An Interview with Roger Garfitt
Hello Roger, when did you first realise you were a poet?
When I was still at school. Some sixth-formers started a magazine and asked for poems for it. I thought, “Oh, you’re allowed to write them too!” I thought all the poems had already been written, by people who were called poets. Looking back, the first poem I wrote was quite comical. On the morning of a school cross-country match I had butterflies in my stomach and started to try and describe the feeling:
The phrasing is ludicrously old-fashioned because I had yet to read any modern poetry but I had found a fast-running rhythm,
Friends are rivals
Spirit ‘gainst such
By the time I reached the changing room, the butterflies had gone and I had that rhythm in my head. I had discovered that writing a poem gave me a buzz.
I did not realise how essential it was to my equilibrium until I was in the upper sixth and studying for the Oxford entrance exam, studying so hard that the brain wouldn’t switch off and I couldn’t sleep. In my memoir, The Horseman’s Word, I tell the story of how the tension built up until
“I was shaken by tears, sudden, overwhelming, undeniable tears.
Sent to bed like a small child with the mumps or the whooping cough. I drifted in and out of half-sleep, a warm, absolved half-sleep, quite different from the tense vigil I had been keeping. And something was lulled awake, something at the back of my mind I had been saving for when I had time. Phrase by phrase, I began to try out lines for a poem.
One of the farm cats was an accomplished thief. On a Friday, when my mother was cooking fish, it would crouch by the garden shed, watching her movements through the kitchen window. If she went to the pantry, or into the hall to answer the phone, it would be in and out through the fanlight, leaving a flurry of paw marks up the windowpane as the only evidence. The idea for the poem had come when I thought of merging that cat with one I used to watch out of the corner of my eye during English lessons. Our prefab overlooked its backyard and, as Jack took us through the intricacies of ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’,
If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
It would be disposing itself in the sun, regal on its coal bunker.
I cannot remember much of the poem itself. Only that it opened with a colloquial flourish, a trick I had learned from e. e. cummings,
That there cat
‘s a darn nuisance
and the cat on the coal bunker came into focus later, sat upright with its tail neatly encircling its feet,
a pert, proletarian beauty.
What I remember is how the cluster of words grew each time I surfaced. I began to drift purposefully, waiting for the pull of the next phrase…
As the poem took shape, the last four days seemed to re-form around it. The insomnia, the mania, the embarrassments, they all fell away. I was intent on my compressions, on making the cat scramble through the lines so fast they rattled in their frame. It was like being given another life.”
In the poetic spheres, who were your earliest influences & who inspires you today?
It was Keats who first awoke me to the power of language and then Hopkins. As I recall in the memoir, Ted Hughes came to read in my first term at Oxford and made a big impression. Ten years later, by which time I was reviewing for London Magazine, Seamus Heaney had an impact. I see some of my work, the long poem ‘Lower Lumb Mill’, for instance, as a development from the short-lined stanza Heaney was using in Wintering Out and North. I think Seamus himself recognised an affinity because ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ was one of the poems he particularly liked in Given Ground.
Hughes and Heaney remain my reference points. There are contemporary poets whose work I admire, Jorie Graham and Michael Symmons Roberts, but I wouldn’t call them an inspiration. It’s more a case of admire and do otherwise.
When do you know you have written a good poem?
When it takes me by surprise. I don’t have the makings of a poem until I find what I call ‘a tension’, a phrase or a rhythm that takes me by surprise and has a kind of necessity. Sometimes I have to work for days until I find that. And often there’s another surprise that comes two-thirds of the way through working on a poem, when it declares its own logic and accomplishes itself more swiftly than had seemed possible.
What does Roger Garfitt like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic?
I go for long walks. I live just under a Stone Age Ridgeway, so that’s easy. I listen to jazz and Latin American music and some World music – Yasmin Levy, Souad Massi, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. I listen to Radio 3 when I’m cooking and buy the occasional CD of contemporary classical music – Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt. I go to the occasional opening in a local art gallery and get the weekly Art Newsletter from The Guardian. I watch foreign films when I can – I came of age in the great age of European cinema, watching Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, the Russian War & Peace – but I can’t livestream, given the slow speed of rural broadband, and I’m desperately holding onto my LOVEFILM subscription.
