‘A stay against confusion': An Interview with Hugo Williams
Hugo Williams is a poet, columnist and travel writer who has gained a loyal following for his plain, sparse yet poignant poems. His parents were the prolific and popular stage and film actor Hugh Williams (Hindley in Wuthering Heights, 1939) and the haute couture model turned actress Margaret Vyner, whom Cole Porter famously added a tribute to in his song, ‘You’re the Top’. His brother Simon Williams followed them on to the stage and screen. This rather unconventional family is often, along with the perennial topic of women, a focus of his poetry.
After winning an Eric Gregory Award in 1966, a Cholmondeley Award in 1971, publishing two travel diaries and working for the London Magazine, Punch and the New Statesman, he has become a familiar and well-regarded name in the literary world. This only increased in 1988, when he began his column for the TLS, which quickly became a popular staple in the publication. In 1999, he garnered admiration – as well as some notoriety in the Daily Mail – when he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Billy’s Rain, a series of fifty poems, which traces a long adulterous love affair from beginning to end.
His Collected Poems came out in 2002 but there was no sign of winding down his output: in 2006 he published Dear Room, which was again shortlisted for the Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize. The following book, West End Final, includes poems that both continue and yet mock his autobiographical output. The centrepiece however is the rather curious ‘A Pillow Book’, which comprises twelve different poems on the same subject: a man watching a woman undress.
Since he began having kidney problems, he has added the experience of undergoing dialysis to his poetic subjects and published a page of poems entitled ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ in the LRB. The title poem of his most recent publication, I Knew the Bride (April 2014) is a tribute to his sister Polly Williams, who died of cancer in 2004. The poem teases out the melancholy core in the lyrics of the Nick Lowe song from which it takes its name: ‘I Knew the Bride (when she used to rock ‘n’ roll)’ and is characteristic of the subdued and nostalgic tone of the collection.
(Note: This interview was conducted in December 2012 but publication was delayed due to unforeseeable circumstances.)
Hugo Williams’ Islington home is less a house and more a growing record of his life. It is colourful and has a look of comforting chaos: posters and prints line the walls and books pile up precariously in many corners. The nerve centre of the house is clearly his study, which houses most of his poetry books and music collection: the twin loves of his life. We seat ourselves there for the interview.
Hugo is chatty with the charming habit of never seeming completely serious – except that is, when you get him on the subject of music: he listens to anything from Chuck Berry to The Strokes and beyond. At one point he starts playing me songs on his record player and shouts his enthusiasm over them. In fact after this interview, we stay up till around 3am, drinking, smoking and probably annoying the neighbours with loud music. Clearly, he is not quite your typical seventy-year-old.
The only matter in which he conspicuously seems to refuse to move with the times is technology. He does not own a computer, let alone have any idea what to do with the internet. He admires my computer, saying it has a lovely big screen. ‘It hasn’t got a printer inside has it?’ he asks. I tell him no, though it will print if you connect it to one. ‘Well what’s the use of that?’ he grins. ‘I’ll buy one when it has a printer so that the paper comes out at the bottom.’ He pats his typewriter on which he still types up every poem and every column. I wonder to myself how far I would get if I insisted on writing up every review for the TLS on a typewriter and sending it via fax.
Interview by Kit Toda.
You have a famous column [‘Freelance’] in the TLS, but did you ever do other journalism?
Yes – only criticism though. I did TV reviews for about eight years for the New Statesman and then I did theatre for two years on a Sunday newspaper called The Sunday Correspondent. I did some pop music stuff for Punch and films for Queen magazine. Terrible, really, my life has been poured down this journalism!
It takes me about four days to do these freelance pieces and I continue to do them but the material’s getting thinner and thinner. Most of them I’ve done at least twice before using different words.
I remember at the Eliot Prize readings you were talking about the Pillow Book and you said something great about how you had written one poem about a woman undressing and then wrote it again, eleven more times, just using different words.
