Interviewing Lorraine Mariner
London, 14th of August 2017
On the 14th of August, we met Lorraine Mariner outside the National Poetry Library, at the Southbank Centre in London. We spoke for about an hour about poetry and poets, but also about Ikea furniture, the dress we never had and the musicians we would keep in a basement at our disposal to write and play for us forever.
Jogos Florais: Do you like poetry?
Lorraine Mariner: Yes. [Laughter]. And I do really like writing. I have periods in which life gets busy and I find I am not writing as much as I’d like. But I've never felt I was blocked. I mean it’s gone quiet, and I have tried not to get worried and it’s came back again.
JF: You also work with poetry in your job at the Poetry Library.
It’s wonderful. My first library job was in a medical library and I did get into it, but working in a subject you love you go the extra mile, as you are learning as well. But I do get a bit “poemed out”. In the past when I’d not worked at the Poetry Library I went on poetry courses and got away to be immersed in poetry, but lately when I go on holidays it has nothing to do with poetry.
JF: Do you have a daily routine of writing?
No. [Laughter] I have found what works well is if I just get up on a day off and I decide I am going to do some writing. I just make a cup of tea and I start working.
JF: Could you please tell me a poem you particularly like and explain why?
Yes. One of my favourite poets is Fleur Adcock. I like her poem “Things”. It's quite a short poem but it's funny and universal and profound.
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals, committed or
endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
Fleur Adcock, Poems. London: Bloodaxe Books, 2000.
JF: And one of yours?
I think “Thursday”. Because it was about a momentous thing that happened in London, the bombings on Thursday 7th July 2005, and I was proud that as a poet I was able to record the moment and that it became like a monument to that day. But I actually do really like “There is nothing wrong with my sister” (read here). I think I like poems that touch other people and people seem to really like that one.
JF: Is there a poem \ poet which you consider under-rated?
Yes, there must be. May I think about it?
JF: Do you use poetry daily?
Yes, yes. I will say everyday I read a poem.
JF: How do you choose the poem?
It comes through my work. So on Friday John Hegley came into the library and he was looking for a poem by Les Murray that he'd written about his father. So I looked it up. He could remember a bit and I looked into it. So then I read “The Last Hellos” a poem I had not read before and it blew me away and I remembered I need to read more Les Murray.
JF: Do you remember lines regularly? Do you know poems by heart?
Yes, some bits of. And because of my job people recite bits of poems to me and they think I will recognise the line and know the poem. [Laughter].
JF: How do you imagine yourself, within 50 years, in a literary encyclopaedia? What you would like to be remembered?
I think it is something I wrote about on that text you mentioned about Jessica Elton (click here). When I started I thought that if I could just write one fantastic poem that people would remember… that would be enough. I think that's still true. Sometimes, I think nobody will remember me and then I remind myself if I just write one fantastic poem that will be ok.
JF: Do you read what critics write about you? Do you think they ever get it right?
Yes, I do.
Actually I just remembered a poet. David Hart. So I think he is under-rated. One of my all time favourite poems is his poem “Father Hopkins is Shy About His Poems” (see here).
I have found with my second book I have had hardly any reviews. So that was difficult in a way. So, there is a lot of attention on first collections and then with second collections some get attention but most get ignored... They’ve all been good reviews, but there weren’t so very many. So I’ve gone from being upset with bad reviews to being upset that there were no reviews. I think that with reviews it's a bit tricky.
JF: Do you appreciate reading literary criticism? What kind of critic would you like to have?
Maybe somebody that gives the poems the attention they deserve. That tries to understand what the poet is trying to do, where they're coming from.
JF: Do you read criticism?
I do and in my job we’ve got a press cuttings collection, so we scan magazines and different poets have different files so I do sort of skim read a lot of criticism. But it’s tricky. Billy Collins was a poet that I went to see read when I was first getting into poetry, and I absolutely loved him, and I became a big fan and I then read the most awful review in the magazine Poetry Review and it made me begin to question my judgement and I think that if it has that effect, that someone thinks “I was wrong I shouldn’t have liked that sort of poetry” then yes I think that it’s quite damaging.
