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ďRefuse to be Politely DepressedĒ
C. J. Allen talks to Martin Stannard

By way of an introduction

Cards on the table: I know Martin Stannard. Heís a friend. Weíre not exactly close; weíre more sort of poetry friends. We meet up from time to time to talk about poems, or we go along to readings. Weíre that sort of friends. So you need to read what follows in the light of that, I guess.

Having confessed this much, I should also say that Iím a fan of Martinís poetry, & Iím genuinely surprised that his work isnít more widely known. Itís intelligent, funny, engaging & unsentimental, itís serious without taking itself too seriously, itís smart without making the reader feel stupid Ö in fact itís a lot of things that a lot of contemporary British poetry definitely isnít.

As the reviews editor for a UK literary magazine, I get to see far more new poetry than is actually good for a person, & it seems such a shame that so much of it is based around weak jokes (that you wouldnít think were funny if you heard them in the pub or at work), shop-worn epiphanies & polite accounts of miserable things that have happened to the poet. So if you asked me to give you one reason why you should take the time & trouble in your busy life to read Martin Stannardís poetry then Iíd have to say:
because it refuses to be politely depressed. But more of that later.

Oh, & itíd be nice to tell you that the interview took place at the end of a late summerís day, in an orchard, and that we both sat in nice cane chairs with drinks & a table covered with books of poems. So I will.

Now read on Ö

CJA: So where did it all begin, this whole writing poems thing?

MS: If we ignore the poem in the school magazine when I was 17, which I think we should, and if we ignore the so-called poems I wrote in my late teens and into my twenties which I think we should, because the idea of poetry that is sub-Marc Bolan is pretty appalling, then the proper thing sort of kicks in around 1977 or 1978. Iím never sure of the exact year. But, for reasons I still donít fully understand, I went along to the newly-formed Ipswich Poetry Workshop one evening. There I met Rupert Mallin, who with John Row and Frank Wood was one of the organisers; each of these guys had had poems in little magazines. Frank was a pal of Jim Burns, the editor of Palantir, and John Row was, I recall, quite friendly with Nick Toczek, who was pretty active in small press poetry circles at that time. And Keith Dersley was there, too, and I seem to remember he had poems in Samphire. So these guys knew things, and had poems in places which were among the best magazines of their day, for sure. Plus there were about twenty other people there of every age, shape and size, and the chemistry was wonderful.

I went there clutching my sad little poems, poems which were an ignorant mix of vague symbolist-like rubbish and supposed important statements, and within no time at all Iíd learned that you could write poems with things in them which sounded like they might have actually come out of your mouth. It was very educational, and very liberating. And within weeks I was reading poems out loud, to audiences in pubs.

But best of all was the fact that Mallin and Dersley became two of my best ever friends, and theyíre still there, at my shoulder all the time. I owe them so much.

CJA: Iíve recently had the pleasure (& I do mean pleasure, & I am strongly resisting the temptation to make some wise-crack in parentheses) of reading through your Collected Works, & I noticed I was laughing (in a good way) more than I usually do when I read poetry. Could you say something about humour in your writing?

MS: Itís there because itís an ever-present in my life. By which I mean to say that my poems are, and I donít want to sound pompous but I really mean this, my poems are very much meÖ. by which I mean they are a mixture of all the traits (well, perhaps not all; Iíd better be careful what I say) that go to make up me. So the crappy bits of life, as they occur, are confronted as they must be, but also regularly deflected or hidden or dealt with by humour. Which as soon as Iíve said it sounds so much bullshit, because I know from bitter experience that there are times in life when the last thing you can see is the funny side. But, in the normal run of things, I can be serious and laughing more or less at the same time, and so poems should have funny in them. I donít try and be funny in poems to make people laugh. If I wanted to do that Iíd be a comedian. I just say something I want to say, and sometimes it happens to be funny. Or at least, I think so. But the important thing here is that I say what I want to say. Whether itís funny or serious or stupid or whatever itís what I want to say. Itís up to you if you laugh. It also occurs to me to mention, and I donít know if this is relevant or not, but I only write poems when Iím in a good, strong, generally happy mood. Iím not one of those people who when they have a bad time write about it from the bottom of the pit. When I have a bad time I curl up in a ball and shut the world out, or get drunk. The last thing I want to do when I have a bad time, and Iíve had some storming bad times, some real belters, the last thing I want to do then is write a poem about it. So, perhaps because I have to be ďupĒ to write a poem, that accounts for the humour, such as it is.

