Interview with the Gumpire

(This is the text of an email interview a student conducted with me this April for a project – I didn’t know them and, while they gave permission for their questions to be reproduced here, they preferred not to give their name. I thought it worth posting as I do get these requests from time to time, so it might be a useful resource.

With that in mind, these two interviews from about 5 and 10 years ago could also be handy – not that much has changed in my attitudes and opinions, sadly. There are others, but these are the ones I know are still online:

Poetry Kit (2000) – with Ted Slade

Books from Scotland (2006) – with Roddy Lumsden)

1) How did you get into writing poetry, who were your influences?

I was always writing because, from primary school onward, it was part of our ordinary school work to write stories – my old English jotters are full of ‘compositions’. When I was 16 or so, we started to learn about poets and playwrights – Norman MacCaig, Bertolt Brecht, Shakespeare (of course), John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I bought poems by Keats and Auden from a little second-hand bookshop on the Hawkhill in Dundee, and, very gradually it seemed (though we’re probably only talking about a year or so), I began trying to make these strange things myself.

MacCaig, Donne and Auden were so neat and elegant in their thinking it was like they were making marvellous buildings or fast cars, but each was designed so differently I wanted to know how they did it. With Keats and Manley Hopkins the expressiveness of what they were saying was so striking it was as though you were them: again, I wanted to be able to do that to a reader.

Poems were like model kits made out of words, like origami or punk singles or prog album covers or Renaissance paintings: something technical that captured something I thought was cool. So I took their poems to pieces and then I imitated them, and then I found I was making these further shapes of my own.

2) What do you think can be expressed in poetry that can’t be expressed in other art forms?

Nothing, it just expresses stuff differently because it’s so focused on patterns of language and trying to make the reader experience that as a multi-sensory texture. The poem is the fastest, most direct way to do what music, stories, images and films do over time, but because it does this with words, the reader gets drawn into the language rather than just hunting for the meaning.

Done properly, poems knock time out of the picture entirely, so you don’t know when or where you are, or how long you’ve been reading. Because words can affect us as immediately as smells, we can be thinking and remembering and processing experiences before we really know why.

What poetry is processing is what things, events and people mean rather than what they are. The value of being here rather than the monetary value of buying something from here. What they (things, events, people) actually are remains a mystery, but what they mean you can at least explore through language: what words filter and what they permit.

So poems are full of symbols and fables even when they contain linear narratives and realist description. Jokes, tunes, dreams, jingles: strong verbal patterns that stick in the head and make you think the pattern itself has meaning, because it does.

3) You write in both prose and verse, how would you distinguish between the two? Do you cover the same subjects in prose and poetry or do you find that some things are better suited to one rather than the other?

I write two sorts of prose – creative and critical. And I write two sorts of creative prose: one being shorter pieces that are fiction/prose poem hybrids – lies, fables, whatever you want to call them: short short fiction seems somehow to over-emphasise the fiction. I also attempt to write longer fictions, but these are almost always derived from genre rather than from realist literary fiction.

So you could say that, without particularly meaning to, I’m resisting straightforward mimetic narrative. That would correspond to the way I handle narrative and indeed history in poems – as a way of reflecting on how pliable and multi-layered ordinary experience is, and how rigid and regimenting our reactions to it tend to be.

You can use a narrative voice and the feel of a story arc without your prose (or indeed poem) becoming novelistic. I often watch ten minutes or so of a film or series on TV without feeling the need to see the rest. I find I can often tell what that remaining part is likely to be, or imagine something else entirely, so my imagination seems to get what it needs.

I write critical prose in two ways as well: I blog in a speculative fashion about creativity, translation and contemporary poetry; and I write more academically-focussed work on the same subjects. My reviewing acts as a bridge between these two subtly different modes.

I suppose the blogging is an attempt to evade the goal-directed arguefying of academic discourse, the way it makes a definitive case in the correct tone in the right journals. I think teaching Creative Writing means you have to be more open – especially more open to a general readership than that, and that this openness is good for the discipline anyway.

So in both cases there’s a sensibility influencing my attempts to write prose which I could call poetic in the sense it resists easy or strict classification without rejecting the idea of classifying things altogether.’

4) You write poetry in both Scots and English, what does each language offer?  What do you think a poem like ‘Beaker Man (Dundee Man)’ gains from being written in Scots? Do you prefer writing in one language more than the other?

English is a world language so it offers you the world; Scots is the language of a small country so it offers you intimacy, and not just if you’re Scots – it’s like all those near-Englishes we speak that someone tells us aren’t quite ‘proper’.

English can go anywhere, contain anything, is almost infinitely flexible and curious; Scots can be, vividly, right here: that’s the way I try and use it in ‘Beaker Man’ – this skeleton is both impossibly distant in terms of who it is, and right here in front of us in terms of what it means.

Scots people don’t always use all the words we associate with Scots poems, but they often feel strongly about them, positively or negatively, and that can be interesting in itself, or it can swamp the poem. So you have to judge that carefully, but, usually, the poem has already declared itself to be in Scots or English before I’m conscious of any decision. ‘Beaker Man’, unusually, I decided would work better in Scots.

I don’t have a preference because I exist in both languages: the names ‘English’ and ‘Scottish’ are just end-points in a single seam of language. I don’t like my right hand or the right hemisphere of my brain any more than my left.

5) Poetry is often said to be untranslatable, what are your opinions on this? You co-translated the poetry of Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’, do you think that in translating his work it was made into something new? Has the process of translation affected your poetry in any way?

I’m always a bit bewildered by big categorical statements like ‘poetry is untranslatable’ – each and every poem can’t be translated into any other language by anyone at all? If they mean it’s probably quite difficult, I can confirm that it’s often pretty complicated because it’s not just about the meanings of the words, it’s also about their music, and what value different writers in different languages attach to poetry itself and to the particular patterns poetry tends to be written in in those languages.

It’s also about what the images stand for, what the audience is used to, and the really difficult thing is when you have to find equivalences for these – usually you’re translating culturally. But that’s what makes it so interesting.

With Gaarriye we’re talking about long oral poems usually recited to hundreds of people with a single alliterative sound recurring in every line and imagery often drawn from the rural landscape of Somalia – I had to make that work for about thirty to seventy people who’d never owned a camel and might be hearing this just once with a little bit of explanation (but not too much).

I realised that his writing was made strong and confident by its clear shape and its connectedness to his audience: they knew how he was doing it even when they were astonished by what he came up with. So I tried to make the translation argue very strongly and explain its images as it went (no footnotes on stage), and it did alliterate, just not as often, since that would sound too relentless (and a bit Beowulfish) in English.

It certainly changed my writing: I realised if you’ve made your pattern strong and your argument plain and your music distinctive, you don’t need to be too precious about being a poet because it’s not about you. The poem’s the thing.

(I’ll just interject there’s a couple of pieces on the Poetry Translation Centre website specifically about translating from Somali, including this essay.)

I would also like to say that I really enjoyed reading your poetry though I did find some of it a bit hard to follow and some of the references were lost on me, (I had to look up Deleuze, Foucault and Žižek all of whom appeared in ‘D-Blues’), I especially liked ‘Song of the Longboat Boys’.

I should say that poem with Deleuze and all was a bit of a joke, mentioning these literary theorists as though they were old bluesmen. It’s the same joke in the ‘Longboat Boys’, only there it’s that the Vikings were like the Beach Boys. Glad you liked it.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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