Jon Glover is a Professor at the University of Bolton. He has several collections of poetry with Carcanet, the latest is Glass is Elastic (2012). He is also editor of poetry journal Stand which is about to celebrate its 60th birthday. I caught up with Jon in July 2012 with a few questions that I was very interested to learn the answers to:
How have you reconciled the roles of teacher, editor and poet? Do you regard one of these roles as more important than the others?
JG: I don’t have a problem with it. There isn’t a need to reconcile. They are different activities though in many ways, in the big wide world of literature, they are all related and interdependent. It is possible that one has a different range of interests compared with e.g. an ‘academic’ who neither writes nor works as an active editor or publisher. I often quote the example of people in music – all music students learn to play one or more instruments, many study the history of music and learn about composition. And people who teach in music colleges all play and, and, and… It has only been in the UK (not the USA) in which studying Eng Lit has been purely a critical activity. There are many people today who have held more than one role either working as an editor in a major press, and working as a poet, and as a teacher e.g. Don Paterson (Picador, St Andrews etc.). Michael Schmidt does it all – University of Glasgow, Carcanet and PNR plus being a poet and critic. Andrew McNeillie has worked as a poet, chief Literature Commissioning Editor at OUP and Professor of Poetry in Exeter; he also runs the Clutag Press which is Geoffrey Hill’s current publisher (see his recent Forward Prize nomination). Jon Silkin was a similarly multi-faceted poet although, until near the end of his life, most of his teaching posts were temporary or short-term Writer-in-Residence Fellowships. The only problem is time! I’ve never thought one activity was more important than another. Obviously, one job brings in the money, but the others are integral.
When Stand first launched, it was with a strong identity and mission, ‘…a magazine which would ‘Stand’ against injustice and oppression, and ‘Stand’ for the role that the arts, poetry and fiction in particular, could and should play in that fight’. How would you describe the aims of Stand today, does it still have a political agenda?
JG: Very important questions. I would like to think that poetry and fiction, with a strong critical element, remain politically important. Interestingly, although Stand has had a political identity and has stood for ‘Commitment’ it rarely had overt party-political or campaigning aims. It was always pro-Europe in the sense of understanding the horrors of European war and the persecution of the Jews. In effect, to be aware of the greatest European literature is to be involved in the political and personal struggles that our parents and families have been involved with. In the fairly confused and confusing Britain in which we live in 2012 I think writing, reading, publishing and thinking with others about poetry is political.
As an editor, what are you looking for in a poem?
JG: We have the pleasure, privilege and honour to be receiving batches of poetry and fiction from all over the world. So, as many editors say, one is simply looking seriously at it all and trying to choose the best. Usually, those that are chosen will have an ‘edge’, something odd and unusual. Some poems are formed on good observations and good records of events but leave one thinking ‘so what’. Usually, the best will be exploring language in ways which, in effect, criticise and philosophise creatively the material that emerges. Usually there is a strong sense that the writer is ‘in charge’. Of course, that does not mean that they know everything, quite the reverse. See the next question…
Which characteristics guarantee that a poem will end up in the rejection pile?
JG: There are some which seem to be written from a handbook of cliché. Many which take a very conventional view of whatever is being evoked or described. Many which are simply sounding off on social or political issues from a sadly routine perspective. There are many which must come from genuine problems and sad situations. However, we can’t make up issue after issue from poems which, however strongly felt, don’t have an original edge. Do they have some element in which the very language which has been the source or cause of the poem is in some ways a discovery. Many people seem not to read recent poetry or, indeed, any great poetry. A lot comes through the door without any awareness of the thousands of years of poetic history.
We are one of the few journals that publishes substantial work in fiction. There are some of the same problems in making selections. I am always amazed at the numbers of stories submitted from all over the world which start something like this: ‘I walked along the shore. We kicked up the sand. It was the day after my mother’s funeral. From behind a rock came the man who had tried to make love with me last week. Would he solve my heartache? The gulls called. We went home together.’ Turn the ‘I’ into ‘he’; ‘he’ into ‘she’; ‘mother’ into ‘father’; ‘the day after’ to the ‘the day before’, and the results are similar. However, ‘good’ and ‘moving’ the story may be we can’t publish a seashore lament in every issue. That said, it remains fascinating that this story, and its variants, are mailed in, week after week, from Australia, the USA, Ireland and Scotland.
