Found in Translation: An Interview with Christopher
EF: Mermaids Explained is your eighth book of poems, but the
first to be released in the U.S. How did its publication in America
CR: Entirely through the good offices of Charles Simic, who's also
published by Harcourt Brace. I had published Charlie in Britain, when
I was Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber, in 1995. He had been published
in Britain before then, by Secker and Warburg, as part of an American
series funded by James A. Michener, but the series was now defunct.
Therefore he had no British publisher, which I noticed with some surprise
and moved in as smartly as I could. Then, later, Charlie returned
the favor. He'd read my poems and liked them, and he was able to convince
Harcourt that they should publish me.
EF: And he selected the poems? The "Selected Poems"perhaps
with a forewordis a familiar format, but it's unusual to have
such a volume that doesn't have the fingerprints of the poet all over
CR: Yes, it is unusual. He made the first selection. Then I made a
pitch for certain poems that he'd left out, and also persuaded him
to get rid of a couple that I felt didn't merit inclusion. But because
I was being introduced to an entirely new readership, I decided I
should let my sponsor have a more or less ungoverned hand. And he
did the job very well, I think. It was all to do with presenting myself
to an American audience. And I could make no assumptions about what
they would find approachable. It was nice to leave that to someone
who knew the field. At the same time, I could enjoy it as an exercise
in learning about my own poemsa kind of "hands-on"
criticism was happening before my very eyes. It made me look at old
work in a new light.
EF: What did you discover?
CR: Well, two early books, Arcadia and Pea Soup, were,
in my own understanding of them, heavily influenced by American poets.
But Charlie seemed to see this differently [laughs]. He was hard-put
to identify anything American in them, or anything that would really
speak to Americans. Maybe in this double translation, as it werefrom
one culture to another and then from the second back to the firsttoo
much had been lost. When I was writing those early poems, the big
figures in my mind were people like Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth
Bishop. Those were the poets I was reading and admiring then. And
I thought all my own stuff must be drenched in that influence. But
now, when I read those poems to American audiences, they raise their
eyebrows when I make this claim, because there doesn't appear to be
anything notably American about them. Still, they're not quite English
EF: These poems, then, didn't make it into the selection?
CR: There are fewer early poems than from the more recent volumes.
EF: Are the more recent volumes the ones linked to the so-called "Martian
CR: The Martian thing predominated in those two early books. It was
an entirely British phenomenon, if indeed it was a phenomenonthat's
another question. It was a parish matter. Perhaps even a private one.
When I was writing those early poems, the idea wasI now think
it was a foolish ideathat in the work of my older compatriots
certain aspects of poetry were being neglected; I couldn't see metaphor,
simile, or the kind of fanciful vocabulary and rhetoric that I wanted
to cultivate for myself. I think I misread many poets. How could I
have looked at Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney and failed to see the metaphors?
Nonetheless, I didand no doubt that misreading served its purpose
in sharpening the stimulus to write. It was all much too locally British
to be translatable as an issue anywhere else.
EF: Having been exposed only to what's in this collection, I see
these early poems as eminently translatableto use your termbecause
they have a surrealistic quality that is far from limiting, and that
can be engaged with by any number of standpoints.
CR: That's reassuring. Actually, that has been my personal experience,
too. I wonder about the kind of reader or listener who responds well
to those early poems. Quite often, when I've had letterswhich
isn't very oftenout of the blue, they've come from people who've
said, "I'm not much of a reader of poetry, but somehow these
work for me." And that's the nicest kind of reader to reach in
many respects, because you can be sure that whatever's getting across
isn't passing through some filter of prejudice and preconception.
If I were to do my own Selected Poems for consumption here
at home, perhaps I'd give equal space to those early things; I don't
disown them. I mean, some of them I would certainly like to disown,
but [laughs], generally speaking, I'm glad I wrote them.
EF: The unexpectedness of the diction you work with makes for surprises
that have an otherworldly quality. If I pick up many English poets,
as a U.S. reader, I encounter a lexicon or a voice that I may not
be able to engage with because of something local or regional, something
inaccessible to me.
