The Argotist OnlineTM
Robert Hampson Interview
Lidia Vianu is Professor of English contemporary literature at the University of Bucharest. She has twice been Fulbright lecturer in Comparative Literature in the United States: at the State University of New York, Binghamton, NY, and the University of California, Berkeley.
She is also a poet, novelist, critic, and translator, who has published five books of literary criticism: Modern Lyrical Scenarios; T.S. Eliot – An Author for All Seasons; British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium; Alan Brownjohn and the Desperado Age; and The Desperado Age. Censorship in Romania, a book of interviews, was published by European University Press in 1997.
She has written one novel, Prisoner in the Mirror, and three poetry collections: 1, 2, 3, Moderato 7, and Very. Her editing work includes six anthologies of British and American literature and criticism, and she has translated works into both Romanian and English. Her translations with Adam J. Sorkin have appeared widely. She has been awarded a grant from the Soros Foundation.
In 2005 she won jointly with Adam J SorkinIn the Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation, for their translation of The Bridge by the eminent and widely respected Romanian poet Marin Sorescu.
book British Desperadoes (which examines British writers) has been
published by LiterNet.
This interview is in two parts: Criticism, and Poetry
LV: You are a Professor of Modern Literature and Head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, London. What does it feel like to be an academic today?
RH: As Head of a large department at a research-led institution in the highly-bureaucratised British system, I spend a lot of my time on administration – overseeing the various BA and MA programmes, organizing workloads, monitoring the teaching and examination results in the various programmes, writing overview reports and business plans and financial plans … and trying to keep up with the changing legal frameworks (Health & Safety, Freedom of Information etc) in order to ensure compliance, while also preparing my Department for the Research Assessment Exercise, by monitoring individual research and encouraging larger research bids and projects. I am lucky to have extremely good colleagues, conscientious about teaching and working on a range of intellectually exciting projects. I have a reduced teaching load – a third-year Conrad class; MA classes in Conrad and contemporary poetry; and a number of research students. My third-year students have always been a wonderful group to teach: the course requires them to work very hard, but they rise to the challenge – and get a lot out of it. I have also been excited by the development of creative writing in the Department, which began with Poetic Practice as a third-year course and then as an MA (taught by Redell Olsen), and we have now set up a joint degree in English and Creative Writing, an MA in Creative Writing (taught by Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott and Susanna Jones), and practice-based PhDs. I have also managed to maintain my own research partly through the supportive research environment in the Department and partly through my involvement in international networks relating to Conrad, Ford and James – and contemporary poetry.
LV: Your criticism focuses on Joseph Conrad – who was the subject of my diploma paper, so we share, I think, a biassed love for him – but you also write about Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Rudyard Kipling, and you have supervised dissertations on Henry James. When you write your critical essays, do you mainly converse with other critics or do you primarily convey your own opinion on the text in question?
RH: Apart from editing King Solomon’s Mines for Penguin, my research at the moment has two foci: Conrad and contemporary poetry. I am engaged on a couple of Conrad projects – one of them a book called Conrad’s Secrets; a second project on Conrad and space, and a co-edited set of essays on Conrad and Magazine Culture. I am also co-editing a volume of essays on the poet Allen Fisher. In the Conrad work, I develop my own views of the texts through dialogue with other critics. So much valuable and interesting work has been done on Conrad that can’t be ignored, and the dialogue through critical writing is just an extension of the dialogue that exists within the community … that carries on through conferences and so on. In my critical work on Allen Fisher and on contemporary poetry and poetics, I am really in conversation with other poets rather than critics.
LV: There is much talk these days about criticism having to make itself useful by invading theory, sociology, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, etc. There is a spreading opinion (born with the European Community) that a discipline must be useful to real life or it should not exist. Utilitarianism redivivus. Does criticism talk about the quality of life? About a recipe for success, the media, other fields? Does it theoretize the facts of the work into a system? The American dream (quick fame and money, no matter how you get them) is surreptitiously taking over. Literature is – I am afraid – being forgotten in the process of conforming to a jargon of newly created – otherwise welcome and very interesting – terms. The more new concocts you use, the less intelligible, the more splendid. The best text is the text which leaves you mute – you cannot comment upon it because you feel you do not want to take the time to learn the jargon. The academic jargon is killing the pleasure of reading a critical text. Where do you think criticism is heading? Is it so changed as to forget all about the literary work and deal more with the theory on life that swallows it?
