'Whatever serves the poem is right'

Peter Robinson in conversation with Peter Swaab

Peter Swaab: Stravinsky was asked one time whether he would consider teaching in a university, and he answered that he wouldn't, not because he had any hostility to academic criticism of music, but because he thought that the university environment not congenial to creative work. How far do you think his anxiety on this score is grounded? What are some of the consequences for poetry of the current situation in which most poets do work in universities?

Peter Robinson: For myself, any answer would be complicated by the fact that my adult life so far has been inextricably connected with teaching and universities, while, at the same time, I've never had a tenure-track post anywhere. I left England, as you know, in exasperation after a decade of bad interview experiences. So my creative life between 1974 and 1989, from graduation to emigration, was taking place in the immediate margins of the academy proper - or that's how it felt being a graduate student and then free-lance supervisor in Cambridge. Being, more or less, 'in' but not 'of' the academy can be quite fruitful creatively, I found. There's stimulating company. You can get critical advice and encouragement. Your self-esteem is being regularly trimmed to size. Other people are in the same rocking boat... Coming to teach at universities in Japan, where after a decade I still am, and will remain, a visiting professor on an annually renewable contract, is good in so far as the time for your own work - creative or otherwise - increases almost in proportion to your earnings. Equally, with due respect to my colleagues and students here and there, it is by no means so intellectually exhausting or dispiriting as teaching anything under the sun for up to 25 hours a week at a poor hourly rate. You have almost total freedom to think and teach what you like - but, as the senior Shakespearean Yasunari Takahashi once said to me, it's freedom in a vacuum. Yet that also means I have to keep in mind that it's elsewhere, in the anglophone world, that the real playing field for any thought and publication to which I could usefully contribute is moving on. So, once again, I'm on the margins, in but not quite of the academy. The usually stated drawback of university life for writers is the reduction in the range of experience they encounter. Still, I suspect that poetry is not made by running after unusual experiences to write about. For myself, I just wait until life pitches up one of its body-line almost unplayable balls: duck, weave, and then see if anything in the way of a poem comes out of it. Certainly my life experiences are no more, and probably less, constricted than those of, let's say, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, or Hopkins - and if I write poems as good as theirs I'll have done well.

PS: Do you think there's something like a natural time scale in the way that living in another country affects a poet's work? Either in your own writing, or that of other Anglophone poets who've moved to Japan?

PR: James McMullen, the Oxford Professor of Japanese, once wrote in a review that people should write Books on Japan after either 3 months or 15 years. The poems set in Japan from Lost and Found (Carcanet, 1997) were produced over 4 years, but fall firmly in the 3 month category. They are a foreigner's responses to what is found and lost in making a move here. I suppose I've started to break the rule now by continuing, occasionally, to write poems set in Japan. However, I would say in my defence, that none of these poems are attempts to 'explain Japan'. For me the whole idea is absurd. The poems I have written here are responses to the circumstances in which I find myself, and are different from my 1974 - 1989 poems only in so far as the circumstances are not, for me, so embedded with familiar cultural renditions. As for other poets who have lived in Japan, I don't want to make invidious comparisons; but most of them have only lived here a few years and write the 3 month variety of poem, frequently the 'how curious to be in the exotic orient' kind of thing - which I've tried to avoid. I think the best single poem by someone in roughly my situation is Empson's 'Aubade': 'the language problem by you have to try' ... 'the same war on a stronger toe'. It's wonderfully about how different and how much the same things are.

PS: I've always been sceptical about the usefulness of 'schools of poets' categories, partly because the paradigm of The Movement is so discouraging (the principles so negatively defined, the common ground between the writers so limited, the commonalty journalistically devised and very transitory). But did you ever find it enabling to be related to a 'school'? I wonder what you think of the role of small magazines in giving identity and maybe argumentative vigour to such things. I wonder too if poetic schools have such marketable currency now - the Martian school didn't outlast a brief marketable flurry, and maybe worked as a discouraging precedent.

