Interview with Tim Dooley
Many of the poems in Imagined Rooms were originally collected in The Interrupted Dream in 1985. How does it feel to see them back in print?
I hope the ones I’ve used stand up. I’ve chosen poems that I think will work in today’s context and there’s been a certain amount of nip and tuck along the way.
The book's epigraph is a wonderful quote from Neruda which talks about 'the used surfaces of things', adding 'let our poetry be like them'. It's an apt epigraph because the poems have been at large, being used, for 25 years. But it's also apt because it seems to me you're interested in writing a poetry of used items, suburbs and disappointments. Is that fair?
Yes. Neruda sees impurity as in the nature of things and I’ve long felt a commitment to the world as it is – rather than a transformed or purified vision of it, though I can see a place for that too. But I certainly subscribe to the idea of the poem as a made thing, marked by human touch and that’s affected the formal side of the work as much as the content. There’s an everyday quality to the work, starting from what’s in front of you and the language you hear around you, but shaping that into something more challenging.
Reading the poems I couldn't help feeling that I was reading them in two ways simultaneously - just as poems, but also as historical documents, records of an era. Did you see yourself as documenting the period when you were writing the poems? Or was it more personal than public?
I think the answer is both. I grew up in a politically charged period. (I was seventeen in 1968.) And, as in the Neruda quote, ‘affirmations of faith and payment of taxes’ are as much part of the physical and emotional world of the poems as ‘soupstains’ or ‘nightwakings’. I called my last book Keeping Time partly to acknowledge that after a while these concerns make up a record. In Imagined Rooms it’s, I suppose, the political context of the1980s that’s most evident. It might not be a bad time to focus on aspects of that period again. I hoped that by exploring political and social issues in terms of everyday observation and the experience of the senses I’d keep any tendency to windy opinionating at bay. And the sense of period, I hope, helps to make the personal element representative rather than confessional.
Your subject matter seems to be the metropolitan suburbs, where life is going on in spite of it all; disappointment of ideals and of personal relationships; and the frustrations of living a private life in public terms. The habitual tone is one of ironic sobriety. All of which is leading me to say your work reminds me of Michael Hofmann's. Is that a similarity you'd recognize? And given that you were writing about some of the same subjects at the same times, do you think it's just chance, or was ironic sobriety the only possible response to that era and situation?
At the moment I’m absorbed in Don Paterson’s new book, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Here’s something he writes:
‘Poet’ is less a calling than a diagnosis, and the condition… often comes with the inability to drive a car properly, a talent for all kinds of mental illness… excessive interest in movies and alcohol… (an) ability… to fall in love at the drop of a hat, or a glove.
What Paterson doesn’t say of course is that the poet is under no obligation to act any or all of these things out (and as a human being the poet remains culpable for any harm caused), but the passage does give an inkling of what any restraint in poetic language is working against or with, and how hard-won ‘sobriety’ might be. I’ve written a few poems (‘Cousins’ in Imagined Rooms, ‘Edit’ and 'The Tambourica Player’s Wife’ in Keeping Time), which explore these tensions reasonably explicitly and it seems I’ve got harder on the Byronic bohemian impulse as I’ve got older.
To get back to your question, I think there were other responses either more escapist or more intransigent than mine, but mine are the ones that I’m stuck with and the irony in the poems comes from recognizing the mixture of compromise and integrity in the choices and actions that have been made.
I like Hofmann’s work, particularly the way he’s unafraid of pulling lyricism out of almost deliberately prosy material. So there’s an affinity, but I’ve never read him deeply enough to think of him as an influence. He has written very enthusiastically about work that is very important to me. Late Lowell, for example, and James Schuyler’s poetry. So we may have drunk from the same well.
Stylistically you use a mixture of short and long lines, sometimes alternately in the same poem. Can you say a little about the decisions that govern line length (an art I find mysterious even as I am practicing it)?
There’s a lot of talk among my contemporaries about the primacy or integrity of the line and my own line-breaks have often puzzled people to the extent of exasperation. On reflection, I think this is probably because I tend to think of the block or stanza as my primary unit of composition. This was particularly true of the twenty-four line poems I wrote between 1975 and 1982, which formed a central sequence in The Interrupted Dream, some of which reappear in Imagined Rooms as free-standing poems. I imagined these originally as blocks of language out of which meaning might surface in the manner the blocks of colour in Rothko’s large canvases.
