Saturday, 14 May 2011

Brian Catling speaks to Andy Spragg

 
Brian Catling was born in London in 1948. He is a poet, sculptor and performance artist. He is professor of fine art at The Ruskin School of Drawing & Fine Art, University of Oxford.

Eight books of Catling’s poetry have been published and his work has been included in many anthologies, including . Etruscan Press produced a compilation of his  poetry; A Court Of Miracles, published in 2009. Catling is currently in the process of writing his epic, surrealist prose work The Vorrh.

When did you start writing? Was there a point where you were aware that you wanted to write?

When I was at comprehensive school – I was in the gutter stream for most of it – and it was the people in the English department that saved me. I suddenly realised I was going towards the door rather rapidly at the end of the fourth year and I wanted to do something else. I was reading strange stuff. I was reading stuff that wasn't on the syllabus, stuff that people like me weren't supposed to read. If you were in the gutter stream you were supposed to be doing metal-work or wood-work and go straight out, and they {the English department} sort of recognised that and threw me a life-belt and I grabbed it. Even though the visual world, I knew, was what I wanted to go into, but I always had this other thing of getting very excited by words, poetry and writing, so I just read a lot. I never thought I would start writing. When I went to art school and there were things that couldn't be done by making signs, images or actions, I had to sit down with words. I started to write poetry then. It was all terrible stuff then of course, but it never stopped. When I was art school it was kind of uncool to write and read. We were being taught by abstract expressionists who believed in the artist as the dumb animal who just goes to the studio and does his art, and critical questions are thrown out. Totally different to now. Now it's driven by critical theory and critical response. This was the other way round, so it was easy to keep my writing quiet. I just did it and no-one ever asked.


You said about reading, were there particular people at the time you were reading who were an influence?

Very early on I was kind of in the dark, I was stumbling on things. School was shocked when they found out I was reading Victor Hugo and EdgarAllen Poe. There was a natural way of finding these things, for example I was obsessed by the Marat/Sadethe stage play – long before I knew about Samuel Beckett. I more or less know that play off by heart, because when I used to leave college and go home at night I used to play that obsessively. I had an LP set of the entire play, I used to paint to it. So I used to paint strange imaginary interiors while listening to this manic play. Also Kipling: not so much for the sentiment, but the vocabulary. I love the way he used words percussively. They are very sculptural, very physical. So between reading that and Samuel Beckett, it was a really weird combination of bits and pieces.

When I was at art school Iain Sinclair had a one-afternoon a week job teaching complimentary studies, which was a sort of 'civilizing technique' for the wielders and plumbers at the technical school across the road, and it was rumoured that this guy had a cupboard full of cameras that nobody wanted. This was an art school that had no cameras, so I found him out and found out he did have these things and we could get our hands on them. That started a big friendship and then of course when he found out what I did he encouraged it, and published the first poetry book.

It strikes me that there is a tremendous tactile quality to your writing, is that something you are aware of when you're writing?

No, I'm not. But it's something that's been pointed out to me, and that was part of why I wrote The Stumbling Block, to confront this head on. I said, rather perversely, {that} I was writing a sculpture, because the tactile...It's kind of divided into processes and materials, which is very much the way I think when I'm making things, so it's the same kind of thinking. Now I'm writing a lot more prose it may of changed, because ideally it's a lot more about people talking to one another than talking to materials and things. It's {the tactile} still there, that's embedded.

It's interesting you mention 'talking to' materials, do you see some aspects of your performance work as talking to materials as well?

I do, very much so. When I do a slide-show of my work I always say to my students, “look, if you take the things I do, like making installations and sculptures, writing poetry and performing, and you put it in a box and shake it, it comes out as film making.” because all those things stick together in a sort of natural way, and I knew that from very early on, but I didn't go that way, for one very simply reason: because I was too impatient. Film making takes forever, and it takes an enormous amount of people, and its expensive, and you wait, and you have to wait continually, and I don't have that patience, so I wanted a process I could have at my finger-tips, any time day or night, so I went that way. The fact I also ended up making films is coincidental, but I don't think I would have had the patience to follow that one through.

