David Harsent x André Naffis-Sahely

Our former poetry editor speaks with the Forward, Griffin International, TS Eliot Prize winner

David Harsent has published thirteen volumes of poetry. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection; Night was triple short-listed in the UK and won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Fire Songs won the T.S. Eliot Prize. His most recent collection, Loss, was published in January 2020. Harsent has collaborated with several composers, though most often with Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle/Harsent collaborations have been performed at venues worldwide. Other words for music collaborations have involved the composers Sally Beamish, Huw Watkins, Christian Mason, Jonathan Dove and Sam Cave. Sprinting from the Graveyard, Harsent’s versions of poems written under siege by the Bosnian poet Goran Simic, were adapted to opera, radio and television. In Secret, his English versions of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, was published in the UK and US.

ANSYou have said your working class background wasn’t particularly interesting, but did it shape the direction of your work? You have also said that you don’t see yourself as a ‘public poet’, but you are clearly political when you want to be. You also translate very political poets, Ritsos and Simić, for instance.

DH. In truth, although my immediate circumstances were working-class – council house, poverty-line household income, father a bricklayer, education below basic – my mother’s side of the family were lower middle-class. The fact that my maternal grandmother was twice-widowed and that my mother married, as it were, into the working-class, meant I was born into a sort of cultural no-man’s land. There was no money – we lived from meagre payday to meagre payday – and there was also a poverty of ideas. I have no idea why, and nor did anyone else, but I was something like a cuckoo in the nest. As I grew up, I slept at home, but lived in the library.

I’ve nothing against poetry that deals with social or political issues and I’ve certainly nothing against poets whose inclination moves them in that direction. I make the same critical assessment as with all poems: is it good work? Al Alvarez once suggested that poetry carrying a cause can quickly become (or resemble) propaganda, and therein lies the danger. It’s just that no line of what might be called out-and-out doctrinal political poetry has ever entered my head. However, poetry aside, I was pretty political back then: campaigned for the Labour Party, joined Anti-Apartheid and CND, marched against the Vietnam War, joined Greenpeace and wrote an early climate crisis poster poem for them (Ralph Steadman illustrated) that later became part of the libretto for a green opera, set by Alan Lawrence but not, as yet, produced. Much more recently, I read in Trafalgar Square for Extinction Rebellion.

It must be pretty clear to anyone reading my work closely that the climate crisis is a deep concern of mine. The four Fire Songs that form the spine of that book take, as their subject, the the nightmare to come, but deliver it slant. Icefield, also in Fire Songs, is one of a triptych – Man Made – entirely about environmental issues. I wrote the poems to photographs by my son, Simon, commissioned by the Australian Wild Life Fund; they were later set to music by Christian Mason and performed at RFH. There are strong references to a coming environmental disaster in Loss (and to tragedies such as Bataclan and Aleppo, though as dark signs of the times, not as polemic); and there are, yes, examples of an engagement with images of war of which, I suppose, Legion is the most obvious. None of these is overtly political in intent; they come from sources other than direct political engagement, by which I mean they are part of the way I interpret the world. It might be, though, that Legion in some way came out of my versions of the poems Goran Simić wrote while under siege in Sarajevo.

The English versions I made of Goran’s poems in Sprinting from the Graveyard did start as something of a project. I had been back and forth to festivals in the former Yugoslavia, courtesy of the British Council, and most often to Sarajevo. After the BC gigs ended, I was invited back to read at the Writers’ Union and elsewhere. (It was at a Writers’ Union reading that a man introduced himself to me, shook my hand warmly, said he liked my work, and told me that he was also a poet. It was only later that I was told the man was Radovan Karadžić.)

