David Constantine Interview
Posted on 22 June 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to poet, novelist and short story writer David Constantine, whose latest short story collection Under The Dam is out now, published by Comma Press.
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve published six or seven volumes of poetry, a novel, two collections of short stories, a biography (of Sir William Hamilton), and books and articles on academic subjects, chiefly the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. In addition, I’ve published translations of, among others, Hölderlin, Goethe, Kleist and Brecht. Since I stopped teaching – in September 2000 – all my writing time has gone on poetry, fiction and translation. I write poems when I can, which is not very often, and work most days at translation, currently at Goethe’s Faust.
For 31 years I was a university teacher of German. Now, with my wife Helen, I edit the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation. I do a good deal of lecturing, and also tutor, usually once a year, on Arvon creative writing courses. Also other things, in Britain and Germany, that have to do with the promotion of poetry and of translation.
How did you start writing?
I started writing poetry when I was 15. Why? A girl. My style was very romantic and about one hundred years out of date.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
The writers who affected me most profoundly when I myself began to want to write were Robert Graves, D.H.Lawrence and, a little later, Edward Thomas. They are still among my favourite poets, for their passion and attention to the real and the mythic world. But many other writers matter to me also and, among the English poets, perhaps especially Keats, Wordsworth, John Clare and Thomas Hardy. I have always read a lot, in French and German as well as in English, and so my list of authors and reasons for reading them would be endless. I believe in a sort of coincidence of reading and existential need: I mean, authors arrive as we need them and help us along the way. The best loved writers arrive, depart and return again differently, according to our own changes and development.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I suppose I had been writing for 15 years before I got anything published. I was 37 when my first book of poems came out. And that was by a lucky chance. I was in the North-East when Neil Astley founded Bloodaxe Books. He was looking for new writers. I have been with him ever since.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Not writing. Wanting to write and not being able to.
And the best?
Being able to, feeling sure, having the strong sense of a project and writing closer and closer towards the heart of it.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
One of my premises in poetry is that it is for someone else – that is, for someone other than the person who writes it. The responses that please and affect me most are those from complete strangers who happen to have read a poem of mine or to have heard a play of mine on the radio and who write and tell me so or come up to me at a reading and say so. Then I feel a sort of impersonal pleasure – that the poem, the written and spoken word, has gone abroad and somebody unknown to me has been touched by it. This increases my faith in my vocation.
What was your breakthrough moment?
In practical terms, it was being taken on by Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books. But, more personally, I suppose it might be my writing a sequence of poems about my grandfather who was killed on the Somme in 1916, or rather about my grandmother, who lived 50 years without him. Writing those poems I knew what my responsibility was and I felt I might be able to discharge it.
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