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The SRB Interview: Douglas Dunn – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Douglas Dunn

October 20, 2009 | by SRB

DOUGLAS DUNN was born in Inchinnan, Refrewshire, on 23 October, 1942, into a working class environment. At school, he was gifted at English and History, but his lack of aptitude with Maths and Science prevented him going to university. Instead, he studied at the Scottish School of Librarianship in Glasgow. In 1964 Dunn went to America where he worked at the Akron Public Library in Ohio, accompanied by his new wife, Lesley. On returning to Britain, he applied to several universities, eventually studying English at Hull where he started in October, 1966. Dunn lived in this period in Terry Street, a run down area that was to provide him with the material he shaped in his first, eponymous collection of poetry. After graduating in 1969, Dunn went on to work full time in Hull’s university library under Philip Larkin. In 1978, Lesley Dunn was diagnosed with cancer of the eye, dying three years later. Her death inspired the poems that comprised his fifth collection, Elegies, a critical and popular success that won the Whit-bread Prize. In 1991, he was offered and accepted a professorship in the University of St Andrews’ School of English. He later became head of school and director of the Scottish Studies Institute. He also began the first creative writing course taught at a Scottish university. In 2008, he retires from academia. To mark the occasion, the SRB travelled to St Andrews. The interview took place in Professor Dunn’s study, amongst tottering columns of books ranging from new volumes of poetry to dog-eared crime novels. He cut a dapper figure, his beard trimmed, his suit smart and finished by his trademark waistcoat. There, he spoke about politics, empire, and Philip Larkin.

Scottish Review Of Books: What were your first encounters with poetry?

Douglas Dunn: Well, I couldn’t sing. My grandfather , my mother’s father, was a Co-Op baker in Hamilton. He was a patriarchal figure, liked to have the family around him on a Sunday afternoon between services to sing. I was discouraged from singing. My grandfather suggested I learn how to recite a poem. It was expected to be Robert Burns. He had a large library; he was an autodidact. There was an outfit called the Hamilton Men’s Own Pleasant Sunday Afternoon, which he and one or two of my uncles would go to late in the afternoon, possibly as a front for left wing politics and alcohol. They had a book front, it was a way of acquiring books inexpensively. So I grew up in a book culture, as far as my grandparents were concerned; my father less so. My mother read fiction. I was interested in books from an early age, books in general rather than poetry in particular. That was an early teenage thing.

SRB: Was that when you began to write poetry?

DD: My godmother, who’s dead now alas, she used to claim that she had a poem I gave her when I was twelve. I’m not so sure about this but I was writing poetry by my mid-teens. Course you kept it secret. It was the sort of thing a jessie would do. I wasn’t a hide-behind-a-book type; I was just as laddish as the rest of them. A disaster at football though.

SRB: Several of your poems concern in the main or in passing birds, such as Northlight’s ‘Winkie’. What appears to appeal to you here (to pull a line from 1990’s The Donkey’s Ears) is that “in nature there’s no nationality”. That must appeal to a poet who has complained of “half-witted nagging about ‘National identity’” and that “national epics are death certificates”. As a Scottish poet, do you feel it’s part of the job to address your nationality and if yes, how do you feel about that?

DD: As a Scottish poet I feel myself under no obligation to address anything national, just what I’m drawn to addressing.

SRB: And that could be anything as varied as pigeons (‘Winkie’), saxophones (‘An Address To Adolphe Sax In Heaven’), or an eighteenth-century street urchin who fought Walter Scott as a child (‘Green Breeks). The reason I mention those poems is that the common denominator, as it is in other poems, is snobbish discrimination against those engaged in ‘low’ pursuits. Does it all come back to prejudice against the working class environment you grew up in?

DD: Well, I find myself a pretty unprejudiced person. In St Andrews I make a certain play, a game, of being politically incorrect. I do a good impression of a curmudgeon. But it is an impersonation. We all have our little pranks, something to hide behind if nothing else. But if I was prejudiced against middle-and upper-class people, St Andrews would not be the place to settle.

