No 13 - Spring/Summer 1999
An Interview with Michael Hofmann
“Where is our home key anyway?”
Michael Hofmann is the author of four books of poems: Nights in the Iron Hotel, Acrimony, Corona, Corona and most recently, Approximately Nowhere, published by Faber in April this year. He co-edited After Ovid with James Lasdun, and has published numerous translations from the German. He teaches for part of the year at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
This interview with Fran Brearton took place in March 1999.
FB: Could you talk about your childhood and schooldays in England, and the move from Germany? How much do you recall of the early years in Germany? How traumatic was the move to a different country?
MH: I was born in Freiburg in 1957. I think my parents were little more than students. They’d come over separately from the East, under somewhat adventurous circumstances. My father was pushed through his Ph.D. – I’m not knocking it, it’s more than I ever did! – and in 1961 he got his first job as an Auslandslektor for the DAAD, and we went to Bristol. I remember the boat.
I can’t remember much of Freiburg, a few positional or locational things, but I’m told even those are wrong. Mirror-image. Scrapes, bits of mischief. I was naturally naughty. I’m sure I remember things before that, but I do remember going to the bakery on my 4th birthday by myself, to buy pretzels. I had a new pair of shoes bought for me in England – perhaps we thought you didn’t have such things – and they somehow ended up in a stream, and were never seen again. That may have been my first protest... I was something of a handful.
Almost the next thing was sitting on a swing, chanting my times-tables. No trauma at all, no memory of learning English, no memory of not knowing, or being scared or other. Strange. I must have been a good little immigrant. Maybe it was partly that it was a good age to move: I couldn’t read or write, so when I learned to do those things, I just learned them in English. In a sense, I hadn’t invested much in German, although we continued to speak it at home. I suppose I had a German upbringing in England: German songs, German Märchen, German food...
Later on, there were times it was difficult. I suppose in my teens it would have been good not to be German, and I do think the atmosphere in England up into the 1970s was basically post-War, especially among boys. I would have renounced it quite happily, but that turned out not to be possible. My parents were absolutely insistent that we spoke German – I admire them for that now – and when I was 12 or 13, I started reading, and of course that sealed it. First Karl May, these bizarre – mad – German Westerns, fifty or hundred of them, 320 pages apiece, and then proper things.
The other thing was how mobile we were. Two years in Bristol, two years in Edinburgh, two years in the States, then Edinburgh again, and even when we stayed longer I did deracinating things like skip a year at school. Then in 1971 we kind of split three ways. My father got a job in Ljubljana, my mother and my sisters lived in Klagenfurt, just over the Austrian border, and I got a scholarship to Winchester. Before that time, life was a kind of Edenic circus for me, really. After that, there was stasis, the acquisition of a kind of almost parodic Englishness (if that’s not a pleonasm!), and these supposedly balancing visits to a home that was never mine. I really hated Austria – Carinthia, Haider – with a vengeance. Joseph Roth talks about the cretinism of the place – Alpentrottel. Klagenfurt for me was the “ford” over the river “Klage”, “complaint” or “wail” – nonce etymology of course. It’s where I began writing, and I’ve always written mainly “elsewhere”, as Bishop calls it, a little diplomatically.
Winchester for four years, Cambridge for seven, and London since 1983. An exponential slowing down. I wish I could have kept going, I was really up for it, “changing countries like shirts”, or whatever Brecht says. Entryism is a pis aller for me. I hate it that I’ve gradually ground to a halt! Now I shuttle to teach in Florida. I suppose I have a continuing need to be somewhere I don’t belong at all!
FB: There is a feeling, particularly in some of the early poems, that identity is unstable, something that can be invented and reinvented if necessary; there is always the ambiguity that runs through such phrases as “Home from England”. What constitutes your sense of identity?
MH: I don’t know about that really. It’s possible to see it the other way, that identity is the only constant, my baggage, a kind of ingrown rucksack-cum-carapace. I think, given the errancy of my formative years, I could argue that there’s more pressure from within, more pressure from outside – all these different outsides – and a more intolerable mismatch between them! Hence a more fixed identity, if anything. Everything has to be denser and more portable: I can’t be relaxed about it, and leave some of it lying around in a house or furniture or some landscape, because really none of that is mine. I can’t make a communal or historical appeal to anything. I get nothing out of the ground. Everything has to come out of me, which tends to make it fierce and recent and conscious – which is all ridiculously un-English.