JF: A Portuguese writer once said in an interview that it was better to get a handshake from an enthusiastic reader than to read a book review. Would you say the same?
Yes, I think so.
JF: Do you have any ideas on how poetry should be taught?
I think maybe what has been the most helpful has been when they tell you if you like this poem you will really like this one as well. I think reading is the best teacher.
JF: Which poets did people advise you to read?
When I started my editor Don Paterson told me to read Hugo Williams. And that’s quite interesting, because at that stage I hadn’t read anything by Hugo Williams but I can see a similarity in how we write. And I've been advised to read Selima Hill. I think you might like her as well.
JF: Do you have anything you dislike in poetry? A word? A figure of speech? Clichés that you try to avoid?
Not really. Oh yes! Actually, I think I do. I do like very direct poetry.
JF: Why is that?
I don’t know. I suppose that being direct, using very plain language can be profound as well, it cuts straight to the heart of things. Having said that I have got into poets like Medbh McGuckian where I'm not exactly sure what is going on in the poem but I get a very strong feeling so sometimes I am up for a bit of ambiguity. But I do really love this sort of heartfelt, direct poetry. [Laughter]
JF: What would you ask another poet?
I am quite interested in how often they write that sort of thing and if they’ve got a routine.
JF: We have a section on literary curiosities, is there any you remember?
I think I must. I’ll get back to you on this one. I hope this isn't egotistical but I have a literary curiosity of my own. I've modelled for the character of Sybill Trelawney in the illustrated Harry Potter (see here). I know the illustrator Jim Kay and he thought I'd make a good Sybill! But I’ll keep trying to remember one about a poet from the past as that would be better for your website.
JF: A friend of mine asked if there is any dress you have always dreamed of having and never had.
Not really. Not really, I mainly wear trousers. One New Year, I made a resolution to wear a skirt once a week and in the last few years I have bought more dresses than I had before. I mean I did see a dress once in a shop window that I wished I’d bought. It was blue chiffon and it then it had a sparkly metallic bit across the front and on one of the sleeves like sequins. But I think I thought where would I wear it?
JF: Do you have hobbies?
I run. I do running and I play the clarinet. I should practice more.
JF: Do you have a favourite tune?
Well, I am a big Steve Sondheim fan and his Send in the Clowns has quite lovely bits for the clarinet.
JF: Who would you like played your role in a movie about your life?
[Laughter] Well, I love… Hmm, I should pick an English actress. Hmm. Well, maybe I would go with a French actress. I do love Audrey Tautou. I think that the film, I mean maybe I could be a minor part in a film as I think my life would be really boring, I don’t think it would make a very good film. [Laughter] So maybe a minor character played by Audrey Tautou. [Laughter]
JF: Are you worried with metric and rhythm when you write?
Yes, I do think about internal rhymes and things like that. I am conscious of that. I think as I go on, now I’ve got maybe a bit more control than when I started. I remember someone said to me you don’t rhyme. But I do think I have internal rhymes. And sometimes I also think there is something going on I am not entirely conscious of.
JF: What is your relation with other poets? Do you go to poetry readings, for example?
Yes, I do go to a few poetry readings, there are regular readings at the National Poetry Library. I go to a poetry reading group but I also go to a writing group with other poets and I'd be really lost without that.
JF: How does it work?
We meet every month to six weeks and we take along usually about two poems that we are working on and then we share them and give feedback. There are currently 6 of us. When I moved to Greenwich the poet Mick Delap, who I'd met on a City Lit course and through the magazine Magma, found out and he invited me to join a group in the area that he was just getting going.
JF: Does the editor at Picador make suggestions?
Yes, Don Paterson, the editor, he’s very hands on.
