Jeremy Twill and Phil Borch: an
Phil Borch: I'd like to start with a few questions about
your early career, your formative years. I've often heard that in the
Seventies you were part of the Lopez-Mombasko Group. It's hard to believe,
given some of the rumors about their activities -- poetry readings in
swimming pools, sex while reciting Marlowe's Tamburlaine, things like that.
Jeremy Twill: What do you mean -- 'You've often heard'? What does that mean
exactly? Do you intend to say that often in conversation someone, or to be
more precise, some several people in more than one conversation, have (or has
-- even I'm confused now) mentioned that the poet Twill was etcetera
etcetera.... Or do you mean to say that this is something you've 'often' come
across mentioned in your readings about the poet Twill? I'm intrigued by your
phrasing. I hope it's not all going to be like this. I don't want to have to
be reconstructing your questions all the time. Do you want to start again?
Anyway, I notice you've neglected to turn the tape machine on.
Phil Borch: Oh, right. But, see, I'm also using this microrecorder attached
to the sugar bowl, and that one's on. Anyway -- well, it's just something
that people mention in conversation, you know. People have this impression
that you were kind of wild in the Seventies. You did know Ferd Mombasko,
didn't you? You published some poems in The Shrieking Groin.
Twill: Ah yes, the Groin. But
the work I had in there I would now consider juvenilia, to be honest. I mean,
I was only nine. Most of it was about cowboys. Mombasko was very surprised
when I turned up at the launch party for the issue that featured my poems. My
mother was with me. And we had to leave early because I had school in the
morning. Also, as I recall, I had
an unfinished pencil likeness of Wallace Stevens that I was eager to
Borch: You were only nine? If that's true, then you're at least ten years
younger than I thought! The chronology -- but, it's hard to tell when you're
kidding me. Maybe I offended you with the Mombasko question. Let's try a
broader question. In the years leading to your first book, who were the
writers who influenced or helped you the most? Who did you admire? Who shaped
Twill: When I was a youngster, I read almost all of Agatha Christie. I still
enjoy a good murder mystery. As to poetry, my parents were very informed
about current trends in contemporary poetries -- they were probably a little
unusual in that respect. But it meant that as well as the usual famous
things, like Chaucer and Cholmondely and Chatterton, there'd be poems around
by people like Auden and Desmond. But of course I'm of the generation that
found poetry on LP covers, too, and in the anguished cry of a guitar and the
swish and swoon of a mini-skirt.
Jeremy Twill at The Aldeburgh
Poetry Festival, 2005
Borch: That's fascinating. Let's talk more about all those
influences. But also I will want to point out certain poets you don't mention. You are very much someone who 'goes
his own way' and apparently you always have been. But surely there must
have been one or two poets whose work tremendously influenced you, even
obsessed you, in your twenties?
Twill: Well, I always had a soft spot for poets who, for me, sounded as if
they were engaging in conversation rather than in a formal writing process.
Of course, now I know that these words can mean almost anything to anyone,
but it means I early fell in love with Coleridge. The Conversation
Poems. I wanted to be him, and in some
respects still do.
Borch: But without all the drug problems, I assume? Ha ha! But seriously,
your affinity for Coleridge is intriguing. He is a poet who struggled with depression, or dejection,
throughout his career. And he expresses a desperate wish to be saved from
that. I wonder whether this is involved in your devotion to him?
Twill: No, not at all. I have never experienced depression. Or dejection,
come to that. of course, you will not believe me.
Borch: Well, I'm surprised. I
mean, isn't there a darkness, a grimness in some of your work, like the section
of 'Whacked' about 'the stinking hound of moronic
desire'? Or, what about those 'jealous elves' that pinch you
in 'Cold Beans Before Dawn'? Or, for that matter, what about the
'anguish of a guitar' which you mentioned earlier?