CJA: Öwhich is interesting to me, because itís not often you hear writers talk about happiness as a sort of wellspring of creativity - whatís that Montherlant quote? I think itís something like ĎHappiness writes whiteí. I do sense in your poems a sort of refusal to be politely depressed Ė which, for me at least, is one of its most admirable qualities. But isnít it okay to be miserable in a poem?

MS: Oh, Iím often miserable in poems. I think. Iím not sure. I am sure Iíve never really thought about it in those terms. The terms I have thought about it in are that, if Iím miserable then I donít feel as if I can or should burden the reader with it. They probably already have their own problems. Of course, Iím over-simplifying, because I have loads of poems, perhaps all my poems, which are filled with my own state of mind, my problems and my happinesses, or whatever. But, as a general rule, I endeavour not to be too specific about crappy stuff, that is, if my wife has just walked out on me with her suitcases to go live with her tennis coach, I wonít write a miserable ďDamn that tennis coach!Ē poem. I may, however, at some point write a poem that includes the line ďand the tennis coaches are all uglyĒÖ.. and that would, I suppose, qualify as humour. So, I get all mixed up. Which I rather like.

CJA: Youíve clearly a fondness (as I have too) for the list poem. What is it about lists that makes them so Ö poem-compatible, if you know what I mean?

MS: I donít know. I really donít. I discovered the list-poemĒ via the New York poets, and found it a pretty good way of doing some things. I canít answer this question without thinking of how Paul Violi answered a similar question once, when he said that he was trying to give up list poems for the following reasons: (1)Ö..

I think they are a very readable way to get into the kind of poem that, perhaps, shuns or minimises the importance of narrative, and so you can get into words and ideas and let them begin to work out their own energies and interests Ö. personally, I think for me theyíve let me work my way into writing things that might conceivably be a pleasure to read rather than something you read with the notion of it being good for you. Thereís a connection between the way a list poem reads, and the way I want poems to be.

CJA: Is there also something about the emotional-distancing effect of a list that allows you to confront bigger, higher-voltage issues Ö?

MS: Perhaps. I rarely think of myself as confronting ďbigger, higher-voltage issuesĒÖ.. what would they be, precisely?

CJA: Well, theyíd be Ö, theyíre Ö er Ö er Ö No, itís no good, I canít actually think of examples right now. I suppose I just meant that thereís something about lists which sort of flattens out emotional content Ė lists are usually about the prosaic & unspectacular, arenít they? (you know, Ďcollect dry-cleaning, buy bananasí etc.) - & that allows the writer to imply an account of the terrible without going into all the gory &/ or hysterical detail. But I sense Iím staggering about in the ruins of my own question here, so before too many people notice, Iíll quickly move on & ask something else. Most of us Ö well, letís be honest, I suppose I mean
I Ö look back on early published work with a certain amount of embarrassment. Whatís your take on your early poems? And would you say the stuff youíre doing now is better, or just different?

MS: Actually, I think youíre right in what you say about lists. They do flatten things out, and so sometimes they are absolutely the right kind of poem to write. Yes. Well doneÖ.. I kind of wish Iíd thought of that. I could also say, perhaps, that list poems are tremendously dangerous, too, of course. I mean, they pretend to be easy, and so if youíre having a bit of trouble writing anything at all, a list is good to fall back on. But itís not recommended, really. A good list poem is as hard to write as any other poem should be. Students take noteÖ..

Anyway, moving on ÖÖ Well, I mentioned my very early stuff at the start of this. But if I look at some of the poems that were my first things in magazines itís pretty startling but Iíd not be embarrassed, particularly. Thatís not to say theyíre any good, but I can see where I was and what I was trying to do, albeit in the dark somewhat, and itís not rocket science to see the start of what Iíve ended up doing. There is a definite line, I think. But, if itís of any interest, I think some of the poems in ďThe Gracing of DaysĒ, some of them, is when the penny dropped and I really began to get a handle on things. I donít know about ďbetterĒ or ďdifferentĒ Ė I mean, itís 15 or 20 years later: ways of writing poems, of thinking about what youíre doing and then doing things, well, something must change, develop. I hope, anyway. But definitely something happened during some of those poems, like a door opening on to a process and a realisation that, yes, this could be good and fruitful.

