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GEORGE SZIRTES

 

LIDIA VIANU -- GEORGE SZIRTES

 

I think the problem with us Desperadoes is that we constitute too diverse a landscape for now                       

Interview with GEORGE SZIRTES (born 29 November 1948), British poet

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

and in The European English Messenger XI/1, Spring 2002, pp. 51-58

© Lidia Vianu

 

 

LIDIA VIANU: I cannot help thinking of Blake and Alasdair Gray when I think of your poetry. Blake, because he was an engraver and highly visual, though totally different from your more modern art, closer to film than traditional painting, and Gray because he was a painter, and also the author of a remarkable dystopia. Your whole poetry could be looked upon as a gentle dystopia, if there is such a thing. You create a waterfall of images which take care of their coherence themselves. You are at the same time visual and narrative. I call this a Desperado feature, concealing lyricism in what is apparently the property of another art, and also mixing many genres, even arts into one. Do you feel more than a poet – meaning, also a novelist, painter, historian, geographer – when you think of your work? Is hybridization of genres something you have devised deliberately, or did it come naturally, as you went on writing?

 

GEORGE SZIRTES: I think you have asked the most intelligent questions I have yet been asked and also the most difficult. You must be a remarkably perceptive reader so I feel flattered. I will do my best to answer you.

            I admired Blake enormously when I was a student and still do. Being trained as a painter he was an obvious model and especially attractive because of his visionary approach to Christianity. A little background here. You may know that I am completely self-taught as a reader and writer. My last school exams under the A level system we have here in England, were in Physics, Chemistry and Zoology. I was a precocious learner in Budapest and a very early reader (reading fluently by two, according to my parents). I was also very successful in Hungarian school. When we first arrived in England I picked up the language so fast that within a year I was top of the class of English children. My parents’ hopes were therefore very high, and they saw me as a doctor or an academic. However there came a period of reaction into relative mediocrity. I think I disappeared off the intellectual map for a number of years in my middle to late grammar school years, but because my parents retained their earlier hopes they insisted I continue along previous lines. I was not a good science student. I passed everything but not with high grades. At the same time I had begun to write and, because I had time to spare, I was sent to do Art again. Suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, I found I was good at painting and drawing. I had dropped Art as a school subject when I was fourteen and was considered clumsy at that stage. From the first time I read a poem seriously, however,  I knew I wanted to be a poet and now I had the opportunity of being an artist as well. My parents were not happy about it, but I went to art college and studied Fine Art. While studying I met my wife, Clarissa, also a painter (and still practising as one now), fell in love and underwent a deep religious experience of a specifically Christian kind. I was married and baptised (by full immersion) in the same year. This was the time I came across Blake. I had also come to admire the early Chagall (I must emphasise that it was only the early Chagall, the later works I considered even then somewhat woolly and sentimental). I knew nothing of Alasdair Gray.

            My poetry at the time was not as it appeared in my first books later. It was more directly ‘visionary’ and absorbed elements of Blake, Rimbaud and was beginning to absorb Eliot too. The poems were not dystopic: they tended towards the spectacular. Dead bodies leaked diamonds, and so forth. The love poems (I have written these from the very beginning) were, I think, highly sexual but, as you remark, tender at the same time. This did not make for conventional Christianity in the English tradition, and I distrusted the few places where it might have fitted – with the tradition of Eric Gill and David Jones for instance.

            I never made a conscious effort to be visual, nor at that stage, to be narrative either. I think the poems were probably over-active, overexcited. The darker side of Blake disturbed me. It was a different matter later. The change came in the mid-seventies, shortly after my mother’s death, as I have written elsewhere. What I was most concerned to avoid was that which struck me as untrue. I had begun to write because I wanted to tell the truth as I saw it: complex, contradictory, difficult, beautiful and disturbing. That was my first and most important perception. I had not begun to articulate the darker places of the world at that stage in my early twenties, perhaps because I didn’t know how to, and because I believed that personal love might be an adequate defence. Of course only half of me believed that. Perhaps I could return to the question of dystopia later. The ‘gentleness’ seems to be a constant quality, though, as you have seen, there are savage violences in the poems, and, occasionally, in the voice of the poems too.

