Andrew interviewed Eva Salzman shortly after the death of the talented and much missed Michael Donaghy. Michael and Eva where good friends and this interview serves to celebrate not just Eva’s work but the memory of Michael. The interview was published in 2004. Andrew says of the interview, ‘It was a dark time in the world of poetry, Michael’s death had come as a shock to many of us. I only met him once, he was kind, open and warm. I remember this interview as having that same feeling. Eva didn’t just answer the questions, she came up with answers that made me want to question her more. She is a fascinating poet and a warm human being. It has always been a joy to interview her and I hope I will interview her again in the future.’
Making Snow Angels With Michael: An Interview with Eva Salzman
Interview by Andrew Oldham
Eva Salzman grew up in Brooklyn and on Long Island where she was a dancer/choreographer. At Stuyvesant H.S., her teacher was Frank McCourt; she received degrees from Bennington College (BA) and Columbia University (MFA), where she studied with Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, C.K. Williams, Edmund White, Elizabeth Hardwick, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer, Josef Skvorecky, Stephen Sandy, Patricia Goedicke, Ben Belitt, Thoms Lux, Stephen Dunn and Jorie Graham. Her books include Double Crossing: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe), One Two II (Wrecking Ball Press), illus. Van Howell, Bargain with the Watchman (Oxford), and The English Earthquake (Bloodaxe), all Poetry Book Society Recommendations/Special Commendations. Her grandmother was a child vaudeville actress, and her mother is an environmentalist. This background, and a diverse range of jobs – as Exercise Director of a Brooklyn orthodox Jewish diet centre, out-of-print book searcher and cleaner of rich ladies’ houses – all inform her writing, especially her cross-arts projects with performers and visual artists. She has collaborated with the director Rufus Norris and with composers Gary Carpenter, Rachel Leach, Philip Cashian and A.L. Nicolson. Shawna and Ron’s Half Moon: An Americana Satire and One Two, commissioned by the English National Opera Studio, were performed there, at Hoxton Hall and at Greenwich Theatre. Cassandra, a mini-opera written with her composer father, Eric Salzman, has been performed in Dusseldorf, Vienna and Oslo. She won 2nd Prize in the National Poetry Competition and major prizes in the Arvon and Cardiff Poetry Competitions. Grants and awards include those from the Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund, London Arts Board and the Society of Authors. Her poetry and fiction has been frequently broadcast on the BBC; she’s read at the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican, Poetry Society, Troubadour and at festivals all over the UK, as well as in Ireland, Spain and France. In the US, she has read at the Nuyorican Café, the Walt Whitman Association and at Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, where she taught as a Fellow two years running. Her varied teaching work has included Adjunct Professor at Friends World Programme (Long Island University, London), regular teaching for Arvon courses, for community projects in London’s East End and a residency at Springhill Prison, as well as continuing input to the Poetry Society’s educational programmes and co-devising the Open University’s first Start Writing Poetry course.
Her poetry, fiction and features have appeared in the New Yorker, Kenyon, Review, Independent, Guardian, Observer, Poetry Review, TLS, London Magazine, and in the anthologies: The Firebox ed. Sean O’Brien; Hand in Hand ed. Carol Ann Duffy; Sixty Women Poets ed. Linda France; Last Words eds. Don Paterson & Jo Shapcott; and two New Writing anthologies (British Council/Picador/Vintage) eds. John Fowles, A.L. Kennedy, Penelope Lively & George Szirtes.
How do you feel the two Literary Cultures of the USA and the UK differ?