JF: What are your favourite places in London? And your favourite bookshop?
This probably sounds a bit bad, but as I work with books I try to avoid them. This is what happens after 20 years working in libraries! I live by Greenwich Park and Blackheath, so I love being on the heath and in Greenwich Park. And a new place I have discovered is the Charlton Lido, (in case you don't have the word Lido in Portugal it's an outdoor swimming pool and luckily the Charlton one is heated). I recommend going there although I haven’t been for ages. I love going to the cinema. I love the Greenwich Picture House. One of my life goals was to be able to walk to a cinema from where I live and I can walk through the park to the Greenwich Picture House.
JF: Do you like some movies in particular?
I absolutely love romantic comedies. But I also love a bit of sci-fi.
JF: What are your favourite?
When Harry met Sally but I do love While You were sleeping. And actually Strictly Ballroom was on the telly the other day and I was supposed to be going to bed but I couldn’t stop watching, even though I've seen it loads of times. I'm very excited about the next Star Wars film and the new Blade Runner.
JF: I saw there is a Philip Larkin poetry club. Is he an important reference for you?
We did a book club, it was just a one off, where we looked at his poems.
I do like his poems and I've booked a trip to Hull in October because there's a Philip Larkin exhibition taking place at the university of Hull. And a couple of years ago I went to Coventry and I ended up going to look at the house where he was born. I know it’s not so cool to like him today. I do think, and it is something I can relate to, that writers can, when they are writing to someone they can reinvent how they are writing to suit that person and I think he definitely did that, but that’s not to forgive the things he said.
JF: Is there anything you would like to see in a poetry website?
Well we're currently redesigning the National Poetry Library website so that is on my mind a lot at the moment. I think the main thing is poems.
JF: Do you believe in Ikea’s furniture, its durability?
I do. Yes, I do. I mean lately I do find myself drawn to second hand furniture, but outside the library where you were sitting that was made of Ikea shelves. I do love their book shelves. [So they will not fall over a reader, like the closet in your poem?] [Laughter] No, no. Yeah, you have to build it properly and my sister does build it properly. So [Laughter]
JF: Which contemporary poet would you interview if you could?
Hmmm. I was at a conference recently and Sinéad Morrissey was there and I wish I could chat with her but I felt too shy, it was silly of me, because we had met before... So maybe I would like to interview Sinéad Morrissey.
JF: Which painting would hang on your wall to see?
I do go to exhibitions and I do often think I would quite like to have that one. I went to the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern last year and there was this beautiful small painting of a shell with red and green seaweed (Shell No. 2) and I thought I wish I could just take that home. And then a friend sent me a postcard and it was the same!
JF: Which musician would you have on your house basement, ready to play for you whenever you wanted it?
[Laughter] It would be Ron Sexsmith, because he is so prolific that he would be continually writing new songs. So that would be great if he could be in my basement writing songs. [Laughter] I don’t think he would want to be in my basement, though, but I… [Laughter]
JF: You would feed him properly. [Laughter]
Yes! I’m also a big fan of Natalie Merchant so I think I’d like them both to be in there. [Laughter] I don’t know how they’d feel about that, but maybe for a week, they could be in my basement and they could come and write some songs together. [Would you like to write some songs with them?] [Laughter] Oh yes, I hadn’t thought about that! Maybe the three of us! And I think I’d get my brother along as well. The four of us. [Laughter]. I think I better invite my sisters too! We could release an album as Merchant, Sexsmith and the Mariner Family. I could play my clarinet.
JF: Which contemporary poets would you suggest for someone who does not know English poetry very well?
If I'm allowed to expand it to British I’m a big fan of lots of Northern Irish poets like Sinéad Morrissey, Colette Bryce, Leontia Flynn and Derek Mahon. Then there's Fleur Adcock and Selima Hill who I mentioned earlier.
JF: Which question did you like the most, if any.
I think maybe the first. Do I like poetry?