An Interview with Andrew Waterman
Andrew Waterman (www.andrewwaterman.co.uk) was born in London in 1940. He studied English at the University of Leicester, then went to Oxford to do a D.Phil, which he abandoned in order to accept a teaching post at the University of Ulster in 1968. On taking early retirement he left Ireland for Norfolk in 1998. He is the author of nine volumes of poetry, most recently Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2000) and The Captain’s Swallow (Carcanet, 2007), and is a recipient of the Cholmondeley Award for Poets. The Andrew Waterman Collection, an extensive literary archive, has recently been acquired by the University of Leicester. He has one son: me.
Rory Waterman: How do you feel about being interviewed by your son?
Andrew Waterman: Unfazed. Obviously, we know stuff about, and have emotions invested in each other, beyond the compass of a literary interview. But doing this, I feel I can be as professional, and as candid, as with anyone else. Of course, I don’t know what questions you’ll ask. If you get uppity, I suppose I can disinherit you.
Your first book, Living Room, was published in 1974 by George Hartley’s Marvell Press. Since that time, however, you have been with Carcanet. What occasioned this change of imprint?
I started late as a published poet. A shyness that prevented me sending anything to editors could account for that. After at 27 I did start, things went swimmingly. By 1972 I had enough poems, and enough already in periodicals, for a book. As I pondered where to send the parcel, a letter arrived from George Hartley, as poetry editor of New Humanist, inviting poems from me. Soon, Hartley asked if I had enough for a book he would publish under his Marvell Press imprint. Of course I knew Marvell had published not only Larkin but other distinguished poets, and that Hartley’s magazine Listen had been a platform of the ‘Movement’. His offer enabled me to leapfrog the nervy business of soliciting a publisher. George then lived in West Hampstead; I saw much of him when over from Ireland, and we got on. But I came to realise what years later I’d learn Larkin and Anthony Thwaite had also experienced: that George’s attunement to poetry consorted with dilatory organisation. Well, Living Room eventually appeared in1974. It was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and editors wanted my new work. In 1976, in a repeat sequence, an out-of-the-blue letter from Michael Schmidt asked for something to consider for his newly founded PN Review. Accepting my longish poem ‘North Derry Nocturne’, he asked if I’d a second collection ready, which Carcanet could
publish. I had, but was under contract to give Marvell first option, and George had undertaken to do it, but was being unsatisfactorily vague about when. I met Michael and it was obvious that, in stark contrast to George, his editorial flair combined with a zest for business reminiscent of a competitive child at a Monopoly board. I don’t know the details, but there ensued correspondence between Michael and George, which resulted in Carcanet publishing From the Other Country – a two-way title, true whichever side of the Irish Sea I was on.
It is interesting what you say about the title of your second book, From the Other Country. Your career as a poet really got underway after several years of living and working in Ireland, but you grew up a Londoner. Do you think this sense of dislocation was important to your poetry at the time?
Not just ‘at the time’. Feelings of ‘dislocation’ pervade my poetry. Living and working in Ireland, and during its ‘Troubles’, while also to-ing and fro-ing between it and England, certainly sharpened these. But there had been earlier formative ‘dislocations’: when, with no forewarning, my parents separated and my younger sister and I removed with mother from Woodford to Croydon, well, to you it’s all London, but to a primary-school boy it was into a different culture: the slang and playground games, the rules of marbles, were different. And all my old friends gone. A later ‘dislocation’ was walking out of my sixth-form course, and a few months later home, for years of miscellaneous jobs, including kitchen porter, bank clerk, bookshop assistant, while living in inglorious bedsitters. Poems I wrote, but didn’t then publish, during my English years before I got to Ireland, voice a soul screaming to burst free of the cage of London, its sprawl of concrete and commuterland. ‘I’m among, but not of all this,’ I phrased it at the time. I talk of circumstances; but perhaps a sense of estrangement is fundamentally temperamental. During those years I read the great Russian novelists. Characters in Turgenev disagreeing passionately about real things, like the meaning of life, while remaining intense friends. The English weren’t like that. Demur at anything, and they’d start shuffling uneasily from buttock to buttock. I wanted to live in nineteenth-century Russia, but lacked the means – the air-fare and a time-machine. Ireland, when it chanced along, wasn’t a bad substitute.
‘Disagreeing passionately about real things…while remaining intense friends’ doesn’t sound much like Northern Ireland in the years after you arrived.
With its murderous strife, bigotries, intransigence in politics, arising as elsewhere around the world where two sets of people believing they belong to different histories and cultures inhabit the same territory. But at the level of personal relations, I find the Irish more open about deeper feelings and carings than most English people, who typically retreat into small-talk. And less apt to bridle at dissent.
For my wedding in 2007, you wrote a very moving and serious poem called 'Happiness'1. You have, yourself, been married four times. How do you feel about marriage?
Narrowly construed, marriage denotes a legal contract directing the personal lives of its signatories. This only impinges when things go badly, and then I find it absurd and offensive that the state, in the person of some clerk or judge, can poke its nose into people’s intimate lives. Where there are children, the state must have a default role of intervention. But marriage is irrelevant to that. As for ‘marriage as an institution’ in a broader sense, stable family units conducive to a healthy society, in general yes, but many such units are hell for or harmful to those in them. I have personally cherished the ideal of a lasting relationship with one special person. For those who find this, I am glad. Rather than a legal, I crave a spiritual dimension to such a bond. But contemplating some couples who have invoked this through a church ceremony, I can’t believe any possible God could rejoice at their union. 1. Published in Agenda, Vol. 43, Nos. 2-3 (2008).
