'Art's whatever you choose to frame'.
Interviewing Fleur Adcock
London, 28th March 2018
Fleur Adcock kindly received us at her house on a rainy afternoon. We chatted about different topics, such as knowing Alfred Noyes' 'The Highwayman' by heart, quitting cigarettes, certain critics' lack of imagination, bossy editors, poetic discoveries and about learning Romanian and other foreign languages through poetry. We also talked about "human being poets" and the wonderful line “Art's whatever you choose to frame”.
JF: Is there a use for poetry?
I can’t think of any.
JF: Do you know poems by heart? When do you remember them?
I remember poems by heart that I have learnt in school, mostly, when your memory is fresh. There was a broadcast of Paradise Lost recently, on the radio, and I remembered ‘Of Man's First Disobedience and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, / and all our woe…’. What’s the use of remembering that? But I do happen to remember. [Laughter]. There is a lovely poem which I really enjoyed when I was nine called the ‘The Highwayman,’ by Alfred Noyes:
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Then he taps on the window, and his beautiful girlfriend – she is the landlord’s dark-eyed daughter –, and he comes to see her because he’d promised to: ‘I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.’ But they are after him now, the troopers, and they shoot him down and he lies in his blood on the highway. [Laughter]. It’s all very gruesome. Nine-year-olds love it! There were two of us and we both knew it by heart, and we were competing, we both wanted to recite it, so we were allowed to do half each.
JF: In an interview in 2001, you said you became ‘less interested in writing poetry, it just doesn’t excite me as it used to. I’ve done it; it’s the day job’. Do you still feel the same?
I don’t feel the same now, but at that point I just got sick of all the poetry business: all the competitions, and the poetry courses, and the creative writing, and all of that. When I was young poetry was a private activity; what you did was you read books, then you wrote some yourself. That was how you did it. Also, I just got bored with what I was writing. I thought I was repeating myself, that I had said it all before and slightly better the first time. I’d gotten absolutely obsessed with researching my family history, which I did for years after my father died. I just fell in love with facts rather than fiction, or whatever poems are. But after quite a while it started coming back again, and I found I could write very short poems.
I also gave up smoking and I thought: “Oh well, since I have given up poetry, then I can give up smoking”, because I always had to smoke when I was concentrating. You don’t need to concentrate for family history. Then when I started again I wrote short poems, five lines long, and then gradually they started getting a bit longer.
JF: Why did you quit smoking? I remember your line: ‘Some of us are a little tired of hearing that cigarettes kill’.
Well, yes, I’m still a smoker in my soul. It’s not good for you, but I was addicted. It was getting more and more difficult to live in a non-smoking world, there were so many places where you could not smoke. The first time I had to fly across the Atlantic without smoking I didn’t have any warning. It was a Canadian airline and they suddenly said no smoking. So, I just smoked in the airport until I felt sick and then I got on board and took a Valium. It didn’t make me go to sleep it, but just took my mind off it. My grandchildren were also worried. And I developed a kind of contempt for myself for being such a pathetic addict, a victim of my addiction. I didn’t want to go into rooms wondering all the time when I was going to be able to have another cigarette. I would rather think about something else. So I gradually phased it out.
JF: You were mentioning that you would rather write about facts than about fiction, or whatever poems are, but your poems often have historical sources… sources which may give headaches to future critics.
[Laughter]. I remember a student who wrote to me asking about a poem I had written in the Lake District. It mentioned two people who found it difficult to write: one was the NZ short story writer Katherine Mansfield, who died of TB, and the other I called simply Mary. They didn’t know who Mary was and I replied “You don’t need to know who she was; there’s enough information in the poem”. She was a very obscure New Zealand poet who had arthritis in her hands and found it difficult to write for that reason. But it does not matter; you can use your imagination for that.
JF: Yes, critics dislike having to use their imagination. [Laughter]. In the same interview you mention how you moved “from the formal to the colloquial”.
