The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Interview with Roger Elkin

by MANDY PANNETT

 

roger elkinThanks for this interview, Roger. Good to talk to you.  You have a most impressive list of achievements as editor, poetry tutor, literary advisor and competition adjudicator – to say nothing of countless poetry prizes, awards and ten highly praised poetry collections. Why is poetry important to you, almost a way of life? How do you feel if you’re not writing? Are there such times?

 

Let’s start, Mandy, with your last question. Yes, there are times when I’m not writing that leave me frustrated, sometimes distracted, occasionally on the edge of depression, as if I’m written out. It’s then I remember what Howard Sergeant, founder Editor of Outposts, said about writer’s block: not to panic, but get on with living, and wait, because the poem will come; all you need is the appropriate words when it arrives. I like that idea of the independent life of the poem, outside – or is that inside? – the writer, reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s “thought fox”. But there are aids to help its arrival. I have an A4 “red work-book”. (Number 13 currently! Goes everywhere!) Riffling the pages helps summon the Muse, though occasionally the “specialness” of the act becomes a barrier. Then I’m stumped into silence. The most prolonged time was when I edited Envoi (1992-2006). During those 15 years I wrote 3 poems – but I’ve made up for it! In fact, since 2006, there have been 8 published collections with another 5 planned. Nowadays, I try to write daily – if not new work, then re-drafting (up to 30 drafts), or re-jigging uncollected poems (there are files of these!). Oddly enough, the “most recent” Elkin poem may originate in something penned 40 years ago.

 

Other cultures (the Slavic countries, for example) seem to have much more respect for poetry (and the written word in general) than we do. Do you think that’s true and if so why might it be?

 

I agree with you about the value put on the written word in this country. It’s laughable that the nation’s favourite poem is Kipling’s If with Wordsworth’s Daffodils following closely on! I suppose some relief is the popularity of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, though Eliot and the Modernists were perhaps responsible for the rift between poetry and the popular reader. There are other factors. We’ve become a visual rather than a written world, what with YouTube and selfies. Language has been debowelled rather than devowelled, its guts taken out by texting, its meaning centred on action rather than nuanced thought. Similarly, the National Curriculum’s emphasis on measuring results, SATS, and tests, conspires to make language and literature into threats rather than delights. Furthermore, we’ve denigrated English to a functional tool, a means of exchange, the language of international diplomacy and commerce. Add the democratisation of cultural access and a policy of general dumbing down, compounded by celebrity-worship so that biography and sensationalism become more important than ideas or artistic integrity means that poetry, the least respected of the literary arts, sinks further into insignificance. Would I want poetry to be popular? Well, yes; and, no. Making poetry popular might mean diluting it. Alternatively, I wouldn’t want folk to be afraid, but to recognise that most of it is accessible, relates to their world, concerns, and personal lives. I’d very much welcome living in a culture that honours poetry. Poetry can teach us a lot about the world, ourselves, and our values.

 

Do you feel the poet has any obligations to society at large?

It’s tempting to think of Shelley’s idea of the poet as “(moral) legislator of the world”. I remember in the early nineties standing in the National Poetry Library and thinking why among all this bountiful material was I so arrogant to think I needed to bother writing. But did, as you can see! Yes, of course, the poet has obligations. He needs to tell others what he sees, what he values. To recognise that he has a responsibility to tell the “truth”, to hang on to his integrity. To be definite. Yes, that’s important in what many see as the wishy-washy world of poetry – somehow effete and effeminate.

 

You mention earlier that you have several new collections in the pipeline. Perhaps you’d care to talk further about them.

 

My eleventh collection, Chance Meetings, poems about other cultures (Egypt. S. Africa, the Far East, Turkey, Greece) – an extension to Points of Reference (1996), centred on France and the former Yugoslavia – was launched in August 2014 at the biennial bilingual Literary Festival in France at St Clementin, Deux-Sevres. An international event, it featured readings and workshops with Blake Morrison, Katherine Gallagher, and Michele Roberts. As well as the book launch, workshops and readings, I presented a seminar on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s use of Lawrence poems as a commentary on their relationship.