You went on to make a number of films with Tony Grisoni. Did you find you had more patience at that stage?

No, it's because I was doing other stuff anyway. I keep adding to what I do, and imagining that stuff will fall off the other end, but instead of that it just becomes just more of what I do. So when I started making more narrative forms with Tony Grisoni, they were other things and I was still going into the studio and working with paint, or words. There has never been any kind of boundary, only in other people's minds is there a boundary. I never had one. I just do different kinds of things.

You've commented in the past that you consider those various things as separate, or as a series of 'Jekyll and Hyde multiple-life-boltholes', is that still the case?

No, because what happened was that performance came up in-between. I was supposed to be doing a poetry reading at Whitechapel Gallery, and had stuff I was really unhappy about so I decided I wasn't going to read poetry, I was going to do something else. I don't think it was even called performance then, it was a physical action that took time, and that grew up in-between the studio, installations and sculpture; and the writing and reading the writing. The performance drew energy from both and it actually fused them; so rather than it being separated, all three were things I do, and still are. Now when I start off, even when people ask me to do something, sometimes I don't which way it's going to go, but it never goes into all three. It seems to go naturally into one or the other.

It's apparent that the Cyclops texts in Late Harping started off as performance and found their way to print. Was that the case with Bobby Awl as well?

Bobby Awl started off as a performance. I met the cast of his head in Edinburgh and didn't know what to do with it, so I put it on a back-burner. I was asked to make a piece for the new parliament and the two things just came together, so it became a performance text where he and I talked. I was on the train going up to perform it and I wrote it on the train, I didn't know it was going to be a text until I started it. He was just waiting to talk.

Do you have a particular process when writing?

No, but now because I'm writing prose, and I'm writing every day, it is quite different. I start the day – I live above the sculpture department – so before I come down to meet the students I do at least an hour. Sometimes I creep up at lunchtime and do some, and sometimes I do some in the evening before I start cooking, so I generally do some, but at the weekends and holidays I do a lot. It started up about the same time as I started to make some tiny egg tempera paintings, little portraits of Cyclops, but I told people I was very content that I had finally found a process where I was working on a lap-top and a table top, and I could do everything through these two things, so that if I ended up in a prison cell, or a hospital bed, or something like that I could still work, I didn't need workshops, studios, cutting desks, edit suites; I now had it at my finger tips, and it was a kind of joke saying that, but it stuck. I am working at it everyday and its completely and totally obsessive. When I was midway, and finished the second book of the trilogy, The Vorrh, I thought, “Oh shit, have I been doing the wrong thing all these years, because this is easy – This is just falling out.” It was like someone was talking in my ear. I've always said to people that sculpture is one of the dumbest things you can do, to take inert materials and use energy and effort and time to try to make it sing, when it actually just wants to be dead, inert material. You're banging your head against a brick wall. But something about that appeals to me as well.

You mentioned The Vorrh, could you outline the trilogy?

It's an unpublished work, partly because for the past two and a half years I've just been writing prose and it's grown. I do more and more {but} I've done nothing about publication, I've done nothing about hacking it down, because while it's pouring out I'm just letting it pour. I'm now sixty-one, I'm not in a rush to make a new career. I am in a rush to make the work. I am suddenly smelling the fuse burning, and that's never happened before neither. I'm becoming aware of mortality very rapidly and I think it may be tied in with the process in some way...I don't know. I've heard that said before.

The Vorrh is a trilogy, its title comes from Raymond Roussel's ground-breaking work Impressions of Africa, an incredibly influential surrealist work. He sets most of it in a forest in Africa called the Vorrh, which he never describes and has no interest in describing. He kind of forgets its even there. So I picked it up, and {Roussel} is actually a character in the first book. It's complete fiction, a surrealist fiction, which I knew would be difficult. It's not difficult in the sense that it's incredibly dense or complicated like other things I've done, in fact it's simpler.

