Category: poetry

Meeting Matthew and Michael: the Faber Poetry Podcast

Poets Matthew and Michael Dickman

First time interviewing two poets at the same time; first time interviewing twins; first time interviewing identical twins; first time interviewing identical twin poets; first time interviewing two contributors to a tête-bêche (top-to-toe) edition, writing on the same theme – the death of their older brother – but in very different styles.

Matthew and Michael Dickman tactfully made my task much easier by periodically referring to each other by name, thereby making it clear to the listener who was talking.

Poets Matthew and Michael Dickman

Matthew (left) and Michael (right) at Faber offices, watched over by TS Eliot

David Harsent on his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Fire Songs

David HarsentOne of the most enjoyable interviews I recorded last year was with poet David Harsent. I’ve long been an admirer of David’s work; since I first encountered in the early 1990s, in fact, when David was on the long-departed Oxford Poets list and I was the junior editor, whose duties were mainly putting things in envelopes. Around the same time, I saw a TV production of Birtwistle’s Gawain, for which David wrote the libretto, which also made a deep impression on me. So I was delighted by the news a couple of weeks ago that David had won this year’s T.S. Eliot prize for his latest collection, Fire Songs.

Click on the link above to listen to the first part of our conversation. Here’s what I said about the book in the introduction to the podcast:

Reviewing his previous collection, Night, in the Independent, Fiona Sampson said: ‘Truly significant poets write like no one else, and David Harsent is both sui generis and unsurpassed.’ If anything, I would say that this new collection attains even greater heights – heights of linguistic concentration, haunting imagery – by turn dreamlike and nightmarish – thematic complexity in the interweaving of the book’s recurring preoccupations, and sheer visceral power.

In recent years, we have grown increasingly familiar with the destructive force of water, the nightmare of a world slowly drowning more common than an overheating world consumed by flames. But, although water and fire sometimes coexist in this book, it is the power of the latter which runs insistently through it: Fires manmade and natural; fires that erase and destroy and transform.

If fire is inescapable, the recurrent figure of the rat in Fire Songs is ineradicable  – ‘survivor of fire and flood’, as Harsent says. It’s a creature that occupies the margin of our dreams, and emerges unscathed after the apocalypse with designs on inheriting the earth.

Harsent writes:

 Rapacious like us prolific like us omnivorous like us prodigal like us

            Unremitting like us like us a killer of its own kind

In this first part of the interview, we talk about fire, war and its aftermath, and the rat. In the second part, we go on to discuss three poems David wrote in response to his experience of living with tinnitus, and conclude with a discussion of religion – in particular the disquieting figure of the Trickster Christ – and a complete reading of the first of the Fire Songs.

Graham Johnson on Schubert (I)

“Schubert had a response to words that is quite extraordinary. It’s the way that the interaction between words and music – which in a sense gives the song its own life – takes place that interests me. Josef von Spaun once wrote very perspicaciously that Schubert writes a poem on the poem, [by which he means that] the song is a commentary on the poem. And how and why it is a commentary in detail is what really interests me.”

– Graham Johnson

Schubert Complete Songs Yale

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with pianist Graham Johnson earlier this year and had the opportunity to talk to him about his abiding love for Schubert, the art of accompanying Lieder singers, and how he has managed to develop as a writer, while at the same time holding down the day job at the piano keyboard. The result is an in-depth, two-part portrait of the artist, the first part of which is above. Part two is coming shortly.

Here’s an extract from my introduction to this podcast:

“Graham Johnson was born in 1950 in what was then Rhodesia. He came to this country in the late sixties to pursue his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the city which has remained his home. In the mid-seventies, he formed The Songmakers’ Almanac to explore neglected areas of piano-accompanied vocal music. Before long he had developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest vocal accompanists, and although he has a deep knowledge of the English and French art song traditions, and has recorded and published on both, it is with German Lieder and in particular the music of Franz Schubert that he is most closely associated.

In this first part of our interview, we talk about Graham’s early encounters with Schubert and the German language; his association with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears; his decision to specialise in accompanying vocal music, and becoming a writer under the mentorship of Eric Sams.”

