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Peter Riley

in conversation with Keith Tuma

This interview is part of issue 4/5 of the magazine The Gig, a book-length collection of essays on the work of Peter Riley published in March 2000. Inquiries about subscriptions should be sent to Nate Dorward at


Keith Tuma: I have just been reading your essay "The Creative Moment of the Poem" in Denise Riley's collection, and I want to begin this interview with a question or two about it, or rather about your own work as it might be set beside some of the claims of that essay.

[Peter Riley, "The Creative Moment of the Poem."  In Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991, ed. Denise Riley, 92-113. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992.]
You are at some pains in the essay to define the poem as "an object between poet and reader which is both a means of communication and a barrier to communication," as an artifact "neither opaque nor transparent," a "body of light" which reflects "the need to say and be revealed crossed with the need to remain silent and secret."

You set up a clear opposition between poetry and prose; unlike poetry, you say, prose has to do with a more "direct transmission" between writer and reader. "Prose, properly speaking, draws a thread from a singular past through an author and a construct to an imaginative reconstruction in the future." I want to use these remarks as background to a question about the prose in some of your own books.

Alstonefield, for example, opens with excerpts from your letters to Tony Baker. One might read these letters as, in part, meditation on the possibility and politics of pastoral poetry, but they are letters - direct address - to a real person who happens to be a poet. Then there's the prose opening Lines on the Liver, which is full of provocative claims about the nature of the self and desire, industrial "encrustation" and "marine fossil energy in suspension which has men mining in their sleep," and so on. The prose there, as also to a lesser extent in the letters to Baker, sometimes takes the form of rhetorical questions - e.g., "Isn't the lack which drives us into work then something from a distance, if not distance itself?" The prose is meditative but it is also propositional - much the same might be said of the poems - though the questions do suggest a direct turn to a real or supposed reader.

Given what you have said about poetry and prose, I am wondering why you have felt compelled on several occasions to write prose texts to accompany your poems or, in the case of Tracks and Mineshafts, as a supplement to them. Why bother to frame these poems for the reader? Does it point to some lack of confidence in the poems themselves or their potential readers, to a desire to get something across that the poems by themselves might not get across? Does it suggest a need to defend or explain the poems? In what way do you mean this prose to relate to the poems?


Peter Riley: You have to remember that there is no definition of poetry. Poetry is whatever is passed as poetry, that's all you can say. In that situation, if you want to make a claim for its continued practice you enclose the corner of it you believe in. That's what I did in that piece for Denise Riley's collection, describing, rather than defining, what is practised in the corner in which I operate. It was also written from the writer's viewpoint, such was the remit of the anthology.

Photo of Peter Riley and friend

Peter Riley and friend
photo by John Tranter

From the reader's view I could put it more simply as: if you read prose you expect to be told something; if you read poetry you expect something else. Including, I'd now want to add, being told something. The "something else" of poetry must, as I see it, rest on the formal existence of the poem, and will be more fully evinced in the shorter, lyrical and meditative poems where the whole is always before you.

Things such as rhyme and any version of poetical language exist, as far as I know, in order to maintain that sense of an entirety inherent in the slightest movement of the poem, reinforced by acts of finely judged displacement. Which is a paradigm of what happens, everywhere, which is why it gives pleasure when it is done freshly, when it touches the nerve - it offers to lighten the world.

I think there is a scale of movement away from functional prose, and when you reach the extreme of that scale poetry transfers, or fails to, in very shifted terms. What I and a lot of my contemporaries have relied on in the courses we've allowed ourselves to take is that a transference will take place in the absence of the normal transferring mechanisms of language, or in some cases by and through the deliberate blocking of them. I won't go into the theories of this which I find almost entirely posterior and suppositional. I think we have relied on an immense amount of reader goodwill.

But I increasingly think that the transfer of virtuous substance in poetry needs a midwife, and if it's left to happen of its own accord from within the poet's psychic sphere there is a danger that nothing will happen at all, because the effort required on the reader's part is greater than any promise of reward; or what is offered cannot anyway be shown not to be illusive and solipsistic. It may not be that, but in going to the extreme of its own condition it has disempowered itself from showing or proving otherwise. The constant displacement to an elsewhere in modern poetry is brought to such an intensity that it becomes an obstacle to any message there might be, there is no "return" from poetry's ecstasis. In which case it might as well not exist.

So I'm interested in prose as a support to poetry, a ground to it and a guarantor. Indeed my notion of the originary function of poetry is as a song interlude in a narrative, as in the Scandinavian epics, or an interlude of ecstasis and consolidation in a narrative called living. A static or elliptical or self-involving structure set in a continuum, which reflects greater distances than the story. I don't see what's wrong, if the poetry is going to be that wholly involving performance, in assisting the reader into it by setting it in a recognizable world of time/place/thought, as Doug Oliver for instances does so honestly in An Island That is All the World. But not necessarily autobiographical or even factual.

It's actually helpful, it makes it a lot easier to enter the poetical condition, and it doesn't substitute for or reduce the poem. We allow the reader the imaginative intelligence to be able to read the poem out of that frame, or indeed it might be difficult not to. The rainy piece in this collection is my latest bid at a more integrative exercise along these lines.

[This piece is "Llýn in the Rain, September 1998" , a mixed prose-and-verse poem which appeared in the same issue of The Gig as this interview. (There should be a circumflex accent on the "y" of "Llýn", not an acute, but it doesn't exist in this character set - Ed.)]
The poetry should seem to emerge from the prose as a very distinct thing arising from the same experience. I also found that when poetical processes are embedded in a narrative like this, however trivial a one, they are themselves much less bounden to prosaic or rationalizing processes. They can be seen to be using the same materials of experience and image at other levels, and the resulting poetical intrusions can easily be ignored if they get in the way.

