Contemporary Poetry Review

As Interviewed By:
Sunil Iyengar

A Further Range 

An Interview with Glyn Maxwell


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          Robert Frostís 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 Boyís 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. Maxwellís poems are formal and various; technically fluent, they also display ďinventionĒ in the Elizabethan sense. Plots, characters, and dialogue are all to be found in his verse, particularly The Sugar Mile (2005) and Timeís 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 ďentirely in voices.Ē The following conversation took place during the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production of Maxwellís Wolfpit off-Broadway. Scheduled to run through May 6, the play concerns a macabre incident recorded by 12th-century English monks, in which two ďgreen childrenĒ inexplicably appear in a Suffolk village.

 

How did you become aware of the subject matter for Wolfpit, in terms of the chronicles that were providedóthese few paragraphs that we have from Suffolk?

Actually, itís a little mundane in a way. I was trying to get my plays to professional directors in England, and Iíd 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]. Heíd heard of this story, and heíd 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 heíd 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 Iíd try and flesh it out a bit.

 

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 didnít write any plays until I was Walcottís student at Boston. That was 1988. I didnít 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 wasnít 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 parentsí 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. Itís 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. Theyíd like to make money but they donít 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. 

Itís one night, itís May 15. Iím going to take part in that, and weíve hired professional actors.

 

And is the idea to explore the possibility of a full-fledged play with that? 

Itís not yet. Iíve thought about that. At the moment, Iíve just reworked it slightly so that itís a little shorter, because itís too long for the whole thing. Iíve just tried to make the structure a little easier to understand when youíre hearing it the first time. I think when youíre reading a book, thereís a different kind of tension; you can figure out the story in your own time. But when youíre hearing it at once, I think the audience might need a little help with that, so Iím 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 havenít really found that in London, but in New York thereís two or three. Then thereís Phoenix. They would be happy if they could find another contemporary living poet whoís writing theatre, theyíd be excited about that. I think ultimately [that if] a good off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway theatre is looking for good plays, theyíd probably see past that itís verse. Actually, thatís what poets ought to do. Poets ought to make friends with some actors, because what you tend to have in universities in Americaóvirtually all of the ones Iíve come acrossóis 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 thereís no connection, thereís no overlap. 

My advice to any poet whoís thinking of drama is to find out where the drama group is and get some actors, because thereís lots of hungry young actors in this city. Do a couple of scenes and get actors doing it, because itís extremely helpful for the poet to hear how these lines sound through an actorís actual lungs. You canít get away with inauthenticity, you canít get away with stuff that tends to be cerebral, or too removed from reality, and I think thatís the problem for most contemporary poetry, I think you can learn an awful lot quickly to carry back to the script. Iíd 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 Iíve gotten better at picking up American rhythm, and I think I managed it well with the barman in The Sugar Mile. I couldnít have done that 10 years ago. Iíve spent quite a lot of time sitting in bars, [but] Iíve just got a good ear. Iíve 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 didnít realize, things like the word ďrather.Ē That kind of thing. Thatís something I know now that I didnít know three years ago. 

Iíve got a play which Iím sort of thinking about doing in the Phoenix and weíre all thinking about whether we can do that. Itís a very English play, itís 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? 

Itís actually quite simple to tell nowadays. I spend virtually no time at all on poetry. Sugar Mileís 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 voiceóI hadnít done that in two or three years, and for the moment Iím not quite sure whether I can again. I think that whatever mental energy or creative energy youíve got firing your playwriting is the same area in the brain. Ten years ago, if I hadnít written a poem for two years I would be terrified, I would think it was over. Now I donít really mind because I feel itís just going somewhere else. Iíve felt that increasingly for the last few years.

The way I work with theatre is to read a lot if itís 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 cafťs and figure out parts and plot structure and finally I try to find four or five days when Iíve really got nothing else on. Thatís quite difficult these days. If I find that, then I will hole up in a hotel and write it all in a short burst. 

