Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- JULIA COPUS
The more I write, the more I value clarity.
Interview with JULIA COPUS (born 16 July 1969), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: There are two directions — broadly speaking — in poetry today (as always): the clear and the encoded. I should say you belong to the first. You have confession, tenderness and also images that render the first two impersonal enough. Should poetry bar understanding? How do you feel about poets who do not care enough about their readers to help them understand?
JULIA COPUS: I’m not at all keen on obscurity — or even ambiguity — for its own sake. I’m not sure what the point of it is — although I know there are some who think there is a point. Some writers — the so-called ‘Language Poets’, for instance — work from the premise that the meaning of a poem lies in the interaction between writer and reader. They purposely leave the connections between various elements open, so that the reader is forced to produce those connections himself. Personally, I find that sort of approach irritating. I do find that the more I write, the more I value clarity and accuracy. After all, what’s the point in saying something earth-shatteringly profound if no-one understands exactly what it is that you’ve said?
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with asking the reader to work a bit — by which I mean asking him to read the poem closely. It’s a shame when people feel that if a poem doesn’t yield its whole meaning immediately, then it has failed in some way, because most poems worth their salt require re-reading. This seems self-evident to me: poetry is a very condensed genre. I think the Poems on the Underground initiative was an inspired idea for that reason: when you are sitting opposite a cluster of words for the whole length of a journey, then naturally you are drawn into reading and re-reading them.
I do try not to clog up my own poems with impenetrable allusions which one needs a battery of reference books to tackle, but some allusions occur naturally within the course of writing a poem. In general I think the poet’s intention should be to assist the reader or to rouse his curiosity; not to annoy him.
LV. Do you favour confessional poetry? I must confess, when reading a poet’s work (chronologically, which is how I try to do it when possible), I look anxiously for his life. Not the story of his life (although I love that, too) so much as the stuff his days are made of. You are both an enigma and a confession. How do you manage to blend the two?
JC. I suppose by ‘confessional poetry’ you mean poetry which has the writer’s life as the central subject? I don’t favour that type of poem over any other, and I don’t see that there’s any significant difference between a confessional poem and a non-confessional poem: in both cases the writer makes an artifice of honesty.
I certainly don’t try to be an enigma. So it’s not really a question of consciously trying to blend the two. I just think there are many different ways to tell a story, and in a poem I’m only interested in one particular slant on that story, which means that certain aspects inevitably get foregrounded and others are left out completely. A lot of my poems are about the way in which we write our own stories, the lies we tell ourselves, and the broken, human ways we find for coping with the choices we make. In The Stone Diaries Carol Shields says, ‘Biography, even autobiography, is full of systemic error, of holes that connect like a tangle of underground streams.’ For me, these ‘errors’ are often more meaningful than the so-called facts.
I’m also interested in what the quantum-physicists call ‘shadow selves’ — the idea that with every choice we make our world splinters off from another world in which we made the other choice. I don’t know anything about the physics of it, but since the age of six — when my mother left home and took us with her — I have had this persistent feeling that there is another version of me who stayed behind at my father’s house and went on living the life I really ought to be living — a life from which I’d somehow come adrift. Maybe the feeling was there even before that. I know that as an adult there have been several times when I’ve felt that same sensation, like a switch in the points, and the faintest awareness of another self chugging quietly off down a siding. My most recent book, In Defence of Adultery, is full of such moments — an alternative life glimpsed in the dust kicked up at someone’s heel; a woman who walks out of a restaurant half way through dinner, leaving her other self at the table waiting for pudding…
LV. What should a poem do to the reader? Impress with emotion, offer a hard nut to crack, tempt with little stories?
JC. If the sound of a poem is sufficiently memorable that certain phrases lodge themselves in the reader’s mind, and if the poem also succeeds in moving the reader in some way — so that it stays with him and, even if only in a tiny way, alters his perception of the world, like a dream he can’t shake off — then I’d say it has done its job. Imagery is very important, I think. A brilliant image — like the pair of ragged claws in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ — is just very hard to forget. And because it provokes such a precise emotional response it seems to bring the whole of the rest of the poem to mind.
