An Interview with Fleur Adcock by Sarah Dence and Mark Wormald
Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand but has lived in England since 1963. She worked as a librarian in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until 1979, when she resigned to become a freelance writer. Her latest collection, The Incident Book (1986), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and she was recently edited The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987). At present she is translating the poetry of several Romanian women following two visits to that country.
What emerges very strongly from your own poetry is that you identify with the experiences of the average person rather than taking a more detached and clinical view of the world around you.
Yes, that's begun to happen. Well in my youth it was all just romantic 'I' and 'me' stuff all about love and 'relationships', in other words exclusive relationships - and, I suppose, less selfish subjects. But the older you get the more you wake up to what's happening around you, and realise that you are not unique and that the things that happen to you are happening to other people.
When you came to England in 1963 were you writing about your impressions of society then?
When I first came over I wrote a lot of rubbish - I had culture shock. In New Zealand we had been very sheltered from the news, so when I came over here and realised about all those things like C.N.D. and Oxfam, I didn't do much about it, but I was struck by it and I wrote some very naive reactions. But I gradually settled down and started writing about things that made more sense to me which were mostly fairly personal things, I suppose. I think the new attitude may have been more since I resigned from my job and have been living in a different way, living among people, moving around more. I live in Mrs Thatcher's constituency, hence the title of that section in The Incident Book, 'Thatcherland.'
In your 1974 collection, The Scenic Route, the poem 'In Memoriam: .James K. Baxter' includes the idea that 'the public attitude/isn't my style', and yet you are writing more frequently about concerns facing all of us. How do you regard your style?
I don't know what my style is. It may have changed since then. But I suppose I try to write as if I'm speaking to someone, addressing someone in an informal way, in a room or in a natural situation. So I don't preach. When I say 'the public attitude', Baxter for example did tend to preach rather or to sermonize which I prefer not to do ....
Do you visualise a particular reader when you write? A female one perhaps?
I don't think I have anyone in mind. I think it's just the me inside myself. You have a sort of voice inside your head which is speaking to you when you are writing or imagining something .... When I first started writing I didn't notice I was a woman. If I was using the third person singular it would be "he" as often as "she".
You say that you aim for informality , but you are very conscious of poetic form. How do you relate the two?
Yes, they're two different things. The informal style means a conversational style, perhaps a colloquial style. Somehow or other it relates to how I speak whereas the style on the page, the formality of verse forms, is another matter. You have to be able to conceal the formality, make it sound as though it's natural utterance and then later people might pick up the book and realize that it's in, say, six line stanzas with some rhymes in it - perhaps, perhaps not.
Do you find that you have to work hard at a poem and revise it a good deal before you are satisfied that it is finished?
I work at it a lot, yes. I find it very hard to go back and revise after a long interval so it just takes a long time to get written. There are exceptions, things that come out very suddenly in a great burst - I was going to say, like a haemorrhage, but there is enough blood around! - but mostly it's fairly slow. You get the impulse, you get the line or phrase or whatever it is that triggers it off and the connection with whatever you realise that the poem is going to be about. But you don't know where it's going to go. what it's going to develop into. After a few days, if you have left it for too long it will become a different poem, which may be what it was intended to become, but it seems more natural to finish it within a few days or a week. And the form sort of comes with it. The rhythm of the line or phrase that starts it off suggests vaguely the rhythm of what it's going to be and then you get some impression of things like how long the lines are going to need to be. I do sometimes realise that what I've started off in is the wrong one and so must either loosen it or tighten it up. I can't write in a very open form.
You have written a couple of poems in memory of people whom you have known fairly closely. Both 'In Memoriam: James K. Baxter', which is quite explicitly conscious of the form, and 'The Keepsake' from your most recent collection have a fairly rigorous structure and rhyme scheme. Do you find that form is a way of approaching this, of coping with the need to express yourself in such emotional circumstances?
I was shocked to find, when I was told about Peter Laver's death, a friend rang me up and, even as he was on the phone telling me, I suddenly thought: But it's only a few weeks since he gave me The Keepsake. Oh my God, I'm thinking of a poem already! So I wrote it, and of course I wanted to for his friends and for his wife, but I tried to make it as hard for myself as possible, by using very complicated rhyme and form because I didn't want to feel that I was getting something easy out of his death. So it was a distraction; it gave me the poem to think about instead of the death, in a way, and then a similar thing happened when my father died in the summer. I didn't think I'd be able to write at all because there were all sorts of emotional things going on but I found I was, late at night, starting to write things down, again, after another coincidence that I had been in Manchester when he was dying and that was where he was born: that seemed to be inviting a poem. It's just a way of dealing with grief .... It's like making a tombstone or a wreath, a concrete object.
