A conversation with novelist and poet James Lasdun.
James Lasdun published his first book of short stories, The Silver Age, in 1985. The debut won him the Dylan Thomas Award and was followed by Three Evenings, another book of stories. In 1998, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci directed the film Besieged, an adaptation of Lasdun’s short story “The Siege.”
In 2002 Lasdun published his first novel, The Horned Man. The book earned him the New York Times Notable Book of the Year and the Economist Best Book of the Year. His second novel, Seven Lies, was shortlisted for the 2007 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Lasdun is also an acclaimed poet. His collections include A Jump Start, The Revenant, and Landscape with Chainsaw, which was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize in 2001. Water Sessions(Jonathan Cape, UK, 2012), his latest collection of poetry—the first in over a decade—uses the recurrent motif of water to try and understand male anxieties, the relationship between fathers and sons, the space between repression and desire, the dichotomy of the public and private sphere, and the surprising ways the personal and the political intertwine.
The poems allow the fluidity of water to connect seemingly disparate images. In the final poem, “Stones,” however, Lasdun questions the very purpose of writing poetry.
Continuing on from a theme he probed in his last collection, Lasdun ponders what America means to him as an immigrant and explores the country’s ever-shifting identity. Water Sessions also displays a number of elegies to the poet’s late father.
Lasdun spoke with the Bookman about why he feels violence is an important theme to be explored in poetry, how Chekhov modernized him as a writer, and why an industrial wasteland in New Jersey inspired the milieu for one of his novels.
You’ve written affectionately about America in some of your poetry. What is it that fascinates you about the country?
It’s a varied and complicated place, and I’m drawn to that. My poems represent the two poles of my feelings about America: one was the liberating feeling I had when I came here. I was trying to analyze that in Landscape with Chainsaw: to understand what made me feel so at home here. The second is a slightly more critical perspective, which I explore in this new book. There was an enormous change in everybody’s sense of America after the World Trade Center attacks and the Bush Administration. Over the last ten years, it’s been impossible to feel unequivocally positive for America. My feelings remain complicated, just as the country remains complicated. There are many different Americas and I’m trying to appraise and understand them.
Many images in this collection speak about the death of your father. In “Anchises” you write, “Give me your hand/ let me embrace you/ don’t draw back, father . . .” Could you talk about the relationship you had with him?
I was very close to my father. I was very sad when he died, but he lived a long and fruitful life. He was an architect who had a public career—he designed the National Theatre in London—and very often had to defend himself in public. So he would often come to me and ask for an appropriate quotation. Even though he was an architect, he saw himself as an artist. He pushed himself to the maximum and always made me feel it was okay to be struggling and wrestling with things.
Could you talk about the title Water Sessions and why you chose water as a recurrent motif throughout the collection?
The book is about taking stock of this meandering course of my life. There was this one long poem, “Water Sessions,” which I used for the title of the book, because it seemed to bring all the themes of the book together, sort of looking back over life. Part of that poem has to do with my own experience of psychoanalysis, which is a process of taking account of your whole life as much as you possibly can. In that poem, an image of a river goes through it, going up and down stream. The book seemed to convey a desired state of fluidity. But it’s also about poetry, and to some extent, creativity.
What is the root of the curiosity in this collection to explore violence?
Poetry to me is interesting when it engages in very powerful feelings, and quite often that is going to involve violence as a fantasy component. There is violation of one kind or another in the subjects you are writing about. However, I don’t like poems that gratuitously deploy violent imagery just for the sake of upping the ante. This book is about very personal things, but also about very political things. Both of them sort of converge in my own consciousness, and necessarily there is some violent imagery, but I hope it doesn’t seem gratuitous.
In the poem “Stones” you write, “As if these paths might serve some purpose/ aside from making nothing happen; as if/ their lapidary might lead me somewhere.” Are you presenting here an existential view of life?
That poem I see partially being about poetry, using an analogy of laying stones. I hope it’s not limited to that. I also see it as asking: what the hell is this meant for, spending thirty years writing poetry?
Another poem that discusses the craft of poetry is “Woodpile” . . .
Yes, that is essentially about free poetry, one that accumulates in a very natural way. “Stones” is about trying to write much more deliberate, crafted, complex, and difficult poetry, and I have always felt drawn somewhere between the two kinds of poetry, unable in my own mind to satisfactorily resolve that conflict. “Stones” is a formal poem–it’s all in iambic pentameter and there is a lot of rhyme—but there is also a lot of arguing against itself, questioning the point of summoning those kind of energies, essentially asking, Why do it? Who wants it? Who needs it? I write poetry for my own satisfaction, but I’m not sure anyone else gives a damn!
What was your reaction when your short story “The Siege” was turned into the film Besieged, by Bernardo Bertolucci?
I was thrilled. He was always one of my favorite filmmakers. The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris are two of the greatest films of all time, so to get a phone call from an agent in Italy saying Bertolucci wants to make a movie out of your story was just very strange, and I loved what he did with the film.
In your novel The Horned Man, the language oscillates between elaborate and minimalist styles. What’s the reason for mixing up these different registers of language?
I see it as my attempt—it may not be very successful, though—to unify the two different sides of me as a writer. I had become impatient of stories that lag. I like the sense of compulsive motion forward. Having written movies I had become intolerant of anything that didn’t move forward constantly. At the same time, to deny yourself, as a writer, the full resources of language is stupid. So I was trying to have it both ways.
Could you talk about your fascination with urban landscapes in that novel?
That book is very much about the location where it’s based, which is a place in the East Village. When I lived in that part of New York in the early 1990s, it was pretty desolate, but I liked it. I spent a lot of time just walking around. I remember one time I was taking the train from Penn Station to Princeton. The train went out through Newark, Port Elizabeth, and Trenton. These derelict industrial parts of New Jersey are like the ruins of some vast civilization that has just surrendered to an apocalypse. I found it riveting to just stare out the window at these places. I had never seen anything like that in England. So that found its way into the book.
Who would you say influences you more when you are writing short stories, Chekhov or Nabokov?
Chekhov seems to be much more of a modern writer than Nabokov, who is much more conventional. Chekhov is elusive and abstract. You can never predict which way his stories will go. They are so emotionally driven and follow little nuances of feeling; they fade out rather than go for big endings, but they get hold of things which seem to be just so profound about human life. They are so plain and spare, and so much of life is contained in them, with so little effort—it’s a very casual art. I started out my career writing much more contrived things, and I saw in Chekhov a kind of naturalness that I really admired. As I discovered Chekhov, I saw myself less able to read Nabokov, whom I had been influenced by before, to the point that I can’t really stand him anymore.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.