Elisabeth Frost

Found in Translation: An Interview with Christopher Reid

EF: Mermaids Explained is your eighth book of poems, but the first to be released in the U.S. How did its publication in America come about?

CR: Entirely through the good offices of Charles Simic, who's also published by Harcourt Brace. I had published Charlie in Britain, when I was Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber, in 1995. He had been published in Britain before then, by Secker and Warburg, as part of an American series funded by James A. Michener, but the series was now defunct. Therefore he had no British publisher, which I noticed with some surprise and moved in as smartly as I could. Then, later, Charlie returned the favor. He'd read my poems and liked them, and he was able to convince Harcourt that they should publish me.

EF: And he selected the poems? The "Selected Poems"—perhaps with a foreword—is a familiar format, but it's unusual to have such a volume that doesn't have the fingerprints of the poet all over it.

CR: Yes, it is unusual. He made the first selection. Then I made a pitch for certain poems that he'd left out, and also persuaded him to get rid of a couple that I felt didn't merit inclusion. But because I was being introduced to an entirely new readership, I decided I should let my sponsor have a more or less ungoverned hand. And he did the job very well, I think. It was all to do with presenting myself to an American audience. And I could make no assumptions about what they would find approachable. It was nice to leave that to someone who knew the field. At the same time, I could enjoy it as an exercise in learning about my own poems—a kind of "hands-on" criticism was happening before my very eyes. It made me look at old work in a new light.

EF: What did you discover?

CR: Well, two early books, Arcadia and Pea Soup, were, in my own understanding of them, heavily influenced by American poets. But Charlie seemed to see this differently [laughs]. He was hard-put to identify anything American in them, or anything that would really speak to Americans. Maybe in this double translation, as it were—from one culture to another and then from the second back to the first—too much had been lost. When I was writing those early poems, the big figures in my mind were people like Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. Those were the poets I was reading and admiring then. And I thought all my own stuff must be drenched in that influence. But now, when I read those poems to American audiences, they raise their eyebrows when I make this claim, because there doesn't appear to be anything notably American about them. Still, they're not quite English either.

EF: These poems, then, didn't make it into the selection?

CR: There are fewer early poems than from the more recent volumes.

EF: Are the more recent volumes the ones linked to the so-called "Martian School"?

CR: The Martian thing predominated in those two early books. It was an entirely British phenomenon, if indeed it was a phenomenon—that's another question. It was a parish matter. Perhaps even a private one. When I was writing those early poems, the idea was—I now think it was a foolish idea—that in the work of my older compatriots certain aspects of poetry were being neglected; I couldn't see metaphor, simile, or the kind of fanciful vocabulary and rhetoric that I wanted to cultivate for myself. I think I misread many poets. How could I have looked at Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney and failed to see the metaphors? Nonetheless, I did—and no doubt that misreading served its purpose in sharpening the stimulus to write. It was all much too locally British to be translatable as an issue anywhere else.

EF: Having been exposed only to what's in this collection, I see these early poems as eminently translatable—to use your term—because they have a surrealistic quality that is far from limiting, and that can be engaged with by any number of standpoints.

CR: That's reassuring. Actually, that has been my personal experience, too. I wonder about the kind of reader or listener who responds well to those early poems. Quite often, when I've had letters—which isn't very often—out of the blue, they've come from people who've said, "I'm not much of a reader of poetry, but somehow these work for me." And that's the nicest kind of reader to reach in many respects, because you can be sure that whatever's getting across isn't passing through some filter of prejudice and preconception. If I were to do my own Selected Poems for consumption here at home, perhaps I'd give equal space to those early things; I don't disown them. I mean, some of them I would certainly like to disown, but [laughs], generally speaking, I'm glad I wrote them.

EF: The unexpectedness of the diction you work with makes for surprises that have an otherworldly quality. If I pick up many English poets, as a U.S. reader, I encounter a lexicon or a voice that I may not be able to engage with because of something local or regional, something inaccessible to me.

