Gregory Woods on Writing and Poetry.
Gregory Woods‘ poetry looks, at a cursory glance, relatively conventional, because of its form. However, on closer inspection, his choice of words reveals someone who likes to experiment. There is also a delightful sense of playfulness, notably evident in the crafting of a very particular group of sonnets, in a hilarious response to one offended critic.
Would you describe your job at the University?
I am Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. I was appointed to that role back in 1998 and as I was the first one in the country it caused a bit of controversy. But basically I am like any other lecturer in the English department. I teach my courses in gay literature as well as teaching more general courses with colleagues on gender and sexuality in literature. I also contribute to our other courses. I’m a specialist in modern literature and American literature. So those are the main areas I cover. And then of course there is a huge amount of bureaucracy, which sometimes seems to be the bulk of my job.
You seem to have had a very interesting life. Would you briefly go through from birth to where you are now, picking up highlights before we go into more detail?
I was born in Egypt, right towards the end of Empire. My father was a chartered accountant in Cairo and my mother had adventurously gone out to Alexandria as a young, single girl to teach – they met in Cairo – but we were thrown out during the Suez crisis in 1956, when I was three. My father moved his job down to what was then the Gold Coast, which became Ghana a year later. I remember from my primary school days the excitement of Independence, of learning the new national anthem, drawing a new flag and learning what every colour on it and the star in the middle meant. Although I grew up as a colonial at the very dead-end of Empire, that experience of being in school at that moment of Independence in Ghana turned me into a sort of anti-imperialist before I knew what I was doing, because I was in a Ghanaian international school and was part of the excitement of that time of liberation of the nation from colonial rule. That’s one part of my background.
Then I was sent to an English public school, a Roman Catholic public school in Berkshire, where I had a very conventional education, except in that, as Catholics, we didn’t have the same level of pious patriotism imposed on us (‘I vow to thee, my country’, and all that) as in the Church of England public schools. Even in that kind of school, we had a sense of ourselves as being outsiders.
I then went up to what was still, at that time, a new university, the University of East Anglia, where I studied English and American literature. I also studied creative writing there at Masters level, right at the beginning of the famous MA in writing, just after Ian McEwan. I finally did my literary-critical doctorate there on modern gay poetry. After that, my first job was down in southern Italy, where I taught English language and literature at the University of Salerno, just south of Naples, before coming back to develop my career here in Britain.
How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not sure. I find the question a bit odd, actually. It’s a question people often ask and I’m not sure I am a writer, because I earn my living as an academic and sometimes wish I were a writer. I certainly wish I had more time to write. I suppose I’ll answer your question by saying, I first knew I wanted to write when I was a teenager. I started writing bits and pieces of anything. Now that you ask me, I am reminded that I wrote a film script when I was about fourteen. I adapted a novel into a film, a nineteenth-century novel by a man called Harrison Ainsworth. The form that really excited me while was at school was drama. I was reading a lot of the Penguin Plays series, and was especially interested in the avant-garde American and European plays. I made various attempts to write plays myself, and did actually stage one of them at school, a one-act piece about a Jewish New Yorker who falls in love with his own son.
So I was dabbling in things throughout my teens, doing it for the fun of it and not really thinking about it as something I would always do. But it was at university, as an undergraduate, that I started writing poetry with some seriousness. Again without any specific aim in mind, certainly not thinking I would be a poet. I’ve never had any ambition to make a living by the pen. That has therefore liberated me into not having to ingratiate myself with any kind of audience.
I eventually threw away all of my writing when I was about twenty-five (though I suspect I still have a copy of the play somewhere). I had certainly written enough poems for a couple of collections, but disposed of them because I had become disillusioned with it and could never get any of it published. I stopped for about ten years, then started again in my late thirties. I do want to go on writing when I retire from my academic job, but I’m not sure that being a writer is quite what I’ve ever aimed for.
Somewhere in the course of this personal development, I’ve written large chunks of about twenty novels, all of them more or less experimental, but I’ve completed only one. It lies, unpublished, on the floor of my office at work.
There are theories of the importance of a person’s background in influencing their path in life. Your grandfather was a writer, wasn’t he? Did this influence you in any way?
