The Interview: Jack Underwood

All this October B O D Y will be publishing British and Irish poetry. We begin with an interview with poet Jack Underwood. Look out for new poems by Jack, forthcoming in October in B O D Y.

B O D Y: Hi Jack, what’s good?

J.U: Sam Riviere’s new collection Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is something I’m really looking forward to, I love roses when they’re past their best, ed. Harry Burke was a recent anthology that caused a lot of excitement. Meanwhile Tender Journal continues doing its good, good things.

What else? I’m finding Heather Christle, Dorothea Lasky and Emily Pettit all very good, The Water Stealer by Maurice Riordan is a collection I’m stilling picking up after about a year. I’ve been reading parts of a novel draft by a very talented young writer called Abigail Andrews, and I also really enjoyed Things to Make and Break, a collection of short stories by May-Lan Tan. The fact my friend Caspar is a now a dad is pretty wonderful. So, yeah it’s good that these people and things are here to save us from all the big big bad.

B O D Y: What was your earliest connection to poetry? Can you remember any specific catalyst that made you start to take poetry seriously as an aspect of your life?

J.U: At school poems were usually positioned as historically embedded objects so there were always dates and names and a social context to get to grips with, which made them seem quite closed. There was a way of reading poems that suggested we wouldn’t be able to do it properly without someone else being there to tell us these crucial facts. Then at college we studied Simon Armitage’s The Dead Sea Poems which I could read on my own and get something from fairly immediately and I think that, along with Ginsberg and Plath, that book made me realise that poetry could also be contemporary, or written in something approaching the language I spoke with (albeit a poemy version of it). It was a fairly sudden shove, and I remember deciding then, at 17, ‘I am going to be a poet’. I might have even said it in my head.

B O D Y: Are there any aspects of your upbringing that you feel were important to becoming a poet, and in more detail, becoming precisely the poet you are now?

J.U: I’m very much against biographical ‘details’ being brought into play when reading or talking about poems. I’m not shy or especially private. I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I was an oversensitive child who wet the bed a lot, or that my neighbour remembers watching me from her window while I deliberately crashed my bike and arranged myself like a dead person alongside it over and over again, but to say that these things are specifically linked to my poems is just way too neat and speculative for me.

I suppose that makes me quite old fashioned, really, because we’re all supposed to be past the dead author now aren’t we, and busy pursuing ‘interest’ and not ‘Truth’ or ‘intention’ in our reading, but I can’t help it – I get furious about it quite often, because talking about the lives of poets, who they had/are having sex with, what mental illness they had/have etc. just seems like a rather unpleasant journalistic way of undermining the effort that goes into writing a poem separate from all that stuff, as an artwork specifically made for the participation of other people. Sometimes I wonder if the obsessive fascination with poets rather than poems is even a kind of willful contempt on the part of criticism, or else a fear of the fact that there’s no right way of reading a poem.

Anyway, I’m not even sure I can say my “upbringing” has officially ended, especially not in poems, and the idea of self-mythologising the “key moments” in my life in those terms feels very immodest, if not funereal. Perhaps I’m being uptight. Am I’m being uptight? OK then:

My dad used to play a game where me or my brother would climb up onto something, like the sofa, or a tree stump, and dad’d say, ‘Jump, I’ll catch you’ and get into a sort of hog-wrestling position and then when we would eventually jump he’d just back away and let us fall. He never caught us and never would catch us. That was the whole point.

B O D Y: There is a complaint that poetry isn’t as funny as it should be at times.
I’ve noticed a lot of humour in your work, in poems like ‘Your horse’ and ‘What do you do?’ Is humour something you strive for? Do you consider yourself to be a witty person?

J.U: Humour is various, and derives from lots of weird unconscious pockets, and you see this very clearly with what people laugh at during readings. Poets always say, “They never laugh at my ‘death like a too-big leather-jacket’ line, but they laugh at my naked, grandfather demanding his wooden clogs be delivered to the hospice, which I always thought was quite sad”.

I hate the idea of the absurd or surreal being regarded as ‘merely’ humourous, as frivolous. We mediate reality with all kinds of associative gloop and strangeness, so it’s not so much of a leap for me to explore feelings of jealousy through the vehicle of my girlfriend’s childhood horse or whatever. I’ll trust any connection that seems to provide a kind of emotional traction. Sometimes you just need to allow yourself a certain skew on things to access something uncomfortable or difficult. I find sourness, cynicism, self-effacement, disgust, outrage and irrational fear all very funny at times, and also very moving, so I think humour is complex. Luke Kennard’s poems are very good at treading this line. Read him.

