'A reader in mind'

Peter Robinson in conversation with Jane Davies

Jane Davies: Can you tell us about what you think happens when you finish poems and they go out into the world - either at a reading or in published form? Do you ever think about their future? What happens when people receive them?

Peter Robinson: Well, I do think about their future in the sense that I tend to write with a reader in mind, but it is a very unspecific reader. I sometimes write poems dedicated to people and I assume then that the dedicatees are going to be an ideal reader. But always there is the implication that the poem is going to be published somewhere else and other people will hear it.

JD: Is that reader, do you think, a kind of alter ego? A different corner of your self?

PR: No, I don't think it can be, because obviously I read the poem, but I don't like the idea that I'm writing something that only I can understand or that only I can follow. That's bizarre. So this reader must be some kind of other - somebody else. I get reviewed now and then and sometimes reviewers come up with readings that are extraordinarily unlike what I had in mind. There's a poem in Lost and Found called 'Leaving Sapporo' about missing an aeroplane and about the Japanese professor who tried to drive me to the airport and who was very ashamed about the fact that we missed the plane. I wasn't that bothered about missing the plane, but I was bothered by his terrible feelings of anxiety. It was addressed to him, but recently there was this article in which the poem was linked up to all my earlier stuff, to things I'd written ten years before about sexual violence in Italy, and the idea of forgiving somebody turned out to be, according to this reader, that I was actually trying to forgive myself. Well, I swear I hadn't had that in mind, although I think the reading is perfectly plausible and so I also have sometimes the feeling that readings come back at me and they're okay and they make sense. Sometimes they don't, but often they do. I don't think that my view of the poem's interpretability is the final word. I have that sense of a reader, too.

JD: As it were something that's purely connected to the poem as a separate entity released into the world?

PR: Then the poem becomes a sort of plant pot and some other flowers can grow out of it, which are not connected with me. And usually it's pleasant if this separate entity is something I vaguely recognise, but I don't at all think that's necessary.

JD: But some of them surprise you?

PR: Sometimes they do surprise me.

JD: I read the early poems. And I read some of them with a class on Friday and people were very moved and disturbed by the poem that describes the incident of the rape.

PR: 'There Again'?

JD: Yes. Could you talk about the construction of that poem? Because people were saying surely this can't have happened? How has he made it into a poem? As if the sense of trauma that is present in the poem -

PR: They thought I'd made it up, in effect?

JD: In the sense that it would have to be a kind of report of something that had happened to someone you knew, or something. Did you write it long after the event?

PR: Five years, about. I didn't write anything at all for about four years and I think I didn't have any intention of writing anything about it, but what happened - I think I say this in the interview at the Cortland Review on the Internet, but I may be contradicting myself - I think what happened is that I started to find when I was writing about completely other things, or apparently other things, they seemed to be getting clogged up with hidden references to this background event and it seemed to me that there was something like a danger that I would start to write things that nobody would ever understand because there was this thing in the background -

JD: Behind a curtain...

PR: - this thing forever pushing through into the poem but never being mentioned, and so I felt for two reasons (one to try to stop doing this thing of having seepage into the poems, and spoiling them or making them become rather odd) that I should just confront it and deal with it, so that it would be there, present in my literary background. And I also began to feel that if I couldn't write about this, then how could I write about anything? That this was a something standing in the way of doing anything else.

JD: In a sense the poem contains that thought, doesn't it? That what you were before the incident is changed by it, and what are you now?

PR: When I was writing the poems it seemed the most defining event of my life and my then wife's life.

JD: Can you say a little bit about what it's like being a poet and living in a foreign country? You spoke a little about that during the reading, phrases coming back...

PR: English feeling fresh when you come back to England...

JD: Can you talk about that?

PR: Yes I can. I think the first thing to say is that when I went to Japan ten years ago I felt that my writing needed to change. I notice you've got a copy of Entertaining Fates there, and in that book, that book got criticised a bit, and the grammar in that book is very tortuous and in a way tortured and I was actually reading a lot of Browning at that time - thinking you could get away with it.

JD: Browning does!

PR: Browning does, so I could - well I'm not sure I did. Anyway, quite unintentionally I think going to Japan helped. At least initially, partly because it simplified things. I suddenly started to experience environments and so on which had very little reverberation for me, were rather flat, so I had to find the reverberations, and also I was teaching non-native speakers and as a result my spoken grammar and my written grammar had to be simplified. I started to give lectures completely without notes. In Cambridge, I used to read these complicated lectures out, but in Japan I will just stand in front of the board with a photocopy and a piece of chalk and make it up as I go along, and so they can get me I say everything three times, of course, and I also say it in pretty simple declarative sentences. I think that's helped.

JD: So that the writing has...

