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Hardwrought Works


War Music, Christopher Logue, Faber, 2015, edited by Christopher Reid, 341pp £20 (hardback)

Spills, Angela Leighton, Carcanet, 2016, 183pp, £12.99 (paperback)


Homer’s Iliad has been adored – not too strong a word – for over two thousand years. English readers have thrilled in previous centuries to translations by Chapman and Pope. One of our greatest living poets, Alice Oswald, recently tightened it into a roll call of bloody deaths in battle. (Memorial) But for our era, it is surely Christopher Logue’s ‘account’ of this Greek epic that will be remembered. War Music, now assembled from several books including one unfinished at his death (2011), is, says editor Christopher Reid, Logue’s ‘magnum opus’.

The achievement of this breezily contemporary tour de force is to make ‘a thing of beauty from a loathsome thing’: the horror of war is also a metaphor for the human condition. Men and women are defined and measured by war – nothing else happens in the 300-plus pages of Logue’s text. As in all wars, legend is politicized by gender and caste and urged on by anthropomorphized gods, that mean and scheming aristocracy. Here is the goddess Athena:

And she,
Teenaged Athena with the prussic eyes, Split
Ithaca’s voice
Into as many parts as there were heads. So
each lord heard:

‘You are the best. You hold your ground.
You were born best. You know you are the best
Because you rule. Because you take, and keep,
Land for the mass. Where they can breed. And pray. And pay You to defend them. You to see custom done.
What cannot be avoided, you endure.’

Logue thanks women especially, in his memoir (Prince Charming), for starting him on the project – Xanthe Wakefield of the BBC World Service, and Doris Lessing. At the time, the 1950s, Logue and other intellectuals were banding together against nuclear weapons. World War Two had not gone well for him: at the end, he was court martialled for stealing Army paybooks and imprisoned for two years.

These biographical details suggest a poet who is anything but concerned to glorify war (though he liked a quarrel). A long exposition on heroism and male on male sadism, with female slavery thrown in – why was this a must-write for Logue? Amid modern bloodshed and political corruption, he tore apart an ancient text to examine combat as the endlessly justified barbarism it is.

Logue, who did not read Greek, first looked through various translations of the Iliad:

making an abstract of the sequence as I went, listing this or that turn of phrase, dropping or conflating this or that speech, these or those actions, until I had a clear storyline… I could reverse the sequence to test its strength overall, as painters hold a canvas to a mirror to inspect its composition afresh. [This inspection] provoked ideas of what might be added to it from a different part of the Iliad, or for that matter, from the day’s newspaper…

He used post-it notes for his workaday rendition of book after book and revised continuously for fifty years. The text became organic. Reid points this out:

one of his finest and most original longer poems, ‘New Numbers’, may be said to have as its very raison d’etre a fluid responsiveness to changing circumstances that would have prevented it from ever achieving a fixed state. Where his Homeric volumes were concerned, he amended and corrected long after publication.

Such fluidity allows War Music to go beyond Logue’s useful basic iambic pentameter to reveal the personality of each line – short, long, in clumps, alone, spoken, thought, loud or soft, boxed, centred, enlarged:

Across the rucked, sunstruck Aegean, the Mousegod’s voice, Loud as ten thousand crying together,

Get back where you belong!’

So loud
Even the Yellow Judges giving law
Half-way across the world’s circumference paused.

‘Get back where you belong! Troy will fall in God’s good time, But not to you!’

Logue wrote screenplays and acted. Perhaps this helped him to create the visual quality and sharp cut of his scenes. Often, the action seems to flicker like a film:

Take an industrial lift.
Pack it with men fighting each other,
Smashing each other back against its governors
So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down,
Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops,
But what does not stop are the blows,
Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
As up they go, then stop, then down they go.
No place on earth without its god.

The range of reference is huge and a brief guide to Homer’s characters would have been welcome. But this is our war too, full of contemporary description:

‘I saw her running round.
I took the photograph.
It summed the situation up.
He was her son.
They put it out in colour. Right?
My picture went around the world.’

Education being non-classical these days, there is small chance for most of us of reading the original Iliad and less of understanding Homer’s personal take on war. We can grasp Logue, though. War Music is a riveting, brilliantly observed twentieth-century military show over which Homer, whoever he was, looms and broods.

Spills, Angela Leighton’s fourth collection, is a delicately balanced mix of prose and poetry. She explains in the Preface: ‘The forms of memoir, story, prose poem and poem are always permeable, always sliding across thin walls into one another … the structure might recall a game of spillikins.’

I can see the essay too, in Spills’s mix of forms. Family and landscapes from Scotland and Italy, the to and fro of Leighton’s upbringing, give her ideas to mull over or suggest data she might make up perhaps – because why shouldn’t the odd contributions of imagination be counted as spills? Here is a typical prose section, ‘Last Word’, set in the Arran cemetery where her father, a composer, is buried:

‘At the beginning of Arran’s most dramatic glen, once mined for its barites – from which barium sulphate derives, used in X-rays of the intestinal tract – is one of those lonely cemeteries, built without chapel or church to guard it from other spirits of the place. It is walled in on all sides and within hearing of the sea…
——It seemed lonely there – nothing to hear except small rushes of wind and the whisper of the sea. Was it lonely? Yes, in some ways heartbreakingly so. We felt it like a constriction of breath. Perhaps the living cannot help but imagine how the dead, returning some night, searching for the body’s last place, might be stricken to find no-one else around….So yes, it was lonely…’

Leighton’s style, in prose and poems, is gentle, well wrought, safe- sounding: ‘I’ve written all my life along narrow lines, / rules that show the way from this to that.’ (‘Epistolary’) Even so, her observations struggle mightily with their written arrangements. In very many poems, she poses a question, maybe one that generates the poem’s journey as the first half- line of ‘Aftermath: Parasite’: ‘What’s this? War work?’ Or the question might be rhetorical [‘It’s where you put things, see?’ (‘Below-Stairs’)] or narrative [‘once, she asked me: are the crocuses out?’ (‘Crocus’)] but most of all, Leighton’s questions address a longing to get at the meat of a moment:

——Old pal, sweet puffin!
are you dead for nothing at the edge of the world?
flowered on the grass where no flowers grow?
Good Friday’s cold seems colder for
these colours spilled –  —————–(‘Easterly’)

In a striking sequence, ‘Canticles for a Passion’, Leighton looks at the process whereby revelation can arrange itself in spilled words:

A clutch of twigs, the cradled fall-out from a gust of wind,
rough splints, spindles or withies, pencils or spills–

whatever they are, just a cross-hatched arrangement of space and
an architecture of accidentals, an absence addressed–
like a rook’s nest, rock-a-bye high in a lacework of trees,
or a child’s scribble, erasing the face that was smiling beneath–

as if you discerned the spirit caught in a crucifixion of sticks, or else the soul, blown like smoke from its bone kindling.

Spills’s lines are not so narrow as she claims: there is a pacey variety of verse and shape. ‘69388’ is stamped with holes, appropriately for this evocation of a cellist-prisoner playing in a death camp:

Gut-sick —— I stroke ———— exact
—— peg-stretched —————— catgut
cattle-stamped —— I stop —— double-stop
————legered  —— notes

Some of the sixteen prose pieces provide a background to the poems; the story of Anita Wallfisch (‘In the Music Room’), explains ‘69388’. Wallfisch, a cellist, played in Auschwitz for Dr Mengele:

Schumann’s Kinderszenen, with its Foreign Lands and Places, Blind Man’s Bluff, At the Fireside and Dreaming – this last being what she played, to order, to her one-man audience taking time out to dream – brings to that particular music room the deep, irresolvable counter- shock of history.

The final section, translations of Sicilian poet Leonardo Sciascia, offers both strict and free versions. Other translators double like this but Leighton’s rationale for the practice sounds a note of exhaustion at the end of a hardwrought book: ‘Between strict and free renderings, adherence to sense and adherence to the makings of a poem in English, I have tried to catch something of the original, even if only ‘between’.’ The poetics of Spills is broader and simpler than this modest binary. It’s the meditative noticing of things in an everyday assortment of stuff. Feet, for example: ‘Queer things, / bearing an uprightness on calibrated bones.’ (‘Footing’) Leighton offers a ministry of attention. We need that.

Claire Crowther has written three collections of poetry. The first, Stretch of Closures (Shearsman 2007), was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh Best First Collection prize. Her latest publication is Bare George (Shearsman, 2016), a chapbook written after a year’s residency in the Royal Mint Museum. Her poetry is recorded in the Poetry Archive.

Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry


Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’

She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.

Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.

Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.

Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’

Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.

The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.

By Charanpreet Khaira 

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry, Faber, £10.99

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Angus Cargill


With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we caught up with judge Angus Cargill and found out about his favourite short story, what he’s currently reading and what he sees as they key elements of a short story (take note, competition entrants!).


What are you currently reading? And what specifically did you like about it?

