six things: WN Herbert

WN Herbert

About WN Herbert

WN Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961. He’s published numerous books of poetry, mostly with Bloodaxe, and edited several anthologies. He is also a critic and (with a great deal of help) a translator. He lives in North Shields on the mouth of the River Tyne, and teaches Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Forthcoming books include Jade Ladder, an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, and his next collection, Omnesia.

WN Herbert’s website:

• One thing that’s always worth getting out of bed for

The sheer number of things waiting to be done, some of which are waiting to be done by me in particular. Whether creatively or in terms of other responsibilities, whether driven by gut instinct, guilt or eternal excitement, the possibilities crowd the brain to its horizon.

For instance (1), we have not, despite the now-decrepit protestations of modernism, begun to exhaust what poetic form can do. Or the book of poems. Or the book. Or the book about such things.

For instance (2), I’m a Cancer on a Gemini cusp, so whether horoscopy is crap or not, I could try answering this in triplicate: once as a poet, once as a professor, and once as the cartoon character Blll.


The Sad Professor

The Sad Professor

For instance (3), scrambled egg.




My robot butler fox: a mass of limbs, levers and oily tentacles emitting from this giant steel periwinkle shell on casters with inbuilt sock drawers and fridge components.

When you squeeze past the claws there's an interior shower unit, the curtain for which depicts key physicists working on the problem of time, and a Corbie newspaper press (manufactured by real crows) that perfectly straightens and flattens The Dundee Courier and Advertiser until it is one molecule thick.

Also on the outside is that big Jewish clockface from Prague which tells the hours backwards, the direction in which (it sometimes feels) we are actually pointed, though if we were our teeth would be able to sculpt perfect meals from a throatful of undigested pap. In the smaller convolutes are placed an ant orchestra, the egg-scrambling device he constructed himself before I could explain what eggs were and now refuses to update, and what surely can't be a real fox's head in a bubble.

He wakes me with one freshly-baked fortune cookie and a cup of peppermint tea, its leaves gathered from the Cretan hills with a sugar cube in it which he carves himself (sometimes it's a sugar pyramid). My fortune this morning was 'You will meet a river cobbler.'

• One thing about myself that often obstructs me

BILL: Too much choice. As you may have suspected, I don’t have a particularly unified self, and so I’ve always been diverse in what I can do, and things (poems, projects, theories) always go in so many directions for me I don’t develop some of them as methodically as I should. There are generalists of creativity as well as generalissimos, speculators as well as specialists, and I’ve always been happy working across the board. But it means I often need collaborators to enable me to do the range of things I’d like to: translation, libretti and text-based public art come to mind.

And therefore I have tended to prefer the punk aesthetic of one take, warts and all (what the Chinese call chàbudūo (差不多) ‘that’ll do’; what Ginsberg called ‘first thought best thought’; what MacCaig called the ‘two fag’ method) to the perfectionist’s demand his orders be obeyed coz he’s better. But, as with those exemplars, I suppose I’ve really favoured the appearance of the punk aesthetic, however achieved, to the appearance of perfection, however respectable the perfecter.

THE SAD PROFESSOR: My procrastinating attitude toward admin and the marking. Apparently I’m not allowed to do it on a beach while drinking rum, so I get caught between the stick and the stick with no carrot in sight:

The Parable of the Donkey with Two Sticks

When I have two things I need to get done – or rather two things which other people need me to get done – I can never decide between them, I just stand there.

You know how they say if you offer a donkey two carrots it can’t decide between them, and you have to move one carrot nearer than the other? Well, I’m like that with sticks. I know I’m going to get beaten by both masters, as it were, but I still can’t decide which task to do first, so just stand there till one of them beats me harder.

It’s no use me thinking about which task is more important, or needs to be done sooner – it’s not even any good looking beyond the two sticks to the nice carrot of doing my own thing, which I know I can only get to if I get on with the two tasks, one after the other.

The bit of me that’s a donkey can’t decide between two carrots, let alone juggle two sticks and a carrot, and the bit of me that’s beating me on behalf of my two masters, my conscience, knows that he can’t move the carrot any closer until the tasks are done.

So I just stand there, while the blows rain down on me, waiting to see who has the stronger arm or the bigger stick.

BLLL: I am perfectly happy. But I speak at a frequency that dogs and bats find disturbing, so my wisdom often goes unheard. A certain portion of the population fears, dislikes and ignores the vigorous bumpy music of language, and therefore experience poetry as a kind of carnivorous snail infesting the fleshy cabbage of their frontal lobes, and therefore do not appreciate my heroes...
(who form at least two football teams, the international side: MES, Beefheart, Björk, Lynch, Svankmajer, O'Hara, Milligan, Gaillard, Carrington, Carroll and Pu Songling; and the domestic: Morgan, WSG, MacDiarmid, Davidson, Thomson, Hogg, Burns, Fergusson, Urquhart, Wedderburn and Dunbar)
...or the conviction that we need to sabotage our egos and undermine our authority at every turn in order to escape the ideology. They allow themselves to be bullied by sententious broadsheets of paper and gripping crime drama. In fact they rather like it, the kinky fuckers.

• One thing I’ve learned the hard way

BILL: If you’re lucky you have a way of writing that’s unique to you, but you won’t know much about it at first, and, while you don’t need to know everything about it (in fact it’s crippling to do so), you have to learn the art of being as self-aware as possible about your writing without becoming self-conscious.