Lines on the Liver actually has a purposive structure which evolved very slowly in the course of writing the book. It starts with thought-prose, the earnest attempt to state the living condition wholly and abstractly (rather too much of this, I now think) which gives way, as if out of tiredness, to personal poetry, in which the questions are not asked but the lived event is allowed to fall into its own rather short-winded language of self and world. Poems of seeming. This is then confronted with actual narrative, in that story about the tramp, the acute distance of alteriority in a de-socialized dereliction. Finally that lost figure takes the self-poems and one by one answers them, crashes them against the hardness of loss and distance.

I don't fear that without these prosaic structures the poems would fail to release their substances because I don't believe the poem is a scriptural structure, that it can be expected to hold a conceptual total in its folds, as it is made to seem by the sleight-of-hand of post-symbolist artistry. The perfect poem is absolutely replete, but only with what it grasps, which can be minimal. So the poem is as particular as the prose in a different way, so that what the prose supplies in these joint structures is always additional and not substitutive. Indeed prose might be able to articulate poetry into a more extended narrative than the compacted poem could reach, into truths which are actually operative.

The poem's completion is formal, invoking the world by patterns of displacement and harmony, rather than by conceptual or encyclopaedic coverage. So I don't think poetry is a sacral purveyor of earth-changing messages from deep and distant unknowables. I think it's an ornament.


Keith Tuma: "The Creative Moment of the Poem" doesn't pull many punches. Your claims about the relationship of poet and reader to the poem lead you to attack poetry which proposes an "en bloc transfer of substance" between poet and reader, that so-called "mainstream" poetry which in its "refined versions" is given to "anecdote and self-distancing" and "always implies the immediate return of the small-scale recognition which is all it offers." You also reject a poetry of "suspended suggestion, wilful fragmentation, word-salad and other negations of continuity" offered "in the name of reader-engagement," arguing that such poetry "abnegates the poet's duty to truth and leaves the reader hopelessly alone."

Photo of Keith Tuma

Keith Tuma

I can't help but read such remarks against other statements you have made on the British-Poets listserv which suggest that you find yourself in a kind of no-man's land between a "mainstream" and an avant-garde. Your loyalties, if you will excuse the word, seem at times to be divided. While you often declare your allegiance to the modernist small-press scene, you seem to want to speak up for an Everyman who takes little or no interest in modernist poetry, and you seem to believe that many modes of poetry are currently viable if not your preference exactly.

In the essay some of these tensions are dramatized in your italicized vignettes, where you imagine a reader responding to high-minded propositions such as "The very fabric of our perception rests delicately on our love" by dismissing them as pompous and irrelevant to busy and tired readers who want you to tell a story about "your Irish grandfather." There is an ambivalence and uneasiness in that opening vignette that I am not sure you ever altogether put aside, for all of your eloquence about the "anonymous" poet and the poet "dying into the poem." I wonder if I am right to think that a familiar kind of "anxiety" about the audience of modern poetry shapes your poetry and, if I am, if you might elaborate just a little on how that is so.

Peter Riley: " . . . no man's land between mainstream and avant-garde" and "divided loyalties" - these only make sense if you believe in the necessarily dichotomized condition of our culture, and I don't. As far as I'm concerned where I am is a normal and proper place to be, is where people like me always have been, and mainstream and avant-garde are way out on a limb, really nowhere. British culture runs to oppositional extremes - well, no it doesn't actually, but the extremes get most of the attention, and why? because they're easy, they're easily subsumed into journalistic and academic discourses, the usual TV ethos: set up a fight and you've got your audience captured.

Mainstream (I'll use the word without quotes for what is normally meant, though I think it's nonsense - actually I am the mainstream) mainstream and avant-garde are no real distance from each other, they imply each other, each of their readerships is a reactive negative to the other, and from my point of view, at their extremes they're both anti-poetry. They both refuse the world-invocation of the truly poetic, in favour of singular vision, jokes anecdotes games and experiments, and politics. I haven't exactly got anything against them as such, but people start to feel threatened, or resentful that they are not widely recognized as leader, and start making exclusive claims for their pitches, sometimes on a very big scale. The worst thing is that such focussed entrenchments deny the very richness of opportunity we are offered in the huge range of language uses spread all round us, the very advantage of being where and when we are.

What I do is like a balancing trick, a ridge-top walk. I want to keep in view all the possibilities, which are not just to left and right, and kind of steer a course through them. And I believe this is innovative, and does seek new movement between words, but as a renewal of truth rather than a denial of it, and so with constant check against the world. I think for instance both Hardy and Hopkins were poetically innovative and there is no point in setting them against each other. What I lapse into is either dullness or difficulty.

Well, naturally I waver, I'd distrust anyone who didn't waver in present conditions, but that doesn't mean I view the varying modes available as options. There are those who with an absolute singularity of purpose drive forwards in saint- or hero-like certainty, looking no way but forwards. I don't trust it, now or ever. I don't trust the inhering disdain, and I don't know where the certainty derives from other than habitual self-confirmation. What good did saints and heroes ever do anyway, for the most part? They enforced change, and caused immense suffering.

I've always thought "audience" too theatrical a term for poetry. There's only anxiety about it when you're forced to inhabit a nationalized space in which poetry is one agenda, which is of course a fabrication, but sometimes you are forced to. Then you see extremists and opportunists getting most of the attention and rewards, and naturally you blame yourself. But really there's no reason why that seemingly unattained "poetry" audience should turn to what you do, rather than to belly-dancing or marquetry. The differences among poetical modes are as extreme as that. So there's an enormous range of activity, all kinds of different musics being produced all over the place, and most reasonably efficient performers get a band of attentive listeners, what more does anyone want?


