On 14 November 2013 Paul Hetherington interviewed Nigel McLoughlin, about his poetry in his office at the University of Gloucestershire. Nigel talked about various aspects of his approach to writing poems, including its connection to his childhood, his methods of making work and how he understood poetry in terms of creative practice and research.


Paul Hetherington: I thought we might start with where you come from and whether your poetry has its beginnings there.

Nigel McLoughlin: I was born in Enniskillen, which is in the south-west corner of Northern Ireland and I grew up with a love of the possibilities of language. That may sound a bit pretentious, but it’s not. It’s just that I was surrounded by people who loved to play with language—ordinary people who loved colourful expression; who loved, in some cases, reciting poems; in some cases just the art of conversation. And the art of conversation as being colourful. So I guess that’s where it originated.

I grew up with poems as well—hearing them more than reading them. There would be recitations of things like ‘There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu’ (Hayes 1911).1 And, again, these exotic sounding names and words fascinated me. When I started to read poems as well, the poems I’d heard I started to find in publications like The Ulster Reciter and the Laurel and Gold Anthology of Victorian Verse. And the more I read, the more I found stuff I liked.

Paul: At what age was this?

Nigel: Oh, this was seven, eight, nine, ten. And we were doing poetry a little bit in school as well with people like de la Mare, Heaney.

Paul: So, poetry that’s quite musical?

Nigel: Rhythmic, musical, absolutely.

Paul: Did poetry come from your parents as well?

Nigel: I think the whole family had an affinity, not necessarily with poetry but with colourful speech—through what they used to call the craic round our way. Just the art of conversation really, and storytelling. My grandmother was a great storyteller and so was my uncle.

Paul: What was it like around your way? What kind of place was it?

Nigel: Well it was sort of semi-rural. We were in Enniskillen, but Enniskillen centres on an island, and there are housing estates outside of the island town. It was in one of those that I grew up. You went out my front door, there was a large hill that led down to a lake and there was a forest that spanned around there … so it was like walking out into the countryside, even though if you went out our back door you went into a housing estate. It was a semi-rural environment and as kids we had quite a bit of freedom. We grew up with an affinity with the land, with fishing, with climbing trees …

Paul: So what about the way you named things? Because it strikes me in reading your poetry that you’re very interested in language, even for a poet. Even allowing for the fact that most poems are a way of naming something, you often seem very particular about, and even quite precise about, the way you want to name experience—or name what you know. Is that a fair comment?

Nigel: I think it is. Part of what poetry is about is trying to call to mind; trying to identify for yourself and for other people, what it is exactly that you feel about something, or what it is exactly that you’re trying to talk about. Part of that process is trying to find the words that will not only give meaning to it, but will also be able to fulfil the emotional valence of it. That might be through the sort of music that surrounds the words or the rhythm that perforates the poem. And quite a lot of the time it is about finding the exact word that fits. That’s part of the fun.

Paul: On that note, could you read your poem, ‘Names of Things’? When did you write it?

Nigel: I wrote it in 2009. It was just before Chora came out. And I remember talking to another poet about a poem they’d written about swans, and it just … it sort of struck me, the whole association that Irish mythology has with swans. And the nature of the swan itself; the power and underlying force that’s within them, even though they’re quiet and serene creatures on the surface. I wanted to gather that.

Paul: And before you do read the poem—and talking about poets—Yeats is an Irish poet who has invoked an idea of swans both in terms of their mythological significance, as well as observing them in a landscape charged with Romanticism. Do you relate to that vision?

Nigel: In a way. We grew up with those stories as kids, the Children of Lir2 and the wandering of the swans around various places—the Sea of Moyle was one which is in the north of Ireland. And it is that sense of … there is a mystery to them; and an almost human quality to them. And the fact that they are, in certain places, revered; in certain places feared; in certain places just held in some form of awe. I wanted to try to get that: the power that they have over us psychologically and as physical beings. They are quite powerful things once you see them angry; they’re a sight to behold.

Names of Things

Some things happen when your back is turned:
a thousand swans might freeze by their spags
and eight thousand feet of wing begin to beat.
Imagine the lift. The disc of spancelling ice
like a second moon diminishes upward, cracks
into a shower, pelting down like bones
in the white wind. None of this is mute:
imagine the rebounding whoops against each
other. The black feet free as cracks in a dome
shattering, and necks arrowing the great cross
of themselves onward to rest at Moyle
following their own ancestral map, more than
the sign of themselves, beyond metaphor
where language begins to disintegrate
into the frayed feathers of escape.