 

LV. A Desperado is, more often than not, displaced. You are twice displaced: from Hungary to England, from painting to poetry. Is displacement a source of tension or a good starting point for poetry, in your case? Is it a reason for tension? I have in mind writers like Ishiguro, Rushdie, Lessing, Ondaatje. To them, displacement is a fertile wound, it keeps bleeding into fiction. Your displacement is so much more discreet. Would you say you feel you have anything in common with other displaced writers?

 

GS. This is a very difficult question to answer from the inside. I have no doubt that displacement is a central issue in my poems, even those that are not directly concerned with the theme. I should perhaps feel more in common with Ishiguro, Rushdie and the others you mention, than I do. I love the first two Ishiguro books, and am fascinated by the last one. I think the work of W.G. Sebald is in some way close to mine. (One of the two long poems in my next books is dedicated to Sebald). I am uncomfortable about groupings such as the one you suggest while appreciating that such groupings are rational steps. I have never actually TRIED to be a foreign writer. I wanted to be an English one. The success might lie in the failure.

 

LV. Your poetry relies on sensibility and silence. You see and write, although, if you decided to state plainly what you felt, the storm would be devastating. But you do not really confess. You invoke kindred spirits (family and readers). Desperadoes usually ignore confession. They prefer a no man’s land, wherefrom they manipulate the reader unseen. You manipulate your reader by making him travel in your imagination. Your poetry is a magic carpet flying over the earth, all earth, even though some call it just Europe. I think you have the Renaissance calling of the universal man (maybe this is one reason why you both paint and write). Do you feel richer than a poet born in the land he is writing about, knowing and writing about no other space?

 

GS. I often envy the poet working in the place where he is born. Gabriel Fitzmaurice, to whom the first of the three ‘Hungarian Sonnets’ is dedicated, is precisely that. A lovely man, he has certain advantages, the most important of which is his ability to resonate with the music of time and place, in his case a small village in County Kerry, Ireland. I think of this as the kind of place where song is born. My disadvantage is that I cannot write the songs of the tribe. I feel excluded from it. Nevertheless I feel I know something the tribe can only guess at, which is to my advantage. At the same time it strikes me as unfitting and even dishonest to proclaim this ‘advantage’ as it is due to no virtue of mine. Hence the silence. Hence too the invoking of kindred spirits. The kindred spirits are as disorientated as I am – deep down – by life, and find it as dreamlike. I can only hope that these spirits have a small residence in the minds of those more deeply rooted, such as Gabriel. As to the magic carpet my imagination is naturally wild and erratic. That is how it appeared in my first poems long before publication. The craft of the poetry is a way of exercising some control over them and, at the same time, showing some courtesy to the tribes I must deal. Form  is, I believe, a kind of courtesy.

 

LV. Your poetry swims in many people’s works, faint echoes of T.S. Eliot, Auden, Wordsworth, Peter Porter and so many others. What are your literary roots and who, do you think, influenced your poetry?

 

GS. My first great literary experience was in fact Eliot. I had read many other poets before him but in The Waste Land I found a landscape that corresponded to a certain element of my own life. More than Wordsworth, Coleridge has moved me deeply. It may be the Germanic element in Coleridge, whose best poems remind me, perhaps irrationally, of fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm. I loved the late more obscure romantics, such as Beddoes and Ransom (John Crowe, the American) because of their mannerly strangeness. I loved these more than the poets of reason. I love the grotesque in Pope and Swift and Rochester. I must somehow reconcile this with the tender religious feeling of Herbert. Auden is a great hero of mine because of his gift of phrase and his lyric gift, not so much because of his Goethean wisdom. For the same reason I admired Brodsky and Hecht and Fenton in England. They understood darkness and could counter it with wit. They were also Europeans, and I am, I think, above all, a European. All that is good and all that is evil reside for me in the heart of Europe. Intellectually I understand there may be greater saintliness and greater viciousness in Africa or South America but none of that strikes as close to my heart as Europe.