RH: I think there are two separate issues here. In the first place, there is the issue of criticism using various kinds of theoretical language. I am entirely sympathetic to this development in criticism over the last thirty/forty years. I have grown up with this, and I am old enough to remember the former criticism with its unexamined assumptions and unarticulated values. My critical work on Conrad has been influenced by ideas from psychology, feminism, postcolonialism, cultural geography – and these have formed the bases for particular projects. At the same time, I am very concerned that critical work returns to the text and close reading of the text. What I am critical of is where the text is merely fed mechanically through a theoretical model – or where pretences are being made to a reading which hasn’t been undertaken (so that references are made to Hegel and Heidegger, for example, without any effort to engage with the work) – or where the critical work moves from one theorist to another without any sense of possible conflicts between theoretical paradigms. Otherwise, theoretical approaches merely add to (and enrich) models of reading.
The other issue is that of utilitarianism. This, I think, is a serious problem and a threat to what literature represents. There is increasing pressure from the government to turn education into training – and to shift universities away from the transmission of knowledge to skills. To go with this, students are being encouraged to regard education purely instrumentally – as a matter of passing examinations and gaining qualifications for the job market. Ideas of curiosity, creativity, and pleasure – which are of central importance to me both academically and in life – are excluded from this programme. You can also see why governments don’t want to encourage the development of informed, critical intelligence – which I still think is an essential part of our larger social role as university teachers and public intellectuals.
LV: I am mostly talking about academic criticism, because I am afraid that students and professors are the most stable audience of a critic these days. One reads criticism to study or to compare/conform. It is useful and necessary to confront other opinions and learn from many minds, whether critics or philosophers, scientists. Any text which can force your intellectual limits and enrich your judgment is a blessing. My question does not start from a denial of texts other than text analysis; quite the reverse. I welcome broad minded critics. Contemporary academic criticism is losing its readership. Its audience is smaller and more specialized every day. Is that as it should be? Should we allow it to leave literature and join ‘science’? Will we, in the near future, have to learn a new language in order to understand a critical text? What do you think about the way a literary critic should use language?
RH: Given changes in the surrounding culture – not least, changes in publishing and bookselling and, in this country anyway, changes in the way people spend their leisure time – it is not surprising that academic criticism should be a relatively small, specialized field, where academic talks to academic. It is hard for us to break out of this, given that newspapers and other media are more interested in sport, fashion, and popular music than in literature and intellectual ideas. New Labour’s mantra of ‘elitism’ has also worked to strengthen the strongly anti-intellectual tendencies in this culture and to discourage ideas of informed intellectual debate. However, I think it is important that we try to break out, that we try to find a public role for academics, intellectuals, writers – and, to do that, we need to be as clear and intelligible as possible, without sacrificing necessary complexities.
LV: Students are quite confused in the philological departments of present day universities. If they do not use the jargon, their papers may get a bad grade. If they use it, there are two possibilities: either they use it intelligently (and are understood) or they use it mechanically (combining portmanteau sacred terms and hiding their lack of personal ideas behind them). In both cases, they are very likely to get a good grade. As a professor, you may be put off by a foreign language in a student’s essay and imagine he does have something to say. I think that good professors must ask their students to change jargon into intelligent, accessible critical discourse. Must the language of criticism become specialized to the point of departing from the path of a common instrument of communicating an idea about a work (of decoding a text which is already coded – with another convention, true – not further encoding it into newspeak)?
RH: As I suggested above, I am sympathetic to the intelligent and intelligible use of theoretical language, but I also share your critical view of the mechanical production of theoretical language. What is important is that students learn to think critically and independently. This doesn’t rule out the use of theory, but the marshalling of theoretical terms and allusions to unread philosophers are valueless. I try to train students to think about, question, and support any statement they wish to make. I also try to insist that students should have read widely in an author before they start making generalizations about him/her. If you have read only ‘Heart of Darkness’, you can’t generalize about Conrad. Similarly, if you have read only Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, you can’t pretend to understand Freud.
