Don Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963. His first collection Nil Nil (Faber) was awarded the Forward Prize 1993 for best first collection. His second collection God’s Gift to Women (Faber) was awarded the 1997 TS Eliot prize. It contains the poem A Private Bottling which won the 1994 Arvon Poetry competition. Nil Nil was a Poetry Book Society choice, God’s Gift to Women a Poetry Book Society recommendation. He was selected as one of the New Generation poets in 1994. He is Poetry Editor for Picador books. He also works as a musician and co-leads the jazz-folk ensemble Lammas.
JS: Have you always written poetry?
DP: No. I started when I was around twenty/twenty-one. Although I did do the usual angst-ridden stuff when I was fourteen or whatever, but it wasn’t poetry, it was hormones.
JS: So what prompted you to start writing seriously?
DP: Something kicked in. With other things it’s been fairly gradual, but with poetry it was a sort of road to Damascus job. It’s like there was a mechanism wound up and ready to go that just needed something to kick-start it. So it would have happened anyway, but there was a trigger: I had something to write about and there was something to unlock it. I saw Tony Harrison on TV reading from Continuous. It was a brilliant performance, very moving and it really turned me on to it. I’d never thought about poetry before then, though I wasn’t thinking about writing it yet. Anyway, I went out and bought his book the next day, and then I went out and bought everybody else’s book, and then I started writing.
JS: So what was it, do you think, about that? seeing him or his performance or his poetry? that awoke that waiting faculty?
DP: The connection he made with me, first, but also the one you could see him make with the audience, quite a trivial thing in a way. Seeing the effect what he was doing was having on the people he was reading to. There was this lovely shot after he’d finished one poem, Bookends perhaps, when the camera panned round this audience of bikers sobbing into their beer and tearful women. It was great. I suppose I wanted some of that.
JS: I know that you’re also a jazz musician. Do think there’s any connections between your writing of poetry and your music?
DP: It’s funny, I used to be quite resolute on this and say “No absolutely not”, but of course, there are. But I’m not sure if there are real connections, or if they’re just connections that are forged whenever you do two things. Any two things that you find yourself doing inevitably start to bleed into one another. You know, in terms of how you approach them imaginatively. It’s because fundamentally, everything creative adheres to roughly the same principles, I think, and this is something you find as you go on. You find that therefore a mistake you might make in one medium allows you not to make the analogous mistake in another. So they are related in that way. But in terms of all this stuff about the musicality of language, I know a lot of tone deaf poets and it doesn’t make any difference to the musicality of their line. And people have written rubbish about jazz rhythms and being able to hear them in my poetry, and that’s sheer projection? it’s just not true. There is something that music and poetry do share. Somebody asked Schumann what a particular piece of his music meant, and he responded by just playing it again. I think that music and poetry have that in common: they’re not transformable, you can’t put it any other way than this way. I love that line of Eliot’s? “Madame, it means what it means. If I had meant anything else I would have said so just as obscurely.”
JS: Can you give any examples in which working in the one medium has helped you not to make similar mistakes in the other?
DP: I suppose the most obvious example I can think of is in the approach to learning the stuff in the first place. Because I’m a self-taught musician I made a lot of mistakes in the way that I approached it. Had I had a good teacher I could have saved myself a couple of years. But, having gone through that, it was easy to take a more pragmatic approach to poetry when I decided that that’s what I wanted to do too. So I was ridiculously practical about it. I approached it from the start from a technical point of view rather than worrying too much about expressing myself. Because you don’t worry about that as a musician: it’s taken as a given that everything you do as a musician is somehow expressive of something, so you don’t need to torture yourself about it. So that was one thing that I learnt and imported wholesale into the poetry? that it’s got nothing to do with expressing yourself, and that if you haven’t a sound technique then you’ve got nothing.
JS: Going on from that then I wonder who you feel your main influences are?
DP: As I said, the first poet that really turned me on was Tony Harrison, but I’ve since lost faith with a lot of Harrison’s work. Inevitably I think you end up resenting your earliest influences. After that it was the Irish really; Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney especially. Also Paul Muldoon a lot, but not as much as some people think; everybody seems obsessed with him? It can be a bit disheartening when you spend your life trying to sound sub-Mahon and sub-Dickinson and sub-Wilbur, and all they can see is Paul’s influence. It’s partly because they don’t seem to read anyone else. Then Michael Longley and Douglas Dunn. Then I started reading back. I think you should always start reading your contemporaries and work back. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise, if you’re starting from scratch that is.
JS: So what do you think it was about the Irish poets, say, that attracted you?
