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Poems come along and ask to be written
article [ Interviews ]
Interview with Michael Swan Compilation: Cultural Crossroads

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by [DMC ]

2011-02-20  |     | 

Interviewed: Michael Swan, a renowned specialist in English language teaching and applied linguistics, has also been writing poetry for many years. His first collection of poems, When They Come For You, was published by Frogmore Press in 2003. He also translates poetry; in 2005 he won the Times Stephen Spender competition for a version of Rilke’s Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes.

Interviewer: Daniela Mihaela Calinescu, University of Birmingham Occasional Research Student, University in Bucharest Research Student, The Doctoral School of Literary and Cultural Studies, Professor Coordinator: Professor Lidia Vianu, PhD

Michael Swan (M.S.): Before I address your questions, let me make two or three general points that may be useful.

My poems are very often stories, or fictional in one way or another. So they don't necessarily set out to express a meaning or a message directly; to tell the reader something that I think he/she might not know. On the contrary, like many stories, they may start from something general that everybody knows perfectly well ('Humanity is in a mess', 'We are all going to die', 'Love is important', or whatever), and use that as a basis for something quite particular. So asking what they mean may not always be useful – one can ask what Little Red Riding Hood or Kafka's Castle means, and one can find answers, but these answers may not be what is most interesting about the stories.

Following on from this, the 'I' in a poem, if there is one, or the second- or third-person subject, is often the voice of a character in a piece of fiction. The voice may be my own, saying what I really think, but this is unusual. More often I'm treating it rather like a character in a play. As a dramatist does, I may be making fun of the character, or using it as a target for more serious satire, or criticising it by making it reveal things about itself to the reader that it's apparently not conscious of. Quite often it's an aspect of myself that I'm not comfortable with, and that I'm obliquely criticising or regretting.

I do certainly have recurrent themes that crop up in these fictions – things that I feel strongly and that I would like the reader to think about. One of them is the difficulty or impossibility of satisfactory communication (don't ask me why I'm trying to communicate about how you can't communicate!) Another, more generally, is how everything is in a mess: I have a pretty pessimistic view of the world we live in.

Finally: I use humour a lot. Sometimes for quite serious or semi-serious purposes, often to do with the two themes I've just mentioned. Sometimes just to make people laugh. This needs stressing, because humour doesn't always cross language boundaries easily, and it's not something that your questions focus on. This is an area where I feel more in common with some Central European poets than with most British or American writers: your own Sorescu, or Holub, or Herbert, or Szymborska. English-language writers with whom I do feel some common ground are Billy Collins and Wendy Cope. (I'm not, of course, equating myself with these stars in terms of quality, but it's a useful comparison.) A quotation that is important to me: 'As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness. It preserves the soul from dessication.' (Humphrey Lyttelton) Children know how important it is to be silly sometimes; adults sometimes forget. (I once gave a lecture to a group of academic applied linguists in Toulouse University. It was a serious talk, but several times I made them laugh about one thing or another. Some of them were visibly disturbed by this: you're not supposed to laugh about academic topics, at least in France.)

DMC (Daniela Mihaela Calinescu): 700 is a poem that I find quite challenging: the poem itself becomes the very subject of the story you tell, you humanize it, give it identity, freedom of movement ("sets off for London"), you endow it with personality, ambition ("to seek fortune"), you make it a responsible individuality that industriously seeks well being ("It keeps body and soul together/with a bit of busking"), acceptance ("It is accepted in literary circles", "it rides about/in her magazine"), success ("quoted everywhere"). Then, the protagonist (the poem) experiences downfall, rejection ("tiring of its rustic simplicity/she kicks it out"). As I feel it, at this point, the poem itself grows dearer to the reader as the latter can understand and sympathise with the vulnerable. The poem proves both product of and victim of a point in time. We see it defeated, going back home to its creator, a creator who feels responsible for the poem's fate.

1. Why does the poet feel responsible for the poem's destiny? One poem may find immediate tremendous success, whereas another one may find it years and years (if not decades or centuries) later.

2. Why does a cat have to offer companionship to a poem? I've noticed how you associate domesticity and rustic simplicity with the presence of the cat. Do you mean this cat as a metonymic representation of the space in which you create/write?

M. S.: A bit of background: the poem alludes to an old children's story and pantomime theme: 'Dick Whittington'. (See the Wikipedia entry for details.) In the typical pantomime version, Dick Whittington sets off for London with his faithful cat to seek his fortune, having heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. That's all of the story that I use, but it explains the cat – nothing metonymic at all!
The poem is very light-hearted. If you want to interpret it, I guess it is kind of laughing at me writing all these poems of which only a few get published. (Kafka wrote a story called 'Elf Söhne', in which the 'Eleven Sons' were eleven of his stories.) But the focus is really the absurd story itself – the joke personification of the poem as if it were one of my children – rather than any message. At the end I try to explode the parallel between my own work and the story with 'wishing it had never been written/ I feel awful', which pushes the absurdity to its limit. (I don't really feel responsible for the poem's destiny at all.) That's something I often do: exaggerating an attitude till it falls to pieces.
So: pretty well everything you say about the poem seems right to me, but you may be missing the humorous intention – it's really meant to be quite silly. (Look at the awful pun towards the end: 'mundi … right through the week'.)
I think buskers would be surprised at your very serious description of busking as 'industriously seeking well-being': the way they probably see it, they're having fun and trying to make enough money to eat.