Paul: In the poem you use language with a particular attention and employ interesting diction—we have spags, we have spancelling …

Nigel: Well, with the word ‘spags’, it’s actually an Irish word and I drafted it in because it encapsulates in one word the idea of large ungainly feet. It also stops me repeating ‘feet’, because it’s in the next line as well. And I wanted to avoid a full rhyme at the end of the line. So, again, it’s about trying to get around things that I thought were problematic. And ‘spags’ is exactly the right word. It does in one word what I would have taken three or four in English to do.

Paul: More generally, if you’re writing poetry, what about this attention to words and what they can do?

Nigel: Language for me, there’s a sort of finiteness to it. There are certain things that language is capable of. And there are certain things which language doesn’t really transfer directly in terms of meaning—some of the emotions that you want to get across. And that’s where poetry works in many respects beyond language. Where it’s working with the super-linguistic devices such as rhythm, sound, assonance, sibilance, that sort of thing … those musical qualities of poetry which are absolutely necessary in order for it to fulfil its potential. And if you were relying on language alone, you probably wouldn’t get across exactly what it is that the combination of language and rhythm and music allows you to do.

Paul: In terms of ‘Names of Things’, it’s 15 lines long and it looks on the page a bit like a sonnet, notwithstanding the extra line. The first line of the poem is close to regular iambic pentameter—‘Some things happen when your back is turned’. But then you start to vary the poem’s rhythmic life. What are you doing technically with the poem?

Nigel: When I was writing the poem, I wasn’t thinking of it mechanically in terms of beat. What I was feeling through, was the rhythm that’s set up by an internal vowel music; a variation of broad and slender vowels. In the second line you have ‘thousand’, ‘swans’ and ‘freeze’, and then you’re back to broad vowels with ‘spags’. I wanted those variations across the lines where broad vowels tend to attract a bit more stress. And slender ones tend to be more lightly stressed—in terms of how I feel the language anyway.

Paul: Another thing, following on from your point about rhythm and music, is poetry as much music as it is words? And if so, how?

Nigel: I think so. I think that part of what I’m trying to do as a poet involves both. It involves trying to get the right words, but it also involves trying to make those words fit a rhythm and a sort of melody, for want of a better word, that I’m musically happy with. It’s strange because I’m not a musician, but I tend to hear vowels as part of a scale which ranges from broad to slender. And I tend to hear consonants interacting with those vowels in different ways. So you can have a very hard consonant with a very slender vowel and it’s very quick to say. It moves through the word very quickly. But then you can have a soft consonant with a broad vowel which takes longer to say, and it just feels as if there’s more stress on that word to me. So I tend to use them and to manipulate them in that way.

Paul: Can you connect your interest in the music and rhythm of poetry, and the language of poetry, to some of the issues which are not so much present in the poem you’ve just read, but which is there in some of your work—social justice issues, even political issues. They seem important to you as a poet.

Nigel: I think that there are certain issues that it’s difficult to shy away from, particularly if you’re a Northern Irish poet; particularly if you’re working class. And I think that there’s nothing wrong with addressing those. But when I do want to tackle that subject in a poem, I don’t really want to be seen to be tugging at the reader’s sleeve and saying ‘look at this, isn’t this horrible?’ I would rather they came to that conclusion for themselves. And one way of doing that is to use lyrical devices in order to engage with the subject matter while trying to remain relatively neutral. I know that you can use these devices subtly to influence the direction of thought of the reader. And there’s no doubt that I do, but I try to do it in as subtle a way as possible so that it doesn’t become intrusive. And it’s also about trying to keep the ‘I’ out of the poem, the ego out of the poem, and allowing the other ‘eye’ to be a vehicle for the reader—to let the reader see through.

Paul: Would you mind reading a poem for me from Chora, your new and selected poems—‘Breaking Clocks’?

Breaking Clocks

Beginning each identical grey morning –
the only blue, the bus that passed him by –
his life is beaten out, repeated,
in the seven second cycle of his machine.
Going through his usual social motions,
nightly, he oils his throat again,
down at the local talking football.
Even that’s no longer an escape.