I've been passing it out to people as I've gone along. What I did was select a group of five people I trusted, just to make sure that I wasn't writing 'Jack is a sad boy' over and over again, just to make sure I was actually doing something. they were very different people, with very different reading habits, and from very different backgrounds, and they've all said similar things. Some have been critical, some haven't, but one thing they've all said is it's a page-turner, and that they were surprised. I said, “You're surprised? You can't believe how surprised I am by this!” and as it's gone on I've recognised the first one's still a bit clunky, you can hear the gear changes, and I wanted that, but it's changed in the next two.

It's set between 10-30 years after the First World War, it takes place in an African forest, and there's a German township nearby. It's full of extraordinary people and creatures, and they do things to one another. Some of them really exist, so in the first one Muybridge, the photographer, is in it, along with Roussel. In the second one, {you have} Eugene Marais, the South African natural historian, poet and drug addict, another one, lesser known, is Leo Frobenius, who is claimed by some to be the father of ethnography. He's fallen from grace totally, he invented the word 'negritude', I think for a good reason, but his motivations were a bit peculiar, and he ended up with Nazi sympathies before Hitler came to power...so he didn't do too well in the end. But he had very interesting beginnings. These people are mixed in, everyone else is entirely fictional. I put it down and thought 'that's that, I've done it.' There was an immensely overpowering sensation that everything else is secondary, this is it. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, that will be eventually what I'm known for. Not that was a motivating force, I don't think like that. It's just there were times I was writing it when my hands were moving and {I found myself} saying “Oh no, he doesn't, he doesn't!” It was unfolding before me. I've never had that sensation...actually that's not true. I've had it with sculpture. When you're making things you stop speaking to yourself. Your brain stops chattering sometimes, or if your painting it's engulfing. A day goes past and it's gone, you don't know where it's gone or what happened or how it got made. And with this {The Vorrh} it happens all the time. This is probably not that unusual for people who work like that, but for me it is a revelation.

I was going to ask, is that experience of getting lost not something you necessarily feel with poetry?

No, the poetry was really the opposite, it was really stubborn and had to be hacked out. I mean sometimes it sort of formed in front of you, but then you had to make the setting for it, and everything else around it. You know, one line isn't going to do it. Those were godsends, those one lines, but this {The Vorrh}...its plot, dialogue, characters: all just falling out the air. So I put away and I finished it, Sarah, my wife, and I went away. We hired somewhere in the mountains in Spain for a couple of weeks, in the middle of nowhere – no power, no electricity – so I didn't take a laptop with me, just took a notepad. Called to see a friend of mine on the way, and we were talking about books and he said, “have you ever thought about writing a Western?” He had been one of my readers for The Vorrh, and I said, “It's strange you should say that because yeah, and I always had the opening scene.” He gave me True Grit to read. I read it in a couple of days and really enjoyed it. Iain Sinclair has been pushing for years to write a novel, and one of the things he pushed my way and said could be a key was Blood Meridian; it wasn't, but it did do something else. I was sitting outside in Spain and started making a few notes. 37 pages later and I had begun the first of what is now a quartet of Westerns, I'm on the fourth one now. They come out at about two hundred pages each, and I've sent those to people and it's all come back with, “Don't stop, don't stop, just keep going.” I don't know, I'm just doing it while it's there, because you never know when it's going to dry out. Not that anything has dried up.

I can certainly recognise elements of that though, the excitement and simultaneous fear as you encounter a new idea as a writer, of things running forwards. In relation to that, there seems to be this real tension in your work between the moment, the temporary aspect of your work, and the sense of these things being preserved. For example you talked in the interview in Tending the Vortex of telling galleries to throw your work in the skip after exhibitions, and yet in your own work there are numerous references to museums, and ideas of things being preserved. Is it something you are very conscious of?

