Interviews

James Fenton, The Art of Poetry No. 96

Interviewed by Robyn Creswell

James Fenton has been a war reporter, an opera librettist, a prawn farmer, a theater critic, and Oxford Professor of Poetry. He has written books on Indochina, art history, and gardening, among other things. These disparate subjects go into his poetry, which is small in bulk but translates a remarkable range of experience.

Fenton was born in Lincoln, in northern England, in 1949. He attended the Chorister School, Durham, where he sang in the choir. He went on to read psychology, philosophy, and physiology at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1968, he won the university’s Newdigate Prize with a sequence of sonnets and haikus on the opening of Japan. The theme was set by the prize committee, but the history of Western imperialism in Asia became one of Fenton’s abiding interests (as did questions of poetic form). Five years later, having joined the Trotskyite International Socialists, Fenton used the prize money from another poetry award to go to Cambodia. He found work as a journalist, moved to Vietnam, and reported the fall of Saigon with evident satisfaction, famously riding the first North Vietnamese tank into the compound of the presidential palace.  

Fenton’s first two collections of mature work, The Memory of War (1982) and Children in Exile (1983), include many poems that look back on his time in Southeast Asia. Written at a remove of several years, they are more sorrowful than angry, dealing primarily with the aftermath of war and Fenton’s own second thoughts about it. The grim subject matter is conveyed in verses of formal elegance, even virtuosity. But war wasn’t Fenton’s only interest. The collections also include love poems, nonsense verse, and ballads. Reviewing these volumes in The New York Review of Books, Seamus Heaney contrasted them with the brooding, apocalyptic poetry of Ted Hughes and wrote that Fenton’s verse “reestablished the borders of a civil kingdom of letters where history and literature and the intimate affections would be allowed their say.” 

Fenton served as Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1994 to 1999. His lectures on modern English, Irish, and American poets were published as The Strength of Poetry (2001). During the same period, he began writing art criticism for The New York Review of Books, much of which is collected in Leonardo’s Nephew (1998). He has also written a short book on gardening, A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed (2001); a primer on English poetry, with especial attention to metrics, An Introduction to English Poetry (2002); and a history of the Royal Academy, School of Genius (2006).

Our conversation occurred in two parts. The first was a live interview at the New York Public Library this past spring. Fenton has the reputation of an accomplished reader, and during our conversation I asked him to recite aloud a pair of his own poems. Fenton’s voice is deep, his enunciation quick and deliberate, and his physical presence is imposing when he wants it to be. This gravitas is helped by the fact of his head, which has been evoked many times: Ian Parker, in a New Yorker profile, described it as “a boulder of a bald head.” Fenton’s friend Redmond O’Hanlon called it “an owl’s egg.” “Ah, that head!” Christopher Hitchens once rhapsodized. “It certainly did have the most domed and sapient appearance.” The readings also provided an object lesson, for Fenton is an outspoken believer in poetry as performance. It is, he once told me, an art of “the lips and the limbs.”  

The second part of the interview was conducted in Fenton’s new home in Harlem. This is one of the more romantic residences in New York City, an enormous nineteenth-century town house originally built for John Dwight, founder of Arm & Hammer. After World War II, a group of African American Jews converted the structure into a synagogue, etching Stars of David into the windows and filling the second-floor dining room with pews and a bimah. Today, it is both a ruin and a construction site. Fenton and his partner, Darryl Pinckney, live on a single floor—or, rather, camp out, storing their clothes in portable closets and showering at their respective gyms. Their plan is to restore as much of the original ornamentation as possible. Fenton’s previous house, a large farmstead outside Oxford, was famous for its sumptuous gardens. In Harlem, the flora is more discrete. Before our talk, he showed me where he had been scraping a wall that morning. Behind several layers of plaster, there was a vivid patch of blood-red, with hand-painted flowers in yellow and white. 

Robyn Creswell

 

INTERVIEWER

Recently you’ve been working on a playscript for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Can you say what it is?

FENTON

It’s my version of an old Chinese play, the first Chinese play to be translated in the West, called The Orphan of Zhao. There are a few eighteenth-century versions, including one by Voltaire. But it hasn’t been done for some time since. The idea of the RSC is to put it on as an example of the kind of thing that was going on in the theater in Shakespeare’s day, but well away from the Shakespeare tradition. The earliest version is what they call a set of arias, a series of texts sung by the actors. The music doesn’t survive, nor does the actual dialogue of the play. All we have are these monologues in which a character steps forth and explains what his predicament is.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the play about?

FENTON

It’s about destruction. The setting is the emperor’s court. There’s a high official who wants to eliminate one of the ministers and to destroy his whole clan as well. Not just the family, also the servants. A doctor is asked to save this minister’s newborn son. To do so, the doctor must sacrifice his own son, which indeed he does. The newborn grows up in the court of the official who has ordered his execution. When I was telling this story to someone the other day they said, to my surprise and delight, “It’s Argentina.” And it really is a story about someone adopted by the very people who killed his parents.

