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Interviews

An Interview with Neil Astley

Before founding Bloodaxe Books in Newcastle in 1978, Neil Astley worked as a journalist, and was living in Darwin, Australia, when the city was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. In 1982 he received an Eric Gregory Award for a pamphlet collection, The Speechless Act (Mandeville Press, 1984). His first book of poems, Darwin Survivor (Peterloo Poets, 1988), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. As editor of Bloodaxe Books, he has published four anthologies: Ten North-East Poets (1980); Bossy Parrot (1987), a book of poems by children from North-East England; Poetry with an Edge (1988), a Bloodaxe "sampler" anthology; and Dear Prime Minister (1990), a book of open letters to Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock. Giving Bloodaxe its 1990 Small Publisher's Award, the Sunday Times recently commented: "Bloodaxe Books has established a ferocious reputation as a publisher of ground-breaking modern poetry. It has cornered a market in the publishing industry with flair, imagination and conspicuous success."


An obvious first question from an Oxford magazine: do you still feel alienated as a poet and as a reader from that "patio of friends and poets", that world of distracting "language games" and its "verse contortionist" practitioners which you identified with Oxford and London, however satirically, in your poem "A Martian Sees the Earth Destroyed"? It seems to exhibit a really bitter humour: do you still see Martians as your enemy, or are they - and the Oxford-London coteries they represent - a thing of the past?

The twin concerns of Darwin Survivor, the volume from which that poem comes, are language and truth. The book's epigraph from Wittgenstein ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent") and an opening poem called "The Speechless Act" set the stage for an argument about human communication (or the lack of it) which I was trying to dramatise through the poems: human communication within a social, cultural, political or personal context, presented in all its varieties through different kinds of poems. I didn't write "A Martian Sees the Earth Destroyed" as a bitter anti-Oxford, anti-Martian satire. The impulse was much more complex than that, and I was reassured when Mick Imlah, an Oxford poet, took it for Poetry Review (after Michael Horowitz had rejected it!).

Darwin Survivor begins with a group of dramatic monologues in which I tried to get under the skin, into the mind, into the way of thinking of people who cannot communicate with others or with each other. Speech gives us the means of communication, but language can also be perverted to deceive, and the Martian poem is immediately preceded by "Operation Teddy Bear", a poem from the time of the Vietnam War entirely composed of deceptive euphemisms - as used by U.S. military spokesmen in their communiques, not to communicate but to mislead. Other poems - such as "Old Misery" and "My Friend the Preacher" dramatise the way in which instead of being ourselves and being true to ourselves, too often we are actors, deluding others and deluding ourselves - the "act" part of The Speechless Act. "Act" is one of several recurring words or images which run through the poems: deceit, pretence, show, feigning, lying, betrayal. I say our and we because I include myself in this, and I'm harsher on myself, or my past self, than I am on anyone of the targets you're concerned with.

In a way "A Martian Sees the Earth Destroyed" was one of my own language games: I wanted to tryon the Emperor's new clothes, and imagine myself as a Martian verse contortionist trying to write about the holocaust while hanging on to all my usual Martian intellectual habits: the knowing references to art or science and other poets, self-conscious punctuation, the usual turned-round imagery. But it is an unfair game, and moves towards its own inevitable failure at the point where the film director has to play God and call out Cut!

But if poetry itself cannot deal with the unspeakable - to go back to Wittgenstein, and to George Steiner's thesis- I can hardly use such a test to show up the inadequacy of the Martian intellectual approach to poetry, can I? On the other hand (exit fairness, enter Bitter Humour), the literary establishment have never been great upholders of the Marquis of Queensbury's rules, from Wilde's time onwards, so if this meagre poem will cause some little offence, I don't feel I should apologise for that. They had it coming.

Another way of asking what's perhaps the same question would be to remind you of your first, defiantly regional anthology, Ten NorthEast Poets, which marked your first few years of publishing. Since then, you've begun to publish the work of Oxford poets too: to invade enemy territory. Do you still define Bloodaxe by its roots?

The fact that Bloodaxe Books has roots at all is rare for an English publisher: Canongate's and Mainstream's publishing is rooted in Scotland, as is Seren's in Welsh culture, but Carcanet seems to owe more to its Oxford origins than to its adOPted home in Manchester. London publishers have no roots; they shift with the cultural tide. To take an example: for the past five years Bloodaxe has run a free poetry competition with Tyneside's evening newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, which attracts thousands of entries. As one of the sponsors, Bloodaxe each year sends four promising new writers on Arvon courses (always including one young poet in the 16 to 18 age group), and we've run poetry workshops for the juniors, out of which came the anthology Bossy Parrot. Some of these poets are quite astonishing for their age, and have given readings all over the North East, as well as on local and national television and radio. Some of the Chronicle poets have gone on to publish books, win Gregory Awards, and so on. Bloodaxe's NorthEast roots extend beyond book publishing to promoting poetry by new writers long before they reach publication standard, and nurturing poetry in the schools.