My grandfather was a Fleet Street editor, a left-wing journalist called Leonard Crocombe. He was the first editor of the Radio Times in the days when it was a serious magazine. He also edited a magazine called Tit-Bits which in the 60s turned into something rather scurrilous and cheap but was a serious popular magazine in his day. I was aware of that kind of possibility, but I don’t think I ever thought of him as a writer and by the time I knew him, and I didn’t know him terribly well, he had retired. I don’t remember having many conversations with him about writing, and I don’t really think of my family as particularly writerly. My grandfather gave me my first lesson in typing, although not very proficiently. But he did give me his old typewriter, which I think is a great inheritance.
As a family, we didn’t talk much about reading, either. There were books in the house, but generally not the types of books that would spark a literary conversation. Or rather, my father read a lot but spoke only a little. He used to read and re-read Marcel Proust in the twelve-volume English translation by Scott Moncrieff. (I still own his tea-stained copy, one of my personal treasures.) But from about the age of fourteen, I was haunting second-hand bookshops and discovering my first gay literature. This was when I began reading Jean Genet and James Baldwin, for instance.
Educationalists like to use the word, critical incident, to describe a significant event in a person’s life that has proved decisive. Have there been any critical incidents in your life that have suddenly pushed your poetry on, or made you radically change your view and try something else?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve never thought about it; or not in those terms. Clearly, there must have been such a moment when I stopped writing poetry. I think it was that moment of disillusionment in my twenties, which wasn’t so much disillusionment with my own writing, as with the fact I couldn’t get it published and nobody was reading it. So I wasn’t sure whether it was any good or not. Well, I thought it was okay by my own standards, but I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would agree. Clearly, something fairly traumatic must have happened there to make me stop writing.
I have no recollection of how I started again. I must have just begun scribbling things down at some point. I don’t keep a diary, I don’t keep a notebook. But things must have started accumulating at some point, which eventually turned into my first collection of poems.
There are crucial incidents in life that change one’s consciousness, of course. I would think, for instance, the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a real atmosphere of fear and hostility in this country – that really changed my attitude towards other human beings, and whether it was possible to live in certain kinds of political culture. I have a deep reserve of grief and anger that remains from the 1980s and the way that the AIDS epidemic was treated by politicians and the media. That, I think, has made my writing sharper, much more sceptical in tone and gives it an edge of anger. This is not necessarily when thinking of AIDS as a particular theme, which I haven’t written about much, but my general tone has become much sharper since that time.
Would you talk about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) field of writing?
That’s quite a tall order. There are obviously writers who are gay and whose sexuality emerges in their writing in one way or another, through reflections on personal experience or whatever. But you don’t necessarily write for a gay audience or write specifically about gay characters or a gay-related plot. I don’t particularly think I belong to a group of writers who, for instance, write about gay subculture. There is a thriving lesbian and gay subcultural literature that deals a lot with interactions between people within the subcultures. There are a lot of representations of the bar culture, clubs and so on and different types of relationships, civil partnerships and all the rest of that.
Looking back on my own career, I’ve hardly done any of that. So what else is there? Well there are a lot of writers, male ones in particular, who write quite a lot of erotic stuff that clearly reflects their sexuality; I guess that’s true of my writing. But I think that people can be too narrow in their view of what such a thing as gayness consists of. I think of my whole existence, as a gay man, in the same way as anyone might think of being a white man, or being a man coming up to the age of sixty, or being middle class. There’s no way that I can step outside it. In some sense, everything I write is gay literature, even if I’m not specifically writing always about gay people.
In 1998 I published A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, with Yale University Press. In that book, I define gay literature as broadly as you could imagine. A look at its index shows that I write about Ovid and Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson, Balzac and Melville, Austen and Dickens, Kafka and James, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and all, and all… This is no sidestream. It’s the mainstream. What is gay literature? It’s the books in which I see approximate reflections, in the present and the past, and from any and all cultures, of the kind of person I am.
Speaking as a writer, the greatest positive I take from being gay is the oblique angle from which, perforce, I’ve had to look at the ideologies and institutions of heterosexuality. I have a sceptical take on things that straight writers tend to take for granted. Things like love itself, which I view at an inquisitive angle but from a safe distance.
I’ve given you rather messy answer there because I’m not sure that I can simply say what it’s all about.
You’re saying that you don’t have much time to write, yet you’ve produced a great deal of poetry and one of your most recent books is quite thick for a collection. How long did An Ordinary Dog take to write?
