Where and when were you born?
Kingston, Jamaica WI – 1933.
Could you tell us something about your background?
My father was Assistant Colonial Secretary in the Jamaican government. He belonged to a family that has lived in Jamaica and in Trinidad since around 1800, and in the West Indies and Guyana since the early 17th century. My mother was English.
Were either of your parents or grandparents (or any other relatives) writers? If not, were any of your relatives actively interested in literature?
My uncle [mother’s brother] wrote rather twee books of memoirs in the period between the two World Wars. They’d be deeply embarrassing to read today. In the 19th century my mother’s family were involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, and a direct ancestor of mine was Lady Byron’s lawyer, who advised her to leave the poet because of her husband’s affair with his half-sister. A much earlier ancestor on my mother’s side was chaplain to Richard Corbet, Bishop of Oxford, who wrote the poem ‘Farewell Rewards and Fairies’. In his ‘Brief Lives’ Aubrey describes them getting drunk together in the cellars of Christchurch, Oxford.
Are any of your siblings writers or involved in a creative profession?
What was the first poem (or who was the first poet) that turned you on to poetry?
Kipling, then Alexander Pope.
What age were you when you first began writing poetry, and did you receive any encouragement?
About 15. Yes, from my school, which was King’s School Canterbury, once attended by Christopher Marlowe.
When you started writing poetry did you have dreams about becoming a "professional" poet? If so, did anyone advise you against this course of action?
No. And no. My attitude to being a ‘professional poet’ – poetry as one’s identity and primary occupation – was and is ‘God forbid’. Life is too interesting for that.
Did you ever get a poem published in your school magazine?
Yes. Can’t recall the title. Circa 1948. Shortly afterwards I became editor, so of course I published myself.
Did you go to university, and if so, which subject(s) did you study?
Oxford. I studied what Oxford called ‘Modern History’, which started with the Anglo-Saxons and ended with the Victorians. Not English. Not Art History.
When did you first start submitting to poetry magazines? And can you tell us how many rejections you received before having something accepted for publication?
First to the school magazine. Then to periodicals like the ‘New Statesman’ when I was around 18. I don’t recall the number of rejections. I’d make up a batch of recent poems – five or six – and rotate them through a number of periodicals, subtracting anything that made a hit before sending them on to the next place.
What was the worst rejection you ever received?
I don’t recall any particularly rude rejections.
What was your first published poem? Which poetry magazine published it? And what year was it published?
The first one in a ‘grown up’ periodical was either in ‘The New Statesman’ or in ‘The Spectator’. I can’t recall which. Probably the latter, when I was about 18.
Round about the time that you started seriously writing poetry, who were your literary heroes? And would you say they had an influence on your writing style?
First Alexander Pope. Then Auden. Then Browning. But now I write in free verse – go figure.
Have you ever attended a creative writing course or been involved in a writers' group? If so, did you find it useful?
No creative writing courses. I was a member of, then chairman of, The Group, the best known British poetry group of the late 1950s/early 1960s. It owed a lot to the methods of the Cambridge critic and academic F.R. Leavis – i.e. close analysis of the text. Other members included Philip Hobsbaum [the founder, who had been a pupil of Leavis], Peter Redgrove, George Macbeth, Peter Porter, Alan Brownjohn.
When did you put together your first collection of poetry?
The first was a pamphlet, published in Oxford, when I was about 18. The first proper collection was ‘A Tropical Childhood’, published by Oxford University Press in 1961.
How long did it take to get it accepted for publication? And, if appropriate, how many times was it rejected?
Not that long. It wasn’t rejected by anyone. I didn’t go to Faber, as I didn’t think they’d take me.
How long did you have to wait between acceptance and final publication?
Can’t recall – probably about 9 months, like making a baby.
What sort of critical response did you receive?
The book won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for the year in which it was published and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It didn’t bring me the instant fame of Thom Gunn or Ted Hughes, or, later on, Seamus Heaney. To be frank I can’t imagine anything more awful than having ‘famous poet’ as my primary identity. It’s a label that arouses too many expectations
Would you say that your publisher actively promoted the book?
OUP? Good God, no!
Did you do readings and signings at bookshops to help promote the book? If so, did you organise these yourself, or were they organised by your publisher? And would you say that they had a significant effect on sales figures?
Not really. Readings at The Group were sometimes broadcast.
How many copies of the book sold?
Is it still in print?
No. But parts of it are incorporated in a ‘Selected and New’ collection called Changing Shape, published by Carcanet in 2001, and still in print.
At the beginning of your writing career did you enter any poetry competitions? Did you enter a lot or just a few? Did you have any success? And, with hindsight, what are your thoughts about the relative merits or demerits of poetry competitions?
No. Don’t like them.
Which of your poetry books has been the most successful in terms of sales, and how many copies has it sold to date?
Have you won any awards for your poetry?
John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize – see above. I am a member of the Académie de Poésie Européenne, a Europe-wide, EEC funded academy based in Luxembourg. There are two English members and two Irish [writing in English]. The rest are French, Italian, Belgian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Portuguese, Finnish, Italian etc.
Do you make a living out of poetry?
If not, do you make an adequate living through poetry related activities such as teaching creative writing workshops? Or do you have to supplement your income through unrelated activities?
I make a living through writing about art, mostly contemporary art. I also exhibit widely as a photographer. I probably travel more widely than anyone in the art world. Which is lucky, as poems devour experience.
With the benefit of hindsight, are you glad that you pursued your dream of being a poet? Also, if you could turn the clock back, would you do anything different?
It wasn’t exactly like that. From the beginning, writing poems was a way of finding out what I thought, or what I felt – for me, it’s an instrument of self-examination.
If a young would-be poet approached you, which poets would you recommend as vital reading?
For a poet whose language is English, probably Rochester, because Rochester understands how to turn the absolutely simple and colloquial into gold. And in terms of subject-matter, he takes no prisoners.
Which poetry magazines would you recommend him or her to subscribe to?
I’m afraid I don’t read them.
Assuming that this would-be poet showed some promise, would you advise him or her to pursue a "career" in poetry?
If so, what further advice would you give him or her?
Get a life.
Finally (and extremely hypothetically), you are selected to appear on the hit reality TV show, "Desert Island Poets", where you are marooned on a tropical island for three months with a typewriter and several reams of paper. You are provided with all necessary provisions, but you are only allowed to take three books with you. Your appearance fee is more than you could hope to earn in a decade and the show is so popular that all previous participants have become best-selling poets. So, would you participate? And if so, which three books would you take with you?
Of course I’d say yes. And I’d demand a laptop with a power-supply and an Internet connection. I can’t write poems on a typewriter. I also have increasing difficulty in reading my own handwriting. I’m always changing my mind [which you can do on a computer]. And I often need reference, hence the Internet connection. Three books - Proust’s A la Recherche [complete, in English – it’s the narrative and character drawing that interest me, not the language, and it’s so long you’ve forgotten the beginning by the time you get to the end], plus a collected edition of the plays of Racine [in French – there the mechanism of the language does interest me]. And perhaps some really outrageous pornography.
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