No 17 - Winter 2000/1
An Interview with Fleur Adcock
I interviewed Fleur Adcock on 7 October 2000 in her Victorian house in East Finchley, where she has lived since 1967. Her garden has prompted several poems and on a number of occasions she has drawn on the neighbourhood. In ‘Next Door’ she wonders at her elderly neighbours’ run of bad luck, the startling multiplication of their cats. The last time we conducted a taped interview was back in 1991 at the Hotel Metropoli in Genoa. I reminded her of that and drew on the earlier interview to see whether there were any basic changes in outlook. It had been a busy week. The previous evening Fleur had read her translation from Dante’s Inferno at the Purcell room. Now she seemed tired, was keen to establish that she "had done" with poetry, that we might see Poems 1960-2000 in a kind of posthumous light.
JS: Bloodaxe brought outPoems 1960-2000 this year and the book has been widely reviewed. Are you pleased, surprised, disappointed by the reception of the book?
FA: Well, on the whole I’m fairly pleased; both pleased and surprised because I never got such good reviews when I was alive! People are reviewing something that was done last century and last century all my reviews were very "on the one hand, but on the other...". Now people are being rather mellow towards me, now that it doesn’t matter.
JS:Poems 1960-2000 is almost 300 pages long. Compared with the earlier OUP volumes it provides the reader with a very different kind of aesthetic experience.
FA: Yes, my single volumes were conceived as volumes and they tended to have some co-ordinating theme, some reason they were together in one book. I find it rather hard to find my way around in this great ragged bundle of stuff. I like the individual volumes. But then it’s convenient to have all this stuff together, very tidy – it’s all there for posterity. (Laughter). Sorry to go on about posterity. I know I’m not dead yet!
JS: Was there a particular decision-making process behind the composition of the book, what to exclude, etc.?
FA: No! I didn’t make any decisions about it. At the time I wasn’t typing anyway because of the RSI – that was before I got the Voice Recognition Software – so I left it to my editor Neil Astley. Also, I don’t do what Derek Mahon does. I’ve just been reading a review of Derek Mahon’s new book and he rewrites everything, completely re-composes, reviews his entire oeuvre. I don’t mess around with anything I published before. If it’s published it’s in the public domain. Either I censor it out or print it as it stands.
JS: So nothing is erased forPoems 1960-2000?
FA: I did all that when I did the Selected Poems (1983). That’s when I did the censorship, got rid of all the crap, the ones I couldn’t stand the sight of, or at least most of them. There are still a few left but I don’t read from the early pages of my Selected Poems.
JS: Quite a few reviewers have seized upon ‘Goodbye’, that final poem at the end of the Kensington Gardens sequence, which in effect bringsPoems 1960-2000 to an end. You conclude by saying "What wanted to be said is said". Are you really presenting this as a full stop or is it, to use one of your own phrases, more of a "witty tease"? I note that since then the Guardian has published a poem called ‘The Ex-Poet’ in which you refer more directly to physical factors which might slow up the writing process.
FA: But that’s really the typing process, which is affected by my RSI. I don’t use keyboards now. I use Voice Recognition Software and in any case I can write with a pen or pencil. Not at great length, nor do I particularly want to. But going back to that Kensington Gardens poem that was the end of that sequence. I had a "residency" in Kensington Gardens and I wrote that poem on the last day waiting for people to arrive and it was autumnal and yes, constituted a kind of full stop. What I wanted to say about Kensington Gardens had been said but it also did for the wider thing if you like to look at it like that. But in general I’ve just got less interested in writing poetry, it just doesn’t excite me as it used to. I’ve done it; it’s the day job. When the forbidden pastime, the thing you did under your desk at school or work becomes your way of earning a living, the glitter goes from it. But you’re not allowed to say this; people are terribly, terribly shocked. And of course I can’t imagine not writing but that doesn’t mean I want to be composing lyric poetry in my head. What really grips me, what I continue to compose is the narrative of my family history.
JS: I want to come on to the question of family history because it’s especially important in your work. But firstly I wanted to remind you of the interview we had in the Hotel Metropoli in Genoa, just after the publication ofTime-Zones in 1991. You then remarked that your work had moved away from a rather more formal voice to a relaxed, colloquial mode.
FA: Well, ten years isn’t actually that long, so I don’t think there’s been a further development of that kind. The movement from the formal to the colloquial is something which happens in all forms of art. I often quote someone like Matisse who became much more relaxed and sketchy. You have to learn to draw, you have to learn all the poetic equivalents of that, the metrical stuff, the techniques and when you’ve done those, you stop being so uptight about it. You rhyme if you feel like rhyming, or you use more formal metres according to the subject matter. You don’t feel as if someone’s marking it. I used to feel there was some teacher or professor up there saying "Hang on, this rhyme’s not perfect!"