‘Despite my years living in a Home Counties cliché (Tunbridge Wells) even now I cleave to an idealised view of the European intellectual, with England virtually part of Europe – not how the English see it. Who wouldn’t want to be part of Europe I thought?! Though transplanted to the UK ages ago, I’ve never felt anything but an outsider in England, where American literature is permitted its place in the hierarchy…eventually. The English aren’t keen on us actually living among them. Once poets are safely dead, they’re drafted into the canon. The anti-American bias was in evidence since before this Bush era – maybe a hangover from WWII’s “Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here”. This poet’s not overpaid. Pass on the other two. The English frequently mistake me for a representative of the US government. You’re supposed to be able to tell from the shoes. It’s a contrived division between the two literary cultures which, historically, a certain kind of writer feels determined to bridge or ignore. (I’m in a train trundling across a bridge at the very moment I write this, leaving New London, Connecticut.) I recall attending an event protesting the closing down of Oxford’s poetry list, at which a starry array of poets read, including on behalf of absent or dead American Oxford poets. Michael Donaghy and I, the only two Oxford published Americans in the audience, were the only two poets not asked to read at this event. This odd omission is not uncommon. Recently, the publication of Faber’s “Selected Poems” by Robert Lowell was celebrated at the London Review of Books bookshop by a panel of three English male poets. The fourth panel member – the co-editor – was a visiting US academic, whose first words to me were: Why weren’t any American voices taking part? Don’t ask me I said – I only live here. I often wonder whether most current English editors, faced with Mr. Lowell’s typescript themselves, might have simply returned it to the poet, with a cool note about his voice sounding “too American”! Hush my mouth. I’ve just finished a month of giving workshops and readings at universities such as Brandeis, Connecticut College and Columbia University, I’m reminded of the assembly line poetry culture of US academia, which turns ‘em out, like it turned me out too. My Columbia MFA fellow student’s parting shot to me, when she heard I was boarding a plane to England, was a warning to “Watch out for those formal elements”, as if the Formalist mafia were lying in wait on the other side, pens drawn like pistols. I watched the growth of the so-called New Formalism with some bemusement, since I thought all poets secretly beavered away at form, even if from the privacy of their own homes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the slightly illicit nature of the activity was precisely what appealed to me. This whole movement’s lines were more sharply drawn in the US where the prevailing aesthetic seemed almost dependent on an ideological stand against rhyme or metre. Even now, there exists in the US this “us” and “them” mentality, perhaps because poets, and people generally, seem to need to belong to some church. Frequently, I’ve exchanged rants about language poets with the poet Michael Donaghy. Such schools define themselves in exclusionary terms, with reference more to what they are not, than what they are. It’s a slightly less elevated kind of playground fight. The fun is to smash a few icons, while crafting some new ones of course. Actually, a lot of what Language Poetry did originally has been subverted along the way – as this kind of experimentation often is – by ideologues only glancingly interested in the poems themselves. God forbid. Why bother with such trifles, when there’s all that theory to get your teeth into? When I first heard about Language Poetry, I thought: “Language! In Poetry. Now there’s an idea!” The news of Michael Donaghy’s death came to me during my US tour and I’ve been utterly heart-broken by it. I was talked out of cancelling my tour by the Maddy, his wife, who insisted I stay in what was, after all, Michael’s hometown. My husband attended the funeral for both us, and I used my radio interviews and readings to talk about Michael and read some poems. We met within a year of both moving to the UK, where I live right round the corner from his house. We’ve frequently read and taught together, on Arvon courses for example. I recall both of us finishing our Poetry Society reading, which I’d gotten through with the help of some wine and he with the help of glass of water which turned out to be the proverbial vodka. Passing through the Poetry Society lobby, having accomplished our mission, Michael’s impromptu hop-scotch over a carpet of interlocking leaflets on the floor (somebody counting them, I thought, somewhat bemused by the activity ) went down well with me, but was not so happily viewed by what turned out to be the artist installing his art installation. Michael’s inadvertent critique seemed apt to me, but I mean what could a person say in apology? I thought. Sorry, I didn’t realise this was art?! This must have been not long after I’d introduced Michael and Don Paterson, my boyfriend who I lived with for a