Twill: See! I knew you wouldn't believe me. Of course, I rewrote 'Whacked'
quite extensively for the recent Consumed by Certainty: Selected
Poems. And I re-titled it 'Somnolent
Sea'. Some people seem to regard the new version as a different poem. But I
never really trusted 'Whacked'. I always suspected someone else wrote it and
slipped it among my papers, knowing I wouldn't be able to remember writing it
-- if I did. 'The stinking hound of moronic desire' sounds like somebody
else, which is why I changed that line to 'the unusual dogs of what I want
and get.' The 'jealous elves', as any astute reader would realise, are only
there to counterpoint the 'ambitious dwarves' in the next stanza. Remember
there are no such things as elves. If you remember that, the poem becomes a
celebration rather than a swamp of misery. 'Conscious of sunlight and
American girls'. That's not exactly sad, I think. 'Anguish of a guitar'? Yes,
but that's someone else's anguish -- the next line reads 'not bad for only
£12.99 off Amazon'.
Borch: I must confess I had not
realized that 'Somnolent Sea' was a revision of
'Whacked'. It brings up an interesting theoretical issue about what
revision can mean. But let me
see if there's any more you can reveal about how you came to be the poet you
came to be. Agatha Christie and Samuel Coleridge and crying guitars and
miniskirts -- it's an unusual list of influences. What about American poets?
Ginsberg? Corso? What about the fact that Anthony Bodgerswell in the London
Review of Books once called you 'Ted
Twill: Bodgerswell!! There's a name you don't hear mentioned these days! Your
research has taken you into the realms of the silly. You know there was a
rumour that duelling almost made a comeback while he was writing for the LRB. He was the most seriously ignorant man. But then,
of course, there was that affair with the sheep, and he disappeared into the
literary mist. 'Ted Hughes Junior'! The only resemblance between Ted Hughes
and me is ..... um ..... well, actually, there's no resemblance at all. He's much
taller, too. Or he was when he was alive.
Borch: Well, Penelope Smagler warned me that you would be very elusive in any
interview -- 'like an eel dressed in apple jelly' was the way she
put it. I do feel you are resisting my attempts to get a clear perspective on
you. In an article on you in 1999, I argued that your mercurial
adventurousness in poetry was a sort of cover-up for a kind of Gothic sorrow.
Yet you seem to want to emphasize 'celebration' rather than
'swamps of misery'. Let me ask you straight out, then: Are you
Twill: Yes. Thank you for asking.
Jeremy Twill at the age
of 8 (photo courtesy Mrs. Twill)
Phil Borch: I see. Well, that's certainly a decisive
answer. But if indeed you are a happy man, is this a kind of desperately hedonistic
happiness, or is it something more reliable and spiritual? There is such an
odd, surprising use of metaphor in your work, such quick changes, as if no
metaphor were quite satisfactory to you. Doesn't this express a sense that
now, in the twenty-first century, our lives are a chaos and there's
nothing we can really believe in?
Twill: I'd be interested to know what you think is an example of my
surprising use of metaphor. That interests me greatly. But, as to the larger
issue, I rather find that this idea of life as chaos and there being nothing
to believe in -- well, it bores me to tears. It really does. You know, of
course, that my background is English Methodist. As a child, I would spend
most of every Sunday at Church. The mornings with children at the Sunday
School where we studied short religious texts and sang happy songs about how
we would all be saved if we were good, and damned if we weren't, and later in
the evening we'd be in the grown-up Church, listening to the sermon, which
always seemed to be about how we would all be saved if we were good, and
damned if we weren't. In my teens, I became aware that it was fashionable to
believe in how the world was a waste land of despair, and we were all going
to be blown away by atom bombs, and we were on the edge of the abyss. But of
course that didn't happen. Instead, we invented Microsoft and The Simpsons
and digital sex. I'm not quite sure what digital sex is, but I'm looking into
it. Be that as it may, my point is that when I hear about life as chaos, and
our having nothing to really believe in, it all sounds like so much claptrap.
Life is to be celebrated! We're here, and it's okay. That's worth believing
in, even if it's not called God. That's not to say there aren't some bad
things. In fact, there's lots of bad things in the world. It's full of them,
to be honest, but it's also full of good things and it's easy to be gloomy.