INTERVIEWER

The RSC is advertising it as the Chinese Hamlet.

FENTON

Well, it is a revenge play. The orphan character grows up not knowing who he is, not knowing that his stepfather destroyed his whole clan. But once he does know, he moves very quickly. He’s not like Hamlet in that respect. 

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to the play?

FENTON

Most of my projects with the RSC have ended in tears. I spent quite a lot of my life doing a version of Don Quixote for the RSC and nothing happened with it. I was drawn to this one by the man who’s directing Zhao—Greg Doran, now artistic director of the RSC, whose previous productions I’ve admired—and by the fact that it was already scheduled. We did a public reading of the play over spring break in Ann Arbor, where the RSC has a residency. I presented what I had done, which was half the play, and it seemed—strangely enough—to work. 

INTERVIEWER

How have you handled the language of the play?

FENTON

The language is very formal, not conversational, and I haven’t tried to loosen it up. When a character comes onstage, he says who he is. If he’s a main character, he says what’s on his mind. The dialogue follows from that. This way of presenting the characters is, of course, completely unlike realist drama. But it is dramatic. And the way it’s played is not formal—the actors play it for the emotions. In Ann Arbor, we had people in tears. Me, first of all.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you might read something aloud, one of the songs, perhaps “The Song of the General”? Would you set it up before you start?

FENTON

I should say that the songs are my own invention, they’re not in the Chinese. The first thing I did was to write a song that would kick off the story, then one to begin act 2, and then one to finish. “The Song of the General” is sung by a man named Wei Jiang, one of the good guys. He’s gone into a kind of self-imposed exile, because the court is so corrupt. He spends eighteen years on the border, and now a message comes to him that the emperor is dying. The general has a month to get from the edge of the kingdom back to the court, so he’s got to decide what to do. [Recites “The Song of the General,” see page 63.]

INTERVIEWER

It makes me think of all those laments by border guards one finds in classical Chinese poetry—Pound’s version of “Song of the Bowmen of Shu,” for example. When English readers think of classical Chinese poetry, most of us do think of the idiom Pound created in the translations in Cathay. It’s a spare, elegiac language—imagism, in a word. But your song doesn’t sound Poundian to me. Who were you hearing when you wrote it? 

FENTON

I was hearing a three-beat line. I was thinking, There will be a composer, and he’s got to be able to do something with this. The line goes, da da dum dum dum, da da dum dum dum. If the composer can’t do that, there’s something wrong with him. All the rest was instinctive. At Ann Arbor there was a sinologist who came to the rehearsed reading, and I asked him afterward whether he thought what I had done was in a plausible idiom. And he said, It’s very like a lot of things in The Book of Songs. At which point I thought, I must reread The Book of Songs. So I have been, in Arthur Waley’s translation, and was thrilled to find that I must have remembered something of it from a long time ago. 

I’m not very attracted to the scholarly, moon-over-the-mountains poetry. I’m more interested in the rich vein of “this is the military life” or “a catastrophe has passed across this land”—that kind of thing. There’s an incredibly old song mentioned in the introduction to The Book of Songs about somebody named Duke Mu, who has died and been buried. Each stanza begins, “Kio sings the oriole,” and then the oriole lights upon a certain kind of tree, which varies in each stanza. There’s also a different person in each stanza, and each one contains the line “Tu Fu”—or whatever his particular name happens to be—“shuddered when he entered the corridor of the duke’s tomb.” It goes on like this for several stanzas, each with a different name and the oriole landing in a different tree. The reason I find this poem so exciting is that it refers to an ancient custom from the time before the Xi’an tombs—so, right at the beginning of Chinese history—of people being strangled and put in the tomb with the dead ruler. 

But I also suddenly remembered a song from my childhood that used to be sung at children’s parties. It went, “Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up on high / We are only maidens and we shall surely die, / Excepting one, and her name is Anne.” Or, “And his name is John.” Then you go, “And O for shame, and fie for shame, / And turn your face to the wall again.” I can still hear my mother singing this song. There was a dance that went with it. Everyone went around in a circle and then somebody got caught and that was the one who survived. All the others died. Very strange thing to do at a children’s party. And clearly a very old piece of folklore. Then it occurred to me that Duke Mu’s song would have had music and a dance that went with it, too. We don’t have the dance, of course. Nor do we have the music. Chinese musical notation doesn’t go back that far. These are the earliest forms of literature, probably, in the world. 

INTERVIEWER

Song has an important place in your own poetry. In your Introduction to English Poetry you write, “Poetry itself begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised . . . The voice is raised, and that is where poetry begins.” What are the consequences for poetry when you think about it in this way?