If there is any sense of fluidity of identity, I think it would have been a factor of my age. Part of the drama of the “father-poems” in Acrimony are these last, diminishing oscillations between boy and man, mother and father, rebellion and consent. They’re poems I wrote in my mid-twenties about – many of them – my “high teens”... I was writing an elegy to a feminine self that couldn’t survive. You know, “‘Certainly Madam’” and all that! I really think that’s the only exception; apart from that, I have an overwhelmingly strong sense of who I am. After all, what else is there to hang on to, or to offer the reader?
FB: Thinking of, say, a poem such as ‘Albion Market’, is Englishness, or nationality, ultimately no more (or less) than a commodity?
MH: To me, that’s especially true of England. Maybe because it’s fairly recently discovered itself as a commodity, and is now flogging itself for all it’s worth. I should say that these things are poems, though, and not opportunities for me to pontificate. I hate pontification. I start off with things, pictures, sights and smells. ‘Albion Market’ is a poem about the way the Kilburn High Road presented itself to me in the early 1980s – it’s not me telling England what I think about it, not initially anyway, not by design.
But yes. The idea of studying in Cambridge now is just miserable. Like studying in a High Street. You would just feel poor and dirty, you couldn’t feel the place was yours, the way you still could in the 1970s, before it was lifted to look like Oxford. “Dark as only Cambridge could be”, I remember from Douglas Day’s life of Malcolm Lowry. Brodsky said when they scrubbed the Houses of Parliament, it was to make it look the colour of a cup of tea. Or Gatwick, which is like an airport in denial. American airports are like bus stations – they hose people through. It may be frantic, but it seems honest. Gatwick is just low. I think Glyn Maxwell put it beautifully: “England is the same,/ cheering to order, set in its new ways/ it thinks are immemorial.”
FB: What are your literary enthusiasms? Have they also been “usable” influences?
MH: Well, the background – not least, the family background – is prose, and I think I read more fiction more hopefully than most poets do, partly for reviewing, of course, but I always have done. I don’t think poetry on its own is probably very nutritious. (I don’t understand why, in the courses we teach in Florida, the poets read only poetry, and the prosers [my colleague Padgett Powell’s word] only prose. They ought to switch, at least some of the time – except that all of them need to read massively more anyway.) And then, things after 1900, say. I don’t have the kind of historical imagination that brings older things to life.
I think the things that first brought me to poetry were Pound’s short stuff, Personae, the epigrams and so forth, which seem to me like poems in a state of nature; Harmonium, which for me would be Stevens’s sibylline book (he could have burnt most of the rest, until the very late poems), which I borrowed when I was 19; and then Lowell, whom I similarly borrowed in the vacation after my first Cambridge term. Lowell tipped me into poetry.
I suppose “being influenced” is like an inverted form of hiding. You look for things other people won’t find, or don’t have access to, or don’t care to look at. America is always en vogue in England, but I grew up there for a couple of years, and live there a third of the time, so I feel it’s not just exotic for me. When I got my foot in the door at Faber, my first question was “What Americans are you publishing now?” But I think the generation of Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Kees, Berryman, etc., were absolutely exceptional. I think very little of interest is being written there now. There’s a poet called John N. Morris, whom no one much knows, who is good, and the “New York school” poet James Schuyler, now dead, whom Ashbery described as “our very best”. I think he was right.
Then there are the Germans. Rilke early and always, Enzenberger at 21, Brecht and Benn a little later. For the last few years, my preferred poets have been Lowell, Benn and Montale.
Correspondingly, I’ve always felt a bit iffy about the English. English readers must “get it” more than I do, I feel, even the poets I really like. Basil Bunting. W.S. Graham. Lawrence and Hughes. Equally, because they’re not English, I always felt drawn to the Irish – I had a green passport too, before they made them all maroon. Tom Paulin was perhaps the first poet I began with, if you see what I mean. A State of Justice (1977) went with me everywhere. Heaney, Longley, Mahon I had to catch up on. MacNeice also. Muldoon is like catnip to the succeeding generations. I think he’s phenomenal, but that must be one of the founding principles of Thumbscrew, so I’d be preaching to the choir.
“Usable influences” probably isn’t for me to say, but I’d be surprised if there were felt to be any that weren’t either Germans or Americans. Still, one reads in hope – whether it’s Muldoon, or Les Murray, or Basil Bunting.