Keith Tuma: I was a little sneaky above when I worked your sentence about "distance" into my question about the role of prose in some of your poetry books. "Distance," like "completion," and the adjectival forms of these words, is a keyword in your work at least as far back as Lines on the Liver. I take it that it relates to your effort to construct or explore models of subjectivity and interiority which might be opposed to the reduced existence enforced by the institutions of modern culture and the modern state.

Heidegger would have a language for this that involves authentic being and its relationship to everydayness. I take it that your interest in acknowledging "the gentler and more persistent demand of the totality" - as you put it in Lines on the Liver - might be related to such a model of authenticity, though your work also seems haunted by the prospect that efforts to grasp the "totality" are doomed to fail. You write in Liver that "The administration, hell bent on debasing man before his own facility, drags us across the world into nonentity as soon as we risk ourselves into its function - i.e., project human fullness of soul into the hard, crumbling, ugly and disordered outer surface of the anthill which statecraft is, and the lost souls who think they control it. We seem to accede to this political reduction, in submitting to the choice of a career or detesting the government; but then we return home to ourselves, we 'grasp the balance', and the luxuries of denouncing wrong give place to the duties of tracing harm."

Now, when I read your work, I don't find myself asking how it might be thought of as political in its wound response - you seek to expand the purchase of the human and human freedom against all that would use us, those created needs which are our inheritance. "Mining" or "excavating" in your work, for instance, is not just what they used to do more of up north but also exploration of dream-worlds; if Earth is Us, let's dig into it to see what deposits can be uncovered, what can be recovered for use. But intellectual and poetic work as much as physical work requires tools, and what I want to ask you here is what tools you find useful for digging.

It seems clear from the idioms of your prose and poetry that a Kierkegaardian language of "dread" and "fear and trembling" together with various discourses associated with Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis have been useful tools. I find myself wondering, however, to what extent specific religious discourses have also informed the work. There is, after all, some talk of the "soul" in your work, occasional reference to the "Grail" and to (spiritual?) "journeys" and such.

Moreover, at the same time that your work seems to want to provide models for a more capacious subjectivity or interiority, it also seems constantly to struggle with solipsism; John Dooley in Liver is perhaps your most famous figure of man altogether isolated amid the dump, glimpsed in a phone booth as if desperately trying to reach an outside world. He might be in one of Beckett's plays.

I want to ask you, then, whether or not he is Peter Riley's tragicomic hero and, more specifically, what reading he might do to get his call through to the world or (failing that) at least live a life worth living?

Peter Riley: There are some advantages of not being professionally occupied in literature or poetry as a teacher or scholar, one of which is that what you read doesn't have to pass into a card-index and lie forever behind you. You can forget it, and you can read fragmentarily or haphazardly and it doesn't matter. You can read a book because it falls into your hands (I am a bookdealer and I spend a lot of time among old books) or you can fiercely pursue a gleam of understanding through a labyrinth of bibliography (I have one of the biggest libraries in Britain on my doorstep here). I don't either set up my own canon or subscribe to an institutional one, though I have what I call my "bearings." I'm not interested in a philosophical consistency which derives from following particular developments; I'd rather such material were spread out before me and stirred in with completely different things.

Cover of Alstonefield, by Peter Riley

I value the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre for instance, though I never got through a whole book, but I don't think he lies "behind" anything I ever wrote; in fact I'm probably interested in him as a result of my own work, because of what's happened to my mind through all that writing. There's a kind of balanced, grounded fervour to what he does. I like to think in terms of a craft, fervently pursued but within the obtaining conditions. Knowing working musicians such as Derek Bailey or Ioan Pop has made a bigger difference, probably, to my attitudes to writing than anything I've read.

And I now like to think of that devoluted condition spread right across all the topics you prod in this question. A lot of people of my generation (especially if they come from the kind of place I came from) have probably been through all that alienation and the resulting hesitation and ambivalence, worrying about authenticity under the pressure of conformity, struggling to avoid the boredom of unproductive labour. I lived the first five years of my life through urban bombing raids aimed at centres of industrial production. That gives you a strong sense of both belonging somewhere and needing an exit.

My experience has been to go on like that really, seeking an optimism and a purpose in a context which seems to prioritize opportunity and disregard, which persistently sets you aside from its centre and which claims tradition while rewarding an easy novelty; and ultimately that means seeking acts of liberation from your entire context. But it's a long struggle: you get to feel very alienated from that which also defines you, you both elevate and degrade the human image, and you seek an elsewhere which you know must be located where you are. There's a lot of this kind of struggle in everyone's work since mid-century, I think, except those who operate only within short-term singularities. You have to go through this, but it's quite dangerous because you can lose touch with how the world in fact operates in an alienated dream fuelled by resentment. If you win the struggle you reduce your context to a language, and then you can step out of it, back into where you are.

I just feel now that so much sight onto the world has become available to us that, anchored to the cohering ground of a common fate, the entire contextual question is falling apart. What we live "in" has become a shifting and multiplying term. The world sheet is spreading out, our authenticity passes through the boundaries of nation, culture, language, economy, all those things which both threaten and sustain us, they are not the only things.

I think what I'm saying is that we are becoming remarkably free from concepts of importance. There is increasingly somewhere else to turn to. We are on the edge of a stateless economy, and modes of thought and creation liberated from redemptive focus are opening out. We can stop leaning on that centrality, that hope of deliverance. The pressure is off.

