Lawrence Upton interviews himself

Upton's study, December 2000

Upton: Where do you think we should start?

Lawrence: Begin at the middle, of course; and work out words.

Upton: I have read one published interview -

Lawrence: Görtschacher's 1.

Upton: Yes. And one unpublished interview, a copy of which you gave me.

Lawrence: Yes, that's Caroline Andrews' interview 2. And there's also the thing that Alaric Sumner did in Riding the Meridian 3.

Upton: Oh, yes. But that covers Domestic Ambient Noise quite thoroughly; and I rather thought -

Lawrence: You'll notice from both Görtschacher's interview and Andrews' that I can talk too much. So be warned.

Upton: Not at all. I found both of them interesting, very interesting. But I was going to say that I see no point in going over the same ground. That's why -

Lawrence: Except that the Andrews interview hasn't been published, so that some duplication might be useful.

Upton: OK. I'll remember that. In fact, let me put her opening question to you. Are you a professional poet?

Lawrence: No.

Upton: Nice and brief! That's not what you said to Caroline Andrews.

Lawrence: I know that. A lot of what I said then I am very happy that I said; but the matter of professionalism doesn't, today, seem to me problematic. The person I am today is not a professional poet. I am slightly cold poet because I have just been in the far west of Cornwall for a week and it's warmer there. I am still adjusting.

Upton: It's colder in the Thames Valley.

Lawrence: It certainly is. But we're not in the Thames Valley here. We're on the North Downs.

Upton: I'd forgotten you're a pedant.

Lawrence: Professionalism means all sorts of things, most of them undesirable. Poetry now has been turned into a commodity. There's nothing much the individual can do about it any more than I can do anything about the privatisation of public services or the distortion of education into a training service for employers. I don't know how one gets round that.

Upton: Do you not have a profession?

Lawrence: I had a trade. Teaching. But I've retired from that.

Upton: How does poetry fit in to that?

Lawrence: It doesn't. Poetry doesn't fit any such frame.

Upton: You're saying that poetry and professionalism don't go together?

Lawrence: No! Stuff professionalism. Poetry and - professionalism is the problem; but let's not go into that. I bored myself in that Andrews' interview. Poetry doesn't fit the sub-world in which the motive is undue profit and power. Or the sub-world in which lies are ok. If poetry is definable at all, then the definition is probably going to refer to the telling of truth, even allowing for all our doubts about the possibility of telling the truth. Poetry is about honesty and professionalism is generally about dishonesty... A barrister asking you if you have committed a crime is able to accept your assurance that you didn't; they can represent you then. That isn't good enough for poetry. You have to tell it the absolute truth.

Upton: This isn't supported by a look at the biographies of those often thought to be great poets.

Lawrence: You're looking in the wrong place. Look in their poetry. Stuff professionalism, I said, and stuff biographies. A poet may not be a nice person or a moral person, but in their poetry there is no room for them to be dishonest.

My biography, my life experience, is such that I might find balancing the worldly and the poetic impossible. It would make me ill.

Upton: And you'd have to stop writing?

Lawrence: That would kill me.

Upton: So you don't try to make any money from your poetry.

Lawrence: No. I have no moral problem about doing so as such; but it isn't possible. You have to be a dancing bear as well to do that. There is an enormous number of people who are interested in poetry who just don't know about much of the poetry being written. The same names turn up at the festivals and on the programmes... In a way it's good for me. It removes temptation.

Upton: What sort of temptation?

Lawrence: To talk bollocks. To tell lies. When there is nothing to be gained by selling out, one isn't particularly inclined to sell out.

Upton: Poetry isn't work then?

Lawrence: It depends, I suppose, on your definition of work. There's the scientists' definition... But in terms of paid employment, no it isn't. But nor is it a hobby. That was one of the things that Andrews pursued. I would say that neither work nor profession nor hobby come near it. Poetry, for me, is an activity which is not fitted by such terms because it isn't in a category to which such terms are applicable.

Upton: What is your attitude to work.

Lawrence: I'm all for it if it has some use and if one is capable of it. Mosst of the jobs being done today are pointless, most of what is produced is useless and the economy is a bubble.

Upton: Do you have a hobby?

Lawrence: Some would say that I do. I don't. Some would say, regardless of my views, that poetry is a hobby. To me my life is all one thing. It's a slightly less active life than it was once, but it's still not greatly compartmentalised by activity - why would it be? I would be unhappy if it were.

Upton: What else, apart from poetry, do you enjoy doing?

Lawrence: Walking. I like walking alone in empty country places.

Upton: Wildernesses?

Lawrence: There are no wildernesses as I use the term. Almost the entire landscape is made. Even in the far west of Cornwall, the land has been shaped by us. You go to the top of Zennor Tor in West Penwith and you'll find that granite has been taken away in masses. Many of the moors in Britain used to be wooded land. In much less than 10, 000 years, we have completely changed the landscape. I do like walking in places where there aren't many people.

Upton: Yes, you said alone. Why alone?

Lawrence: I don't like people

Upton: None of them?

Lawrence: I don't like most people for very long. A few people I like very much. I prefer animals.

Upton: Is this a wind up?

Lawrence: You know me as well as anyone. You answer.

Upton: What poets do you admire?

Lawrence: Difficult question.

Upton: What poets' work has been important to you?

