On a darkening autumnal afternoon last year, I met with Dai George to talk about ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’, a poem of his set in an altogether more summery London. The interview took place just after his first collection, The Claims Office, came out from Seren in 2013. Our conversation touched on subjects ranging from the perils of tabulation, to music fandom, to his self-diagnosed Luddism. Along with two or three other poems in the book, ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ has the feeling of a ‘headline’ poem: one with a lot riding on it technically and thematically. It’s structured around the collision of extremes, melding the occasional and the meditative, innovative and traditional, local and international – collisions Jack Belloli also detects in his essay on Dai George for this edition.
Born in Cardiff in 1986, George studied in Bristol and New York, where he received an MFA from Columbia University’s writing programme. The way this particular poem flips between concerns both global and parochial is a gambit characteristic of his work more generally. Rowan Williams noticed the book’s habit of ‘celebrating the local without sentimentality’ at the same time as ‘tackling major matters of political vision’. We discussed this dual perspective at the level of politics, but also of aesthetics, as I asked Dai whether his poetic apprenticeship in the US had left a lingering mark on his work.
Describing it as a little gem ‘rich with Welsh wit, lyricism and spirituality’, Dan Jones chose The Claims Office as an Evening Standard Book of the Year. George’s poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including the Salt Book of Younger Poets and Best British Poetry 2011 and 2013. He has had poems and criticism published in The Guardian Online, The Boston Review, New Welsh Review, Poetry Review and others. I’m also delighted to announce that Dai will be joining the editorial team here at Prac Crit in time for Edition two.
When did you write ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’? And how important to the poem is that sense of temporal specificity?
It was written in August of 2012, and the month of August is referred to quite specifically in that second stanza. It was that summer which had the Olympics in it… and I think it was the Queen’s Jubilee. As with many such British summers it was a bit of a damp squib weather-wise – hence ‘windiest end of August’, which is a play on Wallace Stevens, the ‘earliest ending of winter’.
I wouldn’t say that it’s 100% important, that temporal fixity. It’s a leaping-off point, and that leaping-off point could have been not so tied down to a place and time. But I’m a very narrative writer. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered that term needn’t be a pejorative, in terms of poetry. I always have sketches and rough outlines, and I finally took up this outline to be fleshed out – I’ve always got a couple of dozen potential poems in the notebook – there’s this moment that’s like selecting them from a line-up: ‘You! Today!’ I thought that the time for this one had come, partly because there were certain, as yet unwritten, poems which conceptually I knew I wanted to fit into the collection before it had to be finished.
So this poem arrived quite near the completion of the book?
Yes. The manuscript for my book had to be done by the end of January 2013, so I knew that it was on the horizon. There were a few big, headline poems which I knew I wanted to get in, and they were larger poems. I guess I had a more developed sense of them before I sat down to write them. I went to The Castle, this pub in Harrow on the Hill, which is the ‘well-heeled Hill’ in the poem, and I was sitting down and trying to get the opening lines of it. That situation comes into the poem because I’m that type of writer. But I think a lot of the rest of the poem needn’t have that tethering to a time and place, and if anything… I think that the ‘anchored’ block stanza which alternates with the more split up one – the second, fourth and sixth stanzas – I think that that has more of a straightforward sense of where I was placed than the rest of the poem, which is much more figurative – coming more from my imagination.
Visually at least, that alternating stanza structure is one of the most striking things about the poem, and not a particularly familiar kind of shape. Could you tell me a little bit about your use of indents, and the way this ‘splayed’ four-line stanza alternates with the boxy ‘anchored’ one?
Well, it’s me throwing off the shackles. I was long suspicious of indentation and any sort of management of a poem beyond line and stanza. I thought that if you used those resources well then you didn’t need to have anything else. I’m trying to remember when exactly I threw off those shackles… I don’t think that this is the first poem where I gave myself licence to do it, but it does predate other candidates.
What does that alternating indent – like a winding stair – do for you? I use it quite often in poems, and for me it represents something like the movement of ‘thinking’. Does it do a similar kind of work for you?
I think it does for me as well. On a very miniature level, it represents a turn and revision – a new direction of thought. And it shows that that can happen much more rapidly in the stream of consciousness than, say, waiting around for the volta in a sonnet. I think that when I compose a poem like that, when I read a poem like that, it’s representing something different about thought. And it must have been that which emboldened me to play with the form like that in my own writing. I must have looked at enough poems which do it and thought, well, actually I do value these. It’s not just window dressing. It makes them reason differently.
