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OUTSIDE THE COTERIES: The Stephen Knight Interview
(first published in Planet 146, April/May 2001)
SK: This is very bizarre, interviewing a former teacher. You taught me art in secondary school. In the early Seventies.
AP: I remember that. I can see one of the pictures you did now. A sci-fi picture: three spacemen with ray guns. I used to show it to other classes as a kind of visual aid - for years - until it eventually disintegrated.
SK: One memory I have is of pestering you - you sent me away to finish a picture but I came back too early, and you were working. Were you writing poetry at that time?
AP: Probably. You must have interrupted a very important composition. I should have given you lines!
SK: 'Characters' appeared in 1969, 'Live Wires' in 1970 and 'Fires on the Common' in 1975. I remember going to the library for them. Were you doing more poetry than stories and painting then? Or were you doing all three at the same time?
AP: No. I was writing mostly poetry until about 1980. I did another collection after 'Fires on the Common' - which I couldn't get a publisher for - called 'Winter Bathing'.
SK: You did that with Castaway, your own press.
AP: Half of it, yes. I started writing short stories in 1976-7, and Tony Curtis brought the first ones out with Edge Press. That was 'Road Up and Other Stories.' Then the following year, I did another four.
SK: So there was an overlap?
AP: There was, now I come to think about it, yes. I'd got into a rut writing lyrics and needed a wider canvas. I was repeating myself with the lyric.
SK: Is that a bad thing?
AP: For R.S. Thomas it isn't!
SK: (laughs) So, at that point you weren't producing so much visual work?
AP: I was always painting, but in stints. I wouldn't be painting and writing over a period. Might be months at a time doing one or the other, and generally working in series.
SK: A group of poems focused on a similar theme?
AP: Or subject, yes. The workman poems in 'Characters' were a series.
SK: When do you switch from the visual to the verbal? There's a lot of overlap and recurring motifs, like the lighthouse. It's very atmospheric. A sense of Swansea seeps through everything. I wonder how the mind works, when you suddenly click over and think "This must be a painting".
AP: In a way, I think of the paintings as poems, rather than, say, the poems as paintings. Close to being illustrations, but not too close. They're the result of playing around with colour and form rather than words, but the imagery is often common to both.
SK: You've used elements of the comic strip.
AP: Yes. I've experimented with different ways of putting across ideas, both visual and verbal. Perhaps I'm really a frustrated film-maker.
SK: This is a constant theme through the work, isn't it? You're always experimenting. You use found material, you conduct interviews, you write stories, radio play, journals, poetry. There's a restlessness, and that's maybe what drives you.
AP: Yes. I think there are two sorts of artists. There's the kind like Lowry, for instance, or Van Gogh, whose styles are always recognisable, and they develop within those styles. And then you've got people like Picasso or Duchamp. A roomful of Picassos can seem like the work of a lot of different people. But there are links; there's a development. The style of my paintings since about '85 has been in distinct phases: strip-cartoon images, illustrative, expressionistic. With the same characters and settings constantly reappearing - as they do in the stories.
SK: When you started out - you trained in Art College - were you a painter who found poetry? Or did you always want to write, and found painting afterwards?
AP: I started off doing a bit of both. Then I went to grammar school and wanted to do art in the sixth form. But my mother had overly-optimistic hopes of me going to Oxford, for which you needed Latin. It was a choice between the two, and I took Latin. I contributed stories and poems to the Bishop Gore school magazine in my fifth year and then became editor for two. My brother was in Swansea College of Art, and I was always interested in what he was doing. So when I got turned down by Swansea University to do English, I kind of drifted into Art College. It's something I've never regretted. After all, I met my future wife there, and when you're painting as a student you're actually doing the creative bit, whereas, in those days there was no such thing as creative writing courses.
SK: What were you reading when you started writing poetry. Welsh writers?
AP: Some, yes. I had 'The Faber Book of Modern Welsh Poetry' and Faber's 'Introducing Modern Poetry'. I bought those pretty early on. I'd already read all of Dylan Thomas's work in the school library, but other writers in those books who caught my eye were Alun Lewis, in particular, and Muir and MacNeice.
SK: Dylan Thomas is someone we have to deal with, both coming from Swansea, but you were right in the wake of him. What was that like? You've written a skit on the Thomas industry, "Dillwyn Lomax Slept Here", and a story "In Search of DT in the Big A", but what did you set out to do, knowing he was an overbearing presence?
AP: Like a lot of other people, I tried to copy him. But he was a bad poet to be influenced by because his style was so unique. You couldn't mistake a Dylan Thomas poem. And mine were all bad parodies.
SK: But by the time you published 'Characters', there's no real evidence.
AP: By then, his prose was having more of an influence on me. And I'd also read most of Frost and Edward Thomas and all of Wilfred Owen. When I wrote some of the poems in 'Characters', I was aware of the parallel image of the trench - the men isolated and digging - although in an entirely different context. There are references in that book to Landore being "a poor man's Somme" and a "rainswept, silent Passchendaele."
