The Slum Landlord, Time: Ellen Cranitch talks to Glyn Maxwell

EC: I wanted to ask you to what extent you regard your new book Pluto as a departure? The long poems explore your relationships, or, like the lyrical ‘Birthplace’, your home town. Writing poetry about personal subject matter is, you’ve said, unusual for you.

GM: I think of ‘Birthplace’ as my ‘Fern Hill’, a poem about where you come from and how that affects things. There’s a fountain in the middle of Welwyn Garden City which is supposed to be the exact centre, then north are the woods, south is towards London, east towards the factories and west is where my house is and all the different streets I know from childhood. I’ve always had a really strong sense of a compass; the poem takes the idea of those compass points and runs with it.

EC: It seems to me that structuring a poem around spatial points reconfigures time – the poem’s development is not linear. A number of the poems have that kind of structure. Did you come out of this book feeling differently about time, perhaps that you’d enacted some kind of a stay against time?

GM: What is there in our lives that disrupts time? Love is one thing and poetry is another. In ‘Birthplace’ I thought, ‘In this poem I’m going to let time run free around my life’. It’s a journey simultaneously in four directions. I mix the tenses up which does sort of reconfigure time. I think perhaps I couldn’t have written quite like this when I was younger; it would have come out as obscure or as a pose, but now at fifty, at the technical midpoint of life, I can. Another poem, ‘The Case of After’, is addressed to Time as the powerful, local slum landlord and it does feel a bit like a stay, saying, ‘You see I’ve paid my dues to you now, alright?’ Time has real power for me as a concept – I personify it all the time.

EC: Can you say a bit more about ‘The Case of After’?

GM: That’s a poem where I felt ready to talk personally about things that have gone on without it somehow feeling an indulgence or a waste of people’s time. I felt like I’d found a different tone there, a voice that was prepared to say anything. This is just about the first time that I’ve written about people exactly as I saw it, not relied on making a character out of bits of people which is what I do in theatre. The four people I mention in ‘The Case of After’ are four actual people. That was a new thing for me, really.

EC: Did you think about ethical boundaries when you wrote it? I was thinking about how differently writers deal with this. On the one hand, Michael Hofmann brought out his book, ‘Acrimony’, about his relationship with his father; on the other, Sharon Olds held back ‘Stags Leap’ for fifteen years till her children were grown up?

GM: I don’t mention anybody by name. I realize that there is perhaps a kinship with Derek Walcott here in writing about relationships; he too doesn’t mention people by name. He tries to accurately represent feelings about things that happened in a way that laments things but is dignified and not self-pitying. I would hope that the people who are involved, whether they recognize themselves or not, recognize that it mattered enough for me to want to remember it. But there’s another point. Lots of poets are surrounded by acrimony, whether parental or marital; on the whole I’ve been surrounded by support and love. It’s a light point, but it’s true – what does the poet who has nothing to really bitch about, write about? They write about time; that is overwhelmingly what I’ve always written about; it’s inexhaustible.

EC: In the first poem, ‘The Byelaws’, each tetrameter line is an antithesis; your lines often carry a strong sense of paradox.

GM: I think the poetic line is the one place I’ve found to preserve two things that don’t make sense together; yet if you write them as a musical line, it becomes a single thing, a heartbeat. In some ways those lines encapsulate the idea that what we ask of other people is preposterous. How could there ever be the circumstances in which love could work? That’s what the whole book’s about really. Thinking about how it holds together, it doesn’t feel like I was cathartically trying to deal with pain – it’s more of a meditation. I think bafflement, romantic bafflement, is quite a fertile field to grow poems on.

EC: You write prolifically and across many different genres. You’ve recently published On Poetry, which sold out its first print run; you’re writing a libretto based on a Philip Pullman short story for an opera that opens at the Royal Opera House in April; you’re writing a novel; your trilogy of plays is being produced; you’re editing a collected Derek Walcott for Farrar, Straus and Giroux and doing an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac for Chester. Do you write in different genres at the same time?