But when he dreams his way above the thicket,
out past the landfill of his life,
then the sky unmapping into mountains
opens up a clearer kind of eye.
Here he can unravel any colour.
he can put the roof upon his half built life.
He can feel the clocks have all been broken,
feel the sky rush through the flight of birds.

Paul: I’m fascinated by the idea of clocks the poem presents and of the person that the poem characterises.

Nigel: It’s quite an early poem and it has an autobiographical element in it in the sense that when I wrote that poem I was a supervisor in a factory that made ham. The seven-second cycle of the machine is actually real. The machine worked on a seven-second cycle and the rhythm of the machine is in the poem. So I lifted the rhythm of the machine and put it in the poem in order to try and make the reader feel the monotony, rather than just tell them about it. Now whether that goes across all the time, I don’t know. Some people may get it, some people may not.

Paul: And the person being spoken about in the poem, is that you?

Nigel: In a way, yes, because it’s about having two lives. You have the physical manifestation of being in a factory environment, and there’s also the stuff that goes on inside your head that lifts you out of that. It’s strange because when you’re working in a factory you tend to be doing physical labour, but mentally you’re usually somewhere else, especially if the labour is in any way monotonous.

Paul: And so the sky rushing ‘through the flight of birds’—a lovely image—is that partly imagination and poetry?

Nigel: Yes, I think it’s partly about seeing the world a little bit differently, because normally, obviously, it’s the bird that goes through the air rather than vice versa. But I turned it on its head because that’s what the imagination does; that’s what it’s capable of doing—turning everything on its head.

Paul: Turning lives on their heads?

Nigel: Absolutely.

Paul: That poem connects to your personal life but some of your other poems seem further distanced from your immediate concerns. Most of us—I think most poets—draw some of their material from their circumstances and experiences but where else …

Nigel: I get inspiration from things I hear. I tend to change them because I don’t want to use someone else’s story in its entirety. So what I’ll do is take the kernel of it and reinvent another story that does something very similar. I use empathy—I mean I try and put myself in that person’s position. I’ll try and put myself over there and in there and see how that feels and see what of that I can give back to the reader.

Paul: And in developing those ideas, do you then ever conduct research of any kind? Do you look at books or the web or other sources for material for poetry?

Nigel: I tend to use the web to check things. And sometimes you come up with an image and you’re never quite sure if the image is right. It might be to do with with the shape of something … for instance the shape of a certain flower. And you have this notion that it’s one particular shape, just because it feels right. And then you go on Google Images to try and find the flower to make sure that you are right and you don’t make a fool of yourself.

To that extent, I do use that sort of research—but poetry for me is imaginative research. It’s about trying to make new knowledge about poetry, and about us as human beings. And the research methods aren’t by any means traditional. But they’re no less effective for being non-traditional. I think a good poem can tell you an awful lot and it’s maybe something we don’t pay enough attention to as a culture. It’s some of the knowledge that is contained in art, of all kinds.

Paul: So poetry is part of that ongoing investigation that art makes into the human condition.

Nigel: Absolutely. And it’s about discovering new techniques to make better art, which is also—as far as I see it—research in itself, because it’s the generation of new methodologies by another name. If we were in other disciplines that’s what we’d be talking about.

Paul: And even if we’re not always making better art, as times change; as the zeitgeist shifts—I’m not sure, I think it may be shifting significantly at the moment—we need to find ways of making different art, don’t we?

Nigel: That’s right. We need to make the art that fits our time, and reflects our time, and does that in the best possible way. And that will always require new methods and new ways of thinking and new ways of doing.

Paul: Do you think those who govern university research measures and assess university outcomes pay sufficient attention to artistic production from academics? Or is this just a vexed issue that is hard to get right?

Nigel: I think it is a vexed issue. Because there is always some form of metric at the back of many of these exercises. It’s very difficult to measure the effectiveness of a poem along some sort of metric scale. It’s very difficult to measure the influence of a poem in terms of citations because it doesn’t work that way. You influence other artists in very subtle and often unconscious ways. And that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s very difficult to count them up in terms of citations. So I think there will always be that vexatious issue as long as that remains the focus.