CR: I appreciate that difficulty. Both Craig Raine and I, who were the Martian team in those days, did think of ourselves as somehow international. For a start, we were totally committed to American poetry: not just Stevens and Bishop, whom I've mentioned, but Lowell and Berryman were big for us at the time, and obviously before that there was Eliot and Pound. There's something about the capaciousness of the vocabulary, and I don't just mean the lexical vocabulary, but the vocabulary of rhetoric and reference of these Americans. It was a sharp reminder to us provincial English that things could still be spacious and adventurous, and that was the lesson we thought we were putting forward as we crashed the scene. We had that youthful chutzpah [laughs], busy getting up everybody's nose, the way young poets are supposed to do!

EF: Tell me a bit about how the Martian notion evolved.

CR: James Fenton reviewed us both in the New Statesman, I think it was. Craig's second book, The Martian Sends a Postcard Home, had come out, and also my first book [Arcadia, 1979]. James was reviewing them and a bunch of others. His proposition was that something new was in the air and he invented the "Martian" tag for it, in a fairly friendly spirit. But it also hobbled us in a way. It got to be tiresome, carrying around this Martian banner. It identified an aspect of what we were doing, at the cost, maybe, of real understanding. But it got us noticed, and that's always flattering to a young, ambitious poet.

EF: To stay with that period for a moment, can you tell me about the "provincial" literary politics and the trouble-making you wanted to stir up?

CR: It was simply that we thought the scene was dead and we wanted to liven it up. But, as I say, ignorance was a large part of it. Ignorance is one of youth's great assets, isn't it? [laughter] You do things, thinking they're new, little realizing that they've been done a hundred times before, in slightly different forms that you weren't able to recognize. So I certainly wouldn't take that cocky attitude now.

EF: At this time, were you already an editor?

CR: No, I was doing odd jobs and had no particular career in mind. I never designed to go into publishing. That was an accident—a very happy accident, as it turned out, but certainly never intended. It came about because Craig, who had been editing at Faber, rang me up one day and said, "Do you want to be poetry editor for a while?" I thought he was pulling my leg. But it seemed he was off for a few months to take a sabbatical that later turned into a year and half. He needed somebody to mind the shop. So he said, "You just show up at the office, and I'll introduce you to the Chairman, and he'll give you the job." This sounds like the Dark Ages, doesn't it, because it wouldn't happen like that nowadays, but that's exactly what did happen. I was looked up and down, and Matthew Evans said, "Well, Craig says you're all right, so I suppose you must be." And there I was editing Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. [laughing]

EF: So that year turned into many years?

CR: Yes. Craig came back at the end of his year and a bit, and by that time one of my colleagues in the children's book department, Janice Thomson, had found some use for me, so I went and worked with her for a while. And then Craig left to be an academic in Oxford, and I took over from him again.

EF: Was it he who initially signed poets like Heaney and Hughes?

CR: No, that was done by Craig's predecessor at Faber, Charles Monteith, who seemed to have almost unerring taste. He published some of Faber's very best poets. I don't know if he took Ted on, but he certainly spotted Seamus, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin—a number of top-notch writers.

EF: As you continued there, did you find any relationship emerging between your lives as editor and writer?

CR: I never stopped to think about it, but maybe it did. I found that I could work with quite a variety of writers, and perhaps that has helped shape my subsequent development. There has to be practical common ground when poets get together and talk about the nuts and bolts of the business. It's no doubt useful for an editor to be a poet, too, because you can dare to talk at a certain level with your fellow poets, even if they're a great deal more talented than you are. There's a shared understanding of matters of craft.

EF: You must have developed a real kinship with certain writers over the years.

CR: Well, I think so. Some of my best friends are now those poets. It was a privilege to get to know writers in the intimate way that you do when you're looking at an early draft of a manuscript. It was a great privilege.