 

I’ve also just prepared for publication probably my most important work to date – important in terms of self-discovery – That F Word – 170 pages about the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850).

 

Maybe you could say something more about That F Word. I believe you’ve been working on these poems for over a decade and are concerned to put the work into a wider historical context, not only the tragedies and oppressions of those years. How do you tackle such a vast and complex subject?

 

The cycle came from a short-listing in Strokestown International Poetry Competition (May 2004), where I read alongside Paddy Bush, Bernard O’Donoghue, James Harpur and Mario Petrucci, among others.  90 miles due west of Dublin, the Strokestown House stables hold the Irish Famine Museum.  It was obligatory (to chime with your word) to visit it, and with what result!

 

What initially attracted was seeing words new to me in the museum display cases – “clachan”, “conacre”, “rundale”, “spalpeen”, “booleying”, “creaghting”, “lazy beds”, “tudal”, “boreen”. This sparked an investigation of the tragic events surrounding the potato blight: soup kitchens, task work, meal roads, evictions, emigration, coffin ships, government inadequacy and incompetence. Nearly 2.5 million Irish peasants were displaced, either by famine death or emigration to Canada or America – almost a quarter of the population. Ireland still hasn’t recovered in population terms, let alone psychologically, from that ravaging and diaspora.


I read widely in history books, discovering such anomalies  that while slave-owners got £20 million compensation for the abolition of the slave trade, and the Treasury fixed £70 million between 1854 and 1856 for the Crimean war, the British government gave only £7 million (less than ½% of GNP) spread over 5 years as famine relief in Ireland. I gradually understood this was a very complex historical event, with questions needing answers: such as was this a matter of Class warfare? Anglo-Irish divide? Religious bigotry? Governmental-directed genocide? Economic mismanagement? Colonial despoilment? Ecological disaster?

 

Simultaneously, I realized that while there were Famine Anthologies (by anonymous and contemporary poets, including Oscar Wilde’s mother), no living poet had produced a body of creative work wide enough to contain these events. Yes, there were odd poems by the likes of Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, and Eavan Boland, but surely such important events needed a voice. Here was my subject, although it was eight months before the first poem – in January 2005 while holidaying in Spain, in the first of what became 3 “red work-books” charting the whole cycle.

 

I note that the work involves two sequences – one involving real people and the other centred around a created character. Did you have this structure in mind from the start or did it take shape gradually as part of the writing process?

 

The two sequences evolved as the poems multiplied. Central to events was the Mahon family of Strokestown House – especially Major Denis, the first English aristocrat to be assassinated in the Famine. Clearly he and his forebears, the Earls of Hartland, had to feature. However, a political corrective related to class, a more earth-bound perspective was needed: that of the tenant peasant, suffering proscription, blight, famine and eviction, so I invented the character, Dan Byrne. He and his friends feature in 10 poems, Dan Byrne’s Famine, offered as foretaste in Dog’s Eye View (2009).

 

I also found links with my own locality. For example, James Bateman of Biddulph Grange regularly contacted John Lindley, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, who had the task of discovering the reason for the potato blight. Also John Talbot, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, from nearby Alton Towers, Staffordshire. The country’s leading Roman Catholic, with vast estates in England, Wexford and Waterford, he commissioned Pugin to build St Giles’ church at Cheadle, at an initial cost of £4,000 which with all the artistic, architectural, sculptural decoration catapulted to £40,000 (over £29 million for labour costs alone in today’s money!!!). The opening ceremony in September 1846 was attended by 20 priests, 10 bishops, 2 overseas archbishops (from Damascus and Sydney), and Crowned heads, statesmen and ambassadors from several European countries.  I have not seen any reference to Talbot/Shrewsbury’s support of his Irish peasantry; on the other hand, I haven’t read that his Irish tenants underwent any suffering, unlike the evicted families of Mahon, Lord Palmerston or Lord Lucan.