I’m glad that you brought up the fact that they’re four-line stanzas, because I still do plenty of work with the quatrain. I think that it’s a very important and durable poetic form. I just saw this as a way of renovating it, keeping it current. It has a beautiful balance to it, which goes to the very core of our musical understanding – the idea of things coming in fours. And so a poem which is composed visually like this tends, in my case, to be more ‘Musical’ with a capital M – basically meaning ‘rhythmically exotic and propulsive’. It’s good for a poem that has that sort of visual and sonic music to insist upon its relationship with an older type of song in poetry.
This poem does seem to be about old forms and new forms clashing, old and new machineries. I’ve been reading lots of George Herbert recently, so began to think about these ‘exploded’ (for want of a better term) stanzas as a kind of shape poetry. It’s noticeable that they’re where the recurring idea of weaving, intertwining – the spider and the web – come into the piece. One of this poem’s preoccupations is what we might call a politics of craft. To what extent are the Luddite weavers of the seventh stanza a kind of proxy figure for the poet?
I think it’s secondarily that they are there in some sort of ars poetica way. They’re there first for the poem’s thematic concerns about technology – with things speeding up beyond what you’re comfortable with, and beyond what you know and value. I think the link between them and spiders and twining was probably suggested to me implicitly by the web/Web. I did want that first ‘web’ to be in the literal sense, for it to be suggested in the reader’s mind, and then actually to confront them with quite an advertent, bold stanza about the Internet at the halfway point.
The Luddite figure pops up there because I’m interested in Luddism in all walks of life. At the back of my mind must’ve been some sense of being poetically a Luddite myself – somebody who values older form, who always wants to make sense and, to bring Stevens back, not to ‘resist the intelligence almost successfully’, but to feed and nourish the intelligence. I’ve spoken in another interview, with Transom, about my experience at Columbia when I was doing my writing Master’s. I certainly had the experience of feeling like a Luddite there, as though I just wanted different things from poetry. I’m very glad that I had that experience and was forced to re-evaluate what poetry could be. But there are vestiges of that still in me. I do want a poem to nourish me. I don’t like it when I spend a while reading poetry and end up feeling that prose is a refuge, that I get more enjoyment out of prose because it’s feeding the intelligence more directly. Which is not to say that I don’t think poetry gives you more, and different, types of meaning; that it’s related to music, in form and rhythm, in a way that prose just isn’t. It’s different to prose, and it does have a different relationship with the conscious intelligence. But the conscious intelligence is much more in the mix for me then I would say it is for the contemporary poets that I met in America. And I have always identified with the story of the Luddites, seeing it as, on one level, fair play.
I can see that the Luddite figure is only part of a wider concern here with obsolescence: this poem is toying with the idea of being current – and also of being out of date even before a certain moment in the national consciousness has passed. Your self-characterization just now as a British poet who’s written and studied in America makes me want to ask in what sense is this a British poem? ‘My kingdom’, ‘my country’: how far do we need we break that down? In what sense is it a Welsh poem?
Shall I start at the Welsh level and then build back up? Certainly the Welsh level is here, but as part of the wider UK project, which of course it belongs to politically as well as poetically. The Welsh dimension of this poem is to do with Dylan Thomas, who I was conscious of when I was starting to approach this book as a book, finally, and not just a matter of amassing all of my poems. For a Welsh poet who’s trying to make a statement, in trying to come out of the traps with their first collection and to be new and different, I had to go back to Dylan Thomas. I’ve got a bit of a pet theory that Dylan Thomas scared Welsh poetry off into quite a cosy space. It’s around about the time of Dylan’s demise that you see the rise of a different type of Anglo-Welsh poetry: much safer than Dylan Thomas, rather more suspicious of his overt music.
I always find – this is the counterpoint to the Luddite part of the poem – the plainspoken prosiness of some of that type of Welsh poetry anathema. I don’t like it. I cringed when I read certain twentieth-century Welsh poetry anthologies, and I just thought, well, no wonder we don’t have our Heaney. We really did retreat after Dylan Thomas, because he was so unabashedly engaged with some sort of bardic, florid type of writing. A certain kind of Welsh poetry afterwards recoiled from it, became more socially engaged, and more limited in its forms. There are lots of poets very broadly of that ilk of whom I’m very fond – people like John Ormond and Mike Jenkins – but for me to write a Welsh poetry debut which I thought was worth writing, and for it to be Welsh with a capital W, rather than just an incidental fact of my biography, for it to address, in some ways, the ‘Matter of Wales’ as it’s called, I had to go back to Dylan Thomas. I wanted to get some of that florid music back, claim it as a positive thing. There are certain lines in this poem where I do feel I was trying to be unashamedly Thomas-esque.
