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An Interview with Peter Bennet

Peter Bennet lives in Northumberland near the Wild Hills o’ Wanney. He taught at five schools then worked in adult education for colleges and universities in the North East, including sixteen years as a Tutor Organiser for Northumberland with the Worker’s Educational Association. He was associate editor of Stand from 1995 to 1998, and is a co-editor of Other Poetry. Of his work, David Constantine has said ‘These poems grow on you. They repay renewed and careful reading. Where they first seem obscure, they become intriguing; then rather haunting, glimpses of lives in a variety of strange circumstances and locations. They are very careful, even compressed; but the effect, as you read again, is of something – disquiet, regret, fear – being opened up.’ Peter Bennet’s Goblin Lawn: New and Selected Poems is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

I’ll begin by asking about you early life: when did you begin writing? Who or what were your earliest influences?

I grew up in Pointon, not far from Manchester, and went to school near Macclesfield. I left school at 17 and went straight to Manchester College of Art. Two important things happened to me there – nothing to do with writing really – the first was to be taught by Norman Adams, who was a champion of Blake and the German Expressionists, and looked for spiritual intensity and vision in painting, which seemed a bit odd and eccentric at a time when Andy Warhol ruled! It was his example really that set me off on the life-long slog of creative work. He made it seem as though being creative was the most important thing in the world. The other thing was going to prison: I did a month in Strangeways as a CND supporter, which taught me to behave. The odd thing was: at school all I wanted to do was paint, and at art school all I wanted to do was read…

And then you were a painter for twenty years - how did that influence your work?

I’m not sure to what extent there is a visual sense to my writing – there is in everybody’s writing isn’t there? I think there was a charge of energy that had to go somewhere when I discovered that I couldn’t really paint any more. I was married with a daughter by the time I was 21. I needed a dependable income, so I taught in schools for fourteen years. By about 1978 I had reached a stage when I didn’t have the energy to get up at six in the morning to paint, then go and teach... I got some part time jobs in adult education and painted for a while – then just hit the buffers really. It had been the wrong direction all along for me. I took a full time temporary job teaching what was supposed to be Basic English to redundant steelworkers after the Consett steelworks closed at the beginning of the 80s. A lot of these men were very bright, as you would expect, and we got bored with Basic English and started exploring literature. Reading and discussing poems in these rather odd circumstances somehow jump-started me into writing. And they were odd circumstances: about a thousand men passed through the courses as part of their redundancy package. We hired a disused primary school, and these men came there, and got their wages for attending. It was very popular!

And you found that renewed your creative energies?

Yes, I wrote a poem called Redundant Steelmen Learning to Draw which was published in Stand when I was forty, and another called The Silence, about Sweethope Lough, which is near the Wild Hills o’ Wanney, and that won a prize in the Arvon Competition. They were among my first real poems. By that time I’d also acquired the house I live in now. It was pretty well derelict then.

You have lived near the Wild Hills o' Wanney for over twenty-five years, ‘only very recently with the luxury of mains electricity.’ How does your lifestyle influence your work?

The experience of living without electricity or a proper water supply, in an isolated place, has the effect of closing one down in some ways, particularly if you’re living alone, as I was at that stage. It’s as if there starts to be more territory between being awake and being asleep. Candlelight, firelight... more time for brooding and boozing! A lot of darkness in the winter. I think it enabled me to develop more tolerance of ambiguity.

It sounds like it had a very direct influence.

Yes, but as a state rather than as a subject.

You have said that your early work ‘settled a bit too cosily into autobiographical lyricism’ and that you ‘had to work hard to stand to one side of the poems and allow them more imaginative freedom.’ When did this shift occur and what inspired it?

It’s interesting that most writers need to use up some autobiographical material to get started, but I do feel there is a kind of insanity about making the details of one’s personal life into poetry. The personal life is just not that significant! I’m also a bit old fashioned about using one’s relationships as raw material, though I’m not thinking of exceptional work such as Douglas Dunn’s Elegies… It was The Long Pack which was the turning point in my work towards greater imaginative freedom. There are autobiographical elements in the poem, but it is fictional in a way that my writing hadn’t been up to then, and it uses a range of voices. Writing it went on for about seven years, off and on, and gradually shoved all the other birds out of the nest. Sean O’Brien arrived as Literary Fellow during that time and set up a workshop which I found very useful. The pressure of my educational work, together with new family responsibilities (I was married again by then, with three stepchildren), was reducing the time I had for writing, but the regular deadlines at the Lit and Phil helped me to complete the poem, which grew to twenty eight sections. It does have some autobiographical elements in it, but it’s very much about the landscape, history and bogus history, with details of the James Hogg story… After that there was no going back.