Some people find this complexity an occasion for a reactive entrenchment in difficulty. I find it an enriching and democratizing thing. Certainly we are still stuck in the college brain-box bashing our vocabularies against ultimate questions in the dark, but we are also outside it in the towns and hills and plains where people live just as purposefully and the beasts roam the pastures freely, and that also is "us." The priorities get dispersed.

Poets, as Alice Notley said yesterday, are too concerned about the future of poetry and thus about the purpose and direction of the art rather than its presence, which must be multidirectional. What once looked like a distressing splintering of the poetry situation now looks to me like its redemption, and whatever imperatives people force on it - that it has to be whatever: linguistically innovative, urban, deconstructive, language-centred, critical, electronic . . . and pressures of another kind too, about correctness and accessibility and surface emotion . . . all in the name of novelty, sometimes very deeply set into a currency of despair - you can turn from these, because there is somewhere to turn, there is another music round the corner. It hardly matters what your version of that fortune is. This may be pluralism, it certainly isn't relativism because there are overriding priorities. I don't any longer view the field of endeavour as a totality but as a diversity, and a wholeness. Totality is the Platonic phantom of experimental poetry. It always lets you down.

Actually a lot of the experiment, and even the theory, is very useful (and we also need anti-poetry) but I now see its producers as inhabiting workshops scattered across the land, rather than cathedrals. You go shopping for what you need. The "religious" vocabulary - soul, redemption, etc. - remains valid as indeed it remains in common parlance, while the religious structures fall into dereliction.

All this doesn't make it any easier, and it certainly doesn't eliminate the tragic narrative, in fact it reasserts it. The "everyday" or the "ordinary" is the zone that was always free of that cultural militarism anyway, it was where you were face up against the realities of survival whatever the priests said; it can only be invaded, and exploited, by ideologues, as a self-sufficient peasant society can only be invaded and exploited by the State. It is what you seek to preserve intact as a productive space.

As for John Dooley, well, I didn't invent or programme him - he occurred. I often used to drive over that particular moor because the nearest supermarket was the other side of it and I passed him five times out of ten. I didn't invent any of it, not even the telephone box episode. He occurred, and he occurred to me, as a figure of what was missing from the pastoral enclosure of personal poetry. That the potential for harm is always greater than our liberal spaces allow, especially in peace-time because we tend to forget history.

His sense of total loss and calm desperation actually pushed the language towards the avant-garde, struck it into a kind of dereliction, where that book left it. But anyway that's how I like to think I operate, trawling through directly known reality as it occurs. Making a form, a whole and discrete thing out of the spread and clutter of personal experience and knowledge, the more disparate the better. "Ornamental" because it does or should form this compacted entity which adheres to the world without being a structural necessity, how could it be? But completed also in the sense that the processes involved are concluded within the piece, otherwise they can't release energy. And the best, the brightest ornaments, always hold imagery of the major entities governing existence, be it God in a mosaic dome or sun and seed on a peasant gateway.


Keith Tuma: Peter, I'd like to ask a few questions in connection with your reference to "nationalized space" in your reply to my second question. I am remembering remarks you made to Kelvin Corcoran in an interview some years ago.

[Peter Riley, "Spitewinter Provocations: An Interview [by Kelvin Corcoran] on the Condition of Poetry with Peter Riley."  Reality Studios 8 (1986): 1-17.]
There you indicated that an "American moment" among the English poets of your generation was of fairly short duration. You also hinted at something like an oedipal anxiety that has, in your view, made many American poets altogether unable to read English poets.

As you know, there are some American as well as British readers who will think that if Cambridge poets indeed turned away from American poetry, it was to their loss. I have even heard some speak of "islandism" and "insularity" as properties or agendas of a purported "Cambridge School." This is hardly meant as flattery. It suggests that you and some of your peers have something in common with poets like Donald Davie or the current poet laureate, who writes in his little book on Larkin of an "English line."

I wonder if you might take a moment to discuss the extent to which ideas of "Englishness" or "Americanness" have had an impact on your work over the last decades. You will know that I find such concepts largely empty or reified; that does not of course diminish their force. What, if anything, distinguishes versions of "Englishness" in Cambridge, or should we merely jettison the term altogether? Perhaps you would be willing to elaborate a little on the history you sketched for Corcoran; perhaps your views have changed since you made those remarks in that interview.

Peter Riley: I don't think this is a polemical issue now, if it ever was. When you're young, especially at certain periods of history, it's natural to narrow the scope as much as you can, and to go through the motions of chucking a lot of stuff overboard. Clearing a space for yourself by prioritizing what inherently promotes your progress, junking what doesn't. Some people do this deliberately and in public, blatantly furthering a career; others do it more privately or tentatively. Some people never stop doing it and if that works you end up at the centre of a cult, I suppose. In its developed form this impulse becomes a guardianship of quality which is very difficult to sustain, because you have to conceal constantly massive acts of closure.

You might recall the way Ezra Pound spoke so admiringly of the ancient Far Eastern literati who trimmed the corpus to be preserved down to one percent or something, and so set up extended standards of excellence. One might have wished Pound had trimmed a few things from his own inner library. Actually the self-wreck of the Pound enterprise is for me one of the principal signs that you cannot run poetry as a substitute university, a substitute religion, a substitute politics . . . - if it has any right to exist it must find its own purpose, not serve as a short-cut to more rigorous and practical disciplines. The sense of "importance" has to be left out of the equation, otherwise the whole thing runs into inhumanity and waste.