The three last novels I read, away from work, were My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Transit by Rachel Cusk and Willnot by James Sallis – three short novels that would be said to be from different genres (the first two ‘literary’, the third ‘crime) but were similar in many ways – spare and enigmatic, and yet they all manage to be both gripping and intensely moving. I’ll be doing well to read anything else as good this year, and would highly recommend all three.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

‘Two Boys and a Girl’ by Tobias Wolff, the perfect story (with the perfect title), about the confusion, pain and excitement of adolescence, which still, whenever I re-read it, seems truthful and alive.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Lorrie Moore’s short stories, and Raymond Carver’s, anything by David Peace, George Pelecanos or Megan Abbott, Robert Cormier’s YA novels, Adrian Tomine’s graphic novels.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

I love stories that feel like you’re just getting a moment or window onto something, almost like a glance, and that the author knows what not to write, what to hold back, as much as they choose to put in.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

Be brave.


Angus Cargill is Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, where he was worked since 2000. He edits and publishes writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Jane Harris, David Peace, Nadeem Aslam and Lucy Caldwell, as well as non-fiction authors Peter Pomerantsev, Nick Kent and Barney Hoskyns. He also runs Faber’s crime list – which includes Peter Swanson, Chris Pavone, Laura Lippman, Stav Sherez and Alafair Burke, among others – and has published a number of graphic novels, by Emily Carroll, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine.

Cliché as ‘Responsible speech’: Geoffrey Hill


Geoffrey Hill, who died on 20th June 2016, was a great poet, a major poet. To celebrate him, we have pulled from our archive an essay published in The London Magazine in 1964 by Christopher Ricks. I believe, and so do many others, that Christopher Ricks is our greatest living critic (companion would be a better word) of poetry in English. He is also a scholar and an editor. Faber & Faber published his and Jim McCue’s edition of T.S.

Eliot’s poems in 2015. Hill never quite caught on with the general reading public in the way of John Betjeman, say, or Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes. He never belonged to the ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ school. Although, like Ricks, he spent many years in the United States (both were on the faculty of Boston University, after our essay was written), his poems are grounded and local. This remains the case even when he tackles a wider field than the matter of Britain, as in King Log (1968) or The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). He writes about the ‘middle kingdom’ of Britain. Mercian Hymns (1971) is an indicative collection. Like a French winemaker, his terroir is physical, historical and spiritual. He is an exemplar of Eliot’s phrase ‘the present moment of the past’. We need this badly as so many current upheavals in the world have identifiable historical analogues. History as event and history as evolving concept form the radioactive core of Hill’s poetry. This is why, beside poems that deal with ‘what happens to me and what I feel about it’, Hill’s work can seem complex and knotty. But it is beautiful and sensuous as well. He is an unignorable writer. 

When I sought Christopher Ricks’ permission to republish his essay, he told me that quite recently he found a copy of The London Magazine in a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the very issue in which Alan Ross first published the essay. A flyleaf signature revealed it once belonged to Geoffrey Hill.

Grey Gowrie

Of all our present poets, Geoffrey Hill is the one who most persistently tackles the problem of what to do about dead language, clichés, the phrases which have gone sour, flat, or heartless on us. Of course there are good poets like Philip Larkin whose approach and style make it appropriate for them to take no notice. And again there is Donald Davie who, after providing the best modern criticism on the subject of dead metaphors, has now come to believe that the worst enemy just now is not such deadness but frantic liveliness, verbal fidgets, a high-pitched buzz of interference. Yet all the same the restoration of clichés is by no means a form of antiquarianism. Conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence are features of the linguistic as well as the social scene. Words and idioms are created and worked to death with a ruthless speed that would have shocked a nineteenth-century poet – the process resembles one of those eerie films which speed up a flower’s life from budding to withering. And the attempt to get the New English Dictionary up to date now recalls the doomed bustle of Tristram Shandy, falling further and further behind with its schedule because living is a brisker process than writing. If Eric Partridge were now compiling his Dictionary of Clichés, the result would have been a far fatter book. All of which means that we ought to take particular notice of a poet like Mr Hill who persists in his renovations with intelligence and passion. (And who writes some excellent poems meanwhile.) Anyone who thinks that there is still plenty of unspoilt language around, huge virgin forests, will find morbid any such dread of the dustbowl. The land-rich English used to be able to to laugh at the Dutch: ‘They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore.’ Now that ours really is a tight little island, the Dutch seem sane.

One says ‘renovations’, because the poems in Hill’s For the Unfallen and Preghiere are very different from those that simply incorporate clichés in order to be matey. Like everyone since Wordsworth, Hill agrees that it is necessary for poetry to be in a vital relation with the living speech of its own time. But he has argued, quite rightly, that this is not at all the same as believing that poetry need be chatty or full of gnarled rusticities.

It seems to be a modern scholastic fallacy that ‘living speech’ can be heard only in the smoke-room or in bed; in fact the clichés and equivocations of propaganda or of ‘public relations’ are also part of the living speech of a society.

But the distinguishing characteristic of Hill’s poetry is that it uses cliché for the tragic rather than comic purposes. This is not to deny his strong vein of sardonic humour, which he shares with the writers he most admires: Ben Jonson (‘profound parody’), Isaac Rosenberg (‘macabre comedy’), Allen Tate (‘dry pun’) and Robert Lowell (‘the lampoonist’s art’). In his best poems there is a largeness of ambition at one with an amplitude of phrasing (lines which it is a pleasure to mouth) – qualities which are rare these days. Yet the largeness is saved from mere dignity by rising above cliché; he achieves truthfulness by not eschewing cliché. What fascinates him is the appalling gulf between the way we usually mutter such-and-such a phrase and the way we might use it if the doors of perception were cleansed. Take the end of his fine poem, ‘The Guardians’, which tells how the old gather the bodies of the young (to me, the setting recalls the shore aftere a hideous sea-battle in Lucan’s Pharsalia):

There are silences. These, too, they endure:
Soft comings-on, soft after-shocks of calm.
Quietly they wade the disturbed shore;
Gather the dead as the first dead scrape home.

‘Scrape home’ is a triumph. It is unforcedly literal, ‘scrape’ showing the  dead body as like a keel that runs ashore, and ‘home’ being nothing but the truth. And in the gap between such a way of scraping home and our usual application (just winning, just safe, gulping with relief) – in that gap is the appalling heartbreak of the poem, the gap between what we expect of life and what we get. Pathos with dignity – there are not many poets now writing who can so command the combination.

But it would be as well to quote from Hill’s essay on Ben Jonson to show that such effects are not accidental.

In Marvell, as in Jonson, the perspective requires the utterance of deliberate cliché, but cliché rinsed and restored to function as responsible speech….Jonson’s language is frequently ‘literary’ in the best sense of the term. That is, its method requires that certain words and phrases, by constant repetition in popular literary modes, shall have been reduced to easy, unquestioned connotations. These connotations are then disturbingly scrutinized. Pope’s ‘Oblig’d by hunger and request of friends’ requires for its effect the common formula of gentlemanly apologia, on the part of coy amateurs bringing out verse. It is ‘hunger’ that blasts the cliché into a new perspective.

And if anyone still doubted that Hill’s words were apt to his practice, it would be necessary only to quote the extraordinary (and fascinating) notes which he provided for the revised edition of Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse.

‘A new perspective’ – that is, something to break through our unseeing blandness. As with Lowell, the accusation of tastelessness is not thought to matter very much; it is not supporting that one of Hill’s recent poems, ‘the humanist’, suddenly erupts with ‘(Tasteless! Tasteless!)’. So often have we seen St Sebastian pierced with arrows, that we cannot but be glazed to it, see it through glass. But not here:

Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr
Catches his death in a little flutter
Of plain arrows. A grotesque situation,
But priceless, and harmless to the nation.

‘Catches his death’ is certainly shockingly tasteless in its evocation of the common cold, but who could deny that it is altogether accurate as a description of Sebastian’s way of death? And if it first of all tells the truth, what is the objection to its being shocking? Added to which, ‘catches’ certainly doesn’t sneer at the martyr, since it implies his decisiveness, his skill, and his power to will what God wills. The key-word is, of course, ‘grotesque’ – a range of conflicting emotions which is at work again on ‘a little flutter’. Once more this is both literally accurate and desolatingly inadequate in its reduction of martyrdom to a petty thrill. (The rhyme martyr/flutter flaps with grim limpness.) The climax of these contrarieties is ‘priceless’ – is there any other epithet which we apply quite casually both to an invaluable work of art and to a preposterously comic situation? The woundingly comic effect here is achieved by a method resembling that which Hill pinpointed in Rosenberg’s poetry, ‘the skillful juxtaposing of elevated and banal diction’. Except that Hill outdoes this in skill, since we are given not juxtaposition but interpenetration: ‘catches his death’, like ‘scrape home’, is both elevated and banal. Hence the remarkable economy of Hill at his best. The ironic mode, as Yvor Winters has ruthlessly shown, is often a very wasteful one, since it spends words on doing something and then more words on undoing it. The simultaneous duplicity (in the best sense) of Hill’s poems is a very different matter.