I think that just comes with being more relaxed and loosening up. I do say that when you go to art school you begin by learning the basics and you do perspective and all of that and then later you can do all sorts of weird things, like Matisse.
JF: That’s the sentence that interested me the most: ‘I often quote someone like Matisse who became much more relaxed and sketchy. You have to learn to draw, you have to learn all the poetic equivalents of that, the metrical stuff, the techniques and when you’ve done those, you stop being so uptight about it’. How would you describe this particular process of loosening up? It doesn’t imply letting go of technique…
No, it’s to loosen up. I notice that when I’m reading very early poems which I wrote in New Zealand. For example, I didn’t use abbreviations and I would write something like “You do not answer”, whereas if I’m speaking colloquially I’ll say: ‘You don’t answer’. That sort of thing. I had a classical education; in Latin and Greek you have got to get the grammar right. I wrote a poem called ‘The Prize-winning Poem’ when I was judging a poetry competition and one of the lines is: ‘The poet will be able to spell’. [Laughter]. I think you’ve got to be able to spell. Mostly people don’t need to now because they have got computers. Of course, the computer can spell the wrong word and not the one you had in mind. There are so many words which are similar, you have to check you are writing the right one.
JF: Is there anything you dislike in poetry? A word? A figure of style? Clichés that you try to avoid?
Some things I do not need to try to avoid because I would not do them anyway. I’m not particularly inspired to write poetry that is completely performance poetry, I have always wanted it to be something we could read on the page. I don’t like some of the tricky verse forms that they give people on writing courses, like the triolet, or the sestina, or similar things. That’s useful as an exercise, but I don’t want to read them. I certainly don’t ever want to read another sestina.
JF: And are there any words or figures of style you particularly like?
Yes, I like to get the rhythm right. Not the metre, but the rhythm. There is such a profound difference between rhythm and metre. You can’t describe it or talk about it, you can only give examples now and then. If it sounds a bit off, then that’s part of the joy of it. Some Elizabethans who were writing on the basis of models which were actually Italian sonnets just adapted them a little, and they became pleasantly irregular. You then have Victorian editors who wanted to change them and bring them back to what they thought they should be, but it was not what the poet had in mind. Things stick in my mind, strange rhythms. I listen to the rhythm in my mind all the time when I’m walking. I do a lot of composition walking around in the streets or in the woods when it’s not raining. I’m listening to what I’m writing in my head. I think: “Oh that’s not quite right there, there’s an extra syllable”. I get out my little notebook or shopping list and I change it.
JF: Is there always a similar process for writing a poem?
It varies, but it usually starts with a phrase or line that comes into my head. Everybody says this, and quite often that line turns out to be the first line of the poem, but not necessarily. It just gets you started. And then you leave it to the semi-conscious creator in your head. Quite often there comes a time when you have to finish it and then you have to do it in a more focused and artificial way. The best thing is to go to bed and see what it looks like in the morning. I wake up in the morning and think: “Ah! That is it!”
JF: What about translating?
It’s a good thing to do if you’re stuck, to use somebody else’s model and work on it. You don’t need to do anything other than trying to find the words. It’s very good for learning a language. When I was learning Romanian, the only Romanian poetry I had was by friends that I had met in Romania when we were there. I went for three trips to Romania and they gave me their books. I was learning the language and that was what I was using as materials. With a language you are not competent with, poetry is good because you do not have to translate every poem, you can just pick out the ones that speak to you and that are not too difficult. Eventually, they were able to come here, Grete Tartler and Daniela [Crasnaru], so we could talk about their poetry and Daniela could show me things she had written secretly. It was very dangerous.
JF: I thought they wrote in code.
They did write in rather obscure coded ways. Readers who were very savvy would pick up the references, but it wouldn’t be specific. Daniela [Crasnaru] started writing very open poems about how it was too cold, and how there wasn’t any central heating in the buildings, and there wasn’t any coffee – things the authorities didn’t want foreigners to hear about –, and that was very dangerous. She hid these poems in a cellar in a box of onions, and after Ceausescu fell she could fish them out, and I translated those. She called the collection Letters from Darkness, as they were hidden in the darkness of the cellar, but also in the darkness of the dictatorship.