During your years at the magazine whose poems were you most excited to find in the in-tray?
JG: Very hard to say. Sometimes poems and short stories come in from totally new writers. When they are good, that gives me and the other editors a real kick. Sometimes we have had the great good fortune to have new work by some of the greatest. A few years ago we published a large section of what was to become Geoffrey Hill’s Scenes from Comus. That was wonderful. Geoffrey Hill is offering us three new poems to appear in this current issue 197 and three more in each of the next three issues. It is a strange and mysterious shock – to open and read such poems for the first time.
Do you have a favourite issue of Stand?
JG: Some of the most recent ones have contained a lot of good work. If I had to take one to my desert island it might be issue Vol. 4 No 3 (Rosenberg and War Poetry), or the one with Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Funeral Music’. Both of those are from the 1960s. It would take thousands of words to explain.
What, if anything, is different about the poems hitting the editorial mat at Stand today, than when the magazine began?
JG: Good question. The first 12 issues were published from London between 1952 and 1957. Jon Silkin told me that one of the last poems to come through the letter box in 1957, before he ran out of cash and had to close the magazine down, was Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’. Jon had to return it. That said, Hughes’s poems were probably already very different from many others that appeared in Stand in the 1950s. When Stand was started again in Leeds in 1960 it had a new selection of established and emerging poets as well as new fiction writers and critics. These days, we get so many poems from different parts of the world that it is hard to generalise. On the whole, poetry from the USA is very competent, very confident and very assured of the voice being used.
There have been several anthologies of young poets’ work in recent years Do you think there is any evidence to suggest that this heralds a change in the poetry landscape, or is it simply a cyclical excitement over new voices?
JG: Having lived through apparently different ‘perceived’ waves and movements during the last 50 years it is always good to see new people and to hear new voices. On the other hand, I have seen many ‘great, new, original, challenging voices’ and in some cases they continue to develop and fascinate. In many cases, the media forgets them although they may still have a small following.
Stand has recently made an appearance on Facebook, What are your thoughts on the role of technology and social media in poetry? Will Jon Glover be on Twitter any time soon?
JG: My colleagues and fellow editors and the Editorial Assistants all think that contact through the digital media is important. And so it is proving. I greatly respect the views of Michael Schmidt. He remains totally devoted to print and paper. On the other hand, he is also committed to working through the new media for the good of Carcanet and PNR and for poetry itself. I fear that I am not a Twitter addict yet. Who knows…?
Where does Stand see itself today in relation to other literary magazines? Are you optimistic about the future of literary magazines?
JG: Difficult. It will soon be our 60th Birthday and our 200th issue. Many people still write great poetry and fiction. Many people still read it. The journals which publish new writing are likely to be important for many years to come as the locations to find new work and for new writers to experiment. People often lament the fact that some magazines last for one or two issues and die. I think it is important that writers conceive of the idea that a new magazine is vital; magazines offer a different relationship between writer and reader from the production and purchase of books. Perhaps digital magazines are experimenting with similar editorial functions. I am sure that the process of discovery and choice should continue.
Writing poems can be a lonely enterprise, but throughout your career you have forged strong friendships with other poets, do you find being able to share (and receive feedback on) your ongoing work an important part of the process?
JG: This could turn into an autobiography. Yes, I find it important to be able to talk with others about writing as it happens. From earliest days that includes Jon Silkin, Ken Smith and Peter Redgrove, later with David Wright. Geoffrey Hill has been a constant presence. Reading his poems over the years has been a form of dialogue. The poet Jeffrey Wainwright was a contemporary at Leeds. He remains a brilliant critic and someone to whom I turn regularly for advice and comfort. My wife, Elaine, who was also at Leeds, and has been helping with Stand from the 1960s, is also someone I trust absolutely. More recently I have found critics and poets in Leeds very important. I talk with them, particularly John Whale, a lot. But some of the most important ears and voices have perhaps been students. I have always been an advocate of the Group method of participation in workshops. I inherited the method from Peter Redgrove who was one of its founders with Ted Hughes and Philip Hobsbaum in Cambridge. It helps one to learn whether a poem is working in the way one hoped or expected. Often, it turns out that one has written something completely unintentional. ‘Did I write that?’ On the other hand, there may be a danger in wanting regular majority ‘approval’. I think that taking risks with oneself, one’s own writing, is vital. It is an awful challenge to learn to read oneself.