number of years. Frequently, I’d told Don how I couldn’t wait for them to meet; I’m sure Don must remember this well, and how we all went to France together with Maddy, before the birth of Ruairi, to stay in the house of my friend. Our car broke down en route, which prompted lots of tears and then mitigating alcohol. Actually, when we finally arrived, Maddy and I swam, rode horses and enjoyed ourselves lots, while the two male poets sat glumly in the shade, complaining about the heat, unable to swim and therefore proving my contention that most male poets can’t swim…nor drive very well. (I also remember Michael’s frantic call for us to evacuate the ever so slightly smoking car, and we all fled frantically from the mildly dysfunctional car, and stood there in a field for a while, observing it, until we realised it was not going to explode and we were the only ones who could do something about it. As with so many things in life, we waxed lyrical about the trip after it was over, just as the Irish love Ireland from a distance – and the way I love America from even further away – but I’d like to think that some of us waxed lyrical about Michael – about the guy and the poet – while he was still alive. He was also a wonderful Irish musician, as many know. Okay, so he rehearsed his jokes to perfection, but the showman really was a genuine poet. The first time I met him at Colin Falck’s poetry group (where I met Don too) the group weighed in about his poem “Pornography” as if it were no better than the usual, which was quite clearly not the case, as I insisted, amazed by the generally cool reaction. For god’s sake, I said, couldn’t we tell when something was really good? Colin, our fearless leader, must have. Michael and I departed that session together, and our friendship lasted from then, even though not all friendships forged in cups ever last more than plane-ride. This one was forged through poems too of course, and those by him will last. There weren’t enough, but it’s a good thing there were that many – more than the handful of good ones per book, which someone once said is the best one can hope for. Michael knew some London zoo orangutans personally, and did a very good chimp imitation. He was from the Bronx and I’m from Brooklyn, which may or not explain my also-close relationships with various beasts from the animal kingdom. (I don’t mean poets.) We both also held a series of unlikely jobs, knew a little of the underworld, even if he was Irish Catholic. (Like Sarah Bernhardt, I’m a lapsed Catholic Jew.) I was just in Santa Cruz, California, hanging out with some sea lions, blubbery lumbering beasts which spend their days squirming and squelching around gracelessly, shoving each other off their dry perches, constantly vying for room and bickering in distinctly inelegant honking tones. Not that Michael was th
e bickering type – he avoided all confrontation to a fault – but he would have appreciated the raucous spectacle. He had a hard time saying ‘no’ and that positive, friendly mask he presented to the world was often at odds with what he really felt inside, to the point where sometimes I’d want to shake that smile off his face. But then lots of people really liked him for this warmth, and women were incessantly falling in love with him. I’m taking up a lot of this interview talking about Michael Donaghy, but naturally this is the moment and opportunity to do so. Perhaps someone will want to hear more sometime; it’s an urgent need to talk people you love when they die. I was delighted that he chose to visit my dream the night before he died (when he had so little time and so much to do!). Side-by-side, we fell back into the soft snow, made snow angels and had a brief conversation about the cosmos and the starry sky overhead. He said he could stay there looking at the heavens forever. It was a lovely dream. To return to the question, I think the British literary scene is more maledominated and sexist – perhaps like the culture. British publishers often seem unwilling to take risks, but instead tend to congregate in aesthetic coffee clutches, all backing the same horses, rather than wanting the pleasure and excitement of putting their own stamp on things. Maybe this is the stock US individualist speaking, or how Americans like to think of themselves. My host just described to me a poet colleague who is a literary entrepreneur – in the best possible way – with her energetic Mickey Rooneyish approach to new projects. Maybe you’ve seen the films? “Hey, guys! I got an idea! Let’s put on a poetry show in the barn!” I should say that my host was describing this with admiration, even if this approach may seem culturally shallow, tasteless, tacky or exhibitionist to some – this kind of “hey, let’s make do and put together a show just for the heck of it” thing which, these days, I find refreshing for its energy, spontaneity and innocence (god forbid I use such a word about anything American!) which I really miss sometimes. Many English people find this impulse excruciatingly embarrassing, and I did too…once’.
As a New Yorker, now living in the UK, how did 9/11 affect your identity and the feeling of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’?
