An interview with Paul Farley
Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art. He has published four poetry books with Picador: The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award and a Forward Prize in 1998); The Ice Age (winner of the 2002 Whitbread Poetry Prize, and a Poetry Book Society Choice); Tramp in Flames (which was short-listed for the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2007 and the T.S. Eliot Prize); and The Dark Film.
His poems for radio are collected in Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2008 (Donut Press, 2009) and a Selected Poems, The Atlantic Tunnel, was published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2010. His book, Edgelands, a non-fiction journey into England’s overlooked wilderness (co-authored with Michael Symmons Roberts) was published by Jonathan Cape in 2011. His most recent book, The Dark Film (Picador, 2012) was a Poetry Book Society Choice and was shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry 2012. In 2012 he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Paul has written and presented many programmes for the BBC’s Classic Serial, Book of the Week, From Fact to Fiction, Between the Ears, Sunday Feature and The Afternoon Drama, as well as numerous standalone arts features and series. He is a frequent guest on magazine arts programmes such as Saturday Review, The Verb and Front Row. He currently presents The Echo Chamber on BBC Radio 4, a series on contemporary poetry.
Harlequin: Jeremy Paxman recently wrote an article suggesting that poetry should “aim to engage with ordinary people much more”. What do you make of the comment as a poet whose verses are full of life’s everyday trappings? Does the attempt to “engage” feature at all in your creative process? Perhaps we’ll leave aside the implication that poets are not “ordinary people” themselves…
Paul Farley: I doubt there’s much poets can do about it: you write what you have to write. How to engage with the moment you’re alive in, that’s a more interesting idea. You do wonder how different poetry might think it is from the other arts as entertainment. Cultivating or exciting audiences has given us a lot of great theatre. And what about commissions, work-to-order? The Sistine ceiling, The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven’s Ninth, Rothko’s chapel? I’ve grown weary of the dead-leg old argument about posterity, how it can take an age for good work to find its readers, as if there’s no value in any appeal it might hold for its contemporaries. Yes, there are poets who once enjoyed huge readerships that nobody reads anymore. Yes, there are poets who’ve come into focus who were largely ignored or marginalized during their lifetimes. But that’s to disregard the mass of literature, music, visual art, theater that did find its coeval admirers and has somehow persisted. I do have a fuzzy sense of there being somebody on the other side of the page listening in, yes. Maybe even ‘ordinary people’.
H: Given that you’re engaging with the moment you’re alive in, is writing poetry an exercise in preservation – something like “moment capture” – or is that too nostalgic an assumption?
PF: You could say poems record inwardness and thought as much as the grain and detail of the outward present. As we know, there are poems that bear witness, and there are poems that seem to have a serene disregard for what’s going on around them, and any number of shades in between. Poems form an ongoing record of the imagination, put it that way.
H: Is walking away from a “finished” artifact something which attracted you to poetry and painting? Joni Mitchell once compared performing music to painting by saying that no one ever heckled Van Gogh to, “Paint The Starry Night again, man!”. We can suppose that poetry falls somewhere between the static artifact and the performed song. With your early poems, for example, like those in The Boy from the Chemist, do you understand the lines differently now to when you first wrote them, and does this ever affect how you recite them?
PF: A painting you can look at for as long as you like, but you can’t take it home with you (and when does looking, in that way, ever stop? When have we looked enough?). Once you walk away, you’ve only the memory of looking. A poem, once memorized, is yours. You have it whole, and you’ve aligned a tiny electrical field in the synapses that is the thing, rather than a memory of the thing. With my stuff, it’s not so much that I understand early poems any differently – occasionally you notice things, or have things pointed out to you – but mostly it feels as though they’re just there, and I’m playing them.
H: You called the publication of your selected poems in The Atlantic Tunnel “an invitation to a US party”, and certainly in America the idea of regionalist poetry has been carved out by the sheer size of the country. We don’t seem to have those regional “movements” so much in the UK, but given that so much of your poetry is about Liverpool, to what extent do you feel like a representative of “Liverpudlian poetry”?