EF: Is there a lot of give-and-take generally between poet and editor in the literary culture here?

CR: That depends on particular instances. Some editors are quite aloof, while others like to roll up their sleeves and get working. It's a matter of disposition.

EF: In the U.S., most publishers are unwilling to make commitments to poets beyond a first book, so poets tend to have to shop around each new manuscript.

CR: That can happen here, at the frivolously speculative end of the market, but the serious publishers of poetry also see the point of loyalty and the nurturing of a relationship. They don't like the one-night-stand kind of arrangement. I could name exceptions, but they are exceptions. The idea at Faber was that this should be a union for life, if at all possible.

EF: Has that happened for you as a poet?

CR: I was disloyal to Oxford University Press, who published my first two books. Not that I broke their heart. But I felt that they weren't the most passionate or supportive publishers in the world, and Craig had moved to this job at Faber's and wanted to publish me. I allowed that to happen. I hope I'm there for life now.

EF: Is there a relationship between Faber and any U.S. press?

CR: Not especially. Quite a few Faber poets are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux—Heaney, Muldoon, Christopher Logue—but it's not really what you could call a special relationship. That's not the way publishing works. When I was an editor, I did try to get a number of American firms, including FSG, interested in the younger British poets I was publishing, and I found that extraordinarily difficult. They just didn't want to know. So much for cosy relationships! It's the same in both directions, of course, which is a pity, as poets on both sides could benefit from freer traffic, don't you think?

EF: I've found it much easier in academic circles, because the university presses seem to get their work back and forth more easily. And there are international communities of scholars. It seems very sad that this wouldn't exist as much for poets.

CR: It's particularly sad because, in my own experience, when American poets meet British ones, a good time can be had by all. And yet it tends to be well into our middle age before these exciting encounters are possible.

EF: In terms of your own work, and the idea of translation from one culture to another, I want to talk about persona. I'm very interested in your Katerina Brac. [CR's third U.K. volume, 1985]

CR: Katerina came about because, after my second book of poems [Pea Soup, 1982], it seemed to me I was beginning to imitate my own style, in some dismal way. It got me down to see this happening again and again. Whenever I tried to write a new poem, it would sound just like me. And I thought, if I'm not surprising myself here, I'm not going to surprise anybody else, am I? That went on for two or three years. Then one day I had this notion that a way of avoiding sounding like myself was deliberately to be somebody else. It seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time it hit me like the discovery of a new continent. Suddenly, Katerina came into existence. It's her voice that I heard uninterruptedly for about a month, because all those poems were written very quickly. They needed to be, because of the long period of creative frustration. It was a wonderful release, and the poems came out one after the other, I think in the order in which they're published in the book. And then she quieted down and went away, and I've scarcely heard from her since!

EF: [laughs] When this was published as a full volume, was there a foreword explaining your strategy?

CR: Not at all. In fact, I was slightly coy about it. I may have miscalculated the best way to present the poems. There was a rather arch blurb, which I myself composed, suggesting that she was a real figure. Then you were meant to see that she was a persona, once you started reading. Actually, I have been told of people who continued to think she was real and that I was her translator. That pleases me, too. I mean, it's a shame that she has to be explained, that the ambiguity can't be preserved. Even now, sometimes she is taken at face value. I've seen her—the book—arranged under 'B' in bookshops, and when I've seen that I've never moved her. That's partly the spirit in which I wanted the book to be read. It's right to deconstruct the poems, to appreciate them as parodies of translation-ese, or whatever, but at the same time I hope they speak on the authentic level as well—as Katerina's story, which you get to know through the poems.

EF: Was there a particular interest you had in the politics or the aesthetics of the Eastern European milieu she came from?