B O D Y: You recently tweeted some of your ‘poetry tenets’, I’d like to talk about some of them. Let’s begin with ‘In poems, don’t talk like more of a knob than usual. ‘

J.U: I’m slightly reluctant to explain these out, because they’re sort of poetic constructions, these tenets, and I’m not sure they’ll stand up to sober scrutiny.

But I guess with this one I’m just highlighting the pratfalls of deploying your ‘special poem words’. Nothing turns me off more than a phrase like ‘death-mask somnambulant’ or ‘alabaster sky-line’. When you luxuriate over the quality of your language you’re probably compensating for the poor quality of your idea. Or you could say that the more a poet appears to be trying to convince you that something is poetic the less convincing and poetic it ends up sounding or feeling.

B O D Y: You also say ‘A poem is a question and not an answer.’ Can you talk about what you mean by this?

J.U: I think a poem is essentially empathetic because you’re asking a reader for their imaginative participation. If you express ‘the answer’ in your poem you’re breaching the nature of that contract. I mean this in the most open way possible (denotational meaning might be of secondary concern to you) but I think that poems are a means of framing questions and problems (language, death, love, your nephew’s little hands) precisely because these things in life present themselves as problems or questions.

B O D Y: One of your more intriguing poetry tenets states: ‘There is only a bit of craft in art’ – which is an interesting and provocative notion. Can you elaborate on that?

J.U: The word ‘Craft’ contains the letters ‘a’, ‘r’ and ‘t’ so it’s just a lame visual pun if you didn’t spot that, but I also feel there exists a very wanky fetishism of ‘craftedness’ in poetry, which reminds me of the worst excesses of progressive rock. I quite like guitar solos and admit that virtuosity can be thrilling, but when ‘quality’ in poems is positioned as being synonymous with the prioritization of certain stylistic features that casually seem to enforce at the same time the priorities of a largely male, white, hetero Tradition, then I find it problematic. I think a casual idea of poetic ‘craft’ points dangerously towards a narrowed view of ‘quality’. We should remember that every single word has a ‘form’, has a sound-shape that rubs up against our own unique associations with a miraculous productivity, and so every sentence is a ‘formally crafted’ masterpiece in a way.

Some people like the idea of ‘craft’ because to them it connotes a kind of homespun, makeable, democratic aspect to writing, as opposed to an elitist idea of special genius. I get that. ‘Craft’, in a positive sense, would be to do with an awareness of that sound-shape/association relation, which isn’t about half rhymes, scansion, or a well-placed zeugma, more with a rhetorical awareness of the material quality of words. You can write very flat, very deadpan, but that is ‘musical’ too. Music and form are at work when we say ‘why are you squinting like that?’ as much as when we say ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’ so we don’t need to indulge and be all Emerson Lake and Palmer about it. We don’t need to wear driving gloves and talk about miles to the gallon, just to enjoy how things sound, look, seem, and pay attention to them as writers and readers.

B O D Y: You seem to insist on a certain openness in poetry. Do you value open forms over closed forms?

J.U: I can’t say how this works for me apart from poem to poem, really, but it reminds me of when we got our cats from a rescue centre. I asked, ‘will we ever be able to pick them up?’ (because they were very traumatised and timid, but we wanted to love and touch and hold them as you do) and the cat lady replied very sternly, ‘We prefer to leave that decision up to the cat’, and this is how it is with poems.

B O D Y: I very much enjoyed the work you had recently in The White Review, ‘Thank you for your email’, which is an extract of a longer work. Are you moving from shorter to longer forms? What do you feel longer forms can do that shorter forms cannot?

J.U: It’s a long poem by my standards, but it’s not from a longer sequence. It says ‘[Extract]’ online because I have another poem in that issue of the magazine, so they are indicating that if you want to see all the Underwoods they have available then you have to pay.

But this is a boring answer, so I’ll add that I prefer to write short poems. ‘Thank you for your email’ is a narrative poem, which is probably why it’s longer; I like a poem to sort of BE the event or idea, which is why I tend not to deal in narrative poems that recount sequences of events. I like to explore a feeling rather than explain what caused it. Narrative causality seems a little too sure of itself for me, unless deliberately subverted.

B O D Y: Did the events in ‘Thank you for your email’ really happen?

J.U: Not at all. But I have climbed a hill and lied to my friends and family. I enjoy a good old-fashioned lie.

B O D Y: Your poems often have a very intimate tone, almost like a whispered conversation and yet they are not at all loose, how do you achieve that effect?