JS:Looking Back, your last OUP volume, was published in 1997. But family history has long been one of your poetic subjects. I’m thinking of, for example, ‘The Voyage Out’ from The Scenic Route.
FA: Yes, I’ve long been doing family history. It’s not just a recent preoccupation. Even before this more recent research about my English ancestors I was writing about my mother’s family, from Northern Ireland. Though when I look back at ‘The Voyage Out’, I have to say it was not entirely authentic in that I got the details from a handbook for emigrants from the old Colonial Office Library where I was then working. So the "half a gill of this" and "a few ounces of that" were for the steerage passengers and my mother’s grandparents had paid their passage so they would have been a bit more comfortable. But, yes, the impulse behind the poem is similar. The work on my English ancestors, ancestors who go much further back, comes from other kinds of documentation which I’ve had to find out for myself.
JS:Looking Back is divided into two parts. It’s the first part which deals directly with family history and genealogy. In the Genoa interview we were talking about an ancestral poem by the Romanian poet Grete Tattler, one of the two Romanian poets you’ve translated. You went on to say "I wouldn’t embroider facts, I believe in the absolute direct pure truth".
FA: Well yes, that’s how I feel about family history. You can have the speculations but make sure you show it’s speculation. In the poems I am of course putting words into people’s mouths, imagining being someone pregnant in the year 1800, or being someone else I give words to without having any solid basis, but that’s literary licence. I don’t introduce anything I don’t know of.
JS: I would readLooking Back as both history and poetic play. The poetry isn’t subservient to the history.
FA: Yes, and the reason I didn’t do more of them, probably, is not because I was short of people who fascinated me but because I had used all the approaches I could think of, all the different ways of getting these people into a poem. So there’s the one about the photograph and there’s the one about the gravestone and there’s the one about Peter Wentworth having a conversation with my father and then there’s the one about an ancestor who comes to me in a dream. So all these different approaches are different poetic ways of handling the material. If I were to write more I think the treatment would become repetitive.
JS: History itself is a kind of fiction.
FA: Yes, of course, and people tell lies. You can’t always rely on Birth Certificates, which are always considered gospel truth. I had an aunt on my great-grandfather’s side who kept on having children after her husband’s death and she simply registered them as his children. What else could she do? You begin to suspect all kinds of fabrications. People who didn’t have a legitimate father would make one up for their marriage certificates. No, you can never be certain.
JS: There’s a particular sympathy for your female ancestors.
FA: Yes, naturally. A lot of them don’t get enough attention because not enough is known about them. Women weren’t allowed to make wills, for example, unless they were widowed or single. Very occasionally a married woman could. And when they did they often mentioned clothes because they didn’t have any land to leave. I find it refreshing when someone speaks of their old black beaver hat. Suddenly you’re aware of their physical presence.
JS: This sympathy is there right in the second poem, ‘Framed’. It asks why Grandpa is in the silver frame whilst Grandma is still "shyly veiled in tissue paper". In effect you’re giving your female ancestors – women in general – an opportunity to speak back?
FA: Yes, like the people who don’t have identities, like the water-carrier. Yes, it was very pleasing that Grandpa put his wife in a drawer! Maybe it was because he didn’t want the photograph to fade, or maybe it was she who said, "Have yours framed, Sam, I don’t want to be up on the wall". It just turned out to be conveniently symbolic of the way women are overlooked and sidelined.
JS:Looking Back is full of formal composure and prosodic skill; one thinks of that near invisible sonnet which frames the humble water-carrier for example. On the other hand it provides us with a range of voices: subversive, edgy and quirky. Is it fair to say that this colloquial dimension is all about privileging the spoken voice, the female voice?
FA: Yes, that’s true. That’s something which has happened to everyone. Women have found their voices. That’s why women poets are now being published almost in equal ratio to men. Which was not the case twenty years ago. People forget how very recent all this is.
JS: The second section ofLooking Back is a miscellany of pieces, old and new. There’s the now famous Prescott kiss poem and there’s also ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, which seems a pretty sardonic take on what we’re doing now, namely asking and answering questions. In fact it suddenly made me think of that earlier poem ‘Instead of an Interview’ from The Inner Harbour, with its line about not yielding to probing questions.