CR: Absolutely. She exists because of some very good translations of poets from Poland, and what was Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, that were published in the 1970s by Penguin. These books appeared at the time I was learning to write poems. And I bought almost all of them, because—again—they weren't like the British stuff that I saw all around me. I loved the tone of them, I loved the style of humor—I'm generalizing and simplifying madly, of course, but there is a particular kind of irony that was politically useful to the poets of that time in those places, and it appealed to me strongly. Not that I had any urgent use for that irony, because my political situation was different—not until the idea of inventing a poet who was stuck in such a situation occurred to me. She became my excuse to employ the tricks I'd learned from wonderful poets like Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert and Vasko Popa.

EF: And Czeslaw Milosz?

CR: I didn't know Milosz's poems in those days, even though he was one of Herbert's translators. And he had edited an anthology of Polish poetry which was full of fascinating little scraps of voices. At an early stage of Katerina, I did think of having that book as a kind of anthology. I was going to invent three different poets and translate selections from their poems, and the three poets were to have had some kind of triangular relations in their "real lives." But in the end, Katerina herself just got too interesting, too commanding, and I forgot the two guys. [laughing] They were surplus to requirements.

EF: This feels sort of strange—talking about this persona as though she were real. But there's a subtle, complicated relationship of overlapping voices in these poems. There's her voice, there's obviously the mingling with your own voice, and third, there's the figure of the translated work and the feel of layered language, the approximation. All these are removes from her, and yet there's an extremely strong moral vision that comes through.

CR: I find it hard to rationalize it, except to say that, although I was reading these exciting European poets in translation—and therefore couldn't hear the actual noise they were making, and no doubt many subtleties were lost, and also sometimes these translations read rather awkwardly—still I got pleasure from them as texts. I wanted to preserve that—to convey or reproduce that pleasure in my own text. So although there's an element of parody in the exercise, as I said, that's not to say it was hostile parody. It wasn't satirical at the expense of these poets or their translators, because I wanted to recreate the sense you get that one mind, the translator's, is adjusting to another mind, the original poet's, and having to make compromises all the time—that there's a perpetual negotiation going on. I don't know how well Katerina conveys it, but that was the idea.

EF: Have you done much translation?

CR: I've been doing some lately, from languages I don't know well enough to really justify my doing it. But I'm using other people's translations and my own ability to follow the grammatical and syntactical shapes of a Romance language text with the help of a crib. I have been doing quite a bit lately. There was one in the London Review of Books recently from Machado. [LRB vol 23 no 10, 24 May 2001] When I was reading at Amherst last year, a man came up to me afterwards and said, "Do you know Machado?" And I said, "Well, a little bit, through translation." And he said, "There's a poem of his, 'Las Moscas' ['The Flies'], that I think you'd like." And off he went. A few months later, I looked up the poem, and he was absolutely right. I'm ever so grateful to him for this act of inspired suggestion, whoever he was. I sat down and did my version. I adored the original and wanted to get something of its capaciously accepting spirit into my English. I've dabbled in this sort of thing here and there, not with any method, but just from accidental encounters or if someone happens to point me in the right direction. I've done some Rilke sonnets lately, because Michael Hofmann is editing an anthology of translations of Rilke, and he suggested I do two poems. So I tried them, and that was terrific fun. I won't vouch for them as anywhere close to the originals, but still, purely selfishly, getting something from that other language, that other mind, into my own repertoire is replenishing.

EF: When you translated the Rilke sonnets, was it important for you to keep the form?

CR: Yes, I did sonnets, but they're Paul Muldoon-type sonnets rather than Rilke-type sonnets. In other words, some of the lines are short, while others straggle a bit. But yes, it was important to have fourteen lines and some ghost of the conventional sonnet behind them. I have a friend who translates from various languages, and he's been doing Italian lately. He showed me a Dante sonnet just the other day, which I thought was remarkable in that it had the rhyme scheme and the meter and the argument and the clarity of the language—everything. Marvelously lifelike. But I can't take it that far. At least, I haven't yet been able to. I'd love to do that.

EF: No plans at the moment for a larger translation project?