‘At the precise moment US friends were insisting I was damn lucky to be out of this damned country, these events have made me long for home more than ever – rather perverse I know. Of course I don’t think of myself as American, but as a New Yorker, Actually, I was back in the States for 9/11. Fortunately, we weren’t in the city at home, which is just across the water from the twin towers. We were terrified where we were though, just outside the city. I felt like my past really had tumbled down, virtually in front of my eyes. Before that, from a distance, I could almost pretend it was still all the same. Was that some loss of America’s innocence? That innocence was long gone from me – maybe part of the reason I left the place like I did, holding a cynical view of Americans, as does everyone these days. I see things differently now. Maybe it’s the so-called ignorance of many Americans which keep them innocent too, not always in a pleasant way. But many really do believe in the corny precepts America is based on. Meanwhile, the English seem to prefer the idea of the American as an ignorant dolt, but that is ignorant thinking too. Also, it is precisely the diabolically bad media which prevents anyone from getting a clear picture of the American opposition to the clichéd, imperialist, war-mongering, redneck mentality which I sometimes think some English would prefer to believe is an accurate picture of the American character, when of course the truth is infinitely more complicated…and interesting, if I may say so. By the way, on this trip, I’ve been hanging around with a lot of Republicans, all of whom said they’re planning to vote Democrat. Fingers crossed. Kerry recently said: “Bush has united our enemies, divided our friends.” It does seem to me this nation is deeply divided right now, which aptly represents an internal division I’ve felt culturally for many years living in the UK, but felt even when I was living in NYC, partly for political reasons and partly as a twin’.
You were a dancer up to the age of twenty-two, what drew you from this Artform into writing Poetry?
‘I can’t remember not writing – both fiction and poetry – so I never turned towards poetry from anywhere else. It may seem odd that I practised both verbal and non-verbal art-forms, but I’ve never felt any contradiction. However, reading and writing are and have always been utterly essential to me; they are part of my identity. I’ve written for as long as I can remember writing’.
Artists/Poets are often perceived as making things happen, politically, socially and/or emotionally, how do you see your work in this?
‘I’ve written the odd polemic, but much of my work is implicitly political. I’ve been told I’m the sort of person who makes things happen – both good and bad. Watches don’t exactly stop dead when I put them on, but machines do malfunction when I go near them. I have a far better relationship with animals, and men. I don’t know if I’m going off-piste here to mention how the kind of people who put themselves forward in some way are also the ones who end up taking the flak. The stereotype of the American makes them the crass but also outspoken one which means I say what others often tell me they’d like to say, but don’t, and this foot-in-mouth tendency I try to put to good use if I possibly can. However, the “messages” are less in my writing, and more in the uses I put the writing to, or in the kinds of teaching I end up doing, often in the service of good causes – the kind of work most writers I know wouldn’t and don’t touch with a barge-pole. It sort of started with the English seeming to not know what to do this NYC Jew, so I’d get placed among ethnic communities, for fellowships and teaching. That worked for me fine, even if I roll my eyes at the pigeon-holing and incomprehension about my work. Even if I don’t write politically, I want to be able to do a little for some greater good. Part of this comes from Jewish (Catholic?) guilt. I’m obsessed by the injustices of the world, and often see in the smaller cowardices and lies of people the far larger crimes they seem to represent. I see the tyrant and large-scale hypocrite in the petty playground bully, for example, or even in my fellow poets. This may sometimes be a fault in me, or a curse’.
Your new collection, Double Crossing was Poetry Book Society Recommended, but what poems or Poets would you recommend and why?
“I’m assuming you mean poems by others, but I’d say to read both American and British voices. It’s important to read in different genres. I’m reading a book about Mormons at the moment. However, I don’t recommend Mormonism as a life-style choice, and neither does this book, about a largely forgotten massacred perpetuated by these breakaway Christians (another advertisement for atheism!). When I came to England, I was simply carrying on with a literary love affair I’d had with England as long as I could read my grandmother’s classic, old-fashioned collection of some books; she ran a book business from her home, but this was just an excuse for accumulating something like 20,000 books in her home. My first reading was intensely old-fashioned: Fielding, Dickens, Fielding, Richardson, George Eliot, Austen, Melville, Hawthorne, Hardy…and then later Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edith Wharton. I worked my way up to modern times; I was trying to approach things chronologically but now I mix and match eclectically, which perfectly suits my temperament. Early poets I read included Keats, Dickinson and the Romantics, and then Frost, Auden, Bishop, MacNeice, Kavanagh, E.B. Browning. I go back to most of these poets, and also admire Molly Peacock, Derek Mahon, Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Clanchy, Colette Bryce, Simon Armitage, C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker, Kathleen Jamie, Ciaran Carson, Sean O’Brien and Michael Donaghy. I like individual poems, rather than poets, if you know what I mean’.
Double Crossing deals with various issues of gender, love, sexuality, politics of sex, drawing from a myriad of the everyday and from the realms of mythology. What draws you to mythological figures and what do they have to say about modern situations and events?