PR: Yes, its almost like the kind of process I might have deliberately set out to do if I were still in England, editing a poem down in some way for myself; that's partly what it's been like.

JD: What about speech rhythms and things like that?

PR: Well, I teach pronunciation too, to a language class of fourteen University bureaucrat recruits.

JD: Could you write about a poem about that?

PR: Well, I could do. I teach English speech rhythms and I do these very exaggerated versions of pitch, tone, intonational tune, weak forms, all that, and then get them to repeat them.

JD: But has Japanese affected you?

PR: No, I don't think so.

JD: Do you feel you don't hear it, in your mind?

PR: I went there when I was thirty-five or six and I think it is too late. Its rhythms are so different. And it's a language that is nothing like English. I don't think it really interferes with English. I do know one or two people who speak no language at all - they speak English with Japanese phrases stuck in, ex-pats who've been there forever and who haven't really worried about the matter. My wife's Italian, so we have three languages going on in the house, because now my kids are learning Japanese at kindergarten. And we stick as firmly as we can to the rule that if you begin a sentence in one language you've got to stay with it to the end. Finnegans Wake! I'm living in it. Sean O'Brien in Tokyo said to me one time something like 'Don't you think that living abroad is impoverishing your vocabulary?' A bit of a challenging question, wasn't it? It put me on the spot.

JD: The answer's No?

PR: I think the answer is No. It's not as if it were the nineteenth century or something. If I'd gone to Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century with no TV, no radio, no fax, no phone...

JD: Possibly, but I think it must surely be like the business of Japanese not affecting you? The English is firmly in your head.

PR: I'm being bombarded with American English, because it's the dominant one over there, so I'm quite capable now of saying to people, Americans for instance: 'Let's take the elevator'. I think it's enriched me. I would have thought my vocabulary has been enlarged by it.

JD: So you have a relation to the iambic pentameter?

PR: Do I have a relation to those very set English rhythms? Well, just recently I've started... I don't like the idea of writing in counted syllabics like Marianne Moore, but Japanese poetry is written in syllabics (5-7-5 lines for a haiku, etc) and I started to become aware of the fact that if you wrote lines which have odd numbers of syllables then the lines tend not to fall into a too familiar English metre. The English metres tend to be tetrametric, octosyllabic tetrameters, or six syllable trimeters, or ten syllable pentameters...Even-numbered syllables. With two syllable feet. Roughly. So if you put an extra syllable onto the lines it's always going to give it a slightly ruffled feeling and then you can also use the syllable count to get another patterning going on. I only started doing that recently and at the same time not doing like Moore did, I think, where because you've got this syllable count you ignore metre and beat, or you think you can do almost anything. I personally think you can't; you've got to have the speech rhythms and the beat underneath it. I don't have a relation to the iambic pentameter, except that I feel uncomfortable with it. So I do have a complicated negative relation. But I like the ballad metre; I like the three-stressed line and then the four-stressed line, or vice-versa, and I like to have what you might call variable metres, so I love the English Pindaric ode: it's in metres but they are flexible and variable. That's where my sense of rhythms comes from.

JD: I thought I could hear ballad rhythms sometimes when you were reading - perhaps in the one...

PR: The little three-quatrain poem called 'Months Gone'. That's in a ballad-form.

JD: Is rhyme new?

PR: There's more rhyme now than there was, but it comes and goes. I'm pretty eclectic about form. I don't much like the New Formalists in America because, it seems to me, they hit you over the head with the fact that it is always going to rhyme and it's always going to be in a set form. That seems to me rather polemically insistent in a useless way. It strangles the feel to the poem. So I don't like that kind of rhyming, but I have a sestina in Lost and Found, though I don't plan to write one again. I think there is more rhyme than there was, but it could go the other way.

JD: Let me ask you about your notebook. The poems look to a stranger's eye as if you are writing them out pretty much whole.

PR: But this one I read from is a fairly clean version; there are other drafts behind it which are just scribble.

JD: How do poems come to you then?

PR: There's no single answer to that. I write down little phrases, which then start to migrate from draft to draft. There's a page here which has just got little phrases on it, and some of them might get used and some might not.

JD: Do phrases just come into your head?

PR: Yes, they do.

JD: Like messages...?

PR: Yes, they do.

JD: Complete?

PR: That little bit in one of the new ones I read, this bit about '...its frost-crisped leaves / and others fossilized in asphalt' - I was looking around and there were leaves with frost on them. The phrase just came to me as I was walking along, and I wrote it down when I got back to the office. To save it for later. See if it fitted anywhere. Poems occasionally come in a great rush, but more often I'm a bit like a magpie, and then something will click and the whole thing will come out.

