Monday, February 26, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Ian Seed

Ian Seed's recent collections of poetry and prose poetry include Night Window (Shearsman, 2024), Operations of Water (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020), and New York Hotel (Shearsman, 2018) (a TLS Book of the Year). His most recent translations are The Dice Cup, from the French of Max Jacob (Wakefield Press, 2022), and the river which sleep has told me, from the Italian of Ivano Fermini (Fortnightly Review Odd Volumes, 2022). See

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first full-length collection was Anonymous Intruder. I was already 52 years old when it was published by Shearsman in January, 2009. Finally I could begin to believe that I was not an imposter after all, and feel much freer to make writing a real commitment.

My more recent work is on the whole based more on narrative, while Anonymous Intruder revolved more around association of images and sounds. Nevertheless, the voices in Anonymous Intruder are spookily similar in some respects to those in my most recent collection, Night Window (January 2024). Perhaps the main difference now (from Makers of Empty Dreams (2014) onwards) is that my writing is much more likely to make you laugh (in the best sense, I hope), while remaining, in the words of Luke Kennard, ‘shot through with melancholy’. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I first came to poetry when I was 17, studying ‘A’-level English. One of our set texts was the Selected Poems of Edward Thomas (1878-1917). I was fascinated and haunted by the melancholy and sense of regret in his poems, as much as I was moved by his observations of nature, his lyricism, and his narratives of encounters. At around the same time, I began to discover that there was a wide and eclectic mix of poetry out there. For example, my aunt had the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot on her bookshelves, and I remember being drawn especially to ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’, while, much more radically, my mother owned a copy of Kenneth Patchen’s Love and War Poems, which is where I discovered prose poems, although I didn’t know the term ‘prose poem’ at that time. Kenneth Patchen’s work was also my first encounter with surrealism. Then there was the Poet Modern Poets series of the 1960s and 70s; I was drawn to the likes of Alan Jackson, Jeff Nuttall and William Wantling in PMT 12, and Charles Bukowski, Philip Lamantia and Harold Norse in PMT 13. I loved the more minor poems of Dylan Thomas, such as ‘To Others Than You’ or ‘Twenty Four Years(‘ With my red veins full of money,/ In the final direction of the elementary town / I advance as long as forever is’); I was not so keen on ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, which I found (and still do) overly ‘poetic’. Mark Hyatt (1940-72) was a poet who fascinated me; I am so pleased to see his work now, fifty years on, finally getting some of the recognition it deserves, and I have recently reviewed his Selected Poems: So Much for Life (Nightboat Books, 2023) for PN Review. This is all very male and pale, I realise (reflecting what was mainly on offer at the time, even in anthologies such as Michael Horowitz’s Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain), but I also loved Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and some poems by Rosemary Tonks that I discovered in an anthology edited by Edward Lucie-Smith. My favourite poems I would copy into an exercise book to carry around with me.

Reading poetry made me want to write. Most of what I wrote was pretty awful, of course, but I got better to the point where an English teacher, David Herbert, who was a poet himself, introduced me to the world of ‘little magazines’ and encouraged me to send some poems off. I would like to say I never looked back, but after having some very minor success with publishing – poems in magazines of the time, two tiny pamphlets published, one self‑published pamphlet featured on local radio (thanks to a contact of David Herbert’s), I more or less stopped writing at the age of 24 and didn’t come back to it in any serious way until two decades later, when I had a kind of mid-life crisis – I am glad that I did. (If you’re interested for more details on my writing journey, see , and .)

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I tend just to ‘turn up for writing’, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, and then I go from there. Sooner or later, poems or pieces of short prose start coalescing around certain themes, which I may then develop into a collection over a period of around two or three years. I tend to write quickly and quite copiously but around 90% of what I write does not make it into a published piece. Like most writers, I do a lot of editing and simply playing around with language, imagery and narrative. Of course, there are those rare occasions when I get lucky and write something which I suddenly realise reads the way it is meant to be without me messing it up in a second draft.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Poems usually begin when I go back to all my messing around with words and images, and see if I find something which I can then tease into a poem. I am definitely an author of short pieces that end up combining into something larger. Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of deliberate plotting, my poems and prose poems are usually interlinked in any one collection, and can be read as a kind of continuous story, albeit a fragmented one. Georgia Matthews, reviewing New York Hotel (Shearsman, 2018) for Stride magazine, suggested that readers will find themselves invested in the characters and narratives as they would in a novel. (Perhaps I am really a frustrated novelist at heart!)

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings because I can see in real time how people respond to my work. And it’s always good to see a few more books being sold.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I remember recently coming across an old note written in my early twenties saying that I wrote ‘to create something of beauty and to move people.’ That may sound a bit clumsy and naïve, but I think that even in my youth my ultimate aim was not one of self-expression, but of doing something interesting with language, imagery and narratives, and sometimes rhythm and sound. Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of self-expression and hidden confession in my writing – there is.

I tend to let my writing pose its own questions without looking for immediate answers; the questions can sometimes be political ones, such as an exploration of our attraction to strongmen (e.g. ‘Tutor’ in New York Hotel), but more often they are a combination of personal, archetypal and aesthetic ones.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

This is a monster of a question, rob, and any answer risks being a portentous one. There are a few writers who are able to capture the spirit of an age or the voice of a generation. Clearly, I am not one of those. In any case, I would not wish to hoist any role onto a writer, though they should take responsibility for what they say and not use language to spread hatred.