I've said before in print that to academic critics and inheritors of the poet-enthroned syndrome, it's essential that there be a fewness of poets otherwise they think there can't be a history. I'm interested in there being as many as possible. It doesn't mean you tolerate dullness, it just means you seek quality (and you do seek quality) without limiting its chances. In poetry as in any other realm you seek good beyond predicated categories. You find it by result and response. This is something of a hobby-horse of mine and I have strayed from the question.

So, yes, at one time I and others (in no sense a "school") focused on certain American poetry - roughly the kinds of writing in Allen's 1960 anthology - in the hope of sighting some kind of future; I went so far as to write a thesis on Spicer. And this did represent a rejection of an "English line" though only in its recent manifestations - it rejected a poetry of urbane talk which mainly happened in the 1950s and has gone from strength to strength ever since, now to some the official poetry of the country. (That a lot of Frank O'Hara's is also a poetry of urbane talk is undeniable and there is a lot of dishonesty among the pro-modernists in glossing over affinities such as that; but the O'Hara which interests me is a metaphysical poet.)

But what we were ditching wasn't a real "English line" at all, it was really a very rebellious impulse, an anti-poetry. Those guys of the "Movement" were self-consciously in rebellion against high culture and artiness, they were flag-waving pioneers, manifesto makers, manipulators of history. They have only precarious connections with poets such as Edward Thomas or Gurney or Auden . . . or Ted Hughes for that matter. And at times they no doubt touched a real nerve. The success and massive official promotion of their legacy, which I see as a shallower affair, hasn't stopped it from being always a cult of newness, of which they are their own victims. Ten years later most names are forgotten.

It was in that climate that we turned to the States, and I feel that we sought one novelty to escape from another. To me it was a quest for scope, width, size, it was to do with seeking a poetry which commanded a large sense of the world , a vast lyrical/intellectual possibility. Terms of space-time and history and geological movement, renewings of legend. It emphatically wasn't to do with the wilful disabling of language, we already had that. I valued it very highly, but at some point I noticed that some of the writers I was getting this "size" from couldn't read, or cope with, the poetical size of John Milton, or Wordsworth, or even Dante. So something was wrong. Duncan was a poet who would attend to anything that had real substance, and listen to anybody who was sincere, he didn't programme himself. Others pushed themselves into crackpot messianic ravings.

But America is Novelty City isn't it? I still feel as I did when Kelvin Corcoran interviewed me in 1985 (and I was talking of a completely different set of American poets then) that they exert a pressure on the rest of the world which says not so much that we're better, but that we're more advanced. Always we're ahead, and the accusation against (I don't know why particularly English) poetry not willing to subscribe (though a few do, very successfully) is indeed like a death-wish against the parent. It sets you back as finished, outmoded, "insular," not part of the present tense or the present world. But who sets that agenda, actually, but the poets themselves?

And why should "American" be the only alternative to an insular "English"? What happened to the rest of the world? What happened to Australia for instance, where alienation seems to be less drastically cut through artistic endeavour? Or all the English-language poetry of India and Africa? I find one of the most hopeful areas is poetical writing from the war zones of the Near East, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria . . . such as I can get at it (in French). Modern realities engaged to a peasant cosmology. And anyway literary America is itself a much bigger and more varied proposition than the Paris-New York poetical mafia. And isn't historical time itself another vast extent, even in a very small place? And the reach that opens out when you cut through the exclusiveness of a culture prioritizing the metropolitan power-base, is another.

But England isn't a line, it's a place, and that's all you're entitled to love really, a sense of settlement, which could be anywhere. It's obvious enough the way the word "heritage" is thrown around these days that the comforts of historical belonging are reserved for the very rich or the very mortgaged. To me that implicates a concealment of historical reality. But so does that blinkered modernism which would rather die than enter a medieval church to look at a beautifully carved tomb.

I believe, you see, that a thing like poetry embellishes the place in which it occurs, rather than offers a critique; but how do you get to identify that place, how do you distinguish it from nation or class or theatre? - to me it is a quite mysterious location which I prefer not to call England, where the most remote provincial particular and a central accumulated resource inhabit each other. A construct, but grounded, a real place sighted at the edges of the notional place. It's easy to say all this, but to perform it so that anyone else can recognize it, is a different matter. My only recourse is to seek fictive experiential authenticities that set language vibrating. Or just go at it with a will.


Keith Tuma: I want to bring the abstractions of my last question down to some more manageable and particular level. Just the other day I was reading your poem "Do It Again" in Author. There you set several lines that I take to be your own between an arrangement of words from a famous Beach Boys song:

It's automatic when I
Talk to old friends the
Conversation turns to
Girls we knew when their
Hair was soft and

whiter than star
heavier than sea

death white as glass
pass over me

Well I've been thinking bout
All the places All the faces we
Missed and then
I can imagine someone wanting to read this poem by trying to make sense of the way it juxtaposes American pop culture and a language that seems self-consciously "other" to it - lyric fragments in the high style let's call them. I know that your work often moves between registers and perhaps you do not often enough get credit for some of the comic effects produced by such movement. But here I can imagine that some readers will find you pretty far from the comic. Maybe they will think "Beach Boys songs are American popular music known worldwide, part of an American culture busy mixing with or even obliterating the particularity of the 'places' and artistic practices of the world. Riley's citation is deeply ironic; the 'real' Riley can be found in what interrupts the Beach Boys here." Would such a reader be on the right track?

Peter Riley: This depends how you read. I think I read poetry more as a particularity than a lot of people do. I don't read the Beach Boys' words as signs or representatives (of American/popular culture, or whatever) I don't figure them as ambassadors of anything larger than what they are. I read them as something which just comes along, and there's nothing you can do about it - you can't avoid it. You don't take an interest in that kind of music but it reaches you whether you like it or not, and you're stuck with it. You may indeed think its power is excessive and associate it with the Americanization of the world, but if so too bad, you can't help responding to it. I also read the quotation as something that says what it says. The whole sequence is about ageing. I interrupt it because it's not saying enough.