JD: You said you'd been writing one poem for a long time -

PR: That was the one called 'Animal Sendai', the title's from Finnegans Wake, about the zoo. There's a draft of that from 1990, and I wrote it in 1998. And I wrote two poems about the zoo one after another, using those earlier versions as source material.

JD: So how do you know when something isn't finished or isn't right?

PR: Feel. That's the only thing I can say. I was reading an essay about Wittgenstein and Freud and Frazer by a professor of philosophy recently and he explained very clearly that what Wittgenstein seems to have been saying in those notes on aesthetics is that you can't have causal explanations for aesthetic effects. Frank Cioffi (who wrote the book) argues back that, in some carefully qualified way, you can. So if somebody describes the sense of feeling uncomfortable in the face of a work of art and you say 'Well, let me just change this bit and perhaps the discomfort will go away' - I think the Wittgenstein idea is that you can't assume that there is some sort of simple trigger in the work of art that's producing the discomfort, whereas...

JD: But do you mean that there may be complex triggers?

PR: Well, I think there may be complex triggers, or there may be some things that you can rationalise to yourself or explain to yourself. There can be explanations for aesthetic responses without their having causal relations. I think the reason for that is that presumably causal relationships would have to work every time. Whoever reads this poem at whatever time of day or night will feel this particular feeling - and this is obviously not how art works. So the question is what is it that is making you feel you've got to change something? And I would like to know more about what it is artists do feel, and whether they rightly or wrongly think that something in the work is causing it. I must do something more about this.

JD: In the reader, then, when you are trying and failing to read, it's something to do with intensity of concentration, ability to create the object in your mind as you experience it, and when that's working well then it can be done. There may be other things, like your own emotional state and

PR: One thing is that you've got to be aware of the way that sometimes your own works are not going to work for you. So you mustn't tinker with things when you feel a bit flat.

JD: That's a good rule.

PR: You'll just destroy them. So one of the things is self-knowledge - now I'm in the right frame of mind to read this and to give it a go...

JD: I find that really difficult. Do you just leave them for a long time?

PR: I let them settle into themselves. I think a very good point is to get away from your own projected feelings about them. To try to get the sense of what the thing is in itself, rather than what you want it to be.

JD: What you think you're making?

PR: And not to have too many over-determined rules about how you think it should come out. Allow the thing to go its own way. But I find with prose for example, with essays, I basically just give up. At a certain point you just feel I don't see what more I can do with this. But with a poem I don't think you do feel that, because I also hate that kind of plasticine feeling - you know, I can pull that head off, I can mush it around, I could do anything with it. I hate that feeling. I think that's connected with omnipotence, frankly. An unpleasant omnipotence.

JD: That makes me think about the poem, 'All Around', about your acquaintance who committed suicide - where you asked wasn't this enough to have the trees, the day, to have a child. That when you are in a state of thinking I will stay alive and live my life it is on the basis of accepting that, however unsatisfactory your particular lot but I don't know how I've got to this now from the poem...

PR: Not straining for something that you can't have or have expectations of it which are way beyond anything you could ever live up to. My Dad said yesterday that nobody ever knows why somebody commits suicide, so I don't suppose I'll write a poem which explains it, or indeed whether that's really what I should be trying to do. I partly think, unfortunately, that this is one of those opportunities which has been thrown up where I've got a backlog of feeling about something and I'm sort of exploiting the occasion, I'm afraid.

JD: Yes, it's partly that, but then in a sense that's what writers do all the time; it just feels worse when it is a large tragedy that is someone else's real experience.

PR: I just feel you have to be very careful and maybe not publish them too prominently or maybe I get caught in the dilemma here

JD: It must have happened with the rape poems?

PR: Well, people did wonder about that. Most of the reviews of that book, This Other Life, were good but there was one review in The Poetry Review that said those poems were like me re-raping the girl - which I found absolutely horrific, and I mentioned this to my wife and she very kindly said: 'Don't worry about that one. You've done some bad things but not that.' But yes, it raises the spectre of that possibility, and certainly there are lots of debates about rape and representation, aren't there, which include that kind of thought. You grow up with the idea that writing is supposed to tell the truth and then you encounter all these checks on the truth, some of which are good ones, and so you've got to negotiate all that as well.

JD: That's partly to do again with a personal thinking and a public voice. There are some things we don't say. But I don't think these poems are

PR: I'm rather alarmed by the possibility of being in the company of exploitative poems about rape, which do exist, some written by women too. Reviews have raised that spectre. That's part of the risk you have to run.

JD: All your poems seem to address lived experience in recognisable forms of human expression - these big experiences have to be part of that.

PR: You've put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn't seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn't much like this.

JD: Why do you think that is?

PR: Well, I am very puzzled by the way jokes are so important. In the '80s I organised a poetry festival in Cambridge, and the Italian poet Franco Fortini came, and he said to me: 'Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?'

