Dark Horse – Interview

The creation of Between The Lines as a press dedicated to publishing book-length interviews with poets was a singular and distinctive venture. How did it come about?

It was the brainchild of Ian Hamilton. Early in the summer of 1997, I’d been to America to interview W.D. Snodgrass, about whom I was planning to write a critical book. A few weeks after I returned, my old friend Peter Dale suggested that I join him and Ian for lunch. They had known each other since their undergraduate days at Oxford, and met like this at regular intervals. I was invited along on this occasion because Ian had been, and still was, a big admirer of Snodgrass’s early work – he could still recite chunks of Heart’s Needle – and Peter thought a meeting could be of mutual interest.

I’d not recorded my interview with Snodgrass with a view to publication – I was simply trying to fill gaps in my knowledge about Snodgrass’s life and work prior to starting on my book – but even before I began to transcribe the tapes I got to wondering whether some literary magazine mightn’t be interested, because Snodgrass had spoken very freely, and had said a great deal that was new and interesting. There was one obvious problem, and that was the interview’s length, which was many times that of the average literary interview. However, in the wake of our meeting, and encouraged by Peter and Ian, whom I’d given copies, I wrote to Jon Silkin, to see whether Stand magazine might consider serializing it. Silkin had been an admirer of Snodgrass’s early work, and I knew that he and Snodgrass had met some years earlier and had got along very well, so this seemed like a good place to start. (I could have gone to Agenda, a magazine which had been steadfast in its support of Snodgrass’s work, but most of a recent issue of the magazine had been devoted to celebrating his 70th birthday, and I didn’t think they’d want to give him all this additional space after so small a lapse of time.)

After getting my letter, Silkin rang me to say that Stand would certainly be interested in seeing the interview, but added that the most they could do would be to take 3,500 or so words. Serialization was out of the question. He also said that he wouldn’t be prepared to print anything that looked like a defence of Snodgrass’s most controversial work, The Fuhrer Bunker, which he said read like an exercise in Nazi apologetics. We had a vigorous exchange about this, but it was good-natured enough, and at the end of our conversation I agreed to send him the whole interview, including the longish part devoted to The Führer Bunker. I didn’t like the idea of its being excerpted, but I liked even less the idea of its going completely unpublished.

Just two or three weeks later, and four or five days before Peter, Ian and I had arranged to meet a second time, I opened The Guardian and discovered that Jon Silkin had died. This came as a shock to me, whose only contact with the man had been during this phone-call – I exclude the time, many years earlier, when Silkin had come to my undergraduate hall of residence, hawking copies of Stand — but it came as a still bigger shock to Ian and Peter, who had known him since their Oxford days, and who were his near contemporaries, of course.

We had our meeting, though, and at some point the question came up of what should be done with the interview, now that Silkin was no longer around. Ian said again how much he liked it, but then added that he thought it would be a mistake to send it to any other magazines, since none of them would print the whole thing and most would take rather less than 3,500 words. I asked him what the alternative was, and it was at this point that he dropped his first bombshell: What’s to stop us publishing the thing ourselves, bringing it out as a book? Even before Peter and I had absorbed the shock of this, Ian dropped a second bombshell: And why don’t we make this the first in a series?

So that’s how BTL was founded, over one of those uneaten meals for which Ian was famous, in Le Piaf, in Wimbledon.

How long had the editors known each other?

Well, as I said, Ian and Peter had known each other since their student days, back in the early Sixties. I’d known Peter since being a school pupil of his between Sixty-Five and Seventy.

And at what point were you joined by J.D. McClatchy?

Sandy McClatchy joined the board rather later, in 1998. He’d been one of BTL’s earliest subscribers, and wrote something very nice about the interview I later did with Anthony Hecht, whom he’d interviewed a few years earlier for The Paris Review. When it dawned on us that having an American editor would be a good idea, Sandy – who’s not only a fine poet, but an accomplished editor, critic and anthologist – was the obvious choice. He’s a very busy man, but fortunately said yes.

There will be advantages and disadvantages with a book-length interview. What can distinguish a book-length from a usual-length?