That said, I think people have realised that and continue to realise that and have found ways of judging poetry as poetry, and as practice-based research, within the frameworks they are using. And that is largely by having people who know poetry well and know how poetry works on judging panels. And there probably won’t ever be a substitute for that.

Paul: And if we’re talking about research, there’s another aspect to the connection between poetry and research in your life. You conduct research into the nature of poetry and creativity and into other people’s poetry. Do you see that as connected to your own creative practice as a poet? Or do you see your writing of poetry as a creative practitioner, and the research you do into poetry in general, as separate activities?

Nigel: I think that they do connect up. They all connect up in the end, because learning about poetry through making poetry is one way of generating new methods; it’s one way of generating new knowledge. Another way is, of course, to look at what other people have done and question: ‘How have they done that? And what does this do; what does this method do to me, as a reader? How does it do that to me?’ And then of course that allows you to say: ‘Well, maybe I can apply something similar to that.’

And, of course, all poets are also readers. They’re the first readers of their own work. They also read an awful lot of other poetry. And I think that most poets are interested to some degree in poetry’s effects on the readers. How does it actually generate those effects? What is it cognitively about us that allows poetry to work in that way? And what sort of mechanisms does poetry trigger within us that allows us to feel these things? I think it’s a fascinating area and I think they do connect up in different ways and touch upon each other in different ways. But it’s not a simple relationship, it’s not a linear relationship by any means. Some of the stuff that I’ve learned through applying various frameworks to analysing other people’s poems, I find really interesting.

Paul: What are some of the things you’ve learned?

Nigel: Well I guess I’ve learned, particularly, the power that negation can have as a trope. That sense of negation by its very nature calling to mind the very thing that it must negate—because you must first call it to mind and then mark it as negative, as non-existent.

Paul: So it’s a kind of indication.

Nigel: It is a kind of indication. And it’s also quite a powerful tool because if you can make a reader do that; make a reader call something to mind and then negate it, then you’re saying ‘look, here’s this thing, and now I’m going to take it away from you’. I like ambiguity for the same reason. I’ve been looking at how ambiguities work. The research seems to indicate that when we come across ambiguous words we call to mind all of their meanings. And in many ways that makes it much easier to riff off two or three separate meanings of the word in preceding lines and force the reader into an uncertain zone where they’re not sure which direction this is going. Which creates a potential for opening up poems—in terms of their meaning and in terms of what the reader thinks you intend.

Paul: Some people might ask why open up ambiguities and perhaps a sense of indeterminacy in poetry rather than give a reasonably straightforward clear meaning. There have been poets who have spent all their lives giving straightforward, clear meanings. And some of them have been good poets and some haven’t …

Nigel: Well, is meaning really ever clear? It’s one of the qualities of language, that it is slippery and it does allow for separate meanings anyway. And one of the more interesting things and more playful things that we can do, and do do with language is to leave that ambiguity open and tease the reader a bit. As readers, we enjoy being teased. So, again, it’s partly about reading poetry as a pleasure. But also allowing people to see that certain issues are neither black nor white; that certain issues have that indeterminate quality in them and that you can make that explicit in some way.

Paul: And is it true to say that in some interesting poems, the main issue for the poem is not the apparent issue—it’s the poem itself rather than the issue that a poem appears to be addressing? For instance, in Shakespeare’s 34th sonnet the speaker talks in metaphorical terms about the trauma of having travelled forth without his cloak. Yet Shakespeare never specifically tells the reader why the poem’s speaker feels so disgraced. What does that say about poetry—that we’re not always being told the kinds of things we would expect to encounter in more ordinary narratives but, instead, are often told the effect of something; or are being given access to an emotional response that is not clearly anchored in explicit narrative?

Nigel: Well, again, I think it creates a gap that the reader can enter into. The reader can supply their own disgrace. In many cases it’s a bit like Room 101 in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—it’s the worst thing in the world that’s in there and what you imagine is always much worse than what the reality is. So it might be that Shakespeare is being quite clever there and that any disgrace that the reader imagines is probably going to be worse than the one he would give them.

Paul: So poetry’s a form of opening up imaginative spaces?