The poems that alternate long and short lines have a different genesis. I read some of Horace’s Epodes (in a Victorian translation using a mixture of hexameter and pentameter lines) in a house we stayed in the summer I was finishing the ‘Interrupted Dream’ sequence. Soon after, I came across Schuyler’s ‘The Morning of the Poem’ with its wonderful, free-flowing meditative sprawl. This seemed the way to go for more extended ode-like writing, beginning with poems like ‘The Milky Way’ and ‘The Sound We Make Ourselves’ and leading up to ‘Working from Home’. I went back to the form for ‘In the Palm of My Hand’ the longish poem about London and the July 7th bombings, which opens Keeping Time.
All of which is to say, going back to Neruda’s notion of impurity, that it’s important to me that the musicality of verse be stalled and disrupted from time to time by the pressure of thought or the onward flow of utterance. Particularly, this means that I will from time to time end lines with unemphatic articles or prepositions. Sometimes this is to throw stress on the start of the next line, but at other times it just contributes to a general tone of anxiety. I guess this is what Claude Rawson, in a TLS review of The Interrupted Dream, meant when he talked about ‘urgent uncertainties’ in the poems.
Anyway, for me it's stanzas not lines, hence Imagined Rooms.
'Working from Home' is a beautiful, gentle, discursive poem that seems to cover many of your concerns. It fulfils one of the essential purposes of poetry, something to do with bringing all the areas of our lives into focus together. Do you write your best work at home? Where specifically do you write? And with a pen? A keyboard?
Thank you. It’s a poem I’m fond of and would have used as the title for a book, if it didn’t sound too much like a book on survival in the era of deregulation. I don’t know whether things are held in focus. It’s more like watching the ripples in the pond spread out. That’s what I’m an observer of and participant in.
I don’t write in a disciplined way. I don’t keep notebooks systematically, though I use them from time to time with pencil or pen and with a preference for unlined paper. At that stage I’m usually sketching shapes, working into a poem and that kind of writing can be done in odd moments, anywhere.
Poems get completed at the keyboard. I bought a ludicrously heavy ex-office Imperial typewriter with jumbo type in the early 1970s. On this machine, the 24-line poems of The Interrupted Dream each filled a sheet of A4. In the late 80s I graduated to an electric typewriter with a correcting ribbon, in the early 90s to a PC and over the last four or five years to a Mac. I’m always working towards an imagined printed shape. The aural element is there too, but it works in an underground way, sometimes at odds with the chosen shape.
'Working from Home' also echoes 'His best piece of poetrie', which I take to be a much earlier poem on a similar domestic theme. Were the new poems collected in Imagined Rooms written for the volume, with the older work in mind, or are such resonances accidental?
The two poems bookend the 1980s. The son that’s new-born in 'His best piece of poetrie' and who’s a toddler in ‘Heat Haze’, has a younger brother in ‘Working from Home’ and that younger brother turns eleven in ‘The Border’. So it’s personal history that I keep time with as well as public events and the poems evoke very precise personal memories for me that I can’t expect a reader to share. I’m also happy that you use the term ‘domestic’, a much disputed term that’s sometimes applied lazily to the work of women poets and rightly seen as dismissive. It doesn’t get used as frequently about the work of Craig Raine or Christopher Reid, for example, where it would be helpful. For me the domestic is emblematic of shared experience, the place where wider social shifts are felt more personally.
The uncollected poems in Imagined Rooms aren’t precisely new. I couldn’t find a publisher for a long time and when the opportunity came for a book with Salt, I had quite a lot of work to choose from. In Keeping Time I published work from this decade alongside earlier poems, but excluded poems with specific reference (personal or public) to events of the earlier decades. That means that Imagined Rooms has perhaps more of that sense of record (covering the period 1971-97) you mentioned earlier.
And finally, what's next?
Over the last few years the forms have become more traditional: sonnet-shaped, ballad-like, even proto-pantoum poems. I think that kind of engagement with form will continue to develop, but I will still look out for ways of engaging with a continuity of experience, including the experience that comes from reading and responding to different art-forms, as well as what life and the times throw in our way.