During that time, I made friends, among them Goran and his wife, Amela. When the siege started, we managed, by various underground-ish means, to stay in touch. The poems Goran had written under siege, in literal translations by Amela, were brought out and delivered to me, the idea being that I might find a way of getting a few of them published to make more evident what the besieged were enduring. I made versions of a small batch of them, working from Amela’s literal translations. They were published and one of them read at cathedrals across the UK on Remembrance Sunday. That was as far as I intended to go, but by the time I’d versioned the first few, I was caught up in both task and purpose and the versions were coming right, so I kept going. A welcome, but unintended, consequence of this was that money raised from public readings of Goran’s poems kept them and several other besieged families in food and suchlike for a number of weeks.

I first came across the work of Yannis Ritsos when the Review published a pamphlet of his work translated by Alan Page. This was, I think, in 1969, when A Violent Country was published. I was immediately taken up by the poems. I said in a short essay on Ritsos written, much later, for Red River Review, ‘his touch is light, but his effect is profound’: those short lyrics read like little literary landmines likely to go off at the touch. Their intensity lay in the economy with which the poet delivered his images, in the way images carried narrative, in the way narrative and image were so perfectly focused. I hadn’t read Ritsos and knew nothing of his history – serially persecuted for his political beliefs, first by the Metaxas regime, then during the Greek Civil War, finally by the Colonels’ junta. His work was pretty well known in Europe, not least in France, Germany and Russia, but Page’s pamphlet must have been their first brief appearance in English before Nikos Stangos’s Selected Ritsos appeared in 1974.

I carried Page’s pamphlet round with me for weeks. Years passed before I started making Ritsos versions of my own (though I never stopped reading him as new translations became available) and, even then, I wasn’t sure I knew how best to bring him into English. Then something happened – I guess I hit the right note: a note I could hear and hold to: the right music. In Secret was published in 2012. I’m currently working on a collection of the poems he wrote while in prison camps and under house arrest on Samos during the junta years. Ritsos’s poetry is, often, political, but tends to be poetry not of attack but of resistance.

ANSPatrick Davidson Roberts recently edited a festschrift on your work, A Working Model of the Fall from Grace (Offord Road Books, 2019), whose cover sees three hares chase one another in a circle – and the hare is motif that runs throughout your work. You once decrypted it as an omnipresent expression of femininity in our global culture; you also spoke of its ‘witchiness’, could you elaborate?

DH. The hare was said to be the witch’s familiar. I first encountered the creature in it’s many cultural guises in John Layard’s book, The Lady of the Hare. Layard was a psychoanalyst. Half the book is an account of the analysis of a woman who was having hare dreams, the other half investigates aspects of the hare in world culture: in folklore, legend, superstition, magic. The mysteries of the hare. I was seventeen or eighteen when I read it and the excitement of that discovery has never left me. (I was about the same age when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which also had a profound effect on me: the beginning of my understanding of Humankind’s sustained attack on the natural world: of which, of course, the hare is a powerful harbinger.)

My first four years – crucial years – were spent in a house of women: great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunt. Most men were away, killing or being killed. By and large, women make more sense to me than men. It’s difficult to account for that more fully, but it might explain my understanding of the hare as feminine principle having to do with certain knowledge and ways of seeing, ways of encountering the world There’s a connection, I suppose, with the notion of the wise woman and so with the historical (and continuing) oppression and suppression of women. There’s a poem in A Bird’s Idea of Flight – ‘Coverack’ – in which the protagonist is challenged by a hare who presents as analyst/trickster/shape-shifter. She takes the same set of roles in ‘Lepus’, a sequence from Marriage. I would never think of using other than the feminine pronoun when depicting the hare in the role of seer.

ANSMany of your poems are very cinematic in feel and pace, News from the Front (1993) and Legion (2005) being good examples, but your work has acquired a more mysterious, surrealist feel of late. You published four books in quick succession in the 2010s: Night (2011), Fire Songs (2014), Salt (2017) and now Loss (2020); do you see a connection between these volumes?

