Interview: Lavinia Greenlaw, poet and novelist

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LAVINIA Greenlaw – the StAnza festival’s poet in residence this year – reveals why she’s always been a little envious of visual artists

LAVINIA Greenlaw is a little late for our meeting because she lost a contact lens. Not “lost” exactly, more that the darn thing was still in her eye, but not where it should be, and definitely not doing what it should be doing. By the time we meet, it’s fixed, and this would be à propos of nothing except that we end up talking a lot about seeing, the importance of seeing clearly.

“I was a short-sighted, absent-minded child, always running up against the problem of where am I, what am I looking at, what’s in front of me, I can’t see, I can’t make sense,” Greenlaw says, softly, as she begins to explain why her poetry is intensely interested in the act of perceiving. “I’ve always been interested in the moment at which we try to make sense of things. When I understood that vision is only half to do with physiology, and the other half is to do with what you expect to see, I became intrigued. Astronomers look into space and see a cluster of stars and say, ‘That looks like a crab’, so they call it the Crab Nebula.”

Over the past 25 years, Greenlaw has become an influential and acclaimed poet. Her work is clever, elegant, concentrated, with a kind of slow-burning clarity. She is a past winner of the Forward Prize, and her 2003 collection, Minsk, was shortlisted for the “big three” poetry prizes, the Forward, the Whitbread (now the Costa) and the TS Eliot. She has also written two acclaimed novels, two non-fiction books (including The Importance of Music to Girls, which she prefers not to call a memoir), and writes drama and documentaries for radio, though she speaks about these as if they were all but accidental. “Poetry is central to me, and is my primary form. It’s just happened that things have arisen which didn’t fit the form of poetry, and I had to find out what form they took.”

Greenlaw has been invited to be poet-in-residence at StAnza, Scotland’s poetry festival, this month in St Andrews. The festival’s two themes closely match concerns of her own: The Image (she has a degree in 17th-century art from the Courtauld Institute and has written about artists ranging from William Morris to Gary Fabian Miller) and Poetry by Degrees (she is a professor of poetry at the University of East Anglia, home to Britain’s oldest and more revered creative writing course).

Greenlaw speaks of a “natural affinity” with visual artists “in that we are both creating images and attempting to express something through composition”. “I get enormous pleasure from music and the visual arts because I can have a rest from language. And I envy them as well, I wish I could do what I do without language.” Language both fascinates and frustrates her. She speaks carefully, shaping her sentences until they say exactly what she means.

We meet in the board room at Faber, with the framed letters of Eliot and Auden on the walls, but the guiding spirit of our conversation is the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. One critic described Greenlaw as “the poet who, more than any other in Britain … internalized the tone, the pace and the hesitancies of Bishop, suiting them to her own colder voice”. She decribes what she aims to do in her poetry with a phrase from Bishop, “a tipping of an object towards the light”. One might add, to see it more clearly.

The title of her latest book of poems, last year’s The Casual Perfect, is a phrase used to describe Bishop by fellow American poet Robert Lowell. “He is talking about her patience with her poems, and how she would put up on the wall what she was working on leaving spaces for the words she hadn’t found yet. He talks about her ‘waiting for the unerring muse that will make the casual perfect’, and I misread it and thought it was a tense. For about ten years, I turned over in the back of my mind what this tense might be.

“I think it’s best described as ‘achievement of the provisional’, and it’s about allowing certain aspects to remain in the dark. There are quite a few poems that touch on this, how we can never fully know ourselves or another or where we are. It’s a way of travelling a question without having to answer it. It just seems to be where I am now, I’m less anguished and less intent on fixing things. It’s probably middle-age isn’t it?” she laughs softly.

“When I first read Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry I was really struck by how she keeps her description in action. She’ll be saying to you, ‘It looks like this… oh no, it doesn’t, it looks like that’, and she keeps all of that movement of the mind in the poem. The effect on you is not that you are looking at a finished picture, you are looking at that picture being painted. That was tremendously exciting to me and really spoke to what I felt I was trying to do.”

Greenlaw says she has always written, but began to do so seriously in her mid twenties when her daughter was born. Poetry, she says, comes about when the inner world is unsettled. “It was something about the unsetlement of my life by her birth which intensified my writing. I didn’t write poems about her, I just wrote.” When her daughter was ten weeks old, she started attending workshops with the poet Fred D’Aguiar between feeds. “It was an extraordinary time. He was the right teacher at the right moment. My writing changed so fast, I remember once I arrived with a poem I was quite proud of, looked it as I came in the door and put it in the bin. I hadn’t showed it to anyone, but I suddenly realised what was wrong with it.” Once picked up by Christopher Reid at Faber, she had a two-year “apprenticeship” before her first collection was published.

These days, creative writing courses at universities have taken the place of such apprenticeships, but as these have multiplied they have been criticised for lining the pockets of universities and flooding the country with wannabe writers, few of whom will be published. In the StAnza lecture, Greenlaw will argue that a course in poetry teaches valuable life skills. “I strongly believe that it is good for anybody. It can teach you a great deal about argument, how to focus and analyse, how to persuade. Of course not everyone who comes and does an MA (in creative writing) is going to be published, but that doesn’t mean that their time studying has been wasted.

“It strikes me as quite odd that people raise questions about the teaching of writing that they don’t raise about the teaching of art or dance or musical composition. What a good creative writing programme is doing is the same as what’s being done by the conservatoire or the art school. I certainly don’t believe anyone can do it, I think there has to be something inherent, a sensibility, a capacity, yes, OK, I’ll call it a gift. But I think people can be taught how to use the tools they have, what techniques are available, how to find out what goes wrong, possible ways to fix it, and most importantly I think, how to understand the relationship in yourself about where poetry comes from and where it should go.”

Another of her StAnza activities is to run an all-day workshop at Balmungo House, the former home of the artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, now owned by the Barns-Graham Trust which promotes the artist’s work and legacy. She is currently being reappraised as one of the important Scottish painters of last century, and produced stunningly confident abstract paintings into her eighties and nineties.

“I’m really interested in how her work developed,” says Greenlaw. “How it became more abstract but also got louder, she turned up the volume as she went on. That happens with other artists as well, like Matisse, and I wonder what it is that does that. I think you must just get to a point where you just think: ‘This is what matters, this is what I want to say, I’m going to say it’. And also you’ve thought about what you want to say for so long that you can say it more succinctly. I really hope that’s where we get to. I certainly hope to be writing till I drop.”

• The StAnza Poetry Festival is in various venues across St Andrews 14-18 March, see for events listings. Lavinia Greenlaw will give the StAnza Lecture in the Town Hall, 15 March at 3:30pm, and will read in Poetry Centre Stage with Chase Twichell at the Byre Theatre on 16 March at 8pm.