What lifts such effects above mere cleverness – though they are splendidly clever – is not only Hill’s compassion and sense of grandeur. As always with a true poet, the linguistic concerns are a corollary of a way of looking at life. His praise of Jonson for a ‘virtuous self-mistrust’ has to be related to a persistent sense of the dangers lurking in ideals. He himself has offered the gloss on one of his phrases: ‘Our God scatters corruption’ = ‘Our God puts corruption to flight’ or ‘Our God disseminates corruption’.’ His relationship to Christianity, as to all traditional systems and beliefs, is profoundly ambiguous, but not evasively or slyly so: ‘I want the poem to have this dubious end; because I feel dubious; and the whole business is dubious.’ Undoubtedly such a habit of mind, or obsession, has – like all habits of mind – its inevitable limitations. There are many things in life that are not dubious, and Hill’s temperament and mind are not suited to dealing with them. But he is still left with a gigantic field, and his own poetry (in the words he used of Lowell) is ‘persistent in its manipulation of religious metaphor’. George Herbert’s The Sacrifice is the greatest poem ever written in the mode which Hill most favours, and it seems to me a real tribute to Hill that one can mention Herbert with qualifications but without absurdity. Or look here, upon this passage:

Who hath not…
…let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see scull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole.

And on this:

Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

Yes, Keats does come off best – with deceptive mildness he manages to make ‘work through…’ perform the task for which Hill has to call up ‘budge through…’ (fine though that is). But it is certainly something for

Hill to have written lines that do not just curl up and die when juxtaposed with Keats. Not but what James Dickey was pitching it a bit high when he said of Hill’s ‘Genesis’, ‘I can think of no better compliment to pay Hill than to say I was all but persuaded that, were God a very talented young poet, the six days of the Creation might very well have been as the poem says they were’.

Sometimes Hill can find his doubts glinting in a single word, as in the opening of ‘In Piam Memoriam’:

Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
Like a conjurer about to begin,
A righteous man begging of righteous men.

‘Purely’: merely? with purity? The word refuses to plump. ‘Gifted’: talented? with a present? If his hands are empty, then such a saint is a bit of a disappointment; but then a conjurer is all the better for starting with frankly empty hands. What the context does is to give back to the ‘conjuror’ some of the dignity which he had in the old days when religion felt in no position to mock at magic – a conjurer used to be a man who could conjure up spirits. Dignity, but seen with a cold eye; the saint in the stained-glass window is a dubious figure (we are made aware of the doubt that lurks in ‘stained’). He is ‘a feature for our regard’: for our respect? or because he is nice to look at? The dubiety makes for a poem of great economy and tolerance. I would prefer Hill as a man to be in one (dismissive) mind about the saint, but undeniably on this poetic occasion two minds are better than one.

In ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, Hill has even been able to write a poem which says what can be said for those Germans who remained silent. The remarkable thing is that at the same time it says what must be said against them.

Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Eloquence is saved from becoming oratory because of the way in which that second line teeters on the edge of a collapse into self-pitying despair: ‘Innocence is no earthly use’. But the (unspoken) cliché does offer a faint hope that innocence may be a heavenly weapon, or of heavenly use. Yet if the innocence of a German would not protect him, how much more must this have been true of a Jew?

I have learned one thing: not to look down
Too much upon the damned.

‘Look down’, with the uncertainty of ‘despise’ or ‘see from Heaven’ – and with a further uncertainty unfolding: is the reference to the traditional pastime of contemplating the tortures of the damned? Or are we speaking of a prudence at suffering? That way madness, or hardheartedness, lies. It is striking enough that Hill is able to write poems which say so much; what is even more striking is that the best of them are uncramped and unclogged, characterised indeed by an imaginative spaciousness.

It is of the nature of literary achievement that it can never get shot of a problem. And a talent as fiercely unaccommodating as Hill’s does often leave a reader limping. His recent work seems to me too obdurately to have abandoned fluency in its determination to contract, to load every rift. The point seems virtually conceded when so young a poet publishes ‘Two Fragmentary Variations’ (five lines each) or ‘The Assisi Fragments’. (Which is not to deny Hill’s manner – see the uncollected ‘Locust Songs’, Stand V:2). The intricacy of syntax, or bullying of it, is becoming an entanglement, and the poems, though they still have force, no longer have so much momentum. ‘Anguish bloated by the replete scream’. Replete, but bloated. And yet Lowell too is a poet who is always finding himself in an impasse, and then extraordinarily breaking free. Hill is a very harsh judge of his earlier work, but it would be a disaster if he were to underestimate the sheer loveliness – and fluency – of the end of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1958):

Love goes, carrying compassion
To the rawly-difficult;
His countenance, his hands’ motion,
Serene even to a fault.

‘Even to a fault’ here blossoms wonderfully; it admits our doubts about an ideal of self-sacrificial love, and yet at the same time it offers an unforgettable sense of what true forgiveness is, ‘serene even to a fault’. Whenever one feels any impatience with Hill’s obscurity, or his massive withholding of judgement, or his simultaneous double-judgements, it would be as well to remember that at the very least his poems are, in both sense, ‘serene even to a fault’.

An interview with Bernard O’Donoghue


Bernard O’Donoghue was born in 1945 in Cullen, Co Cork. His latest collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church, returns with a compelling and simple diction to that place and time. He has published six collections of poetry, including Gunpowder, which won the 1995 Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and Farmers Cross (2011). He lives in Oxford, where he is an Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, and is currently translating Piers Plowman for Faber.

AT-D: I was struck by a line in the collection’s opening poem, describing the difficulty of recollection: ‘like a green caravan in a field-corner’. Was that an impetus to write the poems, a reaction to not remembering?

BO’D: The poem is dedicated to my Wordsworthian friend, Keith Hanley. (The boy in the poem with a horse’s tackling is from Wordsworth.) During our student days, he spent a year staying in a small green caravan outside Coniston. The poem started going by train through the Lake District a few years ago and thinking ‘I must have looked at exactly this view before, but I don’t remember it in any detail’. I suppose the end of the poem, about not going by train, is both a resolve (recalling or failing to recall is too sad), or a prediction: how many more long train journeys will I take at this stage? I think I am over-inclined to the recallable; but then of course we don’t know what we are not recalling. Memory is fallible and highly selective.

You’ve written of Seamus Heaney’s ‘reluctance to be too grand’. Do you see a similar tendency in your own poetry?

Yes, it is probably true of me too – even if I were capable of it. It is a very Irish thing; but there is a fundamental irony, or paradox: by writing you are seeking notice, and you can’t really pretend not to be. ‘Fame is the spur… The last infirmity of noble minds’, and maybe the not so noble. Heaney was noble though: a great influence I think. He wrote about ‘Yeats as an example?’, suggesting that he wasn’t such a good example. I suppose it’s time for an essay on ‘Heaney as an example’.

Seasons of Cullen Church is full of gentle, sometimes undetectable flashes of humour: the playfulness with nonsense talk in ‘Mahogany Gaspipes’, the way you dole out your own Purgatorial sentence in ‘The Pay-Off’, how ‘You Know the Way’ interrupts itself repeatedly. Would you describe yourself as a comic poet?

I think humour is very important in the kind of poetry I write – a modest kind of writing, maybe in the cause of avoiding grandness. That is Irish too I think: the anecdotes I keep bringing up are either comic or tragic – or both. I think the humour is a by-product of narrative, like telling jokes. I can’t act or project on the stage; but I used to like telling jokes. I say ‘used to’ because I don’t remember them any more: and I think our condition is too serious for jokes just at the moment.

The collection is full of birds: native, metaphorical, mythical. Reading a poem like ‘Migration’, I thought of Heaney’s Sweeney Astray translations, the poet as bird. What is the resonance of this association for you?

They are very important in poetry generally, aren’t they. Various members of my family (my wife, my sister, my brother-in-law) are better bird-watchers than I am. But I am very taken with the idea of bird as soul: the medieval monastic poems which saw seabirds in places like the Skelligs as the souls of dead monks. And, of course, there are the Old English elegies: the wonderful birds in ‘The Seafarer’.  But also there is just the matter of taxonomy, categorising and recognising. I am not a good taxonomist by nature: I am better with bird songs than visual recognition. I think I am more responsive to sound than to vision generally.

County Cork, where you spent most of your childhood, is the setting for many of the poems. But the collection speaks of a mixed, international culture, shifting between the US, Oxford, and North Cork in just one poem. Alongside memories of Catholic confessionals in ‘A Sin of Your Past Life’ and Mass in the title poem, you have a poem entitled ‘Ganesh’. How do you balance this internationalism with your allegiance to a ‘local parlance’, the idiosyncratic language of your childhood foregrounded in Seasons?