DP: The density of the line really; the fact that there was so much information in the line, that the lines operate on so many levels. There’s always hard and fast musical criteria that their lines meet, but it’s also the way the material interrelates throughout the poem. If you look at somebody like Heaney, the amazing thing about him as a poet is that you can have three, four separate strands of argument hanging together simultaneously in what appears, at first reading, to be a very quiet lyrical poem. You never get an element introduced and then just dropped, and you always realise that the introduction of a new element has been prepared for three or four lines previously, and afterwards bleeds into the rest of the poem. You can follow these lines through the whole piece, it’s extraordinary. Compositionally it’s close to music, I guess. That might be something to do with the attraction. The other thing is that, at a compositional level, their work interests me more than that kind of more spontaneous, experiential American thing where the poem starts and the poem ends. I like the idea that a poem’s something in time and space? where everything has a timeless, simultaneous existence, and these poets really seem to understand that. Of course after that there are a lot of other poets: MacNiece, a huge influence, and Auden, Frost, Dickinson, Coleridge, the metaphysicals. Dickinson more and more I guess.
JS: And why is that?
DP: Just, I suppose, because of the spiritual concerns, something that I think’s maybe coming to the fore in my own stuff recently. But also because, as I was saying before, the idea that a poem is a kind of simultaneous expression of all terms contained in it. She seems to have that trick down to a stanza… I think the ideal is, as a rule of thumb, make a poem as short as possible; don’t waste people’s time, if you can say it in four lines don’t say it in forty-four. But of course I write all these great bloody long things…
JS: In the article about you in the New Generation issue of Poetry Review (Spring 1994) it says “Paterson has an unusually advanced sense of poetry as artifice”. What do you make of this?
DP: I think it’s really difficult to respond to what other people say about your stuff. I don’t think you should either agree or disagree. The whole point is not to adopt a proprietorial attitude towards the work. In saying that you have an opinion on it, that’s what you’re doing: you’re privileging your own opinion of the poems over somebody else’s. And I don’t believe in poets, I believe in poems, and sure, it’s worthwhile expressing an opinion on them. But, honest to God, I know that it sounds fashionable, but I don’t think that my opinion is any more valid than anybody else’s. I know why I wrote it but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t mean something else to somebody else. So I think it’s pointless to care whether somebody else thinks I have ‘a sense of artifice or not. I’m not sure I quite know what’s meant by that anyway.
JS: I took it to mean poetry as a fictional as opposed to a more directly, personal medium.
DP: Maybe in some ways it relates to that. As I was saying, it’s not about expressing yourself. If having a sense of poetry as artifice means that you allow every single individual poem to take on the voice it wants to take on, then fine. I think you should do that. I don’t think you should ever confuse the voice of the poem with your own voice, because you’re just limiting what you’re capable of doing; you’re actually censoring yourself. The thing to do is to be true to the voice of the poem and, no matter how much you like it, never fall into the trap of thinking it’s your voice. You don’t have one. You might have favourites, but they aren’t you.
JS: Perhaps, then, this is a good point to turn to some of your own poems. The Alexandrian Library II, which appears in your latest collection God’s Gift to Women, is, in part, a poem about trying to write a poem about everything. Isn’t this the kind of postmodernist idea which you lampoon in Postmodern, another poem in that collection?
DP: I think that the postmodern thing has been blown up out of proportion and I was trying to undercut it, of course, in the poem Postmodern. It’s a squib, anyway not a poem. I wouldn’t have put it in if I could have foreseen the reaction. But anyone who thinks that self-reflection is new to literature doesn’t know much about it? People have always done that. If you look at Homer or Cervantes you find it there; writing becoming aware of itself as writing. It’s a perennial condition of serious thought, self-reflection, and it’s inevitable that it’s going to come up. Postmodernism, I suppose you could just say, is a device whereby you focus on that to the exclusion of other things that might be happening in the poem. But I didn’t see it as a fashionable gesture. The Alexandrian Library II was more self-addressing than the other stuff because it was about trying to find a sort of metaphysical description of the imagination, or how it works for me. As well as the whole associative thing: everything being everything else.
JS: It seems to also be a poem about the fact that there may not be an everything to write about, in a sense. In the first Alexandrian Library poem in Nil Nil the point is made that what we might have found in the library that supposedly contained the wisdom of the classical world, could be disappointing. I wonder how that informed what you were doing?
