The following interview was conducted with Chris Bigsby as part of the Writers in Conversation series at UEA.
CB: Before I ask more general questions, could you say something about one particular poem, a personal one, ‘The Harvest Bow?’
SH: “The Harvest Bow” is a daddy and mummy set of poems really, about adolescence, sorrow and tenderness, strangeness. A harvest bow is a little piece of wheat that is plaited and turned into a bow and my father simply made it without thinking every year. When I moved to Wicklow, when I was in my thirties, I thought I would like to have one of those myself and I got him to make me one. I wore it in my lapel and I thought that is a bit folksy for me to be wearing. I felt I had every right to it but at the same time it was just a wee bit heritagy, and so I took it and pinned it up on the dresser and wrote this poem about it. If we are to believe the anthropologists, it is the last gasp, the last straw, as it were, of the neo-European corn goddess, spirit of the corn…
Something of the bitter sweetness of that time was to do with the fact that it was the summer before I went to boarding school and there was a sense of change in the air, elegy ahead of its time. I am sure everybody has an experience of remembering, with great delight, their school Shakespeare plays, and certainly my first sense of the transformative power of art came when I saw certain of my contemporaries, this was a boys boarding school, with country lads, and there they were being Miranda. So even though they are much changed, certain grey haired, plump and stately elders I see as Shakespeare heroines and heroes. It is really about the way in which not only your memories of those moments, but the way in which certain Shakespeare lines belong, almost like pre-natal possessions, to your memory since they were hammered into you and get linked into other parts of your experience.
We had a lot of what we called Sally trees, our name for Willow trees, along the river, and somehow the description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet got linked into them. Especially as the years go on one thing gets linked into another. Shakespeare and the Sally tree become mingled. Then some dreads get mixed together, too. This book is called Electric Light but I was thinking of calling it Duncan’s Horses, partly because of the resolute forthrightness of the title itself and also because, do you remember the dull, wet, windy dawn after Macbeth has murdered Duncan and the old men are out on the moor, outside the castle, and say, ‘My God, that was a wild night that was, and most unnatural things happened.’ Duncan’s horses reared up and bit each other in fear and terror. You could link this poem to my own sense of dread in the fifties, to two dreadful things. First there was the report of an IRA raid on the police barracks. It was an IRA campaign, in the fifties, and there came on the news this story of people being shot. The whole world became bloodshot. Then, in the nineteenth century, there was the loss of a ferry boat in the Irish Sea called The Princess Victoria, going from Liverpool. There was a kind of Wreck of the Deutchland feeling of dread hanging in the air. And the only way I could get back at it was to link it up to Shakespeare.
CB: When you are working on a poem do you come up with many drafts before you write it?
SH: If I am working really well, I come up with about two or three but usually more. I have to say that I enjoy working on poems more. In the beginning I love to get through and get the high of it finished, but now if something presents itself to work upon I actually love working upon it and maybe that is danger, too. Coleridge said poems are like schoolboys. If they are over-corrected they become dull, and it is a perennial question which always, more or less, has the same answer. I think every poet has the experience of poems that come quickly, which are gifts that are mythologically what is supposed to happen if you allow the magic and sacred word poetry applied to yourself. This is supposed to happen. There are supposed to be poems that come to you. Every now and again a few come. It is like God. But then there are others that present themselves as invitations and you do work at them. They are two different pleasures. I think the quick poem verifies you and the other poem, that you work at, can be a real satisfaction when you get it finished, but the quick one is, as I say, the mythological occasion for you.
CB: Have you ever got annoyed with interpretations, critical interpretations, of your poems, or are the readers free to interpret as they will?
SH: I have been lucky, or unlucky, whatever the case may be. A lot of people have talked about the poems, and written about them, and to tell you the truth I have a certain shyness about reading that, especially if I know the person. I think, ‘God, they have to write and they will probably be meeting me and they are probably not writing the whole truth either.’ But on the whole if people bother themselves to write about your work, or any work, it means that they have an interest in it, and a certain attentiveness, and if you pay attention to what is there you can’t go to far off. I can’t give any examples of crazy interpretations to tell you the truth. My poems are fairly direct, anyway. I had to talk to some students in the English department when I was over in Harvard. After years of theory and new historicism, and so on, they are coming round to running close reading classes again. I took three poems, one by Hardy, a very beautiful war poem, Wordsworth’s ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal,’ and a poem by Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I could not stop for death.’ They seem quite simple and I called the thing, “What Do You Say About This?” If you pay attention, there is quite a lot going on in a poem which moves you and holds its ground and holds its time. You can find things to say that are in the poem. You don’t have to bring anything there if you stick with it for a while. I actually believe in the teaching of poetry. I was well taught myself and grateful to the teachers and I am one of those generation of people who read poems closely, were taught to read poems closely, and believe in it.
CB: How far has the politics of Ireland, and your identity within that, affected the way you write your poetry?
SH: You don’t grow up anywhere without taking the markings, taking the pressure, being susceptible to the social conditions, the atmosphere, the discourse, the speech, and so on. Before I wrote, before I put pen to paper, I had all the stealth, codedness, vigilance, of everybody who was born in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, after all, is a place where mixed company isn’t men and women but Protestants and Catholics. In divided societies the most highly charged matters, that most preoccupy people, are kept under wraps. What sex is, in other countries, is what politics was in Northern Ireland. You moved around it. It was stuff that made people mad and it had to be handled carefully. What you do with it over the years is a different thing, and what it does to you and what happens when it blows up in your face, and so on, all that is negotiated as best you can, both as a citizen and as a scribbler. It is too long to go into but it has been present alright.
SH: I think insofar as telling the truth and being honest about yourself is the way to proceed, yes. I think that too much applying of bandages and salves, too much treatment of the subject deliberately with a curative purpose, doesn’t necessarily work. But bringing it out into the open, that is what I think can be done, minimally. These things move very, very slowly, and a tiny bit at a time, and irony is very useful, too. Merriment is very useful in these situations. The darkest comedy could be the best treatment. Black laughter in Beckett should have been played all the time in Belfast. It is just that I think a lot of writers are scared about the slight do-goodiness of saying, ‘Yes, I am a healing force.
CB: Do you think a poet is necessarily the best interpreter of his own work, talking about it?
SH: A poet can tell you certain things that are of interest. I am very interested in reading what Dylan Thomas said about his poems, even Thomas Hardy. Little bits that he said. Information is always interesting. Interpretation depends upon the person. Again I think that my generation, and maybe the generation or two ahead, a lot of us went to English departments and we speak with forked tongue.We have the capacity to teach the poems that we have written. I think a person who did that quite a lot was Robert Lowell, whom I quite enjoyed I have to say. Lowell acted as his own critic quite often and I have noticed myself doing it too.
Extract from Writers in Conversation Volume 5, Published in 2013 by Unthank Books.