Keith Tuma: I'd like to ask some questions about two of my own favorite books of yours, beginning with Snow Has Settled . . . . Bury Me Here. I've been pondering this book as a sequence, thinking about its shape, and wonder if you might comment on that. I know that when I first read it I was periodically fascinated by the way the movement between or across poems seemed at times propelled by word-play, by rhyme as much as by discourse, as for instance when the ending of "Great Eastern" ("All right, / Opening to the earth at a guess of its plight.") becomes in the next poem's opening "The earth's plight is also our delight / Lost in it, brushed awry by the night . . . ." But I know too that the sequence has fundamental concerns not too different from those present in much of your work, the possibility of "acts of trust" as one poem puts it, or the possibility of thinking that "the mind's track on / soul-light is instrumental to the earth's / equilibrium" as the next one has it. But when I came to the last poem in the book, "Grand Hôtel du Square," I was just a bit surprised. What surprised me was the reference to "the modern state."

For it seemed to me that until that point in the book the question of trust or of an ethics of "care" had been kept a little remote from specific historical circumstances, despite the book's focus on particular places. I know that there is speculation about post-war life earlier and that the Paris sequence has a poem for Baudelaire addressing him as follows: "The vertical fantasie of state O my lost brother!" And I might also have been prepared for your ending by "Causeway's" line "My lapses from care / Are a perpetual night surrounding my mind"; I remember thinking that this was an overtly ethical and civic extension of Catullus's "nox est perpetua una dormienda" - a line most familiar to me from its adaptation in Bunting's Briggflatts ("For love uninterrupted night"). But in much of the book prior to the Paris poems the nation is, as one poem has it, "the nation / of sheer being."

So coming to the final poem I couldn't avoid a feeling something like "Well this is what all the fuss is about then; here it is all of it finally said, all of the despair hope would lift." What had before been a fairly mysterious knock on the door turns out to be shouting in the streets and somebody being carted off to a death camp. In your note you offer pride of place to Atget's photograph of a street-singer in Paris, and the final poem has him singing against "necessity's blind chaconne." All of this is a roundabout way of asking you about that last poem and how or if it is meant to offer some kind of shape to the book, and what that shape might be.

Peter Riley: I think you're right to be surprised that the last group of poems doesn't conclude the book within the mode (transcendental, some might call it, or pastoral) which has prevailed. Rather than summating the book they tend to turn elsewhere and, the last one especially, bring all that ecstasis down to circumstance. But bringing-down from various mental constructs is to me precisely one of the principal functions of the movement in poems, undercutting both your own claims and those you find in the air around you, referring back to the acknowledged real however small (or unbearably big) it might become. Because it's almost all we have. The trouble with "Grande Hôtel du Square" is actually that it doesn't do that enough, and rests too much on a sense of election.

My claim for it is that is has an envoi-like function to the book, slightly like an epilogistic unmasking, revealing more of a person behind the poetry, rather ploddingly attempting to weave hope out of a dull solitude. I was so pleased that Tony Frazer managed to get that picture by Atget onto the back cover, it's such a good sequel to the poem. That remote detail of a Parisian street circa 1910, so beautifully structured, is the reality which the whole book is brought to focus on at the end, when it's read though the last poem (rather like the end of Lines on the Liver) and which also, to me, reinstates the lyrical daze. The woman is the singer by the way. Did you notice how their hands touch? I think the organ-grinder probably is blind.

The ordering of poems in that book was largely an attempt to avoid sequence. There has been so much stress on it, and the larger or connected construct isn't necessarily any more valuable. The quite casual sequential "arrangement" of a book like Lustra is a fresher act. Snow Has Settled is arranged chronologically, so that any connectivity or sequence there is, is because it all comes from the unity and continuity of one person. Except that the poems are in groups (the sectioning of the contents page gives the groupings). Echoic progressions occur mainly within those groups. I tend to use that as a generative technique. A sense that more, or a counter movement, needs to be launched, is tackled by repetition (taking the material, site or memory on board again) or by perverting a phonetic pattern to something else, making an echoed phrase point another way.

This kind of talk makes it all sound so important, but people do these things constantly in conversation and articulate thought, or while reading. So many of the so-called skills of poetry are common mental acts for the sake of presence and understanding, including those reaches the mind makes through images, which don't have a discursive function but are important definers of our condition and invite us towards possibilities that lie beyond any established discursive field. Or indeed are necessary halts to and deniers of discourse, tokens of the indolence we also survive by.

So, elements which recur through a book like this aren't structures but are more like things which I have been unable to escape from or resolve over the period, about twenty years, in which those pieces were written. So they return, like people returning. And various strategies are tried, to make them welcome or to get rid of them. And naturally major problematic terms, for me or anyone, like "state" and "care," will feature as revenants like this, in books and across books and across different poets' books and across from poetry to other things. Which is a reason I like to think of poetry as something which is able to cohabit with other discourses, if it can establish the right to stand beside them, which at present would be difficult.

So these terms keep popping up and actually, that little three-line poem "Causeway" which was mainly a bitter jibe against experimental poetry and the amount of my life and others' lives it has wasted and distracted, a little thing like that can just crunch on a major term and clinch it with a gesture of obviousness. Not by condensation, as if we inhabit a scarcity economy. Without saying anything really, because in the end it is a drama, a staged act. The drama is fragmented these days, but mostly it still is one.