FENTON

When I wrote that, I was probably thinking about my time in the rural Philippines. One of the advantages of running a prawn farm is that you meet interesting people. I knew this guy who was illiterate, but, probably by virtue of being illiterate, he had preserved the oral form of Filipino poetry, whose rules are quite complex. For example, the last word of the first line of a poem must rhyme with the penultimate syllable of the second. The whole poem is in couplets, of a sort. And this is an improvised poetry. If there was a drinking session and somebody important had arrived, this poet might be called on to ad-lib some appropriate words. The first thing he did was produce a special raised voice that went with his improvisation. It was a voice that could be heard at the back of the room. This is something that that kind of village bard has in common with the street vendor. I used a collard-green vendor’s chant in that Introduction to English Poetry

INTERVIEWER

A song that comes from Langston Hughes’s anthology, The Book of Negro Folklore.

FENTON

That’s right. You should have read what Alberto Manguel wrote about that. He thought it was ridiculous for someone seriously interested in poetry to consider a street vendor’s song. But to me, the idea that you need to do something to produce your voice, that you need to do something to heighten your language, to distinguish the activity that you’re taking part in from daily conversation—that’s basic to poetry. 

There’s a connection here with translating opera. I worked on a libretto for Rigoletto, the gangster Rigoletto that Jonathan Miller brought to New York in 1982. While I was working on the libretto, Mark Elder, then musical director of the English National Opera, told me that if you want to know whether a thing is going to sing well, try shouting it out. If it shouts well, it will probably sing well. That is very good advice, because it’s hard to translate something for the operatic voice. An opera singer is going to be extremely picky about what vowels go on what notes, so you try your best to imitate the vowel pattern of the original. It’s a thankless task—and fortunately now it’s a pointless one because of surtitles. But it made me think about the question of the sung word. 

INTERVIEWER

You say that the raised voice, the sung word, is essential to poetry. On the other hand, there’s a long tradition that says otherwise. John Stuart Mill thought that lyric poetry is not heard, but overheard. The reader listens in on the poet talking to himself. That’s Mill’s definition of the lyric—not a raised voice, but a private one. 

FENTON

I wonder what exactly he was thinking of. Because lyric poetry is, of course, musical in origin. I do know that what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page. When it’s a question of typography, why not? Poets have done beautiful things with typography—Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, that sort of thing. But now we are left with people who write only for the page, who feel that a poem is something very far from performance. I spent a short but revealing time years ago teaching poetry to adults in Minneapolis. I would ask them, What do you think you’re writing for? Are you writing to read aloud, or are you writing for the page? They all thought they were writing for the page. They thought there was something wrong if you were aiming in another direction. As part of the program, we went around to places in Minnesota and did poetry readings. I had some poems that were real performance pieces, so I would do those, and I watched this group changing their mind. At the end of the program, I told them, Do yourself the favor, write something you can perform. Don’t write everything for the page. If you are going to do a poetry reading, write something you can put across to an audience. I could see it dawning on them that there was a payoff—people like to hear poems written with the idea of performance in mind.

INTERVIEWER

You’re talking about a kind of poem that needs a supplement for it to work, an enactment or some sort of musical setting. 

FENTON

An aria in an opera—Handel’s “Ombra mai fu,” for example—gets along with an incredibly small number of words and ideas and a large amount of variation and repetition. That’s the beauty of it. It’s not taxing to the listener’s intelligence because if you haven’t heard it the first time round, it’ll come around again. I always think listening to Handel operas is a bit like seeing your luggage on the carousel—Oh no, there goes my bag! And then, Oh good, here it comes again. At the other extreme, a cabaret song has got to be written—for the middle voice, ideally—because you’ve got to hear the wit of the words. And a cabaret song gives the singer room to act, more even than an opera singer. So there are extremes within the genre. But I think it’s no shame for a poet to think of what performance involves and even to write something that’s beyond his capacity as a performer. When poets do readings, they benefit from the charitable nature of the audience. There’s a certain amateurishness allowed. A couple of years ago, I did Poulenc’s “Babar the Elephant,” a piece for piano and spoken voice, for a little concert in London. I thought I’d practiced it enough, but when I got to a dress rehearsal I realized I had to go away quite sharpish and really rehearse, because I wasn’t word-perfect on the beat. That kind of thing requires a much greater degree of professionalism and accuracy. But for most occasions, you could start by remembering that you mustn’t mutter, that you mustn’t drop your papers all over the place—things one sees at poetry readings all the time. People giving a kind of assertive display of incompetence.

INTERVIEWER

Practically speaking, how do you go about writing a poem you know is going to be set to song, versus a poem that will stand nakedly on the page?

FENTON

If you’re writing a song, you have to write something that can be understood serially. When you’re reading a poem that’s written for the page, your eye can skip up and down. You can see the thing whole. But you’re not going to see the thing whole in the song. You’re going to hear it in series, and you can’t skip back. So it has to have a degree of comprehensibility. At least to the point where, if the thing is mysterious, you understand what the terms of mystery are. The other thing you have to pay particular attention to with songwriting, which is not bad to pay attention to anyway, is not to write unintentional tongue twisters. A song has to flow off the tongue. And you can tell when people haven’t done that, because it becomes difficult for a composer to set. If you’re aiming the poem in the direction of music, you must be very kind to the singer.