DH. It would be true to say that my later poems have – I think – a more mysterious feel about them. I wrote a book-long sequence called Marriage. It traded off the relationship between Pierre Bonnard and Marthe de Meligny. It dealt, in part, with what I came to call the mysteries of domesticity: the notion that under all significant relationships there flows an alternative quotidian; that – to frame it as metaphor – dinner is simply dinner but there’s a sense in which all food is a sacrament. Writing about those mysteries – in Marriage and in other books – led me to mysteries of a different sort: not deeper or more profound, but simply more mysterious, and that led to new compositional challenges.

It’s been said of me that I never write the same book twice. I think the short time I spent writing mainly interpersonal poems caused a certain tone of voice to spill over, but Mister Punch was a step-change in that, then News from the Front a new way of approaching narrative, while A Bird’s Idea of Flight freed me into all sorts of gains and risks. In part, that was prompted by Ian Hamilton, who read News from the Front, and liked it, but said, ‘You can do this, why not do something else?’ When I asked him for some sort of a hint as to how, he said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then, ‘Try lengthening your line.’ I did. It was revelatory. Patterns shifted and reformed. There were possibilities I simply hadn’t seen before. Not just ways of doing things, but ways of thinking about how to do things. This has its parallels, obviously, in my answer to your last question.

As for the four books written in the last decade, there’s no thematic link that I can see save that there’s a new measure of darkness in those books. One other thing: just as painters will return to a certain image and represent it in different ways and composers will do the same with a passage of music – this in a single work, but also over a series of pieces – so I have taken to using a line, a phrase, an image, in successive poems and successive books: a sort of literary ostinato. It seemed to offer itself naturally as a kind of emphasis, a way of revisiting meaning, almost an aide memoire for the reader: an encouragement to return, find, compare. The line/phrase/image has to do its work in all contexts, of course.

I don’t really know what I’m doing until it’s done. I think that must be usual; perhaps there are poets who first sketch some sort of synopsis, I can’t imagine how that would work – second guessing the poem. I might have a few random half-lines and disconnected words-in-waiting in my notebook. I suppose I understand a poem I’m working on during the process of composition, as it develops under my hand. That incremental understanding is what makes it possible to end the poem.

ANSYou’ve worked with several composers on song cycles and operas, but arguably your greatest creative partner is Sir Harrison Birtwistle – I’m thinking of GawainThe MinotaurThe Corridor – are you collaborating on another project? How is music a part of your life these days?

DH. Harrison Birtwistle changed my life. He wrote an opera, Punch and Judy. I wrote Mister Punch. In reviewing my book for the Observer, Peter Porter drew parallels between the two. Harry saw the review, got hold of a copy of my book, liked what he read, and cold-called me to ask whether I’d be prepared to collaborate with him on a new piece for ROH. It was Gawain. Since then – the mid-1980s – I have been writing words for music, principally for the opera stage, most often with Harry though I’ve also worked with Huw Watkins, Jonathan Dove, Sally Beamish, Christian Mason, Sam Cave. Music was a significant part of my life anyway; after Gawain it became, and has remained, part of my working life. I know that writing those dramatic narratives, and working with composers, singers, musicians, has delivered change and new opportunity to my work in poetry, but I’n not sure I could say exactly how. A kind of compression, perhaps. Harry and I have a new commission; we’re talking to each other about it; I can’t say more than that.

ANSLet’s turn to translation. Night features some versions of Cavafy; then we have your versions of Goran Simić’s poems, Sprinting from the Graveyard (OUP, 1997) and the excellent In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos (Enitharmon, 2013). In the early 2000s, you collaborated with Sarah Maguire’s (1957-2017) Poetry Translation Centre, producing a series of translations of poems by the Somali poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, otherwise known as ‘Gaarriye’ (1949-2012). Per the PTC’s usual practices, you were paired with Martin Orwin and Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’, the ‘bridge’ translators, who produced literal cribs you used for your ‘final’ version. Gaarriye was obviously pleased with your work and said that you were “able to keep the spirit of [his] poems which is often what first goes missing in translation.” What are the responsibilities inherent in the art of translation, in so far as you see them?You spoke of the need to bridge the cultural gap, which will vary culture to culture, of course. Is that always possible?