JF: You know many languages.
Romanian is a romance language, like French and Italian, but it has more elements from other languages. I know Italian and I can sort of read Spanish if I have to. But it is easier to get confused if you’re not a native speaker. My mother was quite good at Spanish, she travelled around Spain and gave me her books, but because I was so familiar with Italian (I spent a lot of time in Italy) I didn’t want to mix them. The same with Romanian; easy to slip into the wrong one. I was always very keen on languages when I was young. I decided I wanted to learn six languages by the time I was 30.
JF: How many do you know?
Some of them come and go! The ones I learned formally are English and French, which I did very early at school, and I know Latin and German (because we had a very good German teacher). That’s four. When I went to university I began Greek; you couldn’t do Greek at school in New Zealand. At university in Wellington they started straight off from scratch, to make up for lost time; you were reading Plato in the first week. Then Italian just for pleasure; I came to England on an Italian ship in 1963 and I was learning Italian anyway, at evening classes. And then Romanian.
JF: Is poetry lost in translation?
There are so many different ways of approaching translation. A Romanian woman whom I met in New Zealand asked me what was my method of translation. I said my method was reading it and then translating it and trying to make it readable. I didn’t want to offend anybody by getting his or her poetry wrong. On the other hand, it wasn’t so difficult with Latin; there was no one to argue with. The authors had been dead for a while. [Laughter]. This woman was interested in Seamus Heaney, who had translated a Romanian poet for an anthology, and he didn’t know Romanian, so he would have used somebody else’s version. I don’t think that’s translation, there should be another word for that. It’s just making... I don’t know what to call it.
JF: You have compiled some anthologies (Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1982), the Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987), and The Oxford Book of Creatures (with Jacqueline Simms, 1995)). Which criteria ruled your selection?
That’s difficult because you don’t want to just put the poems that you think are good. That you like. You have to put those which are good whether you like them or not.
JF: What is the difference?
You have to harden your heart, in a way, and think that this is a poet or an author who is very much respected and it may not be my sort of thing, but these seem to be the qualities that people like in him or her, so you pick it up. I did an Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in 1982 and some of those I chose weren’t exactly my style.
JF: What would that style be?
I don’t have a list, enthusiasms change all the time. When I was young I read the poetry which was in my father’s bookshelf in the room I was using as my bedroom; he had Blake and Milton, so I fell in love with them. But those are not poets I would spend a lot of time reading now. They were just an enthusiasm then. The modern poets I was reading in the school library are not modern any longer. [Laughter]. I was very keen on [T. S.] Eliot; I liked his disillusioned tone when I was 15.
JF: You said you had to leave some of the poets out, like Grace Nichols, in the 20th Century Women's Poetry?
Oh, yes, that was because they were too young; I was given a cut-off date by my editor Craig Raine, who was very bossy.
JF: Was he very hands-on?
Yes, he tended to put his foot down. When I embarked on that Anthology he said: “Well, of course it’s going to begin with Emily Dickinson”. And I said: “What? This is twentieth-century poetry.” He replied: “Oh, well, she was really a twentieth-century poet”. [Laughter]. I said "No Emily Dickinson”. So he said “All right, if you don’t put her in then you have to put twenty poems by each of the big three” - and that was [Sylvia] Plath, [Elizabeth] Bishop, and Marianne Moore. I asked: “Why twenty poems?”. Have you looked at Marianne Moore’s poems? They are long! [Laughter]. I persuaded him to settle for twenty pages, not twenty poems. But I feel really embarrassed at having had to include so much Plath: everybody had got Plath, they’d got Plath coming out of their ears. All anthologies are full of Plath, we don’t need anymore. And then he would read through my selections and the ones he didn’t like he would read out in a comical accent. [Laughter]. With a sort of fake Australian or American accent or whatever. And I would say: “Oh, no, no, you’re quite right, it’s terrible, they’re not good”. Then he said I could not put all of the young ones. “You’ve got to give them time to blossom and reach full maturity”.