CJA: Youíve published maybe a dozen collections of poems as well as a volume of selected reviews & critical writing, but as far as Iím aware no prose fiction of any sort. Why is that?

MS: Oh, Iíve tried a couple of times in the past to write fiction. But I donít seem to have the head for it. One, I canít think up a plot. Two, I donít have the discipline to sit down every day and work it out, and do it. Some of my best friends are novelists, and I canít do what they do. But they canít do what I do, more or less, so it evens out. Mind you, recently Iíve written a handful of very short prose things, which are narratives of a sort. They are very short, a page or so. I think writing for the website has brought that on. I donít know if they are any good. They make me smile, which is either a good sign or a bad sign. Iím not sure at the moment.

CJA: On the back cover of your Selected Reviews Ė ĎConversations with Myselfí, your reviewing is described as Ďopinionatedí & Ďoutspokení which is clearly meant to connote informed & intelligent. But it could also imply obstinate & argumentative. So which is it?

MS: I would have thought charming and entertaining and informative and whatever the adjective that goes with ďdebateĒ is. Iíve said on a number of occasions elsewhere that I regard reviews as a place for the reviewer to explore and debate and enquire, as well as to tell the reader what the book has in it. I know not every reviewer takes this position, but I do. I have opinions, but thereíve been a number of occasions where those opinions have changed or been moderated while a review was being written, and I usually say so in the review itself. I am outspoken, perhaps, but Jeez, these are only poems so please donít anyone get too upset. I argue, but these days itís mainly with myself. I am not obstinate. My take on my reviews is that No, I donít allow poets who I think are posers or completely uninteresting to get away with it, and Yes, I say what I think. But I try to avoid talking from a position of ignorance, which I believe is the main sin a reviewer can commit. People who moan about my reviews are, as far as I can make out, usually people who have a corner to defend, and I donít give a toss about the defending of corners.

CJA: So how do you respond to the ĎIf you canít bring good news then donít bring anyí school of poetry reviewing?

MS: I would suggest that there is such a thing as an advertisement, which is not a review. In other words, if youíre going to run only reviews that say good things, you might as well simply run advertisements, if anyone would pay for them, and drop the pretence. And letís face it, if everything is going to be ďgoodĒ then where is the notion of selectivity, discrimination, difference, where is the variety, where is anything the least bit interestingÖ.? Poetry, any art, is surely about questions and enquiry and some kind of engagement with things, be they certainties or uncertainties, beliefs or the lack of them, whateverÖ. To be publishing in a context of ďeverything is lovelyĒ seems to me to be a betrayal of that fundamental premise.

CJA: Part of the fun of interviewing writers is taking stuff theyíve written in the past & forgotten all about, & then quoting it back at them. So Ö in an article about K. M. Dersley you say that Ď[P]oetry is the most important thing in the world, at the same time as it is the most unimportant thing Öí Would you care to explain that?

MS: Iíve never forgotten that statement, because itís central to my relationship with poetry. All it means is that poetry is of the utmost importance to me. Itís there when I wake up in the morning, itís there when I go to sleep at night, and it informs everything I do. Itís lurking, keeping an eye open, watching, breathing. I donít know how else to explain it. Itís not like I wander around thinking ďIím a poetĒ, but at one level, however subconsciously, Iím always working. I really believe that. If it makes me sound tremendously sad, so it goes. But I think itís kind of interesting, to one minute be walking down the street comatose, then suddenly an overheard phrase, or a slogan on a van, or the sight of two dwarves chasing a squirrel wakes something in me up, so to speak. In other words, the poet was not asleep, he was simply resting. I trust you get my gist. Thereís obvious things, like catching out of the corner of my eye an unfinished poem thatís on my desk, that would set a bit of my brain off on that trackÖ But itís like a bit of me is always quietly hunting a word or a phrase, not for any specific poem but purely because words and phrases are out there, waiting, and Iím not sure I could ever stop it. To me, this is just a natural part of the day. I doubt Iím unique in it.