LV: Is the growing abyss between academic and non-academic criticism (merely a matter of audience, after all) a good thing? Should we feed students only dry jargon and keep for the stray reader the real charm of the critical discourse? Do you teach your students to comply with the arduous terminology (parroting words invented by gurus) in order to get a good grade? As a professor, do you grade the method/jargon or the personal reaction to both? When personal reaction comes without the method, how do you correct the approach? How much of the student’s enthusiasm for the work are you willing to sacrifice to the method? Is the method unaccompanied by feeling for the text satisfactory?
RH: Within the academy, I certainly wouldn’t want my students to parrot anybody’s words. I would expect them to come to terms with contemporary critical and theoretical discourse, to have an understanding of both and be able to use various discourses or a particular critical/theoretical discourse in their own essays. A personal reaction as such is of little value – over the years, I have often heard ‘personal reactions’, which are entirely predictable and the product of uniformed and unexamined assumptions and prejudices. I. A. Richards long ago, at the very start of practical criticism, drew attention to the danger of ‘stock responses’ as the ‘personal responses’ of the uninformed reader. As a teacher, I want my students to have informed responses – and that ‘informed response’ might require historical knowledge, biographical knowledge, knowledge of related literature, knowledge of other works by the same writer, knowledge of the critical tradition, knowledge of contemporary theoretical approaches. I don’t lose sight of the text, and close reading of the text, and of the importance of the personal response to the text, but the personal response also has to be an informed response. In my third-year Conrad class, the students’ enthusiasm comes partly from engaging closely with a large number of works by Conrad so that they really feel familiar with the body of writing, but also partly from approaching that work through a variety of critical and theoretical approaches, some of which they make their own. I don’t see theory and enthusiasm as opposed, but as capable of feeding each other. In the Poetic Practice class, which focuses on contemporary experimental practice (which is often theoretically informed), what has been interesting is to see how the students take ownership of theoretical ideas they have encountered elsewhere in the course through practice. For example, Barthes’s idea of the self as constructed from a wash of texts and codes challenges the notion of the lyric ego as the source for the poem and moves towards various kinds of constructivist and collage approaches to poetry in a way that the students find very liberating. Here, instead of parroting a theoretical language, they are encouraged to understand the practical implications of theories they have encountered – and how those theoretical positions might produce new models of writing.
My (limited) experience with non-academic adult readers of fiction is of an aggressive attachment (on their part) to a limited model of reading through identification which is assumed to be ‘natural’. Because this model of reading is assumed as ‘common sense’, there is no possibility of engagement or nuancing through other models and approaches, and very limited possibilities for dialogue. Non-academic adult readers of poetry can be more open to other models and approaches. I don’t have a sense of the ‘charm of critical discourse’ outside the academy – except through my contacts with non-academic writers and readers of poetry
LV: I consider the literary critic to be a writer of the second degree, a writer with an agenda, possibly. We often start from one view on the work and, while formulating it, we see the light, and we realize we have reached an unexpected conclusion, which was not very obvious to us before we had started writing the critical essay. Words do have a way of helping us understand our own reaction to the work. Criticism, then, is creative, in a way. It moulds language, too. It wields ideas. It can please, it can seduce. Eliot’s criticism, Valéry’s criticism did. Why is it so wrong to state that the critic is a writer, that criticism is literary creation of a different kind from fiction or poetry? Consequently, that it must take care of how it uses language? Do you think the language of criticism is free from the need to communicate clearly, which informs literary style?
RH: Yes, the critic is a writer, and literary criticism should be conscious of its reader and should take care of its language. Criticism needs to be clear and well-written, but that doesn’t rule out theoretical and philosophical language. Like poetry, the language of criticism needs to be adequate to the complexity of its subject. Neither Eliot nor Valéry in their poetry avoids the abstraction and complexity of philosophy.
The criticism written by poets is also an interesting genre. Its functions are often quite different from those of academic criticism – often performing the function of clearing the way for the poetry, providing a framework or a new model of reading. There is also a form of poetics written by poets which is a literary creation – there are works by Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian that fall into this category.
LV: Is criticism going to survive? A colleague of mine remarked the other day that no one who rejected the heavy artillery of critical jargon in their essays would be read any more. Is the readable, enjoyable critic an obsolete species? Do we have to be difficult in order to prove we are worth reading?