Nothing, in other words, that would surprise my readers. My life is pretty much all of a piece.
You won the Gregory Award in 1974. Can we see one of your winning poems?
With pleasure. ‘Hares Boxing’ came from one of my lucky breaks when an old farmer who was living all alone in a big stone farmhouse rented me two rooms for two pounds a week. This enabled me to stop teaching and write full-time and his generosity is duly acknowledged in the front of my first book. I used to walk round the fields each morning before I started work and that’s when I saw the hares.
for Nigel Wells
This way and that
goes the runaway furrow.
Nose to tail
goes the tunnel
in the grass.
Now the leader
swivels, jerks up his heels.
The trick flickers
along the rope of hares:
heels over head they go, head over heels.
It’s the Saturday after Valentine:
in Florey’s Stores
the kids go
Oh! What did he put?
Go on, tell us! we promise
we won’t tell.
Did she send you one?
Over the winter nothing has changed
but the land. The hedgerows
are in heaps for burning.
The owl’s tree stands vacant
between the scars of smooth earth.
The sunlight falls on cleared spaces,
on the old lines. The hares meet
as they met before Enclosure, far out
in the drift of grasses, their fisticuffs
like tricks of the eye.
What catches the light, what the eye believes
is the rufous shoulder, the chest’s white blaze:
what it sees are up on their haunches
the blaze throw its guard up, the shoulder
slide in a punch: two pugs that duel
stripped to the waist by sunlight.
And the Fancy? They emerge
from the corners of the eye, low company
from the lie of the land, with guineas
in their stare, without visible means.
The purse is all he fancies. The generations
bunch in his arm.
Toora-li-ooral go the fifes in his blood.
As tall, as straight as a thistle,
Jack Hare squares up to Dancing Jack.
By the time the book came out, I was living in North Devon and I sent a copy to Ted Hughes. He wrote back, “Good to know where ‘Hares Boxing’ comes from. I came across it in a magazine somewhere and could never find it again. Very haunting poem.” That was all the endorsement I needed.
How has your poetic voice changed since the 1970s?
What happened towards the end of the 1970s is that the ideas started to open out and, whether I liked it or not, I found I was having to write long poems – something that came as quite a shock to someone who had always thought of the lyric as his natural medium. I had moved to North Wales to take up a writer’s fellowship at Bangor University and got to know the poet Tony Conran, the editor and translator of the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. In Wales the communal tradition was still strong and the poet had a natural role in that. Many of Tony’s poems were written to celebrate a marriage or a christening or a life as it came to its end. When I set out to write a wedding poem for Tony himself, I came up against the fact that in the English tradition we no longer had a positive language in which to celebrate such moments, only a language of doubts and misgivings. That was the start of ‘Rites of Passage’, which appeared as work-in-progress in Given Ground and remained in suspension for another twenty-five years. Fittingly, it was a poem I wrote for another friend, the Irish harper Tristram Robson, that gave me the insight I needed to complete ‘Rites of Passage’ and Tony was able to see it in print before he died. It’s most easily found now in an anthology that came out from Bloomsbury last year, Building Jerusalem: Elegies for the Church of England.
The idea for ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ came as I was writing a report on a school course I had run at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Centre in Yorkshire, in 1979. The kids were from inner-city Manchester, a typical mixture of races and backgrounds, all brought together by the city’s history as the centre of the cotton-spinning industry in the hey-day of the British Empire. The beginnings of that history were all around them in the woods below Lumb Bank, in the mill chimneys, the dye-pits and the waggon-roads, but they were blind to it. They thought they were in the country and wrote poems about fields and cows. That blindness, that blindfold, if you like, of rural myth seemed to me very typical of English culture and I set out to strip it away and celebrate their real history, in all its persistence and difficulty. As I worked on the poem, I had to include my own history because I was coming to the end of a difficult relationship and had to decide which was the more loving course, to break off or to persist. It’s a long poem in four sections, beginning almost as a satire, an act of cultural dissidence, and ending as a love poem.
