Nonsense and Stuff: An Interview with Christopher Reid
Christopher Reid first became well-known in the 1980s as a prominent member of the ‘Martian’ school of poetry, noted for its curious and defamiliarising metaphors. While his name is still associated with that movement, his poetry has progressed through a large variety of styles and tones: from his intricate and dandyish early work, through the stylistically idiosyncratic ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’, to the Costa Prize-winning A Scattering, a poetic tribute to his late wife, which finds Reid at both his most emotional and yet most restrained. Apart from the Costa Prize, Reid has won a Somerset Maugham Award, the Hawthornden Prize and a Cholmondeley Award. He has also been shortlisted twice for the T.S. Eliot Prize and once for the Forward Poetry Prize.
Between 1991 and 1999 he held the powerful post of Poetry Editor at Faber where he worked with Ted Hughes on his last books, which led to his becoming editor of Letters of Ted Hughes (2007). In addition, Reid has worked at Crafts magazine and taught at the University of Hull. He has also worked as a freelance journalist and had illustrations published in Punch and the London Magazine. He runs his own small press, Ondt & Gracehopper, through which he brings out work of his that has been rejected by other publishers, including two books for children, one of which won the Signal Award.
In this interview, we discuss Nonsense, his latest book, which sees Reid in his most playful spirit, with poems that encompass all shades of humour from the effervescently silly to the darkly ironic – sometimes in one poem.
Interview by Kit Toda
Photograph used with kind permission of Jemimah Kuhfeld (www.jemimahkuhfeld.co.uk)
After a friendly welcome, one of the first things that Christopher Reid says to me as I enter his home is that he will have to pause the interview at some point to feed the two enormous chickens that his partner keeps in their garden. When we eventually do make our way out into the garden, I remark upon several interesting pictures and objets d’art in the corridors. He then offers to show me around his home after the interview, which I accept with enthusiasm. Unlike the sleek modern aesthetic of ‘brushed steel and […] plexiglass’ which Reid depicts in his poem ‘State of the Art’, the magpie collector’s bent is very much apparent in his remarkable home. Handmade pots are arranged on the kitchen shelves while paintings, sketches, masks and posters adorn the walls. Antique furniture stands sedately next to a large wooden carving of a cockerel posing proudly on a tripod. Almost every surface brims with curios. He is clearly fond of stuff as well as nonsense, and playfulness is as much evident here as in his poetry: in one room there is a bowl of dried gourds into which Christopher has sneaked a light bulb of almost identical shape and size. I admire what appears to be (and is craftily presented as) a modernist wooden bust, which turns out to be the corner section from a verandah balcony. (The sockets where the bannisters used to be affixed look like eyes.) He also shows me the surprising origin of his mysterious poem ‘The Ballad of P. BINCE’ but, alas, as to that, I am sworn to silence…
As is obvious from the title and the content of your latest book, you are interested in nonsense verse. But while many, like ‘A Bit of a Tune’, are light-hearted and come close to the genre, none of the poems in Nonsense seem to me to be true nonsense verse in the Lewis Caroll or Spike Milligan vein. So I was wondering if you could talk to me about the relationship between nonsense verse and your own work.
I suppose nonsense verse when skilfully done represents a kind of ideal freedom – a writer can prattle away without the obligation of referring to reality at all obviously. The words themselves play games and keep themselves entertained without any of the conventional responsibility towards normality and good sense. Ever since childhood, I’ve been attracted by nonsense verse and the opportunity it offers to enjoy a brief holiday from reality. All of which is really a long-winded way of saying that it amuses me, diverts me. Spike Milligan is actually one of my deepest influences! No doubt that’s more apparent in my two children’s books, where I’ve indulged my liking for nonsense rather more than I do in my so-called adult work.
Was it a conscious decision not to include many actual nonsense poems in your Nonsense book?
No, well, the poems gathered themselves in the way that they do, long before I thought of a title for a book. The title, I think, applies in other ways than just as generic description.
Yes, ‘nonsense’ is a thread that runs through all the works isn’t it?… I think what’s interesting about nonsense is that it’s not the absence of sense – it’s more that it has a special relationship to sense. For example, the word ‘galumphing’ [from ‘Jabberwocky’] works because, despite it being a neologism, one has an instinctive understanding of what it means.
Oh yes, ‘The Jumblies’, for instance, would not have any resonance at all if the tale it told didn’t resemble stories you might have come across in ballads and romances and that sort of literature. A degree of parallelism is important.