CR: I don't think so. I'm a pillager, rather than a governor, if you see what I mean. I don't want to move in and run the province, I just want to hop over the border and snatch what I need—

EF: [laughs] Be a tourist?

CR: [laughs] Or a Viking raider. If I came across the right poet, yes, I think it's one of the best things that a poet with the appropriate skills can do—to capture a nice, fat foreign poet for an English readership. But I've carried this pillaging metaphor further than it needs to go. All I mean is that you can take liberties when you're just doing these one-off jobs. But if you want to find, say, the most important Portuguese poet now living and convey their true stature, you couldn't treat the poems in quite the same way as I've been doing. You'd have to pay more respect to the intentions and the methods and context.

EF: The notion of translating may be a good metaphor for your work in general, including your uses—and renovations—of traditional form. That seems integral to what you've been doing across several volumes.

CR: That's a very acute thing to say, and it may well be true. In a sense, I did conceive of those "translations" in Katerina as a sort of manifesto for what I think the whole business of poetry to be. But I hadn't extended it quite as far as you're doing now. Translation is a good metaphor for the business of a certain kind of poet, though I wouldn't say every kind.

EF: And what is the poet's business, as you tell it through Katerina?

CR: Oh, it won't go into a nutshell, but I suppose I mean a certain attitude both to one's craft and to the world one is addressing. A belief in ideal forms, while knowing one will never catch them. The right mixture of humble respect and hard-hearted opportunism.

EF: Still, the poems from In the Echoey Tunnel, your next book after Katerina Brac, seem to be translating something different from what preceded.

CR: That's probably true, but I'm not entirely sure what that was. Having tuned so sharply into Katerina's wavelength, I had to sort of adjust the machine, swivel it in a different direction and find some other thing being broadcast from somewhere else. I was turning my apparatus in all kinds of directions, hopefully—and opportunistically, maybe.

EF: The poems have a very open, almost fragmentary quality—written in short, somewhat disconnected sections—and a feeling of translating less from observation and more from something non-rational or internal.

CR: You could be right. I can immediately think of one or two poems in there that fit that description. The detached observer isn't allowed such scope.

EF: Is there any one poem in Mermaids Explained that stands out in that regard?

CR: There's one titled "Consulting the Oracle." It tells a story that has to do with visiting a woman who was once a refugee. These are regular visits, but they're also rather stiff and elaborate. Some kind of unease is part of the encounter. It was written completely without my knowing why I was doing it. It's not my story, and I don't know anybody like this. I've no idea even now why I wrote it [laughs]—except that it makes a good story, or a little fragment of story. I suppose I called it "Consulting the Oracle" because of that mysteriousness. Whatever message is conveyed to this old lady's visitor isn't clear to the reader, I don't think, and it's certainly not clear to him or to me. And yet something has passed between them. That might illustrate what you're saying. Come to think of it, isn't it the function of oracles always to be misunderstood?

EF: "Hotels," which I like very much, has a totally different kind of mystery, because it's not narrative—it's discontinuous.

CR: That's right. There are six instances, which could have been arranged in any order, and each section is disjointed in itself. That's what hotels are like, isn't it? Strange, meaningless environments—

EF: And yet you have to make yourself at home, on some level. I know someone who goes into a hotel room and redecorates. She moves this lamp here and angles the television that way—

CR: That table has got to go! [laughs]

EF: Yes—which would never occur to me. I just accept what I'm given.

CR: I like her attitude. It wouldn't have occurred to me, either. I think of these six sections as little fragments, Hopper-like sketches for a self-portrait, where you've got this one figure in an environment that gives absolutely nothing to you beyond what is given. Random, unconsoling facts—that's all you get. There's no depth.

EF: The form embodies that: a brief skittering over each environment and into the next. The poem gives the impression of your loosening up a bit—which, I suppose, is a clichéd way to look at early versus more mature work. But it seems to apply.

