While in his visit to London this past June, the writer/poet Marek Bartelik met up with the Annie Freud in a café in SoHo to talk about her art and poetry, and continued their conversation over the next few months via e-mail.
Marek Bartelik (Rail): Your debut volume of poetry is titled The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador 2007), the next one has a provisional title The Mirabelles. How important are the titles of those volumes, as well as your individual poems, to you?
Annie Freud: My title poem, “The Best Man That Ever Was,” did start out as “The Worst Man That Ever Was,” but it seemed a bit obvious. Calling him the Best Man that Ever Was made his identity more interesting and the woman’s story more convincing.
One of my new poems is called “The Mirabelles”; it is some ways a credo poem. I love the word Mirabelles for its suggestiveness. Mirabelles, as I’m sure you know, are those tiny sweet yellow plums used in France to make the most delicious of eaux de vie and tarts the size of cartwheels. And it is also an homage to William Carlos Williams for his lovely poem, “This is Just to Say,” a favorite of mine.
I love giving my poems titles. There’s something leisurely and luxurious about it. It’s like wrapping a present and then putting in the post, and I like to send parcels. I like poem titles to be eye catching and punchy. I have a lot of poem titles lying around waiting to be used.
I often use things that I hear people say to find them. There’s a Beatles song that ends with a chanted line that’s repeated several times like a scratched record, and that sounds like “It really could be any other.” People used to say that if you listened to it backwards—quite how that would have been done, I’m not sure—you would uncover some “truth” or at least something enjoyably shocking. It was the sort of “insider knowledge” that people used to enjoy flaunting. So I called a poem of mine about that time “Like What You Get When You Play It Backwards.”
I also like poem titles to be suggestive of earlier poems. A favorite of mine is Ashbery’s “Little JA in a Prospect of Flowers,” a weirdly post-Freudian take on Marvell’s “Little TC in a Prospect of Flowers.”
When I go into a bookshop to look for a book of poems, I look at titles to see if something grabs me. That’s how I give my poems titles—so that someone will pick up my book and say “Hey, that’s strange” or “I like that” or “That reminds of the time when I was.”
Rail: Your Mirabelles make me recall a summer I spent in France in the early 1980s. For two weeks, I worked on a farm picking those plums with such a sweet name. A lot of bending of my back in full sun for relatively very little money, but it was enough to pay for the rest of my vacation. I mention this because I would like to know about the relationship between the real events of your life and those echoed or mentioned in your poems. When do they merge, if ever?
Freud: All my poems are in some way autobiographical, triggered by the memory of an event, a relationship, something I heard someone say, a story someone told me about themselves, something I saw written on a wall, a phrase from a letter, something that kept happening to me again and again over a short period perhaps because of my attitude of mind at the time. Sometimes I use one of these fragments and the poem somehow accrues around it; sometimes I just tell the event as I remember it, using what I find useful, inventing other things and dragging in other memories or words that I’ve been waiting to use for years.
“The Ballad of Hunnington Herbert" is about a friend of mine but I have mixed in details of my own life. I wanted to convey the directionlessness of my generation. “1973”was about my first marriage. All the details in the poem are as they were. In the Champagne, where I lived, there was a tradition of couples going out into the fields in the early evening when the dew fell to pick up snails; they were then taken home, starved, purged with salt and prepared with butter and garlic to make Escargots de Bourgogne. Except we could never be bothered and the snails escaped all over the flat, much to my in-laws’ horror and amusement.
“My Bird” is a poem that came from a time when I was in court for a driving offence. My stepfather had kindly provided a chauffeur-driven car to take me there and home again after the hearing. When we got back into the car to go back to my flat, the driver switched on the ignition and the radio was playing “The Prisoners’ Chorus” from Beethoven’s Fidelio. How we laughed—it was so apt and so absurd at the same time. “Oh what joy to get out of prison” was how the poem began, but I wanted to make it as real as possible, like a real prisoner starting life again on the outside and reveling in the ordinary details of life.
Rail: I do see many of your poems as enchanting “miniatures,” full of wonderful details derived from daily life. I know you also make art. How much does your involvement with art relate to your family background?
Freud: During my childhood I often watched my father painting and sat for many pictures. It was part of my life. It intrigued me that he saw so much blue, green and yellow in people’s faces. He often took me to the Tate Gallery. In the second stanza of my poem Rare London Cheeses, I mention a painting of his called Wasteground with Houses that I’ve always admired; it has extraordinary grandeur.