FB: Recently, in being selected as one of the “New Generation” poets, and also with the publication of your work in the Penguin Modern Poets series, you’ve been rubbing pages with a diverse selection of poets. Do you have any sense of affinity with a particular group, or generation?
MH: I have friends among them, fellow-conspirators, associates, my wife, but really I feel more like a dinosaur, or Heaney’s pike “all badged with sores”. No, no group, no generation. Partly that’s my own over-specification, as I would describe it, partly the accident of when I started to publish, in the early 80s. It wasn’t much of a time for debuts, and “young poet” was probably an oxymoron. If you spoke to others who happened along then, like Sean O’Brien or Charles Boyle or George Szirtes or even Jo Shapcott, I think they would agree, though we all have our own histories. All of us are betwixt and between. It wasn’t an encouraging time. I was friends with Peter Robinson and Stephen Romer at Cambridge, but there wasn’t much common purpose between us, and we were very conscious that the last poets from there were probably Gunn and Hughes. The Cambridge Poetry Society had just abolished the word, as I remember, not that that mattered. And outside, it was the period of High Martianism, and a little later, James Fenton in beard and striped jersey, chanting ‘Children in Exile’ to camera on Channel 4... What times, eh?
When the “New Generation” happened along, I’d been writing for fifteen years: it didn’t really apply to me, and there are much stronger affinities within and outside that group than any involving me. There are people I read with sympathy and interest and more, like James Lasdun or Jamie McKendrick, but we’re not exactly a movement. Latterly, I thought I’d seen glimpses of a new Faber “house style”, which I think would involve Tom Paulin, Hugo Williams, Charles Simic, Adam Zagajewski, Charles Boyle, Christopher Reid and maybe a bit of Muldoon too. That resides in writing about life with style, it’s fairly cosmopolitan, a little surreal, not too much gravity in either sense, a bit like Paul Klee in words, but I don’t know if I’m really a part of that. Still, it looks to me like a good and hopeful and interesting thing.
FB: What is your sense of an audience? For whom do you write?
MH: I don’t have one – either the audience, or the sense of it... No, I write for myself and an unknown reader, someone who will hear the poems and perfectly understand them.
FB: Do you share that perhaps peculiarly twentieth-century anxiety concerning one’s accountability as a poet?
MH: No, I don’t really. Anxiety isn’t necessarily helpful – it’s nervousness in its external form – and accountability butters no parsnips. “It must give pleasure”, as both Williams and Stevens said. Surely it’s a form of play, and I don’t really like the idea of playing responsibly, it makes it less playful. Even Celan of all people said, of poetry, “What a game!” I feel accountable to the poem, and the language, but I hope not to anything else.
FB: Is there a spirit of resistance latent in poetry?
MH: Absolutely! A poem says – or may say – “Nolo”, “shan’t”. Gunter Eich told us, collectively, “Seid Sand im Getriebe”, “be as sand in the machinery”, “gum up the works”.
FB: You seem to share a Lowellian bleakness at times. Do you feel optimism? Or are the TV fiends going to inherit the earth?
MH: I came out as a pessimist when I was nine, and was never really moved to reconsider... I have my own pessimism, my father was a formidable pessimist, an acquired or angelesen pessimism: Lowell, Benn and Montale, for Christ’s sake! But in their writing, and my father’s, and I hope mine, bleakness swings into a kind of exhilaration. Partly from being a cool look at the worst, or whatever Hardy’s phrase is, which I find liberating; partly from the prettiness and the care with which this bleakness gets itself expressed. “I shall be smitten by the hand of my cells”, that sort of thing. Yes, that’s bleak, but bleakness is only a part of it. Why the personification? Why the droll handling of singulars and plurals? Why the biblical “smitten” and the faux-prophesying future? If this is bleak, why doesn’t Lowell sound any bleaker about it? It’s like the line being smitten by the hand of its words. There’s a fantastic joy about it, the joy of expression, the joy of handling words. That’s what matters, not indulging a personal mood, or whatever. I can be dismal company at times, but sooner or later, I laugh at myself. I hope my poems aren’t dismal; I think they’re hilarious.
FB: Your imagination seems to some extent preoccupied with scenes behind the iron curtain, with “Going East”. Can you discuss that fascination a little?
