The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for October, Jack Underwood.
Jack Underwood is a poet based in London, England. His first collection, Happiness (Faber & Faber, 2015) was winner of the Somerset Maugham Award. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, Tate etc., TLS, 聲韻詩刊 Voice & Verse, Wildness and other publications. His new double pamphlet, Solo for Mascha Voice/Tenuous Rooms is released this month by Test Centre. Jack is also co-editor and presenter of the Faber Poetry Podcast and a senior lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Natalya: Hello, Jack. Welcome to Toronto via mobile phone. How are you?
Jack: Hello, Natalya! Yeah, I’m good. Sorry if the line is bad. I am moving around the kitchen, heating up some lunch, and a small person has got my leg.
Jack: Yes. She’s walking now… How are you and the family?
Natalya: We are fine. My own baby and his dad are doing homework in the other room. I will warn you that I may be shaky with interview questions, as I’m having a midlife crisis and was up late listening to a 1990s-early-2000s playlist of tunes in an attempt to reclaim my youth.
Jack: That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Research. Forwarding the discipline.
Natalya: I got lost in my fave Sean Paul hits, but then went down a Pearl Jam tunnel for a while.
Jack: I can see how that might happen. And in fewer moves than you might think. They’ve probably hung out.
Natalya: I have to believe that Sean Paul and Eddie Vedder hang out. Anyway, let us speak about your own poetry. Your book, Happiness is one of my favourites of all time. What brought you from art school to that first collection? How did you get into poetry?
Jack: I’ve always written things. I used to have this exercise book in high school that I wrote in. Never stories. The feelings, sure. But also weird, surreal monologues and speeches, which I can still remember bits of. At sixth form I started reading poetry a bit more and writing poems concertedly. Back in 2002, when I was looking at degree programmes, there were only a handful that included creative writing, and one of them was Norwich School of Art and Design, in my home city. The NSAD course was a combination of cultural studies, art practice and creative writing. I don’t think I really appreciated how unusual that was, or how formative it was to study writing in that environment, alongside theory, and with regular art crits and exhibitions and stuff like that going on too. Cultural studies are as preoccupied with garbage as it is with literature, art and high culture, so there was this amazing attention paid to how texts seemed to work, and how the reader (who could be anyone) played an active role in making meaning, and very little reverence towards the canon as something unimpeachable, or historically embedded.
I moved to London in 2005 to start an MA at Goldsmiths, and then stayed on to do a PhD. I started teaching undergrads as a research student in 2007, and then I applied for a permanent post in 2009 and I’ve been there ever since. I began publishing poems towards the end of my MA, but it was still quite a shock to be among Faber New Poets in 2009 with the sudden visibility that brought. But having a pamphlet out also gave me loads of time to work towards a book, and in retrospect I really needed that time to think things through. I had various weird, bad versions of my manuscript before I submitted the version of Happiness that Faber accepted. Poetry seemed to be changing a lot throughout that time, and I was reading more widely. Everything else seemed more interesting, and I hated my work for about two years.
Is this interesting? My memoirs! I guess I’m reconciled to my poems now. I know my place, and have calibrated the risks I feel able to take honestly.
Natalya: Well, you once told me that a poet should act as if they’ve stopped a stranger in the grocery store to read them a poem, and that poem better be attractive enough to keep the busy shopper’s attention. Based on what you’ve just shared with me, I have put down my groceries and am enraptured. I remember many moons ago, when we still lived in the UK, that I dragged you and Emily Berry to Cambridge for a face-melting poetry workshop, and when we were driving you back to the train station, you were just talking about having recently turned 30 years old, and the strangeness of that feeling. Since then, Happiness has been published, and you’ve welcomed a daughter to the world. How has that strange feeling of living life changed since Nancy was born?