 

LV. Your poems narrate a story of solitary loss. The reader travels across images, and after a while he realizes the images are islands which make sense, cohere into a soul. The Slant Door claims that ‘the greater power lies in quiet.’ You are indeed, a quiet poet, whose poetic loneliness forces a new experience on the reader, that of isolated reading, a reading experience in which even the poet steps aside, offering incidents and sights, expecting a totally independent reaction. You manipulate your readers into feeling independent when they are not. This is a very complicated dance. Are you aware of your dissimulated technique of persuasion? Is it an instinct or an aesthetic strategy?

 

GS. I think you are absolutely right and it frightens me. I think that my ‘self’, in so far as I can conceive its existence, is a detached, hovering thing. I am acutely aware that this is not the impression I make in person, but I think the person I have become – the interface – is a learned process. Being so uncertain of my own essence I feel some diffidence about offering that person as a subject. I am sceptical about myself. I suspect it may be very important for me to remain sceptical. Thus, I can make general observations about myself or about the persona that appears in the poem, but I must treat these generalisations with a certain disdain. The cavalier phrasemaker – like Porter, like Auden, like Pope – keeps an eye on the romantic nightmarish and the sentimental lover. That is as far as I am aware of what you call my ‘dissimulated technique of persuasion’. But this awareness does not consciously influence the process of composition. Such checks and balances operate under semi-conscious conditions only, and it would be impossible to write otherwise.

 

LV. Background Noises prompts the reader to do a very un-Desperado thing: ‘Hold off the intelligence and listen.’ Irony is not a refuge for you. Your poems are compassionate.  Your lyricism is considerate. Even your pain is veiled by a screen of decency. This is remarkable, considering the indecent rage of Desperado poets. Your fists are clenched, but the images you draw with them are ethereal. How do you combine the intensity of experience with the mildness of your poetic diction? Is it your nature to be soft, or do you want your readers to feel free from the poet’s turmoil, and just enjoy the sights?

 

GS. In view of the above you might see why I want to hold off the intelligence. I think the intelligence is too awkward an engine to probe the areas that seem important to me. And so is the ego that might fuel me with indecent rage. I am not the only person in the world, and the doubts I have about my own person are only valid for me. I cannot assume that the subjectivity of others is as ethereal as mine is. In any case I like the tangible world. Like most poets I am a sensualist of sorts. My ‘consideration’, and I would regard it as a compliment to be considered considerate, arises, if it exists, from childhood with a sick, passionate, often irrational but heroic mother. ‘Whatever you feel cannot compare with what she has undergone and continues to undergo’. One’s own feelings enter a kind of anaesthesia, which is very much like dreaming. As a young poet I was a soft poet who sometimes wrote hard, I think I am perhaps a harder person now who can afford to write a little – but only a little – softer. Relatively few  of my critics / reviewers comment on my ‘tender’ feelings, indeed there are some who cannot locate my feelings at all. They think I write at a peculiar distance. I suspect they are right. But that is no reason why those around me should be confronted by that distance. That is what they don’t understand. I don’t feel I am, nor intend to be, a comforting POET, but as a man I cannot see why I should not strive to be so. Easy comfort in art is no comfort at all.

 

LV. There is an air of life-after-death in your poems. The Shared Bath mentions the ‘intimacy of skulls.’ Your write secretive verse, and past death is your secret. As we read along, we discover traces of unbearable violence. I have often thought of Chagall while reading your verse. You have the same horror-struck dreaminess. The two should not go together, but you manage to melt them in the same pot, so the reader does not even realize that he is being initiated into nightmare. Your poetic manner is devious. Are you writing about direct experience (actually I know you are not), and, further, how do you make this horror you have never experienced on your own the stuff of such intimate emotions?

