Mark Thwaite The First Poets is a plea to get us back to reading classical Greek writers (from Homer and Sappho to Anacreon, Theocritus the father of pastoral, and Hipponax). Have they really got anything much still to say to us? Are they really still relevant?
Michael Schmidt "Obviously Homer has and will always have much to tell us. The case for the others needs making individually. Sappho is fascinating as much for the legends of the life as for the poems. A reader who can get his or her head around Pindar and the Epinicean tradition is likely to understand a lot of poetry which seems difficult or opaque to other readers. Anyone who loves Modernism will find nourishment among the Greek epic and Lyric poets, and especially perhaps among the Alexandrians. Hesiod, too, is quite a challenge. But the greatest excitement for the reader is the degree to which he or she must participate in making the texts up out of fragments, re-inventing them. There's a kind of archaeology in it."
MT In all your research for The First Poets what fact(s) did you unearth that intrigued you the most?
MS "Well, probably the factuality of so much of the poetry, from Homer right down to Theocritus, where you can suddenly recognise in the movements or plot of a poem the specific geography of a city, or the precise landscape (now much untreed) of certain poets' perspectives. The poetry is fragmentary, and the world to which it witnesses survives fragmentarily too ..."
MT You are a writer, a publisher (in charge of Carcanet press) and an academic: how do you fit it all in? Which do you like best!?
MS "My greatest pleasures are probably in teaching (not marking), writing (not proof reading) and editing. I have few distractions, and I get up relatively early in the morning, before the first telephone call."
MT How is PNR going!?
MS "PNR is the apple of my eye. It is an odd apple, however: its deadlines come around monotonously, and all the time I am commissioning and accepting work, so when the deadline strikes I go to my blue box and riffle out an issue, and there are wonderful combinations and synergies. I love PN Review because you can try out things while they are still fresh in your enthusiasm, and it is also a crucial critical forum for me and for many others."
MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
MS "I make notes in margins and at the backs of books, pretty lavish notes sometimes, in Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5 extra fine pens and their cousins and aunts and uncles. (The tops are very chewable). The notes are transcribed and then I generally nowadays write on the keyboard. I am a fast two-finger typist."
MT What is coming next?
MS "Three more volumes of The Story of Poetry and then a Lives of the Novelists."
MT What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer and/or biggest influence?
MS "The biggest influence on my thinking and writing has been C.H. Sisson, a poet whose work I love and whose breadth and acerbity I admire, though I cannot emulate. Also Donald Davie, and latterly Eavan Boland, who is a powerful critic and a wonderful poet. My favourite writers in the world (allowing Homer, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare to be something more than writers) are probably George Herbert, Edward Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop. Among prose writers? Well, of the modern critics, I am surprised to say, Virginia Woolf, and of the novelists, Lampedusa, perhaps."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
MS "Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo."
MT You teach creative witing: what are your top tips for for the aspiring writer!?
MS "Read, read, read. I am sure the disciplines are different for drama, but for poetry and fiction, especially the young writer must read voraciously, gluttonously... And buy lots of books. Reading on line is easy because so much is there, but so much isn't, and the word that flickers and fades is unlike the word in ink on the paper.."
MT Thank you so much for your time Michael - all the very best!