J.U: I don’t like emotions to be lacquered, or surfaces to luxuriate. Language for me isn’t about being decorative or encrypting things. I like to be very clear and open about what it is I’m asking a Reader to try and overcome imaginatively, and so maybe that directness keeps things neat or unfussy? I’m not talking about overall meaning, which is more complex and ambiguous, and largely out of my hands. But I like to get the premise or problem up front and allow the poem to depart and explore from there. I haven’t really thought about poems in terms intimacy, but it seems similar to the idea of poems being questions and being empathetic, which I’ve mentioned already.

B O D Y: You are very active in British poetry. You teach English Literature and Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s college. Faber published your debut pamphlet in October 2009, and will be publishing your first collection in 2015, you also teach at the Poetry School, write reviews for Poetry Review and co-edit the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives. How do you balance the writing of poetry with all these other activities? Do they aid the writing of poetry for you, or do you find them necessary distractions?

J.U: I enjoy teaching and it certainly helps me think, refine and articulate ideas about poems, though how far those conscious understandings feedback productively into my own poetry is impossible to say. Students do introduce me to new things to read, and of course, many of them end up being more than readable themselves.

B O D Y: What do your students make to your work? Do you ever talk about it with them?

J.U: It depends on the student. In class there are always better examples to discuss, but sometimes my own poems come up in tutorials because they are often practical manifestations of poetry things that I think about and want to explain. Or very occasionally I might use one of my own poems as the basis of a specific exercise because I’ve found something useful and want to share it. I think it’s a bit gross though, a bit desperate seeming to be honest, though I doubt students are that fussed either way. If I need an excuse it’s that most of the time I have to listen students raving and raving about the marvelous work of my friends. I’m not made of granite.

B O D Y: I want to talk a bit about Stop Sharpening Your Knives. Two of your co-editors, Emily Berry and Sam Riviere, are also making names for themselves as poets. Can you tell me something about your first meetings with them and how SSYK got started?

J.U: Sam and I met in 2002 at Norwich School of Art and Design, as it was then called. We were on a Cultural Studies degree with a 50% Creative Writing/Visual Practice option. We became very tough editors of each other’s work, drank and smoked a lot, misunderstood some Kristeva, formed a punk rock band, lived together for a while, you can imagine: very productive, very nutritious and I love him.

When we graduated in 2005, funding for the yearly course anthology had fallen through, so we decided to self-publish a pamphlet of our own and include other poets we knew. We called it Stop Sharpening Your Knives So I Can Think For A Second. In 2006, we expanded the project, and became more self-consciously political about creating a platform for new poets. We had a really busy Myspace forum (sounds absurdly archaic now) where people posted poems and discussed them. Nathan Hamilton, another poet we knew at the time, helped us get Arts Council funding for SSYK2 and he joined as an editor for the third book, putting it out through Eggbox Publishing, which he still runs.

I met Emily at a reading at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court in about 2007-8. She had very straight bangs, and read her poems out with no intro. She was a bit like a poetry Wednesday Adams. I really wanted to ask for a submission for the anthology, but first had to go through the embarrassing process of asking the promoter for Emily’s email, and then having to wait nervously for him to ask Emily’s permission to pass it on. She kindly granted permission, and agreed to send me some poems for SSYK3. After that we began writing to each other regularly and swapping poems, which we still do. Emily also started editing SSYK for the 4th book, and then Heather Phillipson joined us for SSYK5. I don’t know if we’ll do any more books. The anthology series did its job, I think, in that it improved the visibility of some good young poets, and also added to a growing spirit of collective enterprise and self-negotiation, which with online publishing has really taken off over the last five years or so.

B O D Y: I find your work to be among the best of the younger British poets and for me, it is quintessentially English in tone. Do you find that American poetry has more of an influence on young British poets (in terms of tone, diction and vocabulary) now than it did on UK poets of the previous generations? Where do you stand on that?

J.U: I’m not really sure about previous generations’ reading habits. I certainly read more American poetry than I do British, whether that’s twentieth century stuff or more contemporary. There is still a dominant British mainstream lineage that dictates what most people think a poem looks and sounds like: Shakespeare, Keats, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, Muldoon, and more recently the Next Generation poets, people like Don Paterson, Carol Anne Duffy, and so on. But the internet has made it a lot easier to read more broadly, more internationally, and this is having a positive impact. Even ten years ago you didn’t have the online store at Wave or Bloof or Octopus or anything like the SDP, and you couldn’t just read and find out about stuff online quite so easily. If American poetry is more influential to younger poets now it’s partly just because of its increased material availability and visibility, but I would say that the idioms, formality and musical phrasing we’ve grown up hearing in mainstream British poetry have started to sound a bit fatigued, so a lot of American poetry, coming as it does from a slightly different sounding tradition, seems like a potentially fresh way forward, if I can make that generalisation. I could put it another way: British mainstream poetry couldn’t have produced a voice like Dorothea Lasky’s, or Michael Earl Craig’s, for instance, so it’s exciting to find these poets.