Nigel: I think so. I think it’s very much a cooperative venture between the writer and the reader. There is a certain sense of the riddle to it. There’s a certain sense that the reader gets some satisfaction by having to work a little bit for the author’s meaning. The author gets some satisfaction through playfulness; through just getting that balance right; where you just say enough and no more, to make your meaning manifest. It’s a test of the poet’s skill, but it’s also a test of the reader’s skill. And in many ways it’s a test of both of their humanities as well—their abilities to actually use the clues that are in there in order to elucidate unsaid meanings.

Paul: Unsaid meanings. That’s interesting. Could you read ‘Catching Fire’?

Catching Fire

She maintained only one right way
to clean the flue: fire shoved
up to burn it out, drive sparks
from the chimney stack and smuts
into air. Each bunched and bundled
paper held till the flame took
and it flew, took off on its own
consumption, rose on its own updraft.
I stood fixed by her leather face
dancing in firelight, her hands
clamped to the metal tongs.
Eyes stared black and wide, rims
of blue that circled wells, pools
that fire stared into. I watched
her pull from beneath them black
ash and a paper smell I love still.

She told me she saw faces in the flame
and people, places, things take place.
She’d spey fortunes there; told me
mine. But I saw nothing more or less
than the dance of flame, the leap
and die, the resurrection of yellow
cowl and dual change of split-
levelled flame that held within it
a dance of words, a ballet of images.
I heard only the music of burning
a soundless consummation of persistence
imagined a vision of my hands reddening
felt my knuckles braising
my bones in tongues, flaming.

Paul: This poem interests me for a number of reasons. It is closely observed for most of its duration but then, right at the end, it shifts into metaphorical space. Why spend so much time giving us a kind of daily quotidian detail; and a kind of unfolding narrative of situation, and then shift at the end so rapidly into metaphor?

Nigel: Well in many respects the poem is actually about writing poetry, and the things that poetry can do. I guess what I wanted to get at was that behind the mundane, there is something quite magical in a way, if you can get at it, or if it can get at you. And the poem originated as … well, through the memory of observation really, of one of my grandmother’s many fire rituals. We had an open fire down in her house and she used to go through a number of rituals to get the fire lit, and clean out the fire and clean the flue and all the rest of it. On winter nights we would sit around it and she’d tell stories and then the fire took on a whole different focus. The fire became the centre of a community, the sort of manifestation of the stories … and in some cases she used the fire in the stories. So these things started to connect for me. And in terms of ancient Irish lore, poetry was seen as an insubstantial form of fire. So that connection was in there as well as a sort of internalisation of the flame. And sometimes that’s what it feels like, when you know you’ve written something really good, you feel it. It does have that sense of being just consumed by it, and you burn, you feel great.

Paul: And it is another musical poem.

Nigel: It is, and again, that’s simply because music is just such an important part of what allows the poem to take me over.

Paul: This poem gives a version of poetry that almost—perhaps it’s the wrong word—but it almost feels like a kind of transubstantiation. You get a sense that poetry can shift everything, and that things which were physically present are suddenly, well, consumed and changed within the poet’s imagination and writing.

Nigel: Yes, I think there is a sense of that; that the act of writing the poem changes what the material of the poem is into something which is much more general; much more far reaching than the material itself generally is. The poem adds something to it which allows it to communicate in a much wider way and at a much more basically human and visceral level than just a straight telling would allow.

Paul: Is part of that also that things are often telling in ways that we can never say unless we have poetry to say it?

Nigel: Yes. I think that poetry is … what I think poetry is, is the most muscular and athletic form of language. It’s language, but it’s the Usain Bolt version. It’s doing stuff that’s way beyond what most language is capable of. And it’s not just language, it has that whole sense of music; has a whole sense of rhythm as well that allows it to go that little step beyond. And because it incorporates the semantic meaning, the use of device, the use of rhythm, the use of musical devices—all the rest of that—the combination somehow affects us on more levels. It gets at more visceral levels within us simultaneously and thereby allows the thing to take a really strong effect. It becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Paul: So when you think about language—and I’m interested now in how you go about writing poetry … let’s say that you’ve got a poem that you’re thinking about and it’s taking its time. How do you go about constructing a finished work from the original idea? And what technology do you use to do it? And what kind of thinking are you doing?

