Poet Jack Underwood will be giving a workshop to the winners of The Poet brief. We had a chat with him about avoiding narcissism and what makes good work...
What was the first poem you ever wrote? Was it rubbish?
My first poem was about a pair of Adidas Gazelle trainers I wore at sixth form. They had a lot of graffiti in biro on them. The line “squeeze me macaroni” sticks out. The poem itself was very arch and clunky, but I remember being pleased enough with it to want to write another poem, which I suppose is the most important thing.
You’ve said, “We see so much poetry but very few poems”. What makes a successful poem?
Poetry is writing which aims to be poetic: all those fluffy, wordy, overly descriptive verses make a lot of colourful fuss, but don’t actually get anywhere. A poem shapes-out a new idea. You can read endless poetry and not get anywhere, but a good poem digs into something and you can feel it happen. Often it will describe a feeling you’ve had but didn’t yet have the terms for. Isn’t the feeling of a reading a brilliant poem similar to the feeling of remembering something brilliant, or sad?
Surely we’re all going to use ourselves as reference point when writing. How can we escape the cliché of narcissistic poetry?
The question any writer or artist should ask themselves, gravely in the mirror every morning, is “why on earth should anyone else find what I have to say interesting?” If you can ask that question and find an honest answer in your work, then you’re entering into a genuine artistic bargain, you’re seeking to communicate rather than express.
Do you feel the need to write poetry, or is it something you have deliberately set out to master?
I enjoy writing and I feel guilty when I neglect it. But in terms of need – that’s a strange concept. At worst, claiming that you “need” to write is pretentious, and vaguely offensive to those people who really do have needs – who seriously need something to eat, or need somewhere to sleep, or someone to talk to – but I do think that writing poems is a genuinely philosophical undertaking, in that it allows you to entertain the miraculous wonder of a godless universe, which can be compelling and to a certain extent addictive.
Would you still write poems, even if you knew no one was ever going to read them?
I think part of what makes a poem a poem is the desire to communicate the business of being alive to another human being in the hope that you might unknowingly and miraculously achieve some kind of overlap. So I guess you wouldn’t be writing a poem if you didn’t conceive of a reader.
Here are a few poems Jack thinks are good:
The Fish and the Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop
Having a Coke With You and For Grace, After A Party by Frank O’Hara
Stone by Charles Simic
Dreamsong 4 by John Berryman
Leave the Door Open by Peter Scupham
The Excuse by Michael Donaghy
Goat by Jo Shapcott
A Hill by Anthony Hecht
I ♥ NY by Emily Berry
Sam Riviere’s Myself Included
Heather Philipson’s Relational Epistemology
Any poem by Matthew Gregory tends to be a good poem.
On a closing note, I also hold the slightly wobbly opinion that the best poems are beautiful poems.
Jack's book, Faber New Poets 4, is out now.