DH. I won’t talk about the continuing squabble between the versioners and the strict translation school, except to say that Don Paterson (like me, a monolingual autodidact) dealt convincingly with that in the appendix to his versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and suggest that those interested in the argument read that apologia. I will say, though, that I would never have taken on the task of making versions of Ritsos, Simić, Cavafy, had I not thought that I could do them justice. The issue with Gaarriye was the vast cultural gulf between Somali and western culture. In simple terms it had to do with a line like: You are as beautiful as a rainy day; at a somewhat deeper level, it had to do with subject; deeper still was the poetic tradition from which his poems came, on which they rested, and the clear disconnect between his experience and response to experience and my management of that. I think I made a reasonable job of it.

I’ve always worked from literal or near-literal translations, so it depends what you mean by ‘crib translation’. If that has to do with some kind of cultural replication, then the answer to whether that’s always possible must be no. By the same token, the nuances of language, on which poetry depends, are not translatable. ‘Keeping the spirit’ is, yes, the principal responsibility; I didn’t know he’d said that but I’m glad he did. Penguin used to publish a series of anthologies of poems in translation where the original was printed with a prose account – a full gloss, really – at the foot of the page. That might not be the only way to give a strict translation of a poem, but it might be among the best. A version wants to find the poem’s heartbeat and listen to it.

ANSYou’ve worked as a bookseller, teacher, publisher, crime writer, screenwriter, librettist, translator… What practical advice do you have for younger writers, if any? You once stressed the importance of sacrificing “good for unsafe”.

DH. All poets need day jobs unless they happen to be wealthy. My advice, for what it’s worth – find something you can either engage with or dismiss but, if it engages, avoid kidnap. Patrick Davidson Roberts works in ecclesiastical law and deals with births, marriages and deaths. I wish I’d thought of that. I don’t differentiate between writing poems and writing for the opera stage, so don’t think of libretti as day-job writing. I was a shop-assistant in a bookshop after I left school. I spent many days checking stock, or dusting books, or shoving them into bags and taking the money. Pretty dull business. There were no automatic tills then or barcode EPS. I would dread a customer coming to the counter with a pile of books and cash: addition and subtraction froze my brain. I published A Violent Country while I worked there. I was allowed to do my own window display, but little or nothing was said about the book. I think it was looked upon as an act of hubris. When I first worked there, the owner was asked by a local notable to have a book delivered to his address. The owner said, ‘I’ll send the boy round with it.’ Me. During the time I worked there, I published a further book, married and fathered two children, but I don’t think I was ever much other than ‘the boy’.

I was first a copywriter, then a senior editor, then editorial director in three different publishing houses. I only ever ran lists of popular fiction. For some time, I was editorial director at Arrow Books, a paperback imprint. I never edited a literary list. Dennis Wheatley and Barbara Cartland were among our top money-spinners (though I did acquire paperback rights in The History Man and in reading it discovered that Malcolm Bradbury had a character called Professor Harsent. I challenged him on it. He insisted it was a coincidence). Publishing of that sort is time consuming and I virtually stopped writing poetry. It was a bit like a ten-year panic-attack. When I finally managed to have myself fired with no possibility of re-employment, Sonny Mehta said, ‘You were never really one of us, David.’ I think it was meant as a compliment.

I was never a career screenwriter, but I was reasonably good at that too, I think. I worked with some real craftsmen, both writers and script editors. Actors acting, writers writing, directors directing: I pretty much liked the set-up and the people and the craic. I wrote, or co-wrote, some successful shows and my thrillers were published in translation round the world and skated the lower numbers of a couple of bestseller lists (not the crucial ones). But it was never the career that it is for some; I wasn’t at all ambitious; I was earning a living. Teaching becomes really interesting when you’re involved with gifted students. I’ve been lucky in that regard. Last year, I had a particularly gifted writer on my MA course and another as a PhD student. I suspect we’ll be hearing more of both of them.

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