CR: I hope that's true. I want more things to happen in my poems now than the early Christopher Reid would have allowed. That's possibly, too, why I've been writing children's poems lately.

EF: I didn't know that.

CR: It's because I could do things in that mode that the stern and stuffy adult poet would never countenance.

EF: A book entirely of children's poems?

CR: Yes, two so far. The first is called All Sorts [1999]. I wrote them a couple of years ago, then [my wife] Lucinda and I published them ourselves. We made our money back and did a second collection, Alphabicycle Order [2001]. It was a very interesting exercise because we had to work well away from the mainstream. Booksellers in this country are so extraordinarily hidebound—I mean, the big chains—that we had to rely entirely on independent bookstores and, of course, our own private network. To sell a thousand copies, or whatever the number is, was quite an effort, but we showed it was possible. We were helped by my having a brilliant illustrator, Sara Fanelli.

EF: That must have been a little like Katerina, entering into another skin.

CR: A form of reinvention, no doubt. And subsequently, I've been curious to see what effect it would have on my so-called "adult" writing. I think it may have had some.

EF: I'd think a different lexicon, even a different kind of humor, would have to enter in. There's a certain age at which a child grasps irony, for example, and not before. Did you find yourself playing with tone?

CR: Yes, different tones and voices. There are elements of Hilaire Belloc, for instance. I don't mean that I decided to sound like Belloc, but you inherit that grumpy-avuncular, mock-didactic voice as one of the available disguises. Carroll and Lear are somewhere in there, too, and a bit of Stevie Smith. None of these applied very deliberately, but they've all been absorbed into me, through reading, and they're all there to be called upon and reinterpreted, as the occasion demands. And I hope I've added something of my own. It was great fun doing it. As with Katerina, when I hit on the idea, the poems themselves came thick and fast.

EF: What were your subjects?

CR: Oh, anything. The first poem in the book is a kind of two-stanza ballad, the first line of which is, "Oh, do not marry that wild young man," and it's about how the warning is immediately ignored and by the second stanza she's already gone and married the wild young man. The next poem is about flying away forever on a puff of one's own breath, and the next is about disasters at the circus. There's a lot of teasing going on—not as frustration, but as a device to coax and cajole the childish imagination. I remember from my own early reading how exciting it was to find something that was pitched just beyond my reach. If something baffled me, I'd be more interested. What is this? You want to see over the top of it as a child, to see round the other side. A lot of writing for children seems to me to have become "child-friendly" in just the wrong way—ingratiating and processed and obvious and bland. My own feeling is that what children want is something a little challenging, so that they're tested and can enjoy a bit of triumph—in addition to whatever other pleasures the author is able to provide.

EF: What about your music in the poems? In the U.S., where free verse is still the mainstream, people talk about the lack of audience for poetry in terms of the loss of the pleasure of its music as one moves from childhood into adulthood. One grows up reading Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss, with those lovely rhymes, delectable language, and then suddenly discovers that, no, that's not what it's about, apparently. It's about a language that often doesn't have elaborate music.

CR: That's a big loss. Poets can find different ways of making music. And, of course, the best create music out of whatever material they have to hand. But that reliance on old forms and on what certain poets now might consider rather crude effects—it was a real delight to go back and get them going again, with a vengeance, in the case of this children's book. Not that you'll find any sonnets or villanelles there. And there are one or two unrhymed poems, as well as poems with disguised rhymes, to make the reader wonder. Games like that are played. But there are so many varieties of music possible, aren't there? Isn't it the poet's job to have a large vocabulary ready for use? What I have never understood is the sense of shame that attaches to rhyme, in certain minds. It's a Puritan thing, isn't it? In this debate, I'm decidedly a Cavalier.

EF: It's never gone out of fashion in England, has it?

CR: Never out of fashion? Well, there are an awful lot of poets here who don't bother. Or who do it ineptly.

EF: Form seems extremely important to you—using traditional tools, but with some less than traditional shapes resulting from them.

