Everything Everything’s Jeremy Pritchard talks to poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion about his upcoming event in Manchester.
This year’s Manchester After Hours has been gently steered by the theme of ‘odd couplings’. So, strange as it may seem to pair a knighted poet laureate with the bassist of the band Everything Everything, there is method behind the madness: as a creative figure already rooted in the cultural landscape of the city, Jeremy Pritchard was well placed to ask Andrew Motion about his event at IWM North as part of the festival.
On Thursday 14 May, Motion performs the premiere of a specially-created work, as the conclusion to a discussion of his new and past works with Dame Jennie Murray OBE (A Conversation with Sir Andrew Motion, 7.30pm, £6). Titled “A Tile from Hiroshima”, the new poem reflects on the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as part of a wider commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Here, Motion reveals for the first time his belief about the importance of festivals such as Manchester After Hours, the challenges of representing almost unimaginable levels of destruction, and how he was inspired to do so by a humble roof tile.
Look at it this way. From the observation plane flying high
over the city with sunlight rippling along its silver belly
there is a clear view of offices and schools and factories
and wood-frame houses all with roofs of the same dark tiles
– Extract from “A Tile from Hiroshima” by Sir Andrew Motion, 2015
JP: How did this project come about? What was it about this particular commission that attracted you?
AM: I was approached by IWM North, and this subject was suggested by them. They knew I was interested in war poetry, and also knew I’d been to Hiroshima; there’s a poem about it in The Customs House. What attracted me to the subject was the size of the challenge.
JP: Could you say any more about ‘the size of the challenge’?
AM: The dropping of the atomic bomb is one of the most significant events of the 20th century – perhaps one of the most significant events in all human history – because for the first time it proved that our species could, comparatively easily, destroy itself. So how does a poem manage to embrace that idea, let alone the immediate horror of the explosions? It’s impossible really, but my poem does its best by staying with local and particular things, and letting the big ideas emerge from them.
JP: How did the use of artefacts from IWM North’s collection inform your creative process? What were the advantages and limitations of using physical objects as a creative catalyst?
AM: The commission was made easier, paradoxically, by the small size of the initiating object. I thought of Blake’s recommendation that we should see the world in a grain of sand, and thought that my looking deeply into the tile itself I could see the whole large story of the bomb, and its implications.
JP: You raise an interesting point about ‘looking deeply’ into the tile you were working from, and the poem you’ve written deals, at least in part, with ideas of perspective. Might you be able to explain the ideas around this further?
AM: By looking deeply I meant that I started by thinking about the tile-ness of the tile – how it was made, how it would be destroyed, etcetera – then worked down and out through the associations of this particular tile to include the story of atomic research, the bomb-drop, and the aftermath.
JP: What was it about this particular tile that caught your attention?
AM: The fact that it was typical, which allowed all of the above the come into view. Anything more individuated might have been a hindrance, because it would have seemed like an end in itself.
JP: The scale of the devastation caused by the Hiroshima bombing is almost incomprehensible. How do you represent such enormous destruction in your work?
AM: With great difficulty. By staying particular and local. By letting images and ideas – of fragmentation and transformation, in particular – seek one another out. By not moralising or wagging a finger at the audience, but instead allowing them to make their own connections.
JP: You won the Wilfred Owen Prize last year, which specifically recognises war poetry within a sustained body of work. Would describe yourself, albeit in part, as a ‘war poet’?
AM: Yes, I’ve always written war poetry, ever since I began writing at all. No doubt my father’s time in the army during the last war, and my childhood memories of him in uniform, are important here. They crystallised a mental tension between a life of ‘doing’ and a life of thinking and writing.
JP: Your performance will be recorded and housed within IWM North’s main exhibition space. Are artistic responses such as yours as important a part of memorial as first-hand testimony and artefacts?
AM: I think so. At least, they can be. As a way of breathing new life into familiar objects, and illuminating them in surprising ways. And, ideally, as a way of becoming extensions to the objects.
JP: During your laureateship you founded the National Poetry Archive, one of whose founding principles is to capture poets reading their own work, as you are doing as part of this event. Why is that important to you?
AM: The acoustic world of poetry is essential to its meanings and its pleasures. It’s more than just important that we hear poems as well as read them on the page. And the fascination of hearing a poet read their own work is always tremendous.
JP: How important is the role of festivals like this within the wider context of dwindling public arts funding?
AM: Literature festivals, and arts festivals generally, are supremely important events in the life of every community. They show what matters, and why it matters, to the human life of that community.
JP: Would it be fair to say that your work has a social conscience, or that you’re are aware of your social responsibilities as an artist? Whilst poet laureate, you seemed to make very clear moves that reflect this, moves that modernised the post and altered the traditional expectations and duties of a laureate.
AM: I hope so. Although I distrust and dislike a great deal of poetry that has what Keats calls a ‘palpable design’ on its readers – cultural, political, whatever – I am a person of strong political opinions, and would like to think that the social conscience of which they form a part is reflected in the subjects I write about.