I suppose it has a great deal to do with defamiliarisation and, for that to happen, you need something to defamiliarise the reader from. That process goes back to some of your earliest work.
Yes, that’s right. One person I learned from when I came across him at school was Wallace Stevens. I think just a few of his poems can be called nonsense pure and simple. But there are a great many others, especially in his earlier books, which present themselves as a species of nonsense but actually they go a long way – a deeper way – towards sense than conventional, rational, argument-stating poems do. Stevens was apt to disguise his good sense as flamboyant nonsense and that seemed to me attractive. Some of the poems in my own first two books are pretending to be more nonsense than they actually are.
I suppose one of the most famous Wallace Stevens poems that is a bit nonsensical is ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’.
Yes, although that actually makes a lot of sense when you pay attention to it. It seems to me a very profound and true vision of the everyday world of ice cream, dawdling girls, and boys bringing flowers as the only reliable thing we have: ‘Let be be finale of seem.’ When death comes in the second part, all we have then is the makeshift ceremony of mourning, which we must acknowledge as well. Life and death: no more serious subject that that!
I want to ask about syllable sounds and nonsense. I was wondering whether you thought that certain sounds are inherently comic. ‘A Bit of a Tune’ for instance makes use of the ‘-oon’ sound, which seems to me as if it might be…
Oh yes, certainly, even though it’s also one of the clichés of Tin-Pan Alley*: those commercial love songs that invariably rhyme ‘June’ with ‘moon’ and so forth. I avoid ‘June’ in the poem as that would be just too much Tin-Pan Alley. I’m not sure if there’s an essential comedy in particular syllables, but the obsessive repetition of them can accumulate to comic effect.
There’s certainly something inherently comic about a forced rhyme. Like when in ‘A Bit of a Tune’ you resort to the word ‘alooooooone’.
Yeah, that’s right, that is quite outrageous.
Do you think you can take the idea of a comic sound further? For example I once read about a comedian who said that a ‘canary’ was inherently funnier than, say, a ‘robin’. It was something about the hard ‘c’ sound which made it funnier.
Ye-es, I wonder… Edward Lear found pelicans funny and it might not just have been because they look so ungainly. It’s a slightly absurd combination of vowels and consonants, which you couldn’t really say of ‘lark’, for instance.
Could you tell me something about the name of ‘Winterthorn’ from ‘Professor Winterthorn’s Journey’? It’s a very evocative name – it’s not like ‘Jones’ or ‘Smith’…
I wanted to invent a name that sounded as if it could be a real one. I don’t know if there is anyone else in the world called ‘Winterthorn’; I should be surprised in a way if there wasn’t. But it’s certainly not a common name. I wanted it to be distinctive but at the same time perfectly natural-sounding.
It sounds distinguished as well, for a professor. I was wondering too whether, although he isn’t particularly old in the poem, it’s partly to do with how he’s in the ‘winter’ of his life?
He’s sixty and I suppose that makes him middle-aged these days, doesn’t it? But he’s lost his wife, so there’s a spiritual winter there that he has to endure.
Yes, and also the lack of interest he shows in the conference despite having flown half way across the world to go to it does suggest that there’s something going on – well, we know there’s something going on – but it does suggest that things are not quite right.
Oh yes, he’s in a state of great turbulence. Totally unsettled, can’t relax, can’t do anything straight. All his thoughts are daft ones. He makes some attempt towards the end to get his thoughts and feelings in order. It’s arguable how successfully he does that but up to that point he’s been in total disarray.
I feel that the closest genre to ‘Professor Winterthorn’s Journey’ might be the short story.
Yes, fair enough.
It’s a short story in verse, really, so I was wondering whether you write much prose.
I can’t write narrative prose. I’ve tried it and I can’t do it. Whenever I’ve had an idea that for other writers could have been a short story or something of that kind, it’s had to be held together by verse, for me. Can’t get the narrative momentum without verse to push it along.
Without the rhythmic momentum?
Exactly. The rhythm is part of the story.
I was also wondering – considering you have two sort of scripts in there; well, one, plus a kind of monologue – have you written much in the way of plays or librettos?
I tried writing plays at one period – I actually completed a couple but they’re no good at all! I’d love to be able to write a play; perhaps I may one day be able to write one in verse – the movement of verse to keep the dramatic action going.
But poetry has always been your genre?
Yes, from early childhood.
Do you read a lot more poetry than prose?
I read a lot of poetry, a lot of novels and a lot of plays; actually I read a lot more plays than I go to see in the theatre. I learn, I think, from those who can write in those genres. But what I haven’t learnt is how to write an actual play or a novel. I think I have learnt about characterisation and narrative, maybe; but the construction of a story out of paragraphs of prose, the accumulation of sentences without prosodic underpinning – I just don’t know how to do that.