 

More interestingly perhaps, and related to my fascination in language, is the use in contemporary letters by Strokestown’s Father Michael McDermott of a term more usually associated with later historical events – “holocaust”. This suggested the English government’s political mismanagement might have elements of genetic cleansing. Such matters give events wider relevance; and help forge links with famines in other countries – hence the “inclusiveness” of the title. For me famine is a dirtier word than fuck! The poems have helped me to join the dots … historically, politically, personally. Perhaps, when published, it will help others similarly… In that way, I suppose, poetry has importance. It informs, educates, prompts, explains. And shocks! I just hope that in my obligation as a poet to tell events as I see them I’ve avoided Yeats’ dictum “Out of the quarrel with others, we make rhetoric” in favour of his balancing comment “out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry”. But, it’s a massive work, a difficult work which handles uncomfortable material. The problem isn’t the writing of the poems; the problem’s getting a publisher, one with enough guts to publish, and with an active distributor; and then arranging readings. I love readings. The real challenge is building a readership. But it could sell very well, both in the UK, and in Ireland and America.

 

There are six fine poems of yours in this issue.  One of them is ‘Knowing Stone’ and it strikes me that stone and its attributes provide a central metaphor here, including the poems about family.  There is a strong sense of place, an awareness of the past and its effect on the present, the rocks and roots of things. Could you say something about this or other images, themes, settings etc that recur, deliberately or otherwise, in your poetry?

 

The landscape of my childhood, particularly stone, is central to my writing. I grew up in Biddulph, in a valley between the last foothills of the Pennines, pocked with massy outcrops of glacier-scraped millstone-grit. The rocks and their quarried boulders for cobble-setts and drystone-walling haunted my childhood, my maturing dreams, and feature in my poems from my third collection, Home Ground (2002) to my tenth, Marking Time (2013), and subsequently. I especially like the inner “secrets” of the inside of stone faces – that delicate, rosy pink like leeched meat, as referenced in Knowing Stone. Stone-walling is also mentioned in North Ferriby foreshore, remembering, written while touring Vietnam and Cambodia. The Trent rises near where these massy outcrops squat. Being so far from home resurrected nostalgic times when I lived close to Ferriby near Hull. Remembering the Trent ran into the Humber, we used to look south at this wide river-estuary, and so for me the poem acts like an umbilical cord via the river, with my childhood. I’m also fascinated by North Staffordshire dialect, and found Peter Reading’s Latin quotation irresistible. I’d grown up thinking that “senatucked” was a purely localised word – though, of course, I’ve forged the linguistic link! Who knows, it might be true. Certainly, granddad knew no Latin!

History, identity, relationships are also important anchors: they help reaffirm that poetry has meaning, is political, purposeful – not just a matter of fancy.  I’d like to think that after several decades writing and publishing poetry I’ve a distinctive style: an identifiable “Elkin poem”, despite the variety of subject matter, voices and persona the individual poems inhabit.

 

My personal favourite from the poems is ‘Surfeits of love: the silences’.  I find it poignant and beautiful. I like all of them but the mood of this one feels different. Without ‘explaining’ the poem it would be good to know a bit about the writing process and whether it was one that took a long time to evolve or not.

 

Well, thanks for your comment. The stimulus was a workshop at Congleton Writers’ Forum led by fellow-poet and member, Liz Lloyd. Fascinated by musical terminology, Liz introduced the group to a list of terms and quotations including the famous Shakespearean speech from Twelfth Night 

“If music be the food of love, play on,
  Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

  The appetite may sicken, and so die.”  

That was the prompt – hence the reference to the musical terms – and the issue of “surfeiting”, sickening and dying. The implicit violence between the couple, the growing apart, the two worlds they began to inhabit, the eventual rift, and the woman’s planned revenge – the framework of events – took on a life of its own. There was an initial draft of twenty or so lines plotting out the rough structure, and which were read out at the evening workshop; then, the next day, a longer, more structured piece in the “red book”, word-processed, worked on and redrafted many times until its final version. However, I imagine the poem (like so many others) had been loitering in my subconscious for decades and just needed the workshop-catalyst to start its inevitable journey.  Its tone of conflict and silent, held anger grew out of the imagined narrative.

 

Without wanting to pry, are you suggesting that the poem is not based on real events, real people?