Nigel: Well most of my poems are short. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because I tend … certainly over most of my poetic career I’ve tended to compose orally. And what that means is that I’ll hold a certain poem in mind and I’ll build images around it. And I can usually retain that without having to write it down. If I write it down too soon it just doesn’t work. So I’ll sort of mull it around in my head and I’ll mutter it to myself when I’m driving the car and test out the lines and test out the stanzas until I’m reasonably happy with it.

And then by the time I use any technology at all it’s already in a decent first draft. And then I’ll go through a process of just redrafting and editing it once it’s on the page. And part of that is how it looks on the page and part of that is where I want the lines to end and what works as a unit of sense and what maybe doesn’t. And if there are visual puns or anything like that that I want to take out or introduce or … . So I’ll work at that level with it for a while. Now the exception to that, I’ve written one or two longer poems, and I tend to write those down, and I tend to work on the page with them a bit more than I would with short poems, simply because trying to keep all the sections in my head just wouldn’t work really—wouldn’t work for me anyway.

Paul: When you’re working like that, do you ever … in that stage where you’re still mulling it over in your head and muttering it to yourself, do you ever worry that you’re going to lose part of the poem?

Nigel: Not really. I don’t seem to remember having lost anything—at least nothing important. So if it’s going to go, it’ll probably go at a very early stage. And you never know, it may manifest itself, or images from it will probably manifest themselves, again somewhere later along the line. So I don’t worry too much about that. I’ve never lost a poem where it was getting to the stage where I was going ‘well this is really good, I’d better write it down’ and then forgotten it—thankfully. Fingers crossed.

Paul: So when you do get to write it down, is that on a computer or with a pen?

Nigel: Well more often than not, now, it’s a computer. It used to be pen and paper. I used to like pen and paper, or pencil and paper—just the sort of mechanical feel of it. But I got used to writing it down on the computer because it was going to end up on the computer anyway. And it’s easier to work with the drafts in many respects on the computer because you can move stuff around, delete them and all the rest of that.

Paul: I’ve had moments where I’ve moved stuff around and then regretted the moving. And retrieving the original idea can be tricky.

Nigel: Yes, that’s true. Well that’s one advantage of a pencil and paper. You can see what you originally had.

Paul: In terms of your more lyric mode, there are poems that you’ve written that are quite personal. In the contemporary poetry community, for every three poets there are probably three different opinions about how to proceed as a poet and whether personal poetry is, as it were, a good thing. Some people … I think some of the most beautiful lyrics in the language, going right back to Sappho, are poems that are either personal or employ the tropes of appearing to be a personal utterance. It’s not always been fashionable. What are you doing when you write poems that are personal? What are you saying?

Nigel: Personal poems, provided they work … there’s a certain type of personal poem which doesn’t really work. Sometimes you can feel like a bit of a voyeuristic observer into something. And that’s not the type of personal poem I want to write. If I do write personal poems, it’s about trying to make something of the experience and trying to show the reader something through the experience, rather than making the reader feel like an outsider.

Paul: It’s an interesting question because obviously since the 1950s, or thereabouts, one strand of contemporary poetry that’s been influential is so-called confessional poetry. And the merit of it has been hotly debated. I’ve recently been reading poetry by Sharon Olds that is apparently starkly confessional, and sometimes confrontingly so. I’m not necessarily asking you to comment on Sharon Olds’ work—although you can if you want to—but what do you think about the attempt by confessional poets to disrupt what some of them have seen as a rather cosy pact between writer and reader and actually say, ‘look at this, this is much more naked and problematic than you may have considered it to be’?

Nigel: In terms of that sort of intent, I think that’s fair enough. I think that if the intention is to disrupt, and the intention is to make the reader uncomfortable in a certain way—but not just for the sake of discomfort; if it’s using that discomfort in order to make the reader see something that they wouldn’t ordinarily see—that seems to me to be a fairly legitimate artistic purpose. I think that there are other personal poems which, they do seem, at least when I read them, that it is almost, ‘look at this, isn’t it terrible?’ And as a reader it puts you into a very strange position where you can, yes, you can sympathise, but you’re feeling ‘why are you telling me this?’ It just seems voyeuristic. It’s not necessarily disrupting anything. There doesn’t seem to be enough artistic distance … of any kind—it is what you might call heart parings. Those are always difficult poems to read. And I … like anyone else, I’ve written them myself, but I tend not to publish them.