CR: I appreciate that difficulty. Both Craig Raine and I, who were
the Martian team in those days, did think of ourselves as somehow
international. For a start, we were totally committed to American
poetry: not just Stevens and Bishop, whom I've mentioned, but Lowell
and Berryman were big for us at the time, and obviously before that
there was Eliot and Pound. There's something about the capaciousness
of the vocabulary, and I don't just mean the lexical vocabulary, but
the vocabulary of rhetoric and reference of these Americans. It was
a sharp reminder to us provincial English that things could still
be spacious and adventurous, and that was the lesson we thought we
were putting forward as we crashed the scene. We had that youthful
chutzpah [laughs], busy getting up everybody's nose, the way young
poets are supposed to do!
EF: Tell me a bit about how the Martian notion evolved.
CR: James Fenton reviewed us both in the New Statesman, I think
it was. Craig's second book, The Martian Sends a Postcard Home,
had come out, and also my first book [Arcadia, 1979]. James
was reviewing them and a bunch of others. His proposition was that
something new was in the air and he invented the "Martian"
tag for it, in a fairly friendly spirit. But it also hobbled us in
a way. It got to be tiresome, carrying around this Martian banner.
It identified an aspect of what we were doing, at the cost, maybe,
of real understanding. But it got us noticed, and that's always flattering
to a young, ambitious poet.
EF: To stay with that period for a moment, can you tell me about
the "provincial" literary politics and the trouble-making
you wanted to stir up?
CR: It was simply that we thought the scene was dead and we wanted
to liven it up. But, as I say, ignorance was a large part of it. Ignorance
is one of youth's great assets, isn't it? [laughter] You do things,
thinking they're new, little realizing that they've been done a hundred
times before, in slightly different forms that you weren't able to
recognize. So I certainly wouldn't take that cocky attitude now.
EF: At this time, were you already an editor?
CR: No, I was doing odd jobs and had no particular career in mind.
I never designed to go into publishing. That was an accidenta
very happy accident, as it turned out, but certainly never intended.
It came about because Craig, who had been editing at Faber, rang me
up one day and said, "Do you want to be poetry editor for a while?"
I thought he was pulling my leg. But it seemed he was off for a few
months to take a sabbatical that later turned into a year and half.
He needed somebody to mind the shop. So he said, "You just show
up at the office, and I'll introduce you to the Chairman, and he'll
give you the job." This sounds like the Dark Ages, doesn't it,
because it wouldn't happen like that nowadays, but that's exactly
what did happen. I was looked up and down, and Matthew Evans said,
"Well, Craig says you're all right, so I suppose you must be."
And there I was editing Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. [laughing]
EF: So that year turned into many years?
CR: Yes. Craig came back at the end of his year and a bit, and by
that time one of my colleagues in the children's book department,
Janice Thomson, had found some use for me, so I went and worked with
her for a while. And then Craig left to be an academic in Oxford,
and I took over from him again.
EF: Was it he who initially signed poets like Heaney and Hughes?
CR: No, that was done by Craig's predecessor at Faber, Charles Monteith,
who seemed to have almost unerring taste. He published some of Faber's
very best poets. I don't know if he took Ted on, but he certainly
spotted Seamus, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulina number of top-notch
EF: As you continued there, did you find any relationship emerging
between your lives as editor and writer?
CR: I never stopped to think about it, but maybe it did. I found
that I could work with quite a variety of writers, and perhaps that
has helped shape my subsequent development. There has to be practical
common ground when poets get together and talk about the nuts and
bolts of the business. It's no doubt useful for an editor to be a
poet, too, because you can dare to talk at a certain level with your
fellow poets, even if they're a great deal more talented than you
are. There's a shared understanding of matters of craft.
EF: You must have developed a real kinship with certain writers over
CR: Well, I think so. Some of my best friends are now those poets.
It was a privilege to get to know writers in the intimate way that
you do when you're looking at an early draft of a manuscript. It was
a great privilege.