Iím sort of in the middle of one of those right now with a play, but itís been difficult because Iíve had Wolfpit on, and then Iíve had teaching, so I havenít 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 thatís very solitary. In fact, originally I thought, ďwell, Iím going to write some plays so I can meet people, make some friends.Ē Thatís just a kind of surface expression of a serious point, which is I donít really trust or enjoy or believe in poetry that has just detached itself from the human form, thatís 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 youíre writing for characters. So thatís been the discipline of the last few years for me, to really have that kind of fidelity to characters. If youíre working with trained actors, youíre testing that all the time. if someone says to you, ďI wouldnít say this here, as opposed to thatĒóletís listen to that, because thatís an actual experience of what itís like to play something. So I think when I resume writing poetryóSugar Mile obviously has those sorts of hallmarksóI 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 thatís 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 itís the latter, but Iím wondering if you think in terms of characters and scenarios off the bat, or if you come across a nifty verse form and youíre working with a few lines, and from there you find it grows and expands into a story? 

To be honest, thereís no simple answer to that. If itís a short poemóthatís really sort of anything other than Timeís Fool and The Sugar Mileóanything 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 itís going to take. The form will tend to take me where Iím going with it. 

But with Timeís Fool I tried to have a story. Itís 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 that terza rima was theoretically infinite. I think of it as an infinite form, the most absolute, supremely useful form Iíve 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 Englandís 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. 

Letís 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, Iím 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? 

Iím not really sure. I tend to behave like a sprinter and I donít 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 Iíve done lately has been some kind of exploration of the ground, the no manís 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. Itís as much as I can do to keep up with what 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 didnít really need anyone to tell me to write what I was doing, because I think thatís 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 oneís roots as one could, and a lot of people in Britain tend to somewhat despise where theyíre from, get away from it.

 

Another poet youíve 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 itís kind of annoying that I canít really remember much. I remember him as having a huge impact on me, because he really could touch minds. Iíve never met anyone like that, and I donít think I ever would. Brodskyís range of reference . . . you can find examples of that in all his essays. If thereís 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 Brodskyís 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, itís just a great example to any young person, and I suppose that Iím trying to have that in a way, and have it naturally. Iím trying to kind of cultivate that, to think twice about everything.

 

One of Brodskyís heroes of course is Auden, somebody youíve been often compared to. I donít 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 toó 

The Orators, yeah.

 

That prompted me to read that again. I donít know if Audenís somebody whoís 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. Itís just astonishing, and then he brings that to the verse. I donít have 1% of that, you know.

I think the thing thatís 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 thatís kind of an English thing, although itís fading in Englandóto 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.

 

Thatís fascinating, what youíre saying, because a lot of people in their 20s and maybe in their 30s donít 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 wasnít that much attention being paid to form even then? 

Yeah, I think thatís true, and partly itís a cultural thing. Everyone else in the group was American. There were some quite experimental people, and I donít think many of them have stayed with it. But I was the only one whoíd really spent years working on form. Thatís 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 didnít 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 itís hard for a lot of people, especially if you donít 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 shouldnít be taught. 

This could be misconstrued in all sorts of ways, but I think when American poets reach the age of 23, and theyíre quite interested in it and theyíve read a bit, if they suddenly come across this whole prosody thing and itís taught in a dry scientific way, then I think it kind of throws them off balance. Also, everything that rules of prosody are predicated onóapart from how they derive from Greek rather than Englishóis also predicated on this kind of digital sense that thereís such a thing as a stress and non-stress. I just donít hear like that. I can line-scan and I can do pentameters and so on but it all sort of comes very naturally. 

Iím writing a play now and itís in verse, and I look at the line and it can have seven syllables or it can have 14 syllables, but somehow if itís said the way I want the actor to say it, itíll come out as pentameter. So actually I never ever count syllables, and Iíve always counseled people not to do that, because I donít think we hear in syllables either. I donít 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 youíre already 24 or whateveróthis whole iambic thing just throws people.

 

Quite a few of your poems seem to employ some sort of paintersí terminology. Not a lot of themóIím thinking of ďIsland Painting, St. LuciaĒ and a couple of other poems where colors seem remarkably vivid. Is painting something you do on the side? 

No, no, Iím absolutely hopeless. My daughter takes great pleasure in seeing I am rubbish at drawing; I canít 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 Derekís 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 donít know anything about [painting]. Itís about not quite getting it right, but failing towards success, I suppose. I hadnít thought about painting as a strand before, but then I was thinking of ďCap DíAil,Ē the one in The Breakage. But yes, it wouldnít have occurred to me, because I donít think Iím particularly visual.