You’ll find more information about the Schubert companion on the Yale University Press site here. And more about Graham’s Schubert Lieder cycle on the Hyperion site here.

Graham Johnson at home

Graham Johnson at home, May 2014



Books of the Decade – Luke Brown

Luke BrownAlthough we are now in a new decade, we haven’t yet reached Chinese new year. I am taking comfort from this fact, since  I am still putting up Books of the (past) Decade choices. And of course the books that were worth reading in 2009 are still worth reading in 2010.

Enough self-exculpation. I promise that if you contributed to the series, your contribution is greatly appreciated and will appear on the site before long. Today’s guest chooser is Luke Brown.

Luke Brown is an editor at Tindal Street Press, where he’s worked since 2002, publishing such authors as Catherine O’Flynn and Anthony Cartwright. He was born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, and has lived in Birmingham for over a decade.

Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley (2002)

Gwendoline Riley“This is a dive-bar in the American style.” Carmel narrates a barmaid’s life of “wild disingenuousness” in some of the most beautiful, poetic prose I’ve read. Surrounded by romantics and fantasists, afflicted by a painful childhood and endless Manchester drizzle, she keeps herself together with superbly poised wit and her openness to the magic of friendships and love.

Short, melancholy and with descriptions that make you want to stand up and applaud, this is as perfect a novel as I’ve read.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998 in Spanish, translated by Natasha Wimmer 2007)

Bolano Savage DetectivesEveryone talks about 2666, but my favourite is The Savage Detectives. It’s a long, polyphonic novel bookended by a virtuoso first-person from Madero, a cocky, seventeen-year-old student poet, who challenges his teacher with questions like “what is a rispetto?” in between describing multi-orgasmic sex with various girlfriends. The first section’s very funny.

Between his two sections, the novel tells the story of Madero’s two poet-heroes, the fathers of ‘visceral realism’, from something like fifty different characters’ voices, over thirty years in Mexico City and in their wanderings of the globe. It’s frequently absurd and often as sad as can be, with superb set-pieces; the overall effect is exhilarating.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (2008)

Barlow Sharp TeethA novel about warring werewolf gangs in LA written in blank verse? I was suspicious, but it’s incredible. The verse works perfectly – quick to read, imagistic and hard-boiled, it flicks quickly between the perspectives of Barlow’s ensemble cast. There’s a noirish comic-book feel to it, but it’s serious too – about power, belonging, love and death. I didn’t think twice about the verse or the fact that many of its characters were werewolves – it’s very moving. I read it at a whacking great pace, completely enthralled by the plot. The novel that most surprised me this decade.

Books of the Decade – Andrew Kahn

Andrew KahnAndrew Kahn is University Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford in Russian and Classics. His scholarly research draws on his wide-ranging interests in European literature, most especially Greek, Latin and French.

In addition to writing about Pushkin, whom he talked about on Podularity in programme 21, “In Pushkin’s Library”, he works on Enlightenment literature in Russia and Europe, on the history of ideas, the comparative reception of European culture in Russia, travel writing, the history of translation, and twentieth-century poetry.

Here are Andrew’s three favourite books from the last decade:

Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (2009)

Herbert Collected PoemsThe contemporary of Milosz, and somewhat overshadowed by him in the West, Herbert seen in the unity of his poetic creation is one of the most biting and elegant ironists of the twentieth century.  His alter ego, Pan Cogito, ranks with Kafka’s K. as a haunting witness to oppressive systems.  Yet many poems convey Herbert’s acute visual imagination and his flair for dramatic monologue.  A great classic of modern poetry.

Edward Said,  Music at the Limits (2008)

Edward Said Music at the LimitsThis collection of Said’s essays on music and performance shows him at his lucid, elegant best.  A masterful close reader of texts, he is also a close listener who has the rare gift of explaining the ideas of music and music of ideas in words.  The essay comparing Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Magic Flute is a particular revelation, but every page here has fine observations on classical music from the classical period to the post-modern age.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle  (2009)

Solzhenitsyn In the First CircleThe publication in English for the first time of this complete, restored version of Solzhenitsyn’s literary masterpiece is an event.  A novel in the grand tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, packed with ideas and an epic cast of characters, it is also a political thriller.  The chapters on Stalin must rank as one of the greatest and most chilling studies in the mentality of tyranny.