If I mention London, it’s because of Delamere,
the sadness in the backs of terraced houses,
the chimney pots in attitudes of strife,
the feathered discolorations of the render
and the way each window seems to be leading
its own relentless Sickertian life.
Part of my childhood was spent in my grandfather’s (Jacob Epstein’s) house. His vast studio was at the back and I often played there while he worked. On one of the landings there was a huge glass case full of very weird and scary African pieces he had collected, animals and women carved out of dark polished wood, with elaborate hairstyles, distorted bodies, pointed teeth and glittering eyes. I particularly remember a young girl with wild black hair riding naked on the back of a bear. I used to pass it every day.
When I was young I always painted and drew. My mother was gifted artist and although she only began painting and drawing again much later in her life, she was always making wonderful tapestries for cushion covers and they were everywhere in our house. I began making embroideries on friends’ clothes when I was at university. My first big piece was a tablecloth embroidered with wild flowers. I embroidered table napkins and handkerchiefs with flowers, frogs, newts, birds and moths for Anthony D’Offay, my father’s dealer at that time.
For a long time, I was rather unfocused. I didn’t know what to do. I had lots of different jobs and tried all sorts of things. For some years I gave up the idea of being an artist of any sort. But eventually the pain of not trying was destroying me. I find with hindsight that I incorporated the pain into some of my poems, in particular, “A Voids Officer Achieves the Tree Pose”and “To A Window on the Caledonian Road.”
Later my confidence returned and I made a series of embroideries on commission. I embroidered a dog taken from one of the mosaics in Pompeii on the back of a cardigan. I embroidered a stag in silk pixels on a maroon cashmere suit by Versace for Graham Norton. I embroidered a pattern of flowers and leaves taken from a Gainsborough portrait on a waistcoat for Jon Snow. I also made a large tapestry of my mother asleep on a fur rug taken from a photograph and many other pieces. Some of these have recently been on show in a gallery in London.
Rail: I am currently writing an article on the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli. Asked about his fascination with embroideries, he explained. “Maybe it’s an antidote to speed. After all, embroidery is a technique deeply connected to memory. There is a lot of pain in embroidery.” What significance does embroidering carry for you?
Freud: When I used to sit stitching day after day, often for as much as eight hours a day, it gave me a sense of self-worth. I would look over what I had done that day, see the beauty in what I had made and feel the reward of long hours of concentration and stillness. It was also terribly slow and frustrating. When I do it now, it is more for recreational purposes.
The relationship between embroidering and writing poems has to do with selecting and rejecting colors and words and the intense but controlled excitement that goes with it. I love the repeated triangular dynamic that goes on between the act of looking, my hand holding the brush, pencil or needle and the work slowly growing. The way I write my poems is related to that part of my life.
Rail: Let’s return to your interests in art: Which artists (apart from those from your family) have marked your artistic sensibility? Have they influenced your poems as well, and if so, in what way?
Freud: There are innumerable painters whose work I deeply admire but there are some whose work has taken root in my imagination and the states they evoke in me sometimes find their way into my poems.
There is a fantastic painting of a hunting scene by Uccello in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Once seen, it stays with you forever and no reproduction could ever do it justice. The curious way the artist has employed the technique of perspective to show the horses, hounds and deer all rushing towards a vanishing point in the dark forest is absolutely hypnotic. Something of that picture seeped into my poem “A Retreat in an Edwardian Manor House.”
I’m drawn to the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, particularly by his portraits of women; they seem to emit a strange quality of ambivalence towards their subjects matter in a way that somehow heightens their beauty and the tenderness with which they are portrayed.
Another favorite of mine is Antonella da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his Study that hangs in the National Gallery in London. I love the feeling of watching him sitting at his desk, the quail in foreground, all his personal possessions—pens, books and pots—arranged on the shelves and the lion standing like a sentinel in the shadows.
I love the paintings of the Dutch painter, De Hooch, and the way the people are observed at their daily tasks in their ordered, calm domestic settings, every form and texture exquisitely rendered. They convey a sense of intense privacy.
Some years ago there was an exhibition of Chardin’s paintings at the Royal Academy. Seeing these paintings exhibited together gave me an insight into his work. The delicacy and reverence with which these still lives and studies of people were painted seems to communicate a sense of the highest moral value.
