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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow?
Tobias Hill: London in all its glory. Which for me means London at night. Some of the world's great cities only really come into their own after dark. London is like that.
Actually, that's too neat. What I was really trying to write about was more than London. I wanted Nocturne to be a series of poems about the city. Post 9/11, post 7/7. I love the countryside, but it's the great cities that make the world go round - for better and worse. Writing about the city, you end up writing about the best and the worst of the modern world. What else should poetry be about?
London has enough mass and variation that it can stand to be an example of what a city is. That's something I've been trying to get at for a long time. The hardest thing is the variation. It's very easy to get lost. If you try and catch it all you end up with nothing. The idea in Nocturne was to avoid that problem through focus. There's a quote by Monet at the beginning of the book, a line from a letter he wrote to a friend about the difficulties of painting water: "To paint the sea really well, you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place so that you can understand its ways in that particular spot." The city is difficult to write about for the same reasons the sea is difficult to paint - nothing ever stops - it's all motion and change. So I took the painter's advice. Nocturne has two particular spots; the place where I grew up and still live, and the geographical heart of the city.
Then there's the other quote at the beginning of the book, which is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Cities give us collision". It's harder to explain what that did for the poems. It got me thinking on what cities are really composed of. The buildings are incidental. The people are what matters. Emerson is talking about the way people are thrown together into relationships they would never have chosen or imagined. He doesn't say whether that's good or bad. That gave me ideas.
MT: Do you wait for the "muse to land" or do you work and work at your poems?
TH: Okay, here's a true story. It's a bit long so if I'm boring you look away now.
In 1997 I was on a train journey across Russia. One night the birch forests gave way to a station like every other, with a statue of Lenin still facing towards a post-Communist Moscow, but as the train passed I saw a woman on the platform. She seemed to be waiting, although she ignored the night train. In one hand she held the leads of three large dogs; in the other she had a bag, and on the bag was this line of English:
To the writer, imagination is more important than knowledge - Kipling.
I watched the woman until she was out of sight, alone except for Lenin and her dogs. I kept thinking of her. Why was she there alone so late? Was Kipling back in fashion in a remote corner of Russia? Was the quotation even real? The story of the woman and the quotation kept me awake that night.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. The comparison interests me. Sometimes I find I agree with it. Writing with knowledge but no imagination is a sure way to produce a telephone directory, but not good writing. Since we're talking about poetry the comparison takes on a stronger resonance, because it echoes a stereotype. In case you didn't know, this is the way verse works: the good poet locks the door, turns off the light, and waits. Wandering aimlessly through daffodils is permissable on weekends. Eventually, inspiration will descend from heaven in large blue lightning bolts and, striking the good poet through the top of the head, will light up his or her brain for just enough time to write. On average it takes four lightning bolts to make a decent poem, and if someone knocks at the door at the wrong moment the whole thing is ruined: a hundred feet up in the air, a hairline crack appears in the bolt and it dissipates in a cloud of sulphur.
This is all true, and can even become mundane; once you've seen one blue bolt you've seen them all. There was even a report a while back which claimed that flashes of inspiration are produced by the decay of brain cells (which explains a lot about many poets). None of this leaves much room for knowledge. When inspiration is so spectacular, it's tempting to think that poets might be better off knowing nothing. That innocence is a lightning conductor.
Writing is not only about imagination. It takes work, and work is about getting to know what you're about. In 1931 John Livingstone Lowes wrote a beautiful study of this. He called it The Road to Xanadu, and it investigates two poems which epitomise the intensity of imagination - Coleridge's Kubla Khan and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
The Road to Xanadu is written in a language reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle; and the book itself is the original literary thriller. It charts Lowes's search for the source of Coleridge's imagination. He doesn't find blue lightning bolts. Lowes the literary detective goes after imagination, but what he comes back with is knowledge. In the poet's notebooks he finds researches into alligators and albatrosses; biscuit-worms, bubbles of ice, bassoons and breezes; footless birds of paradise and gooseberries; wefts and water snakes and the Wandering Jew. Lowes finds that imagination isn't the only culprit behind the poems. Knowledge underpins everything the Ancient Mariner sees and tells.
I'm still not sure who wrote the quotation I saw on the Russian platform, but I believe it was wrong. Imagination isn't more important than knowledge to the writer; not even to the poet. Knowledge in good writing isn't something you can always see, but then you can't see foundations. Imagination rises out of knowledge, and poets are not and never have been innocent creators.
I don't know what happened to the woman. I have her written down, though, with Lenin and the dogs. In my notebook she is waiting for the right story to come along, but I wonder what she was waiting for herself. Hopefully not bolts from the blue.
MT: How long did it take you to write Nocturne? Is that the usual kind of timescale for you?
TH: Not much more than a year, which for me is very fast. It came all at once, after five years of writing only novels.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
TH: I get some poems very quickly, and for those I try to do what DH Lawrence advised with poetry – I rewrite as little as possible (DH didn't rewrite his poems at all). Others are more like Austen's little pieces of ivory, two inches wide, and endlessly reworked. They crystallise differently; different grammatical structures, syntaxes, patterns of puctuation.
I write on whatever's handy. The first drafts often come when I walk. The rhythms of walking go into the poems. When I was writing Nocturne I was walking ten miles or so a day. When that happens I'm mostly writing in my head, though I'll have a notebook on me somewhere.
MT: Poetry or prose? Which is your favourite and why!?
TH: Hard question! I love them both. Five years ago I would have said poetry like a shot. But five years ago I hadn't written a novel I liked. The poem and the novel are worlds apart and I love them both. And then there's short stories, which I am very fond of too...
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
TH: I walk and run. I cook. I read more and more. As a younger poet I avoided reading too much. So many right and just arguments are put forth for reading as much as possible but there are two sides to the coin. For a young poet reading can be overwhelming. At that point it could be argued that poetry should be a response to primary sources - to life - rather than to secondary sources - to art or other writers. At any rate, I still have plenty of marvellous things to read.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
TH: I write for others. If there was ever an ideal it blurred into a generality some time ago.
MT: What are you working on now?
TH: I've just finished a book for children – Michael Foreman is illustrating it. But my main project right now is a novel. I suspect it will be the last for some years.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
TH: That's like asking when I ate my favourite egg!
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
TH: Hello mum.
I like the site very much. Keep in touch & all the best.
MT: Thanks so much Tobias.
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