PF: There’s an account of Freud visiting the Acropolis for the first time, and suffering what he called a ‘disturbance of memory’; he was seeing something firsthand that he’d learned about at school, strangely upset that it really existed, and here he was, actually looking at it. I think when I was growing up that Liverpool was so all enveloping, so atypical and self-mythologizing, that the leaving of it was a similar kind of shock to the system. To discover there really was an England, for example – it sounds absurd, but that was how I felt, for a long time. And looking back onto that insularity was – is – like it all happened to somebody else. It’s not so much a case of my being ambassadorial, or representative of the city and its culture, more a sustaining fascination with it.
H: Has the city changed for you over your lifetime? Does it feel more of a tourist town now than when you were growing up?
PF: I suppose so. In some ways I’d say it was a very rich, exciting place to grow up, even though we knew at the time it was clearly in a terrible state by the time I left in the mid-80s. There’s been huge reinvention since then. I think elegy lives there; it’s a place I associate with leaving, not just my own. They wrote a song about it! You have to remember, Liverpool was a port city for a very long time, and people embarked, disembarked, passed through. It was a sailor’s town, a merchant’s town, and all kinds of people also settled there, or ended up there, which made it a complicated, extreme place, out on an edge. Now it’s a destination in its own right. So, there’s my seeing it from the inside and then from a distance, alongside its economic decline followed by reimagining. I think this is manifest in the general urban experience these days, of living in reinvented space in twenty-first century England. This is where most of us actually live and work.
H: As a tutor, what do you make of the criticism that writing “can’t be taught”. The poet Jamie McKendrick has made the point that artists rarely have had to put up with this kind of accusation when it comes to painting.
PF: So much of it, when you’re young and starting out, is innocence and supernatural confidence and dumb luck – half the time you’re not sure how you’re doing it, or why it happens. But I still wouldn’t say it’s unteachable, just that the student has to enter into things with an unusual level of commitment. I’ve never studied writing formally, except for a year of night classes, but my tertiary education was art school, very practice led, and of course it shaped and formed me, saved me time, exposed me to new things, aesthetics, ideas. At a facile level, no, you can’t bestow talent. But only charlatans and spoofers would ever claim they could.
H: You’ve worked a lot in radio. Listening to spoken word material is something which I think a lot of people are rediscovering now with the advent of podcasting. What do you like about the medium?
PF: I think it’s created a new way of writing, or at least of being interested in words and sound – sound literature, if you like. It’s also meant I’ve been able to conduct research, or the kind of unfocused, instinctive research that’s useful to a writer anyway. I think mostly though I just like the voice coming from a speaker, and while the very disembodied nature of the broadcast voice seems to take us away from what I’d regard as the importance of presence and the embodied poem, paradoxically I find it very bound up with the textures of a lived life and how we experience voice in time. It’s a lifelong thing for me; a lot of my very earliest memories are sort of infused with the sound of a wireless on somewhere. In primary school, we all filed into the assembly hall and the teacher switched on this giant speaker – just a big woofer in a wooden cabinet – which sounds Orwellian, but this was the golden age of the schools radio service. I grew up during that.
H: Are you working on any radio projects at the moment?
PF: Always, it seems. Yesterday, I stood in the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology, and held the skin of a Passenger Pigeon. It was six o’clock, Monday 1st September 2014, exactly 100 years to the moment that Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in Cincinnati Zoo, and the species became extinct. My hands were shaking. This is why I love doing radio.
H: What else are you working on right now?
PF: A very long poem. It is killing me.
H: Really? How long is very long? Are we talking about a Homeric epic?
PF: It’s a version of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, which appeared in two parts in 1612 and 1622 – a long chorographical poem in which the Muse moves across England and Wales through thirty songs. He struggled with it too.