Q&A: Blake answers some frequently asked questions
You began as a poet, but you’ve since written in several other forms. Would you still describe yourself as a poet?
Ex-poet is closer the mark. Most mornings I get up and write prose. I’ve certainly written (and read) much less poetry over the last ten years than during the previous ten. I also find that more people know my two memoirs than they do my poetry, and of course that weighs with me. But the poetry still matters. It’s been part of my life since I was about fifteen, and it’ll always be there.
Someone once said to me that poetry gets blocked in mid-life - that poets are either young or old, because life in the middle is too prosaic and worldly, a process of raising children and paying the mortgage. On bad days, when the poems won’t come, I remember that and take consolation from it. To be honest, so long as I’m writing something, no matter what, then I’m happy. It’s the not-writing-at-all that’s a torment.
You’ve written a lot about childhood - in your memoirs, in your book about the Bulger case and in your poetry. Why do you think this is?
I think it was Graham Greene who said that nothing really happens after one’s first twelve years? Aside from Larkin, who called it ‘a forgotten boredom’, childhood is the part of life most people recall best, and in the most sensuous detail. Think of Wordsworth, or Heaney, writing about their childhoods, and the detail they summon up. Perhaps childhood is universal in a way that adulthood is not. Certainly I’m always drawn back to my childhood. And the landscapes I inhabited then are the ones I still carry round in my head.
The memoir I wrote about my father, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, is much more to do with childhood than my memoir of my mother, most of which is set in the 1940s, before I was born. The emotional focus of Things My Mother Never Told Me is a period children rarely have access to, the time before our parents had us, the time before they were our parents. I was able to enter that lost domain because my parents had kept the letters they wrote during their courtship in the war years. I felt hugely privileged in reading their letters about that time. A bit of a voyeur, too, of course. But the trove of letters helped me understand my mother, who was, in life, something of an enigma.
Do you feel you’ve exposed and exploited members of your family by writing about them?
That’s for readers to judge, but as far as I’m concerned no, not at all. In writing about my parents, my aim was to commemorate them – restore them to life even – with honesty and affection. My mother read the book about my father before I published it, and – having suggested some changes – gave it her blessing; I’d not have published it otherwise. My sister has no problem with it either, or with the memoir of my mother, most of which is set before we two were born. Likewise, my daughter has never berated me for the passage in which I describe getting her ready for bed as a small child – why would she, since it could be any father with any infant daughter, rather than the real me ‘exposing’ the real her? (I don’t even use her name).
You’ve written about the Bulger murder case, and about Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper, and about the deaths of your parents. Are you naturally drawn to the gloomy or grisly?
I think of myself as a fairly cheerful person. But the dark side of life makes better subject matter for a writer – ‘Happiness writes white’, as the saying goes – and I share the Thomas Hardy view that to think life can get better, to be a meliorist, requires a full look at the worst. I also wonder whether my dark books are as dark as they seem. There aren’t many jokes in my book on the Bulger case, but there are one or two. And certainly people seem to find humour in the book I wrote about my father.
What inspired you to write ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper ’? Do you think of it as journalistic? Why was it important for you to use the Yorkshire dialect?
I grew up in the same part of the world as Peter Sutcliffe and, like many other people, was appalled and fascinated by him. The original draft of the poem was written in standard English but didn’t work - it seemed cold and voyeuristic. Then I had the idea of introducing a narrator, someone who (unlike me) had stayed in Yorkshire and continued to speak in a broad Yorkshire accent. Some of the dialect words in the poem are ones I grew up with; others I found in dialect dictionaries. What was remarkable about those dialect dictionaries was how many insult-words for women they contained. My interest in Sutcliffe was his misogyny not his psychopathy - and it turned out the misogyny was embedded in the very language he and I had grown up with. So the theme of the poem and its idiom complemented each other.
Is the poem journalistic? I don’t know. It recounts events that had been gone over endlessly (and without insight) in the media, events which journalists seemed to think were theirs by right, and which shouldn’t be available to art or poetry. I disagreed. I believed (and the poems of Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison gave me the confidence to believe it) that poets should get their hands dirty and explore the mess of the world they inhabit. And violence against women is, sadly, part of that mess.
You have worked in a number of different forms – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, essays, libretti, critical books, etc. Why is that?
I’m very bad at saying no. And when someone comes up with a good idea for something, I’m usually won over by their enthusiasm. That said, most of the things I’ve published have been things I’ve wanted to write, not commissions. The variety may also stem from a certain restlessness – a feeling that I’ve still not found the form that’s right for me. Plus, it’s good for the soul to take on new challenges.
How did ‘As If ’, the book about the Bulger case, come about?
The New Yorker asked me if I’d be willing to sit in on the trial – in the hope an interesting article might come out of it. I’d never been to a murder trial before, let alone a murder trial involving children, and said yes like a shot. The article was published three months after the trial, and it was long, 10,000 words or so, but I was dissatisfied with it – there seemed to be a great deal more to say. So I then spent four years writing the book. I think my aim was twofold: one, to find a language to approach the case which was different from all the stuff that had been written in newspapers; two, to look at the boys as if they were ordinary human beings, not the demons the media had made them out to be.