I am glad you raised this. I used to quote – rather grandly – a Polish film-director (Kieslowski I think) who said something like ‘It doesn’t matter where you set up the camera, but why’; the objective is to represent life which is true for all contexts. County Cork where I grew up is the place I know and understand best – though I may be imposing on the world a rather premodern version of it (1950s). During the wretched recent referendum, there was a lot of cynical talk about the flaws in globalisation. At its most fundamental, a globalised, internationalist view of the world is essential. I really think this country – England – is in serious danger of backsliding into the kind of provincialism that most of the world has been trying to outgrow in a salutary way.

But this exemplifies the danger of preachy writing, something I have always seen as a bit of a danger for me. I am inclined to ‘poetry of the point of view’, but that has to be couched in a kind of terminology or imagery to escape pure ‘opinionation’. The Ireland I grew up in was not cosmopolitan; it was unduly monochrome. One of the pleasures in coming to England was a kind of ‘mixedness’. Long may it last!

You once said you were rather against ‘confessional’ poetry. How would you define that term and in what ways does your poetry pull away from it?

I am not sure that I was using the term properly – some of the poets I most admire and like, like Lowell and Plath, are strictly called confessional I suppose. What I meant was: the fact that something happened to the writer is not a sufficient reason to write about it. The event must have a more objective significance too. Here is an unseemly instance: at a poetry gathering someone wrote a poem about sitting on the Underground opposite a couple who were picking each other’s noses. John Fuller, the poet and Auden scholar, said at the end ‘What was the point of all that?’ The writer said enthusiastically ‘It really happened’, and John replied ‘Oh, all kinds of things happen. That is no reason to write a poem about them.’ But I still think too many poems are written in the real first person – including of course some of the greatest poems in the language, like Yeats’s ‘Among Schoolchildren’ and ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. Those poems escape from their occasion into general truths: the dancer and the dance, and death. I think I was thinking of what C. Day-Lewis said: ‘I prefer poems that are about something’.

You’ve written critically on Dante’s relation to modern Irish poetry. How was the experience of translating him for Seasons? Were you more conscious of other Irish forerunners than in translating Gawain, for instance?

I wasn’t thinking of previous Dante translators. I did a Dante paper as part of a taught graduate degree in 1970 (based on very inadequate Italian), and ever since then bits of him have been more internalised for me than anything else almost. It is hard to explain why Dante, who is fiercely moral and unyielding, exerts such an extraordinary influence. Maybe with the Catholic background (which I am sure is why I became a medievalist), the Purgatorio is probably the poem I find most indispensable. And of course Dante is political and personal and verbally profound all at once.

The last poem in the collection looks forward to your translation of Piers Plowman, due to come out in 2017. What attracted you to this project?

Translating it as a whole is a tall order. Translating Gawain was difficult but kept moving along by the story, and of course that poem has great vividness and colour. Langland isn’t like that; but, as C. S. Lewis said, he is capable of sublimity which is rare. It recalls the old remark about Wagner (not very appropriate for him I think) that he has great moments but terrible quarters of an hour. I think the way the great pieces in Piers Plowman lift out of their rather programmatic context is a wonderful thing. It is unquestionably a very great poem. I am by no means sure that I am up to it.


By Alice Troy-Donovan

Bernard O’Donoghue is the author of six poetry collections, including Gunpowder (1995), winner of the Whitbread/Costa prize, and Farmers Cross, which was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot and the Forward prizes in 2011. This new collection of expert lyric poems movingly animates the characters of his childhood in County Cork; it will confirm O’Donoghue’s place as one of the most approachable and agile voices in contemporary Irish and British poetry.

The Seasons of Cullen Church, Bernard O’Donoghue, Faber, 2016.

Pearl by Simon Armitage


Simon Armitage’s new translation of the fourteenth-century poem Pearl follows his energetic 2008 translation of the same anonymous poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which enjoyed great popularity and critical acclaim. Those hoping to find in Pearl a sequel to Gawain’s rollicking quest will search in vain, for the colloquialisms that tickled the ear in the Gawain translation (‘bogeyman’, ‘flummoxed’, ‘bamboozled’) are largely missing from the more melancholic Pearl. Here, the narrator mourns the death of his infant daughter, his Pearl. Entering a dream landscape he finds her again: their dialogue, across time and death and space, forms the poem’s central consolatory section.

Like the original, Armitage’s translation is steady and meditative in character; it is moralising, and steeped in biblical allusion. Recurring words (ornament, jeweller, judgement, limit, bliss) slide in and out of focus through the twenty sections, overlapping with each other as the poem’s various preoccupations float to the surface. Suiting Armitage’s own voice, the original Middle English is profoundly alliterative, with three recurring consonants in each line. Replicating these aggregating alliterations was, Armitage tells us, among his main aims. The resulting stanzas are musical, appealing, he says, to the ear and the voice – if not to the pedantic formalist, who will notice deviation from the original rhyming pattern.

Sonic rhyme may be the principle technique by which the poem operates, but there is also an underlying structure of material ‘rhyme’ that Armitage brings to the fore. Material qualities – spotlessness, flawlessness, purity; earthiness, dustiness, decay – resonate between different characters and objects, allowing subtle reverberations and allegories to ring throughout the stanzas. The transient organicism of earthly things is always opposed to the glittering, wrought permanence of the heavenly. Occasionally this very medieval material landscape might seem overpowering (a broad wound is bright with blood; the body is bloodied and bruised) but this is, it might be argued, a faithful recreation of a more powerful relationship with materials (pearl, blood, dust, gold) than most of us enjoy today.

The fact that the poem measures 1212 lines, and therefore echoes the dimensions of the Heavenly Jerusalem, hints that this is a foreign and magical mode of poetic construction. First and last lines mirror each other, suggesting not only the spherical pearl stone itself, but a sort of narrative time that is preordained, prophesied, patterned, and typologically structured. The form itself is therefore a tight allegory that vibrates to the salvific message of the poem itself. In his introduction, Armitage makes the comparison between the tight, buffed structure of the compact meter and the jewelled pieces that dominate the poem’s material landscape: it cannot have escaped his notice that this metaphor makes him, as translator, the jeweller, setting the ancient pearl diligently, in a flattering setting.

He undertakes this jeweller’s task with characteristic wit. Although the colloquial flourishes of the Gawain translation are largely absent  (save for ‘slogged’, which pops up as an alliterative pair for ‘slaved’), there are punning lines of word-play which please the mind’s ear (‘wholly’ and ‘holy’, ‘manor’ and ‘manner’). The final journey into the Heavenly Jerusalem is, in Armitage’s hands, a particularly sparkling passage of ekphrasis: all is solid (‘brilliant beryl’ and ‘twin-toned topaz’) and yet the eye glides ‘through wall and structure without obstruction’. These paradoxes of the seer’s eye are beautifully captured.

Armitage felt, he says, that each decision while writing the poem was a trade-off between medieval authenticity and latter day clarity. Whilst this may well be true lexically, it is perhaps not true of the narrative. To a modern reader, the simple clarity of the medieval cosmos – with its binary oppositions of saved and damned, flawless and flawed, pearl and dust – is striking. The medieval narrative is therefore not unclear, but instead layered, recursive, ornamented. So Pearl is, if anything, a more straightforward form of consolation than that offered by modern poets: the same Christian themes are there in, for example, Eliot’s Burnt Norton ( – All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…), but they strain, crack, and sometimes break under the weight of modernity. Re-presenting a simpler eschatology, polishing and burnishing it for today’s reader: this is Armitage’s great success as jeweller.

By Robert Hawkins

Ppearlearl by Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, 2016, £14.99


Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Felix Clay

Faber’s publication of Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid pays testament to the enduring poetic prowess of its translator. His posthumous connection with Virgil seems particularly apt for a writer whose poetry has been defined by tradition, mythology and politics. One of the most far-reaching and influential poets of the 20th Century, Heaney’s work is popular amongst scholars and hobbyists alike. According to the BBC, in the United Kingdom in 2007, Heaney’s poetry collections made up two thirds of all those written by a living poet. Who better, then, to write a translation of Virgil—arguably the west’s greatest poetic ancestor? With its roots tangled deep in Augustan politics, its honouring of Homeric tradition and its beauteous reimagining of ancient myth, Book VI of the Aeneid is abundant with the characteristics we have come to appreciate in Heaney’s oeuvre.

Virgil, high brow Roman poet and Augustan advocate (if we are of the optimistic European school of thought), is made accessible through Heaney’s modern translation. Written in verse, Heaney revised his version of Book VI over a period of more than twenty years. A lifelong desire to spend time recreating the famous katabasis of Aeneas characterises Heaney’s introductory note. It serves as a sort of tribute to his 1957 Latin teacher, whose favourite book was VI, and who thus constantly lamented having to teach IX to his A-Level students. And, indeed, Aeneas’ journey into the underworld is a particularly poignant final work for Heaney—and for us—with its detailed depiction of the afterlife and catalogue of heroic successors, the book comes across as a truly lovely final farewell to us from Heaney.

