Caught by the River

An interview with Joe Dunthorne

Will Burns | 23rd July 2018

Will Burns shoots some questions across to Joe Dunthorne ahead of his impending appearance on our Port Eliot Stage.

Hi Joe. How’s things? Will Burns here. Just sending over a couple of questions by way of introducing your event at Port Eliot Festival next weekend to the readers here at Caught by the River. Hopefully the questions relate in various ways to your Rough Trade Books pamphlet, All the Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything to Everyone, which has just come out and is what you’re going to be talking about at the festival.

The pamphlet is a work of fiction, and yet there’s a formal play going on which is a kind of poetic aspect as well, and obviously poetry and its attendant culture are very much in the foreground of the subject matter. I wondered how you feel those two parts of your writing co-exist, given your talent for both? Do they drip into one another? Or do you feel they are completely separate?

They definitely leach into one another. In simple ways, a short story might get boiled down to a poem or the best lines of a poem could get rehoused in a novel. But I also find, when I’m writing fiction, that sometimes a problem can only be solved if the prose takes on the qualities of a poem. I think of it a bit like in a West End musical when a character changes their mind or makes a key decision through a song. In the process of singing a heroic melody, the character suddenly decides that they are going to climb the treacherous mountain alone at midnight without the relevant safety equipment. Sometimes logic and reasonable language aren’t up to the job of representing human behaviour – and that’s where poetry can help.

It’s quite a tender book, really, and I felt you actually have a lot of time for both the editor of this mythical anthology, and a lot of the poets too. But it’s also obviously gently lampooning them. Is that important? That people can be essentially good while also preposterous? Or at least have some preposterous element?

Absolutely. All the best people are somewhat preposterous. That’s part of what’s interesting about poets and poetry. There’s an inherent bravery in taking poems seriously because most of the world find people who take poems seriously ridiculous. In this story, it’s the editor’s willingness to put poetry before everything else in his life that is both heroic and comic. And I’m happy you think it’s a tender book because I am definitely on the side of the poets. I love them (us) for their (our) preposterousness.

The final sentence of the blurb suggests this idea of a poetry anthology with no poems in it, and I thought of the Ben Lerner essay The Hatred of Poetry – is that essential failure of poems part of the same thing? They are trying their best…

Definitely. In my story, the editor is overwhelmed by the terrible competency of the poems he is sent. There are good lines and good ideas and it’s all well crafted but it still doesn’t – can’t – fulfil the fantasy of what he believes poetry can be. I really like that Ben Lerner essay. It captures the disappointment, the compromise, that’s a constant for most readers of poems. I sometimes think this is why many people feel that they “don’t get” poetry; they don’t realise that their expectations are set too high. It’s normal not to be transformed by the power of verse!

I also wanted to ask about the whole festival experience as an author. You’ve obviously done your fair share. How does giving a reading as a poet differ for you compared to introducing a new novel, say? I have to say that looks incredibly difficult from the outside, knowing which bits to read from, how to precis the book, not giving too much away…

I think reading poems is much harder. As a novelist, you just say hello, open the book and fifteen minutes later you close it and say goodbye. Also, expectations for novelists are set quite low – you just have to be not totally shit and you’re doing fine. With poetry, there are some incredible readers. The best readers can mesmerise an audience. Also, there’s an idea – perhaps it’s another unhelpful poetry cliché – that poets will “connect” with an audience in a way that a novelist will not. I think the stakes are much higher for poets. When a reader of poems gets it wrong on stage, they die. But when it goes well, they are a god.


Joe Dunthorne will be discussing his Rough Trade Books Pamphlet All the Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything to Everyone on our Port Eliot stage on Saturday afternoon.