It is difficult to tell with poetry, but it probably took about five years. Sometimes my poems have been sitting around gestating for longer than that. Some of the more technical poems have taken quite a long time to write. They would be quicker if I were doing it full-time, but some of them are so complicated in their meter and rhyme schemes that one can only do them in bits and pieces and come back to them a year later. But yes, it is a big collection and some poems in there are ones which came together within an hour in the final version, others took several years. I suppose that’s a reflection of the fact that it contains a lot of different kinds of poems and techniques; whether very strictly formal poems or much looser, free verse ones.
When you write a poem, do you decide to just play with the technique, or work with a subject, or is it a mixture of all of these?
It usually doesn’t start from a subject. It usually starts from either a technique or a pattern of words. The very technical poems will usually start from a kind language game. I think, ‘Now here’s a rhyme scheme I’ll try’ or ‘Here’s a metrical form I’ll try’. Then I set it off as if it were a kind of machine, thinking, ‘Let’s see where this will take us’.
If you take a very complicated rhyme scheme, it’s so complicated it’s choosing the direction in which the poem will go. This is because you’ve only got a restricted choice of which words to use for your line endings and that’s inevitably going to lead you in particular directions. Where that becomes personal is in what I make of the line endings dictated to me by the verse form. I rather like that sense of being forced in certain directions by this little contraption, this machine that is the restricted verse form, because it always leads me in unexpected directions that I didn’t know I was interested in. In a strange way, some of the most formal, restrictive kinds of poems are the ones that give me access to my unconscious in unexpected ways. Even though people tend to think of them as intellectual games, I actually think they release one into all sorts of unexpected topics, because one’s not choosing the topic consciously.
There are others where I’m starting with a few words that I think will go together, or a few words that are suggestive of images, where I think, Let’s expand on that and see where it goes. When I’m setting off on one or the other, largely depends on contingent factors. I might have half an hour waiting for a meeting, where I might jot something down because I’ve heard a couple of words in a conversation. Perhaps, because I use such restrictive verse forms so often, I’m very interested in the way that chance will set things off. I’m very open to allowing luck or chance to trigger a piece of writing.
When you’re working on these poems, do you have any particular activity that helps you think about them? For example walking.
I’m not that kind of writer who always carries around a notebook and jots things down. I don’t often think things up, as it were, on the run. I never notice the occasions for occasional verse. I go for long walks because I have spinal problems and that’s my main kind of exercise, but I don’t find this produces much poetry or ideas for poetry. I use my long walks for working off the steam of other sorts of problems.
The beginnings of poems often come when I’m sitting at home doing something else. Watching television is one the main ones, because sometimes television is so boring that I have to do something else at the same time. That’s when I jot words down. I don’t concentrate hard on starting a poem but I often concentrate hard on it once it’s started. In this way I cultivate a detachment from what I’m writing about, almost never consciously writing about myself but always happy to allow my unconscious to colonise the work.
I suppose this idea of allowing chance to work things and allowing the unconscious to work – I like poems to trigger themselves without a moment of great concentration. I tend not to sit down in silence, with a blank page in front of me think and say, ‘Now I shall write a poem about that moment’. I wouldn’t, I think, know how to start if I did it this way. I do very often start a poem while thinking about other things the same time and allowing words to happen on a piece of paper and then go back to it sometime later on and see what I can do with it. I try to come at the beginning of poems obliquely.
You talk about the work coming to you. But it must come from somewhere, because you make classical references and there is an enormous wealth of information and things you’ve seen. Where has this all come from?
I very firmly don’t believe in inspiration. I don’t think of being inspired by a Muse, although I often create a Muse out of a sense of literary tradition, in my poems. Yes, you’re right, they are poems that are full of literary information, but how could they not be, because I’m an academic and an intellectual. I read a lot. I tend to read a book a day, which is a very intensive level of reading. So they are bound to be full of stuff that’s in my mind anyway. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I’ll be able or want to clear out my mind and write something innocent about a topic. Why would you? Picasso spent his life trying to paint like a child; I’m spending mine trying to write like an adult.
These are always going to be the poems of someone who is constantly aware of echoes of previous writing, for better or worse. My work also refers to a broad range of other things beyond my own first-hand experience – history, politics, philosophy – because those are the things that interest me.