EF: Is there a lot of give-and-take generally between poet and editor
in the literary culture here?
CR: That depends on particular instances. Some editors are quite
aloof, while others like to roll up their sleeves and get working.
It's a matter of disposition.
EF: In the U.S., most publishers are unwilling to make commitments
to poets beyond a first book, so poets tend to have to shop around
each new manuscript.
CR: That can happen here, at the frivolously speculative end of the
market, but the serious publishers of poetry also see the point of
loyalty and the nurturing of a relationship. They don't like the one-night-stand
kind of arrangement. I could name exceptions, but they are exceptions.
The idea at Faber was that this should be a union for life, if at
EF: Has that happened for you as a poet?
CR: I was disloyal to Oxford University Press, who published my first
two books. Not that I broke their heart. But I felt that they weren't
the most passionate or supportive publishers in the world, and Craig
had moved to this job at Faber's and wanted to publish me. I allowed
that to happen. I hope I'm there for life now.
EF: Is there a relationship between Faber and any U.S. press?
CR: Not especially. Quite a few Faber poets are published by Farrar,
Straus and GirouxHeaney, Muldoon, Christopher Loguebut
it's not really what you could call a special relationship. That's
not the way publishing works. When I was an editor, I did try to get
a number of American firms, including FSG, interested in the younger
British poets I was publishing, and I found that extraordinarily difficult.
They just didn't want to know. So much for cosy relationships! It's
the same in both directions, of course, which is a pity, as poets
on both sides could benefit from freer traffic, don't you think?
EF: I've found it much easier in academic circles, because the university
presses seem to get their work back and forth more easily. And there
are international communities of scholars. It seems very sad that
this wouldn't exist as much for poets.
CR: It's particularly sad because, in my own experience, when American
poets meet British ones, a good time can be had by all. And yet it
tends to be well into our middle age before these exciting encounters
EF: In terms of your own work, and the idea of translation from one
culture to another, I want to talk about persona. I'm very interested
in your Katerina Brac. [CR's third U.K. volume, 1985]
CR: Katerina came about because, after my second book of poems [Pea
Soup, 1982], it seemed to me I was beginning to imitate my own
style, in some dismal way. It got me down to see this happening again
and again. Whenever I tried to write a new poem, it would sound just
like me. And I thought, if I'm not surprising myself here, I'm not
going to surprise anybody else, am I? That went on for two or three
years. Then one day I had this notion that a way of avoiding sounding
like myself was deliberately to be somebody else. It seems obvious
in hindsight, but at the time it hit me like the discovery of a new
continent. Suddenly, Katerina came into existence. It's her voice
that I heard uninterruptedly for about a month, because all those
poems were written very quickly. They needed to be, because of the
long period of creative frustration. It was a wonderful release, and
the poems came out one after the other, I think in the order in which
they're published in the book. And then she quieted down and went
away, and I've scarcely heard from her since!
EF: [laughs] When this was published as a full volume, was there
a foreword explaining your strategy?
CR: Not at all. In fact, I was slightly coy about it. I may have
miscalculated the best way to present the poems. There was a rather
arch blurb, which I myself composed, suggesting that she was a real
figure. Then you were meant to see that she was a persona, once you
started reading. Actually, I have been told of people who continued
to think she was real and that I was her translator. That pleases
me, too. I mean, it's a shame that she has to be explained, that the
ambiguity can't be preserved. Even now, sometimes she is taken at
face value. I've seen herthe bookarranged under 'B' in
bookshops, and when I've seen that I've never moved her. That's partly
the spirit in which I wanted the book to be read. It's right to deconstruct
the poems, to appreciate them as parodies of translation-ese, or whatever,
but at the same time I hope they speak on the authentic level as wellas
Katerina's story, which you get to know through the poems.
EF: Was there a particular interest you had in the politics or the
aesthetics of the Eastern European milieu she came from?