INTERVIEWER

We were just talking about the border-guard laments we find in old Chinese poetry, and I remember that Auden also has a poem in this vein—his “Roman Wall Blues,” from Twelve Songs. “Over the heather the wet wind blows, / I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose. // The rain comes pattering out of the sky, / I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.” I know this is a series you admire, and I wonder if Auden’s attraction for you, as a younger poet, had to do with his interest in song.

FENTON

Not initially, actually. I loved Auden’s poetry for many reasons, but when I was an undergraduate starting to write poetry, the thing I loved most was the Auden of “In Praise of Limestone.” I liked the long lines, the prosy grammar. This is a different part of Auden’s project, the sort of poetry that could accommodate all the words that attracted him to prose—the scientific words and so on—in a way that the more traditional meters couldn’t. My first copy of Auden was a Penguin Selected Poems. I don’t know that I still have it, but most likely there would be, along the table of contents, a series of dots in black ink, and those dots would mean, I think I get this one, and I like it. 

INTERVIEWER

Early Auden can be inscrutable.

FENTON

Yes, but then with later Auden I didn’t get all the references, and I still often have to look stuff up. When John Fuller was my tutor at Oxford, he was working on his Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden. That work has gone on ever since, with people like Nick Jenkins, who have just found out amazing amounts about what lies behind the poems.

INTERVIEWER

Did that open up Auden to you more, getting the references? Because this seems to be one of the themes of your criticism—the question of references. I’m thinking in particular about your severe review of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems in The New York Review of Books. 

FENTON

I think there are two completely different approaches. In the case of Wallace Stevens, for example, it never occurred to me that the things he names in the poems had real references. That never occurred to me at all, because the world of his poetry is an imagined world. But in the case of Auden, you did want to know what he was talking about. There was one case where I told John Fuller I was going to stay in Kirchstetten, Auden’s home in Austria, during a summer holiday. And Fuller said, “If you see Auden, can you please ask him, What does ‘Coghlan’s coffin’ refer to?” There’s a line in The Dog Beneath the Skin that goes, “Lands on the beaches of his love, like Coghlan’s coffin.” So I went to Kirchstetten and when the moment seemed appropriate, I asked Auden. He couldn’t remember the line, nor could he remember the reference. He drew a complete blank. Years later, in the Auden Newsletter, somebody explained it. There was a story that appeared in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! about a man who was interred in a cemetery in Texas and who was washed away in his coffin during a hurricane. Yet somehow this coffin, Coghlan’s coffin, traveled some two thousand miles to Prince Edward Island, where he had once lived. Auden had read about it somewhere and put it in the poem. So in that case there was an answer. 

INTERVIEWER

And Lowell?

FENTON

I used to think that with Lowell there wasn’t always a reference. In the course of writing that review, I described the pope with a canary on his finger in “Beyond the Alps” as a kind of surrealist detail. My editor, Bob Silvers, said, “I don’t believe it. There is an answer to this.” As it happened, I had a book about that particular pope, and amazingly enough there was a photograph of the canary, his pet canary, perched on his finger. It was something Lowell had perhaps seen in the newspapers. 

INTERVIEWER

But Lowell’s poetry seems full of real social detail, not at all like Stevens’s.

FENTON

Full of real social detail, but I also thought that, at times, Lowell just sort of—how can we say it—free-associated. To take another instance from “Beyond the Alps,” the closing couplet reads, “Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up / Like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.” Why is Paris a black classic, and why is it breaking up? Some readers I know have suggested the allusion is to Baudelaire. But again, why? Because he wore black and has become a classic? The phrase resists interpretation. It’s the same with “killer kings.” Darryl asked Elizabeth Hardwick about that line and she said, “Well, ‘killer kings’—you either get it or you don’t.” I suspect rather a lot of Lowell’s poetry works that way. Certainly the annotator of that edition didn’t think such details were worth tracking down, because he didn’t do the work.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the poems from The Memory of War and Children in Exile are based on the political journalism you did in the seventies in Southeast Asia. You were in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge was about to capture the city, and you were in Saigon when the North Vietnamese took it. In All the Wrong Places, you say you went to the region in 1973 as an “International Socialist.” You supported the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese because they were movements of national liberation. What are some of the lessons you took away from seeing and supporting those movements, and then hearing about the aftermath?

FENTON

Those are two very different stories. What was called the Viet Cong was actually two organizations—the North Vietnamese, who were a state and had a developed communist party, and the Viet Cong proper, who were to a large extent an autochthonous liberation movement. But the whole thing counted as a national liberation movement, because there was only one core country called Vietnam. As far as the North Vietnamese were concerned, what we said during the war was, We know they are Stalinists, but this is their country and they are the movement of national liberation. And in the long term, what’s happened in Vietnam is that the independence of the country has been established. What began as a colonial war has ended. So I don’t think it’s been a catastrophe. 