I’m neglecting to talk about the British avant garde tradition, and also the UK spoken word scene which are big subjects for another day, and probably for more informed poets to talk about.

As for my own work though, I certainly don’t deliberately write in an ‘English’ way. I’d hate to feel my poems were like Hugh Grant in ‘Mickey Blue Eyes’ or something. I don’t like the idea of contributing to a nationalist cartoon, but then I am English. And more specifically from the South East, so there are certain things about the way I behave, think, feel, speak, and therefore write, that are culturally absorbed from that part of the world. But it’s not my fault, you understand.

B O D Y: Who are some of the British poets whose work excites you at the moment?

J.U: Katherine Kilalea is South African, but she is based here in London. I don’t even know what to do about her poems; I feel like I ought to go to the doctor about them. And there is Luke Kennard, who I’ve already mentioned. There probably isn’t a young British poet I rate who hasn’t ripped him off in some way. He’s a great reader too, so worth searching for videos of. Mark Waldron’s Brand New Dark and The Itchy Sea are two wonderful collections. Matthew Welton is probably the most original British poet I can think of. There’s a sort of remorselessness about the way his poems explore sounds and images, even though they are often welcoming, playful, funny things. I really love Holly Pester’s poems and performance work too. It’s so chewy, joyous, and odd, but then it can also get you with a big sudden sad.

Of course there are too many others, so I’ll just list some: Sophie Robinson, Matthew Gregory, Tim Cockburn, Sophie Collins, Rachael Allen, Oli Hazzard, Crispin Best, Jeff Hilson, SJ Fowler…and of course Emily Berry, Sam Riviere, Heather Phillipson and Nathan Hamilton who I’ve also already mentioned.

B O D Y: What’s good about the poetry being written in Britain right now? Are there any tendencies that you don’t like?

J.U: People seem to be genuinely making room for poems in their lives and talking about poetry more, especially younger people, which is great. British poetry seems more visibly a site for feminism these days too, with things like Tender Journal and lots of prominent young women poets. More experimental poetries are reaching a wider audience, I’d say, which is very positive. We’ve been bogged down by some tedious tribalism for a while, for some vaguely reasonable reasons and some totally daft ones. Nathan Hamilton’s anthology Dear World and Everyone In It brought together a good range of work from experimental poets and more mainstream lyrical ones, and in London SJ Fowler has been setting up collaborations and running nights that are bringing together the different camps, as it were. Generally I think there is a feeling that there are more possibilities in terms of form and language play for all poets now as a result. With internet poetry things happening as well, it feels like a lot is going on, and most of it very healthy.

What don’t I like in British poetry? Hmm…

I don’t like poems that feel competent and poemy, while at the same time do not really take any imaginative risks, and you see these everywhere. Sometimes they win competitions these tediously, quantifiably good poems. I don’t like overwritten poems where too much busy language is being used without much traction on an idea or question. I don’t like poems that use obvious visual tricks and tropes like mid-line gaps or lowercasing or no punctuation while at the same time neglect more important issues like being interesting. That annoys me. I don’t like people labeling their scenes or groups as specifically ‘alt’ or ‘alternative’ when the poems sound so stylistically mannerised that what they really announce is a general homogeny and lack of actual alternatives within these groups. I don’t like the easy bathetic collapse where a philosophical or emotional risk is nearly taken only for the poem to fall back on a cute cultural reference, like –

I can’t bear the idea of my father’s body
being dead one day I thought about it
watching Thundercats with you (ho).

I don’t like anything about trinkets and cupcakes and tea drinking and jumble sale purchases. I don’t like ravens darkening the coastal shelf like burned rubber omens or whatnot. I don’t like macho, Modernist posturing. I don’t like the poor representation of PoC outside of Spoken Word circles, and that this lack of diversity is often justified by a supposed meritocracy and notions of ‘quality on the page’ that derive from, and thereby prioritise, the white, largely male, experience. I don’t like that as a white cissexual man-poet I might inadvertently be contributing in some way to those ideas about ‘quality’ on my pages.

B O D Y: ‘Po-biz’ is a monster under the bed of every poet these days – although it is admittedly a slightly smaller monster under British beds than under American beds. How do you negotiate your way through Po-biz pressures while still writing the poems you want to write and being the poet you want to be?