D.M.C. : In A sort of ark I find wonderful the negotiation in favour of getting a "whale hole", instead of a "wormhole". This attempt to embark for salvation endangered species looks rather an attempt to signal the disappearance of poets as a species.

1. Does "All of us" stand for "us, poets/artists" or for "humankind"?
2. Why "Tuesday"?
3. "Will you come?"--is it a question you address the reader (as the poet wouldn't exist without the reader)? And if so, do you see the reader as an endangered species as swell?

M.S. Again, a superficially lightweight poem, using humour or fantasy to deal with something I feel very deeply about. 'All of us' is humankind, not poets, and the reader is an endangered species because the whole natural world is endangered. The voice here is rather childish: like a child imagining that it's possible to invent something that will save everything from extinction. 'Whalehole' is the sort of joke one would put into a story for a child. Why Tuesday? Why not? If we're arranging to go, we need to fix a day. It helps to anchor the poem in pretend reality. Haven't you fixed a day to travel to Birmingham?

D.M.C. : The poet in Birdpoem pretends to stick to elevated themes ("human condition"), to form and structure ("forty-eight lines", "messed up all the rhymes") when attempting to write poems; the poet also pretends that the birds--that I would equate with spontaneity, easiness, vivacity, dynamism (you attribute an orphic function to them in an wonderful synesthetic image: "Their songs/are the most beautiful colours”)--the poet pretends that the above mentioned should not interfere with the elaborate, precise, sophisticated process of poetry-writing ("I'm afraid they'll have to go".) What you wonderfully succeed to communicate by the end of the poem is exactly the opposite message: poetry is not a text on a theme, following a precise technique, in the limits of a given form, etc. Poetry can be about aesthetic ugliness ("worms"), a poem can be "home" to birds (that is spontaneity, easiness, vivacity, dynamism, colour-songs).

1. Is this what you meant or should we actually read the text literally?

2. The title is a mystery to me: should it be translated "Poem pasare" (as I know you know Romanian)? In this case a translator should pay attention when rendering dynamism and rythmicity to the text. Or do you rather see it translated as "Poemul pasarilor"? As if you would mean to transfer the creative function to the birds, to their flight, songs, inquisitive pecking?

M.C.: I think your analysis of this is very acute and accurate; better than I could have done. Just, again, perhaps a bit more solemn than my analysis would be. (The poem won the humorous category in a competition for poems about wildlife.) So, to answer your first question: yes, that's exactly what I meant.
The title: I'm not sure I can be very clear about this. It seemed appropriate for a poem that is pretending to be full of birds. I'm not competent to judge Romanian equivalents, but 'Poem pasare' sounds good to me if that works for you.

D.M.C. : Creation Myth is wonderfully intriguing for me.

1. Is the stone the creator or is it the matter a creator starts a creation from? Why stone? Is the stone the raw material The Earth is going to be shaped out from?

2. I would associate "bone" with "mobility", "skin" with "mask", "hair" with "a means of seduction". Is this what you had in mind?

3. The dance is clearly a ritual, an authentic one without the whole exhausting outfit "bone, skin, hair". Rhythm can be inferred in the process of creation. Did you mean this a cosmogony in miniature? Does the dance refer to the rotations of the planet?

[All these questions remind me of your poem Dialogue)

M.S.: Not humorous at all. It's meant to be a twelve-line history of the planet, from bare rock to rock covered with life (where we are now) to bare rock again. I think that answers your first question. Your second: no, not that specific – only that these things mean life; as if the planet became itself a living dancing creature. Your third: no, not at all as specific as that.
Incidentally, you say the poem reminds you of Dialogue. I'm not sure I see the connection myself. In case this isn't clear, I should mention that Dialogue is meant to be savagely satirical of an extreme version of a line of thought in literary theory and linguistics, according to which the text is pretty well entirely created by its reader. The end of the poem is a 'reductio ad absurdum' of this idea, which I have pretended to promote until gets so ridiculous that it's impossible to go on taking it seriously.

D.M.C.: In If you don’t look you encourage the reader to peak “outside” a confining place, a confining routine, to better life with instances of escape into the imaginary, the exotic or into recollection of past events.

1. Does poetry need to educate?
2. Does the poet need to educate?

3. I noticed that you write both for a potential reader and for your own delight when you immortalize instances in your life into a collection of precious/meaningful/dear to you experiences. Which ones are dearer to you?