MH: Both my parents came from Saxony – like Ulbricht and Honecker! My father not far from Karl Marx Stadt, as was. I have relatives there still. I think I was speculating: what if we’d stayed? what if I’d grown up there? how would that have been? in a morbid kind of way. Also, I think in England you don’t really get the whole story about a visible and authoritarian state. As an alien, I perceived it differently. The poems about East Germany and Czechoslovakia – Mexico too, actually! – are partly metaphors for England. I don’t trust harmlessness.
Also, I like the East aesthetically. It looks to me – maybe I’m being sentimental here – like an older and echter Germany, unrefurbished, unimproved.
FB: Does it also relate to the sense that the private space is always invaded by the public? Is there any inviolate space anymore?
MH: Again, I don’t know. That’s working inductively from big ideas, and it’s not how I work at all. I proceed from disorder, osmosis, comic terror. I have a cheery little poem called ‘Open House’ about settling in West London in the early ‘80s. What’s the point of “rawlplugs and polyfilla” – exhibits from a neoteric verbal museum – if I live in “a museum without walls”, if everything outside leaches in? It’s a poem of my own preposterousness, as often. Comic discomfiture in the face of an alien vibrancy, a bit like in Wallace Stevens, or Thomas Mann for that matter.
In the new book, there’s a poem about “the outside in the form of” this and that and the other thing. I suppose a kind of porosity or vulnerability must have put itself to me in my experience. In one way, I have to identify with it, and be grateful to it, otherwise I wouldn’t have been admitted here at all! In another, though, it’s gently sinister. On the radio, I heard a Charles Ives ending described as the notes saying among themselves: “Where is our home key anyway?” I can certainly relate to that.
Anyway, if there’s no inviolate space, it’s probably as much to do with my writing poems about it as anything else! Maybe pre-emptively. The poem as firebreak. The poem ‘Nights in the Iron Hotel’ is like that, surely.
FB: Could you talk a little more about the idea of the “museum without walls”? Your sense of the past in the poems seems to work materially: the physical becomes object and is added to the archive, but the archive is never absolute...
MH: Forgive me if I don’t like “archive” – it sounds so dusty! Assemblage or collage or bric-a-brac is all more like it, I think. It’s trying to get things to sing and dance. To electrify junk. To be ironically purposeful and ironically random in recording and memorialising experience. Like my Bavarian basement: “the blastproof metal doors, preserves, tin cans and board games/ of people who couldn’t forget the Russians...” The freest, unlikeliest, most covert selection possible from reality. Not absolute, as you say, never everything, but the most that I can string together musically and intellectually and playfully. Life reconstituted from debris, like Schwitters. Things rescued into an ironic permanence. It’s sensual and teasing and disorderly in a way that no archive is. “The bird cherries and ceramic factories” of the former East/West German frontier terrain. The prostitutes’ cards “on every lamp-post,/ phone-booth, parking meter and tree”. “Living on air, cigarettes, pull-ups and kisses –/ puffing away in a daze of longing”. That’s not archive material! “This is not writ in any book”, as the poet saith... The endeavour is to compress time and narration by means of nouns – Sachwörter as opposed to Zeitwörter, “thing-words” not “time-words” – and also adjectives. To see if I can individuate and communicate experience in the most available and perishable types of words. I don’t trust verbs, or I don’t deserve verbs. You can probably psychologise that as a vestigial unease about English and England. I’m kidding. No, for whatever reason I do use a lot of what the Americans call “sentence fragments”. It’s partly a dare, I think, to see if it can be done; partly an ironic response to our thing-heavy civilisation; partly an assessment of the language, and what I think it’s good for. Is that an answer?
FB: You’ve spoken of writing poems of “the shape and texture of bricks”. A tactile imagination? Is this a stylistic approach which stems from memorialising experience through objects, or a vision of how history is constructed? History as inventory?
MH: That’s my tender irony towards my early production! Before I discovered blank space, or had any use for it. Other people’s poems were like swans carved out of butter, or something. My things looked dense, uncompromising, undifferentiated. The “brick” was to suggest utility, interchangeability, compactness, aggressiveness even. I began by despising most poetry for being archaic and mindless and ornamental and unnecessary. Of course, a lot of it still is.
But it’s nothing to do with history, really – though I do like the word “inventory”. Lowell, of course, says: “What is history? What you cannot touch.” I write what I can touch, or what touches me. I wish there were history, or more history, I get fed up with self – though it’s still better than bien-pensant editorialising. How do you experience history, though, and how do you get a handle on it? A little bit must get in via my osmotic methods I suppose. I would love to write a poem like Brecht’s “Der Radwechsel”, which is five lines long, but an immense poem. An individual confronts an entire epoch, and gracefully. I wish there was an English Brecht, or an American Brecht. God, Brodsky would hate me for saying that!
