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This interview is taken from PN Review 103, Volume 21 Number 5, May - June 1995.in Conversation with Denise Riley
ROMANA HUK: One of the first things that will strike a new reader of your poems is the fact that they're shot through with the songs, slogans and rhetorical sentiments of their historical moment. Could you talk a little bit about your perceptions of their originating, generative context, and perhaps your relationship to it?
DENISE RILEY: I think they're not in the first place there as historical markers. They're in there almost uninvited, as traces of memories that walk through as sound association rather than remembered historical association. I was trying to see if I could rope in the power of the banally and heartbreakingly universal quality of those lines, but also juxtapose them with as vivid a visual line as I could work in with them - to combine musicality and colour into one bright patch. To work, they ought not to depend on 'knowledge' on the reader's part, though I recognise that some of them might work better or more strongly if it's there - for example, where there are jokes that only come clear if you can complete a half-line of quotation for yourself. But when I footnote those things, especially the songlines, I don't footnote them because I'm demanding some scholarly or folklorist's recognition for them, but out of a feeling that the original authors of those lyrics never get any public acknowledgement outside the specialist music press -so that's what those notes are doing there. (Laughs,) That's where history comes in! 'Historical imbalances,' she said grandiosely, 'are being redressed at that point.'
If they're not meant to be historically referential, then to what extent can we call the contextual elements that enter your poems 'autobiographical'? There are so many datable catch phrases and rhetorical responses beyond songlines that seem to swirl around and delimit the speaker's range of imagination; what relationship should we draw between this and autobiographical practice?
I suppose I end up trying to use bits of personal life relatively impersonally, by taking snippets which could be from any life marked by needs and disappointments and longings, and trying to give these full weight and full presence, but not by individualising them so completely that I'm telling a personal narrative. So what I would want to have is the intensity of the personal narrative but with the aimed-at width of something much more general - even if a lot of snatches of 'history' are particular.
What needs to happen to narrative elements from your own life before they enter into your poems?
I have to be reasonably confident that they're not narrowly personal, that they're not esoteric, and that there isn't a particularly violent or seductive appeal back towards the writer. I hope I would not be the heroine of my own work - although it's always a fragile balance, to use the stuff of your life while refusing to shine as the guiding light of it.
You spent a good deal of time in Cambridge just before and during the 1970s -first while finishing your degree in art history and philosophy, and later when you moved back and began to publish your poems. What was it like to be there at that time, and what impact did those years have on your work?
The mid-19 70s were years in which the generation I knew, my immediate contemporaries, did have the great advantage of having people like Wendy Mulford and John James and Jeremy Prynne and others around and available in the town - not through the aegis of the academic institutions, but simply as working writers who were there and who, because it was a small town, you could find your way to. And I think the Cambridge Poetry Festivals, which used to be large and ambitiously international affairs, started in the mid-seventies; writers from western and eastern Europe and the States would appear. The range of writers drawn to them was much wider and generous than, for whatever reason, has been the case in recent years.
Did you maintain connections with those Cambridge writres during the first part of the decade when, after finishing your degree, you moved down to London?
No, not until I moved back there in '75. I'd been working quietly on my own, though it didn't occur to me to publish anything for the first half of the' 70s. And I expect to this day I wouldn't have, had I not made that move back: then Wendy Mulford forcibly dragged away from me the manuscripts that later became Marxism for Infants, which she as Street Editions published.
Was it at that time that you became aware of the 'New York School' of writers?
I think I would have been reading them from about 1970 onward… There were links of friendship and an exchange of books. Ashbery somehow made a loop which caught up with some of the European loops of reading - over to Apollinaire, and some of the more recent French poets: there was also an important circuit which ran through painting. Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, John Wieners, Anne Waldman, Alice Notley - those generations of American poets - made for a reading or an exchange that was available to tap into. Although the fact that I did have access to that kind of work was certainly a lot to do with those Cambridge friendships and networks. Otherwise it might have taken many more years to stumble my way across to that kind of literature.
