No 11 - 2005/06
The Wolf Interview
David Harsent has published eight collections of poetry, including Legion which won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. His Selected Poems appeared in 1989. Collaborations with Harrison Birtwistle have included a libretto, Gawain, and a song cycle, The Woman and the Hare. David’s work in translation includes producing versions of Goran Simic and more recently ‘Gaarriye’, a leading poet from Somalia. He also writes crime fiction.
Congratulations on winning the Forward Prize for Legion. Does winning these kinds of major literary awards always come as a surprise or did you have a hunch this time around?
No I didn’t have a hunch. I’ve been shortlisted for the Forward and the Eliot prizes before and you get to thinking that you’ll be a shortlisted poet but not actually win it. So it was a surprise and a very pleasant one too.
Has winning helped you buy more time as a writer?
Well the Forward prize is extremely generous. It’s £10,000, so of course that does make a difference but in order to gain time you have to be able to take a break from whatever it is you normally do to earn a living and it’s not always easy to do that, especially if you work to deadlines and are dependent on taking a job whenever one comes along. There are terrific advantages to being freelance, but you have to be very brave to turn work down.
When did you first receive an award or bursary?
I was in my early twenties and married with two children when I got an Arts Council bursary for my first book. I’d never seen that amount of money in one place before and this was an occasion when I was, indeed, let off the hook. I’d been working in a bookshop for ten years. The bursary enabled me to leave the shop and take some time out before getting another job -- in publishing, as it happened. Oddly enough, I don’t remember doing much writing during that period. Maybe there’s pressure on you to use that time to write and for that very reason you don’t: at least, not much. But that money certainly helped to take the heat out of things.
You are largely self-taught, having never attended university and on leaving school you worked in a bookshop until the age of 26. How important to your development as a poet was this period in your life and what kind of books did you pull from the shelves?
Anyone caught reading was immediately told to get on with their work so I didn’t really pull books from the shelves except to shove them under my coat - systematic theft was a crucial factor in my life as an autodidact.
I was working in a bookshop, yes; but looked at another way, I was a shop assistant. It wasn’t glamorous. There’s not a great deal of difference between working in a bookshop and working in a butcher’s, except that you’re putting books in bags instead of lamb chops. I’d started writing poems and stories when I was a kid. At the time I went to the bookshop, I was still writing but then, as before, it was a slightly closet activity. Coming from a working-class background, writing poems and enjoying poetry was something you kept rather quiet about. However, while I was working at the shop I met an older man called Henry de Beaufort-Saunders – he’d have been in his mid-sixties, I suppose: seemed older than God to me. Beau was very fond of poetry. He became a sort of mentor and encouraged me to continue writing poems; nobody else had ever taken an interest. He gave me lots of books to read and helped me to take myself seriously as a poet. I didn’t realise, then, what an important figure he was in my life. Ironically, he wrote poems himself and they were pretty bad. He’d spent years translating Les Fleurs du Mal into a sort of quasi-Georgian verse. I remember Lowell’s Imitations coming into the shop and Beau looking at the Baudelaire versions: he was apoplectic; couldn’t see, of course, how dated and stale his own renditions were.
Reading through the poems in the opening section of Legion it’s as if many of the characters are trapped in war; hanging on to their lives, as Goran Simic was in your excellent versions of his poems in Sprinting from the Graveyard. Would Legion have been possible if you hadn’t been involved in translating Goran’s poems?
Not sure. I guess Legion - the title sequence, that is - would have looked different were it not for the work I did on Goran’s siege poems. There is quite a lot of Bosnia in Legion, it’s true. It’s entirely possible that my having brought Goran’s poems into English acted as a spur for Legion, though that didn’t occur to me while I was writing it.
Legion started off as a commission. Who was it for and did the commissioned poem make the book?