CR: Absolutely. She exists because of some very good translations
of poets from Poland, and what was Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, that
were published in the 1970s by Penguin. These books appeared at the
time I was learning to write poems. And I bought almost all of them,
becauseagainthey weren't like the British stuff that I
saw all around me. I loved the tone of them, I loved the style of
humorI'm generalizing and simplifying madly, of course, but
there is a particular kind of irony that was politically useful to
the poets of that time in those places, and it appealed to me strongly.
Not that I had any urgent use for that irony, because my political
situation was differentnot until the idea of inventing a poet
who was stuck in such a situation occurred to me. She became my excuse
to employ the tricks I'd learned from wonderful poets like Miroslav
Holub and Zbigniew Herbert and Vasko Popa.
EF: And Czeslaw Milosz?
CR: I didn't know Milosz's poems in those days, even though he was
one of Herbert's translators. And he had edited an anthology of Polish
poetry which was full of fascinating little scraps of voices. At an
early stage of Katerina, I did think of having that book as a kind
of anthology. I was going to invent three different poets and translate
selections from their poems, and the three poets were to have had
some kind of triangular relations in their "real lives."
But in the end, Katerina herself just got too interesting, too commanding,
and I forgot the two guys. [laughing] They were surplus to requirements.
EF: This feels sort of strangetalking about this persona as
though she were real. But there's a subtle, complicated relationship
of overlapping voices in these poems. There's her voice, there's obviously
the mingling with your own voice, and third, there's the figure of
the translated work and the feel of layered language, the approximation.
All these are removes from her, and yet there's an extremely strong
moral vision that comes through.
CR: I find it hard to rationalize it, except to say that, although
I was reading these exciting European poets in translationand
therefore couldn't hear the actual noise they were making, and no
doubt many subtleties were lost, and also sometimes these translations
read rather awkwardlystill I got pleasure from them as texts.
I wanted to preserve thatto convey or reproduce that pleasure
in my own text. So although there's an element of parody in the exercise,
as I said, that's not to say it was hostile parody. It wasn't satirical
at the expense of these poets or their translators, because I wanted
to recreate the sense you get that one mind, the translator's, is
adjusting to another mind, the original poet's, and having to make
compromises all the timethat there's a perpetual negotiation
going on. I don't know how well Katerina conveys it, but that was
EF: Have you done much translation?
CR: I've been doing some lately, from languages I don't know well
enough to really justify my doing it. But I'm using other people's
translations and my own ability to follow the grammatical and syntactical
shapes of a Romance language text with the help of a crib. I have
been doing quite a bit lately. There was one in the London Review
of Books recently from Machado. [LRB vol 23 no 10, 24 May
2001] When I was reading at Amherst last year, a man came up to me
afterwards and said, "Do you know Machado?" And I said,
"Well, a little bit, through translation." And he said,
"There's a poem of his, 'Las Moscas' ['The Flies'], that I think
you'd like." And off he went. A few months later, I looked up
the poem, and he was absolutely right. I'm ever so grateful to him
for this act of inspired suggestion, whoever he was. I sat down and
did my version. I adored the original and wanted to get something
of its capaciously accepting spirit into my English. I've dabbled
in this sort of thing here and there, not with any method, but just
from accidental encounters or if someone happens to point me in the
right direction. I've done some Rilke sonnets lately, because Michael
Hofmann is editing an anthology of translations of Rilke, and he suggested
I do two poems. So I tried them, and that was terrific fun. I won't
vouch for them as anywhere close to the originals, but still, purely
selfishly, getting something from that other language, that other
mind, into my own repertoire is replenishing.
EF: When you translated the Rilke sonnets, was it important for you
to keep the form?
CR: Yes, I did sonnets, but they're Paul Muldoon-type sonnets rather
than Rilke-type sonnets. In other words, some of the lines are short,
while others straggle a bit. But yes, it was important to have fourteen
lines and some ghost of the conventional sonnet behind them. I have
a friend who translates from various languages, and he's been doing
Italian lately. He showed me a Dante sonnet just the other day, which
I thought was remarkable in that it had the rhyme scheme and the meter
and the argument and the clarity of the languageeverything.
Marvelously lifelike. But I can't take it that far. At least, I haven't
yet been able to. I'd love to do that.