CR: You always need an excuse for form. Form for its own sake isn't quite good enough. It would be totally pointless if I—or anybody—sat down and said, "OK, today I'm going to write a sonnet," and then looked around for a subject to squeeze into that traditional fourteen-line container. That would be a crazy thing to do. On the other hand, you do occasionally get ideas or intuitions of a poem that would seem to require the shape of a sonnet, for some reason, though you couldn't necessarily explain it to yourself at the time. That's the way it works. Equally, it might demand a thin trickle of unrhymed, non-end-stopped lines down the page, with no obviously imposed structure at all—and that could be the legitimate answer to a specific formal question.

EF: Do you often change the form of a poem in process? Or have you gotten to the point where they arrive with a determination of where they want to be and what they want to look like?

CR: I can never start a poem until I have a line. The first line gives me the shape of the poem. And, as I say, this is very often hard to explain, even to oneself—but if I've got this line, there usually comes with it the sense that it's going to run in a certain direction and for a certain distance. There's something genetic that one feels in it. It has a certain implied potential. Sometimes I turn out to be wrong, and the poem takes quite another turn, or simply doesn't happen. But there is a kind of energy latent in this first line that decrees all that follows.

EF: And it's usually the first line?

CR: It's always the first line, for some reason. Or the first line of the early drafts. Sometimes it vanishes or changes beyond recognition at a later stage, but that's what gets me going—some phrase or sound. To give you an instance: in "Two Dogs on a Pub Roof'" it was the plain statement, "There are two dogs on a pub roof" that told me not just that it might be possible to make a poem in which every line ended with some sort of barking noise, but that it would probably run to something like a hundred lines. I never stopped to count the lines while writing, but it didn't amaze me greatly, when I totted them up at the end, to find that there were exactly one hundred. It seemed ordained.

EF: What about your most recent work, in addition to the children's poems?

CR: Oh, I'm floundering, out of my depth, as ever. But in the pious hope that floundering will become a recognized swimming style.

EF: You're not editing with Faber any more?

CR: No.

EF: Does that mean you'll be writing more or less full time, or are there other things in the offing?

CR: I do little bits of work here and there. I doubt I'll ever be in conventional publishing again, and putting out children's poetry in partnership with my wife isn't going to lead to riches. I don't know. I think in about a year's time I'll be destitute [laughs]. No, not quite. But I really don't know what will happen.

EF: It seems like a wonderful, frightening position to be in—to move on from something without quite knowing what the destination is.

CR: In a way. But I needed to make the move. If I'd stayed in publishing, I should probably have grown into a cynical old codger, a burden to myself and a terrible warning to everyone else.

EF: Is that because of the politics of the job?

CR: Well, it's very difficult to keep fresh in publishing—and I did that job, after Craig's final departure, for eight years. You can dance around for eight years, having a good time and surprising people, but you need to sustain that degree of sprightliness without flagging, and I thought I couldn't forever. Most careers in the business are founded on success at an early stage, after which gentility and ossification set in. And that's perfectly reasonable, for some. Why not? The industry needs to be staffed. But that wasn't for me.

EF: Did working with others' poetry drain your own writing?

CR: No, it never drained it. In fact, I was nourished by working with some of our very finest poets. There were dangers. I did find myself at one stage starting to write low-grade Paul Muldoon poems, as it were, because Paul is such a strong influence on everyone who reads him—and I didn't even have the excuse of being the younger of the two. In the end, I had to write a little parody of him, to get the whole thing out of my system. I don't think he was greatly amused, but it didn't wreck our friendship.

EF: [laughs] You were in luck.

CR: That was only a real danger to a poet—of falling hopelessly under the sway of Paul, or Ted, or Seamus, or—

EF: Katerina.

CR: Yes. Well, she had the good grace to pack up and go, didn't she? [laughing] She didn't outstay her welcome.

Three poems by Christopher Reid:

Solar System
La Tartuga


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review