One All: An Interview with Don Paterson
By Caroline Blyth
Don Paterson won the 1994 Arvon Poetry Competition and, with Nil Nil (Faber 1993 - boasting a specially commissioned cover in Dundee United colours), the Forward Poetry Prize for the best first collection. He won an Eric Gregory A ward in 1990. At present Paterson lives in Dundee, the place where he was born, where he is Writer-in-Residence at Dundee University. He has been a professional musician since leaving school and his jazz band Lammas had a CD out on the EFZ label at the end of last year.
It's odd that your poetry is music in that it's poetry, yet doesn't take music as its subject.
Oh, absolutely. A lot of people have asked me about that. I have written recently a couple of things that are not "about" music, but about the experience of playing music. But I think it's the last thing you want to hear about - any more than you'd want to hear about plumbing if you were a plumber; why would you want to write about plumbing? The two things - my music and my poetry - are entirely separate, and best kept separate. I have been a musician since I was fifteen, so that's still fifty percent of my income - although obviously the residency in Dundee has made a bit of a difference. But next year I'll be back to playing music. That's what I would be doing if! hadn't been writing, certainly. It is hard. Being a poet's a stupid job to do for a living, of course it is.
When did you first start writing poetry - it wasn't in childhood, was it?
No. At school I was good at English, but I didn't really display any particular aptitude, and I wasn't writing. My attention was really on music at that time - that's all I wanted to do. I didn't go to college. I moved to London in '84 and, a couple of years after, I started to write. It came the way it's not supposed to come, which was, like a blinding flash: I just suddenly realised that this was what I wanted to do.
It's that "Pamassian" for you?
Well it's Parnassian when you write it: a druggy "high", which is extraordinary, but after that you get the donkey work of actually making a poem. And then you've got all other kinds ofthings to do: getting a book together, and probably readings. Most of the work you do is nothing to do with poetry.
"Coleridge on alcohol" is how you've been described.
I'll settle for that - although I'm drinking less these days. I admire a lot of Coleridge, because I think he's almost a kind of proto post-modernist really; a maverick. He did lovely textual things, lovely tricks which he played on the reader, which are built into the poem in an extraordinary way. I admire that sort of trickery because I think I'm admittedly serious about what I do and so was Coleridge. It's an enormously shamanistic thing: if you do any public arts there's a degree of shamanism. You're trying to change people's minds. It sounds unbelievably pompous but there's no other earthly reason for doing it. And if you're not doing it for that reason, you're talking about yourself which is even more reprehensible. But built into that there's always an element of trickery: there has to be an element of trickery as well. In fact, that's how you accomplish what you do, for the most part - by sleight of hand. And that's why I like Coleridge, I guess - though obviously among a lot of other writers. I would have picked him out!
I guess you can pick out some others.
My big influences have been the Ulster poets Muldoon and Derek Mahon; and when I grow up I want to be Michael Longley (and maybe I will). I've met them all, apart from Mahon. Muldoon's sort of aware of me; and I'm extremely aware of him. And I've met Longley a few times. He's a great geezer, an extraordinary, wonderful poet, and really terribly underrated because he's so quiet which is not a very fashionable thing to be at the moment. There's a big generation of really young, very showy poets, of which I suppose I am one; but I'm trying to change.
Do you mean by "big generation" New Generation? Apart from winning the Arvon, you've been promoted as a "New Gen" poet.
The first thing you should do about "New Gen" and all this garbage on television - National Poetry day etc. - is at least to register your enthusiasm forthe idea in principle. After that you can carp about it. People have been carping for the last Godknows-how-many years about the lack of publicity poetry gets, so they shouldn't carp when it does get some. They should enthuse first. Then carp. At least these things are in place now. One day they might want to do something positive about doing something a little more fair and a lot less arbitrary than "New Gen", but at least somebody's got the ball rolling. Let's not be too negative.
It has clearly helped you a lot.
It helped me enormously - financially, of course it has. And that's what's a shame really: I'd like to see the money go to me, first - of course I would - but there are people who deserve it more. The absurd thing is having this cut-off point at forty, and excluding people like Sean 0' Brien and J 0 Shapcott and Peter Didsbury: brilliant poets, who really should have been the beneficiaries of that sort of promotion. Didsbury' s a superb poet, and nobody's read Didsbury. He's just another bloody poet's poet, which is just not good enough. People should read him.
You mean people other than the people who write poetry journals?
Now that's depressing: it's all very well people being into a National Poetry Day and "New Gen", but the level of criticism and the state of most journalism at the moment is absolutely deplorable. There's very little decent criticism that isn't building on the hype. It's either far too liberal and everything's wonderful - "we can all do it" - or it's in the academic places. There are some good writers, and some good critics, but there's no Randall Jarrell of our time: nobody who's prepared to stand up and say what's what; no one with that kind of literary sensibility, that generosity. As my friend Sean 0' Brien said, most of the academic journals seem to have been written by people with names like Stanley Jealous and R.K. Resentmen t. There's a lot of that going down, and it ju st comes out through: it's useless as criticism; it's based on professional jealousy. So what we need is really people writing criticism that don't write poetry. But unfortunately poets are the people best qualified to write this stuff, so it's a real Catch 22. It just needs a wee bit ofleadership, someone a bit more enlightened to steam in and say what's what. Because there's a fantastic amount of contention determining who's good and who's bad behind closed doors. It just isn't said in the journals.
The title poem of Nil Nil starts with a quotation from Fram;ois Aussemain, and elsewhere in the collection you draw from his Pensees. Do you plan to translate other poets' worklike some of your Irish friends - as well as continuing to write your own?
The main problem is the reason I resist translation, which is the fact that I feel quite strongly it has to be attempted by a poet of stature - which I'm not, far from it. But, on the other hand, if you look at Derek Mahon's translations of Jaccottet, you really see the possibilities. Personally I do not intend to do more translation, but I don't see it as a necessarily political thing. My languages are so rubbish, I am such a terrible linguist, I would just crib. But I don't think it's important anyway, knowing a language. Poetic sophistication resides in the idiomatic speech, and it's the first thing that always goes away in any translation. Therefore you have to recreate it in the original tongue, so it doesn't make any difference if you speak French or not.
It's hard to gauge poetic stature.
It is hard to gauge, and you shouldn't gauge it. The only things you should develop are your own powers of self criticism and self-analysis. You have to be your own internal editor. And you get better at that. And you've got to forget all the other stuff, the hype, because it's garbage. It's just being the flavour of the month, and you see how the hype develops. It's happened before, when people were talking about the Thirties poets. You just have to assume that the same thing's true of this generation. There will be one or two. I know who I'd bet on, personally, from my generation.
Where do you see your poetry heading then, practically or poetically?
I have no plans. I make enough to get by, but it really is like that. I can get through, one year at a time, as long as the work keeps coming. I'm not too sure ofthe whole Fellowship thing, as although I've enjoyed the stint at Dundee, I haven't written much. I've written quite a lot on the train. Career plans don't excite me at all. I'm just worried about writing the next poem. I think that's what you have to try and do: just really be conscious of not writing the same poem twice. I mean, poetry's a form of address, and when you write a new poem you have to establish an entirely new form of address. It's not about what you're talking about, it's the way you say it, and you have to try and say things in a totally different way. It's almost as if you construct an entirely different idiom for every poem you write.