FB: You write poems concerned with time, and the passing of time, with “change and decay”, and which are therefore on one level working within a secular discourse. Yet many of the poems draw heavily on a Christian, a religious vocabulary. Is poetry a litany, catechism or prayer?
MH: It’s more like the afterlife, I would say!
You’re right about the religious language, but it doesn’t have any liturgical purpose, more the opposite. For whatever reason, part of the function of these poems is to tease God. Some of it comes in via my father – ‘My Father’s House’, ‘Catechism’, lots of places – because of the inevitable presence of patriarchal language. That “comes with the territory”. But it also pervades poems that aren’t to do with my father at all – “hamburger heaven”, or the other, distinctly terrestrial, carnal “heaven” at the end of ‘Litany’, it’s pretty pervasive. It’s one aspect of a basically disrespectful, rebellious attitude, that delights in overturning or misapplying phrases. God has to take His lumps, like everyone else.
FB: You’ve done a great deal of work as a translator, usually of fiction. What determines your choice of particular texts to translate?
MH: Yes, something in excess of 20 books since 1985. I’m too selfish, too narrow and probably too incompetent to translate poetry. Mostly novels, a couple of plays, three books by Wim Wenders, because I think he sounds like such a decent guy. The novels because I respect the form and feel bad about not writing fiction myself. Also, because they communicate more of the external life of the place. That seems important to me. The individual motivation is anything between expediency – the profit motive – and love, although tending towards the latter. What I dream of is acquiring a kind of imprimatur, so that readers and publishers might trust me enough to think that a book I’ve done is going to be worth getting. Most of what I’ve translated is so much bigger than me, I do think it’s slightly absurd that my name as a poet seems to cross-subsidise my name as a translator. But to most people, translating is an invisible, or at least inscrutable activity. Too bad. I hope it changes. I’ve been allowed to do some fantastic books. Kafka, Roth and Brecht can pass for household names, but I’ve also translated a book called Blösch or Cow, which seems to me the great Swiss novel. It’s by a man called Beat Sterchi, who, having written it, didn’t see why he should bust his ass writing another one, and I agree with him. Faber are going to republish it next year, which I’m absolutely delighted about. Or a book by Wolfgang Koeppen, now dead, called Death in Rome, which is now hard to find, but it’s one of the best post-War books from Germany. I re-read that every year, often more than once. Or my father’s books. Just as the poems assuage my need for them to exist, so do the translations.
FB: The After Ovid collection might be described as a mixture of versions and translations. How did that particular idea come about?
MH: That was my friend James [Lasdun]’s idea, to divvy up Ovid and offer bits of it to “various hands” to do as they saw fit. Smite it, if they liked. There was something of the kind in 1720 or so, with Pope and Dryden. We had terrific fun doing it. There was a great take-up, from these islands, from America and the Antipodes, 40 poets, 60 stories, 300 pages. It assembled itself over two years. (Our predecessors took thirty, and it was dedicated, beautifully, to the memory of Dryden.) It proved a hard book to market, part Classical text, part anthology, part ours, and some of the Classicist reviewers didn’t like it, bad cess to them. Not everything was wonderful, but it had a latitude and a necessity that these things don’t often have. We caught something, or created something. I think anything that elicited Michael Longley’s seven poems, and James’s New England “Erysichthon” and that seeded Ted Hughes’s best work – for me – can hold its head up.
FB: Jerzy Jarniewicz has talked about the importance of personal contact between author and translator, and suggests that the personal motive is too often an underestimated element both in securing a reputable translation of a work, and in influencing the canon. Has this been the case for you with work you’ve translated?
MH: No, it hasn’t. I haven’t known any of the people I’ve translated beforehand – except my father, obviously – I met them through their works. I can think of several reasons why it was like that for Jerzy, though. English has a higher profile, more “visibility” internationally, and – incredibly – there are people in other countries who watch what we do. Also, they are better at it than “our” foreign experts, and have more prestige: I can’t think of anyone, poet or not, almost, with a comparable grasp of a foreign poetry. Then I think maybe there’s a personal-moral dimension to poetry in Poland – as I imagine in Russia – that says you have to shake your poet by the hand and look them in the eye in order to assess them properly. Personal authority. Misunderstandings, or mis-estimates, are still possible if you only go by the printed word. I envy him a little bit, it does seem a potential perk of the job to meet someone and get close to them. I haven’t met Wim Wenders yet, after three books. There are a couple of “my” authors whom I write to and see from time to time.