Did I? You have a good memory. That’s exactly what it is. I suddenly thought that it would be interesting to write the same poem in different words. They’re all a bit different of course, and they get more and more different. It was a question of laying them all on the floor and finding a good order. Generally speaking what I do in cases like that with poems is to start off okay, fairly content and happy, go through a terrible patch, and then get gradually worse until the end, when despair sets in. That’s what the ‘Pillow Book’ is really. I could have started at the other end though or I could have jumbled them up.
That would have a different interest to it…
Yes, a different interest. I try to make a story. That’s my failing: trying to make a story out of these different books of poems. I always do that – try to find a narrative of some kind to make a book go.
Quite a lot of your books are roughly chronological aren’t they?
Yes they are, exactly that, from youth to age, and then back to youth again for the next book, and so on. God! What fun!
You once said you ‘can’t write outside Islington, let alone in a different country’-
No, no –
You were being flippant, I think.
Yes, I think so. I have to live here [in Islington] so this is where I write. I mean look at this room. It’s like an extension of nerve ends!
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the importance of place in your poetry?
The importance of place, right. Well it gives it a background. If the setting is clear, it allows you to make more jumps within the poem, to take more risks and possibly create more excitement. For example, if you’re writing a poem about a swimming pool, it would help tremendously if you just called it ‘At the Swimming Pool’ because then you could take all kinds of liberties and associations with the description without talking about pools or swimming.
That’s why male/female relations are so useful in poetry. Readers have a vague idea what you’re talking about, so you can play around with the story. Place is like that. Place is the same as plot, in a sense. But you probably mean ‘London’ or something like that, do you?
You’re always trying to find a common language, a beauty in colloquial stuff. That’s what it’s all about really, from Wordsworth onwards. That’s the great thrill, making the ordinary poetic.
No, I was just wondering in general.
There was quite a lot of stuff involving school but I’m done with that now. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
You had a whole book about it didn’t you.
Yes, lots of poems about school.
One gets quite a mixed impression from your poetry – did you enjoy school? Did you enjoy Eton?
I think I enjoyed Eton. I don’t think I enjoyed my prep school very much. At Eton at least I had a room of my own. So I could be solitary if I wanted. It was run like a little university. You have a lot of essays to write in your little room and you have plenty of privacy.
And you have houses like colleges, don’t you?
Yes, exactly. It’s like a university for juveniles. And then there’s the beauty of the place. Walking by the river…going to the record shop. I discovered rock’n’roll at Eton – that was a great thing for me. And I had a girlfriend at a girl’s school far away. I used to spend all my time writing to her.
She turned out to be very influential because her stepfather, Alan Ross, was to become the editor of The London Magazine and give me my first job. He looked at my poems and encouraged me. Oh yes, life has been a struggle!
Many potted biographies of you mention your bohemian upper-class upbringing, your unconventional marriage and the affair that was the subject of Billy’s Rain. Of course that’s partly because you write about these things but also bohemianism and class seem to interest the reader – or at least, the journalist – and certainly your poetry has been called ‘autobiographical’, even ‘confessional’. I’m thinking now of ‘West End Twilight’…
Oh God, yes. That was copied out of some article about me.
Yes, by Nicholas de Jongh I think it was. I had to fix it actually and I didn’t acknowledge him in the end because it was so perverted from the original.
I was going to say – that poem isn’t even just autobiographical; it’s about autobiographical poetry. It’s about itself isn’t it?
Yes. I once said to Karl Miller, “Sorry about all those ‘I’s everywhere.” And he said, “Don’t be stupid, it’s poetry isn’t it?” You need material for poetry and the material is where you look for the poem. It’s the raw material which you collaborate with, rather than use to express something. I don’t know what was going on in my past but I’m interested to find out.
It’s all to amuse myself, divert myself and amaze myself. So you need the material. Anything will do – a holiday, a love affair, a childhood, a school punishment. Anything that you can look at which will lead to something going on, which people can recognize before you start. Then you start and if you can make something of it, which is fresh and new to you, then you’re doing well.
Do you think the reader can gain more from your poetry if they know about your life or do you think it doesn’t matter?