Paul: I thought when Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, as good as many of the poems in that volume are, I still wondered about the tonality in a few of the poems in that book; whether there are elements of what you call heart parings in that volume. But on the other hand, isn’t it very hard to write about those kinds of things in poems while always achieving a secure tonality?

Nigel: I think that’s true. It’s always difficult to try to find the right tone, the right level of distance. And sometimes you can write a poem which is about something particularly harrowing, and it’s very difficult then to find a way of creating any kind of artistic distance from it. And sometimes it just needs to be out there. Ted Hughes’ and Sylvia Plath’s relationship has come under so many different microscopes that it’s always going to be difficult to write about. And it depends on the reader as well. Some people will quite like that sense of gaining an intimate view into a relationship. I’m not particularly one of them. I want it to serve some other purpose.

Paul: That leads on to a question about judgment and about responsiveness—and to some extent about editorial judgment. Why do you edit other people’s work and what are you trying to contribute in doing so?

Nigel: In terms of Iota … most of the editorial work I do is for Iota … I edit the poetry, largely, and when we went into Iota, what we were trying to do was to create a space where what was important was the poem and not the poet. So we judge the work anonymously. And I still like that joy when you come across a really good poem and it just feels right and in many cases it makes you jealous. Then you go and look at the person who submitted it and it’s a new poet and you just go, that’s just great. We wanted to create a space where new poets and more experienced ones with several collections to their name could find an equal chance of being heard. And, again, we don’t use single poems, we use two, three, four, five poems by each poet, and it gives their poems a little room to breathe. And you get a sense of them as a poet. I think that’s just a good thing to do. There are not many places out there that focus on that and when we got together as a team of editors, that was one of the things that we did want to do. It is important as a poet to engage with poetry on a broader level, whether as a reviewer or an academic or just through reading as much poetry as you can. And one way that I get to read an awful lot of new poetry is through editing Iota.

Paul: And in doing that, what’s your sense of the quality of contemporary poetry and of the variety of it?

Nigel: Well I think it’s become a very broad church. The experimental stuff has made inroads into the more mainstream. I see young poets now who are much more willing to play with language in ways that more mainstream poets a generation ago wouldn’t have engaged with, particularly if they were trying to publish in a mainstream press. I see poets who want to write overtly political poems. Poets seem to be willing to make use of the internet more, to find ways of democratising the whole process and circumventing the gatekeepers. It seems to be quite healthy. It seems to be a very broad, healthy and cross-fertilising place. There seems to be a lot more communication going on between different sort of ideas and schools of poetry than there was. But maybe that’s just a function of the internet, or it’s just easier now.

Paul: Periodically somebody gets in the newspaper and, yet again, predicts the death of poetry. And when the internet came along some people were saying ‘well that’s going to be a problem for poetry because why would people bother to read difficult poetry when they have recourse to the easily accessible and information-rich online environment?’ And yet there seems to be a continuing richness, and almost an efflorescence, taking place in terms of poetry communities around the world. What do you think about this?

Nigel: It’s strange because every time a new technology comes out, people predict the death of the poetry book, and poetry, and whatever. I remember when CDs started to become quite cheaply available and quite cheap to make and the claim was that everyone’s just going to put their poetry on CDs now aren’t they. And they didn’t. It might have been interesting if there was more of that, but there wasn’t a great deal of it. And, yes, people do make CDs of poetry but it’s usually CDs of poetry that has previously appeared in a book.

The internet has elements of that as well. I don’t think you’ll ever kill the poetry book simply because there is something quite nice about holding a well-made artefact and being able to read it. People have said the book is going to die because of Kindle … it won’t die, it’ll change a little bit. I think production values will go up. It will become much more about the texture of the book and the feel of the book and the book as artefact. And there will be more opportunities for publishing poetry on the internet and in Kindle form and all the rest of it, and that’s great. All of the new technology, as far as I can see, has actually been very good for poetry because now it’s actually quite easy to put sound files of poems onto a website so people can hear what you do as well as read it.

It’s become very easy to submit to journals that aren’t constrained monetarily by a 32-page size that they can only produce four times a year. And so you can produce more; more stuff gets out there. But is more poetry being read? That’s the other side of that coin. Maybe because people have finite time they’re not reading as much of it. And it’s harder to get noticed. I think new poets coming through probably have to find new ways of getting noticed.