So where does his shade appear?
Particularly ‘just as / my death in the eyes of the dying // is but a fissure in a knackered edifice / so does my country deserve no song / to mourn its impending eclipse’. Obviously the ‘knackered edifice’ is something rather more contemporary, but (even if I do say so myself) I hear a lot of Dylan Thomas in that. And ‘The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’, I think that’s in there, and it’s very much a young man’s poem. I was trying to confront that and not be embarrassed by it, as some Welsh poets have been.
I’m also quite clear about how Wales is a part of the UK. So when I say ‘just / as my kingdom fawns on summer champions’, I do mean the United one, which was just then writing all sorts of hagiographies for its Olympic effort and its garlanded Olympians. Some of which was great – I remember being up in a pub earlier in August when the Olympics was still on, cheering Jessica Ennis to a gold medal. I’ve always looked forward to the Olympics, but did find myself turned off by the spectacle of 2012. And I guess I anticipated that, somewhat, by saying that the kingdom that fawns on summer champions is like a child that’s pointing at the things that they want, and then the toy will be changed; they’ll want something else.
I’m increasingly growing obsessed by the globalized political landscape, and not in a way that I ever saw myself being. In my teenage years when I read Naomi Klein dutifully, and thought myself very clever for doing so, I guess I would have thought that caring about globalization meant something polemic. My response to it was more or less scripted already. Then I had a break from caring, from feeling very political, which coincidentally happened at the same time as my student years. But for one reason or another since then – it might have to do with listening to the radio more, to being unemployed for periods of that time, and being on tenterhooks about the economic situation in a way that’s almost like a soap opera – I started wondering about the global economy that we currently have. Wondering whether it is desirable, whether it could be just, whether it could be compatible with what I have always assumed to be my values. But certainly one of the on-going themes in current affairs throughout my mid-twenties was the fact that Britain was going to get left behind – that the emerging economies were going to take its place. I’ve never quite been able to figure out what I think about that, and the idea of competition. You’d hear all the time that our children are going to be ‘in competition’ with somebody from South Korea, who has got better computer and mathematical skills. Otherwise very respectable and, in some cases even compassionate and right-on politicians, who I’d listen to as far as I would any politician, they seemed to ascribe to this narrative of competition. As if we were in competition with people in the BRIC countries. With that putative kid in South Korea who’s going to be giving our – British – kids a dusting in twenty years’ time, or maybe already is. Because if it is a competition, as they describe, then – what, are we saying that we should be richer than other people? And then I came back to feeling suspicious of globalization again. It might be the same sort of feeling as that which goes into ‘my country deserves no song / to mourn its impending eclipse’.
Those lines, in light of what you’ve just said, feel like a paradox. The soon-to-be-eclipsed nation might merit ‘no song’, and yet that that passage, for you, is one of the most song-like moments in a poem that’s consciously evoking a Dylan Thomas-like music. Is it a song that negates itself?
I think it’s trying to have its cake and eat it, isn’t it? Because it’s saying, ‘Things are changing, we don’t deserve the luxury of crying about this change, and yet it’s a change to what I know and value.’ And let’s not forget that the onward march of globalization is often seen as an excuse, a pretext, for dismantling the type of community that elsewhere in the collection I elegize.
Towards the end of ‘Boys of Leisure’ especially – another of the longer poems in the book, and the one that most feels like a companion piece to ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’…
Yes, the communitarian world of South Wales, which has always been a huge point on my personal landscape – a part of my family mythology, my local mythology. And actually, not a mythology, because the more you look into it, the more you’re impressed by the world that existed in South Wales in the early to mid twentieth century. And maybe that country deserves a song to mourn its impending eclipse.
There’s also a quieter strain of social commentary here – the satirical edge in the Harrow on the Hill stanza, or the way the speaker walks past the terraced homes which would have been built for, and once occupied by, exactly the kind of labourer who is threatened with loss of livelihood in the Luddite stanza – and yet which are presumably no longer occupied by the working class. The speaker notes he would not be able to afford them ‘in a prism of Sundays’. ‘Referendum for Living’ is another poem in the book that thinks about the tension between apathy and the desire for political change. Do you think of this poem, and the collection more widely, as negotiating a political commitment?