Well I don’t think they do know about my life except what I tell them in the poems really, a lot of which should be in the title, as I said before. The title should do a lot of the hard work really. It’s the prose, pack-horse element. I thought there was something interesting in writing about an actor. My father being an actor seemed to give him other dimensions of falseness and of performance in his life, which he taught us. That was useful from my point of view for poetry because poetry is often about the way things look rather than the way they are. You can’t really say how things really are. You can only say how they look. Appearances have depth.
‘Three white leopards sat under a juniper tree…’ It’s so good, that it doesn’t really matter does it, what it means so long as it takes your brain. They all learnt so much from Oriental poetry at the time.
Yes, Imagism of course…
Yes, Imagism. But metaphor seems to be altogether a different thing in Japanese poetry. It’s a sort of vulgarity to have metaphors: ‘As if one thing could be like another! How common! How vulgar! What a terrible idea! As if a temple bell could be anything more than itself.’ You may think, somewhere deep in your heart, that it’s a voice. But the poet would never dream of saying that. He would only say ‘the temple bell’ and the mountains would be the world. But you wouldn’t say that it’s like something because, in a way, ‘poetry’ is another word for ‘metaphor’. They’re all metaphors in themselves. You don’t start putting metaphors into metaphors. I have that in the background of my mind: that a thing is not metaphorical. That it is just itself.
Neil Rennie taught me all that stuff about lines being more important than meaning. William Carlos Williams said that ‘meaning constantly undermines a poem’. I think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard about poetry.
I see. Your poetry is very plain isn’t it?
Yes, I try to keep it plain, like Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. Frost defines poetry as ‘a stay against confusion’, ‘a momentary stay against confusion’.
Going back to biography – again – sorry! These questions will end! Obviously I don’t mean this in a snide way – I mean exactly what I say – but do you think readers care about your life or just life in general?
I have a small readership and I think they like poetry. They care about poetry. After all there are many books about people with much more interesting lives than mine. If they wanted to hear about an interesting life, they’ll go and read a biography.
I do a bit of autobiography I suppose in the TLS column. It’s a bit different, you have to take note of time, of chronology, and make points in an article. It has to have thought. A poem doesn’t have to have thought – the thought’s provided by the reader.
Whether a poem comes out or not is a beautiful thing – it’s so much a matter of chance. It can just turn into a thing that passes the time. Or you can get some wayward element in it which lifts it above the normal.
I’ve never really discovered any subject besides what I am and know. It’s almost like I just lack the novelist’s ability to make stuff up. But it’s all used for the same thing; it’s all used for this investigation.
You’ve often also – jokingly I think – accused yourself of narcissism. And you’ve talked about how it’s the besetting sin of your family and that is why you also always write about yourself…
You’ve put your finger on it, yes!
I think you’re being a bit unfair on yourself though, in that you’re not usually self-congratulatory in your poems…
I’m not, no. I suppose I’m only really interested in the lines and the dynamic of the poem itself and how the lines break. That’s what uses up the time. Believe me, God! That’s why it’s hard having a job if you’re a poet because it’s such a time-consuming occupation. It’s an excellent hobby but it is time-consuming.
Anyway, the autobiography thing is taking a slightly more purposeful air at the moment with the poems about dialysis that I’m currently doing. I’ve done about fifteen. They’re sort of docu-poems that use all the information on the technical side of things, and the experience of dialysis — which is pretty strong — to make poems. Not one long poem but short ones, fairly lyrical. Descriptive. Stories of the process. Dialysis is so physical and so vivid. There’s so much going on. It takes about a year to get used to it. I’m just about used to it. Did you know I was on dialysis?
Yes, I had read about it.
(starts laughing) Well, yes, I have only got about six columns out of it so far! The dialysis thing is something a bit outside of myself in a way. It’s outside of my previous life. A new experience. Rather than just family, actors and school and all that. It’s the same technique because of course it’s my experience but the vocabulary is completely fresh.