But, there is a but. This omnipresence of poetry activity and thinking or whatever it is has to exist alongside the fact that I know that while Iím sat at my desk writing poems, or reading poems, or perhaps sat in a pub admiring the barmaid and thinking about poems, there is stuff in the world so dreadful and essential and important that it makes thinking about line breaks seem, well, ridiculous doesnít even begin to go there. But of course, writing a poem, making music, itís all vital to being human, a part of whatever all this life is. But one has to keep a sense of perspective. I donít think this is a particularly original thought or insight, but I feel somewhat distant from many of the people Iíve encountered in poetry world, and perhaps this is a small part of the reason.

This sounds really precious, actually, like Iím some kind of genius functioning at a level unknown to other mortals. I donít mean it to be that; perhaps if I said that Iím a poet and canít conceive of not doing it, that it does run as a constant in my life, but I know that other things in the world are also kind of huge thingsÖ.. Oh, tell me if this makes sense. There is a circle Iím going around in.

Incidentally, of course, the main reason I feel distant from a lot of people in poetry world is that poetry world is full of people I have nothing in common with at allÖ.. I just thought Iíd throw that in.

CJA: Yes, it makes sense to me, I think. Poetry is an important & vital part of life, but life comes first. I remember reading an interview with the painter R. B. Kitaj in which the interviewer prefaced a question with the remark, ĎBut of course painting is your
life Öí & Kitaj replied, ĎPainting is NOT my life. My life is my life.í Is that it?

MS: Absolutely. The more one tries to explain this feeling, what this means, the more rapidly you see them disappearing up their own backsides, but that is it, absolutely it. Poetry is not my life, my life is my life. By the way, I first came across Kitajís work as a result of his painting which is on the cover of John Ashberyís ďHouseboat DaysĒ. Isnít that interesting? Not that I know much or anything else about Kitaj, but Ö..

I notice, by the way, you ignored the ďpoetry world is full of people I have nothing in common with at allĒ thing. OkayÖ.

CJA: Ö and now Iím trying to ignore your drawing everyoneís attention to the fact that I ignored it. Melvyn Bragg makes this sort of thing look so easy. I am attracted by the idea of Poetry World, though. I imagine some huge out-of-town warehouse, like Office World, but with less good deals on copier paperÖ Anyway, I digress Ö

Like the rest of us chronically afflicted with poetry (& I do mean us this time) you probably read more of it than is actually healthy for the average adult. Whose poetry do you find yourself returning to - for pleasure?

MS: The New York guys, obviously. It depends on my frame of mind which one, and which generation, because they are all different, but they all in some way remind me that itís good to be alive and writing poems. Coleridge is a big hero. But Iím just as likely to dip into an anthology of 16th century poetry Ö. thereís something about that period that absolutely does my head in, and I love it. Iím no expert on the period, but one is absolutely certain of discovering a great poem in thereÖ. I am also happy to dip into the just absolutely known wonderful, be it Shakespeare, Keats, PoundÖ. Actually, I probably donít read anything like as much poetry as I should these days. I remain amazed to come across people who seem to have read everything. To me, reading a book for review is often as much as I can do. Then I usually need a holiday. My spare time is more likely to be taken up by music, or some other form of play.

CJA: Why is Coleridge such a big hero?

MS: The Conversation Poems, for starters. I know the world is full of other great poems, and perhaps even ďbetterĒ poems, but I love them, and that has something to do with their genesis, which is usually from a particular instance, a moment in the poetís somewhat messy life, and he writes something down and a poem starts. I knew little about Coleridgeís life until I read the Richard Holmes biography, and among the several poetry biographies Iíve read Ė not loads, admittedly, but several Ė there is something about Coleridgeís life struck a chord. Something about his inability to get things together, to fuck up, to neglect his writing career. Something of that sort. I also think he was a great bloke, a great person to know. He was obviously a walking and endlessly talking brain the size of a planet, but not remote. Thereís an image Holmes paints somewhere, itís after Coleridge and Wordsworthís famous falling out, and they are both at a dinner, perhaps itís at Lambís, I donít remember, but they are sat at opposite ends of the table after the meal, and Coleridge is talking fifteen to the dozen surrounded by lots of people eagerly listening, and Wordsworth is down the other end, quiet and more or less alone. I may not have the detail exactly right, but you get the idea.