I had a very clear moment when I thought, ‘What is my poetry actually about? How can it escape autobiography?’ Actually, not escape, because I think it will always be autobiographical – that’s one of the first places that I start when writing the poem, the lyric. But how can it expand and take on more than just ‘me and my feelings’? I think it gets my dander up when people suggest that political poems are doomed, are always going to be fairly hollow, tub-thumping things. It’s an old, old debate, that at least spans the twentieth century, and Yeats and Auden: can poetry make anything happen? I’ve never been under many illusions about a poem making something happen, but I’ve always felt that a poem is an act of personal witness, and a witness to what you value.
I’ve had arguments – very good-natured ones – with Mark Waldron about, to put it in a posh way, the ‘lyric self’, and whether that’s even tenable. Whether there could be an ‘I’ behind a particular poem, let alone an ‘I’ with any stability, or anything worthwhile to communicate, let alone an ‘I’ which might coherently be traced to the actual poet. For me, I know that’s possible in my poetry, though I certainly feel the pressure of different feelings, different identities, bearing down on that lyric moment. And sometimes they rupture it. I think there must be times in ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ where it’s far from a stable worldview that’s coming into play. But I still think of most poems, and the ones which are closest to my heart, and those I think my best, as representing some nuance of who I am. But political witness? I don’t know. I think I would start to feel uncomfortable if a poem of mine was to be used as Auden’s poetry was in the Spanish Civil War. I think there’s something heroic about that, which I do feel nostalgic for. But the act of witness, even if it seems futile, probably isn’t futile because, on a personal level, it’s disburdened me of something that I felt I had to say. And I hope that it maybe offers some lightening of that load for somebody else who might read it and feel similarly.
Can I ask you about those striking lines, which comes just after the ones we were discussing, ‘Yes, this is hostile. This is flowers / battering like stags to breathe.’ That ‘Yes’ seems to be responding to an interjection from an unheard, internal voice. Or is the speaker pre-emptively responding to a challenge from an implied reader?
But also there’s that’s really interesting double simile, which verges on mixed metaphor: ‘This is flowers / battering like stags to breathe.’ Earlier on the poem speaks about ‘botched conjunctions’, ‘portmanteau’, things being slammed together in the degraded, debased language of corporate acronyms and bumf. Could it be that that cramming-together starts to infect the metaphorical register of the poem, which has previously been so poised in the way that it delineates its similes?
I suppose the very phrase, ‘This is flowers / battering like stags to breathe’ is quite colloquial in itself, and at right angles to that ornate, overarching, ‘Just as… So does…’, which is a very formal and correct way of setting up a metaphor. ‘Yes, this is hostile. This is flowers / battering like stags to breathe’ does collapse that, I suppose. I hadn’t connected it with the acronyms, with the bumf, and the corporate sense of the phrase ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’. It is a poem about simile, and how in the modern world things being yoked together is not necessarily for the good, just as in poetry things being yoked together is not necessarily for the good. It can land you in mixed metaphor and other types of hot water. I suspect that I probably had a more straightforward and, to myself, charitable sense of that simile though: flowers battering like stags to breathe, like one of those examples of sped-up photography of jungle flora…
I think I can picture the footage, the timelapse David Attenborough plants jiggling their way upwards…
I think at that moment I am confronting the reader. The ‘Yes’ is addressed to the reader. It’s not to… maybe it is, at some level, to myself; there’s no definitive answer there. I think that yes is saying, ‘Yes, the poet is a powerful being, at least when you’re reading their poem. Yes, I’m bringing these things together, and the poet might offer an alternative to the debased types of mergers and acquisitions, the homogenisations, the regressions, and the race to the bottom that is offered by the politics and economics of our times.’ And, I suppose, trying to be confident in saying, ‘Yes, that’s a good thing for a poet to be doing, and this poem is hostile.’
I was also trying to get in some of the language of rap music there. ‘Yes. This is hostile.’ There’s a great Public Enemy song on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which starts with a little sample dialogue where some media commentator is going, ‘too black, too strong’. And then Public Enemy come rushing in saying basically, ‘Yes, we’re too black. Yes, we’re too strong. Deal with it.’ Now, obviously, I’m no Public Enemy, at many levels, but ‘Yes, this is hostile’ was trying to get in some of that bolshie language from hip-hop.
Let’s talk about simile and metaphor – this human tendency to have one thing stand for another thing, whether it’s a poetic trope, or a banknote. I’m interested in this little window into the world of stags and flowers, because, possibly slightly fancifully, it reminded me of the way that Homeric simile will open a window onto a world completely removed from the Trojan battlefield where fighters are dying. Simile lends this poem’s fabric its repeated, highly formalized syntax of ‘Just as… So does…’ Could you tell me about why simile became so central to this poem, not just as a figure of speech, but as a figure of thought?
