Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Interview with Victor Tapner

Victor Tapner lives in Essex and is a freelance writer, having previously worked as a journalist on the Financial Times. He has published poems in many magazines and anthologies, and had success in several competitions – his poem Kalashnikov won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 2000. His first collection, Flatlands, has just been published by Salt and you can read more about it here

In one of my other interviews, the poet Paul Yandle spoke of how an early poem of Victor's, "Coffee Shop" had influenced him - "how delicate and beautiful it was, how the lines were perfectly weighted and balanced on top of the next and how such small details were made to become vibrant and massively affecting". Here's the poem:

Coffee Shop

Most evenings
he comes in
about this time.

an intelligent paper.

A seat
by the window,
facing in.

Jeans, jumper
and black brogues.
I like those.

I wipe the table,
sometimes twice.
When I lean over

with his cup
my apron tightens,
just a touch.

Most evenings
he comes in
about this time.

I always think
he won't.
And then he does.

SHEENAGH: Your poetry career's had an interesting trajectory so far - you've been bubbling under, publishing in magazines, winning competitions and awards for some years, but it's taken a while for this first collection to come out, with the result that the poems are work you've lived with for quite a while and possibly not much like what you're doing now! How does this feel? Were you tempted to revisit the earlier work and revise it when you were preparing it for publication or did you resist the urge to meddle? And do you feel as intensely about it as you clearly did when you wrote it, or have newer concerns elbowed it out at all?

VICTOR: Trajectory sounds a bit too swift and straightforward somehow. I think, without noticing it, I must’ve turned off on a B-road and I’m travelling the scenic route. This collection has, indeed, been a while coming out – and it took something like six or seven years to research and write. It did feel a little strange coming back to it when I was preparing it for publication, but, apart from the odd change or re-phrasing, and occasional expansion, I did resist the temptation for wholesale rewriting. As it’s a cycle of poems, I didn’t want to disrupt the original flow. In that respect I approached it more with an editor’s eye, which was perhaps to its benefit. And I’ve had sizeable chunks of it published along the way, so it wasn’t as though I’d totally left it behind. I certainly didn’t feel it had been elbowed out any more than, say, a painter or photographer who puts together an exhibition while doing fresh work.

SHEENAGH: The Flatlands sequence is set in East Anglian prehistory and there's a couple of lines from "Thames Idol" that encapsulate it for me:

Find me in your own time
find me in your own face

because it's told via first-person voices and there's an insistence throughout on inhabiting these ancestors (and the territory that made them) and feeling how essentially like us they are. Now that I'm living where there's a lot of archaeology about the place, I can appreciate this sense of being on an almost unimaginably long timeline. How did this particular region and those who lived there at that time become so vivid and real to you; have you family links with it, or a past in archaeology?

VICTOR: I don’t have an ancestral connection with the region, and I wouldn’t pretend for a moment to be an archaeological expert. The cycle covers more than two thousand years from the late Stone Age to the Roman invasion, and I see it as an artistic response to a people and landscape. It’s an attempt to dramatise this remote period, but also, as you point out, the poems are meant to stand as metaphors of ourselves expressed through universal themes – things like bereavement, love and infidelity, political oppression and violence. The East Anglian setting is pretty loose, encompassing the broad geography between The Wash and the Thames, and sometimes a bit beyond. I live in Essex, which I came to by chance for access to my work in London, and while it’s a little short on mountains and surfing beaches, large parts of it, particularly the coast and marshes, do have a bleak beauty. And a rich history, of course. It’s the site of Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester, which was sacked by Boudica, and the place where Britain’s written history starts to take shape. After I’d embarked on the first few poems and started to learn more about the region’s deep past - the ghosts, if you like, haunting the windswept terrain with its big skies – the idea of a cycle began to grow and the landscape seemed to have chosen itself.

SHEENAGH: Some of the Flatlands first-person voices are female, and so are others in your poetry, for instance the waitress in "Coffee Shop", which was published in the anthology Teaching a Chicken to Swim (Seren 2000) and also in the Bloodaxe anthology The Honey Gatherers (2003). When a poet chooses to inhabit the voice of the other gender it's often thought worth comment, though to me it just seems like laudable ambition in a writer to do something different. But I have had classes read "Coffee Shop" and comment that the voice is unusually convincing for a cross-gender poem. Do you find yourself writing differently in a female voice, and do you know, offhand, why you chose in that poem to be the waitress rather than the customer?