In Cambodia, the situation and result were horribly different. There, the eventual outcome was not foreseen by me until the last months, when I began to go into the country. As journalists, we were always trying to find people who had lived under the Khmer Rouge, but we could never find them. All the cities were under siege. Once you got out of the city, you would very soon be in Khmer Rouge territory, but then you wouldn’t be allowed in. I talked to some Cambodians in refugee camps in Vietnam and got quite a consistent picture from them. I reported it in The Washington Post, and it was criticized by some of my friends. People said, Oh, refugees are notorious, they were asking for your help and spinning a line. But they weren’t spinning a line—they were telling the truth. 

One thing that saved us from making worse mistakes was having a concept of a patron saint, under whose auspices you worked. This was the Orwell of Homage to Catalonia. To me and my political friends and allies, there was no justification for making things up or for failing to look unpleasant facts in the eye. Now, it’s easy to say that those of us who supported such liberation movements were ripe for a massive disillusionment. Certainly in the case of the Khmer Rouge that was true. They brought unprecedented destruction on their own country.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you would read a poem called “Cambodia” from The Memory of War.

FENTON

Of course. 

 

One man shall smile one day and say goodbye. 

Two shall be left, two shall be left to die. 

One man shall give his best advice. 

Three men shall pay the price. 

 

One man shall live, live to regret. 

Four men shall meet the debt. 

 

One man shall wake from terror to his bed. 

Five men shall be dead. 

 

One man to five. A million men to one. 

And still they die. And still the war goes on. 

INTERVIEWER

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that “the one” in that poem—the one who gives advice and lives to regret and wakes in terror—is you, is the poet. And I wonder to what extent the experience of Cambodia has stayed with you, because while reading The Orphan of Zhao, and now, hearing you talk about it, it strikes me that that play is in some sense about genocide. An entire clan gets killed, although the orphan escapes.

FENTON

I thought about Cambodia quite consciously. There is a scene in which the doctor brings home the orphan baby he’s been entrusted with by the princess. The doctor’s wife is horrified, because she knows that to save the prince she will have to give up her own son. This scene is not in the original. I wrote it thinking about the mothers I knew and learned about in Cambodia, about the absolute priority a woman would have, in that situation, of saving her own child. It’s a very clear-sighted and long-sighted view women have. When refugees are fleeing some terrific disaster, you would think that the mother’s instinct is to keep the family together. But in fact the mother’s instinct is to split up the family for its own survival. If the daughter goes to Paris and the brother goes to San Francisco, that’s good. So anybody who thinks about adopting a child from a war zone, watch out. You’re never going to be told the truth about whether these children are orphans, and they’re often not orphans. 

My late beloved friend Christopher Hitchens and I differed over Cambodia. For me, Cambodia was the political experience that served as a template for all my later ones. It’s Cambodia that has made me an advocate of nonintervention. Great powers, I think, should avoid driving a people mad, as happened with the Khmer Rouge. Christopher’s determining experience—this is my theory—was Cyprus. The Turks invaded in 1974 and the British didn’t intervene, though they were obliged by a treaty to do so. And so Cyprus was divided, with consequences that are with us still today. Now, whether that made Christopher an interventionist, it certainly brought out the interventionist in him. Again, at the time of the Falklands War, I was against the intervention. I didn’t think it was any of our business to be running colonial possessions on the other side of the world. To Christopher, it was about time somebody stood up to General Galtieri.

INTERVIEWER

And of course Hitchens later went on to support the intervention—though it was more than an intervention—in Iraq.

FENTON

Yes, and he must in a way have been an interventionist all along. Emotionally, it was probably something to do with his naval background. But that’s the way people go. They have a powerful experience and they use it to interpret, rightly or wrongly, what happens later in the rest of the world.

INTERVIEWER

In 1986 you were in Manila to witness the downfall of Marcos. You wrote a long piece for Granta about it, “The Snap Revolution.” Benedict Anderson, in The New Left Review, called it a piece of “political tourism.” Was that fair?

FENTON

I had been in Indochina in the seventies for eighteen months—that’s quite a long phase of tourism. In the case of Manila, I was there for three weeks and I saw these, to me, extraordinary events. Bill Buford, then editor at Granta, kept the magazine open for me to fill. The piece took me about three weeks to write. I sent it in bit by bit and then it was all put together. That was an utterly extraordinary, wonderful opportunity to have. The piece emerged entirely from those three weeks. I just used what I had.

INTERVIEWER

It was diaristic.

FENTON

And I didn’t try to hide that. I say, I went to this place that was new to me and here is what happened, here are the friends I made, and here is what I saw. So it looked to Anderson like tourism. But I went back to the Philippines and stayed there for three years. I covered not only the revolution on the streets, but the guerilla war in the countryside. I knew about as much as most foreigners knew about the communist underground. I knew the rank and file and I knew some leaders, too. I wasn’t a tourist. 

INTERVIEWER

Was it during that later stay that you set up your prawn farm?