I’ll talk about ‘Just as… So does…’ first. I think I read a sentence which was structured that way – who knows what it was – prose, certainly. And I remember just thinking, ‘That’s a really handsome sentence.’ You do have these little complex sentence forms, which a good writer can stockpile and avail themselves of. And, ah – that way of broaching a simile is just so beautiful: ‘just as something, so does something else’ –
Elegant in its indirection – it takes you one way and then…
Exactly. It’s a sentence which is at once very perfect and correct, but shirks away from having a clear subject. You’re not sure which part is the sub-clause… So, back to my notebook. I had a note for a poem – the notes are often trivial little things – called ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’, which would be about the modern world. Other than that, it just says ‘just as / so does poem’. And I knew I was going to write that structure to town. I’m always on the lookout for new ways of starting off poems, because I bore myself sometimes when it’s a formulaic sentence that starts with the subject. There are plenty in The Claims Office which will do that, but I try to have other tricks up my sleeve.
It’s just a beautiful way of structuring a sentence and I wanted to write a poem which would exploit it. Not simply exploiting it in the weak sense of using, but making it bust a gut for you, and probably be forced beyond what it ought to be made to do. And from there, I got to thinking about simile itself and how, as a rhetorical move, as a tactic in your poem or in your discourse, if you’re reaching for a simile, you’re trying to do something quite exploitative and manipulative of the reader. You’re trying to charm them, or get their imagination worked up in some way. Occasionally – the plain-language types, people like Orwell, would probably say it’s very occasionally – you’ll read a simile which is just so and improves clarity, but more often they’re just there for our imaginative experience.
‘Politics and the English Language’ is in here, isn’t it? Particularly in the ‘botched conjunctions, portmanteaux’ stanza – the idea that excesses of style might serve to obfuscate (political) realities.
Yes, Orwell drove me insane. I love ‘Politics and the English Language’. I love all his essays, like ‘Why I Write’, where he’s engaging with the English language and the ethics of the English language. I just find them fascinating, but they’re also in many places barmy, batshit crazy, and it’s impossible for even him to take his own advice. It would be a mean-spirited thing to do, but you could go through Orwell and chalk up all the instances where he contravenes his own laws for good language: places where he uses foreign phrases in italics where an English word would do, et cetera. And part of my thinking about Orwell has always been… well, there is no clear speech, no plain expression. And yes, there’s something very iniquitous that’s done by politicians with language.
The ‘intrigue over how to phrase / the question’, as you put it in ‘The Referendum’…
Yes, exactly. Something very diabolical about how questions are put in politics and answers given. But it doesn’t follow that the antidote is some sort of doughty, honest plain speech. For me and the speaker of this poem, it’s the language of the mind which is rich and strange and has a different type of indirection to the indirection of the politician.
Let’s move on to the economic metaphors and concepts in this poem. It reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s aphorism, ‘Money is a kind of poetry’.
If you look at any sort of article on global finance, even as you might be horrified, it’s impossible not to feel a little bit intoxicated by the systems of language and description that they have for their own activities. It is a type of poetry. And I think in ‘Inside the Company’ – which is probably my bluntest political instrument, though that’s not to say my worst – there’s a moment in ‘Inside the Company’ which… for people who may not have read it, it’s a poem about infiltrating the headquarters of a multinational corporation and ultimately blowing it up. It’s not a poem to be recited as you go through the metal detectors at the airport. But there’s a moment in it where the speaker pauses, and he’s in the company, and he says, ‘Not caring feels better. I relax into money’s / beatific colour scheme, imagine myself / a part of this, a player’.
Well, on one very obvious level, what’s not to like about money? But then, on a less obvious level, I can imagine myself in a slightly different world, where I made slightly different choices – with the same intellect and capacities – squaring some sort of career in that type of global finance and finding it beautiful and worthy. Or at least obscuring from myself the fact that it’s not. And I think that the language of it is certainly a part of that. But, to give credit where it’s due, I’m certainly not the first poet to be aware of the possibilities of co-opting the language of finance.
Did you have any other poems in mind?
One very much in particular: a teacher of mine at Columbia called Timothy Donnelly, who’s also a very excellent poet. His second collection, The Cloud Corporation, does it on a wide scale. The title poem in that collection, in particular, plays with that language of… obfuscation – but for some people, immense opportunity. And I think I was trying to follow in Tim’s footsteps. The phrase, ‘mergers and acquisitions’, is a beautiful, ripe piece of financial euphemism, replete with its own poetry. I think it’s one of those cases where you had two parts: I knew I was going to write a just as… so does… poem, and I knew I was going to write a poem called ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’, and the two bits slide together. And so the ‘mergers and acquisitions’ became about simile-making in a poem, but also about the way that things are co-opted and changed and debased in the modern world through economics and, therefore, through the language of economics.