VICTOR: Weirdly, perhaps, I find I write as often with female voices as I do male ones, though this is something a male novelist would do all the time. Almost all my poems adopt different characters, or personae; in fact, I’ve rarely written one directly about myself, although I naturally draw on emotions and themes I can empathise with. My interest, I think, is in other people’s worlds, and the potential they present for an image system through which I can develop a poem, be it – in one or two more recent poems - Jacqueline Kennedy’s anxieties or the Dutch artist Meyndert Hobbema finding his creativity crushed. As for "Coffee Shop", which was itself written quite a long time ago, I can’t remember even choosing the waitress’s point of view. It was always her voice, her imagery.

SHEENAGH: Yes, as you say, nobody thinks twice about a novelist’s persona crossing genders. I think there's a tendency in poems to suppose that "I" is the poet, and it can seriously impede reading... have wondered sometimes why folk think poetry is the truthful autobiographical outpourings of the soul!

VICTOR: The Romantics apart, the popularity of confessional poets like Plath or Ginsberg does, I suppose, help to cement the notion of the ‘I’ as the poet. Don’t get me wrong – I love some of those poems. Ginsberg’s "To Aunt Rose", for instance. I don’t know if that would properly be termed confessional, but it’s apparently peopled by members of his family circle, and appears to be autobiographical. But it travels much wider than that. The choice of characters gives you the sense, through a little domestic scene, of a generation - its aspirations and evils - melting away to nothing, to meaninglessness. Then there’s Anne Sexton’s "The Abortion", written in the first-person. I’ve no idea whether she had an abortion or not, or the circumstances if she did. The fact is, the poem’s about a woman experiencing an emotional crisis, a fictional construct with a central character and some expertly controlled figurative language.

SHEENAGH: Flatlands is a themed collection, but I know your poetry went to all sorts of other times and places, even then! What are you writing now?

VICTOR: For the last few years I’ve been developing what is, in a way, also a themed collection, this time of dramatic monologues or lyrics. They’re sort of imagined biographical poems, in that the voices and subjects are historical characters, some well known, some less so. The writing has a denser texture than Flatlands, and the poems are longer. In fact, from my perspective, they’re about as different as you could get. In part that’s because I try to coax my writing in different directions, but also because I consciously chose the austere language and forms of Flatlands in an attempt to match the subject matter – something like the minimalism of primitive sculptures. The more recent dramatic monologues cover a period from the Renaissance to near-history with figures such as Hobbema and Jackie Kennedy, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, or Alan Turing, the computer pioneer of the 1940s and 50s who apparently committed suicide after he was prosecuted over his homosexuality. Although the poems are character-based, I do find I’m often exploring deeply personal subject matter: Turing’s emotional pain, or one on Pocahontas’s cultural isolation. Just as in Flatlands, I’m also working, like most poetry writers I suppose, with universal themes. I try to let these emerge through the psychology of the subjects, through subtext and symbolism. This is an area that’s long interested me – connotation through imagery, or what’s not said – though paradoxically I often find I have to put on the headclamp to write them. To be honest, that’s how it seems to be with all my work, and I’m ridiculously slow. It normally takes weeks and weeks for a poem to stagger out of the fog.

SHEENAGH: You're a full-time writer now, but you used to be a journalist on the Financial Times. That's an extremely unusual background for a poet, and I don't think most folk would associate the lexis of finance with that of poetry. Did you ever use your working life in your poems, or were they an escape from it? And was the fact that you were a night editor relevant? I can imagine seeing a whole different slant on the world at that hour.

VICTOR: I suppose it might seem unusual, but I don’t know if there’s a ‘usual’ background for a poet, given that it’s a charmingly cash-free trade, so you have to make a living in some other way. You mentioned earlier about a career trajectory, and it’s true, of course, that many poets work in academia. But for those of us who don’t, the day job could be almost anything - and at least as a journalist you’re working at the wordface, so I don’t think it’s that strange. As for the financial side, I was the night news editor at the Financial Times which meant dealing each evening with an array of stories, from stock market crashes to the Iraq war and political crises – a lot of financial and business stories, yes, but much else besides. The slant on the world, as you put it, is certainly particular at times, especially when you have a war suddenly erupting at midnight, or a collapsing American bank to contend with, but poetry would be the last thing on my mind, more coping with screeching deadlines and getting a newspaper out. I haven't ever seen poetry as an escape from my work as a journalist, or indeed, vice versa - more that, before I recently took up writing full time, it was like leading two parallel lives. I can’t say the journalist’s life has intruded overtly into my poetry, though it’s no doubt had a strong influence on the way I approach it – the need for precision and compression with words and ideas, the rigours and rewards of research. That said, from time to time I have found subject matter for a poem bobbing up during my journalistic work. Some years ago I was on secondment for a few months from the FT to the China Daily newspaper in Beijing – an extremely exciting time to experience that country, just as its economy was starting to motor, so you could hardly avoid having your eyes opened. Before that I’d written a number of poems based on experiences travelling in Asia and elsewhere, and my time in Beijing added one or two more to that grouping.