SRB: Have you ever experienced any prejudice with respect to you own background? DD: I always remember a poetry reading I gave in Scunthorpe. The reading was at seven and I had arrived in town at 5.45. So I went for a drink. The riposte behind the bar I went into was, “On your bike, Jock”. But he had a reason for that. There had been Scottish steelworkers who had come down to Scunthorpe in search of employment, which they had more or less been promised. They didn’t get it and took it out on this particular pub, with the result the landlord developed a phobia for Scotsman. I soon found another pub that accepted Scotsmen. There was quite a lot of Scots living in Hull, you know, and publicans do welcome a thirst.

SRB: Your childhood and young adulthood were played out against the end of the British Empire. In poems like ‘Winter Graveyard’ (from Love Or Nothing, published in 1974) and others, one frequently finds an anti-imperial element. Are you dismayed to see historians, particularly our countryman Niall Fergusson, arguing that the British Empire was a positive force?

DD: I daresay it could have been a positive thing if it had been engineered that way, but it wasn’t engineered for the benefit of the populations of the Raj or Africa. I’m interested in imperialism; it’s an aspect of history that intrigues me. You could simplify it and say imperialism went better at a time when death was less industrialised, when uniforms were bright red – it does have a pageantry. Some people are still besotted by that but who wants to live in the past? Lots of people think the Empire made Britain a lot of money, but it didn’t. It cost a lot. An aspect of literature that has interested me for a number of years is post-colonial studies. ‘The Empire Writes Back’.

SRB: There’s that sense in your poetry of the present sitting on a very thin membrane, with the bloody past ready to break through. Even the drinking of coffee, in Europa’s Lover comes freighted with the knowledge that “There is no longer in our coffee that sensation of chains rattled”. Or there’s that line in ‘The Butterfly House’ – “The cruelties of comfort known no end” – which you’d have to say remains relevant in a period where imperialism is economic and cultural.

DD: History, since my second and third books, and especially my fourth book, has been a subject that fascinates me. I sometimes wish that as a student at university I had studied History rather than English, as I did. (Other days I wish I’d done languages).

SRB: Was Hull where your poetry started to happen for you, where it began to coalesce?

DD: Hull might have been where it began to coalesce but I had written a number of poems, and published a few, before I went to Hull. I published my first poem at 19; I draw a veil over that one now. Terry Street gave me a subject, a subject about which there had not been written much about before. It had been written about in prose by people like Alan Sillitoe. I always remember seeing the movie of The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. I was talking to someone about how impressed I had been, the running scenes set against the singing of ‘Jerusalem’, the tremendous irony going on there, and somebody said, “Well, Tom Courtenay, of course, comes from Hull”. And that was around the time I was writing poems about my particular life with my first wife in this little one-up one-down house that we bought, £250 or something. In a strange kind of way, Sillitoe’s stories gave me permission to write the rest of my first collection. I was really taken by that depiction of the North and Midlands in prose, but there really wasn’t much of it in poetry, although Tony Harrison was just getting into his stride. He deserves more than I do that particular subject. I was always aware of not being indigenous to it. And in a sense Seamus Heaney was beginning to write about a Northern Ireland Catholic rural version. Something was happening in poetry in the British Isles at that time. In 1969, when Terry Street was published, Tom Leonard’s pamphlets, Six Glasgow Poems and A Priest Came On At Merkland Street came out. Something was in the air. Enough time had elapsed since the Education Act of 1944 for the first beneficiaries, people like Harrison and myself, to grow sufficiently mature. I was just writing about what was in my life and what was under my nose. And to some extent I got clearance for that from reading Philip Larkin’s poems, some of which are very clearly set in Hull. Larkin in fact lived just around the corner from Terry Street.

SRB: What was your relationship with Philip Larkin like? I know that on the one hand he could be very encouraging, while on the other he didn’t give you time off to go to readings.

DD: Well, he couldn’t stop me from going to poetry readings, but he could make it difficult to go. And if you did, you didn’t get a day off. And he was quite right too!

SRB: I take it that wasn’t your view then?

DD: Poetry readings were not common then as they are now. We weren’t asked very often. People won’t do poetry readings anymore unless given quite substantial sums of money. I know people who wouldn’t give a poetry reading for less than £500. In those days you didn’t even talk about money. At most there would be a promise to reimburse your rail fare. Nowadays poetry readings are called ‘gigs’.

SRB: Simon Armitage has a book coming out called Gig.