M.S.: Another fantasy poem: a story without any simple 'meaning' that I could define. I sort of half agree with your first paragraph, but it's not really a question of escape into a better life.
Your first two questions seem to me the kind one puts to one's students if one wants to get a discussion going. I don't think they really have answers, but in any case, as a practising poet rather than a literary theorist, I don't have an informed view. My feeling, for what it's worth, is that poetry and poets don't 'need' to do anything. Poets do what they do; poetry is what poets do. Some poets set out to educate, some don't. Statements about what poets and poetry should do or not to don't seem to me very useful; I think 'be' is a more important verb than 'should'.
Your third question: I don't think I do this. Very few of my poems/stories refer to instances in my life, and those that do, directly or indirectly, often have a negative slant.

D.M.C.: In A Story of the Kikuyu I feel there is a cultural reference that I am not aware of. Is there a legend/story behind this text?

M.S.: My youngest daughter was talking to a friend who grew up in Africa, who told her this story, which he had learnt from the local tribespeople. She told me the story just after the conversation; I was really struck by it, and turned it straight into a poem. I had the impression that the tribe was the Kikuyu, but can't be sure of that.

D.M.C.: Love gets dusty is one poem that really surprised me. From the title I was expecting a more of a blasé tone, a more of a pessimistic perspective on love. You build something like a frame around this feeling: there is the ludic in “pools of laughter”, there is passion in “quiet warm slow breaths”, there is the cult for the written word, for spirituality, there is an infinite tenderness in “”the most delicate children’s hair”. The final two verses (“We must keep it bright./It’s all we have.”) are somewhere between a warning and an encouragement.

1. How should we read the last lines, as a warning, as an encouragement? What was your intention?
2. Love still proves a very productive theme for a poem. What other theme do you find worth exploring in verse and quite productive?

M.S.: It surprised me a bit, too; I don't usually say things like this straight out in poems.
1. I'm not sure there's much difference between warning and encouragement here. But given my pessimistic temperament, 'warning' may be best.
2. Partly answered above, I think. Poetry and visual art are also things that I quite often write about, often (not always) to make fun of their pretensions, the pretensions of pretentious poets/artists, or my own pretensions.

D.M.C.: At the very beginning of Not Quite you write: “The poem is never quite/What you wanted to say.” I understand that a poem may have its own itinerary/will/destiny/plan that at times meets your own, some other times you go separate ways.

1. Is there a poem that surprised you with how it chose to unfold?
2. Do poems write themselves?

M.C.: I think there are two different points here. One is simply that, because communication is imperfect, you never quite manage to express what you want to. The other point is the one that you pick out: that the poem has its own agenda. I'm very interested in this aspect, because it reflects my own experience: poems, so to speak, come along and ask to be written. I don't always know what they're going to say until they've said it. So yes, lots of poems surprise me with how they choose to unfold. They don't quite 'write themselves', but I sometimes feel as if I'm taking dictation. It's a very strange experience; almost as if there really were an external 'Muse' in the ancient Greek sense – which is not the kind of thing I believe in at all in principle.

D.M.C.: How important is for you to see your poems translated into Romanian? Having in mind your Lost in Translation, any worries regarding the translation of them?

M.S.: 'Lost in translation' is just a joke, really. But I translate some poetry myself, and I think a lot about the issues involved in this particular art. I'm of course pleased and honoured to have my poems translated into Romanian. As far as students' translations are concerned, I'm interested to see how some students are sensitive to the rhythm and economy of the original, and try to hold onto it as well as possible, while others have no feeling for that aspect of the original at all – they don't see the formal tightness in 'free verse', and might as well be translating prose. Where poems of mine are translated for publication: yes, I do worry about the quality: form and content both.

D.M.C.: Many of your poems function as ars poetica, you clearly state what/how a poem should be and what/how it shouldn’t (Your poem). Yet, compromise (“flashy poems”) could open the way for poems of high quality. What do you think?

M.S.: No, I don't state what I think a poem should or shouldn't be, really. In Your poem, written about 30 years ago, I was looking critically at my own preference for simplicity / ordinary language, with its limitations, as against a kind of writing I was reacting against ('flashy'), in which 'poetic' language and form serve as window-dressing, making valueless material look like poetry. That doesn't mean at all that I rejected all the things that traditionally have made poetry sharply different from prose – that would be crazy. But I needed to establish my own base, which is as close to ordinary speech as I can get while still being poetry and not just ordinary speech. You're absolutely right that compromise is necessary, and I'm moving towards using a wider range of formal and 'literary' elements in my poetry where I feel I can exploit them without artificiality. (And I have written sonnets, sestinas and so on from time to time over the years. It's good for the formal muscles.)

D.M.C.: You are both a linguist and a poet. You said once that you can easily wear both hats, that they are equally important to you. From which one do you derive far more satisfaction? Which one is closer to who you are?

M.S.: Can't answer that one. Which is more important – head or heart? A lot of people would say 'heart, of course'. For me, they're equally balanced and ultimately inseparable. I just feel extremely fortunate in being able to explore the world I live in by two different and very rewarding routes.

D.M.C.: Thank you.

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