Books of the Decade – Elizabeth Speller

Whoosh! There goes the first decade of the no-longer-quite-so-new millennium.  To mark the decade’s end, we’re launching a new series in which writers, editors and publishers are given the agonizing challenge of choosing just three favourite books from the more than two million published in English in the past ten years.

Over the next few weeks you’ll be able to read the choices of a host of guest reviewers and, we hope, make some interesting new discoveries. And of course we’d be delighted to hear about your favourite books of the decade too. You can use the comment form on this site or else send me an email at george[at]

Elizabeth SpellerI’m delighted that the first guest to make her selection is Elizabeth Speller. Elizabeth has already won acclaim for her poetry – her poem “Finistère” was short-listed for the 2009 Forward Prize – and for her family memoir (2006), Sunlight on the Garden. Of this book a TLS reviewer said: “There are echoes … of Sylvia Plath’s ability to combine beauty with irony, and suffering with comedy.”

Return of Captain John Emmett

She is a classicist by training and her book Following Hadrian (2002) took her on a second-century journey through the Roman empire on the trail of the melancholy, ruthless Roman emperor.

In March 2010, she will publish her first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, set in the years after the First World War.

To find out which books Elizabeth has chosen, click below.
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The cat and the cockroach

Jan ZalasiewiczI have begun asking my interviewees to recommend a book which is a particular favourite of theirs.

First up is Jan Zalasiewicz, who appeared in programme 34, “After We’ve Gone”, talking about his book, The Earth after Us. Here is his book choice:

When one digs for a living amid the rubble of deep geological time, then it’s a nice to ponder on other transmogrifications of time.  Or transmoggiefications, perhaps.  Of forgotten heroines, I have a soft spot for one of the feline world:  Mehitabel, that New York cat sure that she was Cleopatra reincarnated.

Archie and MehitabelHer exploits (mostly scandalous) were recounted by her comrade in spirit, if not in zoological affinity – Archy the cockroach.  This six-legged wit, philosopher and raconteur wrote by leaping from the top of the frame of an old-fashioned typewriter to strike, one by one, its keys with his head.

The hard-won biographical fragments, in free verse, were collected each morning by one Don Marquis and passed on to the astonished publishers (quite who trousered the royalties is unclear).   In these troubled and changing times, Mehitabel’s spirit can cheer us all.  It was one day up and the next day down, and always the devil to pay, but she was ever the lady (she insisted), ever the lady.

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis still seems to be in print after all these years, thank goodness.

Jan Zalasiewicz

13. ‘An extended passport application’ – the poetry of Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann
“It’s almost as though my poetry is an extended passport application… It’s an attempt to be naturalized. I think I’ve failed to be naturalized and therefore there is this German residue about things. It’s something I feel haunted by…”

I’m delighted that the first poet to appear on Podularity is Michael Hofmann. I’ve known Michael for several years and greatly admire his work as a translator, but his poetry has been a comparatively recent – and very pleasurable – discovery for me.

George Szirtes, reviewing Michael’s Selected Poems in the Guardian recently, said of his work:

‘A Michael Hofmann poem is now a rare, strange, much valued item. Strange because, at first glance, many of the poems seem no more than frayed notes concerning a mood between depression and despair; but then something in that fraying catches at you, either some odd shift in register, or maybe just a sense that as your eyes are blithely passing over the words suddenly a hole has opened up beneath them and you are falling through the language, into a world of cries.’

Selected PoemsIn the programme we talk about Michael’s relationship with the German and English languages and how he moves between the two; his relationship with his late father, the German novelist, Gert Hofmann, which forms the explicit or implicit subject matter of much of his poetry: ‘these two men meet up to divide the world between them and this is how it goes: my father gets prose in German and I get poetry in English, and we each go away feeling happy’ and his fondness for depicting interiors, which in his poetry appear as ‘one’s exoskeleton, the place where one hangs one’s trophies or displays one’s wounds’.

In the course of the podcast he also reads several pieces from his recently published Selected Poems.