The Cortland Review


Peter Robinson
Occasion to revise or think again:   Marcus Perryman interviews poet Peter Robinson.

John Kinsella
The Globe of Death - The next chapter in John Kinsella's autobiography series at TCR.

Peter Robinson

Peter RobinsonPeter Robinson was born in England in 1953. He teaches at Tohoku University, Sendai, where he is a visiting professor of English literature. His books include Overdrawn Account (Many Press, 1980), This Other Life (Carcanet, 1988), which won the Cheltenham Prize, Entertaining Fates (Carcanet, 1992) and Lost and Found (Carcanet, 1997).

This is an edited version of a conversation conducted between Sendai, Japan, and Verona, Italy, during March and April 1999.

Click to hear DeWayne Rail's greeting Peter Robinson's audio greeting

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Interview with Peter Robinson - (1)



Marcus Perryman: With some poets you feel there is a hard core of experience around which the poems are gathered or from which they proceed. I'm thinking of Vittorio Sereni, the poet we have translated together, and his poems of wartime and POW experience. Your "rape" poems, which were first collected as an eight-poem sequence in This Other Life, look like the kind of subject matter that might make survival as a human being difficult, let alone as a poet. And this has been thought of, by critics for instance, as your "harsh matter." But aren't there signs of the difficulty of negotiating an intractable reality in earlier poems, or poems you may have written before that experience? I mention Sereni also because I assume that you have a great deal of sympathy with his feeling of being ousted from an event and failing to take part in, repair or make amends for it?

Peter Robinson: The events that produced those poems years later took place in September, 1975. My girlfriend and I were hitchhiking north from Rome after having almost all our money and most of our documents stolen in the capital. We had made it all the way from the outskirts of the city to somewhere north of Milan in the direction of Como, when we ran out of luck, were picked up by someone with a gun who demanded a sort of in-kind sexual payment (as I imagine he might have seen it) for the lift. So, to avoid being killed, she underwent that "unutterable humbling" while I waited in the back of the car with a gun pointing at my head. We exchanged a few words in English, to the effect that he might kill us anyway and what would we do? He didn't understand them but quickly shut us up; and then when it was over, very surprisingly, he let us go. We memorized the number-plate of his car as he drove away. All of this took place in the middle of an electric storm. We were both 22 years old.

I had written a few poems that would find their way into the first pages of a collected poems, were I to assemble one: How He Changes, Worlds Apart, and unrevised fragments of The Benefit Forms, to be precise. I'd been writing things fairly compulsively for six years by then and, though I can't exactly recover the state of mind, must have seen myself as attempting to find my way following a line of nonmetropolitan, northern and north-midlands poets that would include Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher, Charles Tomlinson, and Donald Davie.  Worlds Apart is modeled on a Tomlinson poem about an allotment holder. What those poets have in common is some relation to the Poundian line of Modernism, a commitment to the world as recalcitrant and "other" than the perceiver. So you could say that I had already signed up for a belief in "negotiating with an intractable reality" before I found myself on the receiving end of something a good deal more intractable than a bit of urban or rural topography.

This "harsh matter" could not be written about at first, and indeed it took some years before we would even mention it to each other. We went back to Milan for the trial of the man but never stayed to find out whether he was found guilty. Looking back, it seems like an ordeal that we put ourselves through with gritted teeth. Neither of us received any post-traumatic therapy or anything like that. She had a fact of violation to experience, brace against, resist, cope with, and move on from; I had something more like the Sereni sense of an event that wrecked our youth but which didn't even happen to me, and which I was to pass over in silence and generally treat as a non-event. Poems that I wrote in 1977 and 1978 already have the event in their hinterland, and, naturally enough, my entire work is overshadowed by it: Pressure Cooker Noise has an unusually violent strand inflecting a quotidian kitchen poem; Dirty Language is a dramatic lyric in which the speaker attacks a literary person for domestic passivity; Autobiography is a self-critical farewell to a friend from university with whom I had been having a brief, two-timing relationship just a couple of weeks before the almost fatal sequence of Italian events took place.

How did this sequence take shape, and when, as a sequence? Part One of This Other Life is brought together by the family theme, but it is not a sequence. Were you being influenced by the narrative element, the need to tell a story?

thisotherlife.jpg (5170 bytes)Most of the family poems in Part One were written after those in Part Two. I didn't think a reader would be able to stand going right into the book with those rape poems, so I put the family material in first, since it forms a continuity from Overdrawn Account - and, in fact, A Short History began with a short passage that wouldn't fit into In the Background, wouldn't fit in because it was too much a narrative detail, the bit about my dad preaching from the back of a lorry.

The trajectory of the cycle into the subject matter is, from the return to Italy, to the trial, to the event itself, and the emotional focus is sharpest and most poignant in Cleaning. Vacant Possession and For Lavinia come out of the event again, as it were, and look at the horror with a no more comfortable or comforted sense. Was this the way you arranged the poems, or was it the actual order of composition and therefore emotional entanglement?

Those poems were always conceived as an intimately linked group, but I simply didn't have the equipment, when I started them, to think of writing a narrative about it, and I don't think it would have worked, either. A narrative poem suggests a degree of ease and fluency regarding the tale to be told that was simply not there. Short lyrics which glance back and then stop was the best I could do. I hoped to sketch the events in these glimpses.

The poems were not written in the order they appear.  From a Memory was the first, and then A September Night. Fragments of it come from a rejected attempt of 1978; it was published twice in magazines with the painfully punning title The Counterpane. That was 1979 or 1980. Then I managed to get a two-verse version of There Again and Cleaning in 1980. Then I did The Harm and Vacant Possession in 1981. I can remember working on A Trial in 1980 or 1981, but I only added it to the sequence late in the day. As I say, For Lavinia is an epilogue from 1985. There were a number of others which didn't seem satisfactory. It did also seem clear that the sequence had to be short, as  For Lavinia underlines. I went back through the entire experience, which had happened in 1975, a decade later when I wrote the unpublished fictionalized version, which I think of as being called September in the Rain.

The first poem is called There Again, a title whose significance flickers: it is a return but also an occasion for second thoughts. Yet even the second thoughts flicker. I take the line "like mitigating circumstances" to mean both the normal sense of the expression (in the second-thoughts vein) and the mitigation of circumstances i.e. part of the negotiation of the intractable. The "unutterable humbling" has a memory of Tennyson's "innumerable bees," and I take the humbling to mean humiliation.

No, it means "humbling"; maybe humiliation is included in the area of implication, but I don't think she was humiliated by deciding to undergo that experience rather than commit us to a more dangerous response. She rose to it. However, it was also obviously ghastly and damaging, not least to the pride of youthhers and mine. And here's where the complexity of writing poems impinges. It has been said that "humbling" is the wrong word because it's more true of what it felt like for me, than for her. Yet I think it's the right word, and not because it describes either my experiences or hers. Mine were something like shock, fear, incredulous relief, anger, and then silence and denial. To change the word to "humiliation"too abstract, too knowing, too obvious— would wreck the poem. "Humbling" is something being done to her and to me (I'm speaking and writing it). It doesn't describe; it re-experiences it in its own terms, terms which try to draw upon the balms of sound and delicacy.

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