That’s very interesting. It seems instinctively that, if you can write both narrative and poetry, it shouldn’t be such a hard thing to do, but that’s not really the case.
It could well be that I see more difficulties in the job of writing a prose narrative than are actually there, but I can say that when I’ve tried it and read back what I’ve written it just seems preposterous.
Preposterous: that should be the next title.
I think I‘ve taken enough risks with Nonsense.
I was wanting to ask a bit more in detail about ‘Professor Winterthorn’. You end sections with one hanging isolated line…
I do that in every section, yes.
And sometimes it seems logical in that it ends on a line that seems particularly significant, whereas other times it doesn’t seem like that but rather it lends a significance that’s really quite mysterious. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Could you give me an example? Of the second kind.
Well, here’s the first kind: ‘Too much like a mass grave’, but…[an example of the first kind would be,] ‘No problem: the airport rack // will yield some nice, fat, sedative paperback’.
Ah, I see what you’re getting at; that there’s a sort of gently implied climax to the ending of a section. But the same device can also give you anti-climax as well. That’s a comic possibility that I exploit a little, yes. There are certain arbitrary decisions that you make as you begin a piece of work, especially something as long as ‘Professor Winterthorn’. I knew from the start it was going to be long; in fact I knew that it was going to be in 77 sections, that was part of the design.
Is there a particular significance to that?
No, no, just that it’s a pleasing number: one prime multiplied by another. A similar consideration applied to The Song of Lunch where I’d decided there’d be 64 sections because that’s a nice number too, though in a different way. Once I’d settled on 77 for this one, everything fell pat into that pattern, so it was the right decision at the outset. And there are other hidden patterns within the poem which it would be laborious to try and explain because the point is they are hidden, and they were useful only to me as I constructed the piece. But that idea of having a dangling line at the end of every section, and often in the middle of a section as well, was really for narrative convenience. Aside from sometimes lending a significance to the section, ending it on a meaningful cadence, they can also serve to point to the next section – another device for achieving forward motion. Beyond such technical calculations, of course, they say something about my hero’s habits of mind, his tendency to leave all problems dangling and unresolved.
Talking about the content – I found ‘Professor Winterthorn’ very funny, because it’s such an uncomfortably close satire on the academic world (which, as I was saying, I know quite well!). I was thinking that the funniness of the poem is that the world you’re writing about – particularly academic conferences – is so po-faced. It can often be ‘dry and dutiful’ and also there’s the nonsensical jargon as well which feeds into the nonsense theme.
Well, it’s very close to nonsensical.
I was wondering : you were a Professor of Creative Writing at one point – was that partly an inspiration?
Well, I suppose if I hadn’t had hands-on experience of the academic world, I wouldn’t have been able to get some of those shafts as accurately delivered as I hope I did.
Yes, the title of the conference [‘Nonsense and the Pursuit of Futility as Strategies of Modernist, Postmodernist and Postpostmodernist Literature and Art’] is indistinguishable in tone from some of the calls for papers that get sent around – it’s really not out of the realms of reality!
I do my best to sound authentic.
And that’s why it’s funny. Because it’s a very close line, isn’t it? If it’s too nonsensical then it’s not funny anymore –
There’s also ‘Some Thanatological Themes in The Third Policeman’: close to a tongue-twister and tongue-twisters are inclined to be comic.
Apart from being a Creative Writing Professor, did you ever think of going down the academic route when you were at Oxford?
Oh no, I was not a bright student and I would never have qualified. So it was a big surprise to me when I was, as it were, press-ganged into joining the academic world rather late in life.
How did you find it? Did you enjoy it?
No, I ran away from it. As fast as I possibly could. I was at Hull for two years, and it’s nothing to do with Hull itself and nothing to do with my very likable and admirable colleagues, I just thought this is a world that’s totally crazy, thanks in the main to the tyranny of administration – the awful way that universities are run these days. I just thought ‘No no no, I can’t learn how to do this at my late age’.
Do you think you can teach poetry?
You can teach about poetry. I very much doubt whether creative writing is the thing we should be teaching undergraduate students: graduate students, okay – but I think undergraduates need to know a bit more about the world and a bit more about literature before they go through the discipline of being educated in something like ‘Creative Writing’.