I don’t see that criticism is opposed to theory: I would want to aim for a
theoretically informed criticism. There are places for various forms of
criticism – the highly theoretical, the academic, and the intelligent
criticism written for the intelligent, non-specialist that occasionally appears
in journals and reviews.
LV: Theory is the way to go these days, but can it be the only one? Has criticism become that exclusive? Is text analysis and the study of the project of the work, of its author’s intentions, interpretation of the author’s view such a sin as it is said to be now? I realize modernist literature rejected objective narrative in the same way that contemporary critics reject what they call impressionism today, and I agree that we must have an approach, tools with which to deconstruct and reconstruct the work. But must we use them in such a narrow-minded way? Can they not coexist with the traditional intuition of the work? Why is the critic so strongly denied access to creation? I feel that in criticism everything is out but the mechanistic inventory of the work, which is death to the old charm of literary criticism. How must criticism behave now, in your opinion?
RH: I think theory has changed the paradigm: criticism can’t proceed as if theory never happened. If by text analysis, you mean editorial theory and the genesis of the text, I think these are also valid approaches, but I would also want to include the new bibliography and the sociology of the text, the work of MacKenzie and Jerome McGann. The collection of essays I am co-editing on Conrad and Magazine Culture looks at Conrad’s relations with each of the magazines in Britain and North America in which his work appeared, the cultural and political agenda of the magazine, and considers why did they want to publish him and why did he want to appear with them. Authorial intention was already problematic before theory arrived – and I think the new bibliography makes that intention problematic in other ways. Who is the author? Arguably ‘Joseph Conrad’ is a construct of J. C. Korzeniowski and various editors, typesetters and printers whose work contributed to the published texts that appeared under that name.
LV: What should we teach our students first, to dissect the work or to understand it? The method or the substance, the form or the content (if – old dispute – they can they be separated)? As in literature proper, the two separated are mere fiction. The traditional, intuitive critic (whom Eliot so hated) has been punished. Who will punish the excesses of the cotemporary critic, who thinks his demolition of the mystery of creation is all that matters?
RH: Again, I think understanding the work and dissecting it are a reciprocal and unending process. Can the text be finally understood? Is there anything apart from successive readings with their subtle differences and shifts of emphasis – and sometimes, even, radical re-visionings?
LV: I feel very awkward when a very smart student writes a dissertation in which his sentences alienate me as a reader, destroy my pleasure of reading. His ideas are sometimes interesting, at other times specialized language kills all meaning. I feel like telling him he should respect language more, but I am afraid that might turn against him. He is better fitted than me to survive in the present world. How do I teach intelligent students to strike a balance between newly coined terms (usually other critics’ terms, parroted more or less in the know) and the need to communicate, which is why language was born in the first place? One can create a term occasionally, but criticism should not be about creating (sometimes defacing) words; it should be about making them vehicles of meaning. Could you – who always make sense – advise a student to forget about creation and be ‘scientific’ all the way, sacrificing meaning to the pride of using only the right words, the words which are now ‘in’?
RH: I think contemporary students have to be able to understand and use the contemporary critical and theoretical idiom, but they have to be using it – making it their own, serving the purpose of their own reading. There is no point merely repeating theoretical formulae. There is no point producing a collage of contemporary theories, reaching out for another name or term. The emphasis has to be on thinking and thinking through the language and theory used. The trick also is to write stylishly and pleasurably while using the most up-to-date theory. As you suggest, there has to be a concern for the reader – something more than blinding the reader with one’s obscurity.
LV: Your poetry is an intellectual adventure, and an intellectual treat at the same time. You devour space with your thought-tentacles. Your poems go places the reader would not dream of associating. Since your have also written about contemporary poetry, what makes a poet contemporary to this beginning of the third millennium?
RH: Thank you for these comments. I have had one reviewer complain that the work was intellectual, but it is designed to be intellectually playful and an adventure. Frank O’Hara and the English poet John James were important early influences. The influence of Pound and Olson is more evident in Seaport, which you haven’t seen.
I think a poet has to be as aware as possible of the range of contemporary writing – and, for me, that would include various ‘border-areas’ such as poetry as installation, event, or performance. It would include an awareness of sonic, graphic and performative aspects of poetry – all of which have been explored during the last century – as well as an awareness of new technologies, such as digital poetics. It is not that the poet has to then work in all these areas, but some knowledge of what Pound called ‘the scope of the possible’ is an important part of the poet’s training. Poets such as cris cheek, Caroline Bergvall and Redell Olsen have all been important for me in this area. Being aware of contemporary developments in the other arts also helps the poet to be alive in one’s own time.
