Sunday 12 December 2010

Tom Pickard Interview

Q and A: Tom PickardCan you tell us what Basil Bunting’s work has meant to you?

I served a kind of apprenticeship to Bunting, taking my poems to him when I was sixteen or seventeen. He made his library available and introduced me to the work of his contemporaries—Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, and others associated with the Objectivists, as well as to the older poets whom he studied and delighted in. He also sought to put me in touch with younger poets that he’d met when in North America—August Kleinzahler and the young Andrew Wylie, in particular. He also urged me to study the work of Hugh MacDiarmid and David Jones. Sometimes I’d get a rendering of poems by pitmen poets from the region. And he didn’t stop with English-language poets either, often reading me Ferdowsi or Dante in the original even though I was ignorant of both Persian and Italian and was only barely paddling in the shallows of English. He believed that the music of the language would convey its own meaning. In a reverse experiment I believe he also tried out some of my early poems in Geordie dialect on the tender lugs of Kleinzahler and other of his students on North American campuses in the early seventies.

My tendency, after Bunting’s urging to cut down as soon and as often as possible, means that several baggy lines end up as a short phrase. My preference anyway is for a taut music. His critical voice is always in my ear. I mean, I don’t think I would publish a poem if I thought that Basil would have considered it crap. And if I’m tempted to be lazy and leave a line slack to more easily convey a “meaning,” I can hear his candid reproach—“It doesn’t matter what you meant to say.” Although he strove to help me find my own voice, it is inevitable that he still resonates very deeply, and I probably echo him unconsciously on occasion. While attempting to answer another of your questions just now, I came across just such an echo—referring to sphagnum and peat. It was quite a shock to me.

Bunting also introduced me to Northumbria, often taking me to Lindisfarne or to see the Bewcastle Cross with its Anglo-Saxon carving of the Tree of Life. When visitors, such as Creeley or Ginsberg, would come to do a reading at the Morden Tower, we would invariably drive out next day to show them the rolling hills of Northumberland or the Gothic glories of Durham Cathedral, as well as the dark welcoming pubs with their clear cool beers that oiled his repertoire of amusing and often bawdy anecdotes.

Bunting’s work strikingly combines historical with personal motifs. This poem leans more toward the latter. Given that he was an important influence, how would you say your work might be distinct from his?

Although Bunting had a plan or diagram for Briggflatts, I would argue that it was as much a walk in the dark for him as for anyone beginning to compose an original work. I’m sure that when he set off on his journey he wasn’t fully aware of what he’d find and had to leave much to chance. I mean, I don’t think that he lay down the blueprint and joined up the dots. There were key figures and emotions in mind, but they were distant mountains, and there was a lot of unknown territory between him and them.

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