Questions from Buenos Aires Poetry to Alan JENKINS

Alan Jenkins was born in Surrey in 1955 and has lived for most of his life in London.  He studied at the University of Sussex and has worked for the Times Literary Supplement since 1981, first as poetry and fiction editor, then as deputy editor. He was also a poetry critic for The Observer and the Independent on Sunday from 1985-1990, and has taught creative writing in the USA, London and Paris. His collections of poetry are In The Hot-House (1988), Greenheart (1990), the Forward Prize-winning Harm (1994), The Drift (2000), A Shorter Life (2005) and Revenants (2013); Drunken Boats, containing his acclaimed translation of Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’, was published in 2007, and Blue Days (The Sailor’s Return) in 2010. A Short History of Snakes, a selected poems, was published in 2001 by Grove Press, New York. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1981, a Cholmondeley Award in 2006, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Juan ARABIA: I would like you to tell us about your early years in University of Sussex... And also about your extra-academic formation, in relation to poetry.

Alan JENKINS: I spent four very happy years at the University of Sussex between 1974 and 1979. I studied English and French literature, so in the middle of those years, as part of my first degree course, I spent a year in France, at the Universite Paul Valery in Montpellier. That was a slightly less happy time in some ways – the French system of teaching was almost all by lectures, I barely got to speak to a professor; plus, as a student I didn’t have any money at all, and Montpellier seemed like a very prosperous middle-class town – but I was in university lodgings where there were many people from different parts of the world in the same situation as myself, and we made our own amusements. One of them had an old Citroen and four of us would go out driving around the southern French countryside at weekends. And I made many trips to Marseille, to see a girl there – a fantastic place, a great city, an ancient city, a crowded modern metropolis, and everything in between, thrown together on the Mediterranean…My girlfriend took me to swim in the calanques and to the villages down the coast, and I ate things like oursins, sea-urchins, for the first time – I began a kind of love affair with the south of France, everything was so vivid and so strange, for this boy from England…The amazing, impossible thing was that you could have a wonderful time there even if you weren’t a film star or a millionaire. I don’t know if that’s still true, I hope so.

       Back home in Sussex, the students lived in Brighton, which was a much poorer town then than it is now – quite shabby and run-down, so it suited the student way of life every well. It is on the sea, the south coast, and everywhere you went there was a smell of salt water, seaweed and damp walls, and the screeching of seagulls. I had gone to Sussex because I had been reading both English poets and French poets (see below), and I didn’t want to give up either language in order to study the other – Sussex offered the possibility of studying both, and the system of teaching there was very unusual in England at that time, it was quite pioneering. And my teachers encouraged me to go on reading these poets I loved, who fascinated me, and of course I had to read a great deal more of the literature from earlier periods that I had barely begun to read till that time. I guess the biggest revelation for me (apart from Shakespeare, it goes without saying – and I had read some of his plays by then, at school) was the poetry of the Middle Ages. I was excited by medieval poems such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dante’s Commedia. I was already devoted to T.S. Eliot’s poetry but Stephen Medcalf and Gabriel Josipovici, who taught these medieval works, enabled me to make the connection between Eliot, a great modernist poet, and the medieval works I was reading for the first time. Things began to make sense in a more joined-up way.

       My extra-academic formation in poetry had begun long before I got to Sussex – it began in fact when I was fourteen. I was in an English class and our teacher had us read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It will sound pretentious but from that moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life! So over the next four or five years I read all of T.S. Eliot, which led me to Ezra Pound and many other modern poets, English and American, and also to the French poets who influenced Eliot – Jules Laforgue mainly, and Tristan Corbiere and Rimbaud. These were the poets who meant most to me then, and in many ways still do. Then when I got to Sussex I read Baudelaire and Mallarme, and my teacher for these poets was George Craig – with whom I also read Samuel Beckett. So, again, I was enabled by him to glimpse connections between the strangeness and boldness of the poetry Mallarme wrote out of his sense of nothingness, le neant, in the late nineteenth century, and the way that Beckett had to begin again from nothing, from the destruction of all the forms and beliefs that had sustained ‘civilized’ Europe, after the Second World War. George was a marvellous teacher but he really discovered his life’s work after he retired from teaching, when he became the translator of Beckett’s letters, the letters Beckett wrote in French – he has been universally acclaimed for his translations of those letters.

          For me it was an amazing privilege to be at Sussex, to spend so much time every week with these teachers – it couldn’t happen now or if it did I would leave with thousands of pounds of debt. But, as I say, I had already made up my mind that if life had any meaning at all it would come from the writing of poems. I didn’t write many – or any, in fact – while I was at university but it gave me so much on which I would try to build something of my own. Also, I knew that whether or not I was able to write poems eventually, I would need some kind of alibi in life, some kind of cover-story. I hoped at one time that teaching at a university would be my cover-story, but it didn’t work out that way.

Full Interview – Buenos Aires Poetry n°5