An Interview with Mick Imlah by Nicholas Jenkins
Mick Imlah, born in 1956, spent most of his early life in Scotland. He was educated at Dulwich and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he gained a First in English and researched on Tennyson and his contemporaries. This year he became Coeditor of Poetry Review. His first collection of poems, The Zoologist's Bath & Other Adventures was published by Sycamore Press in 1982 and it brought him immediate recognition as a writer of great power and invention; 'Browning in the world of Hammer Films' as Peter Porter described him. A new book will be published by The Salamander Press, Edinburgh.
Many poets questioned about their 'influences' tend to name only twentieth predecessors. Why is that?
'Influence' is a word poets tend to apply to something they've grown out of; Larkin's North Ship is a classic case of influence. I don't think it's a very fruitful way of approaching a writer. It suggests that their main inspiration is a literary one. Critics will often try to find your poems like someone else's because it makes their job easier - that's lazy and frequently false. They make similarity sound like plagiarism. You can borrow someone else's style to get your poem written, and yet it can be quite individual. I've always liked Tennyson more than most people seem to. I don't think I write like him. I don't know why, or if, people cite their twentieth-century favourites - I suppose to claim Shakespeare as an influence is redundant or facetious.
But has there been, do you think, a break with traditional techniques?
What, since I was born? The reaction to modernism was well entrenched by then. Free verse is just another option. Today's poet is a bit like a Victorian architect; there's no single staple native style available (as, say, the heroic couplet was for Pope) so he has to choose a model for each piece of work: Middle Pointed Gothic, neo-Egyptian, blank verse, this or that kind of stanza, silly one-word lines, whatever. Everyone knows it isn't the real thing, that there's an element of exercise about it, but it's better than rubble. I don't like poems which look like rubble. And I think this self-consciousness and vcrsatility is a good thing in poetry; unlike a town, a book of poems looks better for a mixturc of styles.
Do you not then feel part of any general poetic, or social, movement? Or part of a particular tradition?
No. I don't think many writers enjoy being labelled in that way, and they certainly don't do it to themselves.
I know you think of yourself as a Scot. Does the fact of being Scots, or British, or English mean anything to you, or your poems?
My family moved south from Glasgow when I was ten, so the most important part of my upbringing was English; I developed an inconspicuous accent quite quickly, though I still have the other one up my sleeve like a dirk for tight comers. I suppose I only feel Scots on major sporting occasions now. It's not something I'd write about.
I also have a gimmicky nostalgia for England as I imagine it was between the wars, or before concrete buildings, or whenever. One of my favourite books is a 1949 Batsford Book called The Counties of England, full of the charm of Rutland etc. I found the idea of a recent TV programme called 'The Beauties of Northamptonshire' appealing, though I couldn't watch it. Such things are good showoff material. Quite often I lament the felling of the elms in the Suffolk village of Long Me I ford , which I learn from the Batsford Book were very fine, thought I don't know whether the elms have been felied or not, and I haven't been to Long Melford. I suppose if I had I wouldn't feel so warmly about it; a church and a bunch of trees. Not travelling has its own glamour; if I could drive, for example, I could knock off the beauties of Northamptonshire in a weekend. It's the placcs I haven't been that are interesting to me.
There's something of this in the imaginary travel poems that I write, which recount variously plausible adventures in places which mayor may not exist: 'Brawl In Co. Kerry', 'Visiting St. Anthony', 'At the Grave of Michael Hofmann' and others. The pleasure is in the pretending. I spent a month in America recently, and enjoyed it, but I didn't want to write about it. In this respect experience can be confining, almost a handicap.
To what extent do you think the monologue relies on the common nature of intimate experiences? Or would you call the dreamy world of your poems a new one?
I suppose 'dreamy', taken literally, is the right word. I don't think 1 approve of using dreams in pocms, but I do it. About half the poems refer to them, or at least to that grey arca between waking and sleeping. The narrators are often in and out of bed because that's where I get the idcas for their poems. Sometimes I try to bring them on; in the past, if I've had a free weekend, I've eaten lumps of cheese before sleeping because that's meant to stir up vivid dreams. A well-judged hangover can be equally fruitful. 'Abortion' suggests that the process of recovery or resurrection is only a delusion, and that you really are doomed by having drunk so much. (Of course it's also about abortion; not in any League Against Cruel Sports way, just an effort to imagine what it feels like, the would-be-sinister point being that it isn't felt, though they say now the embryo can tingle at four weeks.) Another longer sequcnce, 'The Drinking Race', stems from my waking up once, after a drink or two, having dreamt vividly the taste of human blood. It stayed with me for days; very rich. It could have been the taste of rusty tap-water, but it was called blood in the dream. That's the kind of productively unpleasant state you have to bring on.
Your poems, in their energy and sonorousness, seem to relish the frail and misconstruing characteristics of the narrators. Why is that?