I’d like to ask you a bit about the performative aspects of poetry. You gesture towards your views on the similarities between poetry and acting in ‘Heavy Father’ [‘How to play anything/ from dainty blackmailer to ruined politician/ without his assumed character/ affecting his performance in any way/ was a trick he passed down to me.’] I was wondering if you could talk to me a bit about poetry and performance and the relationship between the two?
The trajectory of poetry since I started writing has been very much from the page to the stage anyway. When I started publishing poetry I don’t think there were many readings. Unless there was a famous poet in town, Voznesensky or Yevtushenko or someone, then he got a reading but it was not for everybody.
My first reading was for my third book. And that was very much a collar and tie job. Waiting backstage in The Greyhound down in South London somewhere, rather shivering in my boots, waiting with a load of other people to go on stage and read their poems, straight from the page. So that was my early experience of poetry readings.
But then time goes by and readings become more and more common. Everybody, not only poets, do readings now. What you’re judged by in these things is a) the introduction to the poems and b) the laughs. What goes on in the poems — that goes too quickly to make much of an impression. The laugh is the only thing that a poet can hear. Comedy has more and more importance in modern poetry – the idea of being amusing.
The other thing that’s happened as an influence of this read-out-loud poetry is that poems are more linear now. When they’re on the page still, you could read the third verse several times or something. They were outside time. Once they’re in time, you’re left with the ending, so the ending has an overpowering importance to the rest of the poem. It’s as if they’re printed on a barrel, disappearing over the horizon, til you’re left with just the ending.
Did you find the gradual change in recent years towards poetry becoming a more oral form quite easy to navigate because of your background and your interest in performance?
Yes, all these steps of poetry are usually down – from the high to the low in terms of colloquial language. You’re always trying to find a common language, a beauty in colloquial stuff. That’s what it’s all about really, from Wordsworth onwards. That’s the great thrill, making the ordinary poetic. I’m not at all interested in making poetic stuff into poems.
There are two different kinds of poems. There’s the representative form and then there’s the abstract. They’re two completely different art forms as far as I’m concerned. They’re both fascinating, both of them. Sometimes, I don’t think that readers can always distinguish between the two in my work though to me they’re completely different. There are six abstract poems in my new book. I got very excited about them and showed one to a friend, saying ‘What do you think of my new style?’ He read the poem and said, ‘It’s exactly like your old style.’
Can you give me an example in your works of one and the other?
Oh it’s probably ill-advised but… ‘Speech Day’ is one of the open form ones. I’ve been doing them more recently. I expect it comes from senility, which is a new subject for me. It allows your mind to form new connections or non-sequiturs.
What about ‘Eucalyptus’ [from LRB 5 July 2012]?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. That’s one of them. I’ve been working on it again today.
Oh, really? I really like the bit about falling back in bed and deciding not to do anything. That’s the bit I particularly remember from it.
Ah, yes! I thought you were going to say the bit about the Eucalyptus leaves. But the bit about the bed – that’s the centre of it really.
What worries me about the poem is the neatness of the sentences versus the chaos of the thought. When I read Gottfried Benn, he manages to make the chaos of the thoughts echo in the chaos of the syntax, which is really more interesting for me. I want to try that. I’m sometimes aware of this patrician diction going on in the face of chaos. Which I suppose can give rise to comedy.
The disjunction itself can be quite interesting though?
Ye-es but if you use the same old sentence structures, the perfect grammar, in the face of disintegration…
Stiff upper lip?
Yes, all the left-hand margins…the most ridiculous thing [about ‘Eucalyptus’] is that the verses are all the same length! I mean, how did that happen?! It happened through a huge effort, which is perhaps not to my advantage. No-one cares about verses being the same length. It has a very minimal aesthetic appeal.
Unless they rhyme.
Yes, unless they rhyme. It’s the ghost of rhyme isn’t it, the stanza. Rhyme is a bit mysterious. That Kathleen Jamie poem ‘Hawk and Shadow’ has some wonderful rhymes. I’ve just written her a fan letter. It’s so depressing when sometimes one comes across a poem that’s so transcendent like that. It makes all the workaday stuff seem pointless. But you have to plough through those to get something worthwhile. That’s why quantity in poetry in so important. You have to churn the stuff out to get something worthwhile.