SHEENAGH: Though, having said most folk wouldn't associate the FT with poetry, it does publish a surprising number of reviews - did you write reviews when you were with them? What's your take on the relationship between poetry and critical writing? I used to hear so many students protest "I don't want to analyse poems, it takes all the magic out". I'm pretty sure you feel otherwise; has analysing the poets who influence you impacted on your own work?

VICTOR: That’s where the two lives thing comes in again. The short answer is no, I didn’t write reviews. Apart from not wanting to mix the two jobs, it was also a question of not having the time, and the newspaper has some strong reviewers anyway. I learnt a sharp lesson quite a while ago when I ventured into the world of political thriller writing. I had a book called Cold Rain published in the UK and the US, but the demands of turning out four or five hundred words a day, coupled with daily journalism, cut the legs off my poetry writing for several years. I’ve a great respect for the thriller genre, but I came to realise that there’s a limit to how much you can take on or diversify, and I resolved from then on to try to focus on writing poems as that had been my starting point. Some time afterwards I did a masters degree in writing at the University of Glamorgan, and that’s perhaps where your question about the relationship between poetry and critical writing comes in. I think any discipline that helps a writer understand the machinery of the craft is vital, particularly – at least as far as my experience goes - the careful analysis of individual poems. It’s like taking an engine apart and putting it back together – ‘Ah, so that’s what the carburettor does.’ Analysing poems – perhaps more than analysing poets - has not only influenced my work, it continues to do so all the time. When you come across something like Bernard O’Donoghue’s "A Nun Takes the Veil", or Kona Macphee’s "IVF", or more recently Siân Hughes’ moving – and gracefully engineered – "The Send-Off", analysing them is so much a part of the pleasure. You think about what each line, each phrase, is doing, and how it’s doing it, how it relates to the overall context, and the poem becomes richer, the meaning intensifies. I’d go so far as to say it’s the analysis of a poem – or perhaps what might, in the past, have been called close reading - that puts the magic in.

SHEENAGH: Absolutely, and I used to try to persuade my students that if they found out how the magic got in, they might be more able to do the same themselves. Interesting that you say "the demands of turning out four or five hundred words a day, coupled with daily journalism, cut the legs off my poetry writing". I wonder if it was also simply the problem of writing both in prose and verse? The poets I know who also write novels - like Catherine Fisher and Matthew Francis - all, to a man or woman, tell me they can't write both genres at once, and nor could I when I tried it. It's something about the rhythms; when in the middle of a prose book, any poem I tried to write also came out sounding like prose.

VICTOR: I was actually too busy with prose at the time to even attempt to write poetry, though I’m sure you’re right. I do feel that the two genres are such different disciplines that a choice of one or the other is pretty much forced upon the writer. Hardy for instance. Half a life of novels, then half of poetry. I find that even when I’m starting a poem – brainstorming, bits of factual material, rough notes – I write in lines. Although not a single one of those lines is likely to turn up in the finished poem, somewhere in the morass are bits of phrasing or the odd hint of a rhythm that will chime and get the thing moving.

SHEENAGH: Arising again from what you said about juggling different genres plus journalism, was there ever a temptation to ditch the journalism and try to make your way as a full-time fiction writer? After all, you're a published writer in two fictional genres; I'd guess the thought crosses all our minds, though most of us conclude regretfully that paying the rent comes first. But there are a few different, and Dan Rhodes comes at once to mind; he was just so determined to be a full-time writer that I don't think he ever took any job that wasn't strictly temporary and clearly led nowhere career-wise. On the other hand it could be argued that having another job is good for writers in other ways than paying the rent. It doesn't seem to have affected Dan not having one, but when I think of Simon Armitage, for instance, it seems to me that he had more to say when he was a probation officer than he does now he's a full-time writer. How do you feel about it; would you like to have written fiction and poetry full-time or do you feel having another career was more beneficial in other ways than financial?

VICTOR: There certainly was a temptation to think of writing fiction and poetry full time – but the idea of spiralling into a financial black hole helped clear the mind. You can perhaps contemplate that action if you’re on your own with no responsibilities, but I was in my thirties with a family and a mortgage. My £10,000 advance on royalties, with the prospect of another pay cheque in three or four years, didn’t seem a stable launchpad. In fact, looking back, I’m sure the continued demands of fiction writing would have pole-axed any poetry completely. The point you raise about the benefits of a separate career must, I suppose, be down to the individual and his or her circumstances, but it does keep you out sniffing the air. I would also argue that once your writing is at the mercy of serious commercial pressures, there’s a strong chance of artistic compromise, and you can lose the time to think.