Most poets are gloomy, and then people wonder why people don't read poetry!
And then, of course, we have
lives which are, by and large, a mixture of happy and sad. That's how life
is. We love and we lose. We have money in the bank, and then suddenly we're
broke. One day you have hair, then suddenly you're old and it's gone. It can
be very difficult at times, but also very funny. I was talking to the poet
Duncan Feld recently. I don't know if you know his work. His most recent book
is called The View From My Eyes, and
it's excellent. He has a poem where he says (I hope I don't misquote him) 'I
like to splash and splosh in a puddle, and leave my sock drawer in a muddle.
But where are we? Oh yes: here.' And Duncan was saying how he doesn't feel
much kinship with most other poets, or with anyone much else for that matter.
But he is very happy, and laughs to himself a lot. And I feel somewhat the
same. Duncan is a real hoot. He's great fun at the cinema. He can sneeze very
loudly at will.
Borch: That's all very well, but most readers I think would place you in a
different category from Duncan Feld, with his light-verse sort of rhyming
stuff. But many of the same readers will be rather startled by the
cheerfulness you've been expressing. Some will wonder whether your rumored
relationship with Fiona Vavogna may explain this new emphasis on celebration.
Twill: Well, there's two things to address here. First, you are evidently
confusing Duncan Feld with Dunstan Feldt. Feldt is the rhymer-brat. He's
useless. He thinks 'owl' rhymes with 'bowl'! Feld is a great poet. I love his
'Lurching Silly' poems. 'Someone I knew thought I was something, and I have
nowhere to put the albatross but he likes it here on my arm.' The other thing
is this rumour regarding Fiona Vavogna and myself -- I have heard this rumour
also. It's quite amusing: a shy British poet who rarely ventures beyond his
own city, who refuses to fly and cannot bear to be on a boat, and he is
supposed to be having a torrid love affair with a Hungarian poetess who, as
far as I can ascertain, is currently living in Los Angeles with someone who
resembles Jon Bon Jovi. I've done my research, you see. And do you mind me
saying, also, that I thought we might talk poetry rather than biography? I'm
itching to tell you about my new book.
Borch: Your answers always seem
to provoke more questions than I can ask! For instance, you must be slightly
disingenuous about Fiona Vavogna, in view of a certain photo that appeared in
Winged Prats Quarterly. And,
I'd like to press you on your admiration for Duncan Feld. But now, by all
means, do talk about your new book -- and in particular, I've wondered what
you mean by 'Consumed by Certainty'.
Twill: Well, 'Consumed by Certainty' means literally what it says. It is
self-referential, of course, and two-thirds alliteration, and also open to
interpretation. There may be a dash of irony, duplicity and downright untruth
in there, but whether or not I owned up to that would depend on what day you
asked me about it, and what mood I was in. Today is a good day, which means
you can't trust me at all. So when I tell you that I've no knowledge of the
photo you mention, make of it what you will. Geography still rather prevents
any kind of torridity, and to be honest the very notion of torrid love rather
bores me these days. I prefer fish. As for Duncan, I am always going to be in
awe of a man who can not only ride a horse blindfolded -- that's both of
them: him and the horse! -- but also come up with lines like 'A unicorn will
not fit into a house'. Indeed, that series of one line poems is a great
favourite of mine. 'The ocean is made of more than water.' I wish I'd written
Borch: What we're seeing, in this conversation, is that your taste for the
gnomic-oracular runs deeper than I'd thought, deeper than many of us
supposed. Those one-liners by Feld -- ten years ago you were making fun of
such things, I thought. But let's stick with 'Consumed by
Certainty' -- if it's not a joke phrase, then we perhaps should
interpret it seriously: 'We mortals are constantly being consumed,
digested and dissolved by intractable realities of earthly existence' --
am I on the right track?