FB: What are, in your view, the great translation sins?
MH: In one way – in the sort of interpreting side of it – translation is a banal activity. So if you translate “fifty-four” as “forty-five”, or “pole vault” as “high jump”, you should roast in hell. I find it hard to think that the “howler” isn’t a capital offence. That really is the one “visible” side of translating. Everything discreeter than that is a little harder to legislate. I don’t like excessive assimilation: I hated it in an American translation of a book set in East Germany that the sea – the Baltic – always went by the name of “ocean”. You’re not making your reader work if you do that – only your British reader... In poetry, it’s offering up something clearly pointless and inadequate. I thought John Felstiner’s book on Celan offered a very interesting way forward: it’s impossible, granted, but you show your whole calculation and state all the deficiencies, I think even the reader without German will have got something out of that. But poetry is always peculiar. I gather reading Keeley and Sherrard’s Cavafy isn’t much like reading him in Greek, but it’s certainly its own thing in English, so beguiling, so plain. In poetry, there’s room for the creative misconception. Maybe most of the good things have come out via misprision: Pound’s Chinese, Baudelaire’s Poe, who knows, Pasternak’s Shakespeare. In fiction, there isn’t that to save you. The sin there – and the temptation – is just steadily giving less, so, effectively, the book is diminished, is less of an experience. You must provide an experience: use your own vocabulary, your own timing, write interesting sentences. There’s so much against you.
FB: The Film Explainer is, in a sense, a novel primarily concerned with translating, or “explaining”: the grandfather explains the films, the grandson explains the grandfather, and the book is then translated by you... How difficult was it to translate your father’s work, to take, as it were, the next place in a familial tradition?
MH: Not at all difficult. It was lovely. It was my own choice. Dan Franklin, then at Secker, knew I was crazy about the book, and asked me if I’d like to do it. It’s about my great-grandfather, the hero’s name is Hofmann, I couldn’t not! My father was such a pro, he wasn’t greatly interested – maybe he was secretly pleased – but by then I was such a pro, I didn’t mind. I wouldn’t have been up to it earlier, I would have felt both parasitical and commandeered, but I was certainly ready for The Film Explainer. I felt very close to him, his jokes, his gloom, his dialogues, his abruptness. It’s a heartbreaking book, of an absolutely consummate scrappiness. It kept me going through his last illness and death. A sort of afterlife. I’d like to translate the two later books as well, one about Lichtenberg, one about the last day of a family, called Das Glück (Happiness). My little boy worships him. His time will come again.
FB: In your new collection, Approximately Nowhere, some kind of stylistic and emotional shift seems to have taken place. What do you feel has changed for you in writing the new collection?
MH: Well, much of the book got written in a rush, in the summers of ‘93 and ‘94. I think some of the urgency and speed, and the settling on a couple of themes makes itself felt. I probably haven’t written like that since Acrimony, you know, with the poems quite close together in time and temperature and occasion. Perhaps because of that dramatic or narrative coherence, I’ve felt able to chuck the kitchen sink at the poems, as it were. Dip into German, dip into American, use asides – “ask Steiner”! – bits of French, lots of London landmarks, lots of abroad, one poem from Ovid that has Kafka in it, another that condenses one of the most famous speeches in Latin – Lowell has an essay about it – into a single filthy line of English. The American “whatever”. On occasion, no time even for full stops...
You’d probably have a better sense of what’s new than I do. I think there will always be fantastic tension – “narvousness” – in what I write, but some of these are probably as relaxed as I get. I’ve no idea what the “Endeffekt” is.
FB: Is there a feeling of stylistic freedom which comes from writing in a language made your own rather than “inherited”?
MH: For sure... I could imagine that it would take a “native speaker” a while to shake apart “inherited” connections and registers and expectations – if he wanted to do such a thing – rather than use an intact and organic language, a language that was echt, as he would put it... But I suppose this is the century of Pound’s “frigidaire patent”. Otherwise, it might not have been so advantageous. Or I – one – might have had to keep my head down, and impersonate harder. But at this point, it seems that a creative or playful muddling up of things is OK. A muddying of language. What price poetry as “impossible speech”?
