Robert Frost’s two-and-a-half year sojourn in England (1912-1915) made him as a poet. After a long apprenticeship in New Hampshire, he placed his first book, A Boy’s Will, with a London publisher, thrilled the Georgian poets with his rustic New England facade, met W. B. Yeats, and cultivated a crucial friendship with English pastoral poet Edward Thomas. Those transactions are still netting gains for English and American poetry, and, for the past decade, a clear benefactor has been Glyn Maxwell. Born in Hertfordshire, England, he came to Boston University at 25 to study with Derek Walcott, whom he credits as a principal influence, alongside Frost and Thomas. Maxwell’s poems are formal and various; technically fluent, they also display “invention” in the Elizabethan sense. Plots, characters, and dialogue are all to be found in his verse, particularly The Sugar Mile (2005) andTime’s Fool: A Tale in Verse (2000). His other books include The Nerve (2002), The Breakage (1998) and Boys of Twilight: Poems 1990-1995.
These days, Maxwell is increasingly devoted to playwriting in verse. When not teaching at New York University, or selecting poems for The New Republic, he is also writing a novel “entirely in voices.” The following conversation took place during the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of Maxwell’s Wolfpit off-Broadway. Scheduled to run through May 6, the play concerns a macabre incident recorded by 12th-century English monks, in which two “green children” inexplicably appear in a Suffolk village.
How did you become aware of the subject matter for Wolfpit, in terms of the chronicles that were provided-these few paragraphs that we have from Suffolk?
Actually, it’s a little mundane in a way. I was trying to get my plays to professional directors in England, and I’d written three or four unplayable, huge-cast plays. I was introduced to this director by Derek Walcott, because he was over there in England in Stratford, putting on The Odyssey. So I was up there seeing him, but I did see this director at the Royal Shakespeare [Company]. He’d heard of this story, and he’d been carrying it around, trying to think what he might do with it, and he just found it a good match for the work of mine that he’d seen. So he passed it to me, and I was pretty enchanted by it as a story and I thought it had all sorts of possibilities. I thought I’d try and flesh it out a bit.[private]
I know you had started writing plays before. Did the beginning of that career coincide with the start of your poetry writing?
I was writing poetry from the late 70s when I was a teenager. I started getting published in the early 80s, mid-80s, but I didn’t write any plays until I was Walcott’s student at Boston. That was 1988. I didn’t really start [playwriting] in earnest until 1991, when I wrote two, I think, and then every year for a while I wrote a couple of books.
Did those plays tend to derive from historical accounts, like Wolfpit, or did you invent the plots completely?
Both things are true at different times. The earlier plays I wrote tended to have large casts because at that point I wasn’t very professional-minded about it. I was in an environment in my hometown with a lot of people who were very keen on acting and putting on shows; I kind of grew up in that atmosphere. I put on these shows in my parents’ garden, and would charge people to see them. Those plays tended to be derived from mythical stories, or fairy tales, mythology and so on. Then, as time has gone on, the plays tend to be a little bit more contemporary, and they tend to have smaller casts. It’s a lot easier to get plays on if they have small casts, to be frank, which is why meeting the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a really cool thing, because they are an ensemble. They’d like to make money but they don’t expect to. They do it because they like the work.
I happened to notice on your website that The Sugar Mile is scheduled for a staged reading.
It’s one night, it’s May 15. I’m going to take part in that, and we’ve hired professional actors.
And is the idea to explore the possibility of a full-fledged play with that?
It’s not yet. I’ve thought about that. At the moment, I’ve just reworked it slightly so that it’s a little shorter, because it’s too long for the whole thing. I’ve just tried to make the structure a little easier to understand when you’re hearing it the first time. I think when you’re reading a book, there’s a different kind of tension; you can figure out the story in your own time. But when you’re hearing it at once, I think the audience might need a little help with that, so I’m trying to make it a little clearer, in terms of plot and so on.
Do you have any advice or do you see any opportunities today for young poets who are interested in writing for the stage? Do you think there are any readily available outlets for them?
