Donald Gardner 




Where and when were you born?


I’m a Londoner, born in 1938. Just pre-war.




Could you tell us something about your background?


My father, Hugh Gardner, was an under-secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture. Both mother and father were Londoners. My father’s family were Anglican, but my mother’s family were Sephardic Jews who moved to England in the mid-seventeenth century under Cromwell’s dispensation – I’m rather proud of that ancestry. I was brought up in Berkhamsted, but was sent to boarding school aged eight and three quarters. Saint Lawrence College, Ramsgate. It was horrid. First the prep school and then the public school. I was an asthmatic and my mother was advised that the sea air of the windswept coast of Thanet would be good for me. All boys; I think I retreated into a kind of inner exile.




Were either of your parents or grandparents (or any other relatives) writers?  If not, were any of your relatives actively interested in literature? 


My father published three children’s books, "Beyond the Marble Mountain", "Back to the Marble Mountain" and "Bruno Bear". They originated as stories he told to me when I was eight, in Moorfields Eye Hospital, where I’d had an operation on a roving eye and had to lie bored and blindfolded in bed. I still have a roving eye.


My aunt was Dame Helen Gardner, Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford. She wrote one of the first works of criticism about T.S. Eliot and was the Donne scholar of her generation.




Are any of your siblings writers or involved in a creative profession?


My sister Jinny Thomas is an amateur poet. All my family, both sides, prized nimbleness with language above almost everything. This was a middle-class thing though. Whimsy was applauded and there was a shade of one-upmanship; language was a vehicle for class superiority.




What was the first poem (or who was the first poet) that turned you on to poetry?


Don’t laugh. At the age of about 9 I learned the whole of Tennyson’s Revenge by heart and performed it for the assembled family at Christmas. My sisters hated me for it. At school I read all the old stuff and loved it – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson – but it never occurred to me that I might write poetry too.


The trigger to the very first poem I wrote where I thought ‘ah! this is what I am, a poet!’ was not other poetry but an existential situation. I wrote it in a hotel room in Forlí a small town in the Romagna in Italy and it contained the lines: ‘Gothic arcaded arches stare at me / to see so strange an Englishman go past’. I knew nobody in this town, there was nowhere to go after the shops closed, not even a cinema. To deal with my loneliness I wrote a poem.


After that though I started reading widely – Eliot, Thomas, Yeats, Pound, Auden and my contemporaries. Sylvia Plath was also a big thing in 1963.




What age were you when you first began writing poetry, and did you receive any encouragement? 


Twenty-two. As I just said, I was living in Italy and staying in small provincial towns to study in archives for a B.Litt. degree at Oxford. The important thing was that for the first time in my life I was on my own, away from family and institutions. But in Rome, a few months later, I was introduced to George Barker who was living there at the time. Barker was helpful to young poets. Also he had a discourse, that anyone who knew him will remember, baroque, finger-pointing and emphatic like his poetry. I found it both fascinating and alienating. But to meet someone when I’d only just begun to write who had such an exalted view of the poet’s work was extremely encouraging. Turning fifty, he still believed in the romance of poetry.




When you started writing poetry did you have dreams about becoming a "professional" poet?  If so, did anyone advise you against this course of action? 


I was filled with joy at discovering that writing poetry was what I wanted to do in life. When you ‘come down’ from university, you are confronted with the awful realization that you are expected to do something in life. Until I started writing, there was nothing I knew that I wanted to do. My parents, particularly my mother, deplored my new-found vocation.




Did you ever get a poem published in your school magazine? 


Can’t remember the title. But I remember an enjambment ‘... while in the vale the church is lost / in the still thinning mist.’ Something like that. 1956, I think. The magazine was The Lawrentian. I wrote a poem each issue, but these were poems I wrote because it was expected of me, not because I felt moved to write.




Did you go to university, and if so, which subject(s) did you study?


I was well set on the way to having an academic career. I just missed a first in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Went on with a Rome Scholarship in Medieval and Renaissance studies to do a B.Litt. degree in Modern History. My thesis was about the cultural politics of the ruling family in Bologna in the late 15th century. Lived in Italy in various cities then for three years where I was first led astray from academia (see above).




When did you first start submitting to poetry magazines? And can you tell us how many rejections you received before having something accepted for publication? 