Well, the commission didn’t give rise to Legion itself but to a poem – not part of the sequence and not in the book – that I later came to think of as the kick-start. I was commissioned by Jo Shapcott to write a poem for an anthology she was editing for The Royal Institution. The idea was that the commissioned poets would choose a subject from one of the scientific lectures given at the RI while Jo was writer in residence there. I slightly misunderstood all this and thought that I had to use not the subject but the title of one of the lectures. The title I chose was “From metals with a memory to brilliant light-emitting solids”, because it seemed a challenge; or, rather, an impossible task. I think I intended to write a chipper, disposable little poem about the impossibility of writing a poem on this subject. During this time we were bombing Afghanistan and images of war and suffering were everywhere. Which is why, perhaps, the poem changed under my hand. Suddenly the ‘metals with a memory’ were smart bombs and the ‘brilliant light-emitting solids’ became what the bombs hit, i.e. people. This was a complete ambush; I had no notion the poem was going to turn out that way. Then we invaded Iraq and without at all having intended to, I found myself carrying on, as it were, from Metals With A Memory and producing the title sequence of poems for Legion. I suppose it was a case of public issues bearing in on me in a way that they haven’t ever done before. I’m not a public poet – never have been – and all this took me completely by surprise. I ought to say that the sequence is, throughout, an act of the imagination even though there are certain images drawn from life. I don’t like agitprop; I don’t like art with an agenda. I think I said somewhere else that I neither willed those poems, nor resisted them, and that’s about right.
I suppose this accentuates the fact that we don’t always know what we are doing when constructing a poem?
Absolutely, I never know. When I look at criticism appraisals of my work where someone says: “he’s done this or that”, or “he means this or that”, my tendency is to think, “oh, I see that now” or “yes, I suppose that must be right”.
The poems in Legion are very filmic, very dramatic. I’ve heard whispers that there might be a play coming out based on the book. Is this in the pipeline?
Someone suggested that because the title-sequence consists of voices from a war-zone, it had dramatic potential. That idea intrigued me and so I have written a play in which the poems are the dialogue: with some connective tissue and a dramatic narrative linking them. I think the next move might be to workshop it: see how it sounds; see how it moves.
Was it hard to go back to Legion and write a new dramatic narrative?
No, it wasn’t difficult at all. It was an exciting project: finding characters, finding incident. I just hope someone will want to put it on. Watch this space.
In both Legion and its predecessor Marriage the hare is a recurring symbol. Where does its general significance to you originate from?
I don’t know quite why the hare has impressed herself upon me quite so indelibly, but I think of the hare as being a dark, magical, witchy creature. When I was in my mid-teens I found a book by the psychiatrist John Layard called The Lady of the Hare - a Faber edition on wartime paper. The first section was a psychoanalytical study of a woman who was having hare dreams; the other half of the book was a cultural history of the hare. I started to read it in an idle sort of a way and before long I knew I’d found a totem: a daemon. I’ve gone back to Layard’s book a lot over the years. The hare featured in early collections of mine - News from the Front was one - but then she elbowed her way centre-stage at the time I was writing Marriage. I’d already written a few poems about the hare and then Harrison Birtwistle called me with a commission from the Nash Ensemble wanting a short song cycle. So I wrote this poem called ‘The Woman and The Hare’ and this, in turn, led to Lepus, the second sequence in Marriage, which strengthened and solidified the hare’s hold on my imagination.
You have made a good living as a crime writer, a publisher, a screenwriter, you have worked on many libretti with Harrison Birtwistle. Does it feel like a different part of your brain is working when you write poetry or is it more about a small alteration to the creative approach?
In one sense it’s a different part of the brain because it’s a different type of writing, but in another sense it’s not. Preoccupations, obsessions and views of the world remain the same and influence whatever one writes. I don’t really think too differently about libretti and poetry. Opera is drama, of course, but when I write for the operatic stage I’m writing a book-long play where the dialogue is usually in verse. Crime fiction is my day job; it’s a way I earn a living. Every poet has to earn his living in some way or another that doesn’t have to do with poetry. I was amused on winning the Forward prize that one of the headlines said ‘Crime Writer Scoops Poetry Prize’. I wondered whether, if Larkin had won such a prize, the headline might have said, ‘Librarian Scoops Poetry Prize’. When Sean O’Brien won it, I don’t remember seeing ‘Teacher Scoops Poetry Prize’. Still, journalists will be…journalists. The job of entertainment fiction is to find a particular audience; in that sense, it’s custom-built. Poetry is something else entirely; but then, poetry is different from any other kind of writing. Two aspects of crime fiction that you can vaguely relate to poetry are that it has constructional rules and often it’s quite dark.
You are currently in the middle of writing a long poem and are also writing a new crime book. Is it difficult to leave one alone and write the other?