What connections, if any, do you feel you have with the few women writers working in this American/British 'late-modernist' (as you've referred to it) arena? And are there important differences between male and female late-modernism?
I think the differences and difficulties are to do with its reception and distribution. And I'm sure that there is something peculiarly tricky about being assigned to the bag of being a 'modernist woman writer', partly because you're then going to be extra-vulnerable to the imposition of a template of a theoretical kind on your work. Then there's the historical peculiarity of having a great deal extra of conceptual housework to do. You're always going to be credited with a particular theoretical position (whether or not you have one) about sex and writing and modernism, and an extra weight of description and justification and explanation is going to float above you, and your texts; there is a heavy burden of ascribed femininity to carry.
So you don't feel that gender accounts for any difference in the work itself?
I'd rather use 'sex' than 'gender'… In terms of style, no; in terms of content, inevitably there's a pressure of content particular to my life. Yes, there are biographical and therefore sexed concerns, but I want them to be there in the work and not as the objects of appeal of the work. And again, the great weight of sexed reading falls upon the writing that anybody in this category of women modernists produces. Which seems to me to be part of the extra burden of being read as a woman poet in a universe in which the (man) poet is very much the generic category.
Do you feel that female audiences also looking to make 'sexed readings' are missing the point of this kind of work?
If audiences have only been exposed to the kind of work which - though it may be perfectly good in itself - takes the route of confession as constituting the only possible approach to writing for a woman, then they are going to be puzzled by a writing that doesn't contain an 'adventure' in that sense of adventure: the 'first person's', resolved in a relatively reassuring manner.
What, in your view, is modernist writing doing instead-could you clarify?
No, I don't think I can. You see, we're up against another problem: 'modernism' seems to be a negatively constructed category with an exclusionary impetus behind it. It tends to get used as a pointer to the audience which says 'Expect fragmentation. Expect something which looks bizarre on the page. Expect difficulty. Do not expect narrative. Do not expect confession.' But are there any trustworthy, recognisable rules of thumb for what a modernist writing is? And if these rules always held good, then what would modernity be?
You 've edited an 'alternative' anthology of essays which seems to explore those problems… I'm thinking of Poets on Writing, which includes poets such as Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Wendy Mulford, Peter Riley, Douglas Oliver, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Roy Fisher, John James and others. It demonstrates the wide range of ideas developed by those categorised as 'experimental' in this country: in what ways do your own ideas about writing poetry find company among them?
I put that book together because for - oh, at least twenty years - I'd been very puzzled by how people understood what they were doing - how they were sustaining themselves in this extraordinary but practically unrewarded activity of writing, especially when there was no discussion of what poets were up to. So what I was trying to do (in addition to sliding some of this writing under the gaze of a wider audience, and giving bibliographies to those who might want to chase them up) was to satisfy my own curiosity about how people make sense of their work. That was the impetus, rather than any real hope that some common aesthetic could be formulated, and I don't think any common aesthetic was.
You don't feel that these poets at least share a common sense of the new set of difficulties that confront the poet given changing ideas about the workings of language, as well as the construction of the self in history?
No. And then I get uneasy about claims to do with the always-corrupted nature of language, or experimental technique as linked to political vanguardism. I have no sympathy with versions of 'political' poetry which, to travesty them a bit, assume that there is an immanent connection between the destruction of conventional syntax and an attack on conventional political order. It may give anyone who can ascribe to that a wonderful sense of potential impact on the world - that must be reassuring.
You've been thought of as a 'Language' poet by some in this country. What is your own definition of Language poetry, and why do you tend to refuse the description ?
'Language poetry' like 'modernist poetry' in this country seems to get used as a dismissive blurb for describing any writing which looks as if it is a dense surface; you wrap it up and call it 'Language poetry' and that's the end of it. People take it to mean poetry which abandons associations, abandons reference and syntax, and simply presents- or, if you're not sympathetic to it, fetishises - a verbal surface, insists on the value of that surface. And against that, what I do seems to me to be comparatively straightforward, conservative, narrative, with an emotive content - but again, that's simply to bounce off a parodic description of 'Language poetry'. I don't even know how much the term is subscribed to as a label by those we think of as Language poets.