I haven’t really found that in London, but in New York there’s two or three. Then there’s Phoenix. They would be happy if they could find another contemporary living poet who’s writing theatre, they’d be excited about that. I think ultimately [that if] a good off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway theatre is looking for good plays, they’d probably see past that it’s verse. Actually, that’s what poets ought to do. Poets ought to make friends with some actors, because what you tend to have in universities in America-virtually all of the ones I’ve come across-is that the theater department and the writing department are not in the same building, or they are not in the same part of campus. I always ask the students if they know anyone, any of the drama students, and no one seems to. So there’s no connection, there’s no overlap.
My advice to any poet who’s thinking of drama is to find out where the drama group is and get some actors, because there’s lots of hungry young actors in this city. Do a couple of scenes and get actors doing it, because it’s extremely helpful for the poet to hear how these lines sound through an actor’s actual lungs. You can’t get away with inauthenticity, you can’t get away with stuff that tends to be cerebral, or too removed from reality, and I think that’s the problem for most contemporary poetry, I think you can learn an awful lot quickly to carry back to the script. I’d love it if young poets started to move into the theater. It would be tremendous.
How does being an Englishman in New York tune your sensitivity to dialogue-writing? Does it bring out more consciousness of aspects of your mother-tongue that you may not have paid attention to before? For example, a classic incident is in The Sugar Mile: the poet is in the bar, writing, and these voices are all around him. Is that very much your mental picture of yourself in New York?
Well, I have been in America for 10 years, so I suppose I’ve gotten better at picking up American rhythm, and I think I managed it well with the barman in The Sugar Mile. I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. I’ve spent quite a lot of time sitting in bars, [but] I’ve just got a good ear. I’ve always had quite a good ear for dialogue, sort of above all else. There was a play I did last year, The Forever Waltz, which played here, and then went to the Edinburgh Festival with a British cast. In that one, there were quite a lot of changes we had to make. There are certain phrases that are sort of definitely British and that I didn’t realize, things like the word “rather.” That kind of thing. That’s something I know now that I didn’t know three years ago.
I’ve got a play which I’m sort of thinking about doing in the Phoenix and we’re all thinking about whether we can do that. It’s a very English play, it’s got an extremely English idiom. I was just reading it, and I think that would require quite a serious rewrite. Some of the plays are so British.
On an average workday, how much of your writing time is spent on dramatic versus lyric poetry? Does it really just depend on which project you are on, and that consumes you utterly for several weeks at a time?
It’s actually quite simple to tell nowadays. I spend virtually no time at all on poetry.Sugar Mile‘s kind of a different case, where I tried to write it all together in one short burst. Sitting down and trying to write poetry in my voice-I hadn’t done that in two or three years, and for the moment I’m not quite sure whether I can again. I think that whatever mental energy or creative energy you’ve got firing your playwriting is the same area in the brain. Ten years ago, if I hadn’t written a poem for two years I would be terrified, I would think it was over. Now I don’t really mind because I feel it’s just going somewhere else. I’ve felt that increasingly for the last few years.
The way I work with theatre is to read a lot if it’s about a historical area. I do quite a lot of research and watch movies and read books and stuff and then I sit around in cafés and figure out parts and plot structure and finally I try to find four or five days when I’ve really got nothing else on. That’s quite difficult these days. If I find that, then I will hole up in a hotel and write it all in a short burst.
I’m sort of in the middle of one of those right now with a play, but it’s been difficult because I’ve had Wolfpit on, and then I’ve had teaching, so I haven’t really been able to find time. But when I work like that, I tend to get up at 4:30 or 5:00 and work really solidly and then I can get all the stuff done that way. But it takes a lot of preparation to be able to hit it like that.
With playwriting, it must be very gratifying to have that audience interaction.
It is, it absolutely is. When I was sort of being flippant about it, I would say that poets are often quite gregarious people by nature who do something that’s very solitary. In fact, originally I thought, “well, I’m going to write some plays so I can meet people, make some friends.” That’s just a kind of surface expression of a serious point, which is I don’t really trust or enjoy or believe in poetry that has just detached itself from the human form, that’s detached itself from the breath or the mind or the way the mind works or the bloodstream.