 

Not at all. Unlike She Paints, which opens Blood Brothers (2006), and is loosely based on my one-time neighbours. Surfeits is I suppose a fictitious outcome of what I imagined was happening in that earlier poem. Interestingly, She Paints dates from 1982, and Surfeits from as recently as 2012 – so a thirty year gap separates them. Strange how the Muse operates! But this issue of the autobiographical/biographical nature of (my) poetry is a problem. I frequently remind friends, family and writing colleagues that much poetry is really a branch of fiction, and that libraries should shelve it within novels. Perhaps then readership for poetry – abysmally low – might expand. One of my favourite quotations to demonstrate this issue is Douglas Dunn’s idea of “the artistic quality of a person’s personality instead of a reliance on the autobiographical merely.” It’s used as a prefatory note to Fixing Things (2011) which had its genesis in poems recording my adolescence as “the feet” of my crippled father, a keen amateur gardener. Subsequently these poems developed “outwards” so that they weren’t only and entirely autobiographical, but everybody’s “I” and “father”. By up-fronting the Dunn quotation, I hoped to evade my family’s wrath! I must have succeeded – they’re still speaking!

 

One thing you haven’t talked about is poetry competitions, both winning them and adjudicating them. Why do you with an established reputation continue to enter? And what do you look for in your adjudication?

 

Over the years, I’ve been placed 200+ times, including 45 first prizes, in International Open Poetry Competitions: initially to acquire a pedigree to secure book publication, but nowadays purely for the sake of being judged anonymously. Having my poems appraised as “worthy” by the likes of Andrew Motion or Don Paterson, Liz Lochhead or Jacky Kay is a real boost.

 

I also like adjudicating, particularly competitions where there is no initial sifting and I see the entire range of work. I like the anonymity. Looking at poems without the luggage of name and reputation makes you focus on the words and the crafting in an entirely different and demanding way. I love that sort of challenge; learn a lot. But what do I look for in a competition poem? That’s really difficult to answer briefly. I could fill a whole interview! Economy of means, saying something fresh about something well-versed, crafting, insight, perception, something I wish I’d written… Perhaps the best thing is to read my Adjudication reports for the Sentinel Poetry Movement Annual Competitions. They contain some superb poems. I’ve been honoured that Nnorom has invited me to adjudicate it for five years.  It’s been one of the highlights of my poetic year. Long may it – and SPM – continue.

 

Roger is available for reading, book-signings, poetry workshops and competition adjudication.

 

His poetry appears in the following collections:

 

Pricking Out (Aquila, 1988) “Energetic and vigorous in his writing, honest in his feelings.”– Elizabeth Bartlett, Poetry Review

Points of Reference (Headland, 1996) “Skilful and erudite… The language is sharp and observational.” – Chapman

Home Ground   (Headland, 2002) “Subject matter is hard and strong… vigour, originality and a strong pulse in the words.” – Acumen

Rites of Passing           (Shoestring, 2006) “Sure to enhance Elkin’s reputation as a poet of sinewy, meditative power.” – John Lucas

Blood Brothers  (Headland, 2005) “Fresh, reliably crafted, deeply felt… I’m just simply envious.  And impressed.”  R. V. Bailey

No Laughing Matter (Cinnamon Press, 2007) “A deeply satisfying read… we need this kind of poetry.” – Will Daunt, Envoi

Dog’s Eye View          (Lapwing, 2009)Be reassured: Roger’s back, more vigorous and daring than ever before.”  Will Daunt, Envoi

Fixing Things (Indigo Dreams, 2011) “A tour de force.”Will Daunt, Envoi

Bird in the Hand (Indigo Dreams, 2012) “Filled with expansive, effervescent writing… takes Elkin’s writing in a new direction.” – Will Daunt, Envoi

Marking Time   (SPM Publications, 2013)A work of considerable maturity and vision… A big and important book.” -Will Daunt, Envoi

Chance Meetings (Poetry Space, 2014) “Poems for those who seek wider horizons – poetic as well as the physical and spiritual.” –  Mandy Pannett

 

“Roger Elkin’s poems burst with sharply observed and well-chosen detail, and are simply very interesting.” – Don Paterson


Mandy Pannett, Poetry Editor, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, is the author of All the Invisibles and The Onion Stone.


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