While Heaney’s verse does not quite live up to the seamless flow of David West’s prose translation, his language is rich and evocative and does well to respect the ancient poetry of Virgil. His translation is playful, reminding us through carefully chosen lexis of its roots in Latin. I found myself smiling as I moved through the book’s lines, finding words which brought our ancestral language to life: ‘soporific’, ‘spectral’ somnolently’… the list goes on. In his translator’s note, he himself endearingly describes his version as ‘classics homework’. He most certainly deserves an A+.

Book VI, as Heaney himself points out in our fragment of his postscript, is a tricky one. With its somewhat sycophantic and certainly alienating (for a modern audience) catalogue of Roman heroes, its final verses can be clunky. Likewise, while its regular tangents into myth and aetiology are not uncharacteristic of the Aeneid on the whole, they are particularly frequent in Book VI, which, in Heaney’s translation, can make reading (of course, epic poetry is best read aloud) somewhat halting. Book IV or X may have been a more obvious choice, with their timeless narratives of Dido, then Pallas and Turnus, but this makes Heaney’s choice all the more touching. His version of Book VI is a passion project, and gives us insight into the mind of the author and his personal interest in classics, his nostalgia about school and his appreciation of the afterlife depicted by Virgil. We can only count ourselves lucky to have been gifted this posthumous work by one of the greatest poets of all time.

By Lauren Hepburn

41H08RhG8gL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Aeneid Book VI by Seamus Heaney, Faber, £14.99


Faber New Poets: in conversation


Faber New Poets [left to right Sam Buchan-Watts, Rachel Curzon, Crispin Best and Elaine Beckett]. Photograph © Thea Hawlin

The Faber New Poets scheme, now in its fourth incarnation, provides a platform for new voices and has launched the careers of poets such as Jack Underwood, Rachael Allen, Sam Riviere and Will Burns. This year’s poets are Rachel Curzon, Elaine Beckett, Sam Buchan-Watts and Crispin Best, all of whom will have pamphlets published this spring. We visited the Faber offices to speak to the Faber New Poets before their official debut at the Faber Social. Here’s what they had to say . . . 

So since you’ve found out what has the experience been like? Has it been very structured or is it only just starting?

Crispin Best [CB]: Well they did just tell us and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. We’ve just found out loads of information about what to expect, and what the mentorship actually means. I had no idea what that meant – I just thought it was them going ‘we’ll help you out’ sometimes’. But there’s literally going to be a person who is your mentor.

And how do they choose the mentors? Do you get a say in it?  

Elaine Beckett [EB]: Yes, it’s a conversation with them about ideas you might have yourself and what they might think of them. Suggestions they might have . . .

Do they have to be existing Faber poets?

Rachel Curzon [RC]: No apparently not, I thought they might but no. It could be anyone, anywhere.

Do you have any ideas of who you’d like to pick?

CB: I really don’t at all. [to other poets] Would you have a dream team? Would you have like a list do you think? [heads around the table nod] You guys are way ahead of me.

RC: Yeah I have got a little wish list but they shall remain [taps nose].

EB: I suppose it’s a bit unusual in the way that you might not know the person who you think you might be able to work with and you’ve never met them before.

CB: Apparently no one has ever said no. They claim every mentor who has been asked has said yes, which is unbelievable.

EB: Yeah we’re powerful you see.

So in terms of putting together the pamphlets, which are out fairly soon [April 2016], are they composed of things you’ve already written or do you write new material for them? What’s the experience of actually putting them together like?

RC: So we’ve checked our proofs now and they’re in production I think, aren’t they? So they’ll be ready in February, so part of it’s all done.

CB: Did you guys swap any poems out or add any in from the original thing? You did [looks at Sam who nods] How much did you change?

Sam Buchan-Watts: Yeah a couple.

CB: So it’s still pretty much the same length.

SB-W: Yeah.

CB: So for us, we submitted them over a year ago, December 2014, and then we were able to change a bit of it – but they weren’t encouraging us to – but that was the thing that was accepted.

So your submission was essentially the finished pamphlet?

EB: Yeah, we were allowed to swap in one or two if we wanted to.

Why did you make the changes?

SB-W: Just slightly newer work, and Martha [Sprackland – Faber’s assistant poetry editor] was receptive and said yes.

How many poems are in the pamphlet?

SB-W: Sixteen poems, seventeen pages

CB: They added in one for me so I have eighteen pages. I have the longest one.

EB: I think I have seventeen pages.

CB: Okay good so it’s a mix then. I wasn’t trying to have the longest pamphlet honest.

EB: I was missing poems in the end so I had to find three more poems.

CB: What happened to the other ones? Or was it just a shorter submission in the first place?

EB: Maybe I used the wrong size font?

We were talking earlier about how finding the time to write can be an issue and we were wondering about what jobs you may have had in the past, or you have now, and how you’ve managed to keep the poetry going?

R: Well I’m an English teacher, so you’d think that was probably a good dove-tailing, but often you’re spending more time on other people’s work rather than your own. So it has to be a conscious decision to make some space I think. Finding that balance is something I find it quite difficult.

Do you find time in the evenings when you have to tell yourself to stop work and start writing?

RC: For me it’s Wednesday afternoons.

In terms of your backgrounds as poets, has it been a very quiet thing that you’ve been cultivating on your own which you then decided to send out to Faber or is this a very conscious move?

CB: I did my original masters in creative writing at Manchester in prose and I pretty much despised poetry at that point which was very strange . . . I was like ‘there’s nothing poetry can do that prose can’t do as well’.

So you’ve come full circle?  

CB: Exactly. I was in denial, I was a closet poet, and I came out I guess when I realised that fiction was not good at some things either. So I started writing poems probably about four, five years ago and then not really knowing. There’s no obvious thing to do when you start.

EB: No it’s not like a career path is it? It’s just something happens to you, or you notice something that you feel is very important I suppose. Well that’s how it is for me anyway.

Have you written poetry for a long time, Elaine?

EB: No. I wrote poetry when I was young, as one does – a sort of documentary. It wasn’t really until later, quite a lot later that I started to write poetry, quite by chance in a way.

And how did you come to Annie’s group? [Elaine belongs to a Dorset writing group led by Annie Freud.]

EB: I saw a postcard she’d written in the local health-food shop saying ‘Poetry Group’. I’d only been living there about six months and I was eager to meet people so I thought ‘I’ll try that’.

CB: So that was what got you back writing? A health-food shop? That’s amazing!

If you’re a budding poet and then you suddenly find in the place you’ve moved to that Annie Freud has a writing group . . .

EB: I had no idea. I had no desire to write poetry, I mean I wasn’t going there to write poetry. I was just moving there.

That’s a really good story in itself.

EB: I remember driving up and over the hill thinking; ‘wow I’m really excited about this . . . why?’ For the last three years I’ve also been studying with Greta Stoddart via her Poetry School monthly seminars. To have such excellent teachers nearby has been brilliant.

SB-W: I started writing poetry at Goldsmiths. That’s when I started co-editing clinic (a poetry journal), and after graduating in 2010 I worked for five years in an independent bookshop, John Sandoes, so was lucky to still be in an environment conducive to poem reading and writing.

[To Rachel Curzon] Do you find yourself inspired by what you were teaching?

RC: Yes. I think I’ve been beavering away quite quietly but I was lucky enough to get a Gregory Award back in 2007, which gave me confidence, and I was really grateful for that.

So you’re all going to be performing tonight [at the Faber New Voices Social]. Are you feeling good about it?

CB: I’ve just found out I’m going first, which has actually made me feel better about it. I was feeling anxious. I do some readings occasionally, but I realised I was starting to feel a quite nervous about this. But now I’ve realised it’s given me a ‘if it goes wrong it’s because I was on first’ excuse. It’s off my shoulders completely; they’ve basically given me a get out of jail free card.

EB: I’m feeling bad now about going last.

CB: Sorry.

How much experience do you all have of performing?

EB: I’ve done a bit, and I’ve done other sorts of performing.

When you write a poem do you ever find yourself very eager to try it out with an audience? Do you find it changes when you read, or that you go back and redraft because of the way you’ve read it? Does that feed a lot into the process of your writing?

EB: That’s a good question.

SB-W: Well it gets harder to edit a poem the more you read it out in a public sphere maybe. But reading poems as you’re writing them is quite an important thing as well.

RC: I haven’t really done any performances, so this is very new to me, but I do draft by reading it out.

Performance is really important, and it’s a great way to experience new work so we’re excited to see you guys tonight.

EB: I’ve got a very quiet voice.

Quiet can be good though, it’s intense, it forces people to listen.

EB: Yes, if they can hear it at all!

Sometimes it’s incredibly commanding to be quiet.

CB: One of the best readings I ever heard was basically in a whisper so yes, it really doesn’t really need to be loud.

EB: Well, you’ve just got to be yourself really I guess.

Do you have any particular hopes about how your poetry will be received? You’ve got a voice now that people want to listen to. What do you want to say?

EB: Well I think it is the question. If you write a poem or something comes to you and you think ‘that’s a poem’ and you write it and you think ‘hang on a minute, what’s the point of that? Who on earth would be interested?’ Or should you be writing about things that are going on in the world and making a political statement or is it just a confession of some kind? What exactly is it? I still don’t know what a poem really is. Just a rather miraculous little thing that happens.