EF: No plans at the moment for a larger translation project?
CR: I don't think so. I'm a pillager, rather than a governor, if you
see what I mean. I don't want to move in and run the province, I just
want to hop over the border and snatch what I need
EF: [laughs] Be a tourist?
CR: [laughs] Or a Viking raider. If I came across the right poet,
yes, I think it's one of the best things that a poet with the appropriate
skills can doto capture a nice, fat foreign poet for an English
readership. But I've carried this pillaging metaphor further than
it needs to go. All I mean is that you can take liberties when you're
just doing these one-off jobs. But if you want to find, say, the most
important Portuguese poet now living and convey their true stature,
you couldn't treat the poems in quite the same way as I've been doing.
You'd have to pay more respect to the intentions and the methods and
EF: The notion of translating may be a good metaphor for your work
in general, including your usesand renovationsof traditional
form. That seems integral to what you've been doing across several
CR: That's a very acute thing to say, and it may well be true. In
a sense, I did conceive of those "translations" in Katerina
as a sort of manifesto for what I think the whole business of poetry
to be. But I hadn't extended it quite as far as you're doing now.
Translation is a good metaphor for the business of a certain kind
of poet, though I wouldn't say every kind.
EF: And what is the poet's business, as you tell it through Katerina?
CR: Oh, it won't go into a nutshell, but I suppose I mean a certain
attitude both to one's craft and to the world one is addressing. A
belief in ideal forms, while knowing one will never catch them. The
right mixture of humble respect and hard-hearted opportunism.
EF: Still, the poems from In the Echoey Tunnel, your next
book after Katerina Brac, seem to be translating something
different from what preceded.
CR: That's probably true, but I'm not entirely sure what that was.
Having tuned so sharply into Katerina's wavelength, I had to sort
of adjust the machine, swivel it in a different direction and find
some other thing being broadcast from somewhere else. I was turning
my apparatus in all kinds of directions, hopefullyand opportunistically,
EF: The poems have a very open, almost fragmentary qualitywritten
in short, somewhat disconnected sectionsand a feeling of translating
less from observation and more from something non-rational or internal.
CR: You could be right. I can immediately think of one or two poems
in there that fit that description. The detached observer isn't allowed
EF: Is there any one poem in Mermaids Explained that stands
out in that regard?
CR: There's one titled "Consulting the Oracle." It tells
a story that has to do with visiting a woman who was once a refugee.
These are regular visits, but they're also rather stiff and elaborate.
Some kind of unease is part of the encounter. It was written completely
without my knowing why I was doing it. It's not my story, and I don't
know anybody like this. I've no idea even now why I wrote it [laughs]except
that it makes a good story, or a little fragment of story. I suppose
I called it "Consulting the Oracle" because of that mysteriousness.
Whatever message is conveyed to this old lady's visitor isn't clear
to the reader, I don't think, and it's certainly not clear to him
or to me. And yet something has passed between them. That might illustrate
what you're saying. Come to think of it, isn't it the function of
oracles always to be misunderstood?
EF: "Hotels," which I like very much, has a totally different
kind of mystery, because it's not narrativeit's discontinuous.
CR: That's right. There are six instances, which could have been
arranged in any order, and each section is disjointed in itself. That's
what hotels are like, isn't it? Strange, meaningless environments
EF: And yet you have to make yourself at home, on some level. I know
someone who goes into a hotel room and redecorates. She moves this
lamp here and angles the television that way
CR: That table has got to go! [laughs]
EF: Yeswhich would never occur to me. I just accept what I'm
CR: I like her attitude. It wouldn't have occurred to me, either.
I think of these six sections as little fragments, Hopper-like sketches
for a self-portrait, where you've got this one figure in an environment
that gives absolutely nothing to you beyond what is given. Random,
unconsoling factsthat's all you get. There's no depth.
EF: The form embodies that: a brief skittering over each environment
and into the next. The poem gives the impression of your loosening
up a bitwhich, I suppose, is a clichéd way to look at
early versus more mature work. But it seems to apply.