 

GS. ‘Horror-struck dreaminess’ is a wonderful phrase and I think you are very clever to have used it here. I think it is absolutely right. The world is beautiful and that is dreamy, but because it is dreamlike it is not to be trusted. There are terrors. Whether these are terrors of my imagination or of the world outside I do not know. I think I have been infected by terrors through my parents, but I am not terrorised by them. It may be that one of the key intimate poems relating to this question is ‘Against Dullness’  (p14 of Short Wave, p18 Selected Poems). In the poem my wife has just come in from the rain and has sat down in the armchair. I remember the occasion well. The discolouration and discomposure of her rain soaked coat and damp hair made me think for a second of the skeleton of the mother in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but an instant later the overt gothic horror of the film image gave way to an unwilling apprehension of the given horror, the sheer ambivalence of the world.  The last three lines of the poem are the most important, in that they hold true through everything I have written. The enormous pity of the world in which rain leaves such dark stains moves me more than anything. The dystopia you mention is always a possibility: the poems fear that it may be the true state of the world but are unwilling to assume so. Dystopia, as an idea, is too easy, too much of a gesture. I dislike consciously constructed dystopia for that reason. Dystopia as an apprehension is far more forceful and credible.

 

LV. Your love poetry is shy and yet bold. Is love an important topic with you? Do you think a poet should write some love poetry in his life, or is love to be shut out of verse? In good Desperado tradition, love is not your major issue. At the same time, you smash it into splinters and sow it in every line. You seem to be a most affectionate being. Do you write with your sensibility, mind, eyes, memory?

 

GS. My three part ‘collected poems’ will have as its third part the collected poems on love, desire and art, which are, for me, part of a single pattern. The equation I automatically assume, which echoes something of Blake, says Desire is Fire and Energy; but Love is  deeper and steadier. It demands virtues whereas desire demands chiefly energies. Life must embrace the tension between the two. By desire I mean primarily sexual desire, but also that deep desire for whatever is Other and alive as an idea. On this basis Death is perfectly alive as an idea.  If Blake could maintain this tension in his life it might be possible for others. I saw how deeply my parents loved each other despite their difficulties and furies. Yet desire must keep its edge, and live on the excitement provided by the fear that accompanies it. I think if I failed to keep the tension up I would be poetically dead.

 

LV. The Photographer in Winter quotes Orwell in its motto. Budapest is your dystopia and utopia at the same time. Memory is also both these things. You cleverly resort to indeterminacy in order to keep your distance from despair. A line states, ‘What seems and is has never been less certain.’ Your whole poetry slips into that statement. Your poetic mood is slippery like an eel, it will not strike roots in words. You stumble over colours and shapes, you choose the least obvious, offensive or aggressive words, and the result is initiation into disaster. Desperadoes are great lovers of displacement into dystopia. How would you describe your inner world and the way you choose into poetry? What is your aim? To warn, strike terror, soothe, entertain, or imprint your seal on the reader’s soul forever?

 

GS. Budapest is the locus of uncertainty, its emblem. I love it and distrust it as much as I love and distrust language itself (see ‘English Words’, in Selected Poems). Budapest is an overt carrier of historical and personal meanings. The meanings are there in the way the statues emerge from the walls and the way the walls collapse. I think I say somewhere in Bridge Passages (it’s in The Flies): ‘What the wall thinks is my concern’. I don’t know how I would describe my inner world. The poems do that. My aim? To make a world I can believe in. I want others to believe in it too, because, for all its horrors I suspect it may be a better, more comprehensive world than those we normally tend to offer each other. I certainly don’t want to soothe the reader but I am not setting out deliberately to shock him  or her. I want the reader to become more human, more humane. I want the reader to understand what the walls seem to be saying.