But the painter that touches me most is Velasquez. Look at his portrait of Aesop naked under his fustian dressing gown, his self-neglect, his unillusioned expression, his louche glamour, his oblique stance towards to world. Or the strange dignity of the Water Seller of Seville. Or the ecstatic expression on the Infanta’s face in Las Meninas. In my poem “The Symbolic Meaning of Things and Reasons for Not Dying,”I am looking at his painting of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs. It is so inspiring. Babette’s Feast, one of my favorite films, takes its inspiration from this painting and also its message about the relationship between the physical and spiritual aspects of life.
Rail: In this beautiful poem, W.B. Yeats speaks about making his “song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies/From heel to throat.” He then asks the Song to allow the fools to have it – “for there’s more enterprise/In walking naked.” Returning to your poems and their connections to real and imaginary lives. Do you agree with Yeats that “walking naked” is a necessary condition for a poet?
Freud: I think what Yeats meant was the human desire for—and the romantic tradition of—adornment and embellishment and the modern poet’s desire for a sense of connectedness to the great stories of the past (in his case the heroes of Celtic legend) and their significance from a psychological, aesthetic and moral point of view to contemporary life: Icarus, Odysseus, Orpheus, Ariadne etc. And he is also talking about his position as a modern poet in relation to his time and the way that flowery imagery, the use of classical allusion and “beautiful” language as a prerequisite for poetry, began to be viewed as suspect, even redundant. When he says “there’s more enterprise in going naked,” I think he means having the courage to admit emotional truth and the willingness to question his ideals. And he had many.
T.S. Eliot was very much aware of the development of this aspect of Yeats. In his famous essay, he wrote about “the weight of the Pre-Raphaelite prestige” as having been “tremendous,” and how, as Yeats matured as a poet, he was only able to master the Celtic legend when he was able to use it as a “vehicle for his own creation of character.” Yeats must also have been increasingly aware of the destabilization of the idea of subject matter that was taking place in 20th-century poetry and wanting to find his own way of reflecting that phenomenon.
What do I think about “walking naked” as a necessary condition for any poet? What I look for in any poem is a quality of “meant-ness,” that some sort of truth is there, not necessarily true in a factual sense but something that strikes one as true. This is what I try for in all my poems.
Rail: You ground Yeats in his time, his history, his way of seeing. What makes poetry, including yours, so appealing to me is the fact that it comments on our reality with an insisting urgency and, at the same time, speaks about life with passion—as if the reader was a lover or an intimate friend passing by.
Two poems immediately spring to mind. “Treacle” by Paul Farley and “Ye haue heard this yarn afore” by Peter Reading.
When I first read Treacle, I had to go out and buy a tin of it and hear it “sigh” when I opened it, see the unreflectiveness of its surface for myself, feel its weight in my hand, read its endorsement and breathe in its scent for myself.
Funny to think you can still buy it now
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.
When you lever the lid it opens with a sigh
and you’re face to face with history.
I love this poem for its immediacy, the quality of its observation, its calm assured tone and the terrible irony of the use of the endorsement: "Out of the strong came forth sweetness" and its connection with the facts of the slave trade and the sugar trade. It is one of those rare poems that stands like a monument to personal responsibility. It leads straight back to Blake and Conrad.
“Ye haue heard this yarn afore” is a poem that takes many readings. It is a found poem, and it is clear that the source of this poem is an important book entitled The Adventures of William Dampier and a New Voyage around the World (published in 1697) by W. Dampier, one of the great explorers and scientific observers of the 17th-century, a buccaneer, sea captain and author. Much of the detail in the poem is lifted directly from Dampier’s text.
Why is it so powerful? In the first few lines of the poem, in which an old man looks back over a shameful event from its past, we know we are in the presence of history as something inescapable that cannot be suppressed: a sense of responsibility for acts of destruction and cruelty, bred out of boredom, the banality of evil. It has extraordinary breadth in that it makes the reader picture the underbelly of the "Great Discoveries" and call to mind their knowledge of other mass killings.
It is a contemporary take on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and it is believed that Dampier’s book may have been the source for that poem.
The idea for my poem The Inventor of the Individual Fruit Pie came from a friend of mine whose father had invented the technology for the mass-production of individual pies. When I was at university, I used to eat them while walking around the campus. There wasn’t much else to eat. They were a kind of expression of the freedom of the 60s; for the first time I was away from home and sit-down meals. And as I was writing it I thought of the film Billy Liar and the image of Julie Christie sauntering along a street, escaping to the London and its “opportunity for careless satisfaction.” I sent the poem to my friend’s father, who was delighted with it and told me that he would use it to defeat his “detractors”! And it turned out that he adored Mae West! I was writing about my generation.