CR: I hope that's true. I want more things to happen in my poems
now than the early Christopher Reid would have allowed. That's possibly,
too, why I've been writing children's poems lately.
EF: I didn't know that.
CR: It's because I could do things in that mode that the stern and
stuffy adult poet would never countenance.
EF: A book entirely of children's poems?
CR: Yes, two so far. The first is called All Sorts .
I wrote them a couple of years ago, then [my wife] Lucinda and I published
them ourselves. We made our money back and did a second collection,
Alphabicycle Order . It was a very interesting exercise
because we had to work well away from the mainstream. Booksellers
in this country are so extraordinarily hideboundI mean, the
big chainsthat we had to rely entirely on independent bookstores
and, of course, our own private network. To sell a thousand copies,
or whatever the number is, was quite an effort, but we showed it was
possible. We were helped by my having a brilliant illustrator, Sara
EF: That must have been a little like Katerina, entering into another
CR: A form of reinvention, no doubt. And subsequently, I've been
curious to see what effect it would have on my so-called "adult"
writing. I think it may have had some.
EF: I'd think a different lexicon, even a different kind of humor,
would have to enter in. There's a certain age at which a child grasps
irony, for example, and not before. Did you find yourself playing
CR: Yes, different tones and voices. There are elements of Hilaire
Belloc, for instance. I don't mean that I decided to sound like Belloc,
but you inherit that grumpy-avuncular, mock-didactic voice as one
of the available disguises. Carroll and Lear are somewhere in there,
too, and a bit of Stevie Smith. None of these applied very deliberately,
but they've all been absorbed into me, through reading, and they're
all there to be called upon and reinterpreted, as the occasion demands.
And I hope I've added something of my own. It was great fun doing
it. As with Katerina, when I hit on the idea, the poems themselves
came thick and fast.
EF: What were your subjects?
CR: Oh, anything. The first poem in the book is a kind of two-stanza
ballad, the first line of which is, "Oh, do not marry that wild
young man," and it's about how the warning is immediately ignored
and by the second stanza she's already gone and married the wild young
man. The next poem is about flying away forever on a puff of one's
own breath, and the next is about disasters at the circus. There's
a lot of teasing going onnot as frustration, but as a device
to coax and cajole the childish imagination. I remember from my own
early reading how exciting it was to find something that was pitched
just beyond my reach. If something baffled me, I'd be more interested.
What is this? You want to see over the top of it as a child, to see
round the other side. A lot of writing for children seems to me to
have become "child-friendly" in just the wrong wayingratiating
and processed and obvious and bland. My own feeling is that what children
want is something a little challenging, so that they're tested and
can enjoy a bit of triumphin addition to whatever other pleasures
the author is able to provide.
EF: What about your music in the poems? In the U.S., where free
verse is still the mainstream, people talk about the lack of audience
for poetry in terms of the loss of the pleasure of its music as one
moves from childhood into adulthood. One grows up reading Lewis Carroll
or Dr. Seuss, with those lovely rhymes, delectable language, and then
suddenly discovers that, no, that's not what it's about, apparently.
It's about a language that often doesn't have elaborate music.
CR: That's a big loss. Poets can find different ways of making music.
And, of course, the best create music out of whatever material they
have to hand. But that reliance on old forms and on what certain poets
now might consider rather crude effectsit was a real delight
to go back and get them going again, with a vengeance, in the case
of this children's book. Not that you'll find any sonnets or villanelles
there. And there are one or two unrhymed poems, as well as poems with
disguised rhymes, to make the reader wonder. Games like that are played.
But there are so many varieties of music possible, aren't there? Isn't
it the poet's job to have a large vocabulary ready for use? What I
have never understood is the sense of shame that attaches to rhyme,
in certain minds. It's a Puritan thing, isn't it? In this debate,
I'm decidedly a Cavalier.
EF: It's never gone out of fashion in England, has it?
CR: Never out of fashion? Well, there are an awful lot of poets here
who don't bother. Or who do it ineptly.