What poetry provides, or what poetry really reaches is a certain kind of fidelity to the human form, and theatre has to have that. You have to get that stuff right when you’re writing for characters. So that’s been the discipline of the last few years for me, to really have that kind of fidelity to characters. If you’re working with trained actors, you’re testing that all the time. if someone says to you, “I wouldn’t say this here, as opposed to that”-let’s listen to that, because that’s an actual experience of what it’s like to play something. So I think when I resume writing poetry-Sugar Mile obviously has those sorts of hallmarks-I want to be very aware of where that voice is coming from in a poem, what kind of light is shining or what kind of day it is. I want those things to be fixed in my poems, and that’s sort of what I teach as well.
You just mentioned this process for playwriting. With your narrative poems, do you tend to start with a central idea or is it more of a lyrical impulse using the verse form? I suspect it’s the latter, but I’m wondering if you think in terms of characters and scenarios off the bat, or if you come across a nifty verse form and you’re working with a few lines, and from there you find it grows and expands into a story?
To be honest, there’s no simple answer to that. If it’s a short poem-that’s really sort of anything other than Time’s Fool and The Sugar Mile-anything else just really originates kind of like you say, in a sort of happy chance of a line-and-a-half and just seems to generate itself and generates its form. So a line-and-a-half in, I get a sense of what form it’s going to take. The form will tend to take me where I’m going with it.
But with Time’s Fool I tried to have a story. It’s a novel, I plotted it like a novel, it took six months to do that; the whole thing took a year. I always knew I was going to do it in terza rima because of the distant humble homage to Dante . . . and I knew thatterza rima was theoretically infinite. I think of it as an infinite form, the most absolute, supremely useful form I’ve ever worked in. I was able to write very fluidly and fast in that form like I never had to for anything else.
And then for Sugar Mile again, I had a little sense I wanted to do something about the Second World War and England’s experience of this, and [what] I think any poet alive in the Western world probably [felt] in the early part of this century after Sept. 11, but that sits in the background. I tried to keep that out of it, but just around the corner.
With Sugar Mile, one thing that struck me reading and rereading it was how detachable some of the poems are in that sequence. Clearly you have sestinas and all sorts of stanza and verse forms in there, but often I wondered what would this be like, chancing upon this in an anthology of verse, to see this one poem.
Let’s wonder that. (Laughs.) Time will tell. There are two or three that I like reading at readings.
Do you see a sort of renewed vigor in narrative writing over the past five, 10 or 15 years? A few years ago there was all this buzz about formal verse, and whether or not you like the term as such, I’m wondering if you see a similar sort of revival now. Or are we still in a state where most poets are going to be churning out lyric poems with maybe less attention to narrative?
I’m not really sure. I tend to behave like a sprinter and I don’t tend to look on either side of what else is going on. But I think there are some interesting experiments with form. I feel like everything I’ve done lately has been some kind of exploration of the ground, the no man’s land, between poetry and fiction and fiction and drama and drama and poetry. I seem to have projects going in all those fields: those spaces between things. It’s as much as I can do to keep up with what I’m doing.
Speaking of formal verse, there are several distinguished practitioners who are either aging or who have deceased recently, such as Anthony Hecht and Donald Justice. Thankfully we still have Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill and others. Are there any lessons that you consciously or otherwise might have derived from them?
Most of my masters are older and gone, like Frost and Thomas. Derek has had a huge personal impact. He was a teacher and then a mentor, so an awful lot of the attitude, the seriousness of being with a poet, the seriousness of this business. In a sense, I didn’t really need anyone to tell me to write what I was doing, because I think that’s just a function of the organism. But certainly, I was really galvanized by things that Walcott said, and also the whole thing about getting started doing a theater project in my hometown, which kind of flowered into everything else. That really started because of remarks he made about how one should pride where one was from, and try and make as much of one’s roots as one could, and a lot of people in Britain tend to somewhat despise where they’re from, get away from it.
