LIDIA VIANU -- NICK DRAKE
We live in an Age of Entertainment, and so a minor age for poetry
Interview with NICK DRAKE (born 1961), British poet and film-maker
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: I have a lot of personal and literary questions, which are closely connected, since your poems feed on your experience with ostentation. First, who is this grandmother who left Prague? You have written a lot about her and her poems are among the most impressive. Do you have Czech ancestors? Do they mean much to you?
NICK DRAKE: My grandmother was Anna Vondracek, the most basic biographical details are in the back of the book. She was my father’s mother, born in Prague, married an official at the British Embassy there, came to London with him and their two sons in late 1938 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. She became a seamstress at a London hospital. She lived the rest of her life in a tower-block flat, which I describe in several of the poems. As she grew older she became increasingly disorientated and confused, often forgetting to speak English, often thinking she was back home in Prague. She was a difficult, complex and compelling person, a central figure in my life. I was obsessed with understanding why she had become this strange person, and with the history of her and my father’s exile – and indeed with the dilemma of exile in general (hence the Mr Blatny poems, the gypsies in Spain, etc). I was very interested in the imaginative dilemma of a character caught between two worlds, in many ways opposites of each other historically. So I visited Prague both before and after the Velvet Revolution, learned Czech to a basic level at an evening class, made old and young Czech friends. I understood both my grandmother and my father far better for having visited Prague, a city which, in any case, is rich with the kind of imaginative complexities and ambivalences which I felt were driving my poetry. It was my Byzantium!
I also found my voice as a poet by writing about people. And, although I am not comparing myself, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies was a big influence; portraits rich in historical allusion and the complexities of memory, a sense of time shaping each mortal short story.
LV. You write about the death of several people you know and about the death of Romanian leader Ceausescu, too. Absence is a major topic with you. Do you consider yourself a sad or strong poet (maybe both)?
ND. I consider myself a person who writes as I can at the time about the things that obsess my imagination, using the materials of the times at hand. I do think this book is a largely a sad book, it is a book of history, of memory, of the recording and expression of the minor-key emotions associated with loss and absence. It records the lives of a number of the dead. I hope my new book will develop beyond that. I am trying to write about the experience of being alive, rather than the experience of the past in the present. However, I like minor keys; the dissonance and the ambivalence is more interesting.
LV. Your perception of Romania is very accurate and the poems you devote to Bucharest tower blocks and people imprisoned in them are effective, they convey the exact feeling of this place. How long did you spend in Romania and when?
ND. I visited Romania four times between 1990-1994. Visits of one or two weeks at a time. I set up a play writing workshop in which we asked UK playwrights to work with Romanian playwrights. We wanted it to be a creative challenge for both sides. We travelled to Bucharest, Sinaia, Târgu-Mures. The experience of meeting the Romanians involved in the project was a profoundly changing one for me. Here was an encounter with people of my age whose life stories were utterly different in many respects. The evolution of their lives was shaped differently, profoundly, painfully. And yet in many ways one didn’t want to eulogise or mythologise this – that would have been too romantic, a kind of western European ostentation to admire and celebrate the difficulties of life under Ceausescu; this is central to the subject matter of The Man in the White Suit (title poem). I find it difficult to describe, other than in the poems. It was a great challenge to me. The remarkable Corina Suteu in particular had a strong influence on me. I was fascinated by the different ways in which people had responded to or adapted to the adversities of living in Romania at that time. I was shocked by the conditions of life in some respects (although it was always winter when we were there) and amazed by the beauty of parts of the country. It was a fascinating time and I met some remarkable people, Marcel Tohatan, Horia Girbea. I am very very relieved you think my poems are accurate about the country, as my great fear is to write with the narrow prejudice of an outsider using people’s intimate stories for only my own ends. I hope the poems are sufficiently cynical or sceptical or humorous about my own role in their writing! This is important, whether in The Story Box or The Man in the White Suit.
LV. You make it a point not to start writing a poem before you have a story for it, like a kind of emotional planning. You are essentially lyrical, but your poems are suffused in narrative, in fiction. My theory is that contemporary poets (whom I have labelled Desperadoes because they will do anything to be different from one another, and this similarity in dissimilarity actually brings them together) offer more than a poem, they offer a biography. It may be their own or just an imaginary story, but the individual poem is caught in the web of fiction. Would you accept my describing your poetry as a net of narratives which catches colourful fish of emotion?