Twill: Well, when I told Seamus Heaney that the poems of mine I most valued
were the ones I'd written quickly and not thought about much, he gave me a
disdainful look and pretended to be distracted by a passing Irish marching
band. He left soon after. Mind you, he hung around long enough for me to buy
him a drink, then he fucked off. I therefore hesitate to tell you that
'Consumed By Certainty' was a phrase unpremeditated and therefore
staggeringly pure. That's what it means. I'm not sure it's the track you were
Borch: Jeremy, I must say, I am frustrated. It seems I keep looking for a serious issue, a serious
problem for us to discuss, and instead I keep bumping into your cheeriness. For you it all seems so easy,
apparently. Everything is
serendipity, sunlight and American girls, Duncan Feld sneezing, Agatha
Christie, the swish of a mini-skirt... Where is the dark side? Where is the
confrontation with mortality which some readers saw in 'Whacked'?
Should we gather that in fact you are not a truly serious poet? Let me ask it
this way: Where do you rank yourself among living poets? And, do you expect
to be read fifty years hence?
Twill: Phil, there are five questions here. Five questions, in addition to
the fact that you seem a little put out that I'm cheerful. It's true that in
'Whacked' I confronted mortality, but only to a degree. My dog had died, and
I was upset. I got over it, and now have goldfish, who I love but it's not
the same as dog love. But I'm very interested by your wondering whether or
not I am a serious poet. Whose expectations must I live up to in order that I
may claim to be that? Should a poet live up to someone else's expectations,
or his or her own? Should a poet care if they are read fifty years hence? And
what was the other one? Oh yes: Where do I rank myself among living poets?
Well, I'm tempted to tease you by saying the same as football manager Brian
Clough said when asked where he ranked himself among football managers: I
wouldn't say I'm the best, but I'm among the top one. But I don't think that
at all. Why should I rank myself anywhere? Is poetry a competition?
Borch: Is poetry a competition? Well, yes and no. I mean, maybe not in some
ultimate sense. But most of the
important poets in every generation have thought a lot about their standing
among contemporaries -- there's plenty of proof of this! Big trees throw the
small trees into shade! It's how the world works! But listen, Jeremy, I think
we should end the interview soon, my stomach is all in a knot somehow, I feel
strangely shaky -- I don't know why. It just hasn't gone as I expected. But
I'll try one more thing. Would you be willing to quote a passage, from one of
your poems, that you especially like, I mean a passage that you're glad to be
represented by, and say something about why?
Twill: I'm sorry you feel like ending this. I was just getting into the swing
of it. And I was expecting you to stay for dinner. Never mind. A poem, or
some lines? Well, that's difficult, given all the years and poems there are.
Everything in Consumed By Certainty I am happy to stand by and be represented by; you could open that
book anywhere and find a gem. Of course, as I mentioned, a little bit of
revising took place. I find, as I'm sure you do, that my likes and loves tend
to fluctuate from day to day. So any passage I pick today might not be the
passage I would pick tomorrow. Bearing that in mind, I always have a soft
spot for 'The Shelf Where the Manual Is Kept', which contains the lines
O those small
things that crawl!
I know they
have to be there but look at this
cute and the
rest I am satisfied with myself
and the sky
she is always
full of the stars
you cannot see
night you can see all them
when I grow
I want to be
an astronomer myself
who functions in a store of food
difficult choice -- some crack it
the zoological garden are another option)
Why this particular passage? It's simply because it was the first time I
wrote a poem that feels like this poem feels. It was like I'd cut an apron
string. I still don't fully
understand the process that made
it, or what it means, fully. But I know what all the component parts mean and
where they come from. And the last line of the poem is still one of my
the sky, but above us all myself
Borch: That's a fascinating choice. I've often wondered about 'The Shelf
Where the Manual Is Kept'. I think I have more understanding of the
ending -- 'above us all myself' -- thanks to our interview. The
passage as a whole is still puzzling in various ways. I'd like to grasp the
contrast implied between the 'insects in the zoological garden' and
'those small things that crawl' -- perhaps the latter constitute a
metaphor for your emotional vicissitudes?
I'm not sure you'll want to answer that. At any rate, before we stop, let me
ask one further question. What advice do you have for young poets today, in
England and America? What should they read? Who should they study?