DP: I think it’s trying to explore the gap between reading the great book and positing the ideal great book and what might be inside it. This is often a much more productive way of going about it: to imagine what would be in that great book rather than actually trying to write it. All very sub-Borgesian of course. It sound like a daft sort of idea but what it does is to throw the whole accent on process, means rather than ends. If you throw the accent on the end, it becomes an operation rather than a process; the whole thing is to keep it at the level of process always, both in the composition and in what you end up with. Because that’s where all the joy is, and that’s where all the life is, and that’s where you make all the associations, and that’s where all the serendipity is. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with the Alexandrian Poems. I think the first one was maybe discussing that idea: that when perhaps you do stumble across the great book it’s not so great; but when you imagine the great book then it is, and to talk about that you might end writing it by default. It’s a kind of Zen thing, the more you go for it the less you’re going to get it.
JS: You mention Borges. I was wondering what part he played in your work. In the second Alexandrian Library poem there’s a very Borgesesque soundtrack that you listen to [see extract before this article Ed].
DP: That was a fairly obvious little hommage to Borges. Actually there’s not so much of that sort of thing in Borges, the knife fights and tangos etc., but people go on about it. But yes, it’s interesting when people ask you your influences you tend to talk about poets. But Borges is just as big an influence, possibly more of an influence, as any poet. As is Cioran, Calvino, and Primo Levi. Certainly, in this kind of nested narrative, there’s a lot straight out of Borges. Often as well it’s just a series of absences within absences, so you’re never really getting to anything, but what it affords you in the meantime is, again, a process, a narrative or argumentative procedure. Of course it turns out that is all there is? the road, just the road, and I like that.
JS: We talked briefly about the poem Postmodern which is effectively a joke, a poem as a joke. How does humour function for you in your writing, how does it go along with being taken seriously?
DP: It’s only a problem for the English critical sensibility. In the Celtic cultures, and just about everywhere else, there’s no problem with the juxtaposition of the humorous and the serious. And, for me, you make things more funny by setting them in a serious context, and vice versa. You make them more grim by being able to laugh at them too, simply because they throw one another into greater relief. So I think it’s better for me to do it that way. Some people get really annoyed because they can’t manage the critical gear shift between one and the other. There aren’t many things that hack me off, but that does. Going back to Postmodern, it was a squib but it was actually trying to make a semi-serious point about self-reflection. Also, everyone assumes the little Zen poem On going to Meet a Zen Master is a joke. It’s not a joke; it’s a page with nothing on it. It may be an old thing to say but it struck me as worth repeating because ultimately the blank page shrugs off all criticism. And it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s a joke or a waste of time or a waste of paper, or whether you think it’s a serious poem: it shrugs it off. It was trying to get the reader, at that point in the book, to think about the process of reading and how that ties in with the search and the desire, and the delay that a desire sets in place. Possibly it didn’t work. The main reason these poems tend not to work is just that they draw far too much attention to themselves, and away from the more serious things. Gifts to lazy critics.
JS: I wonder what it is, then, do you think, about the English critical sensibility that gives rise to that reaction?
DP: Well partly it’s insecurity, maybe it’s entirely insecurity, I don’t know. Partly it’s just a post-imperial insecurity. Some of it’s intellectual insecurity. Some people don’t like to be seen to be serious and when they are, they have to be properly serious, out of an anxiety that it might be mistaken for anything else like pretentiousness. I think that’s it.
JS: Can I ask you a question about difficulty in poetry? Reading your poetry was for me very rewarding. But some of the poems, particularly the longer ones, required a good deal of concentration, re-reading and probably experience. It’s not the sort of thing that someone not experienced in reading poetry could easily pick up and simply read.
DP: I think poetry is naturally difficult because of what it sets out to do; which is basically, for me, to transform the way you look at the world. Surely that must be the same for everyone… there can’t be any other reason for writing this weird stuff. That involves a process; sorry, it’s coming back to the same thing again. As well as the compositional process that I was talking about earlier, a poem sets up a process for the reader. It’s about pilgrimage, and the way the object is transformed in the pilgrimage. By the time you get to it it’s become magical, charged? But were you to get it just like that, then it wouldn’t happen. If you live in Lourdes it’s not Lourdes, you have to be here so that you can go there. But it’s also back to this thing about poems and riddles. A riddle that you get instantly isn’t any fun because it doesn’t transform the object. So difficulty puts in place a process – hopefully an entertaining process because that’s first base – where you can achieve that. By the time you get to the end, by the time you’ve unravelled some of it, you’re not quite where you thought you were going to be. Then hopefully you come away from it changed in some way.