The relationship with Frances, which began in 1980, gave me, as it were, a ledge of stability from which I could look back at those earlier difficulties and Frances read the first two sections before she was diagnosed with cancer in 1982. It was 1985 before I was able to take the poem up again and I finally finished it in Bogotá in 1988.
It was while I was in Bogotá that I received the commission for the memoir, The Horseman’s Word, and for the next four years I worked on that. I did not come back to poetry again until my Colombian life ended in 1992 and I did a very free translation of a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui as a way of negotiating that loss. By then I was deep in debt and had to put the memoir to one side while I took on community writing projects. Then I had the commission for Border Songs, the first of three poetry commissions I used to subsidise the memoir, and it’s those three sequences, From the Ridge, In All My Holy Mountain and Border Songs, that form the final section of the Selected Poems. I wrote each of them in six months, From the Ridge and In All My Holy Mountain actually in the same six months, and that shows not only the advantage of having deadlines to work to but also the skills I had been forced to acquire when, to my consternation, poems insisted in turning into long poems.
Of all your collections, which contains the most of the real Roger Garfitt?
I wouldn’t want to choose between Given Ground and the Selected Poems. Fortunately, I don’t have to because almost the whole of Given Ground is in the Selected Poems. The poems in Given Ground are more personal but the Selected has the journal extracts, which are more detailed and every bit as personal.
Could you give us a sample poem?
Hard to choose. ‘The Hooded Gods’ has had the most critical response. As Sean O’Brien said, it’s clearly socialist in impulse and that’s carried through into Border Songs and In All My Holy Mountain and more recently into the political sonnets that have appeared in Stand and PN Review. ‘Skara Brae’, written as an oblique elegy for the life I shared with Frances and her son Adam, draws the most response from readers. But I’m going to choose ‘At Vanishing Point’, the first of the Colombian poems, which is more openly personal.
At Vanishing Point
para Eugenia en El Cántaro
This morning we talk again
under the bony plum,
whose fruit, like a stone
sucked in the mouth,
can outwit thirst. I sit
on the garden seat as on
the bench of the ship of souls,
lashed to my oar. Almost hear,
between the tick-birds and
the parakeets, a gull’s keen,
invoking solitude, the doom
of the Wanderer, who dreams
of a hearth and companions, and wakes
to the ice of the whale-road.
My salve for hard times
is to make them harder still.
You do that too. You will
when I leave. Lock yourself
in your painter’s attic
in Bogotá. Work to
the wry songs of Bola de Nieve.
Geni, you and I are two
of a kind. I find you
on the bench beside me.
Above us, like a daydream, like a thought
moored between two pillars of cloud,
El Cántaro, the house you built
out of stubbornness, out of shipwreck.
It is just pencilled in
against the sky. Just held
at the point of erasure.
Built of shadings, cross-hatchings,
a pencil sharpening the whiteness
of paper, constructing
a moebius strip of light,
endless galleries, rising
scales of roof, ascending
and descending stairs.
The pencil sketched, suffered
erasure, sketched again.
One by one the variants
emerged. Plumped onto the page
and sank without trace. Stepped out
on their spindleshanks
and crumpled into the pits
of erasure, the hubbub of forms
jostling for life. Then the pencil
took wing. Took from the swift’s wing
the long, honed line, that austere
primary glide. Took from the owl’s wing
the crossing of tenons, that secondary
softness of flight. Something lifted
that could fly. Now we live under its wing.
Watch the diamond lattice compose the light
and the stairs rise in counterpoint. Hear
the three-part harmony in the turn of the stair.
Geni, we came here already erased.
All that life we lived on paper,
all the ways and means we had sketched
in our letters. What precise negations,
what scar-white lines your ghost must have crossed
to find me. I was a blankness walking
on the white fires of that grid.