Keith Tuma: I see now in looking again at Distant Points, which has the first two books in your ongoing Excavations sequence, that there's a reference on page 24 to "hope wrought across transport in the occulted rhythm where the nation evades the state." Let that reference function here as my own transition between Snow Has Settled and Excavations, sequences that, formally at least, seem different, the latter of course having the appearance anyway of prose and being a little more open to modernist fragmentation and juxtaposition within its sections. You might comment on any of that if you'd like, but it's somewhere else in particular I'd like to push you with regard to Excavations. I'd like to hear you say something about your use of the found and treated text there - not only the Mortimer and Greenwell but also, say, the Renaissance lyric or song.

Now there's a rumor afoot that much of what sounds like Renaissance lyric in the sequence is actually Peter Riley. Then there's also the occasional moment when the purportedly cited text seems to have a comic function - I don't think you get enough credit for puns and such in general - as when on page 28 you write "Every step I take is on the soles of your feet," which I can't help hearing Sting behind. Having looked at the Mortimer some, I know that his massive text is used in an idiosyncratic way too, so that what appears by virtue of italics and such to be boundaries between incorporated text and your own writing is actually quite fluid: Mortimer's own tropes are picked up here and there. But in my most recent reading of the poem I was more struck by how often what you pick up from Mortimer has to do with direction, the way the bones are positioned. I'd like to ask you about that in particular, about what the point is regarding disposition of the bones and other materials in the gravesites.

To toss just one more issue into this heap of observations designed to provoke some commentary I want to quote something from Andrew Duncan's essay on London and Cambridge in Angel Exhaust 8. I don't know whether he had you in mind when, mentioning the Cambridge school of archeology (Ian Hodder and Mike Parker-Pearson) he wrote of an interest among Cambridge-based poets in "psychic and cultural trash" and "the subsoil as the ruins of time." (He names only Out to Lunch.) Here's a passage from Duncan's essay that might be worth pondering beside your interest in the contents of the prehistoric graves as catalogued by the Victorians: "The distinction between pits with animal bones (kitchen refuse) and other pits with human bones (religious and hallowed ground) [is] not necessarily observed." I wonder if that blurring of the everyday and the religious pertains in this case, and if so if you have any interest in it.

Peter Riley: Excavations arose from a very long and detailed study of a subject which was obviously going to yield nothing because it was just too far away and would echo back only one's own ignorance and inarticulacy. The archaeological interest had always been there, long before any Cambridge school, I've studied it since I was a child, and for me it slotted straight into the quest for an expanded poetic in the 1960s, the possibilities of a researched poetry participating in an expanding sense of where and what you are, or a much larger sense of what was sayable. This prehistoric aspect of it was always bound up with those antediluvian neuroses which we can't seem to free ourselves from, through the seventeenth century, Blake, Ruskin, all kinds of modern versions, Pound, Olson . . . always trying to get "behind" some historical point to a primal integrity . . . which is some more or less vacuous dream of course, or an inflation of the self as agent of recovery. Always refusing to take into account the demographic facts integral to that perceived "wholeness" in a pre-divided vision.

My project brings that to its ultimate, its absurdity, you apply yourself to the furthest away you can get, the furthest behind anything, where there's virtually nothing left, which says nothing to you except a few tantalizing particles dragged up from the soil. "Modernist fragmentation" is merely a useful handle on a condition which imposes itself anyway, making the whole dramatic projection possible because in that history I can begin to suppose people willing to read it.

So it's not a matter of dreaming the self into a modern visionary capacity to tackle an ancient or mythological entity, but of drawing on techniques projecting uncertainty and inarticulacy to tackle an irrevocable negative, which nevertheless still concerns what we are and have been. Because . . . Because because. Why because? I don't know. Because it's there, because you can't just have the world as a present given, it's not made that way, there's always something else, lost, destroyed, pulverized, spoken and perished four thousand years ago, which makes a kind of edge to what we are.

And as Jeremy Prynne said, "Only at the edge does it chime . . ." (or was that shine? it doesn't matter), which is true, as I take it not in the sense of the broken middle, and I don't believe in the multiple worlds theories or Beckett's rather dishonest fringe essentiality . . . but only from the edge does any wholeness become contemplatable and achieve reverberation. Like the meanest image, like a single grass-blade, seen as something on the very verge of nonentity.

The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lyrics got in because, I suppose (and I don't know, they just started sprouting up like budgerigar seed on a waste dump producing African violets) there was a vacuum between me and this recalcitrant material which needed filling. Because I wanted this contemplation of utter remoteness and concealment to read as a normality, like the way we have bits and pieces of songs, always, floating round in our heads, fractions of sung language, or of poetry itself, odd phrases and half lines, which descend on us when we need them or when we don't, but are in a sense most of what we've got from our "culture." That particular period predominates (though there are many others) because it felt like a middle placement between here-now and the prehistoric nowhere, like something we half have. And I valued the obsessive melancholic focus on love-loss in those songs, as an edge of refusal against human will and desire.

As for authenticity, almost all those verbal units are either quoted or remembered, and sometimes the misremembered version was preferred. But it was very important to retain the original orthography, these things had to show their age as part of the whole structure, where the most intimate or immediate thing is also remote and untouchable, buried in time. Unfortunately it wasn't always available to me, especially with words taken from madrigals, you just can't get at unmodernized texts of madrigals, so sometimes I had to invent it from my familiarity with the orthographical habits of the period.