CJA: Weíve both been to poetry readings, as readers & audience members. Why do you think we do it?

MS: I give readings because I enjoy it, and people give me money. I really do enjoy giving readings. Some of the stuff around the edges of it, being sociable, being in a strange place with strangers, I sometimes find difficult. Other times itís easy. But I love the actual process of reading a poem to an audience, and having that kind of live, vibrant connection. Of course, itís not always vibrant. As for going to readings, well, I really only go to some local ones now, and even then not always. I will support reading series I feel deserving of it Ė so Iíll go to John Lucasís things here in town, not because I always know Iím going to love the poetry, but because John is doing a brilliant job. But I wonít go to see, for example, a poet I have no real interest in, even if itís a big deal at a big venue locally organised by a literature officer because they feel they have to, as part of their remit. I mean, I donít go to see every big band that comes to town just because theyíre big and sell lots of records. I go and see bands if Iím interested in them and like, or might like, what they do. The same with poets. Just because theyíre poets doesnít mean I have to go out and see them. And actually I am an awful poetry audience. Iím a hopeless listener. Iím more likely to be thinking about someoneís poor dress sense or bad hair than listening to their poems.

CJA: For several years you edited the magazine
Joe Soapís Canoe. As anyone whoís done that sort of thing knows, it takes up an awful lot of time Ė time that a person might feel was more profitably spent writing his own poems. Do you agree?

MS: No. And yes. It can stop you writing poems, but maybe thatís good sometimes. I think the time I spent editing was time well spent. Of course, for a lot of the time I did nothing editing-wise at all, because the magazine became annual and so for nine months of the year I just opened brown envelopes, took the poems out of them and stuck them into the return envelope and sent them back to where theyíd come from. Thatís not editing, itís damage limitation. But the good side of editing is finding poems and learning about poems and just learning, learningÖ.. itís not really quantifiable, but itís very interesting and Ö. I remember also, when I told Rupert Mallin I was going to start a magazine, this was 1978 or so, he said something to the effect that I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. He was right. He ran his own magazine Ė ďStableĒ Ė and he knew what he was talking about. Oneís take on poetry world changes when youíre an editor, and thatís definitely influenced my take on poetry in general.

CJA: In what ways did being the editor of JSC change your take on the poetry world?

MS: You try getting all those brown envelopes, and seeing all those poems. You try understanding why someone can get so upset at your not liking their poetry. You try working your balls off and publishing someoneís poems you like, and you never ever hear from them again because they just needed to be able to put your magazine on their list of credits and now theyíve done that they fuck off into wherever they fuck off to, and youíre left wondering if youíve been had.

But actually all that comes down to is arriving at where you can put it all into some kind of perspective. Which weíve already mentioned. But I think that editing experience, apart from enabling one to learn more about poetry itself, also helped me find a way to deal with all the good stuff and the bad stuff poetry world wanted to throw at me, and come to realise that Hey man, chill out. ďThese are only poems.Ē And that poet who just had a crack at you, heís an idiot, so it doesnít matter. Yes, quite.

CJA: These days you manage/oversee/virtually edit (I donít know the right verb here) the web site Exultations & Difficulties. What made you decide to go in for that?

MS: I guess I had an itch that needed scratching. Iíd thought about an online magazine for a while, but I didnít want to go back to proper magazine editing, as such, simply because I didnít feel like committing entirely to a project like that, and in a sense Iíd done that, and got the t-shirt, and didnít feel like going backwards. But the format Iíve hit on, somewhat by accident, which is a cross between a blog and an e-zine, suits me down to the ground. Thereís virtually no pressure, no schedule, and itís fun. And it seems to work. People say they like it.

CJA: You have had a long-ish association with contemporary American poetry. You are, for example, friends with Mark Halliday & Paul Violi (indeed youíve collaborated with Mark on a number of projects). Do you think the contemporary poetry scene is healthier in the States than it is in Britain?