I wanted to ask you about the way your approach to Northumbrian landscape and history changes with The Long Pack. There is a sense of the landscape embodying the narrative – of the folklore rising out of it. This seems quite different to the more conventional description of your early work.

I’ve said somewhere that the landscape seems to require poems, and I’m not really a fanciful person, but there is something about the corner of Northumberland I live in that seems to require some sort of response. I discovered that James Armstrong, the author of the ballad The Wild Hills o’ Wanney and a collection of other poems called Wanney Blossoms, began writing because of the influence of the place. He has this lovely phrase: he said he ‘first strung his rude harp’ on the Wild Hills o’ Wanney, in the 1850s. And Kathleen Raine was a child near there too, and it turns out she also felt that it was that place that made her a poet. She would have called the space between the four laws a ‘temenos.’ It has a strangely enclosed feeling about it, and odd acoustical qualities. Climbers on the Great Wanney Crag certainly don’t seem to realise that what they say can be heard clearly a quarter of a mile away! I went to hear Kathleen Raine in Penrith very shortly before she died and we talked briefly about the Wanney hills. She said ‘Look after them’ and I rather feel that she was passing on a kind of responsibility. Anyway, it is a responsibility at the moment: they want to put wind turbines there and I’m fighting a campaign to try to stop them.

What drew you to the story of The Long Pack?

I don’t know whether The Long Pack is a true story or a legend, or something James Hogg made up, but it’s in the Etterick Shepherd’s tale. What happens is this: a pedlar turns up with a long pack on his back at Lee Hall, and asks if he can stay the night. The owners are away, there’s just a gardener and a serving girl. The girl won’t let him stay, so the pedlar says ‘Well, can I leave the pack here, and I’ll sleep under a hedge. The pack has valuables in it.’ So the gardener leaves the pack in the kitchen, and in the middle of the night, the girl hears a noise. She walks into the kitchen and sees the pack move. She calls for the gardener who has a blunderbuss. He blasts the pack, and a horrible shriek comes from it, and of course there’s somebody concealed in the pack, with a knife and a pistol, and he was going to cut himself out and let his accomplice in to burgle the house. I thought of it as a sort of still birth. The occupant of the pack is supposed to be buried in the churchyard at Bellingham. I invented details to go around it, and contemporary references, but one of the main speakers is the ghost of the occupant.

Other legends, such as the Green Man, recur in several poems…

It’s interesting to use a myth or a story, and extend or undermine it, as a starting point. But the Green Man is a symbol, isn’t he, something deep in the psyche, and not translatable. Deploying something – or someone – like that isn’t an everyday sort of trope. The best you can do with a symbol – and it isn’t often you use them – is give it the right kind of context, so it can do what it wants to do. It’s an active quantity, not like a normal metaphor. The Green Man has been with us for a very long time, of course. For a writer or reader to realise that an entire new symbol is coming alive in a poem is rare. If you think of Yeats’s swans, or Derek Mahon’s mushrooms – something is happening there. They’re the things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up on end. I don’t know whether they qualify, but I have a poem called Fairytale, and the geese in it might almost be contenders!

Your use of folklore reminded me of Robert Graves, and you have spoken of the influence of Norman MacCaig and Kathleen Raine. You also wrote a thesis on WS Graham. Can you talk about the importance of these writers?