Paul: Hasn’t it always been difficult for poets?

Nigel: It’s always been difficult, but I think it’s probably more difficult now, if anything, simply because of the volume.

Paul: Mind you, it’s so easy now to find poems on the web. I like that because I don’t want to go to a library every time I’m thinking about a poem but don’t have a particular book to hand.

Nigel: Or if you’ve forgotten the title of a poem and you can remember a couple of lines, you can Google it and then you will find it. Whereas before that, it was … if you didn’t remember the title of the poem and you only had a couple of lines, it was almost impossible to try and track it down.

Paul: Can we wrap up by you reading ‘Chorus’. I think there’s a particularly subtle music in this poem. Perhaps, once you’ve read it, you might say something about the poem and what you think it’s about.


A thousand webs barely contain the green thrum
of the hedge and the night-drop dregs of silver
burst in the mouth; reek like zest. The eye irradiates
with a clamour of birds blackening into horizon.
Colour begins a slow thunder across the sky, multiplies
and changes; sings in bird-throat to the beat of wings.
The air hives with birth, vibrates out of shadow.
Everything burns, everything rings, including me.

The great bell of the world vibrates and I am drunk
with winter-shine. The concrete blazes. The red tang
of seven o’clock and the vein-belt of walking brazen
to the frost leaps through me. An hour before petrol-stink
and the shrink of people diminishing into a rush, here
in the open-throated song of morning, I am in the clear.

Nigel: I guess what I was trying to get at with that poem was to register how, just sometimes, in those really early cold winter mornings—you know, there’s a bit of sharpness in there—or maybe early spring—that sort of time of year, you just feel more alive. And there’s something … colours are brighter, the air feels better, it tastes … there’s something in us that awakens. And just trying to get a handle on that and feel what that was, and find a way of transferring it across—that’s the purpose of the poem. And part of it is a sort of musical effect; part of it is a feeling that your whole being has that potential to break into song at any moment. And part of it is the way that sometimes sensory modalities cross in a synesthetic way. You find you can think of how the earth is in terms of colour. It’s strange in a way, certainly, but we can do it; we’re capable of doing it; we’re capable of making those metaphoric connections and synesthetic connections. And sometimes we’re more open to that in those moments when we are feeling a little more alive and a little more positive.

Paul: One of the things I like about this poem is that it’s a subtle poem but also speaks very directly. And the ending is risky poetically—‘here / in the open-throated song of morning’ is risky. But the way you wrap that up with the phrase ‘I’m in the clear’ sits beautifully against the previous image, ‘the open-throated song’. Do you think a lot about that kind of juxtapositioning of phrases? Or do you tend to follow your instinct?

Nigel: I would tend to follow my instinct more than think too much through that type of juxtaposition. I mean that particular one is just because it felt right. And part of what made it feel right was that single end rhyme that happened by accident really, but it … the poem almost demanded it because it had avoided end rhyme all the way through the poem—but just that once I wanted that one note. It’s a question of trial and error really. You try various things and see if they feel right, if they sound right, if they set the rhythm right, and if they get at what you were trying to convey. So do I think logically through it? Probably not, but it’s more a question of trial and error and seeing how it fits and feels.

Paul: So feeling the poem in a way.

Nigel: Absolutely. As Mayakovsky says, it’s like a process of capping a tooth—you try it on, you see if it fits, you try and make it fit a little better and then you try it on again (2004: 147).

Paul: And as you do that, even though perhaps in a sense it’s just trial and error, all that thinking has the benefit of every previous occasion when you have done the same kind of thing. In a way it’s a bit like an ongoing research project.

Nigel: Well that’s right. You could classify it as a heuristic research method. I mean it’s … to me it’s just as honest a way of trying to further what you know as any other.


End notes

  • 1. The beginning of the poem ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’. Written in 1911, the poem was often performed in Music Halls.
  • 2. In Irish mythology, The Children of Lir were transformed into swans and were forced to wander in those forms for 900 years.
Works cited: 

Hayes, J Milton 1911 ‘The green eye of the little yellow god’, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-green-eye-of-the-little-yellow-god/ (accessed 7 March 2014)

Mayakovsky, V 2004 [1926] ‘How are verses made?’ In Jon Cook (ed.) Poetry in Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 144-51