Another poet you’ve referenced in your dedications is Joseph Brodsky? Did you have a relationship with him?
I met him a few times, because he was very close to Derek. He was never formally my teacher, and most of the conversations we had involved quite a lot of alcohol, so it’s kind of annoying that I can’t really remember much. I remember him as having a huge impact on me, because he really could touch minds. I’ve never met anyone like that, and I don’t think I ever would. Brodsky’s range of reference . . . you can find examples of that in all his essays. If there’s one thing that they do teach, and they really do teach, is independence of thought.
It seems that in this country, which is supposed to be this beacon of liberty, there are an awful lot of young people who think the same and dress the same and watch the same stuff and speak the same, and I just feel that Brodsky’s example is amazing, because he thought he was being brainwashed when he was 14 or 15, and he dropped out of school. To have that sort of ferocious independence of mind, it’s just a great example to any young person, and I suppose that I’m trying to have that in a way, and have it naturally. I’m trying to kind of cultivate that, to think twice about everything.
One of Brodsky’s heroes of course is Auden, somebody you’ve been often compared to. I don’t know how you feel about that, but people point out what they call your virtuosic range and say, look at Auden. And The Sugar Mile, James Wood actually compared that to-
The Orators, yeah.
That prompted me to read that again. I don’t know if Auden’s somebody who’s loomed large for you.
To be compared with Auden at all, it just kind of takes the breath away. I can see similarities, although these days I can see more differences. There are enormous differences: that dazzling range of reference. I was lucky enough to meet him personally, Brodsky, and obviously Auden had that probably to a greater extent than any writer who lived in the 20th century. It’s just astonishing, and then he brings that to the verse. I don’t have 1% of that, you know.
I think the thing that’s growing in my work is actually very different from Auden, and the similarities are superficial from the beginning. Yes, I was very capable with form and so was he, in a way that’s kind of an English thing, although it’s fading in England-to relish form and to know how to use it. I had nothing to say for 20 years. As a child, there was nothing to do except get better at writing the forms, so it was kind of apprentice work, and I always thought of it that way, and Walcott helped me to see it that way.
That’s fascinating, what you’re saying, because a lot of people in their 20s and maybe in their 30s don’t appreciate perhaps how much there is to learn about life in general, that maybe the poetry they first write is destined for ephemera. Did you feel that, when you studied at that graduate writing program at Boston University? Was that an M.F.A.?
It was an M.A. A year M.A.
And when you were there, did you sense a difference in the way others were, and your own sense of the form? Did you feel there wasn’t that much attention being paid to form even then?
Yeah, I think that’s true, and partly it’s a cultural thing. Everyone else in the group was American. There were some quite experimental people, and I don’t think many of them have stayed with it. But I was the only one who’d really spent years working on form. That’s what it is: I had an instinct for it, which is genetic, or through my ancestry or whatever, and I loved it as well, so I had every reason to do it. Also, I had an awful lot of support as a kid; I was encouraged. Because I had a serene life, I didn’t have much to write about, and in that time what you get together is just the tools of it. So I spent years doing that, really.
Maybe this is something you do now, too, but is there someone you would share your work with early on, for example, to know how it scanned, whether the variations in the verse forms were passable or if they worked? I think it’s hard for a lot of people, especially if you don’t have a good teacher, to know something as plain as iambic pentameter, to know how to make it regular. Was there any kind of oversight there?
In fact, a strange thing happened to me. I was engaged at Columbia to teach prosody. I started trying to teach it in a conventional way. After about three classes, I realized, not only did I not want to teach it but I actually felt like it shouldn’t be taught.
This could be misconstrued in all sorts of ways, but I think when American poets reach the age of 23, and they’re quite interested in it and they’ve read a bit, if they suddenly come across this whole prosody thing and it’s taught in a dry scientific way, then I think it kind of throws them off balance. Also, everything that rules of prosody are predicated on-apart from how they derive from Greek rather than English-is also predicated on this kind of digital sense that there’s such a thing as a stress and non-stress. I just don’t hear like that. I can line-scan and I can do pentameters and so on but it all sort of comes very naturally.