I am aware of it in a way that I make things, in the sense of that 10-15 year period where I made big installation sculptures that only existed as long as the show ran. But they were carefully made, it wasn't like they were made to look like they were waiting to be thrown away. So I over-made them, I don't really have much control in that, I get very involved in the way the thing it is. It's not skill, nor craft, nor any of that stuff; it's just got to be a certain way and it has to be worked at to make it that way. I think it is like that, the moment is still very powerful, it's still what I'm kind of looking for in that kind of work. The prose has narrowed it down, the prose is another world, it just goes instantly into its place and stays. It's like an obedient dog. Where as finding a home for the poetry, or the sculpture, I'm much more interested in the transitory, even though they are not necessarily made like that.

I've always been very interested in memory as a place of curation, which placed me in exact opposition to my colleagues at a time when the English market, the art world, became incredibly commercial, in a way that I didn't recognise any more. I don't have a problem with that, it's great, and it's done extraordinary things and it was much more healthy; it's about to not be any more, but it was healthy and I loved that. It wasn't my kind of thing though, I wasn't making things to be owned, sold or possessed, I wasn't into bartering. I was making them to stop people and arouse their curiosity, engage their thought, but the next time they wanted to see it, it wouldn't be there. I quite liked that. That's probably why I teach rather than have a proper art career, but it does give me a fantastic freedom. I always wanted that, I was never interested in being a sculptor or artist who returned to the same work over and over. That doesn't interest me at all. But I like to put things 'at each other', in opposition. As soon as I make something that has a quiet base, or perhaps someone says there's a calmness in this...I want to keep it unbalanced, I don't want to be settled into one seam of ideas or mode of things. There's a restlessness in my approach, but there's also something aggressive in it as well. I don't want to be set in a particular mode. If it looks like I'm being perceived in a certain mode, or I see myself going that way, then I will do something perverse in opposition to it.

Presumably that ties into performances like Mr. Rapehead?

Yeah, well that's a classic example {laughs}. I think I may have repeated that more than any other performance because it's so simple, so easy to do, and it produces the most alarming and astonishing effect. I mean, there's points when people know I'm going do it then I won't do it, but if they don't it's always really interesting.

I have fond memories of you telling us about your plans for performing Mr. Rapehead the day after you'd given a reading in Norwich, it was such a remarkable contrast from the poetry reading you'd given.

Yeah, that was the ICA, that really went. It's also working against my age and my position as an academic. I like playing with those.

Why do you think that is?

Oh, I'm just a troublemaker really {laughs}. I've never done it socially. I'm only ever that difficult and unpredictable creatively. I'm aware that sounds terribly pretentious, but I don't mean it to. I suppose what I mean is that I don't want to do {that sort of thing} in a pub, that happens every night of the week in every pub. Not interested. It's about placing it somewhere {different}. The poetry world, the art world, all of it can be very staid; performance less so, for a lot of performance that's still there, there's some of that slightly dangerous, unpredictable edge to it, but I went to performance quite late on really, and found it to be a natural habitat. It's enjoyable, I like seeing my elders in it who are still doing their thing, and still wanting to do it.

Its interesting you talk about the poetry as being quite staid because you got associated with a certain rebellious movement, partly through Sinclair, and partly through the people you were associated with. Did you feel a particular affinity to that movement?

No...I was quite pleased they were there really {laughs}. I mean I've never been part of any movement or ever wanted to be. Sometimes you read things and people say you are classed amongst certain things, but I've never thought like that. It's always been a one-off outsider incident for me, in the sense I can't really talk poetry...in the sense I can't really sit down and have a long chat with you about the structure and meaning of other people's work. I haven't got into that, I've kind of avoided it. The saving grace was, I think, never having done it in formal education about writing or critical appraisal. I'm far too late to pick it up now, and don't intend to. So I'm in state of innocence about that, and that serves me very well.

Have you got particular poets you're reading at the moment that interest you?