Poetry which questions what poetry is for also has immense value in itself.

CB: My answer would be that I want to challenge what has a place. It seems funny to me that I would be published by such an established name. I have poems where people are having a wee, and animals are wearing sunglasses, which I think are sort of provocations to this slightly stuffy poetry world that sometimes you come into which – when it’s done well – is phenomenal, but is so often not to my taste. But yes my answer would be questioning, sneaking things into poems that shouldn’t be there.

Covert poems. [To Crispin Best] The poems of yours that I’ve seen are quite structured on the page. Do you find that alters how you’re reading them or is something lost in reading?

CB: It comes back to the idea of if you’re writing something to be read out or something to be read off the page. A page versus stage sort of thing. But I started writing poems with no care for what they looked like on the page at all, it’s only recently I’ve started playing around and having more fun with what it looks like. But I’d say it’s more to do with what you can get away with, to an extent, and also in terms of how it looks on the page, what you can bend, adding in margins where they shouldn’t be and stuff more recently . . .

SB-W: There are a couple of poems in my pamphlet that form a sequence. It was at a time I’d sort of hit a wall and I just started writing in prose and reading a lot more prose, and then playing around with margins and the ideas of a prose poem. I found it really liberating in a way, to not be thinking about convention in terms of ‘the line’ and ‘the line end’.

It’s nice how the poetry market seems to have really opened up to the prose poem. There definitely used to be very clear demarcations with regard to genre, but it’s given poets who were finding quite a rigid generic boundary in the publishing world space for a lot of interesting work to come through. Do you force yourself to experiment? Or do you find there are forms you gravitate towards?

EB: I’ve tried certain forms because I don’t usually write in them, experimenting with what it will bring up so that’s sometimes been quite interesting.

RC: If I set out to write a sonnet it often does anything but, I think I have to do it the other way round sometimes.

What are your expectations for the tour? [The Faber New Poets will go on a tour of readings around the UK later in the year] Where are you most excited to go?

CB: Upstairs [at Faber & Faber] on the 13th of April.

EB: That’s the one for the stiff drink beforehand.

Is there going to be a tour bus?

EB: There’s going to be a pink bus with flowers.

RC: I really hope so.

Do any of you have an overarching theme in your collections?

CB: [to other poets] Were you guys seeing it as a collection or as a Greatest Hits? I mean I fartly –- I fartly? I also partly… [the table laughs]

That’s going in the interview.

CB: I partly had been writing lots of long things, so for me it was choosing shorter things because I couldn’t use a lot of the longer pieces, as it would have taken up a quarter of the pamphlet. But I definitely wasn’t aiming for a particular, singular sort of thing apart from the totality.

SB-W: Yeah I had a similar thing. Especially thinking about placement. I’m really interested in the pamphlet form, so I dwelled a lot on the order. I was probably quite annoying I think.

EB: [to Sam] Have you changed your order?

SB-W: Yes.

EB: I found that challenging.

What do you look for in the order? Do you look for themes that follow on from one another?

EB: I used it as a useful exercise to gather a group of poems that I thought would sit together, that I liked.

RC: I didn’t think there was an overarching theme until I re-read the submission when I got the email saying that it was going to go forward and I realised that actually, despite my best efforts, there probably is an overarching theme, which I hadn’t really twigged before. I mean, like Sam, I sort of thought quite hard about the order of things and sought to follow an emotional narrative, or tried to. But it’s weird looking back at them, it changes your perception of them, knowing that they’re going to be out in the world.

Interview by Rachel Chanter and Thea Hawlin

Faber New Poets April 2016 TOURFaber New Poets pamphlets #13, #14, #15 and #16 will be published 7 April 2016.

Elaine Beckett grew up in Kent, and studied music, film, and architecture in London. She has mainly worked as a university lecturer. In 2008 she moved to Dorset where by chance she joined a poetry group led by Annie Freud. Her poems have been longlisted for The Bridport Prize, and in 2012 she won the Bridport’s Dorset Award. Her poems have been published in Templar’s Skein anthology, South Bank Poetry, and the Bloodaxe Raving Beauties anthology, Hallelujah For Fifty-Foot Women. She currently studies with Greta Stoddart via The Poetry School.

Crispin Best lives in London and at www.crispinbest.com. He edits For Every Year, an online project aiming to collect a piece of art or writing in honour of every year since 1400. His writing has appeared in The Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt), the Quietus, Dazed & Confused, Poems in Which, and clinic, among other places. He has performed his poetry to audiences in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Melbourne, Edinburgh, and at the
Serpentine Gallery in London.

Sam Buchan-Watts was born in London in 1989. He studied English Literature at Goldsmiths and Creative Writing at UEA. He is a co-editor of the poetry anthology series, clinic. His poems have appeared in Poetry London and Salt’s Best British Poetry series, and his articles in PN Review, i-D and elsewhere.

Rachel Curzon was born in Leeds in 1978. She studied English at Oxford, and now teaches in a Hampshire school. In 2007, she received an Eric Gregory award. Her poems have appeared in The Rialto, Poetry London and The Bridport Anthology.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing


Editor of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s top literary magazines, Thomas Morris is no stranger to reading and writing short fiction. In the final countdown to the deadline for our short story competition we spoke to the writer and editor about his debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, heritage, habits and the art of disguise.

Many interviewers have made much of your identity as a Welsh writer living in Ireland – do you think this is problematic? How do you identify yourself? How should we identify ourselves? If we should at all…

There aren’t many Welsh people living in Ireland – and a lot of people here in Dublin wouldn’t be able to name a contemporary Welsh writer – so I guess I’m something of a novelty in that respect. In some ways, it does feel as if I’ve gotten slightly caught between two poles, but it’s not really problematic; it just makes for a lot of parentheses in the opening paragraph of reviews (‘Welsh born, but living in Dublin for 10 years…’)

At the moment, the book seems to be better known in Ireland than in Wales. But I think that’s inevitable: there are so few Welsh outlets for cultural criticism, Wales is a lot much smaller in terms of media infrastructure, and there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of conversation around books. As for further afield, I sometimes wonder in what ways things would be different were I Irish: there’s a worldwide appetite for all-things-Ireland that doesn’t quite exist for all-things-Wales. A current example: Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh international rugby player and first openly gay international player at that. Micky Rourke was signed up to play Thomas in a film based on his life – they developed the script together for a long time – but in the end the studio said they’d prefer a fictional account instead, one where Gareth Thomas was actually an Irishman named Mick ‘The Blade’ Collins. ‘It’ll do better in the States’, was apparently the reasoning. And if that was the case, it’s hard to fault the logic: a film about an Irishman will likely do better than a film about a Welshman. (Not to mention the fact that fiction can probably provide a more satisfying narrative arc etc etc.)

But anyway, how do I identify myself? I’m Welsh first; I live in Ireland second; and I grudgingly accept that I’m British. But I’m embarrassed by the British thing. I’m embarrassed by the government, the monarchy, the class system, the empire, the arrogance, the cultural and historical amnesia, the fact that so many cities are now essentially just indoor shopping centres. But I love the BBC, the idea of the NHS, and anything made by Armando Iannucci.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with all the embarrassment. It seems a bit rich to just identify with all the good parts, while neglecting the fact that I had the privilege of growing up in a UK that gained its wealth and status by being so fucking awful to millions of people – home and abroad. This all sounds ranty and naively liberal in a way that I would have taken the piss out of if I’d read it a few years back, but every time I see George Osborne’s smug little privileged face I am drawn to the idea of violence.

Do you go back to Wales often?

My idea of a year is still shaped by school years: I come back to Wales for the half-term holidays and always for a few weeks in the summer. I’ve just taken a month off The Stinging Fly to come back to Wales to decompress a bit. I turn 30 very soon, so I’m entering a period of Sober Reflection. God help us all.

But still, it’s important that I come back as much as I can. I still have family and friends here, who I miss a lot, and there are certain parts of myself that don’t get the same kind of outing in Dublin.

You’ve said before that you think you had very ‘romantic’ notions of Ireland – did Irish writers have a part in that?

No, the romantic notions were shaped entirely by a few Sunday episodes of Ballykissangel. When I moved to Dublin, I knew nothing about Irish writers or its literary heritage. I’d read a few stories from Dubliners, but I didn’t really understand them. Once I got to university, though, the legacy of Irish writing became apparent to me, but still I wasn’t sure if it was just a propaganda mission by the Irish universities – in the same way that Sky TV keeps saying the Premier League is the best football league in the world. But no, it turns out that Irish writers are pretty important after all. From a purely selfish point of view, living in Dublin really gave me the kick to write. Had I had been living in Wales in my twenties, I don’t think I’d have thought that writing was something I could conceivably do.

I’ve heard you love Dylan Thomas’s short stories despite the fact they’re rarely talked about – which ones?

