Don Paterson: Poet
RUSTY TALK WITH DON PATERSON
Just because you’re not covering the page doesn't mean you’re not making careful preparation. There’s no hurry for this stuff, no deadline to meet, so you might as well get it right.
Catherine Graham: Congratulations on your Griffin International Poetry Prize nomination for your collection 40 Sonnets (Faber and Faber). As noted in the Judge’s Citation you write ‘with resonant clarity about anything’—a wave, the American photographer Francesca Woodman, the Norwegian jazz singer Radka Toneff, your dog, your children, the soul. The sonnet is your home in this collection, your playing field. You have published sonnets in previous collections. What is it about the form that compels you to keep writing them? Is form a requirement of poetry?
Don Paterson: “Compels” is maybe the right word, as I can see that my involvement with the damn thing might imply love, which would be an overstatement, or at least a bit misleading. Some days I’d be happy never to write another, but I guess you should try to cultivate a zen-like indifference to these matters. It’s quite simple, really: they just make certain poems not just easier to write but possible to write. They’re a way of me working through something I would otherwise find too difficult or uncomfortable or upsetting or contradictory to engage with. Speaking purely selfishly, I find increasingly that the poem feels more like a by-product of me just trying to … work out what the hell is going on here, exactly, a kind of means to an end. I mean I know that’s not true, but it doesn't seem a bad strategy to think of that way, to be more interested in what the poem is proposing than the poem itself, or something. I don’t see poetry as distinct from form any more than I do music, really; I’d say that all poetry has form. There are just different kinds of rules that different poetic temperaments find productive. Personally, I like things that offer enough resistance to stop me saying the thing I wanted to say, which was often pretty stupid, or something everyone else already knew.
CG: Did you find during the writing of this book that despite your excitement for a certain subject matter and your skill and expertise with the sonnet form, a poem demanded a different shape? Or was your intuition pretty much in alignment throughout so there was always a match between form and content?
DP: I think I may have unconsciously avoided any poems that demanded a different shape, since I’d rather arbitrarily set myself the task of writing a book of 55 sonnets. I ran out around 47 and removed the crap ones and settled on 40, as the number connotes … arduous labour? That was my hope … There’s a long prose thing which a few folk have claimed isn’t a sonnet, but that’s kind of the point of it, and it explains itself, with any luck. So if there’s the appearance of alignment, it really came about through self-censorship as much as anything, although I wouldn’t say I felt any frustration beyond the usual frustration. I think I did have in mind Die Sonette an Orpheus, though, where Rilke also takes the opportunity to see how far he can stretch the sonnet form, without making it just an empty designation.
CG: What sonnets led you to the interest in the form?
DP: I think it was more a matter of just slowly registering that many of the poets I was influenced by, or tried to be influenced by – Frost and Muldoon and Rilke and Shakespeare, etc.—had all used the sonnet to blow the reader’s mind in a particular way. There are a few that I still think of as exemplary models. No surprises–Sonnet 86, ‘Design,’ ‘Why Brownlee Left,’ ‘Archaic Torso’ and so on.
CG: “The Air” is a sonnet of questions. “Séance” plays with the erosion (or is it transformation?) of a word. “An Incarnation” is a one-sided phone call. “A Powercut” is structured by the word this. Did you set out with specific parameters in mind while writing each sonnet or did the shape and matter reveal itself to you during the writing? Can you tell us something about your process here?
DP: No, definitely the latter. My motto is—if you have a good idea for a poem, it isn’t. So if I have a structure in mind, or I know exactly what it is I want to say—these days I have the good sense to stop writing. My process is really just to commit to a process, and be vigilant against my ever thinking I’ve gotten good enough to turn it into an operation. It can take as long as it likes, change or not change as much as it likes, and I try to allow form and device and structure to just emerge. And when they have … generally I’ll tighten it and turn it into an organising rule. But I have to have the sense that the poem has proposed the rule, not me. Of course it is me, but with any luck it’s a part of me I’m not over-acquainted with. “No surprise in the writer,” and all that.
