FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH ERIC LANGLEY

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

ERIC LANGLEY: I’m afraid there is rather a gloomy answer to this question. Until my father, R.F. Langley, died in 2011 – the same year that he won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem – I hadn’t really thought of myself as someone who wrote poetry; I am an academic, and I always felt that my job was to be a critic, and spend my time analysing other people’s writing. But when the ‘real poet’ of the family died, I found that writing poetry was as good a way as any to maintain some form of dialogue with him, a way of continuing conversations which we’d had, maintaining contact with him through playing around in ways hopefully at least partially comparable to his. My poetry is rarely explicitly ‘about’ my relationship with dad – only one poem overtly interacts with his, as ‘Albada: pigeons on pink’ is partly a response to his ‘Jack’s Pigeon’ – but my poetry is always testing connections (between self and self, lover and beloved, word and world, signifier and referent, speaker and listener, letter-writer and recipient) and worrying about the efficacy of those interactions and transmissions. Indeed, nearly all of the poems are testing the ligatures between people, plucking the semantic bond, attempting to address a lost other. Often these themes – which I have culled from Derrida, Kafka, Barthes, Teresa Brennan, and so on – are ones which I discussed with dad, and playing them out through my poetry felt like a way of sustaining dialogue with someone I’d lost, moving beyond the pragmatics of funerals, wills, tax forms, and trying to reestablish conversation with someone whose thinking I had got to know so well that I could second-guess the response. I was, I knew, actually trying to write like dad, partly to hear his voice again, and get him talking: of course, I had to abandon any hope of getting close to his poetic voice (it was both a great pleasure and a frustration to realise just how far I was lagging behind the old mole), but somewhere along the line the imitation ceded to an extremely rewarding realisation that I was writing in my own way, and that maybe I could be a poet, not just an imitator of another. It is presumably no surprise that Hamlet, Oedipus, Picasso’s father, even Lacan, and so on, populate my poems: as I say to my Shakespeare students at UCL, a great many works of literature begin with dead fathers hovering on the battlements, and Shakespeare in particular is preoccupied by the experience of the simulacra-son, trying to ‘remember’ the dead father. So, often these poems look like love poems – because I like reading and teaching love poems, erotic lyric and so on – but perhaps I’m interested in feeling out those tender, attentive, tense, taut connections between self and beloved-other because I am really obsessively feeling out other lost connections, plucking at the affective ligatures that bind us to the world, or which break, and leave us stranded. So, a gloomy answer. Of course, there are other answers too, like being pestered by all of these poets that were my parent’s friends when I was growing up: eventually I had to write something to get them off my back!

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

EL: Perhaps my previous answer covers most of that. I suppose I don’t really feel like a poet: I feel like someone who needed to write poems to meet some need, or who was preoccupied by certain thoughts that seemed to be best articulated not in my usual academic prose – in essays about Renaissance erotica or monographs about Shakespeare’s suicides – but which should be explored through poetry. I get to riff on ideas, and enjoy unexpected or slightly uncontrollable resonances, which in my scholarly writing I would have to laboriously explain and justify. Poetry seems to be both a more experimental and freer space – where I don’t have to footnote my citations, or ensure clean grammatical articulation, or craft scholarly prose – and, at the same time, a constraining space where I don’t have the sheer expanse of long prose writing to explicate my thoughts. I found I enjoyed this simultaneous liberation and constraint, and had one lovely summer free from academic writing where I allowed myself to believe I was allowed to write poetry and ‘be a poet’ for a while to see if it would convince anyone. Michael Schmidt gave me huge confidence when I finally contacted him, and I suppose when he told me I was going to be in Carcanet’s New Poetries series, alongside people like Vahni Capildeo, Joey Connolly, Adam Crothers etc, I thought ‘well, I might not be a poet, but I seem to be among poets, which will do’.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

EL: It means a great deal; it does allow me to feel that I’m not just dressing up as a poet or doing some complex impression of one, and that I could carry on writing with a bit of serious intent. Perhaps it is naff to admit it, but I do quite like the idea that more people may come into contact with my poetry: as a teacher, I spend all my time feeling the pleasures of careful readership, and the pleasures of seeing other people pay attention to poetry and finding their rewards, so I really enjoy the idea that someone would encounter my work and give it attention, spark it into life through their encounter with it. And of course, the word ‘first’ seems to carry a latent promise that there might be a ‘second’, so I feel legitimated to carry on, like I’ve been instructed to continue, and can’t now be blamed if I do. I am also very proud to be selected by Forward because of the company I’ll be keeping: having worked in St Andrews for a few years, I’m very excited to be in and around Forward-ed people like Don Paterson, John Burnside, and Rachel Boast; and Denise Riley’s writing – both poetry and prose – has been hugely influential to me. And of course, following my dad onto a Forward list six years after he died matters a lot to me; I’m really glad to hunker down again, again, in the shadow of R.F. Langley, which is certainly not a shadow I mind being in, or one I feel the need to sidestep. I think it’ll mean quite a lot to my family that I’m treading in those footsteps, as it does to me.

FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

EL: The first poem I wrote is the first poem in the book, which sets out lots of my interests: connections between people (eyebeams, communication, arrows, interactions traversing the interim between people, verbal and emotional transmissions). This acts as some sort of manifesto for the whole. I take my cue from the art restoration technique of ‘raking light’, when a beam (often a UV light) is shone across the picture plane to reveal over-painting, under-drawing, the artist’s first intentions, buried depths: these abandoned traces are known as pentimenti (‘regrets’). Appropriating these terms, I like to think of how by adopting a certain etymologically-attentive stance to language one might discover, or uncover, or recover latent meaning, forgotten senses, original meanings. I like to think that in every poem a handful of key words are subjected to this kind of archeological excavation, digging down into the etymological layers of language to reveal archaic meaning and lost connotations. The pair of poems entitled ‘Pentimenti’ show this in action, so on first showing the poem carries out its business in a fairly traditional way, but on its second telling I have retained struck out phrases, first thoughts, abandoned intentions, revisions and omissions. Lots of regrets, up for grabs.