J.U: I’ve never heard of the phrase ‘Po-biz’ before. I don’t like it. It sounds like the abbreviation is trying to ironise its way out of some unpleasant truth it doesn’t want to change or accept about itself. I’m not sure what pressures the poetry business or publishers exert, if that is what ‘Po-Biz’ means. I suppose that’s because I’ve calibrated my tastes and practice according to work that has been published. To be honest I feel more of a pressure to take risks, to not write like a sell-out or sound too mainstream. That’s what I worry about. It’s easy to write a ‘professional-looking’ poem. The hard part is making poems that feel honest stylistically and emotionally, and that don’t rely too much on the idioms of the recent or immediate Tradition. I’m not a natural innovator. I’m a scared person, generally, so I concentrate on taking small risks where they feel genuinely in service to an idea or feeling. The ‘Po-biz’ doesn’t bother, worry or threaten me. That Keston Sutherland probably thinks I’m like the poetry equivalent of Starbucks threatens me. That those of my peers I admire are generally edgier than I am in some way, that worries me.

B O D Y: How strongly do you feel about poetry? Are there any poets whose work makes you want to murder them?

J.U: I don’t want to murder anyone, but I bitch about things, like everyone else. I’m probably worse than most people with that actually, or have been told as much, but there’s no sense in being hurtful and obnoxious about it to anyone’s face. Nobody is trying to be awful at poems.

But I feel very strongly about writing. I get intolerably grumpy when I’m not writing regularly, or when I am but things are going badly. I feel very strongly that poems are good things in the world. They are a means of questioning, and reassigning value. Actual psychopaths are running Global Finance, so it’s good to remind yourself all of that value is made-up too.

B O D Y: Go on then, Jack, who is the one poet you’d most like to go for a beer with? Sit and talk poetry with? Which poet would you most consider getting romantic with?

J.U: I don’t like the easy conflation of poet/poems, as I said earlier, so I’ll answer the question ‘which poet’s work would your work like to have a beer with/talk poetry with/have sex with?’ instead.

My poems would most certainly like to ‘get romantic’ with Lorca’s poems, but I think Anne Sexton’s poems would show my poems the best time in bed, if that can be regarded entirely as the compliment I mean it to be. Sex with Berryman’s poems would be a dirty ol’ time worth having, an orgy in fact, what with Henry appearing in both first and third person, along with Mr Bones. ‘Mr Bones: there is’! Geoffrey Hill’s poems? Would my poems be sexually attracted to them? Probably not.

I’d love my poems to talk poetry with Bishop’s poems, and Dante’s love sonnets too. Wise, old moose, those poems. I hope my poems would get on well with Mary Ruefle’s poems, and Anne Carson’s poems, and O’Hara’s poems, though I know my guys would probably come across all awkward and over-keen with any of theirs. I think if we’re talking just hanging out, then Emily Toder’s poems would be perfect: unpredictable, happy-sad swooning times. If my poems had to have jobs they would work in offices with the poems of Donald Justice and Howard Nemerov. In times of trouble my poems would call on Emily Berry’s poems for advice, and Sam Riviere’s for clarity and some collar straightening.

Drinking is easy. I have a single answer. My poems would get very, very drunk with Jennifer L. Knox’s poems. I love her work and I can’t think of anyone’s poems it would be more fun for my poems to get totally shitfaced with.

B O D Y: Plato said ‘Poetry is nearer vital truth than history.’ Is posterity important to you? What would you like the readers of the future to say about your work?

J.U: This is a mean question and I want nothing to do with it.

B O D Y: A question one hears a lot is, ‘What is the future of poetry?’ I’d like to know what is your nightmare scenario for poetry. What would you be horrified to see happen to poetry?

J.U: It would be awful if it stayed still, wouldn’t it. If it still sounded and looked the same in a hundred years time. Technology will probably take care of that though. The internet is already stirring the broth irreversibly. And also, because poems are always half made up of the person reading them, as long as people come to the poems they’ll always be new life in the great cow.

— Interview by Christopher Crawford

JACK UNDERWOOD was born in Norwich in 1984. He graduated from Norwich School of Art and Design in 2005 before completing an MA and PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007 and Faber published his debut pamphlet in October 2009. He also teaches at the Poetry School, co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives, and reviews for Poetry Review and Poetry London. His debut collection Happiness will be published by Faber in 2015.


Read more by Jack Underwood:

Four poems at The New Statesman
Poem in B O D Y

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