I’m not sure I can think of any disadvantages, unless they’re the disadvantages of honest toil over theft. A few years ago, John Updike told Martin Amis that giving interviews was something writers ought to avoid, because it rots a writer’s brain, it cretinizes you. You say the same thing again and again, and when you do that happily you’re well on the way to being a cretin. We have no desire to cretinize the poets we interview, and so work very hard to avoid going over old ground, or going over it in old ways. That’s not an easy thing to do when you have to formulate 100+ questions.

At a specific point you decided to conduct interviews in writing rather than conduct them face-to-face with a microphone and tape-recorder. Could you say how this came about?

A number of the poets we wanted to interview were from overseas. We had no money for airfares, hotel bills, etc., so had to ask them whether they’d mind being interviewed at-a-distance, and in writing. To my surprise, only one person said he couldn’t agree to this, and this was only because English wasn’t his first language, and he was very short of time. The others all seemed perfectly happy about it, and one or two even said they preferred to be interviewed in this way. Anthony Hecht, for example, lamented the verbal laxities that almost always creep into spoken, tape-recorded exchanges. They are always the better for being editorially removed, he said, but are still better for being avoided in the first place. Having had to transcribe and then tidy up a number of tape-recorded interviews since then, I have no hesitation in saying that I agree with him.

Of course, some people speak a lot more correctly and coherently than others – Don Hall says that when he transcribed his Paris Review interview with T.S. Eliot, almost no changes were necessary – but then there are the other hazards of the face-to-face interview to be dealt with – trying to guess at what’s been said when one or other of the participants says something sotto voce, or when a bus roars past or a dog barks … But there’s a more serious reason for preferring written to recorded interviews, and that’s that, if one’s going to be asking a lot of carefully considered questions – questions it will have taken one weeks, perhaps even months, to prepare – one wants the answers to be at least as carefully considered, and it’s highly unlikely that they will be if the poet is having to answer each question as soon as it’s been asked, and can’t mull things over, cross-check, sleep on it …

Am I right in thinking that you’ve made it a contractual obligation that your interviews be conducted in this way?

No. We wouldn’t want to be that inflexible. When Ian agreed to be interviewed by Dan Jacobson last year, he told me that he wanted it to be done face-to-face. I wasn’t about to say no, even though I had my misgivings. Ian was a great talker, and a very funny one, and I knew we could rely on the exchanges with Dan being a good read, a very good read. No, we haven’t said that people can’t do interviews face-to-face; we’ve simply let it be known that our strong preference is for them to be done in writing.

Is there a loss of spontaneity when interviews are carried out in this way, or does it enable the editors to create a more suitable text for reading?

If you ask your doctor for an answer to the question of what’s ailing you, you ought to prefer an accurate answer to an off-the-cuff one, and when I put questions to a poet about his or her work or life, I feel pretty much the same way. It’s not a poet’s first thoughts I’m interested in, it’s his best thoughts, and it’s not to be expected that these will often coincide, especially when one’s questions are as wide-ranging or deep-going as ours aim to be. It’s perhaps also worth adding that what you’re confronted with, when you read the transcript of a face-to-face interview, is only very rarely a verbatim record of what passed between the two parties. The face-to-face interview is almost never the artless thing it sometimes seems.

Certainly some interviewees have provided valuable documentary material and extensive quotes in their written answers that they would not otherwise have been able to under normal circumstances. Do interviewees feel more comfortable with written answers, and more able to say precisely what they want to say?

I believe so. And it’s not at all surprising, given that they are writers, people noted for their ability to express themselves on paper. Those who’ve opted for a face-to-face interview have usually done so just because they were too short of time to work on a written one.

As critical documents, the interviews offer much for the specialist and include meticulously compiled bibliographies to that end, but what about the general reader? Are the interviews designed to get the reader interested in the poetry or do you assume the opposite, that the interviews will appeal to the reader who already knows the poet’s work?

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Paris Review and started to read the interview William Gass had given Thomas LeClair back in the Seventies. That interview made few concessions to the likes of me – to people, that is, who’d not read any of Gass’s novels or criticism – but I finished it in a state of high excitement, and went right out and ordered some of his books. I’d like to think that our interviews could have a similar effect, but it’s fair to say that they’ll only be fully appreciated by those who are already familiar with the interviewee’s work, in broad terms, at any rate.