I see my own role more to create poem-stories and to take readers into a world which will make people not know if they want to laugh or cry, or both at the same time. As James Tate famously said in an interview with Charles Simic for Paris Review, ‘I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best. That’s most rewarding for you and for me too.’

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It’s always good to get suggestions from an editor. Even if I don’t agree, it will make me go back to my work with fresh eyes. I am grateful to all my editors.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Turn up for the writing – every day, if you can, but if not, then on a fairly regular basis. It’s easier for poets – we can work in short spurts; much more difficult for a novelist.

Have faith in the poem or story; trust in where it wants to go, not in where you want it to go.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?

I see translation as being just as creative as my ‘own’ writing. When I translate poetry into English, I am making something new. The appeal and challenge of translation for me is to create a text which is as true to the spirit and letter of the original as it can be, but also reads naturally in English while at the same time preserving the otherness of the original.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I tend to wake early and just handwrite while lying in bed. I build lots of notes like this to go back to every couple of days – this is where the next stage of writing begins, assuming there is anything in my early morning writing worth taking further; if not, no matter: there will be the next day, or the day after that.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I like to reread authors I find liberating through their use of language, for example John Ashbery, Mark Ford, Sheila E Murphy, Jeremy Over.

Or I will return to authors who may reflect the mood I’m in, such as Lucy Hamilton or Mark Hyatt (both of whose books I have reviewed recently for PN Review). Kenneth Patchen is always good to go back to.

Or I will write reviews – paying attention to another author’s work is enriching and refreshing for my own work.

Or I will cut up an article from a magazine and work with the pieces. The great thing about cutup and collage (although not a technique I use often) is that you never know where it’s going to take you.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of cat fur. I like to dig my nose into the fur of our ancient cat, just as I did with cats we had when I was a child.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I think I am still influenced by different British 1960s TV series that I watched as a child, such as The Avengers and The Prisoner: their zaniness, sense of menace, and surreal quality, even if they weren’t strictly surrealist.

I’ve listened to blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll since I was in my teens, and I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with Elvis. This makes its way into my work, for example ‘Country’ in

New York Hotel or ‘In the Anniversary TV Special, the Real’ in Makers of Empty Dreams. For more on Elvis, see

Art also influences my work, and on occasion I have written pieces in response to artists such as Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper and Giorgio de Chirico.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many writers have entered my bloodstream and remained. I will read almost anything and gain something from it. I suppose I am most drawn to ‘outsider’ literature; I read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was in my teens, and that set the terms for much of my initial plunging into the work of authors such as Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, W.N.P. Barbellion, Blake and Kafka, especially the latter.

Imagism and Surrealism also helped shape my youthful world outlook, and I think this has very much stayed with me.

In my early twenties, I read authors such as Jean Rhys, Ralph Ellison, Aldous Huxley, James Baldwin, EM Forster and DH Lawrence. Oh, and I loved Anna Kavan’s Ice. Once my Italian was good enough (I worked in Italy for ten years), I got into Dante in quite a big way after reading TS Eliot’s essay on Dante (his own personal favourite among all his essays). I also worked for two years in Paris (teaching English as a Foreign Language), and after around a year, I felt confident enough to read authors such as Ionesco, Gide, Sartre, Patrick Modiano, Simone de Beauvoir, and Annie Ernaux in the original French. And Pierre Reverdy, not imagining that thirty years later I would publish the first translation of Le voleur de Talan into English (see ).

And languages are of immense importance to me. I should confess that I am entirely self-taught, and still suffer from imposter syndrome. I picked up Italian, French and Polish by living and working in Italy, France and Poland (though I am rusty in all of them now that I have been living in the UK again for the last twenty or so years). Even my personality will change according to which language I am speaking. When I have the rare opportunity to speak Italian, I feel as if I am my thirty-year-old self again living in Italy.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn German well enough to read Kafka in the original. I’ve recently started a beginner’s class.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I only make a partial living as a writer and translator, so I have always had to earn my living in different ways, some more conducive to my character than others. I really just wish I hadn’t stopped writing for so long between my early twenties and early forties. Apart from anything else, I believe that writing helps me to be a better person. Writing makes me listen to my own voices, and as a result helps me to listen better to the voices of others.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
That’s just the way the cookie crumbled.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve just finished reading David Copperfield – very late on in life, I agree. I have to confess that it is only in the last ten years that I have really taken to much of 19th-century English literature, to authors such as George Eliot (especially Daniel Deronda), the Brontës (especially Charlotte Brontë’s Villette), and Wordsworth (especially The Prelude). I am not sure why it took me so long to properly enjoy some of the great literature of my own country.

A very powerful and distinctive book of contemporary poetry I read recently is Lucy Hamilton’s Viewer |Viewed (Shearsman, 2023) – my review is just out in PN Review.

The last great film I saw: Anatomy of a Fall, directed by Justine Triet. A good one for writers to watch.

20 - What are you currently working on?

My writing is a bit quiet at the moment. I don’t have any particular project going, but I expect one will emerge as long as I keep ‘turning up’ for the writing.

Thanks so much for the questions, rob!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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