Rail: What do think about love poems? Do you write them?
Freud: All good poems are love poems. And I do write them. “The Best Man That Ever Was” is a love poem; so are “To a Coat-Stand, The Things We Do, The Green Vibrator” and many others.
Rail: How important is the English language to you? Have you written any poems in other languages?
Freud: When I’m composing a poem, I love using a word I’ve never used before, sensing its character and enjoying its allusiveness. But I don’t think about the English language much. I do think about the French language and its formal grammatical structure.
I wrote “1973,” the first poem of my collection in French. I sometimes find the relative absence of staccato in the French language useful in finding a kind of music for my poems, and in helping them find the form that suit them best. I read a lot of French poetry; at the moment I am reading Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets.
I love the possibilities of syntax. For me there’s something akin to the thrill of the chase in the making of a sentence in a poem; the way the clauses and sub-clauses compete for space and the metal excitement that goes with it.
Rail: In the last stanza of “The Last Words of My English Grandmother,” William Carlos Williams writes:
What are all those
fuzzy things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.
Freud: That’s another of my favorite poems. There’s something so authoritative about it.
This poem represents the most inescapable of all subjects: the death of parents. All the things, the qualities, the distinguishing marks that made each thing itself, and which once mattered so much, cease to matter at the approach of death. And that the subject for poetry is not freely chosen; it decides that you will write about it.
Rail: What are you writing now?
Freud: I am writing poems for my next collection which be coming out in 2010.
The Best Man that Ever Was
I was never required to sign the register
as all was pre-arranged by his general staff,
but I did it out of choice and for the image that I made
with the stewards and the bellboys,
my gloves laid side by side, and his Party rings that I hid
from my family (it was torment, the life
in my family home, everyone smoking and rows
about guns and butter at every inedible meal
and my aunts in their unhinged state, threatening suicide),
and as I wrote my signature along the line
the letter seemed to coil like the snake
saying, I am here to be with Him.
There were always little jobs to do
in preparation for his coming – dinner to order,
consideration of the wine-list, hanging up my robe,
a dab of perfume on my palms.
But it was never long before I found the need to pay
attention to the corded sheaf of birch twigs
brought from home to service our love-making.
How he loved to find it, ready for his use,
homely on a sheet of common newspaper –
A Thing of Nature, so he said, so fine, so pure.
He’d turn away and smooth his thinning hair,
lost as he was in some vision of grandeur.
And having washed and dried his hands with care
and filled our flutes like any ordinary man,
the night’s first task would come into his mind.
He’d bark his hoarse, articulate command
and down I’d bend across the ornamented desk,
my mouth level with the inkstand’s claws,
my cheek flat against the blotter; I’d lift my skirts,
slip down my panties and sob for him
with every blow. And I saw visions of my own: daisies,
sometimes brown contented cows, dancers’ puffy skirts,
a small boat adrift on a choppy sea; and once a lobster sang
to me: Happy Days Are Here Again!
He’d tut at the marks and help me to my feet
and we’d proceed into the the dining room
and laugh and drink and raise the silver domes
on turbot, plover and bowls of zabaglione.
You’d think he’d never seen a woman eat. Once he took
my spoon out of my hand and asked me, Are you happy?
I’d serve him coffee by the fire and tend the logs.
He’d unknot his tie. I’d comb my hair.
He’d make a phone call to no one of importance
and we’d prepare for rest. There never was a man
so ardent in the invocation of love’s terms:
liebling, liebchen, mein liebe, mein kleine liebe!
and always the same – and in the acts: the frog, the hound,
the duck, the goddess, the bear, the boar,
the whale, the galleon and the important artist –
always in the order he preferred –
eyes shut and deaf to the world’s abhorrence
churning and churning in his stinking heaven.
It’s over. But it is still good to arrive at a fine hotel
and reward the major-domo’s gruff punctilio
with a smile and tip and let the bellboys slap my arse
and remember him, the man who thrashed me,
fed me, adored me. He was the best man that ever was.
He was my assassin of the world.
Bartelik is an art historian and art critic specializing in 20th century art and theory of art.Annie Freud
Annie Freud was born in London in 1948 and graduated in English and European Literature at the University of Warwick. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud, maternal granddaughter of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and the great grand daughter of Sigmund Freud. Marek Bartelik's debut volume of poetry, East Sixth Street, was published by 7letras in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2007.