|Nick Ascroft (Grant Maiden Photography)|
You are counted in the pantheon of genuinely funny poets – let’s not name the others in case we hurt feelings... Did you make a conscious decision to not write in a serious timbre or is it simply the way it came out? Were you writing like this when you started to write poetry?
There’s a great song from last year by Wilco called ‘The Joke Explained’ off the album they inexplicably called Star Wars and put a cat on the cover of. I think this somehow encapsulates my answer to your question. Ah, it doesn’t, does it. Gah. Nonetheless I love a line in the middle of the song: ‘It’s a staring contest, in a hall of mirrors.'
Poetry can seem a little high and grand to people, and writers of it, wary of this public and their idea that a certain height and grandeur is expected, can try and force the stuff out. But it’s a nasty trap, this temptation to write in a style that sounds to the ear like something that will convince others it bespeaks poetry. TS Eliot bumbled into it. A funny poet, writing about buffoons with rolled up trousers, he became popular and felt he had to write poetry worthy of his ideas about poetry. Four Quartets? Snore me a sickbag.
I think of Kushana Bush’s art. It’s full of depth, insight and historical reference, but it’s haha-funny, and she’s kept it funny while art-world chin-strokers have praised it in solemn tones. That isn’t easy. So she’s the paradigm I follow.
Do I try to be funny? Yes, as shameful as that sounds to admit. And often enough I really bomb, and the tumbleweeds whistle past. I remember Pamela Gordon once saying that poets were just failed stand-up comedians. And it’s a little bit true. Poetry also allows you to be funny-hmm, you know: ‘I find that funny. Right now I am experiencing amusement at your witticism.’ Or epigrammatic. In 1994, I wrote the first line of poetry that wasn’t just intended for a friend or family member to read. Kapka Kassabova had recommended I enter a student competition with Rob Allan as one of the judges. The first line was: ‘Let’s consummate our divorce with a documentary.’ It was funny to me anyway, and as ever I didn’t win but got my first of many ‘commendations’. I had a punkish outlook on poetry when I started and that’s easy in your twenties. But it gets harder to sell: that middle-aged public servant is so irreverent.
The ultimate answer to your question though is I don’t have as much control over what I write as I think I do. I write mostly quite traditional sonnets and unfortunately a lot of experimental poetry. I hate experimental poetry. What’s the experiment? What’s even the hypothesis? I hypothesise you won’t want to read this twice? Bullseye. It’s another veil in the seeming of poetry: that’s so weird it must be poetry and not an annoying five minutes I could’ve spent on biscuits. And yet, yes I write the stuff and I desperately want you to read it.
Your new book is split into four sections: ‘Love’, ‘Money’, ‘Complaints’ and ‘Death’. Explain ‘Complaints’? Is that instead of ‘Family,' or is it the same thing?
The splitting is convenience and an afterthought. It was about sandwiching the poems into the themes they seemed mostly to be falling in. ‘Complaints’ was the ‘everything else’ probably, as I generally whine about something as some point in a poem. ‘Death’ is the best section I think, and perhaps I should’ve shuttled it to the front, but I’m too much of a boring pedant to start with death.
This is a minor point when considering your work, but there is something un-New Zealand about your poety – no gazing upon our ‘pure’ skies or water, no laconic references to sheds. Your landscapes, in their rare appearances, are northern hemisphere, or a mix of places. What are your influences and do you see yourself as a part of any mode of poetry writing?
I think my last two books were more NZ-centred, and the lack of the shearing-shed backdrop is simply a product of having lived most of the period writing this book in the UK. I’m self-publishing a sci-fi novel set in Southland later this year which will redress the balance.
I’m a big fan of Richard Reeve’s poetry, and you can’t imagine his poems without the place they are happening in. But for whatever reason I can be a bit blind to the world beyond the walls. Things happen in human habitation zones: houses, offices, streets and rookeries. OK not rookeries yet, but I’ve been trying to work the following line into a poem all year: snug as a buggery in a rookery.
As to my influences, it’s difficult to say. Everything you read and hear and see has its effect and response. Certain writers’ voices stick in my head – Richard, John Dolan, David Eggleton and Cilla McQueen spring to mind – but I don’t think I mimic them. Perhaps I occasionally mimic certain nineteenth and twentieth-century poets I admire. Song lyrics certainly. I think the screenplay to Withnail & I by Bruce Robinson has been massively influential, as have the wordier skits Monty Python, Peter Cook or Fry & Laurie. I’d like to say PG Wodehouse. Is it true? I don’t know. Tina Fey, that’s demonstrably the case.
You delight in language – have you always done so? Do you keep the OED in your brain? And how, if at all, does this connect to your Scrabble playing? Are the Scrabble brain and the poetry brain connected?
Delights are dangerous of course. There are some poems where I know I am just delighting myself. Why has he used the word ‘impachydermatous’ or rhymed ‘cowlick these’ with ‘galaxies’? These days I try to invent fewer words, as it is a kind of excess. But this is my whole problem.
I remember interviewing Vivienne Plumb and she spoke of how writing poems involves whittling down the words into a minimally perfect skeleton. I was shocked. This should’ve been educational but I still see ‘overwriting’ as poetry.
I am genuinely delighted by language, which every drab old poet says, but it’s just true. And the delight is what sustains both my reading of others’ poetry and the writing of my own. Perhaps my most successful poems are those where I don’t wear that delight so loudly on my sleeve, or I distract you from it, but I need the delight to bother at all.
I think the Scrabble urge and the sonnet-writing urge are similar. It’s the mathematical puzzle. Scrabble also sneaks words into my poems. The word ‘eloigns’ in the poem ‘The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy’ sitting beside ‘lingos’ and ‘longshoremen’ is no accident. In Scrabble the words LINGOES (an alternate spelling of the plural), ELOIGNS and LONGIES (which means longshoremen) are anagrams, and the poem works as a mnemonic to help me remember that. Ah, a weight has lifted in confessing it. But again I try to avoid using words memorised for Scrabble tournaments in poems. Slowly I will clamp down on all my delighting until I’m like that no-dancing protestant town in Footloose awaiting its Kevin Bacon.
|Back With The Human Condition by Nick Ascroft, p/b, $25. Available now.|