GM: I move around from week to week but not really from day to day. I try to keep one thing top of the pile in a week . Some of these things work on their own when you’re not attending to them. For example, a snarl in a plot will unravel while you’re writing a poem.

EC: Have you always written different genres together?

GM: When I applied to Boston after my undergraduate degree, I applied as a playwright and a poet and a fiction writer because I had work in all three. Everyone always assumes I targeted Derek but I didn’t, it was a complete coincidence. I applied to lots of schools in the US and Boston offered me a scholarship. I didn’t really know who Walcott was at that stage.

EC: Was your relationship with Walcott a classic mentor/student relationship?

GM: Yes, I came out of Oxford with a good degree and I could have been an arsehole – I was in lots of ways at that age – but I wasn’t an arsehole about thinking I knew a lot. I didn’t think I knew a lot about poetry. I was ready to be told things. We hit it off from the start.

EC: You don’t see similarities between your work and his?

GM: No, we don’t use the same forms at all. It’s partly also because he is so visual, perhaps as a result of where he’s from and I’m not especially so. Derek still seems to have an issue about not being a painter which seems bizarre given his success in poetry.

EC: Is it true that you first read WH Auden and Edward Thomas when you were a student in America?

GM: Yeah, Derek Walcott introduced me to them both. I was kind of catapulted into Edward Thomas. It was half way through the semester and we’d got complacent. Derek told all of us students to go away and read Thomas. No one did and when we came back and he asked us questions, no one knew anything and basically he told us to fuck off. We were all utterly chastened.

EC: In On Poetry you trace how the line has been renewed from Marlowe and Shakespeare through Frost and Thomas to Walcott and others. It seems to me one of the characteristics of the penatmeter line in particular is the way it can recast thought, when, under its formal pressure, syntax is thrown into new shapes. Do you think the pentameter line can help generate thought?

GM: I think ultimately that the pentameter is infinitely resourceful. It’s an attractive idea that it might mould thought. If it does, then I think it does it in the same way breath moulds thought; thought doesn’t take place in a vacuum, it’s affected by the heartbeat, by bodily rhythms. Do we think in beats like pentameter? But there’s also another point. Because of Shakespeare we’ve been led to expect every line should encapsulate a thought, advance the argument. What I learned from Thomas is that a line doesn’t have to have a thought in it. It’s good if it simply arrives there. I’m as interested in the sound of someone trying to think of something as I am in a formed thought. In Edward Thomas you get lines which are marking time which is key to how his poems can be contemporary. He brings to the pentameter line an expression of second by second existence, like light hitting the mind.

EC: Can you say something about WH Auden’s influence on you?

GM: Auden showed me how to write the modern world without having to fracture my form in a way that felt unnatural to me. There are so few poets like that in our culture now with an enveloping intellectual world view. But I’m not his pupil anymore. Or Frost’s or Thomas’s. Maybe Thomas’s a little bit. I think I’m probably more like MacNeice. MacNeice is so awake to posture and the physical, the breath thing. You get this sense of life lived on the street, at the level of moments passing.

EC: In On Poetry you cite an example of Auden using a very rigorous rhyme scheme. You write that it ‘makes the walls start closing in. Soon we’re herded into a shrinking space where only these sounds can be uttered: an entire society seems to be running in ever smaller circles. Things like that happened in Europe on Auden’s watch then they happened again on ours’. Can you say something about the inspiration for your long poem, ‘The Sugar Mile’? Is it about 9/11?

GM: It’s in two time frames which refract and comment on each other; it’s about both 9/11 and the East End in the Blitz because the school in Agate street was bombed with such enormous loss of life on almost the same date in September as the attack on the Twin Towers. I was in Massachusetts when 9/11 happened. It felt like the end of the world. I felt so much for New York. It was New York’s absolute tolerance and essential peacefulness as a city, the openness to everybody, that was under attack. My ex-wife knew someone on one of the planes, which brought it home more. But somewhere in that period my dad told me how in London three thousand were killed a night at the height of the Blitz and to hear someone of an older generation who had experienced terror from the sky – that was the first step to having some kind of perspective.

