Where and when were you born?
Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, I think.
Could you tell us something about your background?
Not very exciting background. Father ex-RAF (see my poem ‘Schräge Musik’ in Complete Twentieth Century Blues), worked at Newhaven harbour in the Sealink offices, mother a secretary. Lower middle-class. I failed my 11+ and went to the local secondary modern before it became a comprehensive – which saved me, I guess. Then I did a full set of BA, MA (Creative Writing), PhD at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I trained to teach in Further Education and did this happily in and around London for many years before making a big break and moving to Liverpool to teach at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, where I am now Professor of Poetry and Poetics.
Were either of your parents or grandparents (or any other relatives) writers? If not, were any of your relatives actively interested in literature?
Not really. My father wrote a poem during a storm in the Bay of Biscay in 1947, but apart from that, no. He reads a lot now, though.
Are any of your siblings writers or involved in a creative profession?
I’m an only child. I read that hilarious Frank O’Hara poem, ‘Autobiographia Literaria,’ this morning, the one that opens
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
It was nothing like that.
What was the first poem (or who was the first poet) that turned you on to poetry?
Probably TS Eliot, "The Waste Land" and other early poems. I liked Keats and Blake too, I seem to remember. In school anthologies – at about 16 years of age. About the same time I bought Michael Horovitz’ "Children of Albion". That gave me a sense of the possibilities of a collective ‘scene’. The Eliot can still seem exciting to me, in certain moods, very challenging.
What age were you when you first began writing poetry, and did you receive any encouragement?
I began seriously at about that age, too, in the early 1970s. My French teacher, Miss (Ann) Starkey, was very supportive of my work. I was quite adventurous in writing long poems of urban angst, but a lot of it was rubbish.
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?
The first poet I met was Bob Cobbing, the concrete poet, publisher and general literary dynamo – this was in November 1973 – and it was not too long before that that he was involved with Poets Conference’s demands for proper payment for poetry readings and so forth, so the idea of poets demanding their dues was there from the start. The concept of being a ‘professional’ poet is still a troubling one for me. It has taken on a modern stink to do with training and professional development and the whole PR industry. While it is important for writers to not get ripped off, to be serious about what they are doing, I’m a little distant from the kinds of self-promotion that might be mandatory in other areas of creative writing: in writing for TV, for example. I’m thinking about what I want for students of mine, and it has more to do with wanting them to think of themselves as artists making art with language, rather than as ‘professionals’. But neither am I nostalgic for days when every gentleman was expected to rattle off a sonnet.
Did you ever get a poem published in your school magazine?
I did. Maybe that was because I edited it! It was called "Sixth Sense" and it must have been in 1973. (How did I remember that?) At King’s Manor School, Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, just for the record.
Did you go to university, and if so, which subject(s) did you study?
Yes, I chose to go to the University of East Anglia because it was interested in contemporary writers. I hung around the many writerly things that were going on (visiting writers, lecture series), and organised some of them (readings for Jeff Nuttall and George Barker, I recall). I did my MA there: the Bradbury MA. I was the first graduate to submit poetry, I believe. Then it seemed natural to do a PhD, which I did, beginning work on James Joyce (a great interest of the time, and still, I suppose), but when I discovered there were 500 other PhDs on Joyce, I decided to do one on the hitherto un-researched British Poetry Revival, concentrating on Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood. That’s still the basis of my critical book "The Poetry of Saying".
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? (And if you received many rejections, was this off-putting?)
This was in the early 1970s, before I went to university. I subscribed to magazines such as Second Aeon. I was rejected a lot. I have a detailed record, which I’ve dug out, and I seem to have been only rejected from Naissance in July 1972 before the first acceptance. But I was rejected from Second Aeon, Amazing Grace, Outsider, Platform, Encounter, Workshop, Headland, Joe Dimaggio, and many others during 1972-3. I was about 17. It happens and you have to learn to deal with it. I only ever talk about where the work is accepted. If it’s rejected, I send it straight out again straight away. And probably that was my practice then.
What was the worst rejection you ever received?