I asked the previous question because the interview is a forum for almost an ars poetica with the respective subjects and perhaps more might be made of this in the future?

Who was it said that Grand practisers have not the leisure to be analytiques? Whoever it was, he was wrong, as the long list of distinguished poet-critics – Jonson, Milton, Dryden, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot – alone demonstrates. But not all poets have an ars poetica, or would be prepared to articulate it if they had one, and while we would gladly accommodate those who feel differently, we wouldn’t want our interviewees to think that this is what we’re chiefly interested in.

Given that you only have two English poets (Anthony Thwaite, Ian Hamilton) on your list, does this represent a disaffection with current English poetry, or are you simply favouring poets whom you as editors have a special liking for?

Well, I’d count Gunn an English poet, and I’d count Hamburger one too, which means that four out of the nine poets we’ve featured so far have been English. But in the next eighteen months or so, we’re going to be featuring a number of people you haven’t mentioned – Charles Simic, Peter Porter, John Ashbery, Tom Paulin, Michael Donaghy, Dana Gioia, Rachel Hadas, Timothy Steele and Dick Davis[1] – and of these only two are English, so it could look as though we don’t find English poets over 50 years of age (because of course we’re restricting ourselves to poets over 50) that interesting. There’s probably something to this, but not as much as you might suppose, because the only people we’ve talked about thus far are the poets who’ve agreed to be interviewed by us, and there are a few who haven’t.

I was going to ask you if anyone had declined.

Yes, a small number. Amongst them someone I – though not necessarily my colleagues – would count amongst the most important poets of the last fifty years.

I shan’t ask you to name names.

Thank you, because a couple of the people who began by saying no ended by saying yes, and I shouldn’t want to deter anyone else who may be having second thoughts.

Is there a difference culturally among the various nationalities in the way they respond to interviews?

I’m more struck by individual than cultural differences, but it’s almost certainly too soon to say, because our sample, if you will, is still quite small. Ask me again in 10 years’ time, and I’ll give you a more interesting answer. Hopefully.

Finally, of the 20th century poets no longer with us, whom would you have most enjoyed interviewing and why?

That’s not an easy question to answer. Until one has started in on an interview, one can’t know how well it’s going to go, so much depends on the personalities, the circumstances, the timing. But rather than bore you with a list of the 20th century’s greatest, I’m going to name someone who is still virtually unknown, half a century after his disappearance, and that is Weldon Kees. I came to his work only in the last two or three years, and am a big admirer of it. Most people who do know the name think of him as a poet pure and simple, but in fact he was a kind of 20th century Alberti, an enormously accomplished painter, a good short story writer, a talented musician, a gifted photographer … I’m editing a collection of essays about Kees, and just wish I could have appended to the volume a 30-40,000 word exchange.

Ian Hamilton died just a few weeks ago, aged just 63. This must have come as a real blow to you, personally and professionally.

We’d had dinner together just two weeks before he died, and although he’d not looked well, and admitted to a worrying new symptom – Ian was the least self-pitying man I’ve known, and wouldn’t have dreamt of speaking like this had I not pushed him into doing so – he’d looked and sounded very much better than when I’d last seen him, during the summer. Naively, perhaps, I really thought that he was going to be okay. The news that he’d died – which reached me while I was on a trip to Italy – took me completely by surprise, and left me utterly wretched. Even now, when I’m busy typesetting the next BTL volume, Ian Hamilton in Conversation with Dan Jacobson – something we’d commissioned before Ian fell ill, and which he and Dan worked on throughout his last months – the fact hasn’t entirely sunk in that he won’t be around to see the thing. It will be a handsome volume, incidentally, and unlike our earlier volumes it will be packed with photographs, virtually none of which has been reproduced before.


[1] This was my expectation at the time of the interview. Some of these names have had to be dropped since then, and others added. – Philip Hoy

© N.S. Thompson, The Dark Horse, 15, Summer 2003: 40-46. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and The Dark Horse.