EF: Form seems extremely important to youusing traditional
tools, but with some less than traditional shapes resulting from them.
CR: You always need an excuse for form. Form for its own sake isn't
quite good enough. It would be totally pointless if Ior anybodysat
down and said, "OK, today I'm going to write a sonnet,"
and then looked around for a subject to squeeze into that traditional
fourteen-line container. That would be a crazy thing to do. On the
other hand, you do occasionally get ideas or intuitions of a poem
that would seem to require the shape of a sonnet, for some reason,
though you couldn't necessarily explain it to yourself at the time.
That's the way it works. Equally, it might demand a thin trickle of
unrhymed, non-end-stopped lines down the page, with no obviously imposed
structure at alland that could be the legitimate answer to a
specific formal question.
EF: Do you often change the form of a poem in process? Or have you
gotten to the point where they arrive with a determination of where
they want to be and what they want to look like?
CR: I can never start a poem until I have a line. The first line
gives me the shape of the poem. And, as I say, this is very often
hard to explain, even to oneselfbut if I've got this line, there
usually comes with it the sense that it's going to run in a certain
direction and for a certain distance. There's something genetic that
one feels in it. It has a certain implied potential. Sometimes I turn
out to be wrong, and the poem takes quite another turn, or simply
doesn't happen. But there is a kind of energy latent in this first
line that decrees all that follows.
EF: And it's usually the first line?
CR: It's always the first line, for some reason. Or the first line
of the early drafts. Sometimes it vanishes or changes beyond recognition
at a later stage, but that's what gets me goingsome phrase or
sound. To give you an instance: in "Two Dogs on a Pub Roof'"
it was the plain statement, "There are two dogs on a pub roof"
that told me not just that it might be possible to make a poem in
which every line ended with some sort of barking noise, but that it
would probably run to something like a hundred lines. I never stopped
to count the lines while writing, but it didn't amaze me greatly,
when I totted them up at the end, to find that there were exactly
one hundred. It seemed ordained.
EF: What about your most recent work, in addition to the children's
CR: Oh, I'm floundering, out of my depth, as ever. But in the pious
hope that floundering will become a recognized swimming style.
EF: You're not editing with Faber any more?
EF: Does that mean you'll be writing more or less full time, or are
there other things in the offing?
CR: I do little bits of work here and there. I doubt I'll ever be
in conventional publishing again, and putting out children's poetry
in partnership with my wife isn't going to lead to riches. I don't
know. I think in about a year's time I'll be destitute [laughs]. No,
not quite. But I really don't know what will happen.
EF: It seems like a wonderful, frightening position to be into
move on from something without quite knowing what the destination
CR: In a way. But I needed to make the move. If I'd stayed in publishing,
I should probably have grown into a cynical old codger, a burden to
myself and a terrible warning to everyone else.
EF: Is that because of the politics of the job?
CR: Well, it's very difficult to keep fresh in publishingand
I did that job, after Craig's final departure, for eight years. You
can dance around for eight years, having a good time and surprising
people, but you need to sustain that degree of sprightliness without
flagging, and I thought I couldn't forever. Most careers in the business
are founded on success at an early stage, after which gentility and
ossification set in. And that's perfectly reasonable, for some. Why
not? The industry needs to be staffed. But that wasn't for me.
EF: Did working with others' poetry drain your own writing?
CR: No, it never drained it. In fact, I was nourished by working with
some of our very finest poets. There were dangers. I did find myself
at one stage starting to write low-grade Paul Muldoon poems, as it
were, because Paul is such a strong influence on everyone who reads
himand I didn't even have the excuse of being the younger of
the two. In the end, I had to write a little parody of him, to get
the whole thing out of my system. I don't think he was greatly amused,
but it didn't wreck our friendship.
EF: [laughs] You were in luck.
CR: That was only a real danger to a poetof falling hopelessly
under the sway of Paul, or Ted, or Seamus, or
CR: Yes. Well, she had the good grace to pack up and go, didn't she?
[laughing] She didn't outstay her welcome.