Now we talk. My fingers touch the blade
of your shoulder. And are fingers
on warm skin. We touch as only survivors
can touch. Butterflies like blue water
lap the air. The charcoal tree has blossomed
into featherdusters of flame. We could walk down
to the Sumapaz, the Peaceable River,
naming the white-humped cattle, the hawk
who is a call, a circling
shadowed by her young, the lizards
who are known only by their vanishing.
After the early loss of your wife, Frances Horovitz, how cathartic an experience was it to edit her Collected Poems?
I had yet to reach any possibility of catharsis. Rather, I was possessed by a fierce determination to justice to Frances’ work. I was rigorous in my editing because Frances’ reputation was by no means as secure then as it is now and I didn’t want to give any ammunition to the critics. But then Frances herself had been so exacting in what she allowed into print that there were very few poems I hesitated over and then only by the finest shades of judgement. What has been heartening in the years since is to see the respect that younger poets have for her use of space and the concentration of her language, for a free verse that is completely achieved, as durable as a border ballad.
I reprinted the dedications of each successive book in the Collected in order to acknowledge the contribution of her first husband, Michael Horovitz, who was an acute reader of her work, always able gently to point out when a poem was not quite finished, and to celebrate the inspiration of her son Adam, whose responses gave rise to a number of the poems. There’s one poem whose omission Adam regrets because it was prompted by a fairytale they read together and he remembers Frances working on it. I left it out because Frances felt it was a poem that didn’t really belong to her, that it didn’t have her voice. Adam will probably bring it back into print at the first opportunity and why not? The Collected has done its work now and there’s no reason not to move to a Complete Poems.
Where there was an element of catharsis was in seeing the design for the book come together, complete with Winifred Nicholson’s painting on the cover, and knowing that it looked just right, that Frances’ work was being sent out in the world, as it were, under her own colours.
Can you tell us about your life in Colombia?
Meeting the painter Eugenia Escobar in 1985 and spending long periods of time in Colombia was the saving of me in many ways. It didn’t just give me a new life, it gave me a new world. It was as if Frances had never died because Frances never lived there. The ground was still whole under my feet.
And in a very practical sense it saved me as a writer. In England I had to put together a living from all sorts of bits and pieces: giving readings, writing reviews, running poetry workshops in schools, judging poetry competitions. A friend once observed that the first requirement for a poet seemed to be a clean driving licence. Whereas in Colombia I could simply sit down and write. If the phone rang, it wasn’t for me. Hence I was able to finish ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ and assemble the collection that became Given Ground. And it was in order to earn my living simply from my desk that I found an agent, Jane Turnbull, who secured the commission for The Horseman’s Word.
There was an energy that came from watching Geni conceive and complete her paintings in a two-or-three-day storm. She painted a major series, El Condorpatrio, that took the Condor, the emblem of Colombia, through a series of transformations that reflected the violence the country was living through. And there was the music, the discovery of a whole continent of music that stretched from Mexico to Chile and took in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Music and dance are so much a part of life in Colombia that, when Granta commissioned an article on the Drug War, I was careful to offset the drama with a description of El Día del Amor y la Amistad, one of the fiestas where families gather and drink rum and aguardiente and dance through till dawn:
When South Americans dance, they do not leap about, striking the ground with their feet as
Europeans and North Americans do. They dance from the ground upwards. Their feet softly
paddle and their hips begin to sway. It’s the outbreak of a communal rhythm. Children wriggle like elvers in a spring tide. The old yield to it gravely like trees to the wind. And the young dance as angels might make love, their hips close, fluent and inexhaustible, their feet hardly touching the ground.
The only problem was that The Horseman’s Word was cutting a very deep furrow and it quickly became apparent that I would never be able to finish it in the year the advance had bought. Granta published an extract from Part One, which helped, and I had a grant from the Society of Authors. But the point finally came when I couldn’t raise another air fare and Geni and I had to part good friends, which we still are, witness her painting on the cover of the Selected Poems.
You seem to enjoy having music accompany your work. What is the reasoning and origin behind this?