ND. I would accept that description, although I do not always know, or plan, the emotional story until it ‘writes itself’ in the slow process of composing the poem. I find I use narrative as a framing device, a way of magnetising the emotional and historical and imagistic elements of the poem together. A way of bringing diverse and divergent elements into a harmonic relationship. I am not, so far, a poet who does the other thing – using the structures of argument and rhetorical progression to structure the poem. I would like to have more intellectual rigour apparent in the structure of the poems, but I know I also respond to poetry that compels at the level of emotional progression.
LV. I have been advised to give up the word Desperado because it infuriates most of the writers today. Nobody wants to be part of a group to which somebody else belongs, and they also refuse the idea that they might be regarded as a Desperado in the meaning of American films. My meaning is somewhat different. I have in mind these writers’ courage to make their own law as they write, to discover their own new frontier, to fight all those who menace to follow. Solitude is a major contemporary feature. Unlike the others, you frown less, your poems are relaxed, even though intense. What is your reaction to this Desperado theory?
ND. I like the word Desperado – it has a frontier, individualistic adventure to it. Maybe people are wary of the hidden word ‘despair’ inside it? I have no sense of belonging to a group, only of writing myself, and knowing and following the work of a tiny group of friends who also write, who also are engaged with this strange thing, poetry. Generalising descriptions can bring with them both a revelation and a limitation, and perhaps poets in particular, who should have a profound sense of language, are cautious of the latter? I also think we live in an Age of Entertainment, and so a minor age for poetry. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it means we have the virtues of minor musical keys. But poetry, at least in the UK and US, is not integrated with mainstream discourse, nor is it generally valued for being marginal in a positive way. Compared with the modernist adventurers of the early part of the century, or with the great writers of the 18th century – Dryden, Pope, etc – we are in the margins of the great book of the times. And that can be a very interesting place to be.
One area of ‘Desperadoeness’ for me is writing about gay themes and stories. I don’t think many people are doing that. But I would hate to be called a ‘gay writer’. It’s limiting not liberating. It’s one area of experience, not a defining area. I found a great deal of puzzlement in Romania about being gay – not to say sometimes plain hostility! Perhaps this has changed. It’s not so very different in the UK.
LV. Your volume The Man in the White Suit (Bloodaxe Books, 1999) begins with a motto from Samuel Johnson about death: ‘...we shall receive no letters in the grave.’ Your book is very little of a letter to the grave, it is so full of life, but you do have this obsession with death. Did you mean it to be a memento, or was it an accident?
ND. The book, as it came together, turned out to be united by the theme of death. But as you very rightly say, the awareness of death gives, as its dark reward, a keener sense of the richness of life. That’s why I picked that motto. Also I had a spare page to fill, no new poem, and the publisher asked for one. It was the last thing to go into the book.
LV. The Iron Curtain is an implicit element of your poetry. You write when this curtain is supposed to have vanished, but there is an economic iron curtain which you perceive and render. It is part of the picturesqueness of ex-communist countries that they are different, that they have a bedroom of Ceausescu’s daughter or a People’s House built, as you say, on ‘seven thousand houses’. It is the charm of otherness, in a way. What exactly appeals to you in these former communist places that you describe? What makes them poetic to you?
ND. I am very worried about being picturesque about the places I write about. I want to be accurate as a photograph, but not from a tourist brochure; more like Wolfgang Tilmans! Trying to tell the truth about what I see, and how I came to see it as I see it. However, there were quite amazing things in Romania, both exceptional and apparently ordinary, that seemed like gifts for poems; sleeping in that bed, visiting families in tower-blocks, doing a tour of Bucharest by winter night in 1991. Of course there are equivalents in London – I have written about them too. The otherness is important too, it is to step through the mirror... Icons, for example, is a poem about the destruction of beauty in Bucharest. Of course, I had not seen what existed before, and almost all cities now, to some extent, are ruins of their former glory. The ruination is what interests me, I think, not the former glory. The places themselves are always, in my poems, used as the settings for the characters, not as things in themselves. The tension between person and place...
LV. Politics is a major interest in your lines, even though you never dwell on it explicitly. You mention the ‘Velvet Revolution’, the TV broadcast of the Ceausescus’ execution. You are highly interested in the image of the world on the screen, or so it seems to me. The screen is a major coordinate of your life. You make your poems into short films. Am I wrong? What is your everyday profession?