I haven't, it's terrible to stay, I haven't read anything in two years. It's part of the price of writing that {referring to the prose} that it is exactly the same time you would spend reading. I mean I've been reading research, things I need to know about the things I've been composing. So I know, I've got books piled up waiting, so I don't know. It's also the same with exhibitions, I'm starting to feel like those terrible old, bearded teachers that I had at art school, where you used to come in and go “There's this great exhibition in London, have you seen it?” and they'd reply, “oh yes.” and you knew they hadn't. You knew they never left the front door, I've turned into one of those. I don't really read a lot, or look at a lot any more, I've become selfish. I think the saving grace is my students, that you can't take that into their studios. They've always got things to talk about, other ideas and artists, so we do it that way. Of all the things, I've seen a lot of performances, which I am very interested in, but I'm not really reading a lot new.

Leading on from that, how long have you been teaching?

{Laughs} Man and boy! No, it's a long time. {At the age of} twenty-three I think I started, I mean odd days here and there.

You see the teaching as a stimulus for your own creative process?

No, that's not the way I'd say it. It keeps me sane, and it does me good, but I can detach myself from it. I've still got that objectivity, I will not allow my work to come into their studio with me, and I will not allow their work to come out of their studio with me. It stays where it is. So when I'm talking to people about their work, I'm talking to them about their work. There's a lot of artists who use the word 'I' a lot in every sentence when talking to students. I don't do that. I purposefully don't do it, because it's about them and it's important that it is. So I work as a reflector for what they want, or what they are. The only skills that I have that they haven't got yet is the ability to bend and flex the surface better so the reflection they get is always theirs and not mine. The same with taking things out, it's best to leave everything intact, accelerate it as a teacher, give it an articulation, give it a mechanism between its power source and its outcome. Allow them to see the mechanism, take the mechanism apart, but don't touch the power source or the outcome; then I don't have to think about whether they want to be the YBA's or anything else, that doesn't interest me. When it comes to their psychology I'm not trained to know and I don't want to know, but the bit in-between I can do...the mechanism, the articulation and the language. That keeps me sharp and it stops me being entirely self-centred. So when I leave the front door I leave me behind, mostly. That's what it gives me, its a way somewhere else. I use my skill and imagination for something else rather than entirely for my benefit. Does that sound pompous of me?

No at all, I think it's difficult, especially when you get to the stage you are at because the boundary between student and teacher breaks down, and I think both have to work towards not just becoming a dialogue between the two.

[…] Introducing Large Ghost in Norwich, you commented that the poem was an attempt at self-portraiture, something that you weren't a tremendous fan of. Why not and what lead to writing it?

Well, I think its more interesting to invent than to mirror myself. Of course, some of you gets through...actually the answer to one is the answer to the other one. It was never my intention to do that and I think I hardly every use 'I' in my writing, You'll find it's hardly ever there. I want the reader to be in a place where they've not got my hand in theirs, I'm not leading them through, I'm not attaching things to myself.

Large Ghost was different; it came about literally as it says. There was a series of peculiar events, hauntings if you would. Out there {indicates to the studio space outside his office}, over in the corner, it was incredibly uncomfortable place to work at night. It changed as it got later. It wasn't just me, everyone said something wasn't quite right in there. You kept turning around when you were doing things. I used to work really late at night, and that was where the band-saw was and things like that, so it was just something. This happened to everyone bit by bit. I was in Scotland doing Bobby Awl and we had a caretaker then who was an ex-traffic warden, he used to sit up with his feet on the desk reading the football results. He wasn't the type to be moved anything, but he was walking around here late at night and he heard keys rattling. Someone pushed in the small of the back and sent him flying. My wife found him outside sobbing. This is not a man who cries, and he said he could lose his job, he didn't care, he wasn't going back in there again. She told me this, and the one thing I found strange was the keys jingling because that's something I do at night, when I let students work late. I go round, “time to go home ladies and gentlemen,” and jingle my keys. So I thought wouldn't it be strange if a ghost got out, prior to being dead? What if got and had a separate life, what if it slipped its lead? So Large Ghost came out of that.