His story collection Portrait of the Artist as A Young Dog is really wonderful. The stories seem to me quite autobiographical, and there’s something of Frank O’Connor in a lot of them: the gentle humour and the grave sadness side-by-side. I find Dylan Thomas’s poetry difficult – almost too obscure, perhaps too poetic at times – whereas his stories are more direct but imbued with the kind of beautiful observations that only a poet could conjure. The opening of a ‘Visit to Grandpa’s’, for example:

It was the first time I had stayed in grandpa’s house. The floorboards had squeaked like mice as I climbed into bed, and the mice between the walls had creaked like wood as though another visitor was walking on them. 

When I’m writing a story, I often turn to other books to solve the problems in my own work. When I began writing ‘all the boys’, a story about a Welsh stag weekend in Dublin, I struggled with the pacing and the handling of so many characters. Then I re-read Dylan Thomas’s ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, a story about a group of boys hanging out on the beach, and everything clicked. I love the breathlessness of the prose in Dylan’s story, the ways the sentences are almost panting as they try to keep up with the action.

But yes, amid all the celebrations for Dylan’s 100th birthday last year, his stories did seem a little overlooked. But Wales has a habit of not shouting loud enough about its prose writers. Leslie Norris wrote beautiful short stories; Caradoc Evans was a serious hellraiser, but they’re writers who are rarely talked about except for anniversaries. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I’d love to set up a short story competition in Leslie Norris’s name, like the way there’s a Rhys Davies Award. Again, the Irish excel at this kind of thing – The Frank O’Connor Award, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Award, The Sean O’Faolain Award, and most recently The Colm Toibin Award etc.

You’ve said the key to a good short story is intensity – what kind of intensity do you strive for in your own work?

Emotional honesty; I don’t want to fudge things.

You switch wonderfully between writing as a man and writing as a woman, which perspective do you enjoy writing from more? Do you find the experience very different for each or do you even think about it?

It’s very nice for you to say that, but to be honest, I don’t really think differently when writing male or female characters.

I’ve always been confused by the expression ‘strong female characters’ – like, do you want these women to be weightlifters? Or do people mean ’emotionally strong’? Or just well-rendered and well rounded? I think the temptation for many men is to write women who are emotionally strong, or rather, in the end, women who are just ‘long-suffering of men’ – and this all as a strategy of pre-empting and avoiding criticism for writing ‘weak’ female characters. But that kind of mentality can lead to two-dimensional characters, passive women who just shake their head and say with an exasperated sigh and knowing wink, ‘Men, eh?’

When I’m drafting a story, a character can go from being a man to being a woman in a matter of minutes. I don’t really do physical description of people – I’m terrible at it – so I try and compensate with psychological detail or a lot of behaviour. This seems to have worked so far, and I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that: are readers lying to me? Or are men and women really not all that different? Or is that I’ve yet to write about the key differences?

On a technical level, I wonder what difference it makes when you’re writing in first or third person, for example. I’ve read stories by women where they’re writing first person male, and stories by men where they’re writing first person female, and it seems as if the writer is insecure or worries the reader will be confused, and the writing gets sticky with stupid exposition and self-declarative statements: ‘I’m an honest man…’ ‘I wasn’t like other women’.

If you could get any aspiring writers to read a single short story what would you pick? Why?

‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor: it’s brilliant.

Do you have any writing ‘ticks’ – specific words or sentence structures – that you find yourself using again and again?

Absolutely, but I’m not ready to admit them in public.

Do you think habit is a friend or foe for a writer?

I think routine is important, I’m less sure about habit. Do you mean habits in the writing itself?

If someone is struggling to find a good writing routine or are concerned about the nature of their own process, I would really recommend reading Daily Routines. So many writers were lunatics in the way they settled down to work, but the routine was everything.

Writing the book, my own routines were fairly terrible. I wrote late into the night, gorging on sweet tea and Pringles and M&Ms to keep awake. But staying up into the early seemed to be the only way I could key into the kind of emotional intensity I was hoping to reach. You only need to walk the city at 2am to see that the id is often freer at night.

You’re very good and picking up on the minute details of relationships and human interactions – does a lot of this come from observation? Do you find you source a lot from life – do you see a person and create a character around them – or are they more firmly abstract?

There’s a lot of observation, yes. But perhaps the word ‘observation’ is misleading, a little too deliberate-sounding. In my early twenties I did go round with a notebook, writing things down on trains and buses – but I reckon the best bits are the things you don’t need to write down, the things that just survive. If I remember something – a snatch of speech, an image, an anecdote – months after hearing it, then it’s hopefully a strong enough to linger in a reader’s memory. But when I’m writing a story – and I’m fully invested in it – the right things seem to rise to the surface. The exception is stuff from childhood. My memory is getting worse each year, so I’m grateful for a phase I went through ten years ago when I wrote out pages and pages of childhood memories. Reading those pages now acts as a sharp prompt. I likewise won’t let my mother throw out any of my old toys or clothes: they’re some of the few remaining threads that allow me to vividly connect with my childhood. That probably sounds awfully sentimental.

As for sourcing material, I have a disclaimer at the start of the book: ‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to life is purely inevitable’. It’s half-joking, but I think it’s half serious, too. Where the hell are you meant to find things that are true if not from life itself? When I was at university I published stories in the college magazine under the pseudonym Harry Block. I stole the name from the lead character in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. His character is a bit of a callous bastard, stealing everything from everyone’s lives for his fiction and then not even remembering which bits he made up and which bits are real. (‘Me and Janet’ he says longingly about an ex at one point, only to be corrected: ‘Jane. Janet is the character in the book.’) I don’t identify with the callous thievery, but there’s certainly an autobiographical impulse in my stories. (He says loftily, having only published only one book.) As George Saunders often says: fiction is lying when everything knows you’re lying. It sometimes takes a bit of truth to convince people of the broader deceit.

Drafting is a crucial part of the writing process for any writer – what does the role of re-writing mean for you?

It’s about solidifying intention. It can take me three or four drafts to work out what the story is about. But once I find out what it is about (and it’s often different to what I set out with) then it’s a matter of sharpening everything in service of that intention. I love rewriting: it’s the only time I feel like I’m doing anything good. I think of each draft as an experiment. I’ll literally re-save the document to something like ‘Goat story – taken on as experiment 3’. Having the previous draft there, on the computer, gives me license to fuck about on the next one. I know I can always go back.

In a past interview you mentioned how you wanted each tale to have a rare emotional core of sorts – so each story has a drop of reality, or came from a place of real emotion in your life. Do you find blurring the lines an easy process or one that takes work? (Are there times you’re self conscious of ‘true’ content and have to work hard to disguise it or do you like to tease those details out?)

That’s a good question. In the opening story, ‘Bolt’, the narrator escapes to the bathroom to take some time out, then he goes to take a piss and remembers he doesn’t actually need a piss: he’s just there to have some peace. A friend of mine said he liked that moment, though he felt it was clearly taken directly from real life. It made me pause for a bit. I wondered if a detail could be ‘too real’. And it is something I think about a lot: is this or that detail too idiosyncratic? I have a few friends to whom I show early drafts, and a big part of the drafting process is wheedling out the bits that take the reader out of the reading experience. So I use statistical analysis: if one friend things something isn’t quite working, it’s worth considering but it might stay in; if three people point their finger to the same thing, I know it needs tinkering or removing. Most often, though, people point out the things you always suspected yourself. Once you think that something is get-away-with-able, it never actually is.

But the ‘disguising’ you mention is a big part of the fun. I like to take a detail from life, then try to shape a story around it. This is especially true when it comes to stories driven by the details of strong emotional impulses. The story ‘Fugue’ came from the horror of being away from home for a long time and then returning and feeling distinctly alien.

Have you had much input into the production of the book as a finished product? What did you make of the cover art? Was it what you were expecting or envisioning for the book – did you even have an expectations or visions for it at all?

I love the cover. Luke Bird at Faber did such a wonderful job: it was his idea from premise to execution. I did chip in with the occasional suggestion (I really wanted the horse on there, just for the fun of it) but the cover is very much a response to Luke and Faber’s feeling that the book is all about people. It sounds funny to say now, but I hadn’t really thought about the collection this way. Writing the stories, I was driven by emotional truth and formal concerns and certain images I wanted to follow.

As for my expectations – I just wanted something with a bit of life in it, something which told the reader, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t another bloody collection of quiet, respectable literary fiction’. But at the same time, I really didn’t want a cover that looked as if was designed to be sold solely in Urban Outfitters or HMV. In my humble opinion, Faber got the balance perfectly right.

Where next? You’ve spoken about a novella you once wrote before – do you think that might resurface any time soon? Are you interested in exploring longer forms?

I haven’t written in a while, partly intentional, partly not, but I’m excited and daunted to get back to it. I’m going to write a novel. Or rather: I’m going to write something that we can hopefully call a novel. But there’s so much in novels that I can’t stand: so much fat and so much stuff that has to be there because it’s a novel. I can’t be doing with that, so I’m going to try and find a way around the problem. I loved Jenny Offil’s approach in The Dept. Of Speculation, and reading that book really made me reconsider what you need and what you really don’t need in a work of fiction.