DD: I like Simon, but the poetry world is getting a bit incestuous. It’s like how theatre people are supposed to be, ‘luvvies’. And everyone talks about ‘gigs’ and where the British Council is going to send them next. The whole thing has become over-professionalised.

SRB: And that’s a bad thing?

DD: Yes, You can only write a poem if you have a poem to write. My friend the late Ian Hamilton, the biographer of Robert Lowell, spoke of the ‘miraculous’ school of poetry. I’m a fully paid up member of that school. What it means is if you want to write a poem, you’ve got to have a poem to write, until you can no longer put it off.

SRB: Does this relate to your aversion to the professionalization of poetry you mentioned earlier? It’s not a job you can clock on and off to; you can’t sit down and write poetry for four hours every morning, say? The poem has to come to you?

DD: I have done that, at night though, when I was writing The Donkey’s Ears. For three years I was working on it, sometimes only for an hour or two. I thought, given how long I suspected it would take to write, that I did have to report to it almost like an office. Otherwise, I leave off writing until a poem can’t wait any longer and grabs me by the throat. Sometimes I go over a notebook to see if there’s something that’ll poke a finger in my eye. Often it doesn’t happen…. I really loathe computers. I have a laptop and a desktop; the desktop is an antique. I find I can’t write in my office. I’m so neurotic about computers, any work in progress I’ll have a copy on the laptop, desktop, and floppy disk. It was so much easier when it was just pen and ink and the typewriter.

SRB: Ian Hamilton is an interesting character. When did you first encounter him?

DD: Late Sixties. He took a few of my poems in the New Review; he was poetry editor at the TLS at the time. We became friends, and I saw him when I was in London. He was in Hull, on and off, for years, lecturing in poetry. When I went freelance I saw him every couple of weeks in London. We’d meet in the pub, the Pillars of Hercules, and go on to a bistro. There was an after hours drinking place ran by Acker Bilk’s brother. I often slept on his floor. It was less fun if you got the night train back to Hull, because it was a long journey, and you had to change at Doncaster at two in the morning, no mean thing to do when you’re plastered.

SRB: Did you see Larkin was just this month nominated by the Times as The Greatest British Writer Since 1945?

DD: What? Where was this? The Times?

SRB: Yes. It’s quite a turnaround in his reputation, don’t you think? Since Andrew Motion’s biography? You’ve written yourself about the effect of biography on a poet’s reputation; you referred to the warts ‘n’ all approach as “howling truth’s censorious hurdy-gurdy”. It does seem a poet’s personal life is, once he’s dead, taken down and used against him.

DD: It does seem to work like that. Biographies are written too soon after the death of the subject. I can understand why, but there is such a thing as indecent haste.

SRB: And a lack of charity?

DD: I take your point but there’s also honesty. There’s certain things you can’t leave out because you’re going to be found out, and then you’re going to carry the stigma of airbrushing the story.

SRB: Sure, but my real point is the way in which certain people use biographical revelations to discredit a subject’s art.

DD: I don’t carry a torch for Andrew Motion but I don’t think he intended for his disclosures to be used in that manner. Anyway, the disclosures had already been made in Larkin’s letters. One of my oldest friends, Tom Paulin, was particularly vehement in using the information he found in the biography [After the publication of Larkin’s Letters, Paulin wrote it was a “revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became”]. Tom is married to an Indian woman, and their sons have been subject to racial prejudice, so he had a particular slant on it. And who’s to blame him? I don’t think Larkin was an out and out racist, though in certain irascible moods he could seem to be. He carried within himself the pressures of an Englishman of his generation, and sometimes that was ugly. My first wife and I knew him well and I don’t recall him making a blatantly racist remark in our presence. He would come to dinner quite frequently and we would listen to jazz. It was clear that his taste had moved from black jazz players to some white, mainstream, traditional players. I found that troubling, as if there were some racist motivation underlying it. But when he was reviewing jazz records for the Telegraph that was good news for me because he’d give me records like John Coltrane’s. He was a funny man, wonderful mimic, and very popular with women.

SRB: ‘Renfrewshire Traveller’ is an interesting poem. In it you – if it is you – admit to feeling quaintly Scottish in England but not at home in Scotland either. Has this feeling diminished since you returned to Scotland in the Eighties?