FENTON

Yes. The idea was to set up a kind of agricultural cooperative with a fish-pond element to it. This was on the other side of the island from Manila, in a remote part of Luzon. Some friends wanted to buy a seemingly rather cheap prawn farm. So we did and then we found out why it was cheap. We couldn’t make a go of it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any prior experience in prawn farming that led you to believe you might have success in this venture?

FENTON

No, you learn as you go. Essentially prawn farming comes in two forms, intensive and extensive. Intensive is what you get in places like Taiwan, where there is limited space. They have it down to a fine art—cement-lined small ponds, artificial feed, and so on. In the extensive forms, you have a big pond in the middle of mangrove swamps. You don’t have to use artificial feeds. You use natural products to make forms of algae, which the prawn eat. It involves a lot of pig shit, basically. Give your prawns a bag of pig shit, and they’ll be very happy. Our farm lasted a few years.

INTERVIEWER

Did you make a lot of money?

FENTON

We lost a huge amount, but it was worth losing. This was around the time I wrote “The Milkfish Gatherers,” which is about fish farming on the Luzon coast. The people in the poem are gathering the fry for the fishpond owners. That’s a kind of fish called bangus, or milkfish, which is the equivalent of trout.

The prawn farm is also where I met that poet whom I mentioned, the improviser of oral forms. He was a local beach bum really, and at one stage he was an employee of mine.

INTERVIEWER

Was it that encounter with oral folk poetry that was behind your “Manila Manifesto,” your polemic in verse against poetry written for the page? 

FENTON

Some of the people I knew in Manila were ex-students who had come from other parts of the country, as most people in Manila had. But they’d got an education, and they had literary leanings, and some of them wanted to be poets. During the three years I was in the Philippines, I learned that one large problem these people had was that they were completely cut off from their own sources of poetic form and poetic language. They couldn’t do the kind of things my friend, the illiterate peasant beach bum, could do. They couldn’t improvise and they didn’t want to write poetry in Tagalog, the dominant language. Tagalog might even have been their second language. Their first was often Ilocano, a minority language with even fewer readers. So they were doubly alienated from the language in which they might write poetry. 

INTERVIEWER

Was part of the problem that they felt these more traditional oral forms didn’t allow them to make poetry about contemporary life?

FENTON

Absolutely. And they didn’t feel there was an audience for it. They felt that where things really mattered was in English, and that the real poetry was in Iowa. If they got to Iowa, they would find it. What comes across now as the anti-Americanism of the “Manifesto” is the result of my attacking this colonized attitude of theirs. Another problem was that they didn’t believe there was any point in self-publishing. But we self-published the “Manifesto” and the book that went with it, and they were involved in that.

INTERVIEWER

How did you publish it?

FENTON

It was an envelope of thick manila paper with an illustration on the outside. The manifesto was inside, along with a poster and a book of poems. We announced it in The Times Literary Supplement, orders came in, and we sent the thing out. The idea was to show these poets that self-publishing was quite a good idea if you were a poet, because it’s doable. And it’s better not to sit and let the resentments grow just because you’re not being published by a big American house. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you imagine the audience for the “Manifesto”? It was eventually published in the London Review of Books, but was the real audience Filipino poets?

FENTON

Only a Filipino poet would understand the whole thing, of course, because the first bit is in a very old form of Tagalog. I think it would leave most people scratching their heads, but probably few Filipinos even would understand the whole.

INTERVIEWER

It was a bottle thrown into the ocean.

FENTON

Yes, it was completely irresponsible.

INTERVIEWER

It was a call for recklessness. You write, “So you despise my fecklessness? / I pity your lack of recklessness. / This is the new fearlessness. / That is the old earlessness.”

FENTON

What I had got from my teaching experience in the Midwest was a feeling for the enormous pressure on people in the poetry world to conform to an entirely negatively defined notion of poetry. It doesn’t rhyme, it doesn’t have any rhythm one might detect, and it isn’t written for the ear but rather the page. It seemed denatured. These poets had forgotten the lips and the limbs, the dance, the whole bodily element—that had been banished. The “Manifesto” was a piece of devil-may-care. It was actually anti-Iowa rather than anti-American.

INTERVIEWER

You had already done something similar, in terms of publishing, with your brother Tom’s Salamander Press. What was the history of that enterprise?

FENTON

When I was at Oxford as an undergraduate, John Fuller had a house with two garages, one of which he used for a press called the Sycamore Press. He started by publishing poetry. The first full pamphlet he did was my Newdigate Prize poem, Our Western Furniture. It was a real piece of self-publishing, of the old letterpress kind. I helped a little with typesetting. Ten years later, my brother got interested. Tom had moved to Edinburgh and had a garage he wasn’t using and he thought he would like to print things. He was particularly interested in printing design and the old traditional ornaments—printer’s flowers, they’re called. So he started a press. My first book, Terminal Moraine, had been published by Secker & Warburg in 1972 and subsequently remaindered. We located what we could of the stock and bought it up. Then we put up the price from twenty pence to two pounds and sold it all, mostly at readings, and the money we made on that went into the founding of the Salamander Press. 