‘Of course we’re all just re-writing the same stories, over and over. When I wander towards some mythological topic, I might do some research, but usually long after a first draft. Then, I’m often struck by the uncanny way I’ve made connections unconsciously, as if we’re all dipping into some collective unconsciousness when we tread this territory. I found this when writing “Poor Relations”, when I was reading about some early creation myths and their connection to certain elements such as gold and silver, and when I was writing “Helen’s Sister”, which gives a voice to Helen of Troy’s not-quite-so-beautiful twin sister, living in the next town, her life lived in the shadow of fame and beauty. Also, my muse poems, with their conceit of the muses as men (or women dressed as men, and other such subversive things) allowed a broader palette from which to draw, while writing about the things I was going to write about anyway. With these last, I ran out of muses, and so began to make up new ones, allowing myself to add to myth a little, in my own small, and irreverent way’.
What do you think makes a Poet?
“If we only knew, eh? I do know a little what doesn’t make a poet. Selfexpression is inadequate, as is dull competence with form. One can improve one’s work, but I often think poets are born, which is not to say that one can’t blossom late, or come to the genre through the back door. Poets must have an instinctive, musical understanding of how language works. Some well-known poets let me down in this respect, having a feel for anecdote or narrative line, but being painfully unmusical with no feel for the music in the words and lines. I recall one saying she couldn’t in a million years write a traditional sonnet! Eh?!’
How much does personal culture, background, religious upbringing affect your writing? And, how do you see your role as a Poet within the wider realms of this?
‘I’ve talked about guilt as a motivation in the political realm. I think sometimes of the wandering Jew; I loathe nationalism, even as I feel its pull. I’ve managed to belong nowhere, or everywhere. Nothing seems to fit perfectly, or it all does. The club I belong to is the large one consisting of writers who never settled, or moved around incessantly: Joyce, Lawrence. All New Yorkers are foreigners to begin with anyway. What is a New Yorker, but somebody from somewhere else? I never thought about being Jewish at all (why would I, living in a Jewish city?!) until I moved to England. Now, I think of identity as imposed on me by others. I realise that my cultural roots (and this is my primary attachment to religion, coming from a staunchly secular, liberal, intellectual family…who were all rabbis two generations back) are inescapable. I’m not painting NYC as some kind of racial utopia but I honestly never noticed people’s colour or religion particularly – unless they’re highlighting it in some way – in the same way I notice it in England. The English seem particularly deft at pigeon-holing and putting people in their place, as I’ve said. I never experienced antisemitism….until I came to England, and that makes me happier to be part of my minority – again, maybe out of sheer perversity. Where I live now I feel I’m part of a number of minorities: as an American, as a Jew and as a woman, that great majority minority. I’m most at home in exile, among exiles. I feel more affinity with a Palestinian (which isn’t really so odd, when you think about it) than I might with an Englishperson. I’ve managed my outsider situation by working in prisons or in a place like Ruskin College – the ‘working man’s college’, as it is known – or among the disenfranchised. Of course I’m now a foreigner in my own country now, America being strange to me in precisely the way England used to be. There’s a certain poignant sadness in this situation. Some of my poems (perhaps more so the earlier ones) have a kind of peculiar nationalism of – the learned nationalism of the outsider or displaced person, which its own language, subsequently employed more broadly, for all transactions, including romantic ones. My family came through Ellis Island in NYC, like a huge percentage of the US population. It was the usual emigrant story of Jews seeking a better life in the US, and running from Cossacks and Pogroms. One grandparent was Polish/Russian, another Latvian and the third from Hungary. I’ve never been to any of these places but hope to go sometime and see if I can track down a few Salzmans or Jacksons (a changed name of course). One side is Pasternak, and I grew very excited when I heard this. My Great-Aunt reassured me that yes, it was indeed the same family as the Hollywood Producer, when naturally I was thinking of Boris. We’re still not clear on this connection. I live in