MS: Itís the same, I think, just bigger. Iím sorry, I donít have anything particularly interesting to say about this. I mean, everyone knows American poetry is heavily coloured and influenced by the numerous writing MFA things that there are, which is one thing, and so in that respect itís different than here, and then there are the usual disputes and factions, and who knows? I donít think the boundary lines and differences between us and them are so distinct now, though, which I suspect is somewhat down to the internet and the fact that the traffic between worlds now is easier and more constant. I think Iím on the verge of saying something interesting here, but Iím not sure what it is because Iím only just discovering itÖ.. I mean, for one thing, I joined an online poetsí discussion list, an American one, and it turned out to be a bunch of poets who knew each other, as far as I could tell, and sometimes it was interesting, and a lot of the time it was obviously long-running feuds keep rearing their heads. Similar things happen on British inline discussion lists, at times.

CJA: Okay, hereís one for the technicians: Rhyme or no rhyme? Capital letters at the beginning of lines or not? Metrics or to hell with it? Punctuate it like youíd punctuate prose or not? Where do you stand on this lot?

MS: Yes to all of it. I mean, the technical stuff is there to use, rather than to be used by, and I think one should use it as and when one feels either itís appropriate or it feels just kind of right, which I guess is the same thing. So, Iíve written maybe a small handful, barely that, of poems that have end-line rhymes, but thatís because apart from one or two occasions itís never felt like the right thing for me to do. But I have loads of poems where there is blatant use of internal rhyme, and assonance and dissonance and all that stuff, although itís so blatant itís barely ever noticed. Still lots of people would say it was chopped up prose, but that marks them out as idiots, really. I do like it lots when a reviewer actually notices that the poems are really worked, and worked hard on. I do admit I like someone to point that out, say once every ten years or so. Otherwise, Iím happy if people think they are quick and easy when theyíre absolutely not. I donít want people to notice the work, I want them to enjoy the poem. I donít do metrics. Again, I go along with Violi: if I find myself counting syllables I know Iím in trouble. I feel absolutely no compunction or desire to go down that road. Itís not that I canít; I feel no need. Someone else can feel the opposite, and thatís fine if itís right for them. Mind you, I can believe that one day I might feel inclined to do some formal poems, you know, sestinas or whatever, and see where the formalism takes me. But itís not happened yet.

As you will know from having read the collected works, I have historically gone for the no capital letters at the beginning of lines option. But at the moment Iím doing the opposite: every poem has capital letters at the start of each line. Donít ask me why. Again, it happens to feel right, and at the moment I think it looks good. At the moment. Itís an instinctive thing, which means itís a very, very strong whim.

CJA: So youíd agree with the sainted John Ashbery that ĎPoetry is mostly hunchesí?

MS: Iíd disagree with the ďsaintedĒ tag, but whatever. Hunches? Yes. But thatís okay for him, and something along the same lines is obviously okay for a lot of other people, too. And Iíd go along with it, in that I never really know what Iím going to write until Iíve written it. If thatís poetry on a hunch, yes. But obviously, too, itís not how loads of other poets function, and there are lots of other ways to do it. But Iím happy to have a vague notion of a poem, a kind of empty vessel thatís waiting there for me, that I can see and hear, and all I have to do is fill it with the right words, to make that thing I think I kind of saw and heard before I set out.

CJA: I donít know to what extent you go in for talking about yourself in your poems. I know the ĎIí in a Martin Stannard poem isnít reliably Martin Stannard. But Iíve been forcibly struck by what sounds & feels like a strong autobiographical element in much of your work. An example would be the title poem for your next collection, ĎA Relation of Yearsí; it definitely has a strong lyrical strain to it, itís modern (in the sense of contemporary), for sure, but it seems to have veins of Romanticism swirled up into it as well. Do you know what Iím getting at here? Or am I just talking rubbish again?

MS: There is a lot of autobiography. There is also a lot that isnít, I think. But pretty much everything comes from somewhere within my experience, or even from within earshot or eyeshot, which seems a pretty obvious kind of thing to say, but even the poem with the most made-up or, at least, the most non-autobiographical poem is likely to have something in it that is, even somewhat remotely, autobiographical. At least, I think so. Thatís the way I think things are, but Iíd have to look at specific poems and say what was in them to be precise about it. We could do a spreadsheet, and come up with a mathematical figure, a percentage of autobiographical, or none.