You’ve said that you write poetry by hand and on a typewriter and then you often cut up the lines and shuffle them around. Is that your method for all your poems? Are there poems you haven’t revised like that?
I have a desktop! […] It takes five columns, five pages of typewriter. That is a 1000 words – it’s exactly what I need. I never have to worry about the length because it’s just the top of my desk
Some poems have just come out, but usually not. Even ones that do, there are usually some verses in the middle which I cut out.
Neil Rennie taught me all that stuff about lines being more important than meaning. William Carlos Williams said that ‘meaning constantly undermines a poem’. I think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard about poetry. Just like symbolism is the great danger of something like conceptual art.
I know that – as we discussed earlier – you’re influenced by the idea that poetry has become a more oral/aural form…
That’s just one line of thought. I try to keep that sort of thing at bay. I’m certainly now trying to go for a more ‘outside time’ kind of approach. Less narrative. Certainly less of that putting-a-little-joke-at-the-end thing to get a laugh. I’m through with that, I hope forever. There’s just a few poems of that kind in this book.
I was just wondering though because the cutting-things-up process seems a more visual thing. It’s not so aural…
No, no it is though. They’ll be put in aural blocks. Some lines will be stuck together because they sound good together. They’ll be moved around while staying together. You might have five of these little paragraphs, which will be together but I can’t work out which order they should go in. It’s like the ‘Pillow Book’ – the order is everything. You look for a dynamic by moving these units around. I recommend it for prose too, make the first draft and then cut it all up into paragraphs that can be moved around.
Yes I sometimes do that – move things around on the computer.
See I have a desktop! (Pats his wooden desk) It takes five columns, five pages of typewriter. That is a 1000 words – it’s exactly what I need. I never have to worry about the length because it’s just the top of my desk.
You’ve won or been nominated for a great number of poetry awards: the Eric Gregory at the beginning of your career, the Cholmondeley, the Geoffrey Faber, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize. You mentioned once that the Eliot Prize and the Queen’s gold medal were ‘major turnarounds’ for your ‘happiness quotient’ and that it made a great difference to your life and career. Could you tell us a bit more about that and how – in what ways – the difference manifested itself?
Gosh. Well I think that might have been exaggeration. Some of these things were quite spur of the moment. I suppose it helps a bit when you’re feeling down. You’ve got this badge and you can look at it and think it’s a lump of reality – maybe there’s something in it! But then your brain starts denigrating it.
So what do you think about renown?
Well…I’m seventy. It’s a bit late.
Do you ever worry about posterity then?
So you don’t really care?
Well it’s a ludicrous attitude isn’t it, as you won’t be there. I must have a logical streak in me, I suppose.
Yes although I know it’s not logical because I wouldn’t be there but I would be upset now at the thought that people might think badly of me. If I went down in history as some sort of awful person…
Oh well yes, I suppose I wouldn’t dismiss it completely. In one kind of mood, one does care. But basically it’s not profitable to think of it like that so you might as well try to get on with the job in hand. And it is the only enjoyable thing, working.
I don’t know if you’re melancholic, but I am and poetry takes care of that. Every sentence imparts rational sense; it helps to make sense of the world and it’s a mesh against depression. When I was about fifteen, I must have noticed I didn’t feel quite so bad, when I was writing. So that’s how it got out of hand. Absolutely self-therapy: ‘A stay against confusion’.
It is definitely a way of life – which is also slightly a way of death. Because it is a bit anti-life, poetry. You can’t really do it properly unless you deny all kinds of other things to do with making money and having a good time. I do have a certain desire to get out of it sometimes. No – I don’t!
What’s the longest break – or block – you’ve had?
No, none really. A few months, something like that. But this dialysis thing has been a blow. It really has ruined everything; it’s absolutely ghastly— headaches, itches, nausea, insomnia, sleeping during the day and you shuffle along like an old man. Poetry has saved my life.