Interview carried out on Tuesday 19th January 3:30pm
What did you get up to after the ceremony yesterday?
Eventually we went home, and I thought I’d just look on my email and there was a flood of messages from, it seems, almost everyone I’d ever met. Every friend or fellow writer had heard already and were saying fantastically excited things for me. It just blew me away that we were in a world where things link up that fast.
How did it feel to win the TS Eliot prize?
It was a strange feeling, a bit like a coming of age, which is a strange thing to find myself saying at the age of 57. It’s like growing up as a poet actually. What do I mean by that? It’s something about being obliged to take your part in the big world.
Why do you think this collection won, and why now?
I couldn’t possibly answer that. For most of us the experience is that all of our writing is a fairly seamless flow. From the inside it is very hard to see what it is about this book, which is utterly different from the last one or the one before. I think that partial blindness is probably necessary. If we had a perfect outside view of it, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it. In a way we wouldn’t be able to listen to it, because we would think we knew in advance. There is something to be said for creative ignorance, which needs to be guarded and manipulated very carefully in the art of writing. Not knowing something is actually one of the tools of our trade, like a spanner or a wrench.
How confident were you that you would win the prize?
Not in the slightest bit. I was pleased about being on the shortlist. I was not overawed but it felt quite enough to be there more or less amongst my peers. Some of whom are my elders in terms of worldly reputation, if not of age. More than anything else there was that good feeling I had on Sunday night at Queen Elizabeth Hall, when we were each and all standing on stage, and there was that fantastically enthusiastic audience. I was thinking: ‘We are all fundamentally on the same side. OK there’s ego, and reputation and prize money and all that, but that’s really just the crust on the outside of what’s really going on here. I really want to keep hold of that glimpse of same-sidedness.
What impact do you think the prize is going to have on your career?
A little more oxygen of, not publicity, in the way that phrase usually goes, but good readerly attention. I think that every writer needs good readers. If you don’t have those really good, alert readers out there then there’s a sense that your writing is never fully born. It’s what goes on inside the readers’ minds, especially when they have read it and in some way talked about it with each other and maybe are influenced in their own writing. If their writing then does well and the poems and books are in dialogue with each other, then that helps us grow. Perhaps being more fully part of that conversation is what I would like.
Should poetry try and seek out more publicity?
I think there should be many poetries and I think they should all be incredibly respectful of each other. I think if what I’m doing works, it would be a particular quiet space that people could step into off the street. I don’t mean being escapist or hiding away but making sure that when the moment’s right people can come and spend a while there. That is not an argument against doing the more obviously extrovereted thing of going out and standing on the street corner itself, saying, ‘It’s lovely poetry, lovely poetry, come and get it.’ I’m not scoffing at that in any way, but for me it’s about that space being available.
Almost everybody needs poetry sometimes. We are very used to being told that most people most weeks are not reading poetry. But ask the question in other ways, ‘When in your life have you read poetry?’ and people will name all kinds of key experiences. ‘It was when my father did’ or ‘It was when I was first in love’ or ‘When my first baby was born’. An astongishly large number of people say they have really valued poetry being there at a key moment in their life.
So, why then a poetry collection about the Bristol Channel?
Partly because most of my adult life I’ve lived on one side of it or the other. I’ve lived most of my life in Bristol itself. More recently in the last five years I’ve worked in South Wales. At first I was driving backwards and forwards over the Severn Bridge and seeing that water change every day. It’s always different. I’ve never seen that water with the same expression on its face twice. I’m now living in Wales, living in sight of that bridge and I still feel I’ve never seen it look the same twice.
That’s part of the answer about where that material comes from. The other half is that anything you look at with the right attention is going to start revealing all kinds of other things about the world. The great thing about water is that what you see is other things reflected in it, or other things floating in it.
How long did it take you to write the collection?
It started forming in notebooks about four or five years ago, but it was really in the middle of that period between now and then that I started realising they weren’t just random notes. They were crystalising as poems and there was a specific gravity that got them starting to orbit round each other.
How does your poetry compare with that of the past winners?
Our job is to be completely different from each other … I almost never find myself rank ordering other writers. I find myself wanting them to be precisely what they are as intensely as they can be, and also leave space for me as a reader.
How does it feel to be in the company of former winners like Seamus Heaney, Alice Oswald, Don Paterson?
As if I must take myself seriously and earn my place there, and be part of that conversation. Not to be shy, not be apologetically humble, certainly not arrogant either, but just consider that I could be part of that conversation as well. That isn’t a matter of being as good as or better than them or any less so, but just having something to say in the conversation which will add to it in some way.
We talked earlier about the ego and the drive and the reputation. Do you feel there is an element of that in the poetry world?
I’ve spent most of my writing life being sceptical and cautious about the poetry business and the world of poetry, in which importance and reputation get defined. It’s another issue at a slight angle to asking: ’Is this work good?’, ‘Is it moving?’, ‘Is it affecting me?’. There’s that strange thing you find when you read reviews of a book, which appear to say it’s very good stuff. But it only has an inch and a half, because it doesn’t have that quality of importance. I do suspect that the assigning of importance is in the world of ego and the world of collective ego and of bargaining between egos, rather than deep in the world of poetry.
I’ve spent most of my life trying not to think about that stuff. That has been partly a mistake, partly an avoidance, because it’s meant I’ve really just appeared on the scene especially in London. Let’s be honest I have not come here very often. I have not very often just stood there and said: ‘For better or worse, I am part of this world of poetry.’ Now I think I’ve been found out. I am part of that world of poetry, so I might as well own up to it and play my part.
Why do you think you didn’t want to own up to being part of the poetry world?
Because it’s what I do. That audience on Sunday night at Queen Elizabeth Hall – I thought: ‘Yes, that is the good heart of the world of poetry, and I do want to be part of that.’ Lots of damn good writers being very interested in each other, almost without exception, and hearing each other with enthusiastic good will and interest. And I thought: ‘Yes, that’s worth building on’.
What, if you don’t mind me asking, do you think you will spend the prize money on?
If I can, I’d like to invent some way to convert money into time. I know that sounds metaphysical, but yes I would like to convert money into a particular time and space. I’m not sure how that will work yet, but it will be time and space for writing and for that kind of deepening. You need space to think and settle in, and that’s what I desperately need more of. Maybe I will find an inventive way of buying it, I hope.