And humour, too, of a self-deprecating kind seems to be another important feature in your poetry when dealing with emotive subjects. You tend to play an idea off against a stereotype or cliche to hint at a more serious level of meaning. Do you see this as a way of remaining an individual against society and society's language?
Yes, perhaps it is. I think cliches are very fruitful and I do use them quite a lot. In that poem, 'Last Song' from The Incident Book, "Goodbye, sweet symmetry. Goodbye, sweet world" well. you can't get more cliched than that and that was how the poem started .... There is something poets from Northern Ireland have said, too. Michael Longley once said that he was criticised for writing about a whole lot of innocent little things like birds' eggs; he said that these were analogies. Don't people realise that you can't go writing about bombs and political events all the time? These are analogies with what's happening in society, and if he's writing about a bird's egg then he's writing about the risk his children are facing. So, we're all concerned, anyone who has children is concerned with the risk to future generations, the hostages to fortune...
In your introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry you said of Sylvia Plath that "she had the technical ability to transform her emotions and experiences into literature and not just 'self-expression'."
Well, sometimes it may be just free verse that she used in a very expert way and there is a technique in that which is very hard to imitate or explain. I don't know how you learn it but she had got it. She started off very formally under the influence of people like John Crowe Ransom and then gradually she became freer but still had that discipline underneath.
Later on in the same introduction you write: "I am not interested in 'primal scream' writing: slabs of raw experience untransformed by any attempt at ordering and selection. " Is this a danger that you see inherent within a feminist approach to poetry?
Or anything, yes. It's just the contrast between art and self-expression, I suppose, because everybody writes self-expression. But there is also the political stance: they say that the forms we write in were invented by men and therefore we shouldn't use them - which is just like saying we shouldn't use motor cars or antibiotics. You see what is around, you just use everything and you have to be quite voracious about using any techniques that are available.
But are you aware of a growing female poetic tradition?
Yes, it's very encouraging but I don't think it is limited to feminists or to any particular school of feminism. There is far too much classifying. I think that it is just women learning that it's their turn .... I'm saying their attitude or their approach, their angle on things, is slightly different because of the way they livc but I don't think women's poetry is restricted to any particular theme. I mean, you could be like Marianne Moore and write about absolutely everything, and she certainly wasn't typical of anything or anyone; nor was Elizabeth Bishop, nor a lot of the rather strange, rather solitary women poets that have been writing.
Is there a danger, in the light of this, of women taking themselves too seriously now?
Yes, perhaps. I think we have to go through all these extremes and illogical positions. It's the sort of thing that has happened in New Zealand poetry that I've seen over the years: a very strong rebellion against the colonial presence. They desire anything that sounds British, anything that rhymes, anything that is in the form of British tradition. They're reading American poetry and writing it. Of course, they're going through this 'new nation' thing and growing up just as women here are experiencing a similar phase, but sooner or later they'll settle down and not be so prescriptive about it.
Do you foresee a time when an anthology of 20th Century poetry will more properly represent women?
I think it's going to have to because men are beginning to realize that they can't get away with this forever. But this old cliche, every time the subject of a women's anthology crops up - there's always someone to say "why hasn't there been an anthology of male poets?" and you always have to respond with the same corny answer: "Pick up any anthology; they're all anthologies of men."
One of the problems with compiling the anthology was that some of the younger people were doing things that older ones weren't. For example, there arc not many black poets and I would have liked to have put in people like Grace Nichols, but they were all too young for my cut off date - I just had to have some limitation - so she and her contemporaries who are continuing to write I've had to leave out until the next one. There will be a next one.
Will you be doing that?
You are currently involved in an attempt to translate Romanian women's poetry in order to bring them to a wider audience. Was it a natural move to choose women rather than to try to represent Romanian poetry in general?
A lot of the people I mix with are women poets and writers, and by doing an anthology I have committed myself to that. All the poets I am translating there are women partly because they're the ones I've met and whose work I know a bit of, but also because I can understand their lives and I don't understand the lives of men there. They are completely foreign to me, whereas the women are rather foreign, but they have families and they have conflicts between their free time, their families and their jobs. They have the same ordinary everyday background as women here so it makes sense for me to concentrate on them.
Will this interest in Romanian poetry be brought out in your own poetry, do you think?
I don't know how that would work in English. Some of them seem very un-English types of poem which is why they're hard to translate: partly because they are living under a lot of unwritten censorship all the time so that they can't write about all the unpleasant details of their lives, and partly because they have this tradition of surrealism and the absurd and all of that which is not fashionable in English. So I've selected the ones, well, the ones I could do first of all, and then the ones that I thought would make sense to other people... I need to explore it a bit more and see what comes out of it.