 

LV. Your personal history seems highly interesting, yet you never reveal it. You offer older photographs, black and white memories, in exchange. Do you deliberately avoid being personal? All Desperadoes do. You always find ‘bridges’ to cross the river of life into hell. How do you manage to deal with serenity with such experiences that, if put into direct words, would make anybody’s hair stand on end?

 

GS. I do avoid being personal. I don’t want to get in the way of the walls. I am really not important and that is the central paradox of the poems: we are vital yet we don’t matter at all; death is terrible but it is the most natural thing in the world. These are very common sense paradoxes really. I don’t talk about myself because I think I am as lucky as a man can be. I have an apprehension of the terrible which is unusual in the way it has developed, but I don’t feel I am a victim of it. It is precisely because I am not a victim that I feel a certain responsibility to those who genuinely are. I have very little patience with the cult  and cultivation of victimhood.

 

LV. In The Courtyards you write a few lines which sum up the mood of your whole poetry: ‘As if the past could ever lose its teeth:/ As if the eye could swallow everything/ and leave the world in darkness.’ The intensity of your sensibility drains the reader, and also regenerates him, gives him strength. I should describe you as a very vital poet. What is the source of this vitality? Your nature, your art, your having survived a hell so many fell into, your narrow escape from communism?

 

GS. I can only hope for vitality. I feel vitality but cannot ever be certain that I can convey it. I am far from being a shamanistic poet, or perhaps it is simply that I think it is bad luck to talk of powers when all you might have are desires, but that does not mean that I don’t think poetry has a genuine healing function. It does, but not as therapy. The great healing act of poetry is to bridge the gap between language and what happens. That is its project. But it would take a monster, a fool, or an egomaniac to think that he or she was actually succeeding in healing the world or even to consider the healing of the world as the project of their verse. I am not only sceptical about my own altruistic motives but am as superstitious as any other real poet about such things. My tutor at Leeds was a marvelous poet called Martin Bell. He once told me he could cast a curse on someone and bowed three times each night to the moon. I don’t think he was in the least foolish. Even answering all your questions may be flirting with bad luck.

 

LV. The Child I Never Was states, ‘The child I never was makes poetry.’ You do look at the world with the tolerance of a helpless child. You do not expect your reader to explore your text, the same as you do not mean to explore innovation as a full time activity. You are not mainly interested in technicalities. What I think your really are after is to secure a tender surrender to your poetry. The reader must use his intuition. Eliot used to say that poetry could communicate before it was understood. You are past him, you are a Desperado, which means you are keen on making yourself understood. Clarity is a prerequisite with you, but depth is another matter. Would you contradict me if I stated that you never write as a child, but as a very shrewd painter? That you are very much aware of your art? That you mix literature (poetry and fiction), painting, photography, meaning to get thereby a unique species?

 

GS. Yes, you are right, there is a helpless tolerant child there, and I do hope to secure a tender surrender. That, I think, is the Eros of poetry. And of course there is a perfectly shrewd adult individual watching the helpless tolerant child. I would be nothing better than a con-man, a bare faced liar,  if I pretended to be nothing but a helpless tolerant child. Do you know the Sindbad stories of Gyula Krudy? I translated them into English. Sindbad the hero is a three hundred year old amorist. He is both a child who wants to please his mother and an ironic old ghost who revisits his seductions. I am not quite a ghost yet and I know I am an adult male and father of two grown up children. In this respect I understand pretty well what I am. Clarity is precious, but depths – it is their nature – are murky. I have no conscious project to create a single art out of literature and the things my own literature refers to. The other arts are illuminating. I want the clarity to go as far down as it possibly can, and the other arts help.

 

LV. Your mother was born in Cluj, I think. Since I live in Romania, I have a predictable question: After visiting Romania, probably after meeting your one Romanian relative, how do you feel about it as a country, a space of the past and of the present?