You don't mean that you use narrative conventionally in your work?
Yes: there are runs -if small ones - of narrative. The first poem in Mop Mop Georgette, 'Laibach Lyrik', just to take an example, has patches of straightforward description of being in a room with a particular group of displaced Bosnians and Croatians. There are episodes and 'vignettes', almost, in 'A Shortened Set' as well. There are descriptive bursts scattered all around.
Are you saying that you're comfortable with conventional uses of narrative? Let's talk about 'Laibach Lyrik', since you mentioned it. Doesn't the rest of that poem fall around those runs of narrative to interrogate them? Or would you say they're allowed to stand on their own as innocently expository moments?
Let me get a hold of a copy and see. [Takes up Mop Mop Georgette.] Well, in the long narrative passage in the middle of this there are straightforwardly descriptive scenes in Ljubljana; it shifts again in a conventional manner to meetings in this city, London, in which voices, reported mostly verbatim, discuss their understanding of what was about to descend on their countries. Then there's a moment of the British outsider's self-reflection: and then that gets abandoned for some almost thesis-like thoughts about whether identification is formed through a wound, or a sense of loss - whether this is also true of a national identification formed through damage. The poem begins with parodic versions of generic, eastern European landscape poetry, resplendent with light effects, birch trees and distant fields; these precede the point where the poem says, 'Cut the slavonics now', and interrupts its artificial poise to move back into an ironic descriptiveness. In the whole poem there are reflections on positioning, whether it's positioning yourself as a member of an entity or as a spectator, and on how those positionings can be worked, if at all, through the question of political or national placings. But it still seems to me to be fairly straightforward I think that those shifts of perspective wouldn't throw a reader.
In what sense, then, with all of these changes in form and positionings, is 'Laibach Lyrik' a lyric poem? Some writers have congratulated you for rehabilitating the lyric for post-modern sensibilities, but how does a poet suspicious of conventional responses stimulated by the lyric - the 'motors it swells/to hammer itself out on me', as you put it in one poem - recuperate lyrical sounds and forms?
I suppose I've got an obstinate attachment to musicality (and 'musicality' is a vague word, as is 'cadence'). If I entitle things 'Lyric' it's because the main property that I've aimed at in those poems is some musical brightness. 'Song', which begins 'Some very dark blue hyacinths on the table' and ends 'where in curtained rooms children/are being beaten then so am I again but no-one's/asking for it, I'm asking for something different now' is very swift but in terms of content unambiguous and anything but conventionally 'lyrical'. In some of these darkly lyrical pieces, what I think in retrospect I've done is to put a shadowy or painful content into a short, musical form. So that there's a lot of skating over the ice of being 'decorative' and trying to keep that balance on a thin and fragile layer of cadence, before you lose your balance completely into the blackness of the content.
So for you lyric functions, for all its 'decorative fragility, as a kind of platform covering darker, unspeakable things? Is that why you don't, despite its current renouncement as a traditional vehicle for the 'private voice', abandon it altogether?
I don't have the choice to 'abandon' it. You get formed in a certain way. You get formed with attachments to, for instance, Blake - the prime example of somebody who uses the lyric form to carry a savagely distressed content.
Do you feel that doing the same thing today has any different impact?
I'm sure that there can be benign forms of seduction where the reader and the writer know what is going on because they know the lyrical tradition. Still, nobody's been chloroformed with honey against their will.
Perhaps people think of 'lyric' as being Swinburnian - late nineteenth-century lyric accompanied by a great freight of refrains. But my associations to lyric are older than that: the intense and very harsh musicality of border ballads of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, transcribed in the seventeenth-century, rather than to the Tennysonian refrain-based lyrics which may superficially keep up that form but where the piercing violence of the early ballads has long since been dissipated.