hope. I am related to Edward G. Robinson, an actor from the 30’s who played mainly gangsters – a criminal-ish connection I can’t help but relish. My grandfather was an extraordinary polymath but he and his six siblings all worked to put money into the pot to send the youngest to medical school – that’s how it was done – from where he emerged to become a pretty famous shrink, specialising in human sexuality. Two other brothers were union men; one Great-Uncle subscribed to Soviet Life his whole life. My grandfather tutored me through High School – where Frank McCourt was my English teacher – as he did my grandmother, which was how he met and courted her. This polymath grandfather was a Levi or Cohen, I forget which; the fact is passed down in families through word-of-mouth, but is relevant only to those with the appropriate genitals – as with so much in life. His wife, my favourite grandmother, was a child vaudeville actress. My father is a composer, and my mother is an environmentalist. Well, all this is raw material, and I don’t expect I’ve gotten through a quarter of it. Who knows what I’ll do with it all, but I doubt this mix of artistic and political will go to waste. Of course I lost relatives in the Holocaust so I have only a short ancestry behind me whereas my artist husband’s family came to the US as pilgrims. Before around 1900. there’s a big blank. I have some early c.1900 photos of various relatives, some of whom look intriguingly dark-skinned and Gypsy…). Although Americans are mocked for their search for roots, in another way the Jews especially re-invented themselves by obliterating whatever of their past was available to erase. One set of my grandparents seemed to air-brush out their Jewishness completely, and even my father’s generation are strangely uninterested in their own history. Maybe this is partly why Americans, more generally, are cavalier about their heritage – because their identity is conjured up, invented, newly-minted, even though they appreciate the notion of heritage in England, where everything is supposed to be old. In the US everything’s supposed to be new. I wonder if this accounts for the US poet’s willingness to take more risks (which may mean more bad poems too, but, hey, at least they try!). This is another affinity I feel with Michael Donaghy; I often thought that both of us had reinvented ourselves in another place from scratch, away from family and a familiar place. Right now, I’m interested in returning to an American vernacular overlaid on all this Britishness instilled in me. Of course, I’m not convinced that this American voice has ever been absent – as I’m sure various English editors who have seen my work would agree’.
You also write essays, in particular I’m thinking of Babel (printed in Mslexia and reprinted in Incorporating Writing Issue 1 Vol 3), this medium is often seen as a direct opposite to poetry. What drew you, to what is traditionally perceived as academic, to writing essays?
“I’ve never thought of myself as a writer of any particular genre, but simply a writer. Reticent is not a word people who know me would apply to me, but that’s exactly what I’ve been up-to-date as regards my fiction, which I’ve always written, along with various kinds of non-fiction: essays, journalism and criticism (about which I’ve not been reticent enough!) The poetry world is a small one, and the criticism culture in Britain emphasises a biting wit, often at expense of the writer. This is not to say I think criticism shouldn’t include opinions, but it’s easier to be witty while being cruel. I’m very interested in writing which I term cultural journalism, which includes under its heading a multitude of literary sins (memoir, travel writing, anecdotal essays which verge on the academic), and I’m fond of sin. I’ve even written a screenplay with Anne Rouse, another American poet who has been transplanted in Britain long enough to also have a shared identity. I’m working on fiction and have been writing libretti and lyrics, a natural progression from my musical training. I don’t feel the desire to write much criticism anymore, but would love to have a year off teaching to do what I know I can do with a longer work of fiction. May I be granted that blessing. I’ve learned how few writers – and poets in particular – are genuinely self-supporting freelance writers, with no second income, trust fund or the luck (or pedigree) to have a succession of grants, minus the hard teaching slog which many of us depend on. I’ve never been anything but completely self-supporting, and it’s tough. Very few poets I know are, of if they are they have a domestic and/or secretarial support system’.
Do you feel there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for female poets in UK Literature?