There was a rude one, once, I recall. But mostly they have been pleasantly non-committal. Andrew Duncan of Angel Exhaust, has an anecdote about sending back this message with bad work: ‘Never Do This Again’, but I don’t believe he ever did it.
What was your first published poem? Which poetry magazine published it? And what year was it published?
There were two: called ‘A Poem’ and ‘A Vision’. The second was a prose poem, influenced by the Tina Morris prose in Children of Albion. What happened to her? It was in Platform 4, September-October 1972, edited by Andrew Cossens. What happened to him?
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 guess TS Eliot was in there. ‘Resonance of virgin concrete/Resonance of ancient crumbling stone’ one of my works began. I was steeped in his oracular and depressed withdrawal from human unfinish. But I liked the Byron of Don Juan too, so there was a satirical other side, wallowing in messy contingency. And I was reading Joyce, looking at DADA and Surrealist art work, so all this was coming in with it. And buying magazines, I was beginning to get the poets of the British Poetry Revival: some Harwood, MacSweeney, I suspect.
Have you ever attended a creative writing course or been involved in a writers' group? If so, did you find it useful?
As I said, I attended Malcolm Bradbury’s MA at Norwich. I ‘learnt’ I couldn’t write fiction (a lesson I’ve just unlearnt by the way), and submitted poetry instead. It must have been useful in confirming my view of myself. Although even before then I can be found exhorting myself to work, work and more hard-work in my diaries. I found an entry this afternoon for August 1977 – exactly thirty years ago – which is an earnest and healthy meditation on taking myself seriously as a writer. I was quite surprised to find it.
When did you put together your first collection of poetry?
I put together little pamphlets of stuff together back in the 1970s, but they weren’t any good, and I dismiss them now as juvenilia and count everything from a poem written in 1980, called ‘The Blickling Hall Poem’. Doing the early stuff, though, didn’t do me any harm and I recommend it to young writers. The first pamphlet I’ll own up to is Dedicated to you but you weren’t listening, which sounds a very minatory title for a young poet, although it’s actually a Soft Machine song, and the pamphlet a series of experimental odes and homages to them. It was published by Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum in 1979. It even had Oulipo experiments in there, gleaned from the Penguin anthology of French writing that Edward Lucie-Smith edited. A great book.
How long did it take to get it accepted for publication? And, if appropriate, how many times was it rejected?
Bob takes a manuscript in the morning and can publish it in the afternoon and have it launched in the evening, but mine took some months. I didn’t send it elsewhere. If rejected, I suppose I would have done it myself.
How long did you have to wait between acceptance and final publication?
What sort of critical response did you receive?
Jeff Nuttall reviewed it in The Guardian! He called it ‘open and inventive’.
Would you say that your publisher actively promoted the book?
Well, as much as he was able. This is a very modern question to an antique situation. Bob was involved with the Association of Little Presses, so he was at the heart of the self-help ethic that led small publishers – and still does, to a certain extent.
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?
Again, this is a very modern perspective. I certainly did do some readings, certainly at the Public House bookshop in Brighton. And I read the book in public. Did we have sales? Or did we give vast quantities away? Small press pamphlet publishing was a gift and exchange economy – again, I think it still is, largely.
How many copies of the book sold?
I’ve no idea.
Is it still in print?
No. There’s nothing there I would republish if I were assembling a Selected.
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?
I did enter the Royal Sheffield Institute for the Blind competition in 1980 and won the very modest first prize, with ‘The Blickling Hall Poem’. I’ve not entered a competition since. I don’t approve of them really. They operate by taxing the talentless who send in bad poems and good cheques, the proceeds of which are then re-distributed to one winner: usually a slick little piece of rhetoric. It’s an economy that can’t operate without the underclass of no-hopers and to that extent is immoral. It also encourages a certain type of poem that doesn’t reflect the potential diversity of an ancient and varied art.
Which of your poetry books has been the most successful in terms of sales, and how many copies has it sold to date?
I’m not sure. Maybe a lot of "The Flashlight Sonata" went, I don’t know.
Have you won any awards for your poetry?
Not a sausage, but then I wouldn’t expect to, given the radical nature of many of my procedures. I’ve been funded by my employer, Edge Hill University to write particular projects, but that’s not exactly an ‘award’.