DD: It’s been eradicated. During that period I always wanted to move back to Scotland. But first we were kept in England by education, then our jobs, then when I went freelance I was plugged into the New Statesman, TLS, London papers. When I won the Somerset Maugham award, we went to live in France for a period. Towards the end of the Seventies, I started writing short stories, which I was able to place with the New Yorker. But the ones they took were always set in Scotland. I began to feel, maybe I should be back in Scotland. To an extent, any alienation [expressed in ‘Renfrewshire Traveller’] is artificial or spiritual perhaps. And I did succumb from time to time to that phenomenon, probably not to my credit. It’s not one of my favourites.

SRB: In ‘Here And There’, you write, “Why did you choose/Grey northland as your small town El Dorado?/You’ve literature and a career to lose….”. Did someone actually say that to you or were you dramatising an inner voice?

DD: It was said by Ian Hamilton. And his parents were Scottish. Ian was a very good man at teasing. He’d pretend to be serious when he was joking. I wanted to include him in The Faber Book Of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry. Ian pretended to be seriously put out; in fact he couldn’t give a damn. When I moved back to Scotland, that was January 1984, there was a bit of ribbing. I tried to headhunt Ian to work here. He submitted the shortest CV, about as long as one of his poems. He went through financial dramas so he was quite keen. He didn’t come up for an interview, so the Principal, Struther Arnott, went down to London and had dinner with him. He came back saying we had to get him. But Ian couldn’t survive without his life support system, which was entirely metropolitan.

SRB:To move on, I think I’m right in saying that St Kilda’s Parliament – which was dedicated to your father, who had then not long died – has the largest number of poems drawn from it in your New Selected Poems. Equally Elegies, which dealt with the death of your first wife, won the Whitbread Prize and great popular acclaim. Does death quicken your muse?

DD: I don’t think so. I am at that age where all of my relatives, except for one aunt, are dead. Many of my friends have died. Lots of people I admired are dead. Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig…. I hardly knew George Mackay Brown, only met him twice, but I liked him. So when someone significant to you dies, and you are a poet, you’ll commemorate them. My mother died a year past November but I haven’t written anything about her…. I remember when I was in my late teens I sent some poems to a Welsh poet, who as I later discovered was quite important to Larkin. Vernon Watkins. Friend of Dylan Thomas. He wrote back to say they weren’t quite there yet, and to just keep going. I always remember the phrase he used. “The muse knows no sense of time”. I find myself trotting that out to students doing the creative writing MSc. But I’ve been pretty arid for the past couple of years.

SRB: You’re not working on anything?

DD: I’ve been working on poems but I never seem to bloody finish them.

SRB: Do you think once you’re released from academia, it might come a little easier?

DD: I can’t blame my underproductivity on teaching. When I first started teaching I was pretty prolific. But, no, teaching is not to blame. I have enough poems for a collection, but the poem I want for a centrepiece I haven’t finished. I’m not telling you what it is about because it’s a good idea and there are gannets out there. I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I translated Sophocles’ Oedi-pus for the National Theatre in London but they turned it down. I had been looking forward to translating Sophocles’ other Oedipus plays. I don’t know…I think they wanted it set in Harlem in the Thirties, music by Duke Ellington, and calledMotherfucker! Chalk it up to experience. I’ll probably publish it.

SRB: Is it true, as I’ve read, that you won’t perform any poems from Elegies at readings? DD: No, I usually do a couple. It’s the book I’m most associated with, though I have a soft spot for Northlight.

SRB: Do you worry about the state of poetry? It sometimes seems to be very much like religion today – only called in at weddings and funerals.

DD: I wonder if that is true. An awful lot of books of poetry get published. It’s not something I worry about. I don’t proselytise. I don’t evangelise. In a sense I don’t have to because I have some very good postgraduate students. Don Paterson and I have just been assessing their work very highly. We’ve had quite a few people who have done the creative writing course and gone onto be published, so I don’t have to evangelise. One of the things that does bother me would be the number of people who graduate in English, and after graduating, don’t ever read any more poetry. I don’t think many can do, when you consider that if a volume of poetry sells 1000 copies, it’s thought to have done well. People read other things. In the past decade I’ve become hooked on crime fiction. There was a time when I thought that people who read that sort of book had no taste or were eccentric. Iain Crichton Smith could get through two a day. I mind taking a long train journey with him and asking what he saw in them. He justified it by saying Auden liked them: “We all have our eccentricities, Iain”. Now I wish he was still alive so I could phone him and talk about them with him. Some writers of crime fiction address areas mainstream fiction shies away from. Social problems and so on. And Elmore Leonard writes the best dialogue of any fiction writer today.