PR: I've never been seriously related to a school. The magazine Angel Exhaust published a special issue on the so-called Cambridge School some years ago in which, thanks to having edited 7 issues of Perfect Bound in the 1970s, I was described as being once at the heart of it, only to have my credentials immediately taken away - but now a mainstream poet. This magazine may have influenced James Keery in a recent article which described me rather partially as abandoning my initial models so as to become a very different kind of poet. All I can say to Andrew and James is that at the time it didn't feel like I was at the heart of anything, and if this is the mainstream, then there must be a drought going on, because the waters are flowing at a particularly tributary-ish pace. What's more, as far as all this mainstream chatter is concerned, I'm a convinced Heraclitan. Difficult even to step in it once. Editing magazines when young is a way to get some correspondence with writers you like and, if you're lucky, make a few like-minded friends. I met Marcus Perryman through student poetry circles, and first started to correspond with Roy Fisher. That sort of thing can snowball, but it can also melt away very fast. People stop contacting you when they hear you're not publishing any more - which isn't true, in different ways, about the two people I just mentioned.

PS: You gave a paper at a recent conference on Anglo-American literary relations in the poetry world. I wonder what a conference on Anglo-Japanese literary relations would be like. As someone who's edited Liverpool Accents: Seven Poets and a City (Liverpool University Press, 1996), how would Japan: Seven English Poets and Emigration appeal to you?

PR: My guess is that, aside from Enright, Kirkup, Thwaite, Guest, and a few others, English poets barely know the names of any Japanese poets (aside from Basho). Shuntaro Tanikawa has had a selected poems published by Carcanet, I notice, and the magazine Agenda is to do a Japanese special issue. Perhaps the situation is changing a little. Then, 'emigration': as I've said, almost all the English poets who have lived here, have, from Edmund Blunden to Mark Ford, spent just a few lonely years in the place. The exceptions are Ralph Hodgson, James Kirkup, and, I suppose, myself (we all taught at Tohoku University!). Hodgson wrote no cherry blossom-type poems, so he couldn't make the anthology. It looks like a dodgy prospect for a publisher. If there was any juice in the idea, surely Anthony Thwaite would have already edited it. I recently figured in a critical book written by a Japanese academic on this subject which I've not been sent and haven't seen. In a TLS review Thwaite described its brief as English language writers 'from Lafcadio Hearn to Peter Robinson'. I had to laugh.

PS: You've written a novel called September in the Rain. Are you looking to publish it? A number of writers we think of mainly as poets seem to have written curious and unusual works of fiction - Zukovsky, W.C.Williams, Larkin, Allen Tate come to mind, but I expect there are many other examples. Any thoughts on this phenomenon?

PR: My fiction floats close to autobiography and memoir. Like the poetry, it tends to be intimate. Poems come naturally to me, partly because my temperament fits a market assumption: no one demands that 'I couldn't put it down' feeling from poetry ('I sometimes pick it up' would be nearer to the mark) and a close range intensity in matters of emotions, memory, and perception are sometimes more or less expected of it. The few attempts I have made so far to interest publishers in my novel about a rape and its circumstances have come to nothing. I even had an agent looking at it for a year or so. He reckoned that it had a flaw in its structure, and that he wouldn't be able to place it. Unsurprisingly, he didn't. Some who have read it in typescript have said they believe it's good and publishable - but they have not tended to be publishers. So there we are: I have a draft of some short fictional pieces, and a completed novel, both of which I hope will see the light of day in good shape at some point, but I'm not in any hurry. As for other poets' fiction, I thought well of A Girl in Winter when I read it, but Larkin's fiction must count in a different category, because back in the 1940s he had an image of himself as a prolific all-rounder, a new Lawrence, who would do everything that came to hand. In this light, his decline into the one-poem-a-year (if you're lucky) writer is a bit sad and sorry. But, to turn the question round, I have quite a lot of time for the novelists who also wrote poems, most of all for Hardy and Joyce, then, some way behind, Melville, Lawrence, and Beckett, and then there's Meredith's Modern Love, which I've read a quite few times, though haven't spent any time with his fiction.