SK: And this experience dates from your art-student days?
AP: They were all vacation jobs. I made that plain in the poems. They were written from the point of view of a student.
SK: That's an interesting thing about the early work. Your gaze is turned outward. You're marginal in your own poems, with the characters in the foreground. Then, as you develop, the work explores the marital home, particularly when you start the stories. You have a character called Alvin Perkins, and I presume it's no accident that he's got the same initials as you.
AP: I took the name from a friend in Art College, who was in the same year as me. I didn't want to represent me wholly, so it's just about half me. It gets me into trouble sometimes.
SK: With your family?
AP: (laughs) Particularly with my family. It can be a bit dodgy. I change things. I exaggerate. Perhaps I should put it on record here and now and say the fictional Perkins is a lot stupider than me, and my friends and relatives are even nicer than his are.
SK: You can tell they're not straight autobiography. But aren't you flirting with the reader, asking "Is it me? How much is me?" Isn't that part of the dynamic?
AP: In fifty years time I hope it won't matter who the characters are based on. At one point, in an effort to cover my traces, I tried using a device that we'd talked about once: the unreliable narrator. But it didn't really work. The first person "I" made the stories sound far too chatty and I wanted Perkins to be a more remote figure who actually didn't communicate too well. It took me ages to change all the "I"s back to "he"s.
SK: A lot of the stories have the feel of prose poems, and I wonder why they became stories. With very little tweaking, they could be poems.
AP: Some of the stories do have their equivalents in poems: a story called "Renovations", for instance, and a poem of the same name. Both describe an identical experience but in different ways. I'm not sure which works best. The line between my prose and poetry is becoming more and more blurred. I may end up just writing longer poems.
SK: You felt you were treading water in terms of the lyric. Was there a sense of deficiency with the lyric and what you could do with it?
AP: I wasn't improving with the lyric. I couldn't write narrative poems but I liked writing dialogue, so I suppose prose was the natural option.
SK: You're hard on the poems for being repetitive, but there's a development through the collections. They become more personal. In 'Winter Bathing' - which is my favourite perhaps because it reminds me of my childhood on Gower beaches - they seem to be loosening up, in terms of what they allow in. Then you shut the door on that. Well, not shut the door, but decide you will best explore that material in another medium.
AP: In a sense it's come full circle now. At the moment I'm revising the stories, but this last week I've started writing poems again. It's partly your fault for showing an interest in the poetry! I've written five poems in five days, which I feel are an extension of what I was doing before - and allowing more in, as you say. It may be the start of a new phase of writing poetry, I don't know.
SK When you began disseminating your work through Castaway Press, was that purely a pragmatic decision? When you gave me the work to look at, what struck me was that it's so scattered. I began to wonder whether you actually liked doing it like that because so much of your work considers fragmentation.
AP: It's a safety net in a way. I was bringing out little groups of stories as booklets and maybe I had in mind that these weren't going to be the final versions, and I would eventually collect them all together in some sort of sequence in a revised form. I was trying them out, really. But also proving to myself that I hadn't submerged without trace, even if I was only doing limited editions of maybe thirty or forty copies each time. I was earmarking who they were sent to.
SK: This is a tradition going back hundreds of years, isn't it?
AP: Blake did the same thing, and Tolstoy even, so I'm not too ashamed of resorting to it.
SK: But in the contemporary climate it's difficult to do that and...
AP: Get anywhere? (laughs)
SK: Well, when people do an overview, you wonder how hard they look.
AP: What miffed me at one time was a critic who'd written something like "Alan Perry hasn't published much lately, it must be to do with the pressures of work..." I mean, I've never stopped. I'm a bit of a workaholic as far as painting and writing are concerned. Always have been.
SK: It's a prolific output. But it comes down not to whether one is doing the work but who is seeing it.
AP: Exactly. It's the same with my painting. I've got drawersful of stuff going back years, and it's never been seen. But with painting the problem is getting stuff framed, the expense, and touting it around for exhibitions. So I've probably got more - a lot more - visual stuff that's stayed hidden.
SK: Do you think the way in which you're working... I don't know if this sounds rude...as a marginal figure, affects the work?
AP: I've always preferred being a marginal figure - outside of cliques and coteries. If pushed, I'd sooner be in a Salon de Refuses than a Salon. I tend to work better that way. Lack of recognition fuels me.
SK: There's a sense of a world under threat, in a story called "After the Deluge" - where rainwater is about to burst through the ceiling - or in one of my favourite poems, "Housepainting: Aftermaths", with paint beginning to flake as soon as the work's finished. But this threat is almost more overt in the paintings, particularly in the surreal ones.
