Roger McGough The ‘People’s Poet’ – Part two

HIP concludes its two part interview/Q & A with, poet and Radio 4’s Poetry Please presenter, Roger McGough. If you missed Part One in
Issue 132 you can read it here 

By John Cornelius

Roger McGough 
PICTURE: supplied by Roger McGough 

JC: You and the other Liverpool Poets, as well as a few others like e e cummings, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, plus of course the American beats, opened up poetry and the feasibility of aspiring to write one’s own stuff to people (like me for example) who’d been put off by the looming grey wall of the English Literature Establishment. This seems to have gone into reverse today and once again there is a lot of on-the-page poetry (not so much with performance poetry) that doesn’t invite the reader in at all. If a publisher trumpets that such-and-such a poet has this or that academic seal of approval, it puts me off, whereas if the poet is a taxi driver or a midwife, for example, writing from personal experience, I’d be intrigued. Do you concern yourself with much of what goes on contemporaneously? You’ve said you’re happy just to plough your own furrow. I assume you wear stout boots when you’re doing it…

RM: I have to concern myself with the poetry that is going on around me in my capacity as the presenter of Poetry Please on Radio 4. And what has been interesting this past year has been attempts by the BBC to widen its listenership to include and involve younger poets. ‘Can’t we have more Spoken Word poetry on the programme?’ is often the cry (Strange really, isn’t that what we’ve been doing for 30 years?)
But I know what they mean. Lots of good stuff around, but too
many young poets eager for fame, pushing unrevised poems on YouTube.

JC: Former Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has called you ‘The People’s Poet’ and unlike your original Liverpool contemporaries, which included the Beatles, you don’t mind being uncool enough to admit to being a football fan and also you’ve held onto your Roman Catholic faith. I suppose this is an extension of the previous question but has being ‘just a regular guy’ been a help or a hindrance? And is it true! How many ‘regular guys’ have ‘Poet’ on their passport…

RM: Actually, Carol Ann called me ‘The Patron Saint of Poetry’ which I was happy to sign up to, and I think that my religion has helped keep me ‘umble. My mother always told me I should push myself, otherwise people would take advantage, but I have found that pushiness doesn’t come natural to me. I’m more of a ‘Melting into the Foreground’ kind of guy.

JC: Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney – Lennon and McCartney – you’ve met ‘em all. I wonder who made the biggest impression on you. I’d love to know who the biggest disappointment was too, but I know you’re too tactful to say…

RM: Yes, Bowie, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Susan Sarandon, Her Majesty, I could go on. And what do they all have in common? They all met me.

JC: I noted that your latest collection joinedupwriting – which, for what it’s worth, I think is your best for years – is structured or arranged much like your solo performance gigs, with some clever, punning crowd-pleasers leading to an increasing number of thoughtful/philosophical pieces, reflecting on life,  death and everything to do with ageing. It’s too late now for you to ‘Die a Young Man’s Death’ as per one of your early ones. Do you find the more solemn ones popping out more frequently these days?

RM: One would expect so, but the solemnity has always been there, although crowded out on occasion. Writing poems for children has been a great source of joy for me, and I believe an important part of what makes me a poet.

JC: You’ve written for theatre – everything from P C Plod, The Wind In The Willows via Yellow Submarine through to translations of Moliere; TV commercial voiceovers, and you’re still doing poetry performance gigs as well as presenting Poetry Please with great success despite being given two Radio 4 graveyard slots – Sunday afternoons and late on Saturday nights – and last time I looked you were President of the Poetry Society. The obvious question is: have you thought about retiring, given that you are now in your eighties? Or is the answer, as I suspect it would be, that this is what you’d do for fun as well as profit: why stop doing something you enjoy. In a way, you’ve spent your life doing stuff that other people promise themselves they’ll do when they retire, although I don’t think you’ve got a Harley Davidson yet. Do they do mobility scooters…?

RM: When I started off as a poet I subscribed to the Romantic image, and reckoned I would sacrifice marriage, children and respectability for the sake of my art. My motto: Live fast and die young. But having failed on both counts I consider myself very lucky. I still need to write poems and I still enjoy performing, but when the writing stops I’ll hang up my touring boots.

JC: Thanks, Roger. So much more to discuss but space forbids. There are plenty of local gigs here and a thriving poetry population, so hope we’ll see you around Hastings sometime soon….

RM: John, It’s been a pleasure.

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