Jack: I remember when I first started going back to work, maybe three weeks after Nancy was born, my new life still so novel, nothing outside seemed to corroborate the magnitude of the change I’d experienced at home. After a few hours absorbed in the activities of the outside world, I would sort of forget I had a daughter. Or rather I kept being shocked by it; I kept re-entering and leaving my life. Does that sound strange? I was also very easily overwhelmed, tearful, which might also have been increased prolactin levels, which new fathers often experience. I also found the closeness, the sudden intimacy of fatherhood kind of surreal. I’d never held a newborn before for longer than a few minutes. Suddenly I was on my own in the front room at four in the morning, an unreal time to be awake generally, but it was like now I am here, and she is here, and this is somehow real. It often seemed less likely than it not being real, those early hour shifts. Of course, I experienced that stomach flipping realisation that I would gladly murder anyone who threatened the safety of my child. I kind of expected that animal side of things. It’s true, I would bite someone’s face off, and I have played that scenario through in my mind a number of times. And then I think, “why the fuck am I hypothetically biting someone’s face off? Why am I brokering this scenario? This is madness!” Also I keep having this other thought that I need to be outlived. It makes no sense. I don’t know what I mean by it, only that if there was a ledge to step off, I would. I am ready to die, if needs be, though no one is asking me to. And I think about all the parents out there just casually carrying these strange, violently instinctive, hypothetical contracts within themselves, each taking themselves quietly, impulsively to that ledge, for no real reason. Also I’ve had human shit on my hands and wrists on the reg for over a year now, and I’ve become so bored of my own tiredness that at times I’ve been too tired to cry about it. And then there’s the way that one’s child is a kind of mirror, where you see all the things you’ve forgotten you ever had to learn, like swallowing solid food; I have no memory of learning to swallow solid food, or learning to pick things up and drop them, which babies have to learn to do. Walking is the most obvious one; I wish I could remember the first time I stood up on my own: the world suddenly below, not in front of me. And of course all the little repetitions that make the present seem to refer in some way to the past; repetitions that create the illusion of a similarity of moments and experience through time. Newborns experience everything anew, anew, but gradually the mind gathers enough memory to impose upon the present, so that people and objects are the same people and objects as last time, rather than being a swimming mass of phenomena. And of course this is how language starts: repetitions referring to things, stabilising them across time. It’s so strange to learn through my daughter all that I’ve forgotten I’ve learned to do.
Natalya: Sometimes Neil and I forget those newborn days with our son, but you’ve awakened the memories so vividly with your beautiful, honest description of Nancy’s first year on earth! And, of course, the instinct to kill anyone who might harm your child never fades. With regards to one of your recent projects: I have observed that you have a love for Mascha Kaléko and your new book includes replies to her poems. When I recall some of your workshop lessons, and the poets you’ve spoken about over the years, I have an image of ghosts, of women from a murky, lost historical time, of women whose black and white author photos are romanticized, but whose work reflects a mind-blasting life of survival and tenacity. Tell me about how all these reflections coincide in this new book.
Jack: I first read Mascha Kaléko’s poems using Google Translate. I couldn’t find any English translations, so I pasted the German originals in and then pasted the English text it generated into Word docs so I could read them in roughly the same formal shapes as the originals. They were mangled, dynamic things, but I loved those versions. In order for the reading of those to be more satisfying I started to fill in gaps, and after a while I started moving text around more, and that led to me produce some very free-translations. These were just for me to read, initially, but the more I made and the more I played around with them, the more I felt they might be worth sharing. I approached the Kaléko estate about publication, but they refused permission because they didn’t feel I could make effective translations with no German. So I started from scratch producing these “replies”, trying to retain something of the voice I had made up to be Kaléko’s but avoiding any of the original terms, and making poems with totally new shapes, ideas, dynamics. It was a very different way of writing, but I think it encouraged me to move beyond limits I’d set myself in terms of voice, tone etc. I wasn’t writing as myself.
But it’s problematic to say I’m writing after Kaléko, and that’s why these are replies. I also have to be sensitive to the history: Kaléko was a Jewish woman who had to escape Nazis persecution, who had her work censored and banned, and I’ve been round the block in my head many times at 3am, worrying what I’m doing replying to her poems. Is it appropriative? Aren’t the dynamics off? But I always come back to the fact that my poems were made out of an honest desire to read her work, I’m not making any claim to represent her practice, and I’ve always hoped my replies would serve to generate more interest in her original poems.
Natalya: I would hope that your respect for her is clear to readers. You have some new poems in POETRY this month. What were you reflecting on when you wrote those?
Jack: I’m not sure! ‘War the War’ is a love poem. With ‘A Year in the New Life’ I was interested in that scene in Game of Thrones when Arya Stark recounts each house’s sigil and motto. It feels like a time for new banners and sigils. There’s so much to worry about. Maybe the poem is about how communities respond and rally to those worries?
Natalya: I understand that. The world is exploding. I conduct these interviews for The Poetry Extension to rally to such worries. What is on the horizon for you with your writing? Is another collection in the works, or are you interested in more essays, fiction, perhaps something else altogether?
Jack: I have a collection of essays written, and we’ll see what happens there with editors and their sales teams. I’ve already published the intro of that book in The Poetry Review and also in POETRY but I’m eager to get the rest out into the world. More poems too, yes. In their own good time. I have maybe half a book written? I don’t know. I’m not in any rush and it’s not like people are exactly waiting by the phone. Solo for Mascha Voice is published alongside another series, Tenuous Rooms in a special tête bêche edition from Test Centre.