 

GS. When I first visited Romania in 1993, it was a very dark and disorientating experience. I was shocked by the conditions people lived in, by their fear and demoralisation, by the sheer physical chaos. It was what I sometimes feared my own mind could become. I wanted to get out. The poem Transylvana was the result. Its horrors are part-comical part-lyrical. When I revisited in 1997 on a British Council tour and attended the conference at Oradea, conditions had improved somewhat. As often happens with poets’ imaginations, place and person overlap. Romanian Brown is a mixture of landscape, politics and enchantment. It was an echo of some chaos in myself, therefore exciting. I very much liked many of the people that I met on my tour. Romania’s material state, its history and its current position are only relatively familiar to me, but I have read a number of Romanian poets: Tartler, Dinescu, Crasnaru, Sorescu, Nina Cassian and Denisa Comanescu, among others, and my sense of Romania is coloured by them. Whether this is a valid sense of place or not I cannot tell, but it seems potent.

 

LV. You talk about ‘the accident of being who one is.’ You have crossed the iron curtain and were brought up in England. Which is not always the same as saying you are an Englishman. How well have you adapted to your country of adoption? You are haunted by a past ‘which remains forever another place.’ Your poetry strives back to Budapest and the lost family. Where exactly do you belong, where do you feel at home?

 

GS. I don’t know the answer to this one. I am trying to answer it for my own sake. The next book is an attempt to do so. I feel the typical patriotism of the immigrant. I am fiercely defensive of England. At the same time I recognise I am not of it nor will ever entirely be so. I want to love the people and the land and the history and the culture and I am partially successful in this. At the same time there is much I do not like and feel limited by. I regret its caution, its empiricism, its insularity, its class system, its leadenness, its general middle greyness. But it is also the country of eccentrics, of mad heroic projects, of extraordinary inventions, or remarkable tolerance. And it offered and continues to offer safe harbour and stability to many, including myself. My good friend, the Hungarian poet Ottó Orbán, drew a little picture for me by way of dedication to one of his books. He showed a cloud between England and Hungary, with an arrow saying ‘You’. Maybe. In the last section of the biggest single poem of the next book (25 poems in 5 sections, all in terza rima)  England is destroyed by five apocalypses. I myself don’t know what to make of this, but I wrote it and, I think, wrote it as well as I have ever written anything, so it must mean something to me.

 

LV. Just like Chagall, even though you never write about it very explicitly, the tragedy of the wandering Jew is the central theme of your sensibility (if I am not wrong). As a line says, ‘The crematorium waits, the oven burns.’ Your horror goes beyond the pogroms in Chagall. If the Russian painter was flying above a nightmarish village, you have a whole ‘holocaust’ to hover above, and the task is exhausting. So you conclude by feeling ‘The horrible familiar stench/ Of loss.’ A true Desperado, you assume and intellectualize history. But now, in an interview, not in poetic language, how do you feel about this particular history, which has darkened the life of your family, even yours, your memories at least? How come your poetry never flares against this injustice, just registers it in whispers?

 

GS. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ wrote Auden. ‘It is a way of happening. A mouth.’ This may not always be true but sometimes I think it is right for it to be a way of happening and a mouth. It is quite certain that the lives of people of my parents’ generation and location were lived in conditions of insecurity, murder, paranoia and genocide. The darknesses of my life are less definable than theirs. The Holocaust’s shadow does not lie directly across my face as it did on theirs. It does not look so well, so right, on me. If I want to fight against injustice I feel I should do so through actions. My generation is capable of action. But action is ambivalent and dangerous and I feel it is therefore very important to talk in a clear level tone. I hate being swept away on potentially false emotions, even when generated by myself. I have an apprehension of disaster. I have not deserved a medal for surviving it.

 

LV. In A Greek Musée, you describe life as a ‘footnote/ to unwritten literature.’ It makes me think poetry is vital to you. The reading experience you prepare is far more important to you than your own life, which is to be used as a footnote, not as a major code. Your poetry is and yet is not at all autobiographical. You decant real life into words, for the benefit of those who read you. What is your image of your ideal reader?