I’m writing a play now and it’s in verse, and I look at the line and it can have seven syllables or it can have 14 syllables, but somehow if it’s said the way I want the actor to say it, it’ll come out as pentameter. So actually I never ever count syllables, and I’ve always counseled people not to do that, because I don’t think we hear in syllables either. I don’t really know where I stand on it. I just think if you have a natural talent in a freer way, there are certain things that will be good for you to learn from canonical poets, but to suddenly study this as a science when you’re already 24 or whatever-this whole iambic thing just throws people.
Quite a few of your poems seem to employ some sort of painters’ terminology. Not a lot of them-I’m thinking of “Island Painting, St. Lucia” and a couple of other poems where colors seem remarkably vivid. Is painting something you do on the side?
No, no, I’m absolutely hopeless. My daughter takes great pleasure in seeing I am rubbish at drawing; I can’t do it at all. The reason I wrote that St. Lucia poem is that Derek did actually try and get me and my wife to do watercolors one morning. We just sat there and looked at this island. It was great for him and me, because it was like a throwback 10 years earlier when I was a student, or 15 years earlier, so suddenly it felt strange to be Derek’s student again and for him to be a teacher, so I think it was kind of like a nice little exercise in nostalgia. He was giving me a new form . . . like I had a lot to learn when I started in his class as a poet. But I really don’t know anything about [painting]. It’s about not quite getting it right, but failing towards success, I suppose. I hadn’t thought about painting as a strand before, but then I was thinking of “Cap D’Ail,” the one in The Breakage. But yes, it wouldn’t have occurred to me, because I don’t think I’m particularly visual.
A lot of your poems are built around a very specific situation. Sometimes you’ll plant these clues early on in a poem, which is a narrative device, and then by the end, one realizes what has occurred to the speaker in the poem. How much mystery or obscurity, recognizing they’re two separate things, is desirable in poetry? Reading your work en masse, I felt like some of the earlier stuff was a little bit more obscure in understanding.
A lot of poets sort of wave that question aside, like “I refuse to give meaning.” Is there some kind of value of obscurity here?
I think it’s the two words you used. It’s mystery and obscurity, and it’s the difference between those, which I think is the key. I have early work that is obscure, because I’m just relishing the sound. I’m sure that people sometimes look at these poems and try to figure out the meaning beneath them, but to me, I could go back to a lot of early work and say, “just don’t waste time on this,” because it’s just a young poet learning what to do with sound, really, just stretching his legs. It’s learning, that’s what it’s the sound of.
The mystery is what’s in a sonnet of Frost that makes it eternal. What kind of sound and sense connections are there just seem to make it absolutely memorable. Not all Frost is like that, but some of those sonnets. What is it that makes poems survive, what is it in the choices of form and the choices of words that makes Donne’s survival, Hopkins’ survival indestructible? That’s mystery. That can be investigated. You can walk into the darkness with a lantern and you can start to figure some things out . . . see how it’s done, and that’s the sort of criticism that Brodsky brings to Auden. An extreme alertness to the senses, the control the poet has over the senses.
Obscurity is something else. Obscurity is the poet thinking that he doesn’t have to move anywhere towards the reader, the reader will come to him. It’s the obscurity of allusion, that there’s a skeleton key of allusions that can unpick something. I don’t like that sort of criticism and I don’t much like that sort of poetry either. I’d rather –I just think it’s time to do something else. Picking up a poetry magazine and seeing somebody trying to be Gertrude Stein as if it’s avant-garde. 90 years! It’s not new anymore, it can’t be made new again.