 

A lot of your poems are built around a very specific situation. Sometimes youíll 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 theyíre 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. 

Thatís true.

 

A lot of poets sort of wave that question aside, like ďI refuse to give meaning.Ē Is there some kind of value of obscurity here? 

I think itís the two words you used. Itís mystery and obscurity, and itís the difference between those, which I think is the key. I have early work that is obscure, because Iím just relishing the sound. Iím 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, ďjust donít waste time on this,Ē because itís just a young poet learning what to do with sound, really, just stretching his legs. Itís learning, thatís what itís the sound of. 

The mystery is whatís 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 Donneís survival, Hopkinsí survival indestructible? Thatís 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 itís done, and thatís 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 doesnít have to move anywhere towards the reader, the reader will come to him. Itís the obscurity of allusion, that thereís a skeleton key of allusions that can unpick something. I donít like that sort of criticism and I donít much like that sort of poetry either. Iíd rather ĖI just think itís time to do something else. Picking up a poetry magazine and seeing somebody trying to be Gertrude Stein as if itís avant-garde. 90 years! Itís not new anymore, it canít be made new again. 

Thatís why Iíve 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 itís not really like anyone elseís. It doesnít resemble anything that was around at the time. To me itís a beautiful gateway that hasnít led anywhere. But I think itís terrible that it hasnít led anywhere. Crane should have been one of the people that is most looked up to. I think thatís just exemplary in terms of reading deep into the past and building your style out of that, rather than glancing around and saying, ďOkay, this is what poets are doing now, is to be elliptical and to give out very little.Ē 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 storyósuch as scene-setting through caricatureóversus some of the lyrical intensity that we associate with poetry? 

Itís a different set of rules, isnít it? You have psychological accuracy and plot, and making sure that the ends all meet, [Timeís Fool was] 10,000-line terza rima. Thereís 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 canít rely on lyric elevation.

 

Youíre writing a novel now, isnít that right? 

It relates to the formal experimentation I was talking about, between the feels of things. Itís a novel thatís entirely in dialogue. Itís entirely in voices. Thereís no ďhe said, she said.Ē This has been done before, but I donít think itís been done quite like this. Itís formally experimental, but in terms of content, itís meant to be quite accessible and funny. Itís really a comic novel. Iíve 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 weíll see how that goes. Iím about halfway through it, and I guess Iíll have it done by this summer.

 

A literary gossip question. What do you make of Alice Quinnís edition of Elizabeth Bishopís poems? Did you have a chance to look at that? 

I havenít seen the review and I havenít seen the book yet. The consensus seems to be of all the people Iíve talked about it with, that The New Yorker should have said, ďThis poem is printed crossed out,Ē and with the poems that they printed, they should have said, ďThis is crossed out in the notebook.Ē I havenít seen Aliceís book, but I would imagine that it does say that these are just dropped. Iím not an enormous enough Bishop fan that Iím that excited about a book of her drafts. Iím not that excited about a book of anyoneís drafts! In a way, I probably fall on the Vendler side of that question.

 

Youíre 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. Itís not a huge job, because Iím not inundated with stuff. I get a certain amount, but itís not an enormous amount. [With] most poetry, thereís stuff you can discard very quickly because itís evident that the person doesnít know what theyíre doing. 

To me over the years, Iím probably as aware that someone doesnít know what theyíre doing as a violinist would be, if you pick up a violin and youíve never played it. I can tell that quickly that someone canít do what theyíre trying to do. You can tell pretty quickly if someone canít ride a bike. Itís quite rewarding when you come across something good. Iíve just been doing that actually, and thereís some good stuff. Itís 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 youíre very interested in? 

I always wish that Gertrude Schnackenberg would write another book. Thatís really one of the few people who Iím interested to see what sheís done now. Thereís not many people I can say that about. My generation . . . well, let me be a little patriotic. Thereís a little group that I kind of climbed up withóSimon Armitage and Don PatersonóIím always interested in seeing what theyíre doing next, I think theyíre 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. Heís unknown in America pretty much, because he lived in London for most of his writing life, but I just think heís 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. 

 


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