There was another thing that was so utterly remarkable I don't even know how to explain it. Have you got enough tape for this? {laughs} I was in Italy doing a fellowship with Tony Grisoni. We got a house out there. I get up one morning and walk to the bathroom and there's blood-spots all along the floor. Not smears, not a foot injury, but spots: plop,plop,plop. So I go back to Sarah and say, “are you okay?” and she's fine. Checked the kids and they are fine. Inexplicable. So we clean it up. Later that day we're in town working and Tony's got this box ladder. Me and my little son are there on the other side of the room and it slips out of his hand, comes crashing down and hits me on the head. I go flying, glasses off and I'm on the floor. I get up and they've gone white because I've got a head wound. I go to the bathroom to look in the mirror and it's a long cut but not deep. I look down at the floor: plop,plop,plop. I say to Tony, “have you seen this?” and he says, “yeah, you got any answers?” We went home and were around the table saying, “what was that? A physical premonition?” I mean I don't believe in every form of ghost story, I'm interested in those, but this was just matter of fact, the same thing existed in two places but they were not attached, and one had an immediate cause and the other had no cause. Those two things, that and the caretaker incident, lead to {writing}Large Ghost; I sat down and it just rattled out, and it'll be the only time I'll do anything that personal. And I guess I can only do it that personal because its about another me that got out {laughs}. It wasn't about my love life, or my academic career or anything like that, and the idea of writing anything like that just makes my blood runs cold.

A lot of your work seems to play with the tension between the rational and the irrational.

Yeah, it's very unusual for me to get inspired by something 'in the business', by a piece of writing or a critical idea. Generally I want to get something that has been left alone, forgotten or uncomfortable, I prefer to work with that.

{Interlude as Brian & I discuss various photographs: he talks about taking up watercolours, the Bowery boys, prosthetics and the Wild West}

Are there any plans to publish your Westerns?

No, I want to it happen. I want it all to happen. There's a suitcase being built up. I give up the job of running the school {Catling is currently acting head of department} in April, go back to my normal job. I have a sabbatical term coming up, and that sabbatical term I will put it all in the suitcase, literally and metaphorically, and go knocking on people's doors. I've never done that before, but there's nothing to lose. I've understood the small press world, that's enthusiasts, but this is something different. None of them normal, these are not normal Westerns, but I've got a good feeling that something will eventually give. I've put no energy into {publicising it}. Iain {Sinclair} wants to help promote it, as does Alan {Moore}. Iain thinks the Western's are commercial.

{Recently} Grisoni said he had some money to film on the Isle of Man. I said 'Why don't I write you a Western on the Isle of Man?' When we went there {to film Vanished!} in the village of Dalby, people kept on asking us whether we were there about the outrage. Turned out there was this thing called 'the Dalby Outrage': in the thirties, there had been a gunfight between two families. There was no research on this, so I decided I'd make it up: it's sort of a cross between Moon & the Sledgehammer and Straw Dogs, which is how I feel about the English countryside anyway – on the Isle of Man I certainly feel that way. They've still got laws for purging and hanging, you don't get more Wild West than that. And Norman Wisdom lived there, by choice. So I started and it's spun out, it's full of the most monstrous people, and Wisdom is one of them. Tony's very excited about turning it into a screenplay, so who knows? I'm just enjoying writing.

I haven't written any poetry in two years, but I know it's there because there's things that are not going into these books. It all comes out, but how it works in the real world, I've not been concerned about that. I've never been concerned with that.

It strikes me as fascinating, as someone at the beginning of things, that with someone such as yourself who has been making and writing for a period of time now, there must be a tension between the activities and being engaged but still having the financial constraints.

Yeah, it has been a nightmare. I mean it's no longer a nightmare because I've got a steady job, but I've always known that I would need a day job. I never expected...I've always been interested in the obscure and the stuff on the edge, so I had no belief it was ever going to pay anything back to keep me going. I did a lot of different kinds of jobs, so half my life's been difficult, sometimes not having enough to eat, and with two families to support it don't get easier. But I've been lucky, people have responded to the work. I think if you do it, and it still keeps going, then sooner or later it cuts holes into something. The world's changed, it's coming back to something I recognise now. There was a long time when there was a lot of money around, and a lot of very slick stuff was being made, and a lot of hype. The tautness – and the tension – seems to be coming back, its just like being back in Thatcherite Britain. I mean, I wouldn't say I'm happy with that – I think it's appalling – but I know my way round it, and I also know that it'll have no sympathy for what I do at all, but that'll make {my work} stronger. That's one thing about poetry and performance: because it is so completely under-funded and under-recognised it actually thrives more when everything else goes down, because it just carries on.