We did a pamphlet called A German Requiem, and then we did two small books, The Memory of War and Children in Exile. The idea was to pioneer a new approach to poetry publishing. At that time, publishers had given up on what used to be the natural form for poetry, which was hardback. So we thought, Why don’t we publish nice editions as the first form in which the book appears? With these hardback editions, we’d get the reviews. If that works, you’d hand them over to paperbacks. But instead of the trade paperbacks common at the time, you’d go to a real mass-paperback firm like Penguin. That’s the way I was published until quite recently. So we demonstrated that this way of doing things was possible. 

The “Manila Manifesto” was just the third incarnation, after the Sycamore Press and the Salamander Press. It was something we did for fun.

INTERVIEWER

Was part of the attraction of self-publishing that you could pay attention to details of typography and the handmade quality of the books in a way you wouldn’t have been able to if you were publishing with a large press? 

FENTON

Yes, but it was also about taking control of your destiny. It was essentially to say that if a poetry publisher is a big firm but can only sell five hundred copies, then there’s a disadvantage of being with a big firm. Why not just publish it yourself? You’ll have something to sell at poetry readings and you’ll have some stock, which you can give to your friends or send out to the copyright libraries. All of this was before the Internet. Today, it’s a completely different set of circumstances. But the same questions are still relevant. How do I produce my work? Who gets to read it?

INTERVIEWER

After the Philippines, you mostly kept away from political hot spots. Was that a conscious decision you made, to stop living that kind of life? Or were you disillusioned by the outcomes of the revolutions you witnessed?

FENTON

I was in Indochina from ’73 to ’75, and at the end of that time I had a very strong sense that people involved in this kind of work can find it addictive. They feel they’re only really living if they’re in a place where bombs are going off and there’s gunfighting. When Indochina fell to the three communist regimes, journalists could go to Thailand. But if you were based in Bangkok, then you weren’t in the place you were probably writing about. Thai politics were pretty boring. So people went off looking for the next place. Some of them went to Lebanon and found what they were looking for.

INTERVIEWER

A terrible war.

FENTON

A terrible war, and French food. I was very aware of the danger of doing that, so I decided to stop. I went back to England and did something completely different, which was political journalism. I covered the House of Commons. Then I went to Germany, specifically in order to report on a country that wasn’t going to appeal to the adventure seeker. A long time later, The New York Review asked me to do a piece about famine in Africa. I went to Mali and Ethiopia and I liked working in that way again. Then, after the Marcos piece, from ’86 to ’89, I worked for The Independent, which had just been founded. At the time, English newspapers were cutting back on their foreign pages. For a brief, heroic period, The Independent forced the others to up their game. I was asked to join and I said I would, if I could go out East. I was interested to see how Cory Aquino, who had come to power as the democratically elected opponent of the dictatorship, would wind up the insurgents. I thought she did pretty well. I was not disappointed in the outcome by any means. 

INTERVIEWER

The Orphan of Zhao isn’t the only thing you’ve been working on recently. You’ve also been researching a book about “life writing.” 

FENTON

Yes, it’s a book about the various genres of autobiography and biography. I’m not so interested in the canonical works, Froude’s Life of Carlyle or Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, say. I’m looking at odd things like ships’ logs and explorers’ accounts of their journeys. These, too, are forms of accounting for what happens in a life, for what one did on a particular day. If you were a mariner of limited education, you might nevertheless know exactly where you were on a given date because you had kept this log, which recorded the incidents on board—who had died when, that sort of thing. It was a form of autobiographical endeavor. Take the log Columbus presented to Ferdinand and Isabella. His contract with the crown was, If I succeed on this journey, if I succeed in finding these lands, I get to be governor of them all. That was the deal, and to remind them of it, he provides them with an account of what he did. Once you include these sorts of documents in the genre, you begin to understand it in a different way. My interest in the subject proceeded from there. I began to be interested in questions such as, When was it that biographers first included examples of behavior which were not to the credit of their subjects? Bad behavior, or else just realistic behavior.

INTERVIEWER

So “life writing” is a more capacious genre than biography in the strict sense.

FENTON

Biography in the strict sense is a recent invention. In fact, it’s an idea that’s bound up with the history of Bloomsbury. Normally it’s thought that Lytton Strachey revolutionized biography by writing Eminent Victorians, producing a satirical take on his subjects and that sort of thing. At the same time, a canon was created, which was centered on Boswell. Looking through this canon, I could see there were lots of things I had come across, very interesting things, that were just not mentioned. Things from the nineteenth century, for example, which Bloomsbury just wasn’t interested in. One book I love very much is Nollekens and his times, by J. T. Smith. It’s an account of a sculptor’s life that reads very much like Dickens, to the point where one wonders if Dickens didn’t read it as a young man. It’s been overlooked, I suspect, because bibliographies of artists tended to be about literary figures rather than sculptors and painters. But there is also much older stuff. Life writing goes back a long time, and there’s more of it than people imagine. It wasn’t invented by Lytton Strachey or Boswell. We have fictional autobiography from the age of Gilgamesh. It’s what is written on the monuments of rulers—I slew the such and such people, I did this, I did that. It’s incredibly old as a form. 