I do think, however, that there’s a balance to be struck; presumably the reason that you’re writing is because you’re interested in communicating something. If what you have written is too thoroughly encoded to be understood by more than two or three people, then there’s something wrong in the calculations. But it doesn’t do you any good to be too self-conscious about it. As soon as you start thinking about the audience, if you start second guessing what the audience might like, then you’re lost; all you should ever be thinking about is the poem. A really crude example: when you’re doing a reading, the nicest response you can get is laughter – because it’s the only one you hear. You can’t tell the difference at a reading between a bored silence and a moved silence, so very often you think that you’ll read some funny poems, just because you want to be liked, to be loved. And that’s really dangerous, because that’s you starting to think about you, the poet, and you should never do that. More insidiously, you might even do that in the absence of an audience; you posit one. This doesn’t, however, invalidate all the stuff about the ideal reader, that’s true. You should write for someone who’s read the same books as yourself and is a wee bit smarter than you are. You should try to impersonate an intelligence greater than your own, because it often leads you to say things which are much more intelligent than you would have otherwise managed. But people know in their hearts when they’re being wilfully obscure. You just have to be alert to it.
JS: You mentioned the idea of process a number of times, both in the context or writing and reading poetry. I wonder if you can just elaborate on that a little more and how the poem gets written in that way.
DP: You start off with some words: starting off with the idea’s useless. If you start of with some words and if they love each other, then they make other words or they go and find other words to play with, but you have a sense of things being alive somehow. After a while it becomes apparent that another thing emerges, a centre of gravity: not always a structure, but the organising conceit of the whole thing. Between those two things, between the words that you get – which are always suggestive of a music and a rhetoric and very often rhythm – and the organising conceit, which gives you the form bit, you early on learn to divine what a poem wants to be, and you follow that. What you’ve got to be watch for, I think, is never, ever shoehorn a poem into a form it doesn’t want to go into just because you want it to. When I’m teaching, the first rule for students is always write the poem you’re writing, not the poem you want to write. Because what you want’s neither here nor there. So fairly early on, earlier and earlier as you get better, you get a sense of what form is going to realise the poem, let it sing.
JS: You would never start from the position of form, starting with a form and deciding to write in that form?
DP: No, never. It’s good doing that when you’re starting off, as an exercise. In fact it’s the only way you ever learn about form and what it can do and can’t do. If you don’t do that you’d never recognise when a sonnet was coming on. But later on, no, you’d never do that. It’s a lousy idea. People might say, but what about sestinas or something? But I’ve never seen a good sestina. I can’t imagine any poem ever having the ambition to be a sestina when it grew up.
JS: My next question is about prize winning. You’ve won a number of prizes, the latest being the 1997 TS Eliot award. I wonder what you feel about prizes for poetry and winning them?
DP: It’s great to win. But I feel really ambivalent about the whole thing because I know what it’s like not to win. We know what should happen: there should be a system in place where these inequalities just wouldn’t arise. Somehow along the lines of what they do in Ireland. You get voted onto this kind of Royal Academy type thing and, on condition of your continued residence, you get an annual stipend, in recognition of your contribution to the cultural life of the country. It would be great if something like that was instituted over here; it would get round a lot of that stuff.
The most depressing aspect of being a prize-winner is the jealousy that it breeds. It’s inevitable, and it’s a natural human response too but it’s terrible. Although you know the decision has been reached by just three men or women, who will have arrived at it via the usual mixture of disinterested consideration and blind prejudice, the public don’t see that. Which is nice, because they tend to think it’s a great faceless panel who sit and rubber stamp things. As a loser, you’re very aware of this discrepancy. I’ve been luckier than most. It’s great mainly because it buys you more writing time. But, ultimately, the way the money arrives isn’t necessarily good for the work. This reinforces the crazy relationship between the work and the money; what you do is never commensurate with the reward: you either get nothing or you get far too much. It probably balances out at the end of the day if you’re lucky. You either get nothing or a windfall and you can’t make a sensible connection between the two things.
JS: That’s from a financial point of view, but what about having your work validated in that way?
DP: I talk about the financial thing first, not because I’m a breadhead but because it’s really important, and people shouldn’t be embarrassed about talking about it. No, it’s great to validated by your peers, but, in the end, the only thing that really counts is that the people you really respect as writers give you the thumbs up. A wee postcard from your hero is worth an awful lot, it’s the best kick.
JS: So what can we look forward to from you in the near future?
DP: There’s a book of translations, or rather very loose versions of Antonio Machado which is nearly finished. So I’m hoping that someone will publish that. I’m doing a radio drama thing. There’s a big essay on poetic composition I’d like to write, to try put the whole thing on a “sound theoretical footing”; I think it’s perfectly possible to approach it like the Oxford Harmony… I’ve started that, drafted it out, and that will take years. Then there’s François Aussemain who’s appeared in the collections, there’s a lot more out-takes from his journals. A few poems, but a lot of the things I’m doing in the next couple of years are music things, not poetry.