LV. What should poetry do if it means to survive, even broaden its audience?
JC. I think you have to start young, by getting people excited about poetry in the classroom. I have friends who are English teachers, and most (not all) of them know very few contemporary poems themselves, so how can they pass on any sort of passion to the children they teach? But the worst thing is that they’re not that enthused by the few poems they do come across — i.e. the poems they have to teach for GCSE — and on the whole I agree with them. It’s frustrating for me, because I know how much really excellent poetry there is out there which would be suitable — and far more engaging — for this age-group. So I think perhaps the advisors for whatever government quango it is that chooses poetry for exam syllabuses ought to be replaced.
I also think some hard work has to be done to disseminate the good stuff, to get the best poems out there and known about. At the end of the day, that’s the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference to public perception. I’ve already mentioned Poems on the Underground. Serious anthologies (as opposed to those of the 101-poems-for-cats variety) can be very influential too, and are a good way of introducing people to a whole range of poets under one roof. For contemporary poetry, Emergency Kit (ed. Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney) is one of my favourites. And Neil Astley’s two anthologies — Staying Alive and Being Alive — have been very successful in attracting new readers to poetry.
But I do think it’s an uphill struggle. People in other countries are far more passionate about poetry, and I’m not really sure why. Actually, even in Ireland poets are held in much higher esteem than they are here. There is an association of creative artists in Ireland called Aosdána, which exists solely to enable members to devote their energies to their art. And once elected, members receive an annual stipend for life. I can’t imagine that sort of thing happening in England.
LV. How did you start writing poetry? Was it a childhood longing, or did you discover it at some point in your life?
JC. I first started writing ‘seriously’ (sending poems to magazines and so on) in my early twenties. The book that started that process off — the first poetry book I really fell in love with — was Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems. I was twenty-two, and I’d never come across poems like these before — urgent, insistent, genuine, rhythmically supple. I’ve read other books since which have influenced me — probably far more usefully — but none that has provoked quite the same sort of exhilaration. Discovering poems like that is a rare experience, I think — like falling in love. It wakes something up inside you which until then you didn’t realise had fallen asleep.
I did write a lot as a child too. I still remember a poem I wrote when I was five, and the drawing that went with it! That poem has some mad phrases in it which do make a kind of sense but only on a basic, sound level — a bit like the nonsense words in Jabberwocky. I think maybe young children have a natural gift for poetry which, sadly, they seem to lose as they get older.
LV. Do you write on paper or on the screen? Has the computer changed your life in any way, or do you ignore its advantages for the sake of the act of writing with pen on paper? Can the internet become stuff for poems?
JC. I write letters and articles on the screen, but not poetry. For one thing, I always write a lot of drafts, and when I do this, I like to write the whole poem out each time, in order both to fix it in my head and to see where my hand catches on the paper, so to speak — which words it snags on. It’s also helpful to be able to look back at earlier drafts, and I can’t imagine ever being organised enough to save successive drafts on disk.
LV. What is the status of poetry today? It can’t be enjoyed the way Byron was enjoyed in his time. What has changed, in your opinion?
JC. I think Byron is a special case — a Cambridge-educated aristocrat who had an affair with his half-sister, and so on — he was first and foremost a celebrity. But how many people read Byron today? How many school or university syllabuses is he on? He hasn’t lasted half as well as some of his contemporaries.
There are all sorts of theories posited to explain poetry’s fall from grace in recent years (the way it’s taught in schools, our culture of instant gratification, the congestion of the entertainment market with TV, films, DVDs, CDs, the Web, and so on), and reading poetry certainly requires more effort than some of these passive, consumerist activities. But I think it’s also partly a question of exposure, and of promoting the right poems. When I give good contemporary poems to non-poet friends to read, they always (nearly always!) want to read more.
It does sometimes work to present poetry through more commercial channels, though. In 1995, Il Postino was a huge, huge box-office hit, and thousands of copies of Neruda’s poems were sold off the back of it. Neruda is a serious, complex poet — and a Chilean at that — whom virtually no-one in this country had ever heard of, and yet his books flew off the shelves. The same thing happened with Auden’s ‘Stop all the clocks…’ after Four Weddings And A Funeral.