I’d been writing poetry and what you might call apprentice thriller novels – two or three – through my twenties, though thankfully none saw the outside world. I began to get the occasional poem published and had some modest mentions in a couple of minor competitions. Then all changed when a literary agency took me on and secured a contract with an American publisher for a novel on the basis of a synopsis and two chapters. Although there was no advance payment, it seemed like a good idea – and possibly a long-term means of supporting poetry writing - but the next seven or eight years turned out to be a storm at sea. At that point, around the mid-eighties, my wife and I had two growing children, and I had my full-time-plus journalism job. I could forget the thought of even trying to read a book. Something like a year into writing and researching the novel, the publisher went bust. I eventually finished the book and it was sold to another US publisher for a $5,000 advance, then to a Collins imprint in the UK as part of a two-book deal. This carried the £10,000 advance, half of which was payable in chunks on delivery and acceptance of Book 2. The first novel, Cold Rain, was published in 1988 and I started work on Book 2, whose background was, like the first, the European political arena. Then in 1989, without any thought for me, when I was perhaps a third of the way into the novel, someone decided to throw Europe into the blender, and I was rewriting as fast as I could string a chapter together. In the meantime the publisher was taken over by Rupert Murdoch and swallowed into HarperCollins. The book went a year or two past its deadline and, by the time I’d finished it, the original commissioning editors had long gone. Eventually, after some further rewriting, I was paid the last couple of thousand of my advance, but publication was shelved. By that time, around 1991, the novel was holed below the waterline anyway, with little hope of salvage. Then Cold Rain went out of print. Having abandoned poetry writing during those intervening years, I saw – not before time - that what I’d been doing, in personal terms, was complete madness. I decided to take up poetry where I’d left off, concentrate on doing the work and let publication come if and when it may. And that’s what I’ve done ever since.

SHEENAGH: That's a strangely consoling tale, to poets who tend to see published novelists as having made it in terms of fame and fortune. And of course as an admirer of your poems I'm glad you came home to that genre. But it does strike me that one of your main problems with the novel was the way history at the time insisted on moving on faster than you could write it. Maybe you should set your next novel in the time and territory of Flatlands!

VICTOR: It's true that the pace of history didn't help my little hill of beans, though I actually see it as a lucky escape. Events forced one of those life choices. As for another novel, it's not something I envisage. I find there's more than enough to learn with one genre. A small coda though, regarding the genesis of Flatlands. In the light of your remarks, long before I wrote the cycle I did have the vague idea of a novel set in that remote time (not alone in that, I know), and Flatlands ultimately is what came out.


Dancing for Monsieur Degas

You didn’t see the blisters
on my heels,
the blood in my ballet shoes,

or later, my body shaking
as I coughed
in a tenement bed,

the rented rooms where I
to the glint of a monocle,

stroked beards browned
by tobacco
and breathed sour absinthe,

or when I slipped a wallet
in the tuck
of my skirts, the alleys

where I grazed my back
against the wall
when the top hats stayed away.

To you I was just a girl
from the opera,
a face to shape, a posture.

You tied a green ribbon
in my hair
and called me your daughter,

and though I was a dancer,
you made me
so I never moved another step.

Meyndert Hobbema Measures the Density of Rhenish
Dutch landscape artist Meyndert Hobbema (1638-1709) produced few works
after he was 30 when he married and took a post as an Amsterdam wine gauger.

The children sleep in the half-light
as I leave the house.
The girl is raking the hearth
to heat milk.

Upstairs my brushes sit dry
in their pots. My past
hangs on unknown walls,
lost as florins.

Lanterns on the bridge flicker
as a cart crosses
with cabbages and black beet.
Outside the city

fields are ploughed, trees
cling to their leaves,
cattle gather by dykes,
a mill wheel turns.

I wrap the cloak round my shoulders
and hurry with my bag
of callipers and rods, my tally book
of day payments.

Casks, unloaded from boats,
wait on the quayside:
Burgundy and Rhine wine
for the tables of the Herengracht.

The streets behind the Plaetse are quiet
at this hour, the women
resting, their business done
as mine begins.

Already the masons’ chisels
are at work on the tower
of the high Kerk, carving faces
that no one will see.

Links to other poems

Victor Tapner's website

The Flatlands page on Salt's site.

Thames Idol, a poem from Flatlands, on the Essex Poetry Festival site.

Elizabeth Blackwell's Five Hundred Cuts, a third prizewinner in the Cardiff International Poetry Competition, on the Academi website.
Tags: interviews with writers, poetry, ways of working

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