A lot of the other things are living on a false promise. That whole generation of YBA's is still affecting my students now. They still believe they can walk into that kind of market and that kind of support. At the time it just seemed ridiculous, and it was just a moment, it couldn't have lasted and a lot of the work that came out was the same. There's a lot of trivia in the world. A lot of diamond encrusted trivia. And that'll probably go.

I'm dangerous when I'm successful and I think things are going well. I'm more creative and more original when things bite. It probably comes from a history of being like that, it's not a moralistic position and it's certainly not a Spartan sort of thing. It's just that I won't be a-feared of those things, because sometimes the most important work comes from them.

Do you ever find that you put yourself in deliberately uncomfortable positions to respond to that?

I suppose I do it all the time, in the sense that when something is successful I tend to then go in the opposite direction, rather than following things up by making another one almost identical. I mean, I recognise that as a useful tactic – you see people who have the same piece of sculpture in every museum in the world, but it doesn't appeal to me. I want to do something else; there is a gnostic kind of thing in it, looking for a different way of saying things, {a way} of stretching my imagination. That's what I'm really interested in, more than anything else; not knowing what it's going to be next, even though when you look back across the work you recognise the course of these things. The boundaries of one's own imagination is always there, but they're worth testing. I don't seek to be uncomfortable, I'm too much of a coward for that, but I am less of a coward in invention and in imaginative work. I'm prepared to take the chance there. And enjoy it {laughs}.

I suppose it's a funny thing to sit in Oxford university and say that, it could be seen to be a contradiction. It's not for me at all. Most of the people here have had some dealings with it before, as research graduates or students, but having come to it from outside and not knowing how it worked has given me an enormous separation from it. It is very powerful, it is very potent and has some great things – libraries and museums – but you don't have to sign up for it all.

That sense of being outside of things, did you get a similar sense with the poetry world?

It's been all my life. But I've always wanted it, it's not been something I've moaned about. It's the same of the art world. I've chosen to step away from it. I suppose the easiest thing to say was that I was adopted and I've never been on the journey to discover who my parents were. I've never felt the need. I am an incredibly curious person, but the one thing I should have been curious about I never have been. Perhaps everything is a surrogate, everything else I'm doing is in some way using that curiosity to reinvent things, and not be part of things which I should be part of. There may be something irrationally perverse in that which...well, I mean it's serving me very well. I never sought things I could be party to, clubs I could join. I don't like clubs. Here I can be anonymous.

That's funny, because at the same time there's this need to get the work out.

Oh yeah, but that's the work. The easiest thing would have been for me to attach my personality to the work, but I made a point trying to make work that didn't look or behave like me. It has a different, animal presence. I didn't want to join that cult thing, which always works, but the price is...well, I say to my students, “if you want to have success you can have it, but there's a price.” And the price is you never...you are on tap. You are on tap and that's what it costs. There ain't going to be a time you can step aside and go into your studio and think, “wouldn't it be great to try something different?” It's not going to be like that, because you are letting go – and all those guys are looking over their shoulder, terrified that the next person will take their position. And that's what I walked away from, I thought I've got a longer time than that. I want to enjoy it, and I want to enjoy it like that, and I am.

How do you reconcile it with Sinclair's inclusion of you within his writing?

Well, you tell me. That's his business, not mine. That's always happened...and I've always known about it afterwards. I don't know what to say about that. He's a friend you know, but I've never quite understood it. It's been useful, it's been incredibly helpful.

Do you recognise yourself in it?

Yeah, yeah of course. I mean a lot of it is fiction, but that's what he does and it's not just me {laughs}. I think he's got bored of me being in it now. He's been fantastic support though, a wonderful friend.

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