Actually I don’t agree that poetry can’t be enjoyed as it was in Byron’s time. I think you have to believe that your art-form can speak to a broad number of people; otherwise you might as well give up. And while it’s true that these days poetry isn’t important to most people (only 5% of the poetry books sold in Britain are by living poets), to a few — to those who know where to find the good stuff — it is very important. And I think there’s a far bigger potential audience out there. I think it’s our responsibility to make sure the good stuff gets seen.
LV. Do you need a profession in order to feed your lines or the other way round?
JC. Some poets are bank clerks, some lecture in universities, some make their living from playing quiz machines (if he’s to be believed!), some don’t have a day job at all — and some (like Emily Brontë) only leave the house to stride across the moors. I suppose most poets are freelance these days, and earn a crust from workshops, readings, residencies and whatever scrag-ends they can pick up. I don’t have a day-job at the moment, but from September I’ll be working in a university for a while. It can be a fine balance, I think: you have to find what works best for you, what best keeps body and soul together. But there aren’t that many poets who use their profession as subject matter, if that’s what you mean.
LV. Is it a mistake to keep poetry far from the poet’s private life?
JC. I think the important thing is that a poem should contain some sort of truth, should ring true; and I think perhaps it is hard to do that if you are over-zealous about distancing the work from your private life. As writers, we can only ever say how it is for us (or for the characters we speak through), but the real value of the poem lies in what it means to the reader. To give an example, many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are intensely personal: he divulges his carnal desires, his most private thoughts and emotions (or at least he seems to). But the whole debate over who precisely he is addressing is an irrelevance, I think: the point is that we can read the sonnets today and imagine speaking them to our own lovers and friends. As readers, we automatically put ourselves in the shoes of the speaker or the spoken-to.
LV. Can literary criticism help a poet? Does it help him today? Can a poet survive without help from critics?
JC. A brilliant review in the centre pages of The Sunday Times can help, of course — mainly because it makes a big difference to sales, and therefore (we hope) to readership — but reviews in small journals aren’t really important in terms of reputation. Now and then a new book — or maybe just a single poem — catches the public’s imagination without any of that kind of help. I’m thinking of Jenny Joseph’s Warning — ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…’ — which was voted the ‘Nation’s Favourite Poem’, where the public get to nominate their favourite poem via a live TV poll (another well-intentioned but misguided initiative, since it neither introduces new poems to the existing audience, nor introduces new audiences to poetry, but enough said…). When a poem takes off like that, I always hope people will go out and buy the whole book, and not just a poster or t-shirt with the poem on, but I think that’s wishful thinking on my part. Jenny Joseph has written many other poems — and many of them are much better than Warning, I think. I had one of them (The Sun Has Burst The Sky) read out at my wedding.
LV. The literary critic is being replaced these days by the editor. You need an editor more than you need critical opinions. Books find their way once they have been printed. How do you find your way in this complicated world of publishing houses and editorial contacts?
JC. There will always be literary criticism — it’s as inevitable as breathing, as T.S. Eliot once said. I don’t think the literary critic is being replaced by the editor or that you need one more than the other; I think they have two quite distinct roles and are important at different stages. It’s true that the editor enables the poems to be published in the first place, but a critic can influence what happens afterwards — how many books are sold, and therefore how many people get to see what you’ve written.
I’ve never found the publishing world particularly complicated. I first met my publisher at a prize-giving evening for a competition I’d entered. I was too nervous to read out my poem so he read it for me. Afterwards, while still at the microphone, he turned to me and said, ‘I hope I didn’t mess up your beautiful line endings.’ Now I know that he says that to all the girls.
LV. Since you are both clear and personal (within reason) in your poems, I would like to know your opinion on encoded poetry. This is how the interview began, and this is how it should end: does a poet have any excuse for hiding from the reader’s desire to know him as a human being, with a story?
JC. I don’t think poetry is about telling one’s life story. Poets make things up in much the same way as novelists and playwrights and song-writers do. In all these genres it’s possible to get the sense of the writer as a human being, but for some reason people tend to think of poetry as more of a cry from the heart, untainted by invention; they think that it should tell a literal truth, stick to the facts. I don’t understand this at all. It was T.S. Eliot (again) who said, ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things’. I think that about sums it up.