FA: Well, ‘Instead of an Interview’ came out of my first visit back to New Zealand after 13 years which I found very traumatic, engaging with parts of my past I had tried to forget about. And I was being interviewed a lot because New Zealand is such a self-analytical, self-obsessed nationalistic society. The moment you put foot on the tarmac they want to ask you what you think about New Zealand. And if like me, you’d gone away, hadn’t liked it enough to stay, well they really want to know. No, I don’t like that poem much. I wrote it in a slightly sentimental hangover from having been there. As for ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, it’s just a bit of a joke.
JS: Can I take you back to the beginning of your career, before you emigrated to London in 1963. How much work had you published in New Zealand? Am I right in saying thatThe Eye of the Hurricane, your first volume, was published in New Zealand after you’d left?
FA: Yes, it was published when I was already in London. They had sat on the manuscript for a while, trying to decide whether to publish it or not. There were complicated reasons I shan’t go into, but it was stuff I’d written while I was there and quite an amount of it had been published in magazines, such magazines as there were. And there were very few. Landfall was the only literary magazine until just a few years before I left, and there were a few general publications which included poetry. But that all seems so infinitely far away! Later some of that work went into Tigers (1967), my second volume.
JS: Had anyone come across your work when you got to London?
FA: No, when I came to London no one knew me from anybody. Then I went to the Group, very soon after I’d arrived. I just happened to meet someone I knew from New Zealand who used to go. At the Group there were editors, there were people like Anthony Thwaite who was poetry editor for The Listener and George MacBeth who was BBC Poetry Impersonated. And when my turn came to read my six poems a few people showed interest, asking for copies and two or three poems appeared in print. It went on from there.
JS: Was the Group a good training ground? Can you say something about its dynamic?
FA: Edward Lucie-Smith was the Chairman when I was there. The criticism was quite severe and analytical but a lot of it was to do with meaning and understanding. So if something was woolly then that would be criticised but I didn’t go away and think that needs to be altered. I just wrote another poem which was tauter, less sloppy... And, yes, in any case I like poems that make sense and use normal grammar and all the things which are unfashionable in certain societies.
JS: Can I stay just a little longer in that period before you came to London. In the interview you gave to Sally Vincent for theWeekend Guardian you speak very forthrightly about that time.
FA: Oh, don’t believe all that stuff she said. She sensationalised and abbreviated the account of my life. I’d really like to say that she’s left a few things out and exaggerated a few things too.
JS: I didn’t want to take up the Sally Vincent lines of inquiry but I did want to mention your marriage at the age of eighteen to the poet Alistair Campbell. I wanted to ask you about how that New Zealand period generally was helping you to becoming a poet, if indeed it was.
FA: Actually I had been writing since the age of six and did quite a lot of teenage stuff. But when I was actually with Alistair Campbell it wasn’t the writing that was happening, it was the talk. Long conversations about literature. And his friends, who became my friends, were poets – Jim Baxter, Louis Johnson, Denis Glover, the big figures in the New Zealand literary scene. Then I went to Dunedin to take up a lectureship, and that time was just as rich in a sense because there was a lot of interest in poetry and I just read and read and read. That was when I turned into a poet.
JS: You write a generous tribute to J.K. Baxter in your memoriam piece. Presumably there were other influences, from abroad?
FA: Oh, yes – Robert Graves, Auden and the Movement poets whom we were reading in Dunedin in the 1960s. So English influences, mainly. Apart from Pound who was important to me. Not the Cantos, but the Personae and the early work. It was that period. Certainly Robert Graves was an enormous influence in the late 1950s, early 1960s. I was greatly influenced by him but didn’t notice until someone pointed it out and I wrote a poem – which is not collected – acknowledging that.
JS: Then you came to London in the winter of 1963, about a week after Sylvia Plath had taken her own life. So was this flight from New Zealand or a kind of homecoming?
FA: Both. I wanted to get the hell out of New Zealand and I wanted to come back to England from which I had been reluctantly dragged away at the age of 13. I’ve written about the war years in ‘Rural Blitz: Fleur Adcock’s English Childhood’. It was the editors at the Poetry Review who tagged on the rural blitz! But I was very keen to let people know I’d spent my childhood in England so I was not your average New Zealander. I was very proud of having spent my childhood here during the war.
JS: You’ve already mentioned the dearth of women poets in the early 1960s. Which women poets were you reading or coming across?
FA: Well, women just didn’t figure. No one really has any idea looking back how unusual women poets were. The only ones at the time who were around were Patricia Beer and Elizabeth Jennings, and really I can’t think of anyone else.
JS: Stevie Smith?