 

GS. Yes, poetry is vital to me. I equate it with truth and I feel truth to be wonderfully and dangerously complex. I feel uncomfortable talking about my own life in literary terms. It seems I have been to certain places and seen certain things, but the meaning of these things is complex. My ideal reader is someone capable of sensing the complexity – the paradox of the preciousness yet disposability – of what happens and to whom it happens. I would like the poetry to heighten his or her sense of their unique tiny position in the world. To turn my life into an anecdote would be to lie about it.

 

LV. English Words states, ‘I cannot trust words now.’ You are everywhere mistrustful of words, pushing meaning into image, incident, history. The word is replaced by understatement. What is your reaction when critics (and interviewers) probe your texts in hopes of finding something intelligent to say? Are you angry? What is the ideal critic like, in your expectations?

 

GS. All I expect of my critics is intelligence and a careful ear. Then they can say what they like. I say this without any flattery but you seem to me amongst the most intelligent and understanding of my critics. I trust you to respond in whatever way suits you best. I am not the keeper of a secret that others must solve. I am not a setter of crossword puzzles. I don’t know the answers myself. I don’t even believe there are firm answers to the questions people ask of literature or writers. There are only more or less convincing readings, including the writer’s own. Nor can we always be sure why we find one reading more convincing than another. I suppose it would help if the critic felt something of the gentleness with which I would actually like to treat the world. It is not that the world is treated gently in my poems, it is simply that the desire to treat it gently matters. It has had a pretty rough time. There are human creatures living in the big, rather dark, but mannerly structures of my poems: those structures are supposed to represent the structures of a possible real world.

 

LV. In Transylvana you write, ‘The dead/ drive dangerously among the living.’ Your poetry is such a race, a risky race (you state somewhere you love taking risks), a challenge to text-diggers. The result is, in Soil, that home ‘is nowhere to be found.’ You are fifty-two now. Between displacement (in childhood) and your permanent dystopic memories, have you at last reached the feeling that you belong, and that your world is acceptable? How would you describe yourself as a poet today, in English literature, in England as a space, among (the) other Desperado writers in England?

 

GS. The risks I take don’t look that much like risks at first sight. I am not an avant-gardist (I even think it somewhat too safe being an avant-gardist). I am polite, even courteous in my writing.  There is, perhaps, an air of diffidence. The risks are to do with speaking quietly and walking in big buildings. I sometimes think of my poems as buildings, in fact of the whole project as a building (a tenement block perhaps) somewhat to the side of the main stream of English verse. I don’t fit most of the available categories, but I don’t seem to make a fuss about it, so people hardly notice I don’t fit. I don’t speak FOR a specific group or tribe so am not, as one friend at the BBC once told me, USEFUL. I am, therefore, a semi-derelict building round a bend of the river. I think I am resigned to this. I think the problem with us Desperadoes, to adopt your term, is that we constitute too diverse a landscape for now. It might be – and I must live in that hope – that the landscape we make might later appear more substantial in its weirdness, and that someone sometime might make a proper city of it. In the meantime I am fortunate to be able to build anything at all, and even more fortunate that it is at least visible from the river. Nobody has ever suggested that I can’t build.

 

LV. Your poetry is a ‘craft’ which your have learnt, as you say. Your music is discreet and haunting. You write sonnets, you do not abuse rhyme, on the contrary, it seems to me you do everything in your power to conceal it. Yet you feel you have to use it, to continue the craft. The poetic tradition means something to you. The blend of tradition and Desperado leads to a chameleonic text, which requires subtle readers. Subtlety is one of the major features of your poetry. Subtlety is the major Desperado mood. Whatever they do, they want to do it unnoticed. You are a concealed, devious, highly resourceful Desperado. At the end of this interview, would you flatly reject this label, maybe hesitantly accept it or suggest another?

 

GS. If that is what a Desperado is then I accept the title. I am puzzled however as to how one should reconcile the deviousness with the clarity. Or is that just more deviousness?

 

February 10, 2001