The first poem I ever submitted to a magazine, ‘Saint Jerome’ was accepted. It was published in the Paris Review in 1963. I had an introduction to Samuel Beckett and visited him when I was passing through Paris. I spent the afternoon with him smoking Gaulloises, drinking red wine and talking about Joyce. He said he knew these people who edited a magazine. So as soon as I left him I went over to the offices of the Paris Review and told the editors that Beckett suggested that I showed them my poems.




What was the worst rejection you ever received? 


In the 1960s I had a few rejections, but on the whole my work was accepted, partly because I knew where to send it, which magazines would be likely to take my work – in both America, where I lived for three formative years in the 1960s and in the UK. early credits were: The Transatlantic Review, the Poetry Review, The London magazine, Norman Hidden’s Workshop, Chelsea Magazine and El Corno Emplumado, the legendary Mexico-based magazine that spanned the Americas.  It is easier to get rejections now, when writing poetry has become such an industry. Take them in your stride, I’d say.




What was your first published poem?  Which poetry magazine published it?  And what year was it published?


Saint Jerome. Paris Review, 1963 (See above)




Round about the time that you started seriously writing poetry, who were your literary heroes?  And would you say they had an influence on your writing style?


I loved Joyce, more than most poets, including Finnegan’s Wake. I had a friend in Italy and we would read FW to each other aloud. Then Yeats, Eliot, Auden and the up-and-coming poets of the day. But I also read, in French, Jules Laforgue’s poetry and I found its self-irony enchanting and a useful influence for my own early work.




Have you ever attended a creative writing course or been involved in a writers' group?  If so, did you find it useful?


No. The informal apprenticeship to one or two older poets was however important. George Barker, Dom Moraes and the poets’ pubs of that time. Octavio Paz, who lived in Cambridge for a while around 1969 and whose Sun Stone I translated, was a friend. He held with Elaine Feinstein a sort of salon in Cambridge. The poetry scene of the East Village where I taught English Literature for three years in the mid-sixties was marvellous – with readings at Saint Mark’s Church and Le Metro. I remember Ginsberg’s great voice in performance. I almost literally devoured Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, just out, and other poets, lesser read now, such as Paul Blackburn. It was a ‘scene’ – and that’s what I think poetry needs, informal, great discussion, many schools, vibrant.


I never attended any writers’ group. I did however, in 1968, organize my own poetry workshop. Guerilla poets it was called. We started at the anti-university in the East End and after the anti-university closed, I took the workshop to the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. It was a free-for-all. At least two poets came out of it who are still publishing – Dinah Livingstone and John Welch. Also the Donegal spoken-word poet used to come and declaim, Madge Heron. The workshop had another face which was a street poetry group. We gave readings on Saturday afternoons in Hampstead, Notting Hill and Soho.




When did you put together your first collection of poetry? 


1969. Peace Feelers. It was published by Bernard Stone in his Cafe Books Series. Christopher Logue who ‘found’ me was the editor




How long did it take to get it accepted for publication?  And, if appropriate, how many times was it rejected?


Logue asked me to submit a manuscript. I have virtually always been offered publication rather than having to seek it. The same went for my second book For the Flames. Stuart Montgomery, the editor of Fulcrum, heard me at a reading in Oxford and asked me to submit a manuscript.




How long did you have to wait between acceptance and final publication?


Not long. Nine months?




What sort of critical response did you receive? 


One review, I think.




Would you say that your publisher actively promoted the book?


Being a book dealer specializing in poetry, Bernard tended to hoard it. You can still come across second-hand copies of ‘Peace Feelers’ in rather good condition. As for my second book ‘For the Flames’, Fulcrum went bankrupt just after my book was published. Not only did it have very little distribution, but most of the copies were destroyed in a flood in Bernard Stone’s basement.




Did you do readings and signings at bookshops to help promote the book?  If so, did you organise these yourself, or were they organised by your publisher?  And would you say that they had a significant effect on sales figures?


There was a book signing for Peace Feelers organized by Bernard and Christopher. Don’t think it did much for the sales. Also signed a short run of 50 copies of For the Flames




How many copies of the book sold?


Three hundred? So long ago, I don’t remember.




Is it still in print?