It's really the interiority associated with lyric that's at issue in my question, given that your poems are always simultaneously aware of the impossibility of a purely personal, unified 'I'-view. That leads me to my next question about your conception of poetic voice… How do you relate it to the traditional 'I' of lyric poetry?
Well… [flipping through the book on her lap] - for example, I ended up in some desperation in the middle of the poem 'Wherever you are, be somewhere else'. A lot of this is straight forward meditation about the poetic voice, the loss of tradition, and where you can speak from - how smoothly coherent. a speech you can truthfully present. I end up saying 'It's more ordinary that/flying light should flap me away into a stream lor specks/a million surfaces without a tongue and I never have wanted/"a voice" anyway, nor got it'. And then what it does is fiercely flip back to exaggeratedly lush quotations from old Chuvash and Gaelic poems blurred into a long glistening stream of traditional possibilities of lyrical writing, which is then checked by some contemporary censor who urges the delirious, glossolalic persona to achieve a balance. The poor speaker fails to do this, and says in the last line that none ()f this is, for her, manageable - 'You hear me not do it'. Now of course 'you hear me not do it' is, in the cadence of that short line, almost self-negating because it's a very poised, very balanced sentence which has got the direct appeal to the audience that is positively showy - it's a piece of self-cancellation and of showmanship at one moment. [Laughs.] And it's somewhat difficult to re-read, you know, realising that paradox.
It seems to point up an indelible if desperately reflexive 'personal' voice in your poems. Why can't it 'self-destruct', as would be theoretically fashionable?
I'll just work my way through it to see if I can answer that. It starts off naturalistically: it's a torn and tattered naturalism. It describes a sense of perforation or disintegration: 'whichever/piece is glimpsed, that bit is what I am, held//in a look until dropped like an egg on the floor'. It's the voice of the speaker saying that as I'm seen, that bit has been brought into life through the gaze of others. And it's a speaker which understands itself to be penetrable and torn, like a sheet of fabric which can be ripped through. (And if you want to find a 'maternal body', there's a maternal body in here: 'Out of their lined shell the young snakes broke'.) 'The body', by the end of the first five stanzas, has been reduced to a blur of interruption, a film. And then an 'I' speaker returns and says 'push the soft hem/of the night into my mouth so that I stay quiet', and thinks about catastrophe, abandonment - again, in an easy, unpuzzling manner. It moves from that into self-parody: 'What do/the worms sing, rearing up at the threshold?/Floating a plain globe goes, the sky closes./But I did see by it a soul trot on ahead of me'. So there's a move from fear of abandonment to theatricality which notices itself, ironically, by saying 'I can try on these gothic riffs, they do make/a black twitchy cloak to both ham up and so/perversely dignify' these usual fears. There's a comment on the capacities of styles of speaking 'I', then it moves to a straightforward speculation: Is poetry simply a question of contemplating exactitude - 'To stare at nothing, just to get it right/get nothing right, with some faint idea of/this as a proper way to spend a life'. 'No', says the speaker, who at this point suspects that this is all an alibi for a wish to have a second go at re-doing failure or defeat or disappointment. And then, again, a description of the wish to become a transmitting motor - whether mechanically, or through sleep. Sleep can let a dreamy articulacy take over; it's the wish for the fluency that you can achieve in dreams when you return to consciousness. The next line is from a Chuvashi poem: 'The flower breaks open to its bell of sound', after which the poet again says that this lyricism makes her envious; does 'modernity' condemn us to a lack of affect? Have I any contemporary rights of entitlement, or must I beg my putative audience to speak to me? And the speaker can't allow herself the consolation of doing that. She feels that to tum to make an appeal to the audience would suffer from theatricality - or indeed from narcissism. And so she says, 'That plea for mutuality's not true' because there's something stagey there. A more familiar position for her is being scattered specks without one driving voice.