PS: A lot of your poems are printed as stanzas (or sometimes paragraphs would be a better word) with a single final line detached from the rest. Can you say a little why this form appeals to you, and also why you don't use it so often now as you used to in your earlier books?

PR: I think the first poem I completed with that sort of shape was 'Dirty Language' (1978) and the second was 'Cleaning' (1980). In the first case I thought I was writing a prose poem aiming at something like a Mercian Hymns verset, but in the territory of Roy Fisher's Interiors with Various Figures. What came out is not much like either, but 'Dirty Language' was the first of my poems that seemed to strike quite a resonant chord with magazine editors: it appeared in, I think, 3 magazines, and an annual New Poetry volume and was broadcast on the BBC. The final line is one of those things angry couples throw at each other: 'It makes no difference what I say'. John Donne has an observation about how the final line of a poem is the hammer blow that mints the coin, and these one-liners do tend to focus the lyric intensity of attention and feeling around the close. I also started noticing other poets doing something similar. The model for 'Cleaning' was a poem very unlike it by Hofmannsthal called 'Ballade des Ausseren Lebens'. It's a sequence of tercets with a final line. I don't know how I came on that 'My Love, this is the dirty thing', but I'm glad I did. Other poems with a final line like that also have models: 'In the Small Hours' adapts a form that Pascoli used for many poems, a short lyrical version of terza rima with the rhyme scheme closed off by the final line. Then I found the poetry of Attilo Bertolucci congenial, and he uses quatrains or octaves with an added final line compulsively in Viaggio in inverno. There's a young Italian called Gianni d'Elia who has also written books made up of 13 line poems, three quatrains and a line. So it's perhaps a more common strategy in Italian poetry than in English. There's a bit of my character that respond to the moment in a quarrel when one person says what he or she thinks of as the definitive remark and slams the door. That's what those poems try to do. Of course, the quarrel is, as Yeats has it, with myself as a social entity. I don't know if I consciously banished the technique at a certain point, but I can remember feeling around 1990 that I could manufacture that kind of poem, and that that was a good reason for trying something else. It's a fairly ingrained habit, though, and I can't completely shake it. 'Afterlives', the last poem in Lost and Found, revisits the terza rima style of Pascoli and puts it to work for a brush with a Dantean ghost or two.

PS: Are there any traditional poetic forms you're moved to dust down and try out anew? I don't remember any sestinas in your earlier poetry, for instance, but in many ways the sestina seems quite a Robinsonian form.

PR: I wrote an accrostic in 1985, 'Aria di Parma', and another in 1992, 'Clearing the Wood'. There, now, I've given away two obvious non-secrets: those are the two women who have been most closely involved in my life. The latter is a painfully clever piece of craft, in that my ex-wife's name happens to fall into eight letters and six letters - so there's an accrostic Petrarchan sonnet about the end of a 20 year relationship. After my brain tumour operation, I had a lot of time on my hands and the need not to be driven away from poetry by my chronic tiredness and general bad shape. So I sat down and set myself a few exercises. I did an unpublished pantoum (a form I've subsequently tried out a couple of times without success) and I did the sestina that is the penultimate poem in Lost and Found called 'Convalescent Days'. Something came through from my comments in In the Circumsances: About Poems and Poets (OUP, 1992) on the sestina in 'The Dry Salvages', I suspect, about routine and keeping going. It stayed in my notebook for about a year, because I thought of it as rather belaboured; later, I had second thoughts, dusted it off and revised it before sending it around: Dave Smith took it for the Southern Review and I began to think better of it. Later, Roy Fisher wrote saying that he never thought when we first started corresponding in the mid seventies that he'd be congratulating me on a sestina! Mind you, I've no plans to write any more, or any formal stunts for that matter. Have I been influenced by the New Formalists? I doubt it. The poems I had in mind when doing my unpublished pantoum and the sestina are by John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop; the poems that suggested to me the possibilities of acrostics are by Frank O'Hara and Eugenio Montale. When it comes to forms and structures, I've always been a pragmatic pluralist: whatever serves the poem is right.

(Conducted by e-mail between Sendai, Japan, and London, England, during winter 1997 - 8)