Why would you want to talk to a poet? What are you supposed to SAY?
Plenty of people do it. There are interviews all over the place. But over the years the questions have changed. I remember when the regular openers were, ‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ and ‘What started you writing poetry?’
These days the questions are many and various, and the web is a great medium for an interview. I’m not thinking of YouTube or Vimeo, here, so much as text.
The Q & A format allows for short snaps (huge swathes of text are not so great on a screen), graphics (in some cases) and that marvellous business of live links that can swoop you right out of what you’re reading into something else.
It also means, of course, that you sometimes forget where you started and find yourself in another meta-country completely. But there’s something lovely about that.
The interviews I like most are the ones that delve, the ones that show the interviewer knows the work and wants to ask some of the questions I would want to ask myself. So not the pattern of Six Poets, Six Questions at poetry.org, where the same standard set of questions is hurled at each poet as though they're a single breed.
No, I like an individualised approach and an interviewer who prepares in advance (I'm old-fashioned that way). It doesn’t have to sound like a natural conversation (though some do). But it makes you think. Gives you a bit of context for the work, which you may or may not know already. Some of the ezines do this brilliantly – the Harlequin with Don Paterson, for example, or Cadaverine a good few years ago with Richie McCaffery.
And, of course, there's Sabotage, whose Will Barrett interview with SJ Fowler was a 2015 most popular read. And that Fowler piece demonstrates the lovely thing an interview can do – leap off the screen into immediacy: ‘My answers are approximations, and contain necessary generalisations, and they are opinions, not a call to arms. They are constantly open to revision, and are being revised. And if anyone disagrees, just come and speak to me face to face, much better.’ And a medium like Sabotage can then swing right into a big interview: something complex and searching. Major statements from the interviewee. Major intellectual challenge to the reader.
In Jacket, there’s even an interview with an interviewer of poets, Andy Fitch, who made a book of sixty such exchanges (Sixty Morning Talks) as an antidote to the literary density of doctoral study.
And blogs: some bloggers do great interviews. Isabel Rogers has one with both John Glenday and Don Paterson about the process of editing poems (Glenday's, in this case), a rare three-way exchange on such an interesting topic!
But who reads interviews with poets? My money’s on poets. Practising poets, wouldbe poets, mightbe poets, aspiring poets, expiring poets. Perhaps a sprinkling of general readers interested in writing? No, my money’s on poets reading about other poets.
What is this thing after all – this writing of poetry? Why are we investing so much time in it? What is it supposed to be, after all, this stuff that could look like a blob on a page or a 26 ottava rima stanzas and still be called ‘poem’. There are no authorised answers. Only comments on practice from specific people. You read them and you compare yourself with them, and either feel a degree of affinity or the opposite. Both are useful. We need allies. We need influences. We need challenges.
So the newest interview outlet (or inlet) I’m following is Poetry Spotlight. Its creator lives near me geographically, though we’ve never met in person. This shouldn’t necessarily make it more interesting but somehow, for me, it does. And Poetry Spotlight has a nice formula: just a few questions (five or six). Plenty of white space. The varied questions show the interviewer knows the work. The answers are peppered with live links, so you can follow up, get lost somewhere else, and come back. And there’s a poem at the end of each interview, chosen by the poet – with a few words about that poem.