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Green Light in the City

Interview: Gregory Woods

12 February 15 interview: Robin Lewis
photos: Joe Dixey

In honour of February being LGBT History Month, we caught up with poet and former NTU lecturer, Gregory Woods, to discuss gay rights, Ann Widdecombe and our silly British sensibilities when it comes to sex...

What are you up to now you’ve retired from your position as Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at NTU? Have you found yourself writing more?
Not only more, but at greater leisure – slowly, more thoughtfully. Ironic, isn’t it? Universities aren’t suitable places for contemplation any more. In the year since I retired, I’ve put together a collection of essays, The Myth of the Last Taboo: Queer Subcultural Studies, which is going to be published by Trent Books. I finished a poetry booklet, Art in Heaven, which Sow’s Ear Press are publishing soon. I also finished a big scholarly project, a book called Homintern: Homosexual Internationalism and Modern Culture, which is currently being considered by a major academic press. I started it about sixteen years ago, so it’s great to have had the time to finish it at last. Now I’m getting on with a new, full-length poetry collection.

Your appointment back in 1998 was called “a phenomenal waste of public money” by Ann Widdecombe in the Sunday Mirror. Did you frame that article?
I kept a copy, but I’ve no interest in that person’s opinions. She was a know-nothing rent-a-quote with far more power than her limited talents deserved.

You had a pretty interesting childhood – born and raised in Cairo, then Ghana, before moving to England when you were nine. Do you think that there’s anything in Graham Greene’s quote, the credit balance of a writer’s life is childhood”?
Well, it’s also informed by a lifetime of life. I don’t know what the Greene quotation means. Yes, every writer has had a childhood of some sort and must have been shaped by it. But I don’t suppose mine was more interesting than that of any child in Mansfield or Gedling. I’ve occasionally revisited it in my writing, but I don’t think of myself as a compelling topic.

You had a pretty great start in your poetry career, being championed by Sir Stephen Spender…
It happened relatively late in life: I’d already thrown away two or three poetry collections. When I was in my late thirties, a long poem of mine, First of May, came third in a competition for which Spender was one of the judges. When we met at the prize-giving, he asked to see more of my work, so I gave him a whole collection I’d been compiling. He was very enthusiastic about it, comparing it with various classical and modernist writers, and he helped me by providing a recommendation. I guess the book would have been published anyway, but his name must have eased the process.

Whose writing do you look forward to? And is there anything you go back and re-read time and again?
I read a lot, getting on for a book a day, but I still don’t get through as much as I would like to. I try to share my time between revisiting the work I most admire and reading things for the first time. I read and re-read huge amounts of poetry, mostly European writers of the Modernist period. There are few writers whose next book I actually look forward to. Among poets, John Ash, Louise Gluck, Derek Mahon... Novelists? Damon Galgut, perhaps.

There’s a peculiar strain of shyness about sex in English literature, and writers who tackle it seem to be mocked more often than not. This doesn’t seem to affect your own robust and joyful depictions of sex. Do you roll your eyes at the annual parade of tittering Bad Sex stories?
What I roll my eyes at is British culture’s lack of respect for writers who are doing their best to take the world seriously. I hate the Bad Sex Awards for their small-mindedness. You wouldn’t see such things in France or Italy. Yes, writers will sometimes overreach themselves and people will laugh at the result, but at least they were trying. Why not a Bad Death-Scene Award, or a Bad Walking-Across-a-Room Award? There are plenty of writers who are hilariously bad at describing anything. But it’s sex that gets the sniggers.

In the last year we’ve seen a milestone in the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and also the blaming of floods on the same by a politician. Does it feel like we’re making much progress as a country in tackling prejudice?
Stupid politicians will always be with us, as will cynical politicians who think they can hitch their bandwagons to stupid voters. So these struggles are continuous. Look at feminism. Women’s equality is now both taken for granted and, every day, prolifically violated. The fight against sexism has had its milestones, such as the Equal Pay Act, but has sexism been eradicated? The hell it has. Well the same goes for homophobia. I wouldn’t dare walk across Market Square hand-in-hand with another man at eleven o’clock on a Friday night. Being married to him wouldn’t change that.

Is there anything you miss about academia?
IT help.

I understand you’ve got a number of unfinished novels lying around. Have you any plans to go back to some of them, or are they staying firmly unfinished?
I’ve thrown away more unfinished novels than you can shake a critic at. I do have a completed one which may be worth revisiting. But not until I’ve finished my new poetry collection.

Gregory Woods' website

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