An Interview with Jamie McKendrick
Jamie McKendrick has published five books of poetry, including The Marble Fly (OUP, 1997), which won the Forward Prize, and most recently Crocodiles & Obelisks (Faber, 2008). He edited The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems. He has also translated two novels by Giorgio Bassani, a verse play by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Valerio Magrelli’s poems, The Embrace, which won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the John Florio Translation Prize in 2010. A new book of poems, Out There, is due to be published in October.
An imagined reader and an imagined audience are different things. Do you have either, or perhaps both?
This distinction is an interesting one. I prefer the idea of a reader to an audience, as the poem seems to me an intimate form received by each person according to their lights and experiences—though I wouldn’t exclude the idea that many people can have a similar experience of it. Walter Benjamin, talking about translation, has a passage in which he rejects the idea of a particular reader implied by a poem (or by any work of art) beyond humanity in general, and that rings true for me.
It’s difficult for a poet who also works substantially in translation not to be affected by the singular literary intimacy of the craft. Are you aware of any ways in which translating Magrelli, Bassani, and the many other authors upon whom you’ve worked has shaped your own writing?
You’re right to suggest the process is very close-up, and there are times, I guess, when the author can get under your skin. But I’m unaware of any ways in which my own writing has been shaped by authors I’ve translated. Working over a long period, however intermittently, on Valerio Magrelli’s poems has resulted in an increasing admiration for what he can do. I only wish I could incorporate some of his skills into my own writing, and for the duration of translating one of his poems, I do feel that’s what I’m doing. It’s just that the effect doesn’t outlast the occasion. I have to return to my own station. Or to my own skin.
How do you choose which writers to translate? Is there anyone whom you would avoid not out of dislike for the work, but out of unease about the effects it might have on yours?
I’ve never been fearful of the effects another writer can have on me—though I suppose seeing the extent of what someone else can do could be humbling. But that’s an experience one can have without translating. Working on a range of different poets for the Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems was a curious experience—it felt like I was being stretched in different directions. Pasolini’s polemical, indignant “To a Pope” could not be further away from, say, the three sardonic and self-mocking poems I’ve included by Angelo Maria Ripelino. In nearly all cases, though, there was some affinity or admiration, without which there’s no point.
Who are some of the poet-translators whom you most admire?
There are a number of poet-translators I admire, perhaps foremost among them is Michael Hofmann, the translator of multitudes, of Kafka and Roth, of Grünbein and Eich. But there are also poets who work very freely, without necessarily having much knowledge of the other language. Don Paterson brings a supple and resonant sense of the sonnet to his translations of Machado and Rilke. I have a few quarrels with his afterwords and prefaces, but that’s another story and it doesn’t interfere with my sense of his achievement. At the far, strange edge of translation, I found much of Tom Paulin’s Road to Inver very appealing. I can’t imagine such a delightfully un-Rilkean Rilke as the one that he invents with his “gross hirpling dopey ominouslooking sheep” (“The Island in the North Sea”).
Turning now to your own work, the title of your selected poems, Sky Nails, is an interesting choice. In a sense, by invoking the impossible, it asks us to look back over these selections from your earlier work with friendly scepticism—as if, at the least, we can’t accuse you of taking yourself too seriously. But if your point de départ seems to be the comic-melancholic, it’s surprising how many of the poems close in a way that feels no less tragic for its air of being accompanied by a shoulder shrug. Is mediating this balance something of which you’re consciously aware? Do you need to import humour, or does sorrow emerge from it?
The title poem, “Sky Nails”, is maybe “comic-melancholic”. But although it’s a building site joke at the expense of a hapless apprentice, it’s also a powerful image forged in the popular imagination, and in a way it could stand as a small manifesto for the way a poem can make something of nothing. Meister Eckhart says somewhere that only God can make something out of nothing, so it’s a hubristic claim to be making for a poem.
It’s not that in writing you need to import anything, but rather that contradictory emotions, humour and sorrow, can lie very close to one another or can succeed one another with inappropriate rapidity. I’ve always liked the way poems, or rather language itself, can remain mobile, can resist a fixity of tone. Of course, it’s possible, and sometimes admirable, to have a consistently elevated tone, but it just isn’t the way I think or write. Or if I find the poem too uniform, I begin to doubt it. The risk of humour within certain contexts is that it can seem facile or inclined to devalue. We can all recognise evasive irony and its limits, as we can recognise a humour that tries to enforce some kind of social norm. I’m more attracted to humour that destabilises perception or calls it into question.
The wry, half-tragic humour of poems like “Six Characters in Search of Something” comes across particularly well when you read them aloud. But to you, are such readings a productive endeavour, a necessary evil, or a little of both?
Because poems are composed with an intense awareness of sound, it makes sense to me that they should be sounded as well as read on the page. My own responses to others’ readings are sometimes hindered by deafness and by a slowness of uptake, so I’m often surprised and encouraged by how quickly some poems can be understood.
You’ve written several carmen figuratum. Are you likely to write more? What attracts you to the form?