CG: During the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Readings at Koerner Hall, you shared a story about being stuck in an elevator, an experience that let you to the poem “A Powercut.” Did the notion ‘there just might be a poem here’ arrive during that (horrible!) incident or afterwards? What are your thoughts on life infiltrating art? Is that important to you as a poet?
DP: Ha! It was in Yorkshire in a tiny guest house. World’s most embarrassing lift to get stuck in. Yeah—you know what poets are like. They barely experience reality. A poet looks at a friend as an inconvenience standing between them and a half-decent elegy. We’re a disgrace. I think I probably started writing the poem in my head before the lights came back on.
CG: With regards to the International Griffin Award, you’ve been a part of this experience as editor of two Griffin-nominated collections, Grain by John Glenday and Pilgrim’s Flower by Rachael Boast. How does it feel to be on the other side of the page so to speak?
DP: I’ve been doing it so long I don't think about it much any more, and these days I can get out of my wee editor’s green visor and into my snotty woollen author’s hat, the one covered in dirt from being thrown out the pram a lot, in about two seconds flat. As my own editor will tell you. But I love the shameless pride you get to take in seeing an author doing well. For a Scot, especially, it’s much better than that pride you might momentarily take in the success of your own books, which is of course a sin, and will often find its immediate punishment. No one believes me, but for us … someone paying you a compliment might as well be stabbing you in the chest.
CG: Last year, when I spoke with Griffin International Poetry Prize Winner, Michael Longley, he said at this point in your writing life you have “all the tools for producing forgery and it’s important not to.” What constitutes “forgery” for you?
DP: Professing to feel what you don’t. And deluding yourself you’re breaking new ground when you’re just digging up the old. As the Sufis say, when you finish the work, dismantle the workshop. Michael’s bang on. There are times when you have nothing to say, or at least nothing you haven't already said. I think you should take poetry seriously enough to not write it.
CG: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given that you use?
DP: Derek Mahon once told me that for poets, “reading is the same as writing.” Just because you’re not covering the page doesn't mean you’re not making careful preparation. There’s no hurry for this stuff, no deadline to meet, so you might as well get it right.
CG: What’s next for Don Paterson?
DP: Oh god—ask the horse. Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise—in terms of stuff, I’ve a crazy long unreadable treatise on poetics out next year, which I barely understand. Then a New and Selected aphorisms, and a book of versions of lots of different European poets, mainly on ideas of the soul, in which I have very little faith but tend to obsess over anyway. A new long poem, which will take an age. A couple of very short introductory books, I think. A play. And I’m playing music again after a 12 year lay-off, which is proving to be fun, for me at least, so I have a bunch of gigs coming up with a quartet. Kids, dogs, lecturing, editing, Netflix, y’know—anything but actually having to face myself in silence, ho ho … I mean—if one were to live until the age of 250, treating your entire life as a displacement activity would be pretty unhealthy, but given where we are, it seems a reasonable use of the time. I’ve learned a lot from working with Clive James over the years: Clive projects himself into the future through his books, and these days it keeps him going where folk who’d asked less of themselves would have dropped. “Always giving yourself something to think about” might not be the life, but it seems to me a life.
40 Sonnets is the new collection by Don Paterson, a rich and accomplished work from one of the foremost poets writing in English today.
This new collection from Don Paterson, his first since the Forward prize-winning Rain in 2009, is a series of forty sonnets. Some take a more traditional form, some are highly experimental, but what these poems share is a lyrical intelligence and musical gift that has been visible in his work since his first book of poems, Nil Nil, in 2009.
In 40 Sonnets Paterson returns to some of his central themes - contradiction and strangeness, tension and transformation, the dream world, and the divided self - in some of the most powerful and formally assured poems he has written to date.
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