I also have an idea for another anthology I’d like to edit, but it could take a few years to get going.

But yes, the novella in question is dead and gone. I stole the best bits for the collection.

Do any of us know what we’re doing?

I’ve got no idea.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris published by Faber & Faber is out now. 

By Thea Hawlin

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Hakan Ezilemz/Yapi Kredi Culture, Arts & Publishing Archive

I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in London recently, when a Scottish man stopped me to say how much he’d enjoyed it – ‘best book ever’, he said. No-one, Scottish or otherwise, had ever done that to me before. But the man went on to say that he’d found another of Pamuk’s books My Name is Red disappointing (I think he used stronger words). I protested, but suggested he try The Museum of Innocence. I hope he does. But, regardless – Snow? Best book he’s ever read.

This ambivalent response is common, a function of the fact that Pamuk approaches every new book as a challenge to do something different. But A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) looks, at first, to be treading familiar ground. Pamuk returns to the theme of his memoir Istanbul: the city itself, and the way in which it has changed as Turkey has modernized. Pamuk’s formal hallmarks are all present: balance, limpid prose, a wicked sense of humour and a playful propensity to shift perspectives.

Strangeness is a new departure. The scope of the book is astonishing. The story is told through the life of Melvut, a gentle, naïve migrant from Central Anatolia who spends his life walking Istanbul’s streets selling ‘boza’, a fermented yoghurt drink, and pondering on thoughts about fate inspired by his love for his wife, Rahiya, who he eloped with after having written her love letters for three years, but having only seen her once. While Melvut’s friends and family scramble to gain a foothold in modern Istanbul, he watches the city change beyond recognition. As wave after wave of migrants arrive and the slums become high rises, Pamuk documents the development of Istanbul, and Turkey itself, over forty tumultuous years, with politics, religion and the relations between the sexes gliding on and off the stage.

Yet Strangeness never feels burdened with the expectations of a ‘state of the nation’ novel, or an experiment in Realism with a capital R. The background, while invariably fascinating, remains background. Melvut is always more concerned with his family and the city itself. Pamuk talks as engagingly about the loneliness of old age, and teenage masturbation as he does about Islamists, or ethnic politics in the suburbs. Often, the narrative voice loses itself in details of urban life, building sites, the contents of fridges, the history of electricity scams or, memorably, a tanker of sheep that runs aground in the Bosporus (with amusing consequences).

If the plot is kept moving by anything it is Melvut’s love for Rahiya and his search for an explanation to the ‘strangeness in his mind’. Why is he so drawn to the streets? Why is he so afraid of stray dogs? But the freedom and sympathy with which Pamuk moves through Melvut’s world means that he never needs to resort to the normal weights and pulleys: problems come and go unexpectedly, taking on more or less significance in unpredictable ways. Although Melvut has his share of hardships, he’s also almost permanently good natured and if this optimism starts to drag, which inevitably it does, Pamuk is always ready to jump into the heads of friends and family members, who address themselves from the page, boldly, secretively, always contradicting one another and arguing for their right to be heard.

In My Name Is Red Pamuk impersonated a tree, a dead-man and – brilliantly – a coin. In Strangeness he limits himself to people, but within those limits he’s at his most promiscuous, chopping and changing perspectives within scenes – though never at the expense of the reader. Most engaging are the women, who are invariably wiser than their men. Pamuk recounts the frustrations of domesticity, but also shows how they take ownership of their lives within these constraints. It soon becomes apparent that it is Melvut’s sister in law, Vediha, who is holding the extended family together.

There is no obvious agenda to any of this, which can become disorientating. But there is a definite thread running through Strangeness: the peculiarity of fiction itself, that ‘strangeness in the mind’ which compels someone to dream up whole worlds. Elsewhere, Pamuk has talked about how he has spent his life ‘narrating the streets of Istanbul’, and about how he feels that the city, its rapidly changing streets, the melancholia of the old buildings, the day-to-day life of the people that work there, has become a part of him, to the extent that he feels he has dreamt the whole thing up; the ultimate romantic vision, if you like, but also one laced with a sense of unease. If Pamuk has dreamed up Istanbul, what is it that he loves beyond his own powers of invention?

Pamuk’s achievement in Strangeness is to square this circle through a tremendous concentration of empathy. As Melvut’s best friend Ferhat, a meter reader, remarks, in a phrase a novelist would die for, ‘everyone in this city has a heart, and an electric meter.’ Pamuk has set all these hearts going, but they appear before the reader as completely human (no small task). Melvut is often struck by how it is ‘difficult… to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.’ Difficult, A Strangeness in My Mind, seems to suggest, but not impossible.

By Jeremy Wikeley

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk


I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in London recently, when a Scottish man stopped me to say how much he’d enjoyed it – ‘best book ever’, he said. No-one, Scottish or otherwise, had ever done that to me before. But the man went on to say that he’d found another of Pamuk’s books My Name is Red disappointing (I think he used stronger words). I protested, but suggested he try The Museum of Innocence. I hope he does. But, regardless – Snow? Best book he’s ever read.

This ambivalent response is common, a function of the fact that Pamuk approaches every new book as a challenge to do something different. But A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) looks, at first, to be treading familiar ground. Pamuk returns to the theme of his memoir Istanbul: the city itself, and the way in which it has changed as Turkey has modernized. Pamuk’s formal hallmarks are all present: balance, limpid prose, a wicked sense of humour and a playful propensity to shift perspectives.

Strangeness is a new departure. The scope of the book is astonishing. The story is told through the life of Melvut, a gentle, naïve, migrant from Central Anatolia who spends his life walking Istanbul’s streets selling ‘boza’ a fermented yoghurt drink, and pondering on thoughts about fate inspired by his love for his wife, Rahiya, who he eloped with after having written her love letters for three years, but having only seen her once. While Melvut’s friends and family scramble to gain a foothold in modern Istanbul, he watches the city change beyond recognition, as wave after wave of migrants arrive and the slums become high rises Pamuk documents the development of Istanbul, and Turkey itself, over forty tumultuous years, with politics, religion and the relations between the sexes gliding on and off the stage.

Yet Strangeness never feels burdened with the expectations of a ‘state of the nation’ novel, or an experiment in Realism with a capital R. The background, while invariably fascinating, remains background. Melvut is always more concerned with his family and the city itself. Pamuk talks as engagingly about the loneliness of old age, and teenage masturbation as he does about Islamists, or ethnic politics in the suburbs. Often, the narrative voice loses itself in details of urban life, building sites, the contents of fridges, the history of electricity scams or, memorably, a tanker of sheep that runs aground in the Bosporus (with amusing consequences).

If the plot is kept moving by anything it is Melvut’s love for Rahiya and his search for an explanation to the ‘strangeness in his mind’. Why is he so drawn to the streets? Why is he so afraid of stray dogs? But the freedom and sympathy with which Pamuk moves through Melvut’s world means that he never needs to resort to the normal weights and pulleys: problems come and go unexpectedly, taking on more or less significance in unpredictable ways. Although Melvut has his share of hardships, he’s also almost permanently good natured and if this optimism starts to drag, which inevitably it does, Pamuk is always ready to jump into the heads of friends and family members, who address themselves from the page, boldly, secretively, always contradicting one another and arguing for their right to be heard.

In My Name Is Red Pamuk impersonated a tree, a dead-man and – brilliantly – a coin. In Strangeness he limits himself to people, but within those limits he’s at his most promiscuous, chopping and changing perspectives within scenes – though never at the expense of the reader. Most engaging are the women, who are invariably wiser than their men. Pamuk recounts the frustrations of domesticity, but also shows how they take ownership of their lives within these constraints. It soon becomes apparent that it is Melvut’s sister in law, Vediha, who is holding the extended family together.

There is no obvious agenda to any of this, which can become disorientating. But there is a definite thread running through Strangeness: the peculiarity of fiction itself, that ‘strangeness in the mind’ which compels someone to dream up whole worlds. Elsewhere, Pamuk has talked about how he has spent his life ‘narrating the streets of Istanbul’, and about how he feels that the city, its rapidly changing streets, the melancholia of the old buildings, the day-to-day life of the people that work there, has become a part of him, to the extent that he feels he has dreamt the whole thing up; the ultimate romantic vision, if you like, but also one laced with a sense of unease. If Pamuk has dreamed up Istanbul, what is it that he loves beyond his own powers of invention?

Pamuk’s achievement in Strangeness is to square this circle through a tremendous concentration of empathy. As Melvut’s best friend Ferhat, a meter reader, remarks, in a phrase a novelist would die for, ‘everyone in this city has a heart, and an electric meter.’ Pamuk has set all these hearts going, but they appear before the reader as completely human (no small task). Melvut is often struck by how it is ‘difficult… to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.’ Difficult, A Strangeness in My Mind, seems to suggest, but not impossible.

By Jeremy Wikeley