obsessive about that strange narrow line between life and death, because it suddenly matters so much.
A lot of people have told me they think the poem is a lot more about motherhood than war and I think they are probably right.
I’ve always thought of the Illiad as a very male poem…
Yes.. but actually it is full of these little portraits of women, trying to get on with an ordinary practical daily life while dealing with loss all the time. The men carry the narrative but the women are the gaps between the narrative and they have to construct the material of living.That’s what my version of the Illiad was, taking the story away and retrieving the material of it.
Does Memorial signal a change of direction from your previous writing about the natural world?
I was always influenced by Homer’s poems right from the start and infact Dart is another response to Homer I think, perhaps more to the the Odyssey than the Illiad.
Each time I do a book it has to be a departure for me. I don’t like going over the same ground, but for me it is quite continuous. It has taught me a lot about light. I’ve always been very preoccupied about sound but there is something extraordinary about the light in Homer and what he’s doing with light. It has made me a lot more aware of light and how light comes into literature, so it has changed me - but no more than any other collection has changed me.
Apart from Homer, which writers do you most enjoy reading and what are you reading at the moment?
At the moment, Milton, because of what I was saying about light in Homer, I’ve suddenly realized how much Paradise Lost is about light, because Milton was blind and there is something very extraordinary about light in that poem too. I do love Walt Whitman, theres a really interesting link between Homer and Whitman - the shape of Whitman’s lines is very Homeric and the kind of democracy of his verse is very similar to what we get in Homer, the feeling that each line, each phrase, each object has equal weight; nothing dominates.
You’ve commented that the Illiad has had a big influence on your writing so far. Now that you’ve completed Memorial – what’s next?
Lots of projects! I’ve been writing a rather strange dictionary. I’ve also been going back to thinking what a short poem is. I love writing long poems, but I sometimes think that can make you lazy about the individual line and wholeness of a short poem, so I’ve been really enjoying thinking hard about what a lyric poem is as opposed to an epic poem. I like the friction of two opposite things working at the same time and in fact all the way through writing my long poems, I’m writing short poems as well.