Once you’ve heard that music, you have to do what the muse says, and go with those most unlikely of urges even when you see it’s taking you outside your or indeed poetry’s comfort zones. Comfort is about excluding the cold complexities of weather and strangers, whereas creativity is about discovering those weathers, those others, were always already inside you.

THE SAD PROFESSOR: Do what I never do: make sure you get the credit. Academe is even more shameless than the literary world about appropriating ‘your’ ideas – perhaps because they really believe they’re more important than you, perhaps because they suspect no-one is looking.

BLLL: Concepts are not sturdy enough to equal 'one thing'. Also, the past is not recoverable in a literal sense, and certainly not by staring at linoleum. The animal cannot learn this, and sleep-deprivation will not help. When your dead grandfather who never kissed you when he was alive kisses you in a dream you should be grateful.

• One thing that gets under my skin

BILL: Positively? Repetitive music, which can but doesn’t have to be minimalist, which can be electronic or more organically-produced, gets under my skin in a Pictish tattoo-like way. I’m a huge fan of Kraftwerk, Can, The Stooges/Iggy, Neu, Sun Ra, The Ramones, The Fall – as long as it goes on for a long time and if it could also have strange lyrics I gurgle and shake like a kitten drowning in glue.

THE SAD PROFESSOR: Negatively? People who think that learning about a subject (let’s just say, Creative Writing) is the same as learning how to teach that subject. Some of these are the same people as those who think they can teach how to write without having gone through the business of writing books and doing readings which mean they must engage with listeners and readers and publishers and reviewers. And some of those are the same people who began by thinking they didn’t need to read anyone else’s writing before they embarked on their own. And some of those (regrettably we’re still not down to just one egomaniac in Ballater, because then we could just descend upon his house and devour him like literate zombies) are the very people who believe they don’t need to read any of that previous stuff by people who are dead or just difficult which is sometimes written in other languages.

Recapitulating that paragraph backwards, they do, they do, they have to, and it isn’t.

BLLL: Randomly? Personalised number plates. Not only are these prime idioglossia, but, under the guise of being some blurk's incoherent assertion of ego - something we are all lumbered with rather than any kind of personal achievement - they manhandle language in order to assert the possession of and by extension the existence of money, even though we all know that can't be true. There is no such thing as money, children, and I don’t care if that ruins Christmas. Pretending as the world does that there is promptly summons the inner minotaur. (The same goes for the apparition of companies’ words on your clothing). Sit, Asterion, sit.

• One thing I’d love to change

BILL: My grandmother’s decision not to let my father buy her flat in the first series of council house sales in the 80s – it wasn’t a huge amount at that point, but she was a singularly self-effacing woman and saw it as getting above herself. It was and remains a central imaginative locus and I can’t believe I wouldn’t have returned to live in Dundee like a real person if we’d had it. There’s another universe or novel in which that happened. Mebbe that’s where Blll lives – or mebbe that’s why Blll exists.

Or that time in the basement when, despite being off my head and wearing a saffron dress, and despite having a full band of housemates and a drumkit, I could not be persuaded to sing ‘Jeane’ because I wasn’t sure I knew all the words even though I knew I could make them up. That unnecessary inner restraint.

THE SAD PROFESSOR: My work work/creative work/real life balance. I don’t think any writer should work full time in any job – especially in a university. And (and only if it’s a secondary vocation) I don’t think they should work in such a part-time manner that they don’t connect with their work environment, either. Somewhere between half and three-quarter contracts seems about right – you get to know everyone and what’s required to such an extent as to be able to theorise intelligently about what needs done beyond your own immediate situation. But you’re free enough to pick up the freelance work which will feed both your own writing and, paradoxically (at least to the academic mind-set), the institution.

BLLL: I'd like to change my pillow for a large natural sponge, but with a compartment carved out of it - a sponge aumrie, if you will - in which I can leave messages for my dream-self, and he can leave messages for me. First message: 'Do not sack Constantinople, Dandolo.' First reply: 'Remember the antibiotics for Montaigne.'

• One thing I hope for

BILL: That contemporary writing can get out of its Western high art mind-set without simply appropriating other genres or cultures, ie that it might actually learn something from the rest of everybody. I travel and consume like any other passive customer/tourist, but it always seems to turn out wrong. Which is good: I’m hoping I can turn that wrongth into something distinctive.

(Toward which end I’d quite like an art form or possibly just an app which pulls together the poem, visual imagery and sound, and can still be held in the hand: something more than comic, and more than iPod, but at the service of the book. I dream about it but as yet I can’t buy it.)

THE SAD PROFESSOR: The live campus: a space in which creative performance is an ordinary daily occurrence fully integrated into the curriculum, and is used as a means of encouraging dialogue between academic schools and between research and practice; where all kinds of essays, meaning attempts and experiments as well as simply different discourses (and instead of formulaic responses) are understood to be part of as many courses as possible.

BLLL: Time: if we could just prove that it all exists, we'd be able to accomplish so much. But for the moment there just appears to be the present, and it's only a few seconds long. If there's a future, I'm hoping that its technicians can eventually extend the present to cover large areas of what will become the former past so I can check out my childhood and the other zones where all the dead people live. Also that we might make further inroads into mythic time so I can meet Odysseus and the gang, Dracula and his crew, and also Iggy Pop. In the meantime it's just me, my inner minotaur and this oversized robot butler fox. At mealtimes, fortunately, my family turns up too.

About six things

‘six things’ is a series of micro-interviews with interesting and creative people, in which they’re asked to respond to a standard set of six prompts. A new ‘six things’ is published on the site each Saturday.