Poet Glyn Maxwell Opens the 2010 Awards Ceremony
One morning I was driving my daughter to school, she was about eight. Those kids in Shakespeare creeping like snail unwillingly to school? – my daughter’s one of them, in fact she’s the one at the back saying to the other kids ‘hey what’s the hurry?’ In fact the snails are looking back along the road saying ‘is that Alfie Maxwell, come on, hurry up…’ she’s that girl.
So I’m driving her there, we’re driving into the car-park and she starts saying ‘daddy, why do I have to go to school?’ And I make the sound all grown-ups make in Peanuts cartoons, blah blah blah, and she says ‘It’s not fair, you don’t have to, you’re so lucky, you can just go home and play’ and I’m giving it this blah blah blah it’s not really play blah blah blah it’s hard work being a writer blah blah blah, I’ve worked for years to be where I am blah blah blah, and finally, totally unconvinced, she trudges off in her blazer to learn Latin or Geometry or Quantum Physics or whatever else the modern eight-year-old needs.
I watch her go, I drive off, I’m driving along the road, sun’s come out, lovely day, and I’m suddenly convulsed with the realisation that – I CAN JUST GO HOME AND PLAY! It’s not hard work, it’s never been hard work, even when it’s hard work it’s play, I love it, and I’m going home to do some more of it while you have to study Latin or Geometry or Quantum Physics – HA! I actually punched the air, nearly swerved off the road.
Poetry and happiness have a strange relationship. I can only remember one other physical expression of joy in my life as a poet. Some time in about 1872 I got my first poem accepted by a magazine in I think Lincolnshire with a readership comprising all the literate people in Lincolnshire, that’s about six, and it was my first acceptance and I literally jumped for joy, I left the earth’s surface.
I don’t think I’ve actually left the ground since, not even for love, not even for football, but I did for that first acceptance. Scroll forward to 2008 and the LRB responds to the six poems I sent them, saying we’d like to take one of them. Well I didn’t scream with joy or turn cartwheels and I certainly didn’t leap from the earth’s crust. In fact my first thought was ‘You’d like to take one of these poems? What the hell’s wrong with the other five?’
Maybe we poets don’t deserve happiness. It certainly comes to us in peculiar and surprising forms. And in the world of poetry, a good time is a curious thing, it never comes at you in the way you expect it.
Take this, for example. Dear Glyn, please come and stay two nights at the Park Hyatt in Toronto, all expenses paid, meet a lot of cool people and give a ten-minute speech at a really nice dinner. I’m sorry? Dear Glyn, please come and stay two nights at the Park Hyatt in Toronto, all expenses paid, meet a lot of cool people and give a ten-minute speech at a really nice dinner.
And do a reading? No no. Teach a workshop? Nah. Sign some books? Come on. Just hotel, friends, free time, mini bar, room service, sightseeing, massage, sauna, jacuzzi, nice drink, nice food, speech, sit down, chill, go home. O-kay…can I think about it for one second? Yes, sure – no I meant one second.
What I mean is – the stuff that as a young poet I’d have given my right arm for – I end up getting paid an arm and a leg for. By my calculations that leaves me up one leg. Maybe that’s the leg up you give to a younger poet but I’m gonna quit with the limb stuff at this point.
Party time is complicated for poets. So, just as I’d never tell my daughter that yes, I go home and play all day, I had trouble with the customs guy at the airport. Eight hours on a plane, unshaven, unslept, a little ragged. Purpose of visit. Er…business. I don’t think the word business has ever sounded so unconvincing, like I’d sort of put bunny ears on a man in a suit. What ‘business’ are you doing here in Toronto? Oh, I’m just giving a…a…lecture. You are? Where? At an after-dinner – no I don’t mean after I mean pre-dinner, way before dinner, it’s nowhere near dinner it’s not food-related, it’s in a whole different room, in a…conference, a symposium. By that time he’s heard enough long words and I can pass.
But these days there’s another desk to get past. At least there is in our minds. There’s the carbon footprint desk and the carbon footprint officer. She’s not literally sitting there glaring at you, but give it a year or so… I’m seeing this spectral official, in her recycled uniform, saying You flew 4000 miles to do a ten-minute speech at a banquet? You smeared the North Atlantic sky with oil and smoke for a few minutes of low-quality stand-up? You took ten minutes off the lifespan of the earth to tell bad jokes to a few hundred drunks? And I say yeah but I offset it, I ticked the box. Oh okay that’s fine then, welcome to Canada.
Sometimes my sleep is troubled by dreams of a million people stumbling across a desert through burning oil-wells, crashed planes, carcasses, and they’re crying to the heavens But we offset it! We ticked the box! Then I wake up and CNN is on and there’s the guy from BP saying pretty much the same thing. We ticked the box! All that offshore drilling – we offset it! Offshore, offset, it’s a no-brainer – Oh – we didn’t? You didn’t tick the box? Ah.