The repeating structure of the ‘just as… so does…’ pushes us to wonder at what point the analogy, the metaphor, the system will break down. And on that note, of systems breaking down, in what sense is this a post-credit crunch poem?
Every sense. It is written post-credit crunch, so many of the reference points are to that – housing bubbles, the inflation of property prices – and the last line of the poem… I try not to take last lines lightly. I did have a bit of a debate with myself about whether to settle on something so apparently concerned with the poet’s own comfort, or the comfort of his culture. This last line offers the fantasy of a purchased home, which after the credit crunch seems quite a distant fantasy for people such as me. And whilst we’re on that line, for me, that’s why it’s not a straightforwardly leftist or radical poem – I’m pining after those comforts. I think that any left-of-centre politics worth its while needs to have those comforts as its goal for everybody. That line is a cri de coeur for the dispossessed twenty-something.
Tell me about that phrase, ‘money, a neutral liquid’. I picture a kind of fluid gold bullion, but was pondering why it’s ‘neutral’. Is it neutral in the sense that it’s reflective, is nothing in itself – its symbolic value comes from representing other things? So ‘money, a neutral liquid’, is that also pointing back to a kind of ars poetica moment of thinking about language, and poetry, as a circulating medium?
I hadn’t thought of that actually – obviously the neutral liquid is water, something vital for life. I think I was just thinking about how money had become, rather than something which facilitated life, something which is, in so many cases, toxic. So the first meaning is certainly political, rather than part of an ars poetica. Again, one of the reasons why this couldn’t be termed a radical poem: I stop short of imagining a world without money. I don’t really have the imagination for that. I think that there must be some sort of meaningful mode of exchange, but it needs to be detoxified, to be a neutral thing which could flow. This is again down to listening to Evan Davis on the Today programme, all of these interviews you’d have with heads of banks about getting credit flowing again and priming the British pump; which is a type of rhetoric that you end up swallowing quite unthinkingly. It’s not something which I see being possible, unfortunately, but it’s what left politics has to strive for, in my view.
I’d like to start slowly working our way round to talking about the Internet – the ‘Web’ that ‘started up its racket in the Logos slums’ – and its much-discussed effect on contemporary poetic discourse. The simile that spans the third and fourth stanzas, about the child fastening to the catalogue and crying for the toy which then becomes, in its turn, a ‘jilted thing…in a warehouse, boxed’ – it made me think of the self-professed ‘old fogeyness’ you joked about earlier. Are you ever conscious, as you write, of the need to try to extend the diminished attention span of an Internet-acculturated readership?
The length of a poem might be one way of going about that – there are several longer poems in the book. Though, as your invocation just now of the ‘lyric moment’ suggests, the length of a poem per se is not actually a very good way of judging the prolongation of an attention span…
Because the shortest poems can be the most demanding… But yes, I’m super aware of how I’ve got some long poems in the book. Although I’m glad there’s only one three-pager, ‘Seven Rounds with Bill’s Ghost’. I’m also aware that, in my own head, the longer poems are definitely the set pieces. They’re the hinges of the book. They’re the poems I’m proudest of and, if I was to show just a snapshot of the book – so when I’m planning a set for a reading – they’re the poems I end up being drawn to. Even though it’s suicide, because attention spans at a reading are even shorter than they are on the page.
It’s something I need to work on actually. You’ve seen ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’, a new poem, which is another one where I let myself expand upon a narrative moment. I think we do get a little bit puritanical about long poems – at least I’ve heard that around and about. My wonderful, glorious teacher, Lucie Brock-Broido at Columbia, used to say, for any thesis manuscript she was supervising, you’re allowed – I can’t remember the actual figure, but let’s say… at most three-page turners. And ‘page-turner’, in a poetry context, it’s not a good thing like it is in fiction, where getting someone to turn the pages is what you want. Forcing someone to turn the page in a poem – so they groan, ‘Agh, there’s more!’ – I think many people see that as a failure of economy. But I also think there is such a thing as a good longer poem. And again, Tim Donnelly might have pointed the way here. I was struck by the The Cloud Corporation, which is a book that influenced me a great deal, that its poems took their sweet time, that they amplified.
Often you will see the poems in The Claims Office expanding to the horizon of a second page, but then I’ll trim them back. Having that sense of whether you’re going on to a second page or not is really important, and you should query yourself as you pass that point. But I don’t think that I’m doing it intentionally, to test the reader and to challenge them to pay attention.