For the same reason, I think the poet has also to be aware of contemporary philosophical and theoretical issues. From the very outset, I was aware of issues around ‘race’ and gender. When I set up the magazine Alembic with Peter Barry and Ken Edwards in 1973, our explicit programme was anti-racist, anti-sexist and international. It was not that we wrote poems explicitly outlining this programme, but these values were implicit in our writing and editorial practices. More recently, my involvement with the department’s MA in Postmodernism led to an intensive reading of a range of theoretical writing which had a direct impact on my poetry. It encouraged me to write in a different way and also impacted on the language and content of the poetry. Finally, I think the poet has also to be aware of contemporary political developments. I write poems which are love poems, but I am also conscious of how the moment is penetrated by multiple events, dynamics, discourses. The poetry of Allen Fisher has been very important for me in understanding this sense of the multiplicity of the moment. The private space is permeated by public events, codes, discourses.
LV: I have a word of my own for postmodern poets: I call them Desperado. One of the reasons is proved by your poems: you write gun (language) in hand. You wield words like bullets. Impressing the reader becomes wounding him into awareness with you. Is poetry still an effective intellectual weapon in our times?
RH: I would be very happy to avoid the term ‘postmodern: it has been used in such different senses as to be no longer useful. (I have an essay on this, which I won’t repeat here.) ‘Desperado’ is very flattering: there is a song of that title by Linda Ronstadt, which plays to a certain male romantic posturing … However, I take your response to the poems (here and elsewhere) seriously. The poetry is designed to move quickly and to have shocks and surprises – and traps. O’Hara writes in his ‘Manifesto’: “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”’ I think your critical comments make an effective case for the personal response.
Is poetry still an effective intellectual weapon? I would like to think so, though I don’t know how to measure the effect. Some of my more recent work – in a recent Poetry Review and on various websites/e-zines – is very much engaged with British and North American foreign policy. It isn’t effective in the sense of stopping things happening – I was disconcerted to see that work I had published in relation to the First Gulf War could have been recycled for the Second, but I think it is vitally important for poetry (and intellectuals generally) to attempt to occupy the public sphere. I think it is effective in relation to individual readers, and it has a vital role to play in relation to destabilizing, deconstructing, estranging the dishonest language of politics. (The killing of the young Brazilian [in the London Underground--Ed] by the police with several bullets to the head was described by the former Prime Minister John Major as a ‘shoot to protect’ policy.)
LV: You call poetry ‘catching the moment’... With you ‘the word/ travels’. Your poems all ‘tell their tale’. In very few words you create a universe of innumerable planets for the understanding. Although you are crystal clear – how I appreciate this respect for language – you can be endlessly interpreted. This is what I call true poetry, the poetry which, if we take Eliot’s words for granted, ‘can communicate before it is understood.’ Although you write specialized criticism, you can be, just like Eliot, a wonderful practitioner. How do these two sides coexist in you?
RH: I like the idea of a few words working to create their own universe. The phrase ‘catching the moment’ very much sums up what I was attempting in that particular poem: it was like a photograph or quick sketch, but in words. The early poetry is highly visual – film and photography were important points of reference for me. With ‘the word/travels’, I was exploring the ‘cross-cultural encounter’ of a particular relationship, but I was also drawing on academic research I had been doing on Joyce and Homer. With ‘tell their tale’, I was engaged with the idea of narrative and poetry, and I was writing a series of poems that explored narrative through responding to the films of Godard. In some of these poems, I was interested in playing games with the audience: the assumption is often made that poems are autobiographical; in these poems I wanted to create first-person narratives which couldn’t possibly be me. Later poetry is much more based in language than in the visual, and here the principle of sharp cutting between discourses both respects language but also opens out interpretation. Again, an important early influence was the work of Lee Harwood. Harwood’s combination of precision and incompleteness was very powerful. His poem ‘Linen’ ends:
touching you like the
and soft as
like the scent of flowers and
like an approaching festival
whose promise is failed through carelessness
Harwood’s work , too, ‘communicates before it is understood’, which (I suspect) is partly why it has been so little written about. What is there to say?
