Wendy Cope is one of the most beloved contemporary British poets, known for her wit and succinct expression. When she was rumoured to become the next poet laureate she announced that she wasn’t interested, believing that a poet should be free to write the poems they want to write. Even more amazingly, she makes a living from writing poetry and, to our continuous joy, runs poetry workshops at Kingston University. WPN is proud to present Wendy Cope in conversation with Boyana Petrovich, discussing things poetry, literature and life related.
Wendy, you sold your archive to the British Library in 2011. It included 40,000 emails, poetry notebooks, school reports, Word files, early school work, correspondence and accounts books. What struck me most was that you had all this saved in the first place, most of us don’t even keep a diary. What motivated you to collect such an extensive archive? Were there things you decided to exclude from the archive and keep just for yourself?
I’ve always tended to keep letters and so on, even before I had any thought of being a published writer. When I got published I became aware that my documents might be of interest at some stage.
In 2011 I needed to raise money to buy a house – my partner was retiring and the house we lived in went with his job. So I contacted the British Library. To persuade them to buy I had to throw in a few things I would rather have kept.
After you published Serious Concerns Ted Hughes wrote to you: “I like your deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head – when everybody else is trying to hang pictures on it.” How would you describe your poetry? How would you like people to remember it?
There’s no way of answering this question without sounding boastful. I think it’s for other people to describe my poems, not me.
The Uncertainty of the Poet is a very funny, yet deep and eloquent piece of writing – and it uses only eight different words. In an interview you said that you were commissioned by the Tate Gallery to write about any one of their exhibits. When you saw de Chirico’s painting The Uncertainty of the Poet you thought “I am a poet. I am very fond of bananas” and that became the beginning of the poem. How did the rest of the poem happen?
I thought of the first stanza, then the idea of using the same words in a different order throughout the poem. Once I’d got that far, the poem more-or-less wrote itself.
You have said that in order to become a better poet it is essential to read poetry, both contemporary and of the past. Who did you most learn from? Is there a poet (or two) you can recommend to those who find classic poetry long-winded and difficult?
A.E.Housman; his poems are short, accessible and moving.
You seem to prefer form to free verse. What is it that form offers you that free verse doesn’t?
It makes a few decisions for you and provides a template. I like having some rules to follow. But I do write free verse as well, of course.
How do you know when a poem is finished? Is it a knowledge or a gut feeling? Do you ever re-write a poem you’d thought was done?
When I’ve written a poem I go over it in my head. Often I realise there is a line that needs improvement. Then there may be another one. When I stop finding lines that need improvement, the poem is finished. I have occasionally changed things many years after I first wrote them.
Your debut collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, has sold over 180,000 copies to date (according to poetryarchive.org), which must put you among the bestselling living poets. How hard is it to make a living as a poet?
Nowadays many published poets have salaried positions on creative writing courses. For those who don’t (and I’m one of them), it can be difficult to make a living. I’m fortunate in that my books sell well by poetry standards, although I couldn’t live on the proceeds. Doing poetry readings is an important source of income for me. The teaching I do at Kingston is paid per session (not salaried) and doesn’t contribute much to my income. I’m now old enough to receive my state pension, plus some pension from the years I was a schoolteacher. That helps a lot.
At a reading you did in Hong Kong you said that “being a person who makes a fuss about copyright has become [your] second career” and that you don’t think the battle for copyright is lost. Has your opinion changed at all? Do you know that the video recording of the reading is available online?
No, I didn’t know that recording was available online. I may have been asked about it and forgotten. I’m not too concerned about audio or video recordings, as long as printed versions of the poems don’t appear. Sometimes I think the battle for copyright is lost but I carry on fighting anyway. I’m not the only one.
In many of your poems you talk about relationships between men and women. There’s been a lot of talk about whether (at least in your poems) you hate men or not, something female feminist writers often encounter. You don’t label yourself a feminist poet. Can you please tell us why?
Back in the 1970s, if you called yourself a feminist writer, other feminists would give you a hard time if they didn’t think you were feminist enough, or in the right way. If you didn’t call yourself a feminist, they just ignored you, which was fine with me. I do, however, think I’m a feminist, that is, someone who believes men and women are equal.
You teach poetry, among other institutions, at Kingston University. Do you like teaching or is it something you have to do? Do you think that it in any way influences your writing?
To be honest, I wouldn’t do any teaching if I didn’t need the money. However, I often enjoy it. I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed doing workshops at Kingston and getting to know some of the students.
What are you reading right now? Anything you’d like to recommend?
I’ve just finished “Apple Tree Yard “, a brilliant psychological thrilled by Louise Doughty. Before that I read John Drury’s new biography of the poet George Herbert – I recommend that too.
Contemporary literary theory likes to talk about the “death of literary fiction”, how it has become a past time, just a distraction from our doom, that fiction is frivolous and inferior to reality. What’s your opinion on this, both as an author and a reader? Do you think poetry is in a superior position to prose? What is the role/place of poetry in our lives?
I read a lot of novels. I often enjoy them very much. Sometimes I come across observations
about human behaviour that enrich my life.
No, I don’t think poetry is in a superior position to prose. For one thing, far more people actually read novels than read poems.
And the role of poetry in our lives? I can only quote Dr Johnson, who said that the purpose of literature is to help us “better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”
Wendy Cope will be doing a reading at Kingston on 12th March at 7pm in room JG 0002 (after refreshments at 6.30pm), so do come along.
There are no spaces left on the workshops running in February and March, but keep an eye out on future announcements. An opportunity to learn from a renowned, award winning poet is not the one to miss.