David Morley coming to Thame Arts & Literature Festival
David Morley answered our questions from his holiday destination…a volcano
Firstly, what are you doing on a volcano!?
I am taking a holiday for the first time in two years. I needed a calm place to think and a volcano was just the place to set up camp for a while. I am looking forward to coming to Thame for a new change of pace.
You do an awful lot of stuff! What do you regard as your main job?
I am a writer and a teacher. I did not set out to be a teacher but everything I do – writing, ecology, travelling – is channelled through my teaching. I have recently been Head of the English Department at Warwick University. Warwick English is the top department for research in the UK, and a very big ship to captain – one thousand brilliant students and staff to look after – so that was quite a demanding job. I enjoyed it very much, especially being able to make the environment for teaching even better for students although I didn’t like not being able to teach while leading my department.
I always remember the scene in Dead Poets Society where they rip out the page of the poetry book that tells you how to judge a poem! You’ve been an official judge of poetry in the past…how do you go about deciding how good a poem is?
The biggest competitions I’ve judged recently are the Foyle Prize for Young Poets and the TS Eliot Prize. The first of these attracted 27,000 poems by children and young adults from 99 countries. The TS Eliot competition is about choosing the best poetry collection of the year. I read attentively as I know how much people have invested in writing those poems and that every word counts – there is a huge amount of invisible graft in the making of a good poem. I was listening for something alive in the poetry. I was not looking for great literature as such. I am not knocking literature here. That would be hypocritical of someone who is Head of an English Department at Warwick University! I am suspicious however of a poem that has a palpable design on a reader, a poem that tries to flatter the reader, or wants to much to be liked for literary reasons. Instead, I am always looking to be surprised by language and image and even tone. I don’t mind being roughened up by a poem, just as I don’t like being smooth-talked by a poem or a poet.
I’ve been reading through The Invisible Gift which I believe you’ll be performing from at Thame Arts and Literature Festival – would you describe it as a sort of ‘Best of’ collection?
It’s a Selected Poems but I’ve rewritten a lot of poems, and thrown in a few new ones. I have been extremely brutal with myself and have ‘murdered my darlings’ – i.e. cut out poems that were trying too hard to be lovely in one way or another. I am learning to perform my poems by heart.
Do you perform ‘Three’? If so is it difficult to do so because it’s quite harrowing and brutal?
That’s one of the new poems that did not appear in a previous collection. I could read it in performance but I would worry about the effect on audience members, especially if any of them had experienced child abuse first-hand. It was important to write that poem though. Not all poems are true, and many benefit by being re-arrangements of truth, by being fiction – but that poem is unfortunately all too true.
There’s a variety of forms in The Invisible Gift; how do you decide what form a poem is going to take?
I love forms. I love the way a form makes you go beyond yourself in what you wish to say. Form is the most liberating of cages. Even the choice of not using a form is a choice of form. Although it’s never really a choice as such, since the content and voice of a poem tends to give you, or lend you, the form.
Do you approach a poetry reading differently to giving a lecture to a group of university students?
Both are forms of performance art for me. I always think of readings as performances; and when I am asked to lecture I do the same.
‘The Invisible Gift’ is also a poem in The Invisible Gift collection; why did you choose that poem to title the whole collection?
Because it is as vulnerable as it is tough, and as simple as it is complex, and also because it carries an enormous weight quite lightly and without seeming to strain. The best poems need to bear the weight of their truth by dancing, or even by singing. The closing words of that poem sum up the writing of poems: ‘and all / the hungers of the world to come for this small singing’.
David Morley comes to Thame Players Theatre on 18 October at 4:00pm
Image - Credit: Jemimah Kuhfeld