But this does strike me as a straightforward poem which makes well-signalled moves: there isn't anything particularly experimental about its style.
No - not about its style, set as it is in tercets allowed the odd off or assonantal rhyme. But your 'I' even as she attempts to speak 'straightforwardly' or move naturalistically, undoes every traditional notion of what a self is. She ricochets between ways of speaking, all of which affect her but none of which 'voice' her-a goal that would involve a conception of language and 'selj'-expression which your poems refuse. If we could talk for a moment about John Wilkinson's review of Mop Mop Georgette in Parataxis 6… It may be because you are considered by experimental poets to be experimental that your intense focus on the throes of the personal voice incurs such criticism. How do you respond to those for whom writing from within language itself rather than from within the linguistically-constructed 'individual' constitutes a kind of political practice, and for whom your refusal to abandon the 'first person' might seem at best politically retrogressive and at worst positively 'narcissistic'?
I'd say: perhaps there's been an oversimplification of Freud's theory of narcissism. Narcissism is a condition of being fragmented, but it's through that fragmentation and lack of a boundary that you become aware of and respond to other people's differences: you're constantly struggling with those differences, and you don't suffer from illusions about your own finished quality. That gives you, at least at the level of its own theory, the grounds for some notion of exchange among or between people, which is the grounds for any political understanding. So to simplify a bit, I would read narcissism as a prerequisite for politics, and not as something which can be aggressively opposed to a realm of politics: for Freud's 'narcissism' isn 't conceit or vanity, but malleability. Its 'weakness' is its uncertain open-ness, which must keep checking itself. You could only set this tendency against politics if you were sure that 'the political' demands absolute identifications.
Maybe we can talk about your poems' particular sort of 'malleability' by returning a bit more specifically to the topic of form. How do you conceive of the poetic line in your less formal works? What drives you, for example, in your longer-lined, heavily enjambed poems like the ones near the end of Mop Mop Georgette?
Do you mean the Four Falling group? There's a cheerfully banal explanation for the shape of these, which is that they just fill my Macintosh screen; they're done deliberately to the margins of that page. I was almost imitating a painting gesture, as if I were holding a broad and hairy brush loaded with paint and was running it down the length of the screen. It's called Four Falling in the Poetical Histories series because I did four experiments in trying to make a thick rope of words tumble headlong in a cascade down the page, within the containers of the word-processor screen. So the real underlying trajectory of the line isn't horizontal but is the heavy, rope-like, thick cascade down. Which is why (although I didn't reflect on it in advance) the cover I drew for the Poetical Histories pamphlet does have just four quickly done, black fibre-tip lines in a loosely entangled rope. But those are strange poems.
Why did you want to effect that kind of movement?
Partly out of envy of the brilliance and broad canvas of American abstract expressionist paintings, and the hopelessness of replicating that in words. It's always vexing to me that you can't get that sense of immediacy of colour and speed on the page, or a broad and generous, painterly, heavy drag or sweep of words.
I'm also thinking of the beginning of 'Stair Spirit' - do these poems' downward falling motions reflect some experience in language analogous to the painters' inpaint? The initial lines of this poem: 'Yes I'll go falling down that final flight/of stairs into the blinding light or the deep/dark, whichever, thinking, thinking if if / only I'd thought to say that in good time'-go on to describe a sort of necessarily 'vertiginous' experience on those 'stairs', where a struggle must be put up so that 'continuity, regained by eye, returns' again to enable movement… When I first saw 'Stair Spirit'I thought of'ascension', but it's not that-the poem enacts aprocess of going downward.
'Stair Spirit'… is unusually long; it's a poem in which the speaker falls asleep and wakes up several times, and is afflicted with thoughts of falling down stairs as a possible descent into death. But it proceeds with, I hope, the bumpy quality of a fall down real stairs; and it's partly a description of moving in and out of consciousness; deep-sleep and half-sleep and wakeful-ness. The title goes straight to the French 'esprit d'escalier': the feeling 'Oh God, if only I'd said that' as you go away and, in that metaphor, down the steps as you're leaving a room or house. There's mortification, and other kinds of death, in it.
