Ten Questions

For Tony Williams. Tony lives and works in Sheffield, UK. He is researching contemporary poetic practice at Sheffield Hallam University and has published poems in the Times Literary Supplement, Anon, Matter, The Printer’s Devil and elsewhere. Many thanks to Tony for the interesting insights and perspective he offers below and for being Part 5 of this ongoing series.  (The ten questions, with past and upcoming contributors are here.)

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

This is difficult territory to traverse because there are two activities going on, the theoretical/political/social and the technical, what you think and how you write. The irrelevant poet is someone who is only interested in poetry and not in the relations that poetry might have to the world. The earnest boring poet is someone who is primarily driven by the theoretical/political side. But it isn’t a question simply of avoiding those extremes. The relation of craft and content, or of practice and theory or however you want to phrase it, is delicate and inscrutable.

It seems to me that the poet needs to be basically in thrall to technique, interested in how to write and in what makes good writing, but part of what makes a good writer is bringing one’s intelligence and writing skill to bear on the world outside poetry. The best poets re-imagine the world, or imaginatively reconfigure the world, and it seems to me that neither the poets who bang on about their own feelings and personal relationships nor the ones who seek to make political points or exemplify political systems are doing that to any appreciable degree.

It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters. The poems I write with too fresh an impression of an extra-poetic idea in my mind tend to be uniformly dreadful. I am increasingly impressed by Louis MacNeice’s prescription, ‘I would have a poet able-bodied [able-minded]…a reader of newspapers…informed in economics…actively interested in politics’. That is, you have to be interested in the world as well as in poetry, and somehow and somewhen the poems will come.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

My experience of both suggests that the value of workshopping depends almost entirely on the quality of the participants. An ill-informed critique is useless, except in the trivial sense of warning you how some readers will misread your work. (Of course a good reader might also misread a poem, in which case you know that it needs work.) So first of all you need good poets and critics taking part. Second, workshops get better over time because you get to know each other’s work and get better at reading writers’ intentions and at recognising writers’ and readers’ idiosyncrasies. I met a friend for an informal workshop regularly for a couple of years, and we developed quite good understandings of what we were each trying to do, meaning that you don’t have to start each discussion from ground level. Changing circumstances mean we don’t meet so often now and I do miss that regular contact, not least for the sense of a continuing conversation about poetry that it provided. On the other hand, that side of it, the sense of a shared interest and conversations and support, valuable as it is, can, especially in a face-to-face workshop, encroach on the workshopping. One useful way of minimising that encroachment is to do the crits ‘blind’, so that you’re talking to poems and not to people.

I do think workshops can be important to a poet’s development. For me, especially in the early years, they have provided some structure to my writing life, as well as contact with other writers.

My experience of online workshops is limited to PFFA, which I find an excellent resource for general poetry things and for that sense of a writerly community. My attitude to the workshops there varies – since you don’t get to choose who comments on your work, the value of the critiques varies enormously. Because the membership of online workshops is so varied in terms of ability, experience, background, tradition, geography, even critiques by experienced participants can be hard to convert into technical changes to a draft. It’s especially difficult when you’re trying to do something out of the ordinary – how far is the reader’s bafflement a problem with the text and how far is it just a fact of life? I do think that workshops can have a homogenising effect, promoting the ‘workshop poem’ which satisfies the usual rules of thumb but not the basic requirement of interest and originality.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful – and published poetry would be better – if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

There’s a lot of truth in it. Over the last four years I’ve periodically had my poetry manuscript of the time looked at by publishers, and though it’s frustrating to have it refused, I’ve found fairly consistently that a year or so down the line I am almost glad not to have had it taken on, because distance from the work allows me to judge it more critically. Of course I’m very keen to be published, and I imagine that however good you get, you always prefer your recent work and squirm slightly at the older stuff. But I try not to feel too urgent about things, knowing that a couple of years’ distance is likely to reduce my frustration enormously. Ars longa, vita brevis, and all that. Ambition and frustration and vanity are all part of the vita, and may not necessarily serve the ars (heh).

A poet who was helping me put together a manuscript said to me, ‘Don’t put in anything that would make you blush if you were putting together your collected poems in thirty-five years time’. I do know that most of the work in my first pamphlet now embarrasses me.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

I don’t agree. If you’re publishing your work you’re inviting criticism. If you care about your feelings more than about poetry, then write it as a hobby and keep it to yourself and your friends. If you publish it – especially in book form – you’re asking strangers to read it and even pay for it, and you’re putting it up for comparison with everything else. It is not the job of the critic to spare the poet’s feelings. Ars versus vita again.