Some people don’t like that. Some people think that’s elitist. Well it isn’t deliberately so. You just have to write with the mind you have. Since mine is absolutely full of literature, it would be a strange procedure for me to think, I mustn’t have any echoes of any of the stuff I’ve been reading. I can’t conceive of writing like that. It would be a pointless and artificial process. I believe in making use of the tradition that I’ve been reading for fifty years. This is no different from all the other knowledge and experience an individual accumulates over sixty years; you use it. You’d be a fool not to.
When you first started writing poetry, did you immediately express yourself as a gay man?
I couldn’t not be. I certainly wasn’t ever writing within the closet. I was not actively trying to conceal my gayness. When I first started writing I was especially aware of the erotic side of thinking of myself as gay. I used to write a lot of erotic poetry when I was much younger. But that was before I had access to the subculture or met lots of other gay people or anything like that. So it was very much early stuff that was expressing desire rather than expressing a social sense of myself as gay, because I didn’t really yet have a social place as a gay man. I don’t think one really has that until one does come out socially, going to the pubs and clubs, joining the social groups, adopting a gay politics, and so forth.
Did it take a lot of confidence to be more overt in your poems?
There’s always an issue here of thinking about who one’s audience is, or perhaps of not bothering to think of them. The greater confidence had to come in deciding to develop an academic career as a specialist in gay literature, because there I had to fight against all sorts of institutional pressures not to. Deciding, in the mid-1970s, to write a Master’s dissertation on William S. Burroughs and then to write a PhD thesis on male homo-eroticism in modern poetry did take a certain amount of bloody-mindedness, if not courage. Because of institutional pressures, I had to prove myself in ways that other students may not have had to. Since I was doing those things in my academic writing, it made no sense for the poetry itself not to be anything but openly and transparently gay, because why would I do everything obliquely, just the sake of it? So I suppose it comes from a bloody-mindedness in my academic career that then allows me freedom in my own creative writing.
When was your big breakthrough? How did you get that?
Not many poets are granted big breakthroughs. I entered a poetry competition in 1990. It was to be judged by Stephen Spender, Anne Stevenson and Jon Silkin. The reason I entered it – and I never used to enter poetry competitions – was that this one called for poems of any length and I knew I had one good, long poem called ‘First of May’.
So I sent that off. This was at a time when I was unemployed. I was sitting in my rented room in London and the phone rang and a voice said, ‘Hello, is that Gregory Woods?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and the person at the other end said, ‘This is Stephen Spender’. I laughed slightly, but then worked out that he was really who he really claimed to be. I had not won first prize but I had won third prize. He later told me that it was because the poem was sexually explicit that it hadn’t won, but after the prize-giving, Spender said that he would really like to see more of my poetry. So I sent him a big collection I had gathered together. He tried to get his publisher Faber to publish it, but it wasn’t really their house style. He then wrote a recommendation.
The collection was eventually taken up by my present publisher, Carcanet, who issued it in 1992. It was my first collection, We Have the Melon. This book contains the prize-winning poem. So, again, chance was what prevailed there. Well, chance in that I won third prize, and that Spender was that interested, because that gave me the encouragement to start sending my poetry collection out to all these other publishers. But yes, it came as a result of a deliberate choice to send off my poem to the competition, so I suppose I had a part in it somewhere. But that moment of getting one’s first collection published by a very good publisher is, of course, almost a miraculous moment and can’t be beaten as a way of encouraging one to go on writing.
If somebody did want to write gay poetry, what sort of advice would you give them in order to walk that line of presenting very overt gay poetry, but not offending or being unsubtle in anyway?
Well, I’m not sure I would give them that advice. There’s a lot to be said for offending people and there’s a lot to be said for unsubtle writing. I think it clearly depends on the individual. I know that my poetry has offended all sorts of people, because there are a lot of people around who are easily offended. I’ve given poetry readings that people have stormed out of. I’ve given poetry readings where people have shouted at me. Not many British poets can say that. At least I’m having an effect. So, as I say, I don’t think I would give that advice.
When I’m writing I don’t think about an audience. It’s certainly far from my consciousness to be worrying about whether I’m going to offend people. You could say the slightest thing and it would annoy somebody, so you can’t be led by that sense of an audience you don’t know. Likewise, thinking of favouring or flattering an audience. I’m damned if I’m going to write things that people want me to write politically, for example. I’m not going to write, to use a horrible, right-wing, Daily Mail phrase, ‘politically correct’ stuff. If my mind comes up with incorrect stuff, well so be it, we all have our lapses. The poetry itself is what matters. The audience can take it or leave it.
