This interview with Paul Farley first appeared in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine.
Paul Farley, one of Britain’s leading poets, was born in Liverpool and the city is an abiding presence in his work. He has won numerous awards, including the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem) for ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’. He has also written or presented many plays and documentaries for BBC Radio 4, and is Professor of Poetry at Lancaster University, where he teaches creative writing. His latest collection of poems, The Dark Film, was published recently by Picador.
Which part of Liverpool were you from originally?
The first house my parents lived in after I was born was on Ullet Road, near the Park. I have only the faintest memories of that house, and I’m not sure any of these are very reliable. My mum used to take me in my pram to the Palm House, and I really want to be able to recall this, but the story has taken on the shape of a memory. Then we moved round and lived just off Wavertree Road, in houses that backed onto the railway at Edge Hill. This area I do remember. It was overrun with mice. They ate my mum’s wedding cake! It must have been quite minty, but kids don’t really notice peeling wallpaper or mould. The trains shook past at night, and I loved it. All those streets were flattened and redeveloped years ago.
The move to Netherley that happened when you were about five was clearly very significant for you. Can you briefly explain why?
Hard to say, although you’re right, it’s had an enduring effect. It was a move into a completely different kind of space, and maybe it just happened at a point of peak susceptibility. We all climbed into the back of this furniture van with our stuff, and were deposited a few miles away in a half-built place surrounded by fields and trees. Insects. Birds. I remember even the light seemed different. Everywhere smelt of newness: fresh-cut timber, putty, paint. But then over the coming months and years, the older city we’d moved from sort of grew and loomed in my imagination. I started to miss it, and as soon as I was old enough I’d jump on buses to revisit it. Similar kinds of things must have happened to kids all over the country, because most big English cities had housing clearance programmes like Liverpool’s.
In your poems you sometimes recreate a child’s view of things, but is it fair to say that seeing things in a new way, or as if for the first time, remains important to you?
I like something an American poet, Louise Glück, once wrote: ‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.’ A lot of writing is just remaking. When you’ve lost things or places or people, I think there’s an underlying impulse to make some version of them again, in words. By a certain age it gets harder to look at, or stay in touch with, the world, simply through force of habit, and learning the names of things estranges us, too. And we’re surrounded by images and flickering things that come to us like phantoms, and aren’t tactile. I guess some writers like to return the reader to the world.
You often draw on childhood experiences in your poems, but how creative were you as a child – when did you begin writing?
I was always drawing. I remember writing a bit, but I was always more interested in drawing. I loved reading, and can see now how I was certainly encouraged by a couple of English teachers. But I never thought writing was something I could do, it just never occurred to me.
You wrote a marvellous book about Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives. Why was that film important to you?
I saw it in London when it came out, and found myself sitting in the dark saying ‘yes’ a lot, like this was something I recognised. Terence himself thought that a lot of the films made about working class life – the kitchen sink school and so on – had never really hit the mark for him, probably because working class people never made movies. And now here was someone who had, and who had really captured something, not just the look of it, but its rhythms and rituals and textures.
You say in your book that while the working class life portrayed in the film was harsh in many of its aspects, ‘in some ways, their lives were richer than ours.’ Could you elaborate on that?
You end up sounding ridiculously nostalgic trying to make this point, especially to anyone who lived through it and grew up in the decades following the war in a working class area; they’ll remember the damp and the rationing and hiding from the rent man. My dad used to tell this story of standing the bed legs in tins with bleach in them, to keep bed bugs at bay. He left school at 14, just when Attlee’s new Labour government was pushing through the Education Act, and although things got better, it was still a very circumscribed life, with limited horizons. But – maybe because of all this – there was an undeniable sense of community and togetherness.
I remember you saying on radio recently something like ‘There’s more of a distance between all of us now.’
We’ve got what we wanted, but we’ve lost what we had. We’re more disunited, even though life is better in so many ways. We do tend to valorize our own formative years, mind, and I’m wary of that. For me, going to Woollies on a Saturday to buy a single I’d saved up for, bringing it home and playing it over and over was both a private, solitary pleasure, but also connected me to every other kid who was doing the same thing, the way pop culture does, or did. I think that’s even more atomised and broken up now – but I’m a middle-aged man! I like to think I’m wrong, and that something else has replaced it that I can’t fully understand or take part in.
The visual sense is clearly very important to you. Are you a keen photographer, and have you ever thought about publishing your photographs?
I am, and have been taking photographs for many years. I’ve only thought about showing them recently, maybe in an exhibition first and then who knows?
You’ve written or presented many radio plays and documentaries. Does the medium of radio especially appeal to you?
I love radio, simply because you’re leaving so much up to the listener’s imagination. It’s a very intimate medium, too, in the way it’s basically a voice talking to you out of a speaker, even though it’s being broadcast and listened to in thousands of other situations simultaneously, which makes it especially powerful for poetry. I’ve mostly enjoyed making features that involve journeys and field recording, and use interviews and lyrics and sounds to take the listener on this little imaginative voyage.
In your capacity as a university teacher, do you think there is a tension between the close study of poetry and the nurturing of the creative impulse? Can the one deaden the other, or is the study of poetic technique essential to becoming a good poet?
I went to art school, and I know that being in an environment where you’re encouraged to make things and are mixing with likeminded people and being provoked and stimulated does work. As long as writing is taught in this way – putting the writing first and at the centre of things – I think it’s valuable. But the student has to lead the way, and has to have or discover an inclination and ability. The close study you mention needs to come afterwards, as a kind of reflection. I don’t think there’s a theory for writing, or how to write. As soon as you establish a rule, somebody will come along and break it effectively. As soon as you attempt a definition, you feel it starting to crumble in your mouth. Studying poetic form, say, is important insofar as this is tradition, the sum total of what’s gone before, some of which has proved very durable, and any formative writer should be wondering why this is. Wanting to write seems to be a result of reading and instinct and a desire to join in this big conversation and argument called literature.
It’s often the case that you can’t see any themes whatsoever until you’ve written enough poems to gather together and think of in terms of a book. At that stage, you might realise you’ve been writing the same poem over and over. Even once it’s between covers and goes out into the world, you’re still having things pointed out to you. I don’t think you’re ever fully in control, and writers might have far less of an overview than they might like to think they have. Somebody said to me when I was putting ‘The Dark Film’ together, ‘oh, dark film, you mean like film noir?’ And I’d never considered it! So if you’re after underlying threads and themes, you’re probably asking the wrong guy.
I remember reading last year that you were writing a book-length poem called ‘The Electric Poly-Olbion’. Is that still a work in progress, and one we can look forward to reading soon?
Still in progress, yes, but slowly coming together. It’s based on a long, book-length poem by Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, a kind of lyrical journey throughout the whole of England and Wales. So you’ll hopefully see why I’ve been dragging my feet. It’s getting there, though.