DDateable travels again!! This time we’re in Brazil with Paul Webb! Paul is a poet, translator, and English-language teacher, just to name a few! And quite an educated man, Webb holds a BA in Theology, a Master’s degree in Modern Languages and a Doctorate in Sociology. Naturally my first question will have to be about Language to a translator and teacher, so here we go!
Studying all the languages you have, how does language play a role in your poetry?
I would say that, at root, all my poems are about language. Poetry is about humanity and everything human is mediated by language. People say that the human brain is the most complex object in the universe. But language is more complex, because language is the product of billions of human brains working together throughout history.
When I moved to Brazil, I became keenly aware of the Englishness of English as a historically determined cultural, political and socio-economic artefact. I try to bring this out in my work: favoring Anglo-Saxon over Latinate lexis, using lots of phrasal verbs and grammatical and phonetic features that are characteristic of English and reflect its history of seafaring, free-market capitalism, industry and the like.
You mention various phases your poetry went through, which has produced your best work? (i.e French, Brazil, English / punk and rap)
I don’t really have the right to make that judgment for myself. I would say, however, that I feel more comfortable with my own voice now than I ever have done before. In the early phases, I was very dependent stylistically on certain masters: Francis Ponge, João Cabral, William Carlos Williams, and so forth. At other times my work was more exploratory, diffident, experimental. Now I always know exactly what I want as soon as I start a piece. That doesn’t mean it comes easily; I still have to craft. In fact, I tend to craft more, because I know now what I am working towards.
How has your life journey influenced your work?
As a general rule, I don’t write about myself or my life. I am interested in certain themes and follow these in my work. These themes necessarily derive in some measure from my experiences and the times in which I live. But I am not a confessional poet; nor does my work aim to reach out to people in a touchy-feely way. I can give two examples of these overarching themes rooted in issues that trouble me. One concerns the ambivalent nature of language itself. The way it simultaneously endows us with the great gift of being able to connect with other human beings and the world, yet also provides us with a set of tools that can equally well be applied to fostering exclusion and alienation and destroying the natural environment. This is perhaps explored most extensively in my series Thirty Sonnets on Autism, which was based on the experience of living with an autistic boy. In these poems, true closeness comes ironically from a denial of language, from a closing or shrugging off of neurologically typical language-bound human relations.
The other theme is that of comfort and convenience as harbingers of self-destruction. The very facility of modern life contains the seeds of its own demise. The pursuit of happiness so often produces its opposite, especially in relationships. The theme is a pressing one in an age in which the pursuit off convenience and freedom from distress
is, in fact, ruining our mental health and poisoning our natural habitats. I first addressed this theme in an apocalyptic poem entitled Expurosis, in which the fires of the end of the world are described in terms of home and hearth and comforting warmth.
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
I wouldn’t write a book about my life because either it would be brutally honest and reflect badly on me or wholly dishonest and hence pointless. Besides, my life hasn’t been very interesting. There are far more important things to write about. My last selection of poems was entitled Fun and Suffering. That pretty much sums life up.
Is your work political?
Yes. My work has become more and more political over the years, although not in an overtly party-political or ideological way. I spent 25 years trying to write an idiosyncratic translation of Catullus Poem 64 .
When it finally came together, it was late 2016 and we had had the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum and I realized that, for a long time, I had been trying to write about the social forces that unleashed these results. Not that I support Trump or Brexit, but I hail from the ranks of the dispossessed working classes that do and I feel I understand why. Since then, it has become a mission to address these subjects, however painful. My next long poem series—17—was about a mass shooting.
What are your main aesthetic principles?
I have a very clear personal poetics, which is influenced in part by the principles that underpin the Dogme style of film-making. Like Dogme film-makers, I aim to avoid all artificial devices: rhyme schemes, formal rhythm, fancy language and the like. I try not to write anything in a poem that would sound out of place in everyday life. Poetry, for me, is about finding music and beauty in ordinary (even vulgar) language use, not about imposing an artificial or sentimentalized formal structure upon it.
If you want to see more of Paul’s work, head to his blog here