Not so different from ordinary poetry anyway. I mean poetry isn't just to do with being highly intelligent and knowing what's happening in the world and using every word at its maximum. It's also to do with being stupid and getting it wrong and not knowing what to do with a word, being defeated by it. It's also where you take a word and turn it this way and that and try it one way and then another in the hope it will show its true worth. Particularly, as you picked out in the previous question, the terms for the human communality and its occupation of earth-space: nation, state, community, country, land, territory . . . These words get pasted up into the construct as the question marks they have become. Or they are risked in a bid for positive meaning but subject to contradiction or revision elsewhere in the text. My only allowance to "difficulty" these days is to let a thing occur in a text like Excavations as a partial, unfinished or un-understood thing which is retained in the text's mind and completed or extended or revised on another occasion, in a different picture.

This kind of progression by trepidation is always there but Excavations stresses that side of things: it entertains conditions where you find yourself not saying what you think you meant and also find yourself saying things you don't understand at all, because you're caught up in the theatre of it, which is a trusting to a poetical instinct or something.

Like that material about direction, the cardinal points. Even the earliest reports are full of it, they seem instinctively to have realized that it was important: which way the body was made to face both locally and terrestrially. And there's plenty you can read about it in anthropological literature, about the direction of the land of the dead in relation to migration for instance. But I just let it be there, I slotted such details in where they seemed unobtrusive and let the repetition of them in writing and reading build up its own signification to the point where, somewhere or other, I more or less say what has become obvious: that the east--west tensions concern living and dying, beginning continuing and ending, settlement and economy, whereas the north--south tensions concern something else, like possibility and impossibility, comfort and hurt, politics, science, hope and despair . . . And these cardinal tensions are still there, translate them as you will.

Otherwise, there is a theory behind Excavations - briefly that the tumulus grave in the period when burial first became individual, was a site of communal observance and graphic representation handled by those with the know-how, which expressed in semi-permanent form through a variety of materials most of them now lost, the end state and result of the individual's life almost diagrammatically, both in particular and as participation in a history. I think that some of them are the way they are because the person in question had qualities demanding these projections; but in others the tumulus ritual was simply needed, for historical reasons we cannot even guess at, and maybe the next person to die served, even if it were a baby. I can't know this and in supposing it I don't want to fall into the antediluvian dream pool again, so that too is broken and scattered into the text, and I also speak from amazed incomprehension or even fear of what those things might mean.

But I'm no expert on Excavations. That's the kind of thing it is.


Keith Tuma: Okay, Peter, I'll give you a break from my long-winded questions about your books. What I want to know here concerns Nicholas Moore. I've read what you've written about his work - its great variety for instance - and about the man. What I want to know is how Moore's work has informed your own poetic practice.

Peter Riley: It was my only real encounter with poetry of the pre-academic era.

(I think that's my answer to that question. I can't think of anything else to say. Except that if I imply a freedom from interference there, as I do, I also imply a quite appalling lack of support. A proud man, a craftsman, living in awful circumstances, his life-work crushed by the whims of an alien power structure on which we are thank God no longer dependent: the poetry book market, official culture, all those experts, all that vaunted success. But at the same time free, free to write what he needed to in the full range of an acknowledged modern poetry. And that freedom and professionalism is there in the very syllabic detail of everything he wrote.

It wasn't so much the intrusion of the academy into current poetry, interference by interpretation becoming prescription; though there has been that. It was when the poets all stood up and said, "Hey, we're intellectuals too! We know all about Derrida and all that stuff, we're just like you . . . !" Or otherwise began to write as someone else said was necessary. That was what really wrapped the art in briars. I contest that all the time, and its contrary.)

Well, poor old Moore. It made me feel that all the stuff about importance, all that "leading poet" blather, whether it comes from the academies or the poetry newspapers or the inordinate soul itself, all that discrimination, all that favouring, of which the poetry world is crammed full - it's just another and rather subtle way of exercising the human capacity for cruelty. And I think it knows it is.

This interview is part of issue 4/5 of the magazine The Gig, a book-length collection of essays on the work of Peter Riley published in March 2000. Among its contributors were Nigel Wheale, James Keery, Peter Middleton, Mark Morrisson, John Hall, Simon Perril, Peter Robinson, and many others. Inquiries about subscriptions should be sent to Nate Dorward at


Peter Riley was born 1940, in Stockport, near Manchester, in an environment of working people, and read English at Cambridge. He has since lived and worked in London, Brighton, Odense (Denmark), and the Peak District (central England), in various kinds of teaching and casual employment. Since 1985 he has lived in Cambridge, where he operates the last surviving mail-order poetry book business. He has written studies of Jack Spicer, T.F.Powys, improvised music, poetry, lead mines, burial mounds and Transylvanian string bands. His poetry has appeared in ten principal collections: Love-Strife Machine (1968), The Linear Journal (1973), Lines on the Liver (1981), Tracks and Mineshafts (1983), Sea Watches (1991), Distant Points (1995), Noon Province (1996), Alstonefield (1995) and Snow has Settled . . . Bury Me Here (1997). A selected poems is scheduled by Carcanet for November 2000.

In Jacket # 2 you can read three poems from his book Snow has Settled . . . Bury Me Here (ISBN 0 907562 24 8) published by Shearsman Press in 1997, distributed by Oasis Books, 12 Stevenage Road, London SW6 6ES, United Kingdom.

Keith Tuma's publications on British and American poetry and culture include Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers (Northwestern, 1998) and Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (National Poetry Foundation, 1998), co-edited with Maeera Shreiber. Recent and forthcoming essays and some of whatever else it is might be found in journals including Sulfur, The Journal (Eire), Open Letter, and Chicago Review. He is editing An Anthology of Modern British and Irish Poetry, due from Oxford University Press (New York) in early 2001. You can read his review of Mina Loy, "The Lost Lunar Baedeker". Ed. Roger L. Conover (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996) in Jacket # 5.


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