You see, if they’d remembered to tick the box then what would be gushing out of the ocean bed into the Gulf of Mexico would be lemonade or Listerine – but, some lowly clerk forgot to tick the box and offset it all, so we have what we have. Fortunately I can’t remember what BP stands for. Big Pollution would be my guess.
By the way I also saw on CNN that they found a use for all that money that went to Poetry magazine in Chicago. They spent it on a camera that shows you in real time all the new poems being added to the world, pouring out of this big pipe into the air. I think it’s somewhere in Iowa. They’ve tried to stuff a load of mud and plastic and shopping trolleys in it to cap it, but you know, nothing’s working. Anyway, point I’m making is, I ticked the box, so I was wafted here by angels.
The world doesn’t really want poets to have a good time. You can have a wild time, sure, but you’ll have to pay. The old poets had consumption, syphilis, madness. We have residencies and laureateships and a shitload of grading papers. You’re pretty much expected to remain solitary, broke and troubled, doggedly making nothing happen on the fringes of society.
Take this example: in the early to mid-nineties, the British Council decided that the poetry of moi was just what various far-flung former colonies or enemies needed, and I had a run of wonderful trips: Germany, Sweden, Spain, Greece, India, Singapore, Japan etc. The sun never set on the British Council in those days. Travelling the world to marvellous places to have polite lunches with men from the British Council.
This all came abruptly to an end when a journalist from the Daily Telegraph phoned me up and asked me to go into some detail about how good a time we writers were having. Being a gentle, guileless soul, I told him a few things, saying basically what a good, generous, decent thing the British Council was blah blah blah disseminating culture blah blah blah hands across the sea blah blah blah.
Monday morning: WRITERS RUN WILD! POETS LIVE IT UP AT TAXPAYERS’ EXPENSE! The Conservative press, having helped to dismantle the unions, the NHS and manufacturing industry, were looking to see what was left – bingo, the British Council. Doesn’t earn anything, doesn’t pay its way, gives writers a good time, cut it to shreds. All they needed was a useful idiot. Anyway it was nice to be useful, nice for a poet to make something happen. A way of happening, a big mouth.
The only trip the British Council has ever invited me on since that day was to the Poetry Festival of Medellin, Colombia. It’s supposed to be a cracking good time but it’s also the murder capital of the world. I also turned down the Grand Sonnet Slam in Grozny and the Haiku Hootenanny in Helmand Province. I said you should ask Robin Robertson. My sin was simply admitting I was having fun being a poet.
So maybe that’s why it feels so right to be here: I feel I belong, and I feel I don’t deserve it. I feel like a freeloader in my own house. That’s how being a poet feels. It’s related to the central contradiction we face – how to step away from the world to write about the world? How to know what people are, when all the most precious moments of your work are silent and solitary?
The best expression of it anywhere has to be the opening to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ‘It is an Ancient Mariner/And he stoppeth one of three:/By thy long grey beard and glittering eye/Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?’
Why me, why am I the one who has to hear the story and miss out on the party? Weren’t we all, at some point in our lives, that one of three? And isn’t our first encounter with the unforgettable or ineffable in poetry – exactly that? – being singled out and stopped. Not going on to the party, out to the town, off to the airport. Stopping in the silence to hear a story. The old hand on your sleeve, the glittering eyes, I think all poets had that at some point, we were all the one of three. But I’ve often wondered what it was like for those other two guys.
Oi mate, is this old bloke bothering you? No. Are you sure? You want to listen to this old guy? But he’s like, ancient! Hey sir, our friend’s coming to a party with us, okay? The bridegroom’s doors are open wide, if you look, and he’s like next of kin? Also the guests are kind of met and the feast is like totally set and if you listen you can probably make out the merry din. They got like karaoke and shit. There was a what? Eh? A ship? Ri-ight… Come on, man, let’s get a drink, this old feller’s some kind of greybeard loon, let’s get to the party, they’ve got those little prawn things on toast, they got bellinis, they got vol-au-vents, come on, mate. You what? You want to listen to him? You serious? You’ll be along eftsoons? What the hell’s eftsoons? They got these little miniature bagels okay whatever. But don’t blame me if you rise a sadder and a wiser man the morrow morn. It’s your own fault. Let’s get plastered.
Anyway, tonight someone else is the one of three – maybe someone who heard you all reading last night. Maybe someone in that audience. And we’re all those other two guys who went on to the party. Tomorrow morn, eftsoons, we can get back to being sadder and wiser and finding true happiness alone with a notebook or a laptop and silence all around. In the meantime, I’d like very warmly to thank Scott and the committee for asking me to this beautiful and friendly city for the event, and I’d like to congratulate all the poets on the shortlist – I’d wish you all luck, but you’re poets, you already have as much luck as you can handle. Just don’t tell my daughter what a good time we’re all having.