I think Creative Writing degrees are probably valuable largely because of the space and time they give you to write. I mean, I’ve never done one, but that’s what I would…
But undergraduates don’t need space and time; they need those three years to repair all the bad education that they’ve received at school. And once that job is done, then they can have space and time. But really it should be regarded as an emergency – putting education right at that university level.
Yes, that’s true… You’ve also satirised the literary world as opposed to the academic world in ‘Neddy and the Night Noises’ (another great alliterative title), and of course you’ve experienced the poetry world as both editor and poet, so you have seen both sides.
Do you think that helps you look at the world in a more humorous way?
No, I think anyone can see the follies and vanities of the literary world clearly enough, whichever side of the fence they’re on.
I guess there’s a pomposity about both academics and the literati?
I suppose so, but I think… I don’t mean to be unkind to my hero Neddy, I’m actually quite sympathetic to his plight.
Yes, even in ‘Winterthorn’ it seems like an affectionate satire, rather than a vicious one.
Yes, vicious satire has its place, but that was not what I was interested in doing here – in either of those cases. I wanted the reader to have access to the human predicament that’s at the heart of both ‘Winterthorn’ and ‘Neddy’. Poor Neddy.
Neddy seems like the majority of poets.
No, he’s a very particular case. There’s no one else like him – he doesn’t stand for anybody else. Except me, possibly. Neddy Bumwhistle, c’est moi!
I want to talk about ‘Airs and Ditties of No Man’s Land’ – that was originally broadcast on the radio, is that right?
It was – it was the result of a commission. The composer Colin Matthews asked me whether I could write him some words about the First World War as he‘d been offered this commission for the BBC Proms. He knew that the musical forces were to be two singers, tenor and baritone, and a small orchestra. For reasons of his own the First World War was the subject he had in mind. He asked me if I could supply some words, but he gave me no very clear directions, so I was allowed to go off and do my own thinking about it and came back a long time afterwards with some pieces of verse that I hoped he would find serviceable.
So you weren’t aware of the kind of music that would be produced?
I knew the kind of music up to a point because I know Colin’s music very well – and admire it, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. Of course, he produced some surprises in his score that I never could have imagined in advance. But that was one of the delights of the job: I handed the words over to him and he used them for purposes that were entirely his own and had nothing to do with me – and actually enlarged the writing by doing that.
Did you find it lent a different slant of meaning which you weren’t expecting?
Not that, but he deepened the humanity of it. I mean, when you’ve got an actual tenor and an actual baritone standing there… It works particularly in live performance. A large part of it came across too in the broadcast but when you see these fellows standing in front of you doing this strenuous, impassioned thing called singing, you can believe that they are who the text says they are: a Captain and a Sergeant who have suffered and witnessed terrible things in the trenches of the First World War.
Did you find the process was very different to your usual writing?
Yes, that’s really why I took it on. Colin and I had collaborated before, but the opposite way around: he set one of my children’s books, Alphabicycle Order, which is all nonsense derivations of 26 words running from A-Z. So he knew the text before deciding to make music out of it. On this occasion he took the risk of asking me for something he couldn’t conceive, and for a while he must have been in state of high anxiety – especially as it was a long time before I could even get started on the job; I found it very difficult to find the right tone for those poems. Eventually, a slightly slapstick, music-hall style seemed the one.
I was thinking when I read it of [T.S. Eliot’s] Sweeney Agonistes, and that shares the same music-hall influence: is music hall something that you were previously interested in?
Oh, almost all my poetry has some kind of ‘low art’ force behind it. Yes, I’m fascinated by stand-up comics, particularly the older generation. When I was a child, there was a family living down the road – we became very great friends – and the father of the family was a stand-up comic by profession. He was a fascinating figure to me.
I think one has to be incredibly brave to do stand-up comedy: I can’t think of anything more terrifiying in the realm of entertainment.
Quite right. His son has a very poignant story… There are two sons, both humorous, full of jokes and so on, but they’ve never entered the profession. One of them managed to persuade his father to let him have a go, just the once, standing in for him at a quiet Thursday matinée or something at Butlin’s Holiday Camp. Now Ross, who has great self-confidence by nature, suddenly found it deserted him totally as he stepped in front of the lights and failed to make the audience laugh. Worse, his father was in the audience. The way Ross describes it, it was like a particularly nasty attack of vertigo.
It’s also one of the few professions which seems very, almost completely, meritocratic: you either laugh or you don’t; no one’s going to find you funnier just because you happen to be the heir to an enormous fortune, or the brother of a famous comic.
I think there’s something else happening, which has to do with the wielding of power: you’ve got to take command of the audience. Different comics find their own means of doing it, but you have to tell the audience how to respond to you.