Alongside images of uncontrolled 'jaIling' in your poems there are material images of synthetic construction and obstruction: for example, several of your poems' titles are references to fabrics, particularly synthetics like rayon and shantung (the Chinese silk often imitated in rayon or cotton). Why is this sort of image important to you?
I don't know… 'Rep', the title of another poem, refers to a coarse, lineny corded stuff. They're arbitrary titles that float over the content of the poems. It was to do with needing titles for the collection, some sort of correlative material, something that, if you were to touch a poem with your fingers, might have its same roughness, or shimmery or flimsy quality. 'Metallica' is the name of a heavy-metal band too, but that's not important at all. It's stagily burnished: the word has got 'metallic' in it, which describes its feel, but because it's turned into a pseudo-italianate adjective, it's given that artificiality which the sonorous, bronze-like phrases of the poem have.
And which the speaker has, too, constructed as she is by them. And all of the fabrics you name are (or have become) synthetics, aren't they?
They're all highly manufactured - I mean, they may have natural ingredients in them but they've been tortured into shape!
Your poems also often set themselves into relationship with paintings, as you've already begun to explain -paintings by Ian McKeever, Gillian Ayres and others. Having touched on brushstroke/line comparisons, perhaps we could move to colour, since you almost constantly gather in colours as though wishful of substituting them for language. What attracts you to these particular painters, and what do you hope to accomplish with your own use of colour?
Well, these are all painters of large, energetic, unbounded, differently vigorous abstract work, which relies heavily on brilliance of or density of colour, or the floating quality of colour, as well as a roughness or visibility of brushwork. So that you get a feeling of speed and heaviness and immediacy just by being in the same room as those paintings.
And is it possible to do it with poetry? My attempts are always going to end in tears; black and white typography on the page is so remorselessly different.
You say that 'speed' is important; why? (This is something that comes across in your readings of your work as well.)
Yes. I don't think it's so much 'speed' in the miles-per-hour sense, as speed as trace, or gesture - something which doesn't have a marmoreal quality. It might be wonderful to write with a marmoreal quality! In the poem 'Red Shout', which again is full of painting references, it says that 'something might/come right just where the edges of a page begin/to bleed and show that it is human'. And then the writer says, rather wryly, 'and come more right than when I do the same', continuing, 'I see how/there could be an okay life whose feeling was/kept collared and pinned down only over the/writing'. So there's an idea of containment and deliberate depression of affect being stepped aside from in this poem by an overspill, and of a bleeding over the edges. So that the 'really human sign/as light and shocking as an annundation' is credited to the power of rapid colour to spill off its own margins and break the separate stillness or intensity of focus of the isolated painter. And in the end what works is the possible vulnerability of the maker of that vivid gesture: perhaps somebody in a state of tremulousness. So I suppose that short poem is a kind of advocacy of outward gesture, as opposed to contemplative containment and purity.
Your usages of bodily and embodied images of 'blood' and 'gesture' differ so much from the way other women poets have been developing them. In the 1970s one of your best known poems, 'A note on sex and "the reclaiming of language"', drew a line between yourself and poets who believe in the possibility of getting back to a feminine language, a 'mother tongue'. Could you comment not so much on this but on your relationship to a related project ongoing in some women's works of 'writing the body'? How does the gendered body enter in as a source for your poetry?
For an answer I could refer you straight to Chapter Five of my last prose book, Am I that Name? where there's a long diatribe against 'the body' as an originating point. But I won't get on to that.