I prefer not to write ďstraightĒ autobiography, although I certainly have done so, because I think poems should be more interesting than that. By which I mean, if a poem is so obviously just about me Iíd feel it was limited, in a sense, although of course I know that if itís good itís good and would, by virtue of its goodness, be about more than just the me of the poem. But still, I prefer to think I open things up a bit more by being not straight autobiographical, although the extent to which I do so is perhaps arguable if a poem sounds like itís about me but really isnít. For example, the poem you mentioned appears to be very autobiographical, but in fact it is so only in a few parts. All the time Iím saying this, and trying to distance myself from autobiography, I sense I may be fooling myself. It wouldnít be the first time.

CJA: To what extent do you have a reader in mind when youíre writing poems, and who is it?

MS: To no extent, except me. Itís me. I do rather like, and often refer to, the notion of ďthe ideal readerĒ who sits at your shoulder as you write. Who will understand every nuance, every reference, every intonation, and even understand what you donít say as well as what you do say. I like that notion, although I donít really think a lot about it. Perhaps if I thought about it too much Iíd realise itís a nonsense.

I want a reader of my poems to enjoy the experience of reading. I want the poem to sound good, read well, move well, entertain, and provoke. I want readers to know I think, and I would like them to think also, so we all think, and thinking is good, although (as Ashbery has said) thinking isnít always what we think it isÖ. But, to be honest, when I write I am writing to satisfy whatever the hell it is one writes to satisfy. I hesitate to call it ďa needĒ. That sounds dreadful, to have some kind of need.

My criterion for finishing a poem and letting it stand, and to go out into the world, is that I have to think itís more than okay, and does all that read well, move well stuff. I have to trust myself, of course, to be the judge of that. Anyway, I figure if it does these things, passes my test, then a reader somewhere will be happy to share it. I hope so, because I donít know how else to do it. I doubt any of this marks me out as being any different from any other poet who works hard and does their best.

CJA: Which kind of brings us round to the topic of ambition & poetry. Are you simply trying to write what you think are good poems, regardless of the prospect of seeing them published?

MS: Itíd be disingenuous (well, dishonest really) to claim Iím not interested in publication. Of course I am. But the reality of my existence is that sending poems out seems to be pretty much an afterthought, and often several months go by and Iíve written poems and put them away in their folder and then I think, Crikey, maybe I should get a couple of things out somewhereÖ.. I am, basically, rubbish at ambition and career. It doesnít occur to me, really. Iíd love to be famous but Iíll just sit here and wait to be discovered, I guess. Oh, and moan about the people who are famous.

CJA: Is this a good time for poetry, or a bad time?

MS: I donít know. Iím sorry, but I donít. I have no idea what it means, and I never think about it. There are some brilliant poems around, and some brilliant poets writing them. Look at Dean Young. Look at my friend Paul Violi. And people like Luke Kennard are lurking in the wings waiting to blow the world away, and doing great things. But the bigger picture Ė I know what your question means, I suppose, and I guess I was trying to duck it. But, honestly, I donít think this is either a good time or a bad time for poetry. Itís just a time, and letís carry on slugging it out. There is genius and rubbish, and hasnít it always been like that? I donít care at all if someone says Oh, but isnít it good that there is lots of poetry on radio, for example, or poems hung on trees in a forest somewhere because someone had an idea to hang poems on trees, and the Arts Council will pay for it, and someone is being paid to write a poem about every bus route in the city Ö. that stuff happens, and some of itís good but most of itís awfulÖ. No. I donít know. I let such big questions pass me by. They make my head hurt. It occurs to me, I wonder if anyone ever asks a road sweeper if this is a good time for road sweeping, or a bad time? I donít know, but thereís always a road needs sweeping.

CJA: Is this a good time for your poetry?

MS: Last Thursday was great. Yesterday was a bit iffy. I think generally things are okay, but looking at the one or two unfinished bits on my desk at the moment Iím not convinced. But then next Wednesday could be stunning. I kind of wish for a permanent state of stunning, of course. In fact, I insist upon it, and therefore disappointment is the constant sub-text of ďI think generally things are okay.Ē The point is, though, Iím happy that I can write poems, and that some people like to read them. I think this is quite simply a very, very cool thing, and I feel very good about it. Any aches and pains and doubts and uphill struggles and inner turmoils I have during the process of making those poems are small potatoes in the scheme of things, I think.