JF: Isn’t it good trying to guess who is going to make it?
Yes, I like being able to say I saw that coming. For example, one of the youngest poets in that anthology was Selima Hill; she hadn’t published very much, but she had an extraordinary poetic personality and voice. And I could see that. Now look at her, she is doing so well. I’m a great admirer, so that was well spotted. A lot of the poets in that Anthology I hadn’t known, the American ones. I had some advice from an American friend and she suggested several poets, such as Josephine Miles, but others I just read at the library and educated myself. But I can’t keep up now.
JF: Do you do the same with young British poets?
I see a lot of the poetry that comes along, but it’s rather hit or miss.
JF: You started publishing relatively early, unlike other women poets.
I don’t think I was publishing very early, compared with men of my age who didn’t spend so much time raising children. Well, I was young by some standards. Some of the women poets I admire or came to discover didn’t publish until they were in their fifties, like my friend Lauris Edmond. My first collection was published in New Zealand when I was 30, just after I came to live here, and then I used half of its contents in my first UK collection.
JF: Were your editors very hands on?
Not really, it depends on the editor. I had some advice when I was compiling Tigers. I talked to George Macbeth, who used to be a member of the group I used to go to. He was a friend, so I sat down in the pub and asked him which ones I should put in from my New Zealand collection. He just went through them doing “tick, tick, tick, cross, cross”. After that, editors… they weren’t very pernickety about individual things, but they would say: “we don’t like this one”. They would always feel they had to reject something …
JF: To show they were working. [Laughter].
Yes, it was their job! They would say: “we’re not keen on this one”. They wouldn’t say: “I am not very keen”; it always had to be plural. This was at Oxford University Press, and they would say: “Some of us don’t think this one works very well”. And I would say, “No, that’s quite right, take it out”. Other times I would argue for it. There was one they didn’t think… Some of the poems weren’t “very Oxford”. It wasn’t their style. There was a poem called “A surprise in the Peninsula”, which is about… well, not exactly a dream, it is more of a fantasy that came into my head. It was written in the 60s when there was a lot of terrorism in Aden (well, there still is). A narrative came out of that, which they didn’t understand; they wanted more down-to-earth stuff. I said: “It’s been in the New Statesman and people liked it, so…” If other people liked it, I tended to go by the judgment of the readers. So my editor Jacky said, “All right, we’ll put that in”.
JF: Do you also think about the readers?
I think of them in a negative way. I think I don’t want to bore them, to put people off, I don’t want to write something that people are going to say: “Oh no, not that old stuff again”. But my present editor, Neil, doesn’t interfere with anything I do now. I think he is glad that he doesn’t have to do any editing, because for some of his authors he has to do so much of it.
JF: Neil was very nice, he replied immediately when I wrote.
Oh, yes, he is. Have you interviewed him yet?
JF: No, but I would very much like to.
Yes, you should! I know him since he was about 22, or something, he was very young, so I am very satisfied to see how well he has done. [Laughter].
JF: On another note, you seem to refuse the label of female author. You have defined yourself as a “human being poet”.
Yes, sometimes I get defensive about that. In the old days female poets got dismissed. A female student I once had put her initials on her poems and I told her: “No, put your name. Put Margaret, so they know it’s a woman”. She was afraid to do it. That’s too bad. They have to get used to the idea that women write poems as well. You have to stand up for yourself. But now, more than half of the Bloodaxe list is female. Neil publishes women from all over the place and he snaps them up; if he finds an American edition or an Australian edition of someone he admires he does a British edition. That has become normal, but when I was beginning to edit that Anthologyin the 1980s, I went to do a reading somewhere on the Channel Islands and a man in the audience said: “Oh, that’s going to be a very thin book, isn’t it? Women poets, where are they?” he asked.