How do you generate ideas for your own poems?
JG: With a pen and a blank piece of paper.
Do you have any rituals with regard to your writing, is there a process?
JG: See above. Over the years I have often set aside time when on holiday. I try to start at least one new poem per day. I still start every poem with pen and ink. Even when I type them up I save as accurate a transcript as I can make of the first scrawl.
Is there one poem (or poet) which you return to more than any other?
JG: If you mean a recent poet and / or someone I have known and / or worked with – probably Jon Silkin and ‘Death of a Son’ and Geoffrey Hill and ‘Funeral Music’ and Jeffrey Wainwright and ‘Thomas Müntzer’.
You are currently working on a biography of Jon Silkin, how is this going?
JG: Imagine working through 50 metres of Silkin personal papers and 50 metres of Stand papers. That is metres of boxes on library shelves. It is a long but enjoyable task. I am also working on an edition of his Complete Poems.
One of the books that I remember fondly from my undergraduate study is The Penguin Book of First World War Poets, (ed Jon Silkin), I wondered what your thoughts are on contemporary war poems, there are some impressive international poets writing about war, and of course British poet Brian Turner has received a lot of attention, but do you think that the non-military British poet can or should address the subject of war?
JG: A massive question. Probably the most simple answer, yet complex in its implications, is to return to Keith Douglas who claimed that the most important poetry of the second World War would be written after the war was over. Perhaps he meant that all important poetry in the future is, inevitably, ‘war poetry’. He did not live to see how his prediction might be lived out.
You have been involved in the Literature Live performances at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton for many years. Why is performance important, and do you have any advice for poets performing their work?
JG: When I arrived in Bolton in 1968 one of the tutors here was Tony Connor. He was a poet that I had first met when he was invited to give readings in Leeds. It seemed important to continue the tradition of living poetry in Bolton. I have always assumed that poetry is drama. Poetry is concerned with, and exploits, voice and voices. It is always worth reading it aloud, or reading it aloud ‘in your head’. Or hearing it read aloud. It is usually better to hear the poet rather than an actor. T S Eliot himself rather than Alec Guinness. Not that Guinness isn’t good, he is. So is Fiona Shaw. It’s hard to advise new poets on reading. Read Shakespeare and Milton and Keats aloud and record it, Listen to yourself. Are you making sense? Then record your own poems. Do those versions of your voice make sense?
Over the last few years you have published two new volumes of poetry, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Carcanet, 2008) and Glass is Elastic (Carcanet, 2012). Can you tell us anything about your next collection?
JG: There are already a good few new poems. I mean, there are a lot. I’ve no idea how the next book will look. Michael Schmidt will be a very good editor.
The poem below is from Jon’s latest collection, Glass Is Elastic, published by Carcanet, you can buy a copy here.
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In an Art Gallery built
into a lovely (that is ‘well-
restored’), Renaissance palace
in a cool Umbrian hill-top
town, I rolled in my wheelchair
(first time for that, there has
to be such an event, I guess),
past intense blues and reds
that listed and illuminated
deaths, and the ways of death,
and many ways of coming
to life. As in a smoothed-out farm
or conservatory; flowery also.
Odour-free, I think. Touch me,
touch me not. All petals that
end it all, and edges of flesh
to celebrate. And angels’ wings,
so curiously attached, as though
to seal up a way to the heights –
to look down on all this. Belong
there or not, the feathers have
it all – think of the muscle-power
down your back and the boredom
and pity whilst hovering over
the muck. I think of my wheels
hardly touching the floor in
an ideal geometrical life –
so like floating in the blue
or over the blue in a quiet
bloodless transmission through
the oil paint and out again
except only allowed in that
perfect angle, or in fiction,
that must, just must, destroy itself,
no, make itself irrelevant,
with a happy infinity-sign
bubbling on a shop-window fountain,
or a top spinning its defiance,
or its weight to be expressed
beyond regret. Don’t cry now.