FB: Many of the poems elegise your father, who is also the subject of earlier poems, notably in Acrimony. On one level, the elegiac tone appears to have released a new poetic voice. But does the double-edged “dicke Luft” at the close of “Epithanaton” hint at an increase in tension, all the more intangible after death?
MH: No, that was a parting shot and a second thought. It began as “thin air”: “Then, while my back was turned, you went up/ in smoke, in thin air.” But almost instantaneously the German expression “dicke Luft”, “thick air”, strife, a bad atmosphere, put itself to me, and I felt I had to use it. It’s a homage and a tease to my “apoplectic father”, it makes a kind of genie out of him. That’s almost a prayer, if you like. His persistence. I never thought the poems in Acrimony were as horrible as some people have done, but there’s an overt tenderness and acknowledgement and identification in the new pieces... I’m very relaxed about him, as Blair might say.
FB: You’ve said that everything meets for you there, in writing about your father. Is it also a way of coming to terms with history? Is part of the anxiety or tension also an anxiety about history?
MH: I think that was then. I don’t know that I would say that anymore. He’s the agency of my being here, and I don’t suppose I would have been a writer if he’d been a merchant banker... But “history” is something else. I don’t think I’ve ever had “history” in my compass, it’s always more on the horizon. My father has never represented history to me, in the way the grandmothers of my American undergraduates represent history to them. I’ve never written anything about my father except with reference to myself. I wouldn’t presume.
FB: As an epigraph to the collection, you’ve included a poem, ‘Tea for my Father’, dated 1979. Is the new collection a re-write, a reclamation of the past, a re-structuring?
MH: That’s another aspect of relaxation! ‘Tea for my Father’ was my first published poem, in London Magazine in 1979 – 20 years ago. I think a bit of my relaxation is to do with having survived for so long, and feeling so venerable now... It’s not really any of the things you say, it’s more “What the heck”, or “Hey, this isn’t so bad”. It’s a kind of “sich bekennen”, standing to or by something.
FB: In ‘Fucking’, life itself seems to be a “zero sum game”, everything “matched or cancelled/ by the equal and opposite”; in ‘Gomorrah’, the homeland seems also to be the waste land. Is the balance of forces the inescapable “approximately nowhere” of the title?
MH: Yes, I think you’re right. I think the tension in my stuff, or the “jokes”, as I’m apt to describe them, the pervasive irony – everything is more or less than what it seems – the collisions between words and dictions, “dicke Luft”, “approximately nowhere”, “iron hotel”, what have you – is absolutely characteristic. It’s not a function of balance, though. I probably have contempt for pre-ordained balance! If balance happens to result, as I guess it sometimes does, like in that poem, ‘Fucking’, it’s an ironic balance. In my poems, if things are resolved or cancel each other out, that’s almost the least important thing. What matters much more is the sense of colossal “mental fight”, as the wretched hymn says, totting up these listing, Babel-like lists to reach a tiny residue, salt, a firefly, slabs of cake – or, alternatively, an oxymoron, or a mingled and surprising assertion, an early departure, a pair of scissors in our pockets, or “Do you think I’m real?” The way these endings are “produced” from the poems is what makes the poems interesting, if they are. Each poem is a calculation, a kind of improvised piece of algebra, a thinking in images. The improvisation, the surprise, is what guarantees them. If this book is different from earlier books, it may be because I’ve discovered “middles”. I’ve always liked beginnings and endings before, but this is the book with added “middle” – all those torrential, asyntactical compilations of things...
Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I can’t think of these poems except as efforts to write Montale in English: the sinuousness, the harshness, the plasticity, the nerves. He’s the one poet I’ve added to my pantheon in the last 5 or 6 years – I’m always looking.
FB: The final poem, ‘Litany’, takes a circuitous route to what you’ve described as a terrestrial heaven. Does the poem, or your writing as a whole, seek, ultimately, a way out of the “zero sum game”, the collision of opposites?
MH: As I see it, all writing comes out of a surplus over existence. Words and arrangements and thoughts over and above what you actually need. You make a little bit extra, and you blow it all on a little poem. If you don’t run a surplus, you’re fought to a standstill, and you’re consumed by your life. God knows, I have an awful lot of that, the depleting, desiccating activity of translating, which leaves me without words – speechless, as often as not – or teaching. But Cézanne said, “Il faut décourager les arts” so I don’t exactly worry about it. That would be precious.
But even if everything else is “zero sum game” or whatever, writing never is.
- 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