INTERVIEWER

Your art criticism is very concerned with the biographies of painters and sculptors, and your poetry criticism, too. What’s the attraction of biography to you? Is it a matter of knowing the references?

FENTON

Well, take my essay, which later became a lecture when I was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on Marianne Moore. The biographical approach does something important in her case. One day, a real biography will be published, and we’re going to have a new insight into Moore as a result. But even with the existing biography and other sources I had, I could see there was a way of looking at her in a different way, a way that wasn’t overly influenced by what she became. We have an idea of this dotty old lady with enormous hats going to baseball games. That’s what she became, and she did a lot of acting up to this legend, in part self-created. What she had been at the beginning was very different. You’re looking at a young woman who taught at the Carlisle Indian School, a modernist who took seriously art being produced in different forms, who had been keen on photography and the world of galleries. Knowing these things imposed a fresh discipline when looking at the poems. And then the way her poems were organized in the old collected edition concealed the way they had originally come out. The old Collected Poems kicks off with her most recent work and it goes back to older stuff. You can see why it was done, but if you look at the development of the poet, you see something different. 

My lectures at Oxford that year were about Moore, Bishop, and Plath. The three lectures turned into a look at three women over a period of history and their attitude toward being poets. The kind of feminist that Marianne Moore was—she really was a feminist of her generation—meant that she did what had previously been thought of as a man’s job, and she asserted her right to do it. It was the same with Bishop. She’s not putting her womanhood into the poetry, she’s asserting her right to operate in this area on equal terms with men. When you get to Plath, you find a very different attitude than with Bishop and Moore. She thinks of herself as a poetess—it’s what she does as a woman. Plath and Sexton and Adrienne Rich didn’t have to keep saying, I’m going to move in, and my being a woman is neither here nor there. Now they had to say, I’m a woman and my being a woman is a centrally important fact as far as writing poetry is concerned. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently moved to Harlem, to this wonderful town house that is, for the moment, more campsite than home. But you enjoy having a fixer-upper. 

FENTON

Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about all the things you’ve written, your little book on gardens, your interest in song, your work in garage presses, it strikes me that there’s a domestic quality to a lot of it—small-scale work, an interest in the details of things. Is domesticity something you’ve always taken pleasure in?

FENTON

I recently read a book called The Poetic Home—I wrote a piece about it, too—which was about American interiors in the nineteenth century. In this idiom, the designers were interested in producing an atmosphere: the idea was not just to have brightly lit rooms, it was to produce something that had a rich decorative quality. So in nineteenth-century houses you get paneling at the bottom of the walls and a frieze at the top, like the one I found in our oval room. These friezes were painted, often freehand—daisies and ribbons and so on. The top half of the wall was a very important part of the wall for them. They were also interested in patterned ceilings. You still see this in Harlem houses, which have often retained their interiors because nobody had the money to change them. These ceilings reflect the idea that there should be something heavy and protective and well constructed above your head. A ceiling should be comforting. This is a feeling that’s been completely lost, but it was articulated at the time. The conventional white ceiling that I grew up with was not always the norm. In this house, I’ve noticed that the cornices weren’t white. Where I can find the original paint, I find dark colors. And the wood was also dark. Later on, there was a generation of writers—it really began with Edith Wharton—who preached against these nineteenth-century ideas. They said, That’s too much, that’s too heavy. They were visionaries, but their attitude is not the only one imaginable. They threw out a whole poetic attitude toward the interior. 

INTERVIEWER

What was it that they threw out, exactly?

FENTON

They removed the stoops off the front of the house, for example, so that you entered by the servants’ entrance. It was a mean entrance, but without the stoop they could have a room on the second floor that went across the whole width of the house. They also lightened up the palette and minimized wall decoration so that you didn’t have heavy design elements. Gradually this way of thinking about interiors won out. It produced the style of industrial abstraction. What’s conventional wisdom now is that it’s good to buy a town house in Manhattan with original features: cornices and fireplaces and so on. And if you have those original features, then you must paint everything white and have minimalist furniture so that you foreground your cornices. You’re actually bringing the aesthetic of the loft into these houses. The aesthetic of the loft is the most powerful aesthetic around, but it’s completely inappropriate for this kind of house, which is all to do with wealth of ornamental detail. And so the project we have in this house is to restore, where possible, the missing decorative elements. To make an interior sympathetic to the original plan, one that was doesn’t say, Ornament is crime, ornament is crime, ornament is crime—oh, here’s a cornice—ornament is crime, ornament is crime. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve lived in a lot of places—do you think you’re going to stay in Harlem?

FENTON

Yes, I do. If fortune smiles on me. 

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that it already has. 

FENTON

Yes, it has. It very much has.