In your long poem ‘Out for the Elements’ you refer to ‘academic jackals’. You were an academic. How do you differ from what you discredit?
You filch my phrase from its context, in which a young Manchester woman talks of her children, some of whom it becomes clear have died, all in the present tense, ‘We’re five’, ‘they’re two, the twins’, as still alive to her. Here, my poem comments, is ‘life answering academic jackals / who, reading Wordsworth, have demurred / at “We Are Seven” as absurd’. Wordsworth, in his poem dramatising an encounter with a girl who talks comparably about her siblings, had the guts to risk being mocked. And now before me life had movingly vindicated him against those who have jeered. A wonderful moment. Of course, not all academics are parasitic scavengers, or vaunt themselves above literature’s great writers. Many love and respect it – are sensitive readers, valuable scholars and critics. And sometimes poets and novelists.
You are a very honest writer in many ways, but honesty can hurt. Have you ever published something and wished you hadn't?
I’ve only regretted publishing poems which have later seemed not good enough – hence the omissions from my Collected Poems of some things in previous books. I’ve never regretted publishing a poem because it might be hurtful to someone – including myself. In one poem, writing ‘and nothing admitted of ignominy and shame’ – Wordsworth again – I plainly convict myself of both. In A Sort of Life, Graham Greene famously wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ One is simultaneously inhabiting and observing one’s life. Weighing its creative potential. That doesn’t preclude empathy, Keats’s ‘negative capability’, which is also essential, as it is to responsive reading.
The book of yours that means the most to me is probably The End of the Pier Show, published in 1995. It is, in places, wonderfully candid. However, I know full well that through the early- and mid-1990s you were battling fairly severe alcoholism. I find it interesting that, firstly, you produced work of this calibre at such a time in your life and, secondly, your alcoholism has remained absent from your poetry.
Not quite: ‘Zugzwang’, in my 1990 collection In the Planetarium, talks of ‘Flexihour scotch, book-crawls, to fend it off.’ But like what was for much longer central in my life, university work, the drinking didn’t feed into poetry. I drank uncontrollably - but retained much control over the occasions when I drank. I never defaulted on lectures. It was an evening thing, developing when, after my child, yourself, was summarily removed to England, it was painful to be in what had once been the home where you’d played. And there was the stress of the difficulties I encountered over my visits to you. Such were the circumstances of that drinking – I don’t say its cause, for someone else the consequence might have been different. Those
circumstances are the ‘it’ my ‘flexihour scotch’ sought to ‘fend off’. My avoidance of home not only took me to bars, it kept me late in my office, where many of those poems you like got written. But inebriation blocks not only composition, but whatever sparks a poem off.
You moved to Norfolk in 1998. Has this move affected what ‘sparks off’ your poetry, do you think?
Not in terms of basic drives and preoccupations. But like Ireland, and London earlier, Norfolk has become a setting for, or has also prompted, poems. Even when a poem’s material has nothing to do with any place, it can get clothed in local details, so differs from what it would have been if written elsewhere.
But your most recent book, The Captain's Swallow, is set entirely in the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily. Why did you choose this restriction? Are you happy with the results?
Well, there you are: my Sicilian sojourns have had more impact on my poetry than living in Norfolk, though the River Wensum has been seeping into it recently. I first spent several weeks in the Aeolians in 2001, when I was learning Italian, and wanted time somewhere in Italy where not much English would be spoken. I got to know people there, loved the islands, and have been back every year since. The poems in The Captain’s Swallow were written from 2003 to 2006. My idea in excluding ‘non-Aeolian’ poems – not very many, in fact - I wrote during that period, was that thus the poems, though diverse in themes and mode, through their shared Aeolian setting and with specific characters and places recurring, might aggregate to make a unified impact as a book, beyond that conferred by being the products of a single sensibility. Usually, in the nature of things, a collection of poems consists simply of what one happens to have written since last time, juggled into an arrangement that somehow ‘feels right’.
Am I ‘happy with the results’? Yes. The Aeolian setting is not for me one which holds the long-ago memories and experiences which can nourish creativity, so lent itself less readily to a kind of introverted, recollecting poem that often features in my work. Though there are poems in the book – ‘Broom in May’, ‘Pecorini Mare’ – with such resonances. During my ‘apprentice years’ when I wasn’t publishing, poems came as a sprinkling among lengthy, if unfinished, novel-drafts. And in poetry since I’ve always liked doing things with characters and dialogue, including being funny. And bits of narrative. Territory traditionally proper to poetry, which its practitioners have sometimes relinquished since the novel came along. Anyhow, there’s much of all that in The Captain’s Swallow, as well as lyrical and evocative stuff among the exotic volcanic scenery, and delvings into the islands’ rich history. Though there are some darker tinges, it is probably my ‘happiest’ book – which readers may either like, or not.
In the poem 'Nocturne', which is in a sense about setting off home from Lipari, you refer to the Irish folk group The Dubliners. Something Irish, not English, seems to be in your thoughts as you return home from Italy.
‘Nocturne’ quotes a song from a Dubliners CD I was listening to on the occasion of that leaving of Lipari, as I got up in my apartment before dawn. The words my poem quotes, ‘But since it falls unto my lot, that I should rise, and you should not’, are in it not because they’re Irish, but because they voiced my feelings. English and Irish settings alike have come naturally to, and will continue to inhabit, my poetry. Even, in a recent poem entitled ‘In the Hereafter’, they fuse to vivify an imagined afterlife in which people from different times and places of my actual life consort together.
Interview by Rory Waterman.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.