I think if the house was burning down, I’d reach for The White Goddess rather than the poems: Graves
is a poet I admire rather than enjoy, although ‘Welsh incident’ is a stunner, a wonderful poem. I still go back to The White Goddess: it’s astonishingly daft, but wonderful! Norman MacCaig was a different case altogether: he was a danger to me in that I found myself falling into something like his voice in my earlier more autobiographical poems. I still admire him very much. I wrote a poem describing an incident in which I had to kneel to tie his shoelaces – a genuine incident: as an old man he woke up with a stiff back in the mornings – and that seemed to sum up my admiration for him. He’s a poet to turn to not only for entertainment but also for instruction, as they used to say, and there aren’t many of those. Kingsley Amis used to say that the first duty of a writer is to entertain, and MacCaig is always entertaining. Kathleen Raine is also important to me, but she’s very austere. As Larkin said, the poetry of abstract vision carries a high failure rate because the reader can come so little of the way to meet it. I do find her Neo-Platonism attractive, defending ancient springs, as far as I understand it, and I very much admire her refusal to pander to the trivial – she actually refused to be anthologised with writers who wrote about trivial things like their everyday lives! WS Graham I could never have attempted to imitate, and still marvel at. I think the immediacy of his address to the reader is what I most relish, and his heartbreaking enjambments, always feeling his way through into the voice. And what masterpieces: The Nightfishing and Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons. I try to have a directness of address in my own poems, following his example, and also Browning’s. A couple of first lines: compare ‘Good morning, Karl. Sit down. I have been thinking/ About your progress…’ (Quantz) with ‘No more wine? Then we’ll push back the chairs and talk/ A final glass for me though…’ (Bishop Blougram’s Apology). The reader is immediately engaged. I admire Browning a great deal as a matter of fact. You can’t read all of Pippa Passes with a straight face, but it’s a breathtaking concept, and very modern – it seems to post-date cinema. And to wake up one morning and write Childe Roland in one go, from a dream, is astonishing.

Who else would you name as important influences?

Walter de la Mare is another hero. He who specialises in unusual states of mind and loneliness… he always seems to be evoking something seen out of the corner of the eye. He has that particularly English sense of history as not really a narrative, but as something connecting layers of time, experienced privately and indirectly in odd corners. I’m thinking of the stories as well as the poems.

Your work contains many images of the artist-in-society. Such figures tend to appear isolated, for example, in Content you write ‘Since exile here, he understands/ he is a figment of his own imagination.’ Is this a comment on how poets see themselves, or are perceived? What position do you think the artist holds in society?

Well, sitting down and writing is a lonely activity. Perhaps that’s why writer’s workshops are so popular: people can get together and comfort one another! The life of the imagination is a lonely business. As far as the artist-in-society goes, I’m drawn to Hughes’s idea, which Don Paterson I think shares, of the poet as shaman or magician, but I’m also drawn to Norman MacCaig, who had a much more humane and pedagogical view that poetry helps us to mature emotionally. He makes the point somewhere that people with adult intelligence coupled to childish emotional equipment are dangerous – and, I would add, strangely attracted to politics! – whereas poetry trains us to examine and clarify emotional significance. In the end, though, I think the most important thing is that poetry should be an engagement with what Kathleen Raine called the ‘learning of the imagination.’ It’s about expanding our consciousness of a world of which we only have occasional glimpses.

What effect did receiving the New Writing North award have on your work?

I was very clear about why I wanted the award: I felt it would give me a clear excuse – or permission if you like – to give up what remained of my teaching and just focus on creative work for the first time in my life, which it did. I was delighted that it enabled me to clear the decks: I’ve been able to develop a real writing routine.

How did you approach the poem Snow in Northumberland?

It was interesting because it’s not the way I’m used to working. My poems are usually pieced together from words and phrases, without my having any idea what the finished poem is going to be like. Although you gave me a broad brief, I felt the poem should have a particularly strong ‘stand alone’ quality because people would read it without knowing my work in general. Anyway, the snow came as I sat down to work on it, and that gave me the objective correlative, which turned out to be an extension of the blank page.

What are you working on next?

I’ve just put together Goblin Lawn: New and Selected Poems, which will come out in September, and correcting and proof-reading that has been preoccupying me recently. I wanted to call it Apokatastesis, but the publishers wouldn’t let me – they said it would do nothing for sales! I’m the sort of person who will look at a book because I don’t understand the title. There’s already another collection taking shape in the land of make-believe, with about a quarter of the poems done. It even has a title, The Folly Wood. What’s happened recently is I’ve started to rhyme consistently. All my recent poems rhyme, though not in conventional stanzas. So I’ve been changing the form in which I write. The commissioned poem is in the new style. And I’ve just heard that Goblin Lawn will be a Poetry Book Society Choice, which gives me enormous pleasure.

The Sinking Road

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© Paul Batchelor 2008