I'm not so interested in my narrators, theoretically, as you suggest. I write in the first person because I find I like to consider a poem as a statement made by someone, whether in a speech to someone else, or in a written narrative. There are different degrees of characterisation. 'Quasimodo' and 'The Zoologist's Bath' are dramatic speeches, happening in a specified time and place; the hunchback speaks to the sleeping girl until she wakes up, the Zoologist soliloquises for the duration of his bath. The interest isn't really in the characterisation. The hunchback's mind is a fairly obvious place to set a meditation on beauty, and his body is a physical representation of the kind of self-doubt or disqualification everyone feels in certain relationships. The Zoologist is an exceptional case - his mind is the object of the parody - but there's more than one voice even so; a comic anachronistic register ('You're in the Deluge, right?') offsets a more scrious attempt to mimic thc happy mania of religious argument.
My narrators are becoming more thinly drawn, since I've moved away from dramatic speech towards fictional narrative. The narrators of 'St. Anthony' and 'Doing It' are meant to be thirty years apart in age, but there's only a slight difference in tone - a certain worn-out cynicism in the one, an overreacting priggishness in the other.
You tend to write relatively slowly. Has this anything to do with a problem in accommodating private experience into a fictional context?
Why's that a problem,? Do you think my poetry is especially defensive of its origins?
But what are the origins? No-one's interested in a student not being able to get to sleep. You're protecting the reader as much as yourself by working your insomnia into a myth. And poems soon detatch themselves from whatever provoked them; they're not a secret therapy, and they're not a coded version of the poet's life. Still, even if they only reveal themselves, it's a worry when they're nearly finished, because they're what you do, and you want to be thought good at it. I don't like sending things out for public display with holes or patches. So I revise, much too much. In the quest for polish or evenness you can rewrite the life out of a thing. Revision - mine, anyway - tends to substitute the elaborate for the simple; trying to turn everything into a flashy 'good bit'. In 'Quasimodo', for example, I replaced the hunchback's desire for a simple exchange of affection with the girl ('To greet you with a smile, and get a smile') with a reference to his role as a scorned provider of food ('To greet you with a face, and not a plate') - because I thought the latter was smarter, funnier. I can see now that the first version was truer to the character's situation and idiom, and that the second interrupts the momentum of his fantasy. I suppose this connects back to your question, if it's a case of allowing the way I wanted to appear personally (i.e. not soft or naive) to interfere with a sentimental poem. So you may be right after all.
What sort of poems do you want to write now?
I don't know that many poets have that much control. You might as well ask me to design my children - not that I think of my poems as children. I don't much like the 'sort of pocm' I've been writing lately; they'rc nasty, lurid, not colourful. They take place in alleys and toilets in places like Norwood. I yearn for the open air.
Your personae often seem motivated by a need to relate an experience they cannot define. It's noticcable that many poems evade a clinching final statement. How do you think this relates to the tensions between poet and fictional character?
Evasion seems the natural way to do it - I don't know what I'd want to clinch. Maybe the end of 'Abortion' is an example of what you mean. There's meant to be a tension between what the reader understands to be happening, and what the hero thinks:
I was doubled-up in air, but couldn't breath,
And dizzy I saw an experiment
With magnets, me the broken one,
A horseshoe facing down,
Sucked up. I passed clean out
And was lucky to surive: the boat
Melted in blood, but I stiffened safely,
A rabbit's foot, gristly
In someone's cabinet.
We think the hero misjudges his fate to see it in terms of good luck charms, and to call it survival. But his thumbs-up is also meant reciprocally to altcr our view. The cabinet can be the mind of the parent, a display case, the place wherc people shut away secret medications, or the 100 where things get flushed away. 'Brawl In Co. Kerry' is an anecdote about a bar brawl with a spooky pretentious cnding. The narrator and his girlfriend have escaped a clumsy assault feeling very English:
She and the moon
Blinked at each other through the mottled speed
Of fugitive clouds; and from the walled-up fields
There came a sound like a host's embarrassed cough,
The formal tick tick of the tongueless cricket.
This tries to present the complexity of Ireland's attitude to lis guests, and of the visitors' view of the hospitality they receive, without saying anything about either.
The avoidance of simplification or judgement may be criticised in a poem called 'Justice' which is an extreme case of relativism. It deals with the most unpleasant assault I could imagine, which was actually a real one, and proceeds through a series of legal cliches to blame the five-year-old victim for what happens to him. 'Justice' hates all the protagonists. The force of the poem may therefore be that we need more authority, more 'clinching statement' - but I don't think it reads that way.
What do you feel about James Fenton's idea ofa poem that has an intrinsically interesting subject?
I think it's an excellent idea.
Your work seems to raise that possibility and then deny it.
You mean that you find my titles more interesting than my poems? Fair enough. Titles are pure suggestion. I'd like to write a book of them. 'War: A Comic History.' 'Love On All Fours'. 'Heaven.' I like big, bold titles to go with oblique poems that don't do the discursive work you've been led to expect. I've learned the importance of titles from reading manuscripts at Poetry Review: 'Fantasy.' 'Waiting For The Bus'. 'The Old Man'. Then you get the ones that think they're punchy 'Socks'. 'Sex'. 'Implosion'. 'Brixton 1981'. - Or sophisticated: 'Play of Light in New Hampshire (for Harriet)'. You have to read them through, of course, but a poem never recovers from a bad title. Look at 'The Zoologist's Bath.' A poet like Dick Davis, a good poet, is more or less unreadable because of his titles. You have to be careful; very careful.