It is still available, second-hand.




At the beginning of your writing career did you enter any poetry competitions?  Did you enter a lot or just a few?  Did you have any success?  And, with hindsight, what are your thoughts about the relative merits or demerits of poetry competitions?


No. I confess I have recently, out of curiosity, without any success.




Which of your poetry books has been the most successful in terms of sales, and how many copies has it sold to date?


"Possibly Starting from Tomorrow", a chapbook published by my own imprint, Forget-me-not Books, Amsterdam that I constantly had to be reprinting. I reckon 750 copies. "How to Get the Most out of Your Jet Lag" sells well at readings, as does "The Glittering Sea"




Have you won any awards for your poetry? 


In 1966, I was awarded a writer’s fellowship by the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation and spent time as a writer in residence in Taos, New Mexico. I won an Arts Council grant in 1972. In Amsterdam I was given a subsidy for a dramatic lecture that I produced about Oscar Wilde. Chicken with Madness, a poem I performed with a choreography was one of three performances to be put on during Amsterdam’s year as cultural capital of Europe (1987)




Do you make a living out of poetry? 






If not, do you make an adequate living through poetry-related activities such as teaching creative writing workshops?  Or do you have to supplement your income through unrelated activities?


For the past twenty years I have worked as a fulltime translator of Dutch work into English; mainly books and essays on art and architecture. I have translated and published one Dutch poet, Remco Campert. For some reason I never expected to make money as a poet. I thought of writing poetry as ‘free’ work.




With the benefit of hindsight, are you glad that you pursued your dream of being a poet?  Also, if you could turn the clock back, would you do anything different?


It would be madness not to want to be what I am, a poet. I have however taken a great interest in theatre, having been actor and co-director in a street theatre group in the 70s, the London Living Theatre. Have studied some theatre disciplines, Japanese Butoh dance and Grotowski’s ‘poor’ theatre. I liked the idea of working in a group art form, but discovered later that it was not for me. All this background however has been invaluable in my performance of my work.


I was also well set on the route to become an academic and took in my early twenties, rather airily perhaps, a serious risk in not following that path. But I have absolutely no regrets that I swapped security for life experience.




If a young would-be poet approached you, which poets would you recommend as vital reading?


Read the field, read everything, the old masters and the new experimental writing. Be voracious and open-minded, non-judgmental. It’s worth reading the poetry of at least one other country besides your own. And it’s important to know American poetry through and through as well as poetry from the UK and Ireland. US poetry is English-language poetry, but the spirit, expectations and range are so different from what gets written in the UK. I found the cross-fertilization of the two sides of the Atlantic useful when I started out. Oh! what poets? Auden, Whitman, Pessoa, Dante, Montale.  A poet will read his/her contemporaries anyway, but it’s essential to understand the tradition and the avant-garde, modernist tradition too.




Which poetry magazines would you recommend him or her to subscribe to?


I have a great affection for Ambit. I like Acumen and recently, The Wolf. There’s a new magazine, or rather bookzine, Atlas, editor Sudeep Sen which is international in scope.




Assuming that this would-be poet showed some promise, would you advise him or her to pursue a "career" in poetry?


The thing, the old-fashioned thing is that poetry is a vocation, rather than a career. Too much focus on the career aspect can muddy the waters, especially for those starting out.




If so, what further advice would you give him or her?


Practice all the forms and non-forms. To respect the difficulty of free verse. Read all the poetry you can, old as well as your contemporaries. Get to know the poetry of at any rate one other language than your own, if need be in translation.




Finally (and extremely hypothetically), you are selected to appear on the hit reality TV show, "Desert Island Poets", where you are marooned on a tropical island for three months with a typewriter and several reams of paper.  You are provided with all necessary provisions, but you are only allowed to take three books with you.  Your appearance fee is more than you could hope to earn in a decade and the show is so popular that all previous participants have become best-selling poets.  So, would you participate?  And if so, which three books would you take with you?


I don’t think reality TV is a good medium for poetry, but I might do it for the crack. The money would be nice. My books – I’d take Dante, all of Dante, with backup English versions. I love Pessoa, again, all of Pessoa, which is a lot, in translation with backup Portuguese versions. And I’d take Octavio Paz.




See: Donald Gardner's publications list

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