Do you make a living out of poetry?
Yes. Not necessarily out of my poetry though. I am a professor of poetry and poetics. Part of my job assumes I will write the stuff, write literary criticism on the stuff, supervise PhD students who write poetry, as well as MA students in all genres and to teach BA students in all genres – so: yes, I do, and it feels very odd.
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?
I’m not sure I had a ‘dream’, in that revelatory Martin Luther King way. I’ve kept on doing it because that is what I do. I’m rather surprised to find myself a bit venerable (at 51) and being validated for it all by my institution. I am glad, when I look at what I’ve done: this week I prepared the monster Complete Twentieth Century Blues for publication by Salt (it’s all my work 1990-2000 and some earlier selected pieces), and I’ve just finished writing September 12, 99 ‘sonnets’ about living during the war on terror. So if I had any time – I don’t – I could look back and feel pleased with myself at this crossroads. Yes, I’m glad I did it, and glad that The Poetry of Saying, my critical book from Liverpool, is out, giving the critical side, declaring the context the creative work appears in too.
What would I do differently? A lot of little things, but I can’t see a big mistake. Perhaps I should have continued writing fiction. Certainly The Poetry of Saying should have appeared in the 1980s. But then it would have been a different book.
If a young would-be poet approached you, which poets would you recommend as vital reading?
In a sense, this is my day job, and I am very wary about full-on recommendation. I like to drip feed work in. I think if a young writer has the two volume California University Rothenberg-Joris Poems for the Millennium anthologies they are well kitted out for the future. Sean Bonney swears by it – and so do a lot of my students.
Which poetry magazines would you recommend him or her to subscribe to?
On paper: Tears in the Fence, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Radiator, Shearsman, Skald. Will that do? Online: Jacket, Great Works, Salt, Stride. I bet I’ve left something out.
Assuming that this would-be poet showed some promise, would you advise him or her to pursue a "career" in poetry?
I would tell him or her to get a job. Which is what Tristan Tzara told Lee Harwood.
If so, what further advice would you give him or her?
This is so difficult, because I professionally help writers all the time, and I’m responding to their particular needs. But I believe all writers should develop a poetics, a speculative discourse that allows them to dialogue with themselves and to always have a working permission to develop and change. They don’t need gurus.
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 would participate, I think, or at least I’m saying I would so I can answer the next question, since I don’t know what I’d pick. I’m going to not allow myself to take anthologies. If I had to go today – I’m going to walk round the house and then come back and type in the titles of the first three I find, and give reasons. (Off I go!)
1. Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems. OK, it’s lying there beside me because I got it down to quote from it earlier, but he is so jolly it might keep me going. The voice is also one that knocks all pomposity out of you. I also want to write about pleasure more, about the joys of human unfinish.
2. Nicholas Royle’s new book of short stories, Mortality. I saw Nick read one of these last month and it made me tingle. All the stories I’ve done so far have been disguised works of poetics (of poetry) but I need to work out a poetics of fiction for myself, and I think this book – as yet unread – may be key in working towards a kind of uncanny post-realism.
3. Roy Fisher’s A Furnace. I’ve always loved the marvellous ‘Introit’ but I’ve never recovered from my shock of reading it in 1988 and suspecting that Roy was – in his phrase about my ambivalent TLS review of the time – going to ‘commit Ash Wednesday’. But I read it last week and realised that it was a wonderful, profound and objectionable poem. I also realised it was a poem written for those with some experience of the world. And parts of it are hilariously funny, those ‘subterranean/pea-green cafés’ and characters who ‘could be painted into the walls and released/from their patrolling’. Perhaps that’s where my desert island poem will take me: examining ‘the life of the dead’. I’m conscious that earlier I described Bob Cobbing printing off a book as though he were still alive, in human unfinish.
Can I have that appearance fee now or do I actually have to go to the island? With a new university year approaching, it’s a rather attractive prospect!
See: Robert Sheppard's CV
Read Edmund Hardy's interview with him here
Listen to Robert Sheppard's poetry at Archive of The Now
Return to: What Makes Poets Tick?
Return to: Main Menu