It’s often said the Internet has changed the ways we process and, above all, connect information. This is a poem about connecting things in ways that might not always be appropriate. In that warning note we might even glimpse the ghost of Arachne in her web – the idea of the artist who’s punished for her virtuosity. Can I ask you about the web/Web as an idea and symbol here?
I see that – although I think that the web can affect, in obvious ways, the virtuosity of writers by giving them such instant access to provocations and research and tidbits and things which spur the imagination. I definitely think there’s such thing these days as an ‘Internet poem’. It’s about something – a little scrap of something or other, a story, an interesting thing – that can be encapsulated either in a small Wikipedia article or a poem. And so my poem, ‘Oran-Bati’, which I originally wrote for Roddy Lumsden’s Cryptozoology project – everyone had to write a poem about a mythical or semi-mythical creature for a reading at the Betsey Trotwood – is obviously a Wikipedia poem, because if I didn’t have my little tabs open on what an ‘Oran-Bati’ is – the topic which was assigned to me – I wouldn’t know where to begin. You end up relying on the Internet a lot as a writer these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was already a game in existence where you write a poem based on a randomly-generated Wikipedia article. It certainly loosens you up writing about things which you wouldn’t if it was up to you.
This is a roundabout way of saying the obvious thing: that yes, the Internet brings with it many opportunities. It opens up all sorts of avenues that weren’t available even 25 years ago. I have no experience of trying to be a writer without the internet. So the idea of not being able to check a detail out, or break off my fruitless labors and go to try and find something more interesting to talk about – I just don’t know what writing would be like if you didn’t have these vast resources at your fingertips. But implicit in these answers – you can hear it – is this hunch that it shouldn’t be that easy; that you lose something in the labour of the poem by having too much quirky information available to you.
So how does that sit with ‘so do I flail in the net of being born / too near technology’s final coup’?
Well, first of all, that line comes from a more general feeling than just what the Internet’s done to writing and writers. It comes from this very genuine, but totally paranoid, sense I have that lots of the cultural forms I hold dear are being eradicated by the Internet, the most obvious one being rock and pop music. The physical media of that has always been important to me.
I find the pop culture of the second half of the twentieth century a glorious, fascinating thing. And I would be quite happy if the Internet had not touched anything to do with pop music, if there was no such thing as an mp3. I know lots of people who think that’s nuts. You’ve got this whole vast library at your disposal. Whenever anything’s mentioned, click-click, there you have it, mostly at no expense to you. Except that I, Luddite that I am, valued buying things and going to record shops. It is very strange – I know I can still do all of that, but mostly I don’t. Because I feel I don’t want to be the last person in a ghost town who’s still buying CDs.
All the jobs I wanted to do – being a journalist, being a writer, being a pop star – seem to be directly under threat by the Internet. Everything that created the twentieth century world that I know, and is largely what I value, seems rather threatened by the Internet – the bricks-and-mortar way of doing things. I mean that obviously in a wide figurative sense.
Can I ask you about that line, ‘started up its racket in the Logos slums’? I was struck by the unexpectedness of the word ‘slums’ – it made me, at least, do a double-take, think momentarily I’d misread ‘Logos’ for ‘Lagos’. The Internet is one of the forms of media that pushes back the frontiers of our globalized world and so can show us the slums of distant countries we might not otherwise see. But here the Web is a racket?
Yeah, sure. There is that halfway moment in the poem when – it may not be exactly halfway – where the Web takes on its capital letter. So that half of the metaphor, ‘Just as I rail against the hour that the Web / started…’ – the ‘racket’ is almost like a mobster there – like a heavy that goes around the neighborhood and forces you to pay protection money. And it seems that lots of creative endeavor is in that sort of relationship with the Internet these days – it has to pay protection money. It has to give itself away for free. The defenders of free content would say that, in return, it gets a vast shot in the arm, and suddenly information, cultural exchange is amplified by it. That it’s expanded beyond our wildest dreams and the returns from that are worth any losses. Whereas – it’s not just a career artist’s point of view – I think that the losses count. It’s not just about the fact that increasingly content has to be for free and I want to get paid for my content. The freedom of content creates a dissipation of attention, an overwhelming quality to what’s on offer. And there is no meaningful way of opposing it. It’s this heavy in your slum. So the ‘slums of Logos,’ the Word, I see it as this vast urban sprawl. It’s flourishing like a slum flourishes, the written word – and maybe artistic endeavor more generally. That’s me in a pessimistic moment, obviously.