EC: ‘The Sugar Mile’ employs a range of poetic forms..

GM: I am fascinated by different forms and each character, each framed voice, speaks in a different one. I think of the children as different ways Britain could have turned out. Harry is decent but backward-looking, an empire sort; Robbie is what the future actually turned out like.

EC: In a poem, when is the decision taken on form?

GM: For me, it’s taken in the first stanza. This acts as the template for the rest. It’s unconscious; it insinuates itself .

EC: You’ve written in On Poetry about the ‘no-mans-land’ of verse drama…

GM: I don’t see there’s anything archaic about verse drama – speaking in verse is a convention like any other stage convention such as the fact we accept that characters on stage don’t talk over each other. I wish I could get more poets to write for the theatre. What I like about the University of Essex, where I teach, is its USP is its mixture of genres. I’m putting on one of my plays there, written in tetrameter, called ‘Sweet Ways the World Ends’. It’s a trilogy and the idea behind the first play is that a man gets cursed by a nymph so that every word he says he can never use again. So every word he uses he is using for the last time.

EC: Talk about working with parameters! It sounds as though it could be funny…

GM: And sad, it’s funny and sad.

EC: Critics who review your poetry say you have a recognizable voice. Given that as a playwright you create different characters’ voices what is your view on voice in poetry? Is there such a thing as a poet’s ‘voice’? Can a poet write in different voices?

GM: If people describe my voice as dramatic or lyric or comic, I think that’s wrong. What it really is, is the combination of wanting to make a sound that people make on the street, now, yet make it memorable by stringing it on an instrument. In verse-drama the voice thing is difficult. I always think of my favourite poets – Frost, Auden, Eliot, Yeats – and how their theatre doesn’t quite work as theatre because their voices are so strong; so all Auden’s characters sound like Auden and all Yeats’s sound like Yeats. I’m trying to shoot for something different, where I can disappear. I don’t want all my characters to sound like me. I want them to sound different and have different vocabularies. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been writing verse drama because, if you use a constant line, you can measure characters against how fast they think. You can have bright characters who are witty on every line. And you can have characters who can hardly put a thought together and yet the time’s still going by so you get the Beckett or Pinter type of inarticulacy.

EC: Poets starting out can get over-preoccupied as to whether they have found their voice.

GM: What you want to say is: ‘you’ve got too much “voice”. It’s like someone’s else’s. Basically you’ve got someone else’s voice. You’ve got like Simon (Armitage)’s voice or Don (Paterson)’s voice or Alice Oswald’s voice’. I think it’s just a cheap thing to say; it’s easy to say, ‘You haven’t found your voice yet’. It’s just a way of saying ‘this isn’t quite a good enough poem’.

EC: Pluto’s subject matter arises, to some degree, from biography. And this isn’t so much a contradiction as a complication, that in On Poetry you write, ‘the poem has no responsibility to recollected events in life, it can grow organically, it can grow from itself, its only directive is to live as a poem’. That moment when the poem moves away from its original impulse and becomes something else touches on the vexed question of ‘authenticity’. Alice Oswald says that the impulse for the poem is a form of energy which, if it’s strong enough, will create something else which is real. Don Paterson believes that it is its very movement away which constitutes the sign of a poem’s authenticity. What do you think?

GM: I think the poem always becomes something else. As you move into language, it teaches you something else. It’s older and wiser than you; it makes connections you don’t or which you consciously don’t. Maybe it’s a bit like that moment when you’re tired and thought mutates into dream, where you’re not controlling your thoughts anymore and another agency takes over. And I suppose this is one of the reasons that I’ve never got on with what’s called free verse because I feel that if you’re writing like that you’re making it harder for that agency to take over. Because you’re prioritizing what you normally think; your normal thought-processes, your prose thought-processes. But if you’ve got any kind of relationship with a white space or rhyme or sound or metre, any of those things, then you’re allowing something else to begin.