One thing it shares with some kinds of poetry: it seems a lot better if it seems effortless.
Even more than that – if the comic appears to be doing nothing. I’ve seen this happen: I saw Eddie Izzard some years ago at a venue in Kentish Town and it was quite extraordinary. Full house, lots of people, mainly younger than I was, everybody ready to laugh, predisposed. He didn’t need to do a thing: he just had to appear on stage and you could feel everyone relaxing into a chuckle. He hadn’t even opened his mouth, he hadn’t even moved, he had just appeared from the wings and we were already under his spell. That was a magical thing.
I was talking to Hugo Williams about this when I was interviewing him. The popularity of poetry readings, which seems to have exploded; there have always been poetry readings, but not in the numbers that there are now. And I have a feeling that poets are more inclined to try to be funny, because laughter is the only response that’s really obvious; it’s hard to tell if people are bored or moved because all they do is clap at the very end. I sometimes slightly worry that many poets are becoming sort of stand-up comedians and often not very good ones.
I can’t think of any of them that are that funny. Ah, with one exception: I’ve seen Ian McMillan performing and he comes closer to that sort of irresistible mirth-provoking genius than any other poet I can think of; but that aside, your description is dead accurate – it’s neither one thing nor the other, really. An awkward ambivalence seems the order of the day.
Do you think the increase in poetry readings affected the way that you write?
Do you principally write for the page?
I write for the ear. Hearing is primary.
So the visuality of the words of the page is more like a score
Because there are some poets you really have to read on the page – it doesn’t really work otherwise – but for you it’s about the sound?
I think the poem that really flummoxed me in Nonsense, the one I think is closest to nonsense verse, is ‘Academic’.
That comes in the section that I’ve called ‘From a Private Joke Book’; and in each of these cases there’s an element of built-in inaccessibility, which is – I know – naughty of me, but I thought, well, it makes sense to me but it’s going to be nonsense to the reader – that was the rationale.
You explained the story behind one of them, ‘Dr Demon’, at your Dulwich Books reading. [It was a reaction to a hostile review.] While ‘The Ballad of P. BINCE’ is just –
I’ll show you the origin of that if you promise not to tell anyone else!
Okay! Fantastic! …‘high-stepping zebra’. I Iike the ‘high-stepping’ over any other adjective.
Good. Well, you’ll see that and every detail in the poem can be accounted for.
Going back to ‘Academic’, which I think is the most enigmatic….
I don’t mind explaining it at all. For a very short while, about ten years ago, I was poet-in-residence at the University of York, where the campus is built around lakes, so there’s lots of water-fowl there. I was particularly enchanted by the moorhens, which are quite comical birds. They used to come close to the University buildings, the offices and halls of residence, but never so close as to make the automatic doors open. They put me in mind of Jacques Tati and the trouble his characters have with the mechanised modern world. In another way, they made me think of academics. That’s all that’s about.
I also wanted to ask about ‘State of the Art’ [a poem about a designer table ‘on which, of course, lay a big square book (…) celebrating / the very same table’ ]. I can see this table so well in my mind’s eye that I was wondering whether there was a real table that you were envisioning?
No, no. I may have been thinking back to my days at the Crafts Council and the elaborate pieces of furniture that were occasionally put on display in the gallery, and this might have been one of them.
A couple more questions… I was wondering about moonlight. Some of the last section of the book, ‘A Salute to the Moonlight’, naturally has a moonlit quality about it …
It begins with the moon in the early morning and ends at the dead of night. It passes through certain daylight hours.
Is that because of ‘lunatic’ – moon, madness and nonsense?
No, not especially. Some years ago, I produced a little homemade pamphlet of these poems – rather fewer than here, about twelve of them, and I called it ‘A Salute to the Moonlight’, from a line in the final poem. Then, when I came to think of these poems as potentially making a section of the book, I enlarged around them. ‘Neddy and the Night Noises’ wasn’t in the pamphlet but added later. My moon, whom I address in ‘A Bit of a Tune’ and whose light the rabbits salute in ‘Rabbits and Concrete’, is an entirely benign figure.
At the reading at Faber there was some hint you were planning more satires…
Well, I’ve got a new book coming out later this year and it’s called Six Bad Poets, so you can guess what kind of approach it takes.
Can you tell us any more about it?
It’s just a piece of fun.
I look forward to reading it. Great, thank you very much.
You’re welcome. Thank you.
* Tin-Pan Alley: A group of New York music publishers who dominated popular music during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.