JEREMY TWILL IN CONVERSATION WITH PHIL BORCH

The conversation took place by way of an international telephone call in October 2004. Phil Borch made the call; his University Department picked up the tab, unknowingly.

Jeremy Twill and Phil Borch: an artist's impression

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 finish.

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 your vision?

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 Hughes Junior'?

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 happy?

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 those poems.

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 on.

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
     exactly what you cannot see
     today the night you can see all them
     when I grow above myself
     I want to be an astronomer myself
     or somebody who functions in a store of food
     it's a difficult choice -- some crack it
     looks like later

     (insects in 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 favourite lines:

     Birdies in 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?

Phil Borch at Naropa University Christmas party, 1999

Twill: I'm glad you have a sense of humour. Nothing in my poetry constitutes a metaphor, as you well know. Are you trying to mislead those students who will no doubt read this interview and use much of it in their papers and essays and such like? You rascal!! And, of course, the contrast you talk about isn't even there! Insects and small things that crawl strike me as being the same things. I admit I was never too sure of the accuracy of my knowledge regarding anything animal, and I include people in that. And, of course, I refuse to discuss my emotional vicissitudes. You can rummage through my poetry drawers, but not the chambers of my heart.

As for those young poets you mention, I would suggest they get a job in a supermarket for a year or so, or perhaps lumberjacking would be good if they're up to it. Girls can do that nowadays, I gather, which brings a fascinating and somewhat alluring image to mind, but I will banish it. Several months working with the underprivileged in some remote third world country would be even better. Who should they read and study? I would have to say Poet A right through to Poet Z, but I know there is never enough time. They should also consume music, movies and as much of the other arts as they can manage. But they should not forget to party. I forgot to party once, and almost lost my mind.


         Phil Borch & Jeremy Twill, 2004.

Jeremy Twill is an English poet. Phil Borch is an American critic and teacher of contemporary poetry. They have never met.