Bloodaxe also publishes a number of northern poets, not just because they're northerners but because they're good. They're often good because their work is rooted in a culture or a place, and because their relationship with it is fraught with contradictions: Matt Simpson with his Merseyside seafaring background, Tony Harrison the scholarship boy turned international dramatist from Leeds, Ken Smith transplanted to the city from a harsh rural childhood, John Cassidy's and Simon Armitage's very different views of Pennine life.

When Bloodaxe was set up in the late seventies, there were many excellent northern poets around whom the London publishers weren't interested in publishing, like David Constantine, Peter Didsbury and Ken Smith. My Ten North-East Poets and Douglas Dunn's Hull equivalent A Rumoured City were introduction anthologies for some of these neglected figures as well as for newer poets like George Charlton, Sean O'Brien, Douglas Houston and Tony Flynn. Some people have the impression that Bloodaxe is a provincial imprint. I prefer to call it an international literary publishing house based in Newcastle. The most parochial imprints are those London publishers whose lists are largely made up of writers from London and the Home Counties.

There's also this myth about Bloodaxe not publishing poets from enemy territory. But at the same time as we've gone about the task of publishing all those northerners, we've published poets from all parts of Britain and Ireland and many parts of the world. The first book (as opposed to pamphlet) published by Bloodaxe was actually by an Oxford poet, Stephen Dunstan, then an undergraduate at Balliol.

Donald Davie's recent book Under Briggflatts seems calculated to perpetuate the political nature, and the political divisions, of the poetry industry in Britain. Its title also includes you: Basil Bunting's Briggflatts provides the epigraph to Poetry with an Edge; provides, indeed, the name of Bloodaxe itself. Do you regard this schism as inevitable, or welcome, or - as I suspect from your previous comments - already dated?

Under Briggflatts is Davie's own partisan and partial account of contemporary British poetry. Subtitled "A History of Poetry in Oreat Britain 1960-1988", it's a "history" which excludes Ireland from its title yet which includes discussions of Yeats, Clarke, Kinsella and Heaney ... but no other Irish poets in any depth; Montague, Murphy, Mahon and Longley are there as occasional compass bearings, while Muldoon, Paulin, McOuckian and Durcan aren't even on his map. On this side of the Irish Sea, Davie ignores not just "mainstream" figures like Dunn, Adcock, Stevenson, Fenton, Raine and the Fullers but also Redgrove, Reading, W.S.Oraham, Roy Fisher, Ken Smith, black poets and women poets (his chapter on them is actually about Feinstein and the Russians), while devoting much space to poets associated with Carcanet Press and P.N.Review. It's not a history but a collection of opinions, re-hashed reviews and short essays re-published to illustrate a thesis. So the answer to your question is quite clearly yes: Davie's book perpetuates the political divisions of the poetry industry.

Under Briggflatts is a better title than it is a book, for Bunting has certainly been a guiding spirit for many British poets, just as Kavanagh and MacNeice have for Irish poets during the same period; but all three still lack the wider readership which some of the poets they've influenced now enjoy. The name Bloodaxe was suggested by Bunting, but Eric Bloodaxe was the last king of Northumbria, and on his death the North was annexed by the English. So he's a strong local symbol of independence, and you could call him the first patron of poetry: he did after all make Egil Skallagrimsson compose his amazing praise-poem during the course of a night on pain of losing his head. Egil wouldn't have produced the goods that quickly had the bait been an Arts Council Bursary! Bunting also portrays Bloodaxe in Briggflatts as the other part of his and of the N orthumbrian personality, the anarchic, warring foil to the contemplative Christian personality of Cuthbert, Aidan, the monks of Lindisfarne and his own Quaker background. You can't have your Bede without your Bloodaxe to balance it. When I was casting around for names, there seemed to be enough publishers named after flowers, animals and worthy people, so I thought it was about time the other side got a look in. It must have helped us earn what the Sunday Times was kind enough to call our "ferocious reputation".

I wonder whether you see your policy of fostering the work of European poets as contributing to that political debate, or whether you aim to transcend it? Translations are at last becoming fashionable, after all: O.U.P. are catching up with you, and have just published Fleur Adcock's versions of Grete Tartler, the Romanian poet. Do you welcome this?

They must transcend it. But if you're promoting European poetry in Britain you're also challenging the gentility principle just as Alvarez did - not just through The New Poetry but more importantly I think through his editorship of the Penguin Modern European Poets series. But if that hard-fought battle has now become a popular cause, I don't think O.u.P. is jumping on any bandwagons: it has published some pioneering translations overthe years (Brodsky, Akhmatova, Herbert), but it's now taking a risk with new names, and that must be welcome. Faber, on the other hand ...