The collection rotates around a long multi-part sequence, based on a little story about Ptolemy pinching people’s books for his world-beating library, which was only ever meant to be a single poem. But as soon as I started thinking about all of the resonances that this story sent rippling out, I found that I couldn’t leave it alone. The idea of one’s words being taken, copied, and returned seemed to me to summon up lots of theoretical stuff I adore (like Derrida’s Post Card, which is one of my favorite things, for all its weird, impenetrable, hyperbolic excesses) which would draw our attention to questions of where meaning resides: does the speaker of the word bestow meaning on it? Does the word itself wrestle back control? Or does the recipient of the word determine its ultimate meaning? Ptolemy’s librarians, copying out all my original manuscripts and scrolls, only returning me bogus knock-off copies of my texts, are forcing me to concede that my words were perhaps never original, always in the post, always copies, always plagiarised. Every word I speak (I love you) gets sent back (I love you too), but I’m not sure I’m confident that these words are still mine, or mean the same, or that they aren’t forgeries, lacking authenticity, unoriginal. So, I loved this little anecdote, and suddenly this sequence of poems got flooded by type-writing monkeys hammering out Shakespeare, by Trigger’s broom, straggling loops of etymologies, by book history, communication history, Morse codes, Dewey decimals, trojan viruses … and the one poem had quickly turned into a little narrative sequence of eight, which are the centerpiece of the collection, and give lots of room for the speaker to register his amazement that the entire library of his identity has been ransacked, rewritten, replaced.

Perhaps my favorite poem, ‘Albada: pigeons on pink’, is the odd-one-out, in that it explicitly addressed my dad’s poetry – specifically ‘Jack’s Pigeon’ – and so in a way is the only poem that overtly asks to be read as a son’s poem, sent out to a lost father, worrying away at issues of influence, inheritance, anxieties of influence, and my inability to adequately inherit. That one perhaps should belong in a different volume, as all the other poems sublimate loss into what sell themselves as love lyric, which as a genre is of course inherently concerned with failures to recuperate, the denial of response, the refusal of reciprocation. I suspect my next collection will be more up-front in the way it tackles issues of loss, but for now, I was happy to be oblique, and happy to write something less maudlin and more sexy: and I do quite like that these poems turned out to be a bit erotic, which I wasn’t expecting or setting out to do, but the insistent lovers-complaint tone hopefully adds a kind of urgency and yearning to some of them which could snag on the reader’s need for a bit of lascivious wonting and wanting.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

EL: In my day job I am a Renaissance lecturer, so the simplest answer to this question would be a roll call of obvious early-moderns: Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Herbert, Donne. Some more obscure names, but all long dead. In terms of modern writers, I grew up around Cambridge poets, and so people like J.H. Prynne have been seminal in my personal and intellectual life: his work remains, for me, some of the most important and ethically alert writing out there, and I hugely admire comparable writers like Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, Rod Mengham, and so on. But I don’t think you’d necessarily know that from my poetry, which operates in different ways, and perhaps lacks the intensely political overt intent which characterises their crucial and complex work.

I love Lisa Robertson’s writing, and suspect that I share with her a sense that Lucretius’ De rerum natura is the ur-text for all materialist poetics: indeed Lucretius, and Michel Serres’ appropriations of Lucretius, are behind everything I write, providing his sense of a world of atomic flux, interwoven influences, metamorphic interactions, porous subjectivity, a world of kinetic vibrant exchange which would demand that we all risk vulnerability and openness to a world which pushes at our boundaries, refuses our reactionary idealisation of monadic isolation. It feels urgent to me that we keep thinking like this, in times of neurotic isolationalism where open, inclusive vulnerability is smeared as weakness. Ovid loved Lucretius, Montaigne was fascinated by him, and in turn Shakespeare loved Ovid and Montaigne, while Milton scratched at De rerum natura like an itch he couldn’t leave alone: this seemingly reviled atheist Epicurean is lying latent in all our key texts, charging them with his illicit electricity. That, without doubt, would be my desert island book. Other things that I’ve encountered alongside my students – which is where I test out my interests – include anything from Olson and Dorn, to Peter Larkin, Peter Gizzi, Denise Riley.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

EL: The summer will be full of editing an academic book about Shakespeare and disease, which is hopefully moving towards publication. And then I shall leave space to see if any new poems are lurking in my locker: I have no idea if they will be. I had a nasty feeling the other day that something I was writing was ‘in the style of’ myself, like I’d learnt some knack or posture, found some manner or method that could be repeated in a tasteful way to pump out more of the same. I didn’t enjoy that, so I’m going to come back to writing poetry after a few months of editing footnotes and checking citations, the tedium of which will hopefully have rebooted my disks and erased these rote strategies a little.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

EL: I’ve tried out lots of versions of this answer, and they all sound wrong: I can hopefully give quite useful advice about how to write about poetry, and how to read poetry, so I suppose that is where you’d have to start, and try to hold back the writing of poetry for a little while longer than you’d like. Personally, the thing I found hardest was that I am so trained in analysing poetry, that I was tempted to write poetry which would reward analysis and make good essay fodder: I was dropping hints and coaching some future student to write the essay I wanted them to write. That can’t be healthy.