An interview with… Wendy Cope
Tess Ma speaks to the famous British poet about her visit to Hong Kong
Wendy Cope has written numerous poetry anthologies and is a household name in Britain. She was in Hong Kong at the end of July, when she gave a talk on Life, Love and Family in Contemporary Poetry at the Hong Kong Book Fair. Time Out got a few minutes with her - and she was more than pleased to fill us in about how she writes and what she thinks of the fragrant harbour.
So why were you in Hong Kong?
Because I was invited to Hong Kong by the Hong Kong Book Fair.
How are you liking it?
It's great. I mean, I haven't had time to see it yet, but I have one free day before I leave, so I hope to see a bit more.
Is it your first time here?
It is my first time here. I have a wonderful view of the harbour from my hotel, really wonderful.
Oh okay, what hotel are you living in?
It's in the Renaissance… the Renaissance Harbour view. And I have a room with a wonderful view of the harbour. And apart from that I haven't really been far from the hotel. I did my reading yesterday in the… you know, just next door. I was really interested to learn, I didn't realise yesterday when I was there, but this was built especially for the handover, and we watched all that on television in 1997, and I didn't realise I was in the actual place where it all happened. Amazing.
So your new book, Family Values, what are the main themes?
There's quite a few poems about my childhood and people in it. Then there's a few poems about ageing and death, and then there's a few poems about this and that. And then at the end, there's two series of poems - one that was commissioned by a string quartet, and the theme was the audience, so they're poems about different people you might find in the audience of a concert of classical music, like the person who's trying not to cough and the couple who's on their first date and so on. The person who thinks the music is much too modern. And then there's some poems about the BBC that were commissioned by the BBC. So those are at the end.
Do you think it's a big departure from the themes of your previous anthologies?
I hadn't written very much about my childhood before, and what changed was my mother died, and I felt much freer to write about my childhood and family when none of them were around to read it.
So why did you take 10 years to write it?
Because I'm just not a very prolific poet. I mean, some of those poems - it's not that I suddenly started writing again. Somebody… I think, I don't know if it was one of your questions or some other interviewer who said what made you decide to start writing again? And it wasn't like that. Some of those poems were written nearly 10 years ago. I was writing the odd poem now and then. And then a year or two ago, I suddenly started writing a lot more.
Okay, so it was an ongoing process?
Yeah, I think partly that getting those stimulating commissions really got me going, and sort of freed me up to write some other poems that weren't commissioned but were about stuff I wanted to write about.
What is poetry to you?
I can't answer that question. The difference between poetry and prose is that poetry is written in lines, right? And the line, you know, wherever it started the page, the lines end in the same place and you start a new one. Whereas prose is written in paragraphs, and, you know, if the page is narrow then the lines come out differently, so that is the main thing, the main difference. Some people say that rhythm is very important in poetry, but rhythm is very important in prose as well.
So you don't think that the technical aspects define poetry?
I don't think they define poetry, no. Because not all poetry rhymes, not all poetry scans. It's very difficult to think of things you could say about all poetry, except that it's written in lines.
What does it mean personally to you, though?
I don't know - I just do it. I mean, it's something that I like doing and something I like reading. I mean I like reading poems, you can't be a writer of poems without reading them, so it's just something I enjoy.
Do you have a favourite form to write in?
Yeah, if you look at my books you'll see there's quite a lot of sonnets, and there's a form called a villanelle. Those are probably my two favourite forms, I use those quite a lot.
And is there a reason you chose poetry as a form?
It just happened. One day I sat down and wrote a poem. So there's a lot of feminist elements to some of your earlier pieces.
Do you think that's an important part of your poems?
I think whatever the poet's attitudes and interests are will come out in the poems, and what you see in my poems reflects my view of life.
So you don't purposely put it in there?
I don't purposely do anything. This is… the major misconception about poetry is that poets have an agenda or intentions, rather than you just sit down and write a poem and see where it's going. But if you're interested in something, then that's likely to get into your poems sooner or later. I mean, I moved in 1994 to a house with a garden, and I got interested in the garden. And after a bit, you know, there's not a lot about the garden in my poems, but after a bit, little things about flowers and gardens started to get into my poems now and again. I didn't plan it that way, it just happened, because that was what I was interested in at the time.
Do you have a process that you go through while writing?
Yeah, I mean, I need a starting point. And so… perhaps a line will… something will come into my head that sounds as if it could be a line of a poem, and I'll write that down and see where it goes. If it's a commissioned poem, well then, I have to look for a starting point, I have to sort of think about it and play with different ideas until I've got a starting point. And when you've got a starting point, then you just sit down and see where it goes from there.
And do you have a favourite place or a favourite time to write?
When I'm at home, yes I do. I have a chair, I have a very comfortable armchair in my study, and that's where I mostly sit and write, and I write in a hardback notebook on my knee, and then I type it up later. That's if I'm at home. But sometimes I write poems, when I'm not at home - hotel bedrooms are quite… I mean, because you know, I'm alone in a hotel with some time on my hands, that might… you know, I might start writing, and if I haven't got a notebook I'll just use the back of an envelope.
And do you have a time of the day…?
No, it could be any time of day.
You do find a lot of inspiration from your own life for your poetry?
How do you find the humour in situations?
I just… again, it's just part of my personality. I had a sense of humour before I started writing poems, and so, because I have a sense of humour, it gets into my poems. Just like the feminism, just like everything else. It gets into my poems because it's part of me.
What's your favourite period of poetry?Ooh, that's a good one. I don't know if I have a favourite period, actually. I've got favourite poets dotted all over - I'm very keen on George Herbert, I'm very keen on John Clare, I'm very keen on Robert Frost, very keen on Emily Dickinson, very keen on Shakespeare, and those are all in completely different eras. I probably spend more time reading the poetry of the past than I spend reading contemporary poetry. I do make a bit of effort to keep up with contemporary poetry, but - and sometimes, I come across a book of contemporary poetry that I like, but I come across a lot that I really can't get on with.
Do you think there's a style that influences you?
Oh, I think I've been influenced by all sorts of poets over the years. But I don't always know what's influencing me at the time. And it might be some critic pointed it out. The one advantage I have is that I know what I've read, but I don't always know what's influencing me, you know?
So you do think reading is an important part of writing?
It's absolutely crucial. One thing that really annoys all poets is when they meet somebody who thinks they're going to write poems and says they're not interested in reading any. I mean, an old man came up to me once at a literary festival and gave me a copy of his book and said: “I don't read poems, I just write them.” And he gave me this book. And, of course, I could have bet a thousand pounds that it was going to be no good before I'd even opened it, and indeed, it was no good. Which is absolutely inevitable, because the guy's not really interested in poetry.
Do you remember the first poem you wrote?
The very first poem I wrote was when I was six, because I was told to write a poem at school and it was about my teddy bear. That's the very first poem I wrote.
Was it a good poem?It was terrible.
So just a last question, what's next for you after you leave Hong Kong?
Well, I'm not too busy for a few weeks, thank goodness. And I've just - my partner and I recently moved into a new house, so I think the next few weeks, my priority is going to be… we haven't had time to put any pictures up yet, and we haven't unpacked all the boxes in the garage, so that will probably be my priority in the next few weeks.
Wendy Cope's first new collection of poems in a decade, Family Values, is available from Dymocks for $221. Check out the first August edition of Time Out Hong Kong - issue 85 - for a piece written by Wendy Cope on how she tackles her poetry.