A related question, because I'm particularly interested in those Europeans. In your introduction to Poetry with an Edge you wrote: "They seemed to achieve an eloquence, a purity of utterance, which I had not experienced in my reading of contemporary English poetry. They weren't concerned with how things looked, but how things were." Do you see recent developments in young poets as doing something to redress the balance over here? To catch up? I'm thinking of the distinctly non-British magic realist flavour of someone like Jo Shapcott's work.

Yes. What you quote relates to my discovery - ten years later - of European poets who'd been published during the sixties: the Penguin Modern European Poets, in fact. When the big publishers started cutting back or axing their poetry lists, poetry in translation was kept alive firstly by Anvil, Carcanet and Menard, and by magazines like Stand and Modern Poetry in Translation, and then in recent years by Bloodaxe and Forest Books as well- kept alive for readers and for the younger poets. We've not been helped by the little Englanders throwing up their smokescreen complaints about reading literature in translation, and their simplistic nonsense about "poetry is what gets lost in translation" (they don't refuse to watch Chekhov plays performed in English). Post-war European poets have been obsessed by ideas and human experience, and not - as in much English poetry - by appearances. Their poetry has been pared down to its essentials, and while you may lose the texture of the language in translation, expert poet-translators have given us translations of poets such as R6zewicz, Holub, Popa, Brodsky, Pilinszky, which enrich our literature and add to our understanding of the world more profoundly than English poems about embarrassment. Many poems from this new generation have taken their bearings from this recent European tradition, even to the extent of learning more languages themselves: Carol Rumens and Tom Paulin both learned Russian, and Fleur Adeoek taught herself Romanian so that she eould translate poets like Grete Tartler and Daniele Cr1l.snaru. Some poets have become so saturated with this tradition that they've written books in the persona of a poet they claim to have translated. Geoffrey Hill's Sebastian Arrurruz was perhaps the precursor of Christopher Reid's Katerina Brac and Duncan Bush's Victor Bal, or maybe it was Paul Hyland, who was able to confront more of himself through his Poems of Z, his Eastern Bloc spy poet, than he could perhaps deal with in the supposedly more direct poetry of The Stubborn Forest..

Tony Flynn's recent poems are so pared down that they read almost like translations from the Hungarian: the voice and lyric grace are unmistakably Flynn's, but he's clearly learned from Pilinszky, Popa and R6zewicz. This immersion in other literary and cultural traditions has given poets new imaginative freedoms at the same time as it's imposed a greater rigour on their poetry. The same is true of Irish poets like Paul Muldoon, John Montague and Brendan Kennelly, who have not just translated Irish poetry into English, but have also used and assimilated it in their own poetry. In Jo Shapcott's case - and for many of her contemporaries - American poetry has been another liberating influence. You also come back to Bunting when you realise how rarely you find a redundant word or unnecessary adjective in the work of these poets, "condensing so much music into so few bars / with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence, / never a boast or a see-here".

I don't think our poets are trying to "catch up" with the European writers. It's more that the maps are being re-drawn, and they're now writing out of a shared sensibility which includes American, European and Caribbean poetic traditions. Some critics have recently been talking about Brodsky, Walcott, Heaney, Milosz, Holub and Les Murray as though they formed some kind of international super-league, but discussing poetry in those terms, as a world culture, is a recognition of the ways in which the boundaries are being broken down. I don't think it's possible any more to talk about English poetry as though it existed in cultural purdah. That was the case once, but it's no more so now than it is in the novel, theatre, music and film. European and South American novelists have influenced novels being written by British writers, and the same thing is happening in poetry. At the same time the whole notion of national identity has been broken down, and any map of British and Irish poetry must include writers born and brought up in other countries; poets' subject-matter, forms and freedoms have also been changed by other cultural forces, including feminism, polarised politics, green issues and the nuclear threat. Of course there are English poets who are still writing as though none of this had happened, but they no longer form the mainstream, and I can't conceive of them entertaining any thoughts about wanting or needing to catch up. If there's any more catching up to be done, it is perhaps for some readers to take the same imaginative plunge which the poets have risked. I'm thinking in particular of Peter Didsbury's poetry, which Sean O'Brien described in London Magazine as "the kind of work which makes you realise what you've been putting up with in the meantime ... a sense of adventure hardly to be paralleled in contemporary poetry". The TLS called him the best new poet published by Bloodaxe, and yet Didsbury is still probably the least known of the major names on our list. I think his imagination and powers of invention are truly staggering, and his flouting of convention and his subversive humour can be quite outrageous. There's a whiff of the French Surrealists in his literary make-up, and Martin Bell was an early influence, but apart from that you can't really compare him with any other poets because he's such an original. Some people have likened him to Ashbery but there's really no comparison. Didsbury is so much better.