SRB: You were known as Red Dunn at one point?

DD: Oh yes. I think it was Maurice Lindsay who called me “a notorious Marxist”. Yeah, I was pretty interested in Trotsky.

SRB: You were an actual, official Trotskyite? DD: I’ve never been an official anything in my life. Hull was a hotbed of left politics, so I had a lot of companions.

SRB: You have that line about politics, “by temperament, I’m an unwilling poet” Politics in your poetry then, is it a case of attitude rather than commitment?

DD: Politics is a part of my temperament. Although I’ve toned down the politics a bit.

SRB: You’re still a man of the Left? You haven’t contemplated the migration to the Right as one gets older that tradition dictates?

DD: I sometimes pretend! I don’t think a poet has to be trusted any more than a plumber on politics. I come from an Old Left background. My paternal grandfather was much more middle class. He worked as a carpet designer for Templeton’s, then moved to Halifax to be that company’s chief carpet designer. He died in his forties when my father was eleven. Another, more distant relative, Theodore Douglas Dunn was a minister of education in Bengal. He edited an anthology, The Bengali Book Of English Verse which collected together native poets, and which is still in print today in India. He died in 1924 crossing the Hoogley river, had a seizure (or is that a euphemism?) and fell in. His body was never found. I was almost named after him. Theodore[grimacing]. Going back to politics, I still read a newspaper every day and very often find myself impatient with political columns. I vote Liberal Democrat now, partly to keep the Tories out, but also because Menzies Campbell has done a good job here as a constituency MP..

SRB: There’s that very interesting line in ‘The Come-on’ in light of Prince William’s time as a student here: “Take tea with the king’s son at seminars/He won’t know what’s happening”.

DD: [Laughs] Oh my prophetic soul. Well, I never did take tea with him. I only clapped eyes on him twice. Once in Tesco and once I saw him having a fag behind the bicycle shed at Sallies [hall of residence].

SRB: The reason I mention Prince William is that in the eyes of some, his enrolment here only fuelled some of the preconceptions people have about St Andrews. Given your political persuasion, were eyebrows raised when you joined the teaching staff at the School of English?

DD: Never mind raising eyebrows, I don’t think anyone batted an eyelid. I represent a subject, nothing else. Read Lesley McDow-ell’s novel The Picnic [partly set in St Andrews]. I come out pretty well, “abrupt but not unkind”. I was Head of School during the time she was with us.

SRB: As the man who set up the first university creative writing course in Scotland, could you comment on the curious paradox that while people, according to surveys I’ve looked at, read less than ever, they also want to write books more than ever?

DD: Is the level of reading declining? I think books have never been more visible. I’m thinking about the checkout queues at Borders. I’ve spent five minutes just getting to the front of the queue. Public libraries are less patronised perhaps through people buying rather than borrowing books, but I’m not sure.

SRB: Were you worried about the effect moving into academia might have on your poetry?

DD: I’d always been around universities. I was a writer-in-residence at various places. At the time I joined the teaching staff, Struther Arnott said to me, “If you were in the chemistry department, you would be researching cutting edge developments in science. What do you do in the English department? Sit around and read Beowulf. I want a professor who makes new literature”. I had a day to think about it. That was the good news. The bad news was I had to take over as Head of School, which involves a lot of administration, lots of committees, handling things like Teaching Quality Assessments. The report for that is my largest prose work. These are the sort of things that a lot of poets who teach at University cannot handle. Robert Crawford can handle it and I can handle it. A lot of poets would find it stultifying and so did I at first. I pretended otherwise, and would write poetry at night purely as a form of escape. I did put it around that I was writing a novel about St Andrews. I’m not but you’ve no idea how much respect I got after that!

Douglas Dunn
Faber, £20. 00
pp340, ISBN 0571215270

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