How do the two sides co-exist? Sometimes, as in the Joyce example, one feeds directly into the other. As time has gone by, I have had to find ways of drawing creatively on various aspects of academic practice. Sometimes, this has been a matter of using the language of theory and turning it for other purposes. Sometimes, as in C for Security, it was a matter of taking the practice of producing handbooks for students and subverting it.
LV: You talk in a poem about the ‘survivalist desert’ and the title of your collected is ‘assembled fugitives’. What a wonderful description of the dystopia we live in, and which is the Desperadoes’ favourite environment. One of the major Desperado features – as I see it – is their sense for the dystopic. They relish fear, alienation, the death of love/the couple, the death of the nineteen-century-long fairy tale tradition (which died with the advent of Modernism). You yourself are in love with the mind, not necessarily with anyone in flesh and blood. If you were to describe the poetic essence of your existence, how would you put it into words?
RH: That poem is a response to a film by John Cameron, Terminator, where the dystopic future is resituated in contemporary USA.I hadn’t thought of my work as dystopic – I had hoped there was a utopian drive behind it: Perhaps the two are intertwined in a dance: ‘pessimism of analysis , optimism of the will’ (or should that be the other way round). I would like to think there is a sense of risk or adventure rather than fear. I guess what comes across as alienation is a sense of critical distance and what I would see as a more positive assertion of non-belonging. There is a lot of moving between cultures, a refusal of nostalgia or sense of originary identity, and part of the use of America is as a destabilizing of ideas of belonging. Identity is in flux.
don’t think there is a sense of the death of love: there are some poems (such
as ‘alphaville’) where that is
part of a dystopic urban image, but, more generally, love and the erotic are
very positive features of the various worlds in the poems – and various
flesh-and-blood women are behind a number of them.
In one poem you confess yourself to be ‘caught between/ sign & sign.’ Is
poetry a trap or a liberation? What exactly do you feel when you write it? The
prisoner of your gift or its master?
RH: In that poem, I was thinking about the signs on the US freeways but also linguistic signs (and living in language). So, there is partly a sense of exhilaration, the pleasure of travel and the enjoyment of the speed and tricks of the poem – there is a wonderful book by the American poet, Rosmarie Waldrop, The Road is Everywhere or Stop This Body, which uses car journeys and actually incorporates a road-sign into each poem, and that was probably in my mind. At the same time, there is the frustration of being trapped within language – and pushing in various ways against that limit – but there is no outside to language .What is important is the irresolvable co-existence of the two. If there is mastery, there is also imprisonment.
LV: Most Desperado poets see themselves driving or roaming down a street. Nature is a lost realm. It comes back in your lines, but as a cosmic nature, if I can say so: you devise a picturesqueness of the universe. It feel as if you were travelling among stars. Considering this view of space, what poet do you feel closer to? It can’t be Whitman – but I suspect you do appreciate him, or you would avoid accumulation of images in his manner. What do you think of Peter Ackroyd, who (in his The Plato Papers) has the same view of an uncomfortable, exhilarating yet scary truth?
RH: Since becoming aware of Roy Fisher’s City and Allen Fisher’s Place early in the 1970s (at a time when I had recently moved from Liverpool and was now settled in London), I have been very consciously working to develop an urban poetics. The clearest sign of that was my volume Seaport. I am very conscious of myself as primarily urban in orientation, though ‘over the bridge’ is located on the English/Welsh border. But I am also conscious of being an internationalist. I have no patience with the ‘Little Englandism’ of some poets of the 1950s. The great advantage of Modernism was that it was an international movement and involved international affiliations.
I see what you mean about nature coming back as cosmic nature. I think of ‘the planet traverses / multi-dimensional spaces’. That poem is routed in travel and the cross-cultural encounters in which I am interested as both poet and critic, but the internationalism there has become a global awareness. Again, I am conscious of that cosmic concern as an element in Allen Fisher’s work. For myself, I am interested in sudden changes of scale or perspective – and that would be found also in the Renaissance poetry of John Donne, a poet who has always interested and excited me. Another example, ‘planets suspended in space/on silver wires’ uses the line-break to produce that shift of scale and perspective – from the cosmic to the toy or model. Again, I feel this is very close to the contractions and expansions of space in Donne.