Music has always been important to me. The school I went to, Tiffin Boys’ School, has a strong choral tradition and I grew up listening to Byrd and Palestrina. Then I discovered Jazz. The memoir has an account of my first visit to Ronnie Scott’s Club to hear Stan Getz play with the Stan Tracey Trio and I returned whenever I could to hear Stan Tracey play. His Jazz Suite to Under Milk Wood is a masterpiece, with an astonishing solo by Bobby Wellins on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. Poetry & Jazz was in the ascendant then and Christopher Logue’s Red Bird is another masterpiece, Logue’s voice interplaying with the Tony Kinsey Quintet as if it were another instrument.
Priscilla Eckhard, to whom I was married when I wrote ‘Hares Boxing’ introduced me to the folk tradition and that was reinforced when I moved up to Bangor, which had a folk club and a folk festival for which musicians came over from Ireland. For three years I lived with a Welsh folksinger, the only problem there being that folk song sessions go on into the early hours of the morning, which isn’t the best thing if you want to get up and write the next day. When I moved up to the North East, I met another strong folk tradition and it was there that Frances and I began to work with Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, and with an Irish traditional band, Faun. The friendship with Tristram continued when we moved down to the Marches and Tristram gave the first performance of Border Songs with me in the Morden Tower.
Poetry is a very concentrated form of language and I found when I was running readings that interludes of music sharpened the audience’s attention, both for the poetry and the music. But the relationship goes much deeper than that, much further back. In an oral culture poets were singers and melody was one of the mnemonic devices they used to preserve and transmit their work, as much part of it as the other devices they used to bind their work together, whether they were rhythm and rhyme, or stress patterns, alliteration and assonance. Whatever freedoms free verse has opened up, I think rhythm is still at the heart of it. I remember Seamus Heaney once remarking of another poet, who shall remain nameless, “He doesn’t have much of beat, does he? In fact, I wonder does he know there’s a dance going on at all?”
Sometimes I fear that sense of the dance is being lost, which is why I called the CD label I’ve set up, Re-stringing the Lyre. If you are collaborating with a visual artist or a musician, you have to leave space for the other art form, which can have the effect of refining your own work. Simon Holt, who has done some striking settings of Emily Dickinson, told me that he had found it impossible to set anything by Dylan Thomas because there was no space left for him. He came to the conclusion that the poems were already set.
Border Songs began as a collaboration with the glass engraver, Janice Howe. The poems are etched into the glass of the Shropshire County Archives, into the screen that separates the Public Room, where anyone can go to consult their parish records, from the Rare Manuscript Room. It’s a security screen and we had to come with an engraving that left the glass clear. Hence the form of Border Songs, the history of the Marches distilled into twelve short lyrics, the lines themselves very short and using lots of line breaks. Janice found a classic font, so classic that it’s self-effacing, and when you first enter the Public Room, the screen does look clear. But as you walk across the room, there’s a shimmer and the poems rise up, so many ghosts on the glass.
It was that space on the glass that left room for the music in the performing version, with Sue Harris on the hammered dulcimer. Sue found a wonderful intro, a tune called ‘Under the King’s Hill’ by her son, Benjy Kirkpatrick, and created other interludes that come after every three songs: but there are places where she is actually playing under my voice and that wouldn’t have been possible without the spaces between the lines. The interplay between the voice and the dulcimer is even closer in From the Ridge, which the Poetry Society commissioned under their Poetry Places scheme. I said I wanted to write about the hard place, turning loss into a landscape and making a journey across it, a possibility I had glimpsed in the songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui and the tradition of the huella, the song you make as you ride along the path. The dulcimer becomes the audible expression of the journey, pacing it out note by note in a way that holds the audience rapt.
In All My Holy Mountain was an Arts Council commission, a celebration in Poetry & Jazz of the life and work of the Shropshire poet and novelist, Mary Webb. She was so adept at catching the changing colours of the landscape in such a rich verbal palette that I felt we would need an equally rich sound palette, in other words a full horn section with all three saxophones and a trumpet who could double, as Miles Davis did, on flugelhorn. John Williams assembled a Septet of top jazz musicians who could all double and even treble on other instruments and suggested a rising young jazz composer, Nikki Iles. But how to write In a way that would give them the space they needed?