Strangely it’s my hostility to the form that may have attracted me. To be more specific, for me the idea of the poem is far more wedded to its sound than its shape, and so the challenge has been to use a shape to impact on the acoustics. An early example, “The Vulcanologist”, the form of which is a transected cone, entails ever lengthening lines until by the end there’s a risk of running out of breath. Something similar occurs in the “toothed” form of the Seville crocodile poem—with three stanzas of lengthening lines. With two recent “obelisk” poems (better shaped for a magazine than a book where they’re broken up) I’ve tried to maintain a rhythmic element uncompromised by the format. Due to the doubts I have about the form, I find it unlikely that I’ve written any of them, so I can’t really say if it will occur to me again.
You write memorably about cars: there’s a rakish disreputable appeal in the “filthy patchwork of worn azure and bare zinc” which stars in “Fetish” and seems to pop up again in several other poems. Your treatment of this rather bohemian car is both tongue-in-cheek and a little infatuated, which leads me to wonder about the role of irony in your poetry. Is it a natural mode for car poems?
Many of the cars I’ve written about (or for that matter owned) are like clown cars shedding bits of metal all over the circus, so there’s an element of slapstick. But there’s also the fact that the car is such an intrusive and omnipresent part of our lives. As the train is for some 19th-century novels like The Idiot or Anna Karenina, so the car is for us. But it’s a much less sociable, much more solipsistic mode of travel (the phenomenon of road rage has no precedent in rail rage), so there’s probably something culpable about being infatuated by them. It hardly makes it better that they’re wrecked examples. Or perhaps just a fraction better! Maybe this answers your question about irony. Irony grows out of and acknowledges contradiction. Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said that a joke is the tombstone of an idea? Still, being able to make a joke even in a graveyard is a sign of continuing life.
Another recurring note across your published collections is the agave plant. Is there any particular reason why it keeps popping up?
Montale has an early poem about the agave, but I don’t think that’s an influence. The Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia uses the advance of the palm line—he reckons a metre north each year—as an image of the mafia’s relentless expansion. Though he wrote that a long time ago, the global warming implied by the image may be ultimately more troubling than the spread of criminal organizations. Perhaps I see the agave like the palm. It’s also an immigrant plant, of Mexican origin, that has made its home all across the Mediterranean. It lives in a dormant state for most of its very long life then suddenly sprouts a huge flowering column before it dies. As you can see from this answer I’m not quite sure why they keep recurring. Maybe it’s just that they’re big ugly weeds that I happen to like.
When your poems deal with nature, they seem on the whole more ekphrastic than pastoral: more interested in the visible than the imagined. Does a poetry like yours have anything to say to British ruralism?
I have a soft spot for, even a devotion to, British ruralism, if that includes poets such as Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. It’s just that I come from an urban background, and have almost always lived in cities. Over the last ten years I’ve spent a fair amount of time in a Spanish village, now I think of it, but I can’t yet see myself singing of the campos y huertos…Still, the descriptive can give edge and bite to pastoral as can the visible to the imagined.
“The dead are villains we pretend to love.” Crocodiles & Obelisks seems uneasy with the emphatic elegising that has obsessed many recent collections, and which has been a keynote of English poetry from the Miltonic fountainhead to the present.
The idea of death often seems to generate images of surprising beauty and profusion in your poems: the “fog like a tide of opal” which overtakes a dying fish’s eye, or your snapshot of Attilio Bertolucci, which culminates in a transfixing idea-image—”the sense of loss that flowered from his hands”. Do you think the elegiac mode has much left to offer?
Uneasy is the right word for that book’s dealings with the elegiac, or more specifically with public modes of remembrance, for which the tears of the crocodile (“un cocodrillo” being Italian slang for an obituary) and the obelisk, to put it crudely, represent two falsifying tendencies. You may well be right about the prevalence of elegising in recent collections, but it hadn’t particularly been in my sights nor was I consciously opposing such a trend. I guess after a certain age writers, like everyone else, are more likely to have to confront the deaths of many close to them.
My previous book, Ink Stone, where the fish eye image comes from, does in other ways try to come to terms with the elegy in relation to the death of my friend and brother-in-law, Lee Holland. If they have a particular precedent, it’s Henry Vaughan’s poems to his brother. I don’t presume on any kinship, but I was aware of them as a shape at the back of my mind. I see his as more lacerated and personal than Milton’s “Lycidas”—more like laments than elegies.
On the other hand, “Obit.” is ostensibly about writing an obituary for the poet Attilio Bertolucci, and examines something of the fakery that may vitiate the elegy or any public rehearsal of loss; and then tries to wriggle out from under it. That last line is also about the profusion of life despite the depression that afflicted him. I hadn’t really considered death in terms of beauty and profusion, but I can’t deny this reading that does also seem in key with other poems such as “Belen”. There’s good reason to be suspicious of any aestheticising tendency regarding death. Heaney reproaches himself in a palinode for having “saccharined” his cousin’s death “with morning dew” and with the Purgatorio, and yet right as this readjustment is I think the original poem is the more moving of the two.
Out There will be released by Faber and Faber in October. Can you tell us a bit about the new directions your work is taking and what to expect from this collection?
It’s much easier for me to describe Crocodiles & Obelisks, which has a historical premise: invasions, prisons, architecture, public memory, and so on. There is some continuity, but this book looks to me, by contrast, not to have such an evident organization—to be a bit more untrammelled. It takes a line from the Paradiso—a fatal sign perhaps—as its epigraph: “Questo aiuolo che ci fa tanto feroci”, which could be translated as “This little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce”. Though the title poem refers to outer space, much of the collection is centred on contested patches of earth.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.