Going against the grain
INTERVIEW: Rosita Bolandmeets the outspoken poet Anne Stevenson, who reads in Ireland next week, at the Poetry Now festival
THE POET Anne Stevenson, who will be reading at Dublin’s Poetry Now festival next Saturday, is waiting in the lobby of the Wallace Collection museum, in central London. The prearranged order of our meeting is first pictures, then an interview. I am early, so I introduce Stevenson to Joanne O’Brien, my colleague.
“And when is the photographer turning up?” Stevenson inquires briskly, peering from beneath her severely cut fringe. O’Brien indicates the large camera that is hanging from her shoulder. “Oh, I was expecting a man,” Sylvia Plath’s biographer announces, sounding astonished. It’s not much of a surprise when later, over lunch, she describes herself as a feminist “with a small F”.
Lunch. The poet has given me precise instructions about where she cares to lunch when in London (her home is in Durham). We are at the very beautiful Wallace Collection, a secluded jewel of a place only five minutes from Oxford Street that is home to, among other art treasures, Hals’s The Laughing Cavalierand Fragonard’s The Swing. The restaurant, with eye-watering prices, is dramatically located in a glass-roofed courtyard at the centre of the museum.
Stevenson, who is 77, orders as a starter steak tartare, a dish served raw. It arrives, ruby red, with an uncooked quail’s egg on the side, and she begins determinedly eating, but only after stating that she never drinks alone and that she wishes to have a glass of wine. Thus we begin the interview each with a glass in front of us.
Stevenson is being mentioned as a possible candidate to be Oxford’s next professor of poetry, a post established in 1707. Former professors include WH Auden, Seamus Heaney and Christopher Ricks. Other possible contenders are Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Motion and Jorie Graham. Nominations, made by at least 12 Oxford graduates, must be in by May 5th. Results will be announced after voting concludes on June 18th. Though the post carries a modest stipend of only £7,000, it is both extremely prestigious and has an international profile.
“As soon as I heard my name I had all sorts of ideas about what I’d like to do,” she declares. “But on the other hand I’m not sure they would like me. I’m not sure I would be what the younger poets would want. I would have thought I’m too old, perhaps, and too independent.” If she were appointed, she says, she would promote American poets and focus attention on poetry about science and music. “They seem to be the two things missing from poetry now, especially poets coming from creative-writing courses. I’d also consider talking about the difference between poetry and prose, and how so much poetry these days seems to me prose chopped up.”
She says she would be actively looking for a “scientist poet. I’m not sure I know of any”. There is the highly respected British poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who has long taken science as her subject. “Yes, I know her. I don’t think she’s very good. Her ear is not very good. But I might look at her again,” Stevenson concedes. “I would try to start without prejudice,” she says brightly, resuming business with the raw meat.
Anne Stevenson’s parents were both American; she was born in the English city of Cambridge, where her father was studying philosophy under Wittgenstein. How did having a philosopher as a parent influence her? “It made me very unselfconscious about ideas.”
After her father’s time in Cambridge ended, there followed three decades in which she moved backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, finally settling in Britain. Where does she consider home to be? “I think it’s pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic by now,” she says with a laugh.
From time to time during the interview Stevenson asks for a question to be repeated. She lost most of her hearing through a form of nerve deterioration when she was 30, and she now has an implant. “Oddly enough, losing my hearing may have helped me as poet,” she explains, “because what I can’t hear outside I do tend to make up for with an inner ear. And I found I’m more conscious of rhythms now in language.”
In person Stevenson is opionionated, rather bitchy, highly entertaining and consistently forthright in her wide-ranging views, be they about the shortcomings of modern poetry or children’s toys. (She has just come from visiting her grandchildren.) She gives the enviable impression of being someone who has always done in life exactly what she wished. Married four times, she also lived openly during her second marriage with the writer Philip Hobsbaum, in an arrangement apparently pleasing to all concerned. There are three children by different fathers.
When asked to describe each of her husbands in one word she does not hesitate for even a second, and includes Hobsbaum in the list. Robin Hitchcock was “a hedonist”, Mark Elvin a “a genius”, Hobsbaum “a poet”, Michael Farley “a romantic”. Her current husband, Peter Lucas, is “a dear”.
The American poet Donald Hall, a former US poet laureate, was the person who first encouraged her to take writing poetry seriously, when she was taking a master’s in English literature at the University of Michigan. “He was the one who found me,” as she puts it.
Stevenson has written 14 collections of poems, held several literary fellowships and been the recipient of a number of awards, including the Lannan Prize, for a lifetime’s achievement in poetry. She says she considers her best work to date to be the long poem The Makers, which opens her latest collection, Stone Milk; the poem is dedicated to Hobsbaum. “Because it does interesting things with language,” she explains, “but nobody else seems to think it is my best work. The critics, I mean.”
She is also the author of critical studies of Elizabeth Bishop and published a controversial biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, in 1989. It proved controversial because defenders of Plath’s mythology took severe umbrage at the fact that Stevenson, in an author’s note, thanked Olwyn Hughes – Ted Hughes’s sister and then literary agent to Plath’s estate – writing that “her contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship”.
How, then, the impassioned argument went at the time of publication – and long afterwards – could the biography be anything but overly supportive of Hughes and his role in Plath’s life?
“Despite my reputation as a Sylvia-basher, I’m still really impressed by her poetry,” Stevenson remarks drily. “But Elizabeth Bishop is my model poet.” The two women carried on a correspondence, which will be included in a major collection of Bishop’s letters being published this year in the US. “Her letters to me were even more important to me than her poems.” Why? “Because she so agreed with what I felt instinctively. She didn’t like the increasing commercial emphasis on poetry. Neither did she like the increasing emphasis on women’s poetry at the expense of poetry, and for that reason she never allowed herself be printed in an all-women’s anthology. She disliked the big celebrity fuss they made of Lowell, or anyone whose name becomes more important than the poetry. Everyone’s heard of Seamus Heaney, but who’s actually read his poems?”
So what does she consider to be the function of poetry in 2010? “I think all the younger-generation poets are in some trouble at the moment. I don’t think they know what they’re doing,” Stevenson remarks with annoyance. “I think there are too many creative-writing classes, and trying to be prize-worthy and all the rest of it. I’m just trying to think of young poets that I really am enthusiastic about.” (She can’t.) “The real function of poetry is to be rebellious, and non-conformist, and individual, in a world that is harder and harder to be individual in. And you have to be very courageous to be a poet. You have to go against the grain. Poetry wakens the conscience. It awakens a sense of questioning what you do. It wakens your alertness to what’s happening around you.”
There is silence for a while as we attend to our plates. Then she starts laughing, stops eating and declares: “I don’t think I would have survived without a sense of humour. It seems to me to be the most important thing, to have a sense of detachment. It’s so important not to be wrapped up in yourself. I think as I’ve become older I’ve become less and less self-concerned. When I was younger I was very self-concerned, and I suppose that’s why it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m famous but it does matter to me whether my poems are good. It really does.”
The waiter comes over to clear the plates, and asks Stevenson if she would like a second glass of wine. She refuses. “Because then,” she says, tantalisingly, when he has gone, “I might have to tell you the truth.”