JF: There were very few women poets in your generation.
In my generation, there were very few. There was Elizabeth Jennings, I read her, she was in the New Lines anthologies. There was Patricia Beer, who was a wonderful poet and a very funny woman. They were both older than me. Jenny Joseph was writing then….
JF: Stevie Smith, maybe?
Yes! Stevie Smith was still alive! But she was so exceptional! You couldn’t include her in any categories. She was so unlike anybody else. I went to a reading of hers. Well, I went to several readings of hers. [Laughter]. I once got stuck in conversation with her, I was so overawed! I couldn’t think of anything to say! I just stood there. [Laughter]. And then I went to her funeral. She died too young… yes, she was exceptional. You didn’t come across her very much in the circles I moved in. She was already so famous. But otherwise there were people older than me who had not been publishing: U.A. Fanthorpe had just started; Elizabeth Bartlett was another one who had not published very much and she was in her fifties. Gradually – not the next generation exactly, but women a little younger than me … Wendy [Cope] whom I met as a student on a course I taught in the 1980s. But most of them are younger, yes.
JF: Do you know why?
I don’t know, I think it was just the editors, they were so superior. All these Oxford educated editors, from publishers like Faber, Chatto, MacMillan, and so on, they just didn’t go for so many women. And women were discouraged, they felt they were writing about the wrong things, about their families, children, childbirth, and sex.
JF : In one of your poems, “Leaving the Tate”, you seem to reject the idea that poetry should be about ‘this’, rather than ‘that’. The line reads: ‘Art's whatever you choose to frame’.
I was quite pleased with that line! It popped into my head! I was judging a competition for poems based on either a particular work of art at the Tate (now known as Tate Britain) or the experience of visiting the gallery. There were three of us judging and they also asked us to write a poem of our own. So I wrote one about the experience of visiting the Tate, which I did quite often anyway. It was not too far away from where I worked, so I could go at lunchtime. Just the way you are walking around in a gallery affects how the world looks when you come out. Everything seems to be in frames, in squares, when you look at it! [Laughter]. Of course, ‘art is what you choose to frame’ is: anything you decide to focus on is art. I had an argument with somebody on a panel. A novelist. Who was it? Antonia Byatt. She was one of the judges of a competition at the TLS. There were three other judges and I said: “Look, there’s a nice little poem”. It was just a short little poem, about six lines. And she said: “You call that a poem? I write better images than that in any page of fiction!” I replied: “Well, yes, but this one has got white space around it”! And if you look at it and it’s got white space around it, you look more closely. So that is art, it is whatever you choose to frame. It’s the ability to choose what you want to look at [Laughter]. I was so pleased I thought of that line before it was too late. [Laughter].
JF: The last question could be… if you enjoy being a poet?
Being a poet is sort of a dubious construction, because in the old days people would say: “You can’t say you’re a poet, it’s like saying you’re a genius”. I was married to a poet long ago and he and his friends would just say “I write verse”. Now everybody says they’re a poet and they put it in their passports and people say to me, quite often kids at school, when did you decide to be a poet? I explain I didn’t decide to be one, it wasn’t a thing I thought I could be. I was writing little poems and little rhymes when I was six or seven – that was making up a poem, not being anything. Sometimes when I meet people in the local shops they say: “Oh, you’re the poet lady!” I appeared in the local paper when I did a reading at a bookshop, so they recognised me. The only time you can actually say you’re being a poet is when you’re writing right now… I am certainly not being one at the moment. On my passport it says… Oh no, you don’t need to put your occupation on your passport now. In the days when you had to, I used to think I was a writer and my accountant thought I was an author, so on my tax return I was an author and on my passport I was a writer, but I wouldn’t say poet, as I would think that would be a bit pretentious. But I have enjoyed the life, yes. One of the best things about it is meeting and getting to know other poets; a huge privilege. But it’s been very hand to mouth. You don’t get rich writing poetry, but I’ve survived somehow, and it was worth doing it.