Of course there are critics who have their own despicable agenda or who write merely personal reviews. That’s just bad criticism. But a critic, particularly in the contemporary field, is allowed to discuss matters which may seem personal because they are evaluating the poetry, and hence the world-view, of the poet. If they don’t, then they can only write in a descriptive way: ‘Poet X writes in such-and-such a style about this and that topics.’ Some critics do proceed that way, and sometimes that’s quite enough, and it advances the parameters of poetry, inasmuch as such things exist, by helping the reader to understand how a poet participates in genre, for example, or how word order contributes to a certain effect. But sometimes that sort of criticism can seem a bit limited, because the other job of the critic is to judge – to evaluate a poem or the values it expresses. And that, in the end, is personal. But I don’t know in what other way a critic is supposed to proceed, or indeed what else could be meant by ‘advanc[ing] the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry’, which sounds good but is surely the job of poetry itself.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

In certain quarters of the internet I go by the name of Ed Parsons. I have a relatively new blog called, imaginatively, Tony Williams’s Poetry Blog. It’s subtitled ‘self-promotion and poetry chatter’, which just about says it all. The poetry blogsphere is of interest to me, mainly as a means of keeping in touch with people who are interested in poetry and of enlarging my poetic horizons. I’m conscious of being ignorant of almost everything. Browsing blogsville I am sometimes visited by an alarming notion that it might be better to turn off the computer and read an actual book. You have to look at it for what it is – journalism. Even when people post poems they’ve written, I think it’s more like journalism than anything else (Horace’s ten years might be reduced to ten minutes), and hence basically ephemeral.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

I had a pamphlet published in 2000, too early, and gained confidence just at the point when I should have been taking my poetic technique completely to pieces and starting again. But it just delayed that process by a matter of months, and it’s all experience to learn from. It got me a few readings, at which I performed miserably; but that got the miserable readings out of the way. Etc.

I’ve had a number of poems published in print magazines over the years, and more recently online. It’s always a fillip, and it’s good to get your name around. I had a poem in the TLS a couple of years ago, and that was real encouragement at a time I really needed it. They’ve not taken anything since, mind.

In 2005 I was represented in an anthology of poets associated with Sheffield Hallam. It got a few reviews, mainly positive. Again, useful in getting your name in print and in front of people’s eyes. You can buy it here, if anyone’s interested. It also contains poems by Tim Turnbull, James Sheard and Frances Leviston, among others.

I’m still working on getting a full-length collection published. I’ve been in contact with a number of publishers over the years, some of whom have made encouraging noises, without actually taking it on.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

Yes, there are a lot, but I don’t feel like the fabric of my world is threatened. For a long time I was a submissions snob and only used to submit my work to magazines that had very good reputations (and were mainly in print, not online). You don’t want to ‘waste’ your little darlings on a little magazine when Poetry (Chicago) might take it. But really, life’s too short, and who’s to say if I’m good enough to get published in the big boys anyway, or if this little web-zine will turn out to be the Poetry (Cyberspace) of the future? So now I submit far and wide, and when an editor accepts a poem, it’s another publishing credit for my poetic CV. I write quite a lot, so I’m not likely to run short of unpublished material – and if I do, that’ll be a whole other problem.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

I do see the attraction of self-publishing, particularly in the light of the stress and frustration involved in seeking publication from publishers who are not oneself. At its most austere level ambition ought to be satisfied with Roy Fisher’s suggestion to ‘go get working with the mimeo machine and give them away, and then do another and give that away’ (in his absurdly stimulating Interviews Through Time). In this era of desk-top publishing you can get a fairly sophisticated equivalent to a mimeo for your money, which is not to say that it will look or read any better.

But I think that the lack of any real editorial process is fatal to self-publishing. I’d feel much better about sending out a crappy photocopied pamphlet via a small press than a perfect-bound book on my own account. It might be the best work in the world, but the point of having an editor is crucial because a) s/he can help you get the manuscript as good as it can be; and b) s/he is telling others that this work is worth reading. Both of these functions is undermined if the poet is also the publisher.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

More words?

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The big challenge is to write a poem that lives.

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3 thoughts on “Ten Questions

  1. Pingback: More on criticism « Very Like A Whale

  2. Pingback: More on, yes, criticism! « A Bundle of Biases

  3. Was here last night but returned this Valentine’s Day
    because I was fairly sure Tony Williams had written
    a response which caught my attention. He did. It is
    his response to question 1. With less certainty, I hold
    similar positions, especially his thought:
    “The best poets re-imagine the world, or
    imaginatively reconfigure the world, . . .”
    Of course, what one believes and what one does
    can be quite different from each other.

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