Your poems can be playful and amusing, but some of them almost feel as if they’re poetry that might have been written in the ancient classical times for a modern audience.
What interests me, to a large extent, about ancient literature, is the way it shows, among the heroes, the male body being something that is both highly desirable, very beautiful and harmonious, a cradle for the intellect, and also, at the same time, a terrifying weapon of mass destruction, a machine for killing. My own representations of the desirable male body are tied in with that idea of both an extraordinary beauty and an underlying sense – which so many heterosexual women must fear – that the male body is also dangerous and houses a consciousness that can, in some circumstances, commit the most horrendous of atrocities. There’s something very, very interesting there, in that tension between the very highest positives and the lowest of negatives and capabilities.
So to anybody who is interested in writing LGBT poetry what advice would you give them as far as where could they go for resources that are out there to help them?
There are both more and fewer resources than there have been in the past. It seems to me that there’s been a great loss in gay media since the 1970s. It was wonderful to have Gay News, which was a reliable, fortnightly news and cultural paper that you always knew was going to be there, that always had the latest books reviewed in it, and the latest films and so on. Because it was more or less all there was, there were some really excellent people writing for it and people could publish poetry, short stories and articles. There was something really rich and exciting about that, because you knew you could reach virtually the whole gay population in the country by writing for Gay News. And you could read virtually anything anyone interesting, who was gay, was going to say.
Of course, things have blossomed since then in lots of ways. There are huge numbers of blogs, websites and webzines and so on that people can write for. The problem is that it’s all much more diverse. I can’t think of any way in which I could now address the whole gay population of Britain. Whereas if I wrote a book review in the 1970s, I could be fairly confident that I was going to be read by a good cross-section of the gay population.
In terms of advice to LGBT writers, I think it is a matter of finding an online community who are writing the kinds of things that you are interested in or writing the kinds of things for the audience that you want to access. Work with a small community of writers and readers. Find what they like and they don’t like about your writing, and take criticism on board in a constructive sense and then gradually work out from that.
I don’t think the best way of going about things is immediately to start sending things off to the big poetry prizes or big publishers, because the fact is that there are all kinds of prejudices at work in society and your big national poetry competition is almost never going to have an explicitly LGBT poem as its prize winner. I think this is a given. There are all kinds of areas where they’re not going to give poetry prizes to. This is why our national cultural is so bland. So anything that is, as they say, ‘going to frighten the horses’, will be rejected; and the same goes for the big publishers who are very, very cautious.
Finding a thriving online community is a good way of starting out, gradually building up a reputation and then moving out into the non-LGBT audiences from there. Gradually working out to a more and more varied audience is the way to go. Having said that, I’m not really an expert on this, because I’m not starting my career in the same circumstances as so many young writers are today. I do think the internet has opened up all kinds of amazing possibilities and all sorts of wonderful ways around censorship.
Would you like to tell me what you’re doing in the Nottingham festival of words?
I’m taking part in three events. One is a poetry reading by all of the poets who teach in the English department at Nottingham Trent University. Since we’re one of the institutions that’s hosting the Festival, we thought that it would be nice to have that kind of event.
I’m also taking part in a panel of lesbian and gay writers who are going to be talking about LGBT writing. I’m not sure what questions we’re going to be asking or answering, but it’s something I’m very much looking forward to it because it’s an interesting and varied panel.
I’m also taking part in an event that’s celebrating the relatively recent creation of the East Midlands Book Award, which began only two years ago. My book An Ordinary Dog was shortlisted for that this last year, so that’s why I’m doing it. We’re reading and taking part in a discussion.
It’s an interesting festival for me, because I seem to be participating in it in three quite different ways and I think I will have a bit of a job deciding what to do it each of those events. The Festival as a whole is a tremendously exciting development for Nottingham and for Nottinghamshire, so I’m looking forward to it.
Gregory Woods will be at the following events:
Trent Poets, Sat 16 Feb, 11am–12 noon, Newton Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University.
Why LGBT writing? Saturday 16th February, 4.00pm – 5.00pm, Newton Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University.
EMBA Author Panel, Sun 17 Feb, 2.45pm–4pm, Newton Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University.