David Cooke looks back on poetry stops and starts as he unveils a bumper volume of poems
We at Write Out Loud have been lucky over the years to include the accomplished poet David Cooke as one of our number. David has regularly posted his poems on this site for well over a decade. Now upon reaching an important age milestone, he has published his bumper Collected Poems, which includes work from 10 collections. To mark the occasion Write Out Loud has interviewed him about how he started, writer’s block, his ‘Irishness’ and interest in European culture, and his influential and popular online poetry magazine The High Window.
Congratulations on publishing your Collected Poems, David, around the time of your 70th birthday. At what age did you begin writing poetry?
I remember being turned on to modern poetry by a new friend I made at school when I was 14. He lent me his copy of the Penguin Poets edition of WH Auden. From then on I was hooked and started trying to write poetry myself. I actually won some national poetry competition for kids while I was still at school, but I must have been about 19 when I wrote my first real poem. It was dedicated to my grandfather and was called ‘Visiting’. It was published a few years later in The Honest Ulsterman, edited by the great Frank Ormsby. It’s still there in my Collected Poems and seems to be one that people like, although like all of my earliest poems it has been extensively revised over the years.
As a young poet, you won a Gregory award, which recognises new poets of merit and promise. How did that feel at the time?
In my late teens and early twenties I wrote very hesitantly and didn’t find it easy at all. By the time I went to university at the age of 21, after a year working with my dad on the buildings and another taking new A-levels at Reading Technical College, I had gathered a slim sheaf of poems and continued to add to it slowly. At Nottingham University, I was studying modern languages, but in the first year some English students were bringing out a poetry magazine and they accepted a couple of my poems. One of them said I should show my stuff to Tom Paulin. Much to my surprise, he said he was impressed. You could have knocked me down with a feather. When I came back from my year abroad as an English language assistant in France, he told me he’d just won a Gregory award and suggested that I could try for one when I was ready. Somehow or other, I managed to wangle one, which obviously gave me a great boost, except that I soon dried up after I got started on my teaching career.
You have talked in the past of a writers’ block for many ensuing years. How did that come about? And what triggered you to write again?
Basically, I have no idea where poems come from and why, for quite brief spells, I manage to write them and then, for much longer periods, I don’t. I have just learned to be patient and have never seen the point of forcing myself to write. I think the experience of writing lots of bad poems would be unbearably depressing. Maybe more poets should stop writing when it’s obvious they have nothing to say! I’m sure that the demands of having to earn a living had a lot to do with suppressing my creativity. However, there have also been times when I have met other poets and become part of a poetic community. That seems to have helped me get back into it. In 2008, I got quite friendly with Peter Robinson who had recently moved from Japan to Reading and lived around the corner from my family home and, as a result, I got involved in the poetry scene centred on the Poets Café and Two Rivers Press. Back home in Grimsby, I had also got involved with the Nunsthorpe poetry group. However, after eight extremely prolific years, I have dried up again and written virtually nothing for the last six. Still, somehow or other, my Collected Poems has ended up being a pretty substantial volume so I can’t really complain!
Ireland figures prominently in your writing at times, along with your family heritage. Can you talk about your Celtic influences?
My first poems were largely an exploration of my ‘Irishness’ and my lapsed Catholicism. I suppose it’s normal enough for a poet to examine who they are and where they come from, especially, if like mine, your parents came from a different country from the one you were born and grew up in yourself. Also, I was very lucky to have the experience of that rural paradise in the west of Ireland. Equally important, though, was the experience of going to Catholic schools where many of the teachers were Irish and so many of the kids were second-generation Irish like me. When we were kids, myself and my siblings, had a strong sense of our Irish identity and this of course has been the theme of many of my poems. My wife’s family is also Irish. She was actually born in Ireland, although she came to England with her family when she was three years old.
You are also a linguist. How important is poetry in translation to you? Would you be happy to be described as an ‘international’ poet?
I’ve never really thought of using that particular phrase, but I have never thought of myself as an ‘English’ poet either. I’m not properly Irish or properly English and I have absorbed a great deal of European culture, so maybe ‘International’ makes sense. As for languages, I have always been fascinated by them for as long as I can remember. As a small child, I was drawn to the Irish language on road signs and the Latin/English text of the Mass on Sundays. I loved Latin and French at school and soon started learning languages on my own and have pretty well carried on all my life. One of the advantages of this obsession is that I have access to lots of foreign poets. So I don’t tend to read translations on their own merits, but tend to use them as a way into the languages I have a working knowledge of. As far as I’m concerned, the more literal and less ‘inspired’ they are, the better!
Some years ago you established The High Window online quarterly magazine with Anthony Costello. You now carry it forward as a solo initiative. Many poets value it greatly. What does it mean to you, and how much work is involved?
I get a great deal of satisfaction from The High Window and feel it gives me an opportunity to lay out my stall in the world of poetry. I may not be writing poems myself at the moment but I can still have some input. I do get the impression that a lot of people appreciate it and some say that they even depend on it. It’s particularly exciting when you discover very talented poets who are often unassuming and have no public profile whatsoever. It does involve a huge amount of work, which is why I have had to stop publishing books, and I am always trying to cut it back, but without too much success!
One quality of your poetry for me is that it is not particularly introspective … and I do mean that in a very positive way. Your last collection, for instance, The Metal Exchange, was a very original take on an overlooked subject. The poetry of things? Another quality that struck me quite recently is that, maybe unusually in the poetry world, your poems are usually cheerful in tone, upbeat. How would you respond to that?
It’s always fascinating to hear what others make of my poems because I really don’t ‘overthink’ them. I just write the poems that come to me. Although I do, of course, have to get them into shape, they still kind of write themselves. At least they do, if they are any good! I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t start out with an agenda. However, I can see that various themes and a certain personality are in evidence. I suppose my poems about my family and upbringing do tend to be fairly upbeat. For example, I wrote a set of poems about my father-in-law’s battle with cancer. However, the way he faced his inevitable demise was exemplary and he was full of high spirits to the end. So I’d like to think that those poems are life-affirming. Still, some of the poems I wrote in the eighties, which were more obviously coloured by my lapsed Catholicism, are amongst the gloomier things I have written. In fact, Michael Laskey, the editor of the now defunct Smiths Knoll magazine, returned some with the following brief note, ‘Can’t you send me something a bit more cheerful?’ Maybe I have lightened up a bit with old age! You mention the poems in The Metal Exchange, which may be my swan song! You refer to them as ‘thing poems’ which is, of course, largely true. However, they opened up pathways to all sorts of areas I would never have written about otherwise. They were also a lot of fun to write and came together incredibly quickly.
Which poets have influenced you the most over the years?
Well, as I mentioned above it was Auden who first got me started. Then I discovered Larkin, Hughes, and Gunn, as was normal for my generation. After them came that explosion of poets in Northern Ireland: Montague, Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Carson … I learned an awful lot from all of them and also from Douglas Dunn and David Harsent. Thereafter there are too many to mention, except perhaps some foreign masters. I love Montale and indeed so many other Italian poets and, more recently Cavafy, and then Polish poets like Tadeusz Różewicz. I also love the Latin poets, especially Catullus. I think I have always tended to go for poets who say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s all about the right word in the right place and making your lines sing. It’s easy to say but not always easy to achieve.
Finally, I must thank you, as a poet of skill, craft, and quality, for sharing your poems on Write Out Loud over many years. We have always felt honoured to see you on our site. Good luck with the collection!
David Cooke's Collected Poems amounts to almost 500 pages, and includes poems from 10 collections, translations, and a comprehensive interview with Patricia McCarthy first published in the magazine Agenda in 2021