FA: Oh yes, Stevie Smith. Well she was such an oddity. She was Stevie Smith, bless her! And I had read some Marianne Moore and I knew Plath’s work, but let’s not forget that the earlier Plath, the Plath who wrote The Colossus, was influenced by Roethke and John Crowe Ransom, and so was quite different from the later Plath. But certainly Plath wasn’t any kind of model for me.
JS: That takes us rather conveniently onto the question of Plath and your editorship ofThe Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry. You’ve already stated your position as far as Plath was concerned in the special Plath edition of Thumbscrew. You’ve also referred to Craig Raine’s behind-the-scenes role regarding the anthology. You were happy about Moore and Bishop but felt that Plath enjoyed a disproportionate presence. I was wondering whether your arrival in London a week after Plath’s death turns out to be a rather useful piece of symbolism. Your writing would show there was another way, a rather less heated way, for a woman poet to move forwards.
FA: Yes, but when I think about confessional poetry I think more of Anne Sexton whom I don’t care for at all. She is the archetypal female confessional poet for me. As poets we were all writing about our own lives – what else was there to write about? There was Lowell of course, who was much more to my taste, but that was later, in the 1970s.
JS: Craig Raine aside, what other constraints, aesthetic or otherwise, did you impose on your selection for the Faber anthology?
FA: Well, no ranters. I think poetry written for the page is the kind we want to read. The other kind is the kind we may want to go along and listen to.
JS: In the introduction you flag up an anxiety about Adrienne Rich’s later ultra-feminist stuff, but you include some of her earlier work.
FA: I have doubts about anyone who is extreme. And she was extreme about some things. I think I say something about her not allowing any animal into her poetry unless it were female, the reverse of the monks on Mount Athos.
JS: It’s interesting that the Faber anthology came out the same year as Carol Rumens’ anthologyMaking for the Open: Post-Feminist Poetry. The title of that anthology caused a controversy at the time. More recently Lyn Pykett has written a chapter about the position of the woman poet in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s (Macmillan, 1997). She explores the way that poets like yourself have gone some way to resist the label woman poet.
FA: Have I?
JS: She feels you’ve perhaps attenuated the gender question.
FA: Well, yes I’m a human being poet but I do happen to be a woman and I write about a lot of women’s concerns. And I think that’s the dividing line. I write about things in which women are interested: childbirth, family life, relationships from a woman’s view, women’s histories, women’s health and social questions to do with women. That’s what the function of a female poet is. But I don’t think you address yourself exclusively to women. That would be to deny half the audience. And I’ve never felt like that about poetry.
JS: Perhaps she’s after a more ideological pronouncement on your part?
FA: Well she ain’t getting it. Not from me!
JS: OK. There’s a lot of hoisting of flags in anthologies. You’ve had to consider the question of identity in a broader sense. You’ve spoken of your addiction to English landscapes, and you’ve written a great deal about English flowers, about English animals and so on. It seems to me thatLooking Back was part of that process, it was to do with consolidating your English allegiances.
FA: I regard myself as English in my residence and my allegiance and my emotional orientation. But I can’t deny I am a New Zealander. And New Zealand won’t let you get away. They still put you in their anthologies. True, they don’t give me their literary prizes any longer because I’m a traitor. The last one I got was 1984, the National Book Awards. They might still invite me to a festival but then they’ll have an argument about who pays the fare!
JS: Your sister, the novelist Marilyn Duckworth, published her autobiography this year. It’s called, rather spectacularly,Camping on the Fault Line, and she describes herself as "A New Zealander in her wooden tent practising the trick of permanence". When I read that I remembered your poem ‘To Marilyn from London’ – at the end of The Inner Harbour – in which you say "Somehow you’re still there, I’m here". Is there a sense in which things might have been otherwise?
FA: It might have been otherwise only in the sense that Marilyn might have come here. The fault line, by the way, is the earthquake fault. No, I certainly couldn’t have stayed there. The mere thought of it frightens me to death. I would have gone mad. I have a slight phobia about being trapped in New Zealand without a return ticket.
JS: The Kensington Gardens sequence is characteristically full of ecological anxiety. It makes us think of several poems inTime-Zones or the extraordinary ‘Goodbye Sweet Symmetry’ at the end of The Incident Book. I was wondering whether you could think of new ways, new technological ways, of doing poetry in the new century?
FA: No! I’m more worried about the world and there’s already enough poetry of mine swilling around in it. I don’t want to see all the Pacific islands submerged in my time. I was asked to give a little talk at our local church for the Millennium. They invited me, the Bishop and the local MP. The theme was supposed to be "Hope". Well, I said I was exactly the wrong person to ask because I feel completely pessimistic about everything. I gave them a little lecture about global warming! That’s my view of the new century. I never mentioned literature at all.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The