For the opening section, ‘Westerly’, I came up with a four-line stanza, so brief that it’s virtually a four-line haiku:
It begins as a breath
a softness in the air
over the oakwoods
the first dustings of blue
There are four of those stanzas in all, following the changes of light down my own valley, which is the Clun Valley, as a westerly air system moves in. and each of them took me a week to get right. My reward came six months later when I walked into a rehearsal studio in London and heard a flute coming in over two bass clarinets whose sound deepens and broods under the next stanza:
brings a sea-change
the luminous shadow
of an Atlantic calm
close faraway light
And so it flows on, my sixteen brief lines giving rise to seven minutes of music of a richness that surpassed all my expectations.
As I always say before a live performance, the librettist is only the springboard. It’s the composer who has to do the back flips and double somersaults and Nikki Iles has done them wonderfully. Her score for In All My Holy Mountain is, in the words of John Fordham, The Guardian’s jazz critic, “an imaginative and illuminating addition to the genre” and I’m so glad that we’ve finally had the chance to bring it out on CD with Nikki herself on piano, turning it from a Septet to an Octet.
Can you tell us about your new collection & perhaps give us a sample?
It’s called The Action and it’s dedicated to my wife Margaret, who has been a warm and playful presence in my poetry ever since I was lucky enough to meet her in 1993. The Selected Poems has a sequence of ‘Valentines’, poems given to her on Valentine’s Day each year, and that flame is still burning in the new collection in poems such as ‘Vahine’ and ‘The Tap Shoes’, both of which appeared recently in Stand. But as we get older, we have to face up to darker realities and the title poem was written after we’d spent six months criss-crossing the country to visit Margaret’s brother as he was dying of cancer. That’s balanced by ‘The Calm’, which I wrote for Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, who played at Frances’ funeral and again at my wedding to Margaret. Tristram built the only copy of the Lawes Harp, an Irish double harp from the time of William Lawes, that can actually be played. It’s now in the National Harp Museum in Kilkenny. When Tristram was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he married his partner, Anne, and he set out to build another copy of the Lawes Harp because, as Anne said, the first copy was only 97% perfect.
For Tristram and Anne Robson
There is the tension of
the strings, bronze
braced against willow
until every note
and rings true,
and there is the calm
in the fingers,
time for every note
to find its feet in
the lordless dance
and be lost in the joy
of it. I remember
your calm, Tristram,
when all the joy in us
had died. You bent to
the harp as Brocard said,
‘May she rest in peace’,
and found a lament that
would lead us down to
the still waters – but not
to leave us there. One note
sprang on, as if spirit
alone could act as
a causeway. Another
leaped from it, as if the strings
were a strength in themselves.
Interval by interval, gleam
by nailed gleam, you brought us
out of the shadow,
binding the pulse back
into the body, tight
as the matador’s wraps
under his suit of lights,
setting our feet on the ground
as if they struck fire
in passing. And then the notes
lifted, not for joy
but for the possibility
of joy, and the dance stepped
through us, so defiant
that I wish you calm even
now, as the chemo silts up
the spirit, the calm
and the cunning to set
in place every string
of a double harp won back
from exile and silence.
What does the future hold for Roger Garfitt?
I’d like to bring out a CD of the work I’ve done with Sue Harris, not just on my own poems but on some of Frances’ too. We did a performance of The Woman’s Dream, a sequence of four of her poems, at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, in which Sue created a lovely flow of the dulcimer under the voice. Atahualpa Yupanqui has a long narrative song in which he rides into Monte Callado, the Silent Mountain, which I imagine is some kind of Bardo state because he talks of a friend who has died as having gone away por el silencio, ‘into the silence’. I’d like to do my own version of that, which should please Gareth Rees-Roberts, the guitarist I work with, who has really taken to Atahualpa’s music. I have one of Geni’s paintings stored in the attic, one of the Condor Heads she gave me because I thought I might be able to make a sequence from it, and I’d like to have a go at that.