As we wind to a close, can I take you back once more to the question of this poem’s ‘Britishness’? We touched on it earlier in a political sense, but didn’t quite get round to poetics. There are very few poets writing in the UK at the moment who have experienced an MFA setting in the States. Do you think your training in the US gives you a unique perspective on the British poetry scene? What did you gain from that time? Is there any residual ‘Americaness’ to your writing?
From a craft point of view, I suppose no answer would make sense if we didn’t draw some general distinctions. Let’s say that American poetry is more expansive, more visually experimental, more actually experimental in terms of the words on the page as well. Less about something. Again, Lucie Brock-Broido would very clearly say that she didn’t think that poems could be about anything. And I always railed against that. But it was a very necessary provocation for me to experience. I think it comes back to ‘Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself’, and the idea that a poem isn’t reflective of this real world experience – real world experience X. It creates a new one. So it’s not like a satellite of the real world, reflecting the light from the main star that is your life, your experience, and the poem just cops some of that reflected glory. It is the central star. It’s the sun. It radiates its own experience in the world. That’s basically what we’ll say the American – what one American view of poetry – is. Billy Collins wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to that, but the American poets I was meeting at Columbia, certainly.
And then Britain is what? I’ve tried to put the American case in more or less descriptive, rather than value-laden terms, but if you create a distinction for Britain, it’s hard to do that: ‘It’s just little traditional diary-entry style poems, little lyric performances.’ I don’t think it is that. But British poetry is, shall we say, more conventionally intelligible, closer to prose, on some sort of continuum which has avant-garde poetry at one end and the back of a box of cereals at the other… and maybe more often engaged in identity politics.
Having drawn those two generalized portraits, where does ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ fit into that? Well, I think I’m trying to get some of the adventure and pleasure in sound – trying to import some of that from America into a type of British poetry which isn’t afraid of the intelligibility I started the interview saying is always foremost in my mind. So the poets who maybe are behind this are people like Tim Donnelly, C.K. Williams… and also seeing how that type of style might be refracted through younger British poets, like Ahren Warner. I was trying to make that type of poem work for my subject matter, because I knew that I’d find it very hard to get away from my type of politics and identity politics. And I also wasn’t at all convinced that it was desirable to do so. For me, if the dictum of my American friends was ‘Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself’, I took a much less fashionable one – originally, in my experience, from the title of the Manic Street Preachers album, but more accurately from Aneurin Bevan: This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Whatever you may take your truth to be – Mark Waldron’s type of truth is very different from mine – that was the goal. I still think that’s a really noble goal. And however I chose to tell my truth, I wasn’t going to do it by getting rid of all of the social fabric that’s in this poem, and is in the majority of the poems in The Claims Office. I’ve found most poetry which does try to do away with social relations to be a rather bloodless, anaemic thing. I can’t get into all that many poems where there’s no human being in sight. But I love the formal adventure that some of those rigours of the academic American poem have set in motion.
Just as two dandelions choke in the web
a spider laid to trick his evening kill,
so do I flail in the net of being born
too near technology’s final coup.
At the windiest end of August,
in a cardigan upon the well-heeled hill,
I drink with my neighbours – the girl in boots,
the book swap and the gastro pie – and just
as my kingdom fawns on summer champions,
so does a child fasten to a catalogue and cry
methodically in yearning for this toy then that before
a rival craze gazumps it and the jilted thing
goes dusty in a warehouse, boxed.
I walk back past terraced homes I’ll not
afford in a prism of Sunday springs,
and just as the pension book signifies
a grizzled sexpot where the taste prefers
a salt-and-pepper dusting on the chin,
so in some quarters does my face belong
to colour supplements and record books.
I long to be free of the lurch
to September with its milksop gifts
but, just as the river excels in its bed,
so am I bound to be locked to it.
Just as I rail against the hour that the Web
started up its racket in the Logos slums,
so does a weaver take a mallet to his loom
and spurn it with a thump to halt the clock.
Nothing alters. This life proceeds
via botched conjunctions, portmanteaux,
through acronyms and bumf. And just as
my death in the eyes of the dying
is but a fissure in a knackered edifice
so does my country deserve no song
to mourn its impending eclipse.
Yes, this is hostile. This is flowers
battering like stags to breathe. But
just as the discovered tomb resolves
our vision of the Pharaoh’s court,
so may there come a day when gold
clarifies to the flesh it masked. So may
our shareholdings melt away and leave
the bullion of our livelihoods: warm bread,
purchased homes, and money a neutral liquid.
From The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.