Lawrence: It could be a long list. I assume I may take certain names for granted; but how many names? I'll go for the whole list, but I am almost certain to miss out at least a few. William Shakespeare. I return to the sonnets all the time... Early on and still Thomas Wyatt. As a teenager I saw Robert Graves on tv saying that one might learn to write using others' models. I took him at his word and took Wyatt as my model. I wrote terrible poems, but I learned a lot... Chaucer. I really like Chaucer and not just the Canterbury Tales. I am not a fluent reader of the original, but I can get there... Milton... Spenser. I have learned a lot from him... Oh so many... Marvell! Et cetera, et cetera... Shelley... Shelley was a major poet for me for many years. I studied him formally. More latterly, Byron. I used not to get so much out of him and I kept noticing how many I have respect for speak highly of him. Eric Mottram used to. Gilbert Adair, too. So I paid attention to Byron and realised that I had been wrong; I enjoy him and learn from him... William Wordsworth... Oh, forgot Dryden...

Upton: Pope?

Lawrence: Um... Dryden. Pope I am aware of... More than Wordsworth, Coleridge. Tennyson remains a great enthusiasm. Browning.

Upton: Where are the women?

Lawrence: Well, I was hesitating about Ms Browning, too, Elizabeth Barrett. In fact, I think my thinking on her gave you the idea. But more generally you must remember that I am extremely old 4; and, as all of us are, to some degree a product of my time and upbringing. I might have mentioned Mistress Bradstreet and Ms Dickinson. But I am riffling through the mental files and that mental system was set up by male teachers in a boys' school at a time when men were men. I don't have an equal opportunities memory policy. Nowadays, there are many visible female poets. Maggie O'Sullivan I admire greatly. I've written about her. More recently, I have discovered the Canadian Melissa Wolsak - I think they have good poetry in the air in Canada - and the Briton Elizabeth James who has produced some good work... The American Catherine Wagner... Carlyle Reedy who is a very English very American person, an American in London; and I would say that she is one of the finest living poets. Alison Croggan. Again, this is a recent discovery from my point of view. I heard her read not long ago and was mightily impressed... Tracy Ryan is writing very fine poetry... Cydney Chadwick... Andrea Brady... Harriet Tarlo... All excellent poets and I am sure I am missing many. My memory is not good... Pound has been immensely important... Williams... Charles Olson... I forget Dell Olsen, I think. Redell Olsen, a very exciting poet... I forgot Karen MacCormack... As my brain is in Toronto, I should mention Paul Dutton and bpNichol as was and Steve McCaffery... If I try to list all the people, I shall never stop... Hugh MacDiarmid has been very important... Bob Cobbing, a lifelong friend... cris cheek, Adrian Clarke, Bill Griffiths... And more recently I have come to greatly admire the poetry of Sean Bonney and of Jeff Hilson. I lump them together because they are friends, but they are really quite different poets though with many similar enthusiasms... You know I wonder about the use of such lists & I haven't really started

Upton: It's rather various. I expected more concrete and sound poets

Lawrence: dsh, Sten Hanson, Paul de Vree, Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck, all those many fine South Americans, all that stuff I found out about afterwards making amazing concrete poems & all the new media people. Do you want them listed?

I'll tell you now that you'll find it hard to find an overall pattern. I tend to like everything in terms of approach. It's a matter of emphasis with me. I can enjoy poetry which I have been told excludes liking others whom I also like - if, is the clear implication, I really understood the poetry... Well, maybe I don't... I have a translation of Ovid I tend to take away with me - I read the metamorphoses twice through last time I was in Greece. Seemed appropriate. I have taken away The Faerie Queene, too; and not regretted it! My MacDiarmid is falling apart from use... I forgot to mention Denise Riley - I don't believe in best poets and all that, but she is one of the best poets writing now and that's all there is to it

Shelley was immensely important to me for years. I studied him in some depth. Just now I am paying a lot of attention to what remains of the poetry of the late Alaric Sumner who died in March 2000, silly man. That's important to me and a completely different take on the world to mine. A very fine poet. A beautiful person. a good friend I miss tremendously. Did I mention Melissa Wolsak?

Upton: I am not sure. We haven't got time to check. We must go out soon to meet Bill Griffiths.

Lawrence: I know, I know. Well, make sure she's in. She's an imaginative and meticulous poet... I won't say William Blake because everyone is into him now. Blah blah... John Clare. I gave a talk on him at The Poetry Society once. I am told it was good, but I haven't any record of it.

Upton: What is the role of the poet today?

Lawrence: We're the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Upton: I don't think many people would agree with you.

Lawrence: Perhaps you don't understand the word "unacknowledged" then.

Upton: But you do believe that?

Lawrence: Implicitly. Domestic cats have a far greater influence, of course. But cats and some poets run things and, sensibly, keep quiet about it.

Upton: But you're telling me.

Lawrence: No one will take this seriously.

Upton: It seems to me that people miscategorise you. What do you think?

Lawrence: It is the categorisation which is at fault. I am not a sound poet or a concrete poet or a performance poet or a nature poet or a London poet. I am a poet. Some look at a few pages of a poet and assume they know all about him or her. That's folly. I realise that there is a wide variety in my writing. I can't help that. I think it's a strength. If the readers can't make the effort to deal with it, it's my loss but it isn't my fault; it's theirs.

Upton: How important is poetry to you?

Lawrence: Air, water, friendship, poetry. Put them in any order.

Upton: Thank you very much.

Lawrence: You're welcome.

Upton: Shall we go to London now?

Lawrence: Sure. Let's go. But let's stick together. I hate it when we get separated.

Upton: Well, keep up then.


1. "Contemporary Views on the Little Magazine Scene" by Wolfgang Görtschacher, Poetry Salzburg,

2. "Interview with Lawrence Upton", Caroline Andrews, Balham, South London, October 1998, unpublished

3. Discussion in Riding the Meridian 2 to be republished in the forthcoming Documents magazine

4. Lawrence Upton was born in 1949


return to top


Copyright © Lawrence Upton, 2000.