AP: "After the Deluge" is an interesting choice. That was a short story first, then a painting, then I wrote a second story about how I'd made a painting out of the first story. I think I've managed more layering - more mystery - in the story than in the painting. Both are a bit oppressive but redeemed, I hope, by humour. Perhaps the next stage should be to make a painting from the second story.
SK: Is there a different vocabulary available to you as a painter that can allow you to express turmoil more openly, whereas writing actually works better if that turmoil is suppressed?
AP: A lot of my friends have compared and contrasted the effects I achieve in both media. The worrying thing is that my painter friends prefer my writing and my writer friends prefer my painting! What I like in any work of art, though, is the kind of subtext going on. In my visual stuff I experiment with superimposing images, so you've got several depths of meaning. You can see figures and shapes beneath the surface. I try to do that in the writing as well, trying to fill a poem with ambiguities and nuances and layers of meaning which even I don't totally understand.
SK: Absolutely. And you wouldn't necessarily want to understand, would you?
AP: Well those seem to be the best poems and the bestpaintings.
SK: But the subtext of a painting is surely very different from the subtext of a poem? In the story "Upside Down Roses", the idea that Perkins has hung wallpaper upside down leaks through the whole story. It ends with the ghost of the wife's father appearing at the foot of the bed, and Perkins imagines him standing there, infinitely sad in front of the upside down roses. Can there be an equivalent in a visual medium?
AP: I think so. And in fact I illustrated that very story in a previous issue of Planet. ["Upside Down Roses", Planet 71, 1988] The drawing didn't work as well as the story, because it was too literal, too close to the text. A good illustration should be a picture in its own right.
SK: So, if you had unlimited resouces and could produce a book, would you juxtapose paintings with writing to show the symbiotic relationship between the two, or do you think they should be separate?
AP: I've thought about illustrating poems. Maybe if it was ever done, it should be something like the "Shards" catalogue produced for an exhibition of my work at the Glynn Vivian; paintings alongside poems. Paintings that don't illustrate poems but maybe relate in some way. Having said that, I did recently illustrate a collection of Vernon Watkins's verse for children called "LMNTRE Poems" and stuck fairly close to the text.
SK: Your experimental pamphlets - "Black Milk" and the found material of "messiah" - explore the point where the text and illustrations might interact. Not that one is subservient to the other, but that they somehow bounce off each other to make a third thing. Is that something that's interested you?
AP: Yes. I've found a visual image can give me a starting point for a poem and vice versa. I wrote a children's book about fifteen years ago which began as a blot on a bit of paper that I made into a monster-like figure. Then I wrote a long and humorous poem about the figure. After which, I illustrated the rest of the poem. So I was going back and forth from one medium to the other.
SK: One stimulating the other.
AP: Yes. And sometimes it comes about through pure accident. I'm a big believer in the importance of accident in writing and painting. That's why I like working on found surfaces very often: driftwood, torn street hoardings, almost anything that I can add my mark to. The same thing happens with the writing; chance snippets of overheard conversation might well set something off. I hoard them in notebooks for future use, just as I hoard found objects.
SK: Your most recent project, "Music You Don't Normally Hear", was a series of interviews withhomeless people in the Swansea area.
AP: Yes. That was a new departure for me. Some people thought that book was just a series of transcriptions of taped interviews but it was really much more than that. The TLS has referred to the genre as the one genuinely new art form of the last decade. I actually wrote it in a similar way to my stories; seven or eight drafts per interview. A mountain of manuscripts, a lot of rewriting and reshaping of material without losing the spirit of the original.
SK: The fact that you isolate the material, the context you give it, how you juxtapose it with the other material...
AP: Even when you're asking the questions you're composing, leading the subjects in the direction you want them to go. When I took early retirement, I spent about a year writing only Perkins stuff. Then I got a job with the Cyrenians Cymru, and that was a breath of fresh air; to forget about Perkins completely and deal with other people's life stories. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to do that. The book started out as an "artistic" project rather than a sociological one, but I hope it's had beneficial effects for homeless people. The performance piece, which I adapted from the book, was staged in the Welsh Assembly last year. It was ironic that while we were performing it, the Tory Party were holding a rather raucous cocktail party in the adjoining room.
SK: So now you've come full circle, back to 'Characters'.
AP: With that book, yes. But hopefully there are more to come.
SK: Are you planning to collect the earlier work? Can I hope to have at least two volumes on my shelves in the near future?
AP: I don't know about the near future. I do know they're likely to be quite large volumes and, knowing my luck, probably posthumous ones!
Stephen Knight's most recent collections of poetry include "Dream City Cinema" (Bloodaxe, 1996) and "The Sandfields Baudelaire" (Smith/Doorstop, 1996). His first novel "Mr. Schnitzel" appeared from Penguin in 2000 and won the Welsh Book of the Year Award. He received an Eric Gregory Award for Poetry in 1987 and won the 1992 National Poetry Competition.