Charles Olson, of course, whom I came at through Allen Fisher, would be crucial for my thinking about space. More recently, I have been interested in space, travel and cartography through post-modern geographers such as my former colleague Dennis Cosgrove and spatial thinkers such as de Certeau and Lefebvre.
LV: You are anti-conventional. You give up punctuation, even words (using 4 for ‘for’, for instance), and you make me think of the American tradition in poetry (e.e. cummings). Where is poetry going today? What are its new conventions, in your opinion? Is it still the most national of arts, as Eliot called it?
RH: Yes, the lack of punctuation and the use of lower case do come out of the American tradition. I read some cummings thirty or forty years ago, but the important influences at the outset of my career were been Pound, Olson, Williams and the traditions of American poetry that come out of them. Olson, in particular, has been important in terms of the use of the page space and treating the space of the page as a compositional field.
Subsequently, I have been very conscious of the LANGUAGE school as my US contemporaries – Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian – and others such as Rosmarie Waldrop and Kathleen Fraser. I have had a sense of dialogue with their work. At the same time, it should be said that I would see my work as situated within a community of ‘London-based’ poets (many have since moved out of London), who would describe similar influences and would see themselves as part of a similar dialogue. I am thinking of people like Robert Sheppard, Adrian Clark, cris cheek, Harry Gilonis, Gavin Selerie, Peter Middleton, Caroline Bergvall …
More recently, I have been brought into contact with a younger group of poets (and other writing practices) through my colleague, Redell Olsen. As a result of exposure to her work and her concerns, I have become interested in the relationships between the verbal and the visual, the performative aspects of poetry, and new digital technologies of writing. My own work has been influenced by bookarts, installations, and performance. I think this I one of the directions in which poetry is going today. I have been very impressed by the performance and installation work of Redell’s students, Gilbert & Grape, and by the digital poetry of her student, John Sparrow.
I find it hard to think of poetry as a ‘national’ art. My own practice has always been ready to learn from other European and North American poetries, and, at different times, I have also been in dialogue with poets in New Zealand and Australia. With email, all of this dialogue is even easier. HOW2, the electronic journal that is currently edited by Redell, has an editorial board that includes Australian and North American poets, and has world-wide poetry as its constituency.
LV: All Desperado writers are solitary. Poetry is itself a solitary game. Would you be willing to state that you belong to a group of poets similar to you, to a trend? Because I have this feeling that you are a trend in yourself, the same as Alan Brownjohn (whom I have also interviewed and about whose work I have written a book) has created what I like to call Brownjohnism. Would Hampsonism shock you?
RH: As I suggested in the previous answer, I am very conscious of my poetry being produced within a community that is both local (in so far as my immediate contacts are in London) and global (through meetings and regular email conversations with poets in Europe, in the US and in Australia). An exhibition about Dada in the mid-60s had an important impact on me, and then I grew up in Liverpool at the time of the ‘Liverpool Scene’ and was part of the audience for Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and others – so the idea of poetry NOT being solitary was always very attractive to me. Through Olson, I came to know about Black Mountain College and was also conscious of the Bauhaus, so I have always been interested in the idea of poetry and the arts as part of a collective experiment and inquiry. Even if we think of the Romantics, Wordsworth learned from Coleridge; Byron and Shelley were in dialogue; Keats was part of a supportive group.
LV: What do you think is the future of poetry? Will anyone but the poets themselves read it? Will literature survive this terrible fight with the (tele)screen? Is the internet good or bad for the future of poetry?
RH: I think poetry has a range of futures. There will be at least one kind of poetry read largely by other poets. This is most obvious in relation to various avant-garde poetries, but it also applies to commercial poetry as well. Poets are perhaps the most attentive readers of other poets’ work – whether that poetry is unconventional or highly commercial. But I suspect the same goes for musicians: Bob Dylan’s account of his encounters with other people’s work shows a very close attention to the structure of songs, the relation to precursors, the range of possible musical treatments. The same goes for jazz musicians talking, for example, about the work of Joe Harriot.
I think the fight is not so much with the telescreen as with digital media, but, as I have suggested above, I think there are also things to be done with digital media and performance – and that might be where the future of poetry lies.
copyright © Robert Hampson & Lidia Vianu