That’s why I’ve always admired, I find it very difficult to teach, but I really admire Hart Crane. Hart Crane brings a really bizarre kind of collection of influences to his work. He has this Webster, Jacobean line, the sort of richness of that line, he has the French thing, and it’s not really like anyone else’s. It doesn’t resemble anything that was around at the time. To me it’s a beautiful gateway that hasn’t led anywhere. But I think it’s terrible that it hasn’t led anywhere. Crane should have been one of the people that is most looked up to. I think that’s just exemplary in terms of reading deep into the past and building your style out of that, rather than glancing around and saying, “Okay, this is what poets are doing now, is to be elliptical and to give out very little.” I think people who cite their influences from their own generation are quite suspect. Just go to a library, just put your feet in the past. It will just give you more range, it will just give you more reach.
Can poetry handle the longeurs or dry spells that sometimes occur in novels? When you work on those long projects, are there expedients you can get away with in telling your story-such as scene-setting through caricature-versus some of the lyrical intensity that we associate with poetry?
It’s a different set of rules, isn’t it? You have psychological accuracy and plot, and making sure that the ends all meet, [Time's Fool was] 10,000-line terza rima. There’s nothing to guide you really except the form. I look back on that and think of some things I would have done differently, but the whole project just had its own momentum; it happened very fast, it was written very fast. I had written novels, I did that when I was younger, so I tried to bring some of that into it. You can’t rely on lyric elevation.
You’re writing a novel now, isn’t that right?
It relates to the formal experimentation I was talking about, between the feels of things. It’s a novel that’s entirely in dialogue. It’s entirely in voices. There’s no “he said, she said.” This has been done before, but I don’t think it’s been done quite like this. It’s formally experimental, but in terms of content, it’s meant to be quite accessible and funny. It’s really a comic novel. I’ve tried to make it quite readable. But I finally solved my problem, in not really believing in the third person or the first person, by just getting rid of them entirely. So we’ll see how that goes. I’m about halfway through it, and I guess I’ll have it done by this summer.
A literary gossip question. What do you make of Alice Quinn’s edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems? Did you have a chance to look at that?
I haven’t seen the review and I haven’t seen the book yet. The consensus seems to be of all the people I’ve talked about it with, that The New Yorker should have said, “This poem is printed crossed out,” and with the poems that they printed, they should have said, “This is crossed out in the notebook.” I haven’t seen Alice’s book, but I would imagine that it does say that these are just dropped. I’m not an enormous enough Bishop fan that I’m that excited about a book of her drafts. I’m not that excited about a book of anyone’s drafts! In a way, I probably fall on the Vendler side of that question.
You’re also the poetry editor of The New Republic. Does that take up a lot of your time? Do you actually personally wade through manuscripts?
I have an assistant. We both look at them, but we have quite similar tests, so we generally agree on things. It’s not a huge job, because I’m not inundated with stuff. I get a certain amount, but it’s not an enormous amount. [With] most poetry, there’s stuff you can discard very quickly because it’s evident that the person doesn’t know what they’re doing.
To me over the years, I’m probably as aware that someone doesn’t know what they’re doing as a violinist would be, if you pick up a violin and you’ve never played it. I can tell that quickly that someone can’t do what they’re trying to do. You can tell pretty quickly if someone can’t ride a bike. It’s quite rewarding when you come across something good. I’ve just been doing that actually, and there’s some good stuff. It’s quite difficult to fill that one spot with anything.
Do you have any favorite contemporary poet-critics, or poets for that matter? Is there anybody now writing that you’re very interested in?
I always wish that Gertrude Schnackenberg would write another book. That’s really one of the few people who I’m interested to see what she’s done now. There’s not many people I can say that about. My generation . . . well, let me be a little patriotic. There’s a little group that I kind of climbed up with-Simon Armitage and Don Paterson-I’m always interested in seeing what they’re doing next, I think they’re at the top of their game, terrific. And I should also mention the late Michael Donaghy, because he was a friend of ours and everything and he died too young, at 50. He’s unknown in America pretty much, because he lived in London for most of his writing life, but I just think he’s among the best American poets of the time, so I always try to introduce him to discussions like this. And the last, the posthumous book [Safest] is very nice.[/private]