ND. Good point about the short film; that is a clever idea. The short journey-time of a poem is like that of the short film, it has to compel and shape itself within that frame. I do work in films, as a script editor. I am in charge of seeing the projects through from beginning to end, creatively.
LV. Christmas and your grandmother often come together in your lines. Is it a private memory or just a made up scene?
ND. The memories are as truthful as I can make them. The Christmases with her were difficult, plenty of very black comedy. Nothing made up!
LV. Have you ever contemplated the idea that you could have been born under communism unless your grandmother had become an ‘exile’? Or have I misunderstood those lines and they are not really autobiographical?
ND. I have also thought about never having been born, if she had not come to London. My father would never have met my mother. The chanciness of fate is a theme I am writing about a lot at the moment. There is another Nick Drake, a singer-songwriter who died young about 20 years ago. Sometimes people think I am him. So I have a long new poem about Not Being Nick Drake.
LV. Your Man in the White Suit is a desperately sensitive male who feels awkward and guilty. All your poems are supported by a secret and never explicit sense of guilt, which I detect in every situation you imagine. Could you explain that guilt, if you admit it is there?
ND. The guilt is the guilt of writing about other people, of using their lives to make something (the poem) for myself. The poem can never be adequate to the person to whom it is dedicated. The guilt is intrinsic to the whole process. There is an unresolvable and fascinating problem at the heart of it all, between the origin in life, and the way imagination and language translate this into poetry. It has to be registered at the heart of the act, or the poem has misled the reader and itself about its origins and its methods. There is always personal guilt too, in that one writes the poem but one may not be able to change the life of the person depicted. They may never even read it. The poem In Memory of Vincent Cox was written as an address to my oldest friend. It took years to write. I finally dared to show it to him last year and he was very moved. But he might not have been – he might have felt the poem was a betrayal.
LV. Your poems take place in a universal city, with a few London features and a very general feeling of out-of-nature. You are not a poet of pastoral landscapes. Would it be right to state that a street means more to you than a field?
ND. Yes, I find rural landscape is not a good subject for me. It doesn’t get me going poetically. Although I love other writing in that genre, like Elizabeth Bishop’s. I find our times are more distilled and present in the cityscape. Maybe one day I will be able to go back to the fields and the fetes champetres, but I’m sure they will be mass-produced harvests and huge steel barns and nuclear power stations by the sea.
LV. Is this an only volume of verse for you? Is poetry your calling or just a violon d’Ingres?
ND. This is my first true volume. Before that there was a pamphlet called Chocolate and Salt – some of the poems are in this book. I also wrote a book about Yeats. I am working on a new book now. It might be called On not Being Nick Drake. Poetry is my calling, yes. I do other, related things to make a living, which also feed back into the writing. I don’t want to be a teacher or a reviewer or a journalist, or even live the so-called Literary Life; so I prefer this. Wallace Stevens worked in insurance! Anything that gives access to life works for me.
LV. Your lines are amazingly and comfortably clear. Some of your contemporaries build poetry in a fortress of incomprehensibility and rejoice at their crossword puzzles. Some contemporary critics do exactly the same. What do you think of both poets and critics whose language is hard to understand?
ND. Thank you! I like a rich and complex clarity in writing. But I also love poets whose poetic language is idiosyncratically their own. Rich poems do take time to reveal themselves, that is in their nature. Obscurity pretending to be complexity, however, is a waste of space. There’s a style at work in some quarters, where meaning is broken down so far that all the poet has to do is assemble some poetical sounding phrases and present them as the work. What rubbish – poetry is about the articulate resolution of its own propositions.
LV. A last minute thought: could you sketch your life for the reader behind the stage, who would like to know Nick Drake the person, the biography behind the poems? And a reason for writing poetry?
ND. I write poetry because that is how I think and how I can think through my feelings and ideas. Poetry has a claim to truth, and I am trying to follow that path. I was born in 1961, grew up in a town north of London, my mother died when I was sixteen; life changed forever. I went to Cambridge University, studied English Literature, then went to help to edit the letters of Robert Graves living in a small house in the mountains in the south of Spain – near Granada. Very remote, very rural, very wonderful. Came back to London, worked at various odd jobs, decorating, etc; then started to read plays for the National and Royal Court theatres. Became literary assistant at the National Theatre, finding new writers and new work. Moved to the Bush Theatre as literary manager, commissioning new writing and putting on eight new plays a year with the artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole. Moved into the world of film about five years ago, now head of development for a large independent film company. That’s the facts! As for the rest – read the poems...
February 13, 2002