JD: Well, people are very scared of being seen to be serious. You said yourself that you might be accused of being sentimental in that poem to your daughter?

PR: So we've got this very hard skin on us which is quite false.

JD: It's to do with private life not being a publicly reputable source of conversation. I think it's left over from the Seventies - from the time when it wasn't acceptable to have a private life and it's not very media sexy, being at home with the kids. So it was a great relief to me to read somebody for whom the private Do you have any followers, couldn't you found a school?

PR: Not that I know of. No, I don't think so. I have a slightly saddened feeling about other poets - as if they, at some point or other, might have formed with me what I thought of as being a kind of group. Never with a slogan on it, just people who were about my age who were writing at the same time. Maybe it's the private life thing. The School of Private Life. But it didn't happen.

JD:Tell me who has influenced you as a poet?

PR: The problem with this kind of question is that I think my answer to it could go on all night.

JD: Okay. Tell me three poets who if they hadn't existed you would have been a different person.

PR: I can give you two straight off: one of them is Roy Fisher - who I came across at the age of 19 in Bradford University Social Sciences Library and I read those early poems of his about the demolition of Birmingham just like I was reading my own life. I thought this is what it's like, the mixture of social realism and weird, slightly paranoiac surreal twists...So in my early work there are strands of Roy Fisher everywhere. And I'm very glad recently, co-editing The Thing About Roy Fisher for Liverpool University Press, to have been able to honour this debt. I think I've managed to honour it. I hope so. Then there's an Italian poet that I came across about 1980: he's called Vittorio Sereni, and I translated him with a friend of mine in Italy. Sereni died in 1983, but I did just manage to meet him a couple of times before he died. His work is connected to Roy Fisher's through their both being influenced by William Carlos Williams. He was from Milan and Roy Fisher is from Birmingham: they both write out of these big, complex, but not capital cities. And I worked so hard on Sereni's poems that I could practically say them off by heart. Those two poets, without them I wouldn't be the kind of poet I am. But, interestingly enough, Fisher very rarely writes about his private life, and Sereni writes in a very guarded way about his.

JD: You mentioned Browning before.

PR: Browning, Hardy, Wordsworth...I studied John Donne at A level and I think those three complex stanzas - the Songs and Sonnets - they've got very firmly buried in me. Can't get away from Shakespeare, the Bible, I was brought up in the Church singing 'And did those feet...' and George Herbert.

JD: You come from Bootle?

PR: I was born in Salford. And then after a couple of curacies my father moved to St Andrews, Litherland, and I lived there from age 3 to 9, and then we had five years in Wigan. Then we moved to South Liverpool, Garston, in 1967. He was the Vicar of Garston until he retired. My parents now live just up the road in Mather Avenue. I went to Liverpool College; it had half-fees for the sons of the Clergy. I was in the same class as Simon Rattle...

JD: Is there a reason you don't live in England?

PR: I can't say that I'm an exile exactly. I couldn't get a job. I spent most of the '80s trying to get a job - coming second all the time.... So I ended up doing endless, badly-paid freelance literature and language teaching around Cambridge. So finally after about a decade of struggling, living on the credit card deficit, I got offered a visiting lectureship in Kyoto for a couple of years, talked it over with my wife, and she said: 'Why don't you go over to Japan and earn a bit of money.' It was just amazing suddenly to land up in this baffling place where I didn't have to work so desperately hard, and I used to take these very long hot baths, and for the first time in my life I relaxed about money, because of the regular salary. Then, in the second year, I was invited to take another job. It's just an annual job with a renewable contract, but I've been there for about eight years, and it seems to be going all right. I thought I was going for a break, but I've been there ten years. So I'm not an exile; I'm an economic émigré. That's why I'm abroad. I'd never in my wildest dreams thought I'd live in Japan; I had no interest in the culture, didn't want to learn the language. I like it now - I think there are lots of good things about it. It's a very safe country, very well organised country, a very polite country. But it's where I work.

JD: Have you always written poetry? When did you start?

PR: I was about fifteen or sixteen. It all fits with an oedipal rebellion - one of the first things I ever wrote was a sort of rhyming essay for the RI teacher - rebelling against God and my Dad.

JD: Are you still in rebellion?

PR: No, I don't think so.

JD: Do you have religious beliefs?

PR: Well, I'm a religious sort of person, but I don't think I have the kinds of beliefs you could put into very orthodox positions or even unorthodox positions. I'm not a signed-up Zen Buddhist or anything, but I do think that having been brought up in religion it's very difficult not to have a religious turn of mind.

From a conversation taped on 14 March 2000 in Liverpool.

Published in The Reader no. 8, March 2001.
Included in Talk about Poetry: Conversations on the Art (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2006).