It is very difficult and I won’t pretend otherwise. The reason I went freelance was that office work was leaving me no time at all to write. Poems were dying under my hand. So I left the lucrative publishing job with its Concorde flights to New York and its company BMW and its limitless expense account. My father tried to have me certified. Being freelance I can organise my time better, but there are still problems. If I have a piece of day-job writing to do on a tight deadline and I badly need the cheque, I simply have to set the poem aside and hope it doesn’t go cold on me. We live in what is, basically, a Philistine society; poetry is the least-noticed of all the arts; and poets simply have to come to terms with that. Auden observed that there are real virtues to poetry being a minority interest: it has to be taken seriously or left alone. Someone writing in the Observer made this point by contrasting the media attention given to my winning the Forward with that given to John Banville when he won the Booker.
As part of the Poetry Translation Centre’s recent World Poet’s Tour you’ve produced final versions of the Somali poet ‘Gaarriye’. What was the most testing part of the translation process?
The culture-gap was colossal. Most of what I had to get to grips with, to understand and make sense of, involved trying to find a way of bridging that gap. Some poems yielded themselves more easily than others: Gaarriye has a poem about Nelson Mandela, which was easier to work with because I understood the impulse behind it, the extended metaphor relating to Gaarriye’s situation in Somaliland, and of course the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ movement existed here. However, there were lesions and fractures in logic that seemed to exist because of my lack of understanding of the culture and the language, and I had to be educated in these things. For example, when Gaarriye speaks of a woman being ‘beautiful like an overcast day’, he says that because a good day in Somalia is a day of rain. I was given literal translations by Martin Orwin and ‘Alto’ which helped tremendously. Martin would give me precisely what Gaarriye had said and then gloss each line separately. He even added potted prose versions of the poems to give me a notion of narrative meaning from the outset. That assistance was essential.
Somali was an oral language until 1972 and much of their poetry is only available on tapes. Did this help you find a rhythm in the poems?
I did listen to some CDs of Gaarriye reading; what I seemed to get from them was the notion of someone speaking directly to an attentive audience: someone reading the news. I wanted to find something that was both musical and conversational. For some reason The Hiawatha metre came to mind and what survived of that idea was a proliferation of feminine line-endings, so the voice lifts at the end of the line and carries onto the next in a kind of forced enjambment. It seemed to work. I was very pleased that, after I’d read with Gaarriye at The Brunei Gallery, a Somali came up to me and said that my versions of Gaarriye’s poems were the best he’d heard in any other language. I was delighted, not because I felt it was an occasion to pat myself on the back, but because to make the poems work in English was my task.
During the Brunei reading you were on-stage with the tallest man in the world. Has anything more surreal happened to you at a poetry reading?
Absolutely not! It was weird reading poems with a guy standing behind you who is 7ft 9” tall. I’m married to an actress and I understand completely the business of upstaging and, boy, was I upstaged!
Which poets do you keep returning to?
From the last century: Lowell, Auden, Bishop, Berryman (sometimes), Larkin, Plath – though I think it’s time for a re-appraisal of her work. Oh, lots of others: I read Hughes again when the Collected came out; read Thom Gunn again when he died (of course). I ought to have another concerted go at Marianne Moore. Wallace Stevens, too. Lot of Americans there… I was re-reading Conrad Aiken the other day: can you imagine? Like everyone, I find myself returning to the greats; Wordsworth just recently. Paradise Lost is waiting for me on my bedside table; I want to re-read it with some recent critical works in the other hand. I read my contemporaries on and off all the time. The poems I keep going back to, reflexively, are The Border Ballads. If I hadn’t read them when I was 13 years-old, and been swept away, I might never have felt sufficiently empowered and ambitious to uncap my pen.
Have you had to do any gruelling research with some of the crime books?
No, I don’t do much at all. The best research is the imagination. People who tell you they need to observe things happening before they can write about them are pathetic. The whole point about being a writer is to make imaginative constructs. Beyond the basic procedural business needed for the books I don’t worry about absolute accuracy. I did once sit in a murder room for a week and watch the crime get solved; that helped with props and terminology.
Have you ever fired a gun?
Yeah, lots. I’ve fired a .44 Magnum, the one Clint Eastwood carries in Dirty Harry: the most powerful handgun in the world. Remember: “The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”
I presume you didn’t say those words when you were firing it…
No I said “Jesus Christ, this has got a kick like an elephant!”
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