What was the first book you remember reading? What do you remember about it? And was it that book which got you writing later?
The first book I can remember is Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit ’ – I suspect my mother read it to me before I was reading myself, and though there was plenty in it that stuck – not least the emotions (excitement on the one hand, fear of Mr MacGregor on the other) and the words (eg, ‘lippity-lippity’ and ‘scratch, scritch’) – I don’t think it was that book which got me writing. If anyone did, it was Wilfred Owen, whose First World War poems I read when I was sixteen – I don’t remember writing poetry before that.
You’ve done a lot of work with the Northern Broadsides theatre company adapting classic plays. Do you consider yourself to be a translator? How closely do you stick to the original?
The first classic I adapted for Northern Broadsides was German, Kleist’s Der Zerbrochene Krug – which was fun because I had done German A-level at school and knew the play well. With Oedipus and Antigone, I didn’t have the advantage of knowing the original language, so I had to work with existing translations and keep referring to textual notes - at a later stage, I also consulted a Greek scholar, and asked her to put me straight. I could never count myself as a translator, but in both cases I tried to stay close to the original. Classics shouldn’t be messed with without good cause, and Sophocles isn’t easily improved. But there are always going to be changes that come of out sitting through rehearsals and seeing the needs of a particular production. For instance, with Antigone Barrie Rutter, as director, wanted to begin with the Chorus’s end-of-war celebrations, which in Sophocles come after the opening dialogue between the two sisters, Antigone and Ismene. That meant tampering with the original. But the change does make for an explosive, upbeat first scene,
In 1982 you edited the ‘The Penguin Book of British Poetry’ with Andrew Motion, and it has since become something of a landmark. Why do you think this is? And if you were able to undertake the project again with the benefit of hindsight what changes would you make?
Every generation has its anthology. In the 1950s it was Robert Conquest’s New Lines, in the 1960s A. Alvarez’s New Poetry, and before that you can looks back to the Georgian anthologies, the Imagist anthologies, The MacSpaunday generation of the 1930s, the Surrealists and New Apocalyptics of the 1940s and so on. But there was no ground-breaking anthology in the 1970s, and by the end of the decade Andrew Motion and I were very conscious of the gap, and approached Penguin with the idea of filling it. We were young poets at the start of our career, with strong ideas about which kind of poetry worked and which didn’t - so there was an element of provocation in the anthology, or at any rate in its introduction. But we also had ambitions to be representative in an impersonal literary-historical way. There were poets who who’d been too young to be included in Alvarez’s anthology (Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, Derek Mahon) and there was another generation coming up behind them, our own generation (James Fenton, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Craig Raine, Andrew himself). We were spoilt for choice. But we wanted to make it a trim anthology, with generous selections from a few poets (twenty as it finally turned out) rather than niggardly selections from many.
Regrets? I have a few. Not about the anthology itself. But I do regret our failure to expand it two or four or even ten years down the line. It would have been a different beast, but we had ourselves become different beasts, less tight-arsed. Many other poets had come along who deserved inclusion. Michael Hofmann, for example, who in 1981, when we finalised our choices, hadn’t yet published his first book. And in his wake Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope - to name three poets I’d have wanted to put in a baggier anthology.
I suppose we also went overboard on the then fashionable Martian school, though I would still include Craig Raine and Christopher Reid if I were doing it all again today.
Incidentally, we did propose a revised version to Penguin almost as soon as ours appeared, but they were against the idea, and by the time they’d changed their mind we felt the anthology was better left it as a historical monument.
You once wrote a book about The Movement poets of the 1950s. Which of these poets are important to you now?
Larkin is by far the most important to me - Eliot, Owen, Auden, Hughes and Larkin would be my five desert-island twentieth-century English poets. Thom Gunn isn’t quite in the same league, but I admire him greatly. And D. J. Enright, though prosy at times, was a wise and humane talent. I also like some of Kingsley Amis’s light verse. As to Donald Davie, I like his critical books more than I do his poetry - he was a great essayist (Thomas Hardy and British Poetry is a terrific book), and occasionally a moving poet, but he’d have been the first to admit he was writing poetry against the grain, that his real (cerebral) talent was as a critic.
You also wrote a book on Seamus Heaney – what attracts you to him as a poet?
I was - and still am - attracted to Heaney’s willingness to engage with contemporary politics and history without ever compromising himself as a poet. The Anglo-American literary-critical establishment has traditionally been hostile to the idea of poetry as an act of political engagement. But Heaney did engage with the Troubles while they were happening - and his arguments with himself about the rights and wrongs of doing so make for some great poetry. I’m also drawn to his poems about childhood. To the richness of his language. And to his geniality and patience.
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