‘This is my hobby-horse (god forgive – many others don’t) but I love the way the (mainly guy) poets, in their charmed circles, dismiss as nonsense whatever one says about the realities of being a woman poet/writer. Let them try to live my life for a week, or the lives of many others struggling year in and year out. Oh well, mustn’t complain. To hell with that; I’ll complain. A well-known female poet friend once said to me that it takes two or three books for women poets to achieve what male poets achieve in a single book. Repeatedly, I see nice bright young lads showing up and sweeping away the awards, and scratching each other’s backs for the next ten years, in pubs. It’s impossible not to be just a little cynical. Of course, some women achieve quick success too, but often more through facility with career game-playing than with words – forging the right alliances, and having amazingly helpful love affairs. I knew who my real friends were after I broke up with Don, which event affected my ‘career’ (if you can call it that) profoundly. I have to remind people that I ‘discovered’ and pushed Don, and supported him financially, domestically and as secretary for years, although of course we were mutually beneficial as each other’s editors. It’s never a good thing to have to tug on people’s coat sleeves and remind them of such things. Naturally, I never had this kind of support myself. I’ve have to do my own taxes and my own laundry – that great enemy of the writer, as I believe Martin Amis once put it. The joke is that women poets need wives too. Early on, I had a fairy grandmother who helped support my career – if it could be called that. I spent the rest of my life irritated to discover I had to eventually figure it all myself, and do it all myself. Having figured it all out, I realise too late one important secret: be incompetent and very bad at things so that someone else steps in to do it for you. Many women poet colleague describe in private their own similar experiences, which they know better than admit to many men, since such statements endanger one’s position. I’m acutely aware of the kind of backlash I invite by saying these same old tired things here again, but then the same old, tired things rule our lives. When I broke up with Don Paterson, some friends (only a few) suddenly dropped from my orbit, and I was once reduced to complaining that I got more attention for my alliance with a male poet, than for the work itself – thus reiterating exactly this fact, by pointing it out. Don himself, who’d certainly championed my work previously, suddenly failed to mention me when it counted. When Oxford dropped its list, I was out in the cold for a while. This is personal experience but it there are analogies in others’ stories, often told in private. (Here’s the impolite Yank speaking out again on a few unpleasant home-truths, which certainly are not just relevant to me…). I do think women are much more at the mercy of things nothing to do with the work itself. Some poets have been known to sleep their way to the top. My joke is that I’m the sort of person to sleep my way to the bottom – sheer perversity again’.
The editing process is often where Poets are made or destroyed, how does your personal editing compare to working with an editor?
‘I’ve done virtually all my own editing, except for isolated experiences with newspaper editors – usually good ones, although occasionally editors have abused this position to introduce their own agendas via some new, young writer, who puts herself forward for the job, without suspecting the Machiavellian strategies at play in the small, back-stabbing poetry world. I do believe that editing is a large part of the writing process, but I equally treasure the other more instinctive and mysterious part of the process. I’ve had to become a good editor, never having had the luxury one at my disposal as often as I’d like. I enjoy all the editing work I’ve done – for Bloomsbury, The Printer’s Devil magazine and for other book projects – perhaps more than I enjoy teaching in fact. When they start hiring American editors in the English poetry scene, somebody let me know’.
What are you working on at present?
‘I’m working on a novel, and short stories. Or rather I’m not working on the novel I should be writing, since I to pay the bills. Teaching is hard work, if you do it well, which I try to, and I teach all ages and levels, and in all situations, as I’ve taught myself to do – out of necessity. I need to find some impossible sum of money for medical things. I think patronage is a terrific idea. Should there be any rich people who are also keen on this system, I’m available for work’.
Finally, if you could invite anyone to supper (living or dead) who would they be and why?
‘There are too many choices. I’ve been reading a biography on Benjamin Franklin a fascinatingly eclectic, true Renaissance man who was also downto-earth. Surely good dinner party company. I’d be old enough to be safe from his roving, groping hands, although I understand he was pretty indiscriminate in his amorous inclinations and he liked older women too – though I don’t yet think of myself as older yet, I must say! I was recently reminded about D.H. Lawrence’s hatchet job on Franklin, in his Studies of American Literature. (I loathed Women in Love but The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers had an enormous influence on me; I don’t care so much for the poems, but I can appreciate their intent…sort of.) So, maybe I could be a notquite-silent third party at an event which involved sparring between these two men, punctuated by my occasional pithy and perhaps surprising contribution or rejoinder. Afterwards, these two gentlemen would no doubt withdraw during the Ball, since I can’t imagine that they’d be real keen on dancing, unlike Queen Elizabeth 1st, whom I could join, dancing a jig or hornpipe. She wrote poetry too and I wonder what she’d make of mine. In advance, she’d have to know that I had no designs whatsoever on the monarchy; some contemporary English literati might need to be reminded of the same. What I want mostly is the time to write what I need to write. Wouldn’t that be nice”.