There are relatively few instances in the poems where there is a naturalised female body. There's one miscarriage poem back in Dry Air, but then again it's very much connected to conceptions of lying, or the failure to sustain something, and it has a deliberately florid quality to it. There's also the beginning of 'A Shortened Set', a very old poem, many years older than the rest of it; I had a struggle about whether or not to include it. It's got a 1950s-ish quality; in it there's a failed abortion, later done by hysterectomy, but it's written in terms of accuracy of memory, needing to try to get back to the site of original injury in order to cut it apart and restitch it. So there is a 'confessional' body there; this is probably one of the most traditionally 'feminist' episodes, where memory and healing - or rather, inadequate memory and incomplete healing - arc juxtaposed.
Although it strikes me that even there your use of the body is of one that's been 'operated on', and it is now held together artificially, by stitches - and the poem raises the question of how much of that can be recuperated. It isn't, in other words, the kind of primordial feminine body that in some women's poems becomes a 'natural resource' for the recovery of a feminine articulacy.
No. And I get so annoyed - driven to such despair-by 'body reviewing', given the sexual asymmetry of it. There's 'reading of the body', especially of work by women - yet nobody's going to review a man's book in testicular terms! Or rather, if someone says 'it's a load of balls' that's heard as sexless abuse. Only women have a sex; only women have a body.
A massive amount of explanatory weight falls on women writers when questions about poetics get superimposed on or elided with questions about sex. You have a woman writer; this woman writes in milk - we all know how to criticise it. This is tiring and time-consuming. And it can be, even if not intentionally, a complete strategy of containment.
How do you understand your exclusion from most anthologies of women's poetry currently being published?
Editors, whether women or not, naturally have different enthusiasms and different degrees of reading experience, which may well silently override their wishes to be all-inclusive. And no single aesthetic can hold all women writers and readers together. Not even a willed dream of unlimited inclusion. But would, say, Charles Tomlinson expect to figure in an anthology of modernists amassed by Charles Bernstein? The difficulty arises when you have an overwhelmingly inclusive view of 'gender', under which sociological and aesthetic and philosophical questions are all jammed into a block. A male writer might worry about the poetics of 'maleness' or 'whiteness', but he would be able to fight these out inside his own work. A writer who is a woman has the additional labour of trying to distinguish her sociological and her historical situations from her aesthetic inclinations.
But when I sit down alone to write, I don't think to myself that I'm then in the sway of a gendered aesthetic. Although my writing will often embody sexed concerns, that isn't the same. Others would argue that it is. In Am I that Name?, I tried to sketch out the power and the risks, the inevitability and the ambiguities of social and political identifications and those movements based on them… It's hard for anyone to get the time to write at all, and especially if you have the sole care of children. But you do in the end write alone; though the solitude's always rustling with old noises.
You've said to me in previous conversations that despite the theoretical sophistication of your prose writings you don't, as a poet, lay any such 'grid' of thought over your poems. Is theorizing antithetical to the act of writing poetry?
No, not antithetical. There may be people whose theorising is absolutely adequate to their poetry and whose poetry is fully illustrative of their theory. But any poems of ideas are easy to spot in my work, and they're anomalous - they've got a kind of attempted control, which in my own case I'm dubious about.
Are you aware of changes in your poems over time - of any 'progress' of sorts?
Only that I get more reckless, I think. I'm now forty-six; I've been writing in several different modes for a quarter of a century and now I have to get on with it - with as little timidity as I can temperamentally manage.
You've written that the point of a poem 'when it works is just that someone has said, exactly, how it seems that things are'. How are things in your poems?
I should be the last person to know. If the work isn't very recalcitrant to me, and if it isn't running ahead of me, all the time, then I know it's poor work. That's the trouble. In a sense, the poem, to be any good, has got to know more than 'I' know. I can only come after it. And what worries me about a lot of the work is that, once you've written it, your knowledge slowly catches up with it, and then it becomes drained of life for you as its writer… 'Drained of life' is a bit too strong; it becomes 'accountable for', in other words, and then its vividness has seeped away from it. So I both don't know too much and don't want to know too much, because although I'm usually all for knowledge, in this particular instance too much knowledge would be a very bad thing indeed.
This interview is taken from PN Review 103, Volume 21 Number 5, May - June 1995.