The dead, complicated— a chat with Paul Farley

Art & Lit Literature

Paul Farley is no stranger to literary acclaim. His last collection, The Dark Film, saw him shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, and his eighteen-year career has spanned multiple award-winning collections, as well as extensive work in broadcasting and prose writing. I was lucky enough to get to ask him a few questions about poetry, swearing, and how new technology influences his work.

You first started writing poetry in 1998– what spurred you to start writing poetry in the first place? How has the landscape changed between then and now?

My first book came out in 1998 but I’d been writing for a long while before then. I always had done, but I also painted and drew a lot, which I think must have masked or suppressed my writing, mostly from myself. I didn’t go at it in the same way as I did making art. But it was there, a kind of scribbling in the background; I just didn’t take it seriously, or took other things too seriously. I stopped painting because I couldn’t really afford to keep it up, which was a huge regret – haven’t picked up a pencil since – but the writing took over. Maybe my energies were diverted, or refocused. I was in my mid-twenties by then.

The landscape? I think I caught the tail end of an older publishing world, an older kind of poetry world I guess. I met people who’d known Plath and MacNeice and Larkin, but also a lot of younger writers like myself. It felt like a very vital, transitional time, and it was all very new to me. Maybe it always feels like this, whatever the stop you get on at. Today feels pretty interesting.

Your last poetry collection was The Dark Film– what ideas did you want to explore with this collection?

Being a one-poem-at-a-time kind of writer, I tend to only get a sense of what’s on my mind when I look back at work in the round, as reflection. There’s usually some recurring themes or preoccupations that come into focus. Even just at the level of image or metaphor: like, you’ll discover light bulbs or the word ‘sump’ occurring in several poems.

One of the themes of The Dark Film is technology, new and old– how do you feel poetry should respond to new technology and digital media?

I remember saying somewhere that I liked the idea of poetry keeping up, and I still do. Mind you, you shouldn’t feel compelled to respond to anything you don’t feel excited or mystified by, although saying that I have written a couple of things recently that you could say fall into the pulse-quickening sub-genre of ‘consumer electronics verse.’ Isn’t the real excitement that poetry inheres in time, playing its long game, and yet we’re living our lives during a moment of rapid technological change and acceleration? We’re losing touch with the hands-on world even as more of the world is becoming instantly available to us. Ways of seeing or remembering the world become extinct, new platforms come online. It’s bewildering and exciting – but we still write about love, the soul, who we are, time, where we call home. And the subject of death will continue to get poets out of bed in the morning.

Who do you consider your main poetic influences? Who are your favourite modern poets?

I think you have to have that kind of book-by-the-side-of-the-bed, intimate relationship with poems in order to address yourself to writing one of your own. I say ‘fall in love with a poem’ to students, and feel like a sentimental idiot, but I still believe it. There are poems that provoke, or get under your skin and onto your tongue. You absorb them, and they absorb you. But you can admire from a distance, too. There are plenty of poets who work in a way I can’t imagine, and I like them all the more for doing things I couldn’t do. Influence is dead complicated. It’s the dead, complicated! And our contemporaries, the people writing around us, influence us in all kinds of unpredictable ways. You know that thing Auden said about your peers’ work raising your own game? They might squeeze a few secretions from the envy gland, but they do you a favour, too.

If you want names… Michael Longley’s The Stairwell and Liz Berry’s Black Country: old and young, two very recent books I’ve been enjoying.

As well as poetry, you’ve also done a great deal of prose writing, as well as extensive broadcasting work. How do they all compare? In what ways do you adapt your approach to each area?

They’re different engagements, different slants to the world and the imagination, different ways of moving in language. It’s like taking up different physical positions. The sprinter vs long distance runner analogy for poetry and prose rings true. Though I’ve found that when I write prose, after a while I want to run in the opposite direction from it. The American poet Kay Ryan once said something about how reading a really abstruse critical or theoretical essay gets her right in the mood for writing a lyric. I know exactly what she means.

Of all your works, which are you the most proud of, and why?

Sometime in the late 1970s I wrote a sweary poem in school about the Cold War – and got into trouble for it, was sent to see the Head of English, and so on. I think that put an idea in my head, and even though it took me years to figure out what it was, I’m glad I wrote that poem, which is now thankfully lost.


PHOTO/ Jemimah Kuhfeld