An Interview with Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts is a poet and translator based in East London. He has published numerous collections of poetry, including Mountain Language: Lingua di Montagne (translated by Cristina Viti, 2009) and Ancient Sunlight (2014), and the prose work Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds (2016). Watts features in Iain Sinclair’s new book The Last London (2017), part of which describes Watts’ friendship with the late W. G. Sebald as well as with Sinclair himself. The Clearing co-editor Pippa Marland, and her illustrator daughter Katie visited Watts in London on the 9th June 2017. The interview addresses questions of place, community, translation and migration, all of which are key themes of Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds.


Pippa Marland: Hello Stephen, and thank you very much for talking to me todayIt’s very nice to be here with you in the courtroom of Toynbee Studios! As you know, the journal is devoted to writing about nature, landscape and place, and I thought it would be useful to start by asking you about the importance of these elements in your work.  Robert Macfarlane says that you are “among the most fine and subtle writers […] on the relations of landscape and mind”. Could you begin by saying a little about your relationship with landscape? 


SW: I’ll try, but I think Robert has put me in a bit of a spot there saying such a generous thing! I suppose it’s because I associate language with landscape very much. I’m not sure I can explain that, but it just seems to me that they’re intimately connected and that if you’re in a landscape it evokes language almost as a given. So, if that’s the case then landscape, language and writing; landscape, language and perceiving; landscape, language and thinking, are all very closely tied in.  


PM: I guess it’s the idea that everything is written in a place. 


SW: Everything is written in a place, but there’s also a sense that as human beings on the earth, if language has come to us and with us, then it’s also come from periods when we weren’t here. The origins of language were here whether we were here or not, and also developed in different stages, so I think language in that sense is deeply within landscape irrespective of who is speaking. 


PM: So, it’s got a sort of materiality? 


SW: Yes, and then, as you were saying, place is tremendously important as a register for language.  


PM: Talking about specific landscapes, I’ve read that you lived for three years on North Uist, is that right? And I just wondered what made you go there. I’m not sure where you were born actually. But what made you go to North Uist? 


SW: I was born in Hammersmith and lived for seventeen years just outside London, on the southern edges of London in an area which was just becoming a suburb, which I guess is interesting because it’s surrounded by fields and right by the Thames, but was being pulled into the environment of London. 


I went to North Uist because I quit university after a year. I just did not want to stay at university. Incidentally, not to take long over it, but the term used at the time was ‘dropping out. To me it absolutely was not dropping out, it was dropping in. I mean it really was a positive decision to just quit what I didn’t want to be in. And I went to North Uist because I’d always loved the north of Scotland, the landscape, and the rock, which is very ancient rock. Back in the early 70s it was dated as 3 to 4 billion years old. I think it’s maybe even gone a bit further back than that. And I didn’t know the island so well, but I knew Sutherland and Wester Ross quite well, and those are fantastic landscapes for me because you get a sense of what at one time would have been seriously high mountains eroded down to a very bare and exposed moorland with these astonishing smaller mountains.  


And I can’t really explain why, but it just went very deep inside me, deep as well in a linguistic sense; it was a very visceral but also very language-based response and I guess I partly responded because my grandfather had been a shepherd in the alps – the Italian Alps – and my grandmother was Swiss, Italian speaking, on my mother’s side, and so when I got to North Uist I was within this extremely ancient landscape. It was very remote because I was living not only on a very remote island but in a remote corner of that island with no roads and no other people within about an hourBualso it was an area with sheep and so, it didn’t strike me at the time, but I was almost reverting to what my grandfather had been doing sixty or seventy years before.  


PM: Some kind of memory in the blood?  

In my research one of the things I’ve picked up on is the value of those landscapes at the edges of the archipelago, those wilder places, for putting you in touch with massive time scales which set the human in perspective, in a sense, so I can very much appreciate the value of that experience. Did you work as a shepherd in that time?  


SW: did – how can I describe it? – I  was very fortunate because I found through friends a hut which wasn’t lived in, hadn’t been lived in for about thirty years, but was used ba guy on the next island who had the sheep on the hillside. So the hut was basically empty but in ok condition because the shepherds and the people looking after the sheep would come every week or ten days or whatever. It was very basic, there was no running water, no electricity.


I worked as a shepherd in the sense that I knew where all the sheep were and I brought them in and other things. I mean technically the people who owned the sheep and looked after them were on the next island. They let me stay in that hut for free partly because it was so remote and so basic, and I gave them in return just some knowledge – when they came out I could say there are six sheep out on that point, there are ten on that hillside there are five…I knew where all the sheep were because I was walking all the time. 


PM: So you lived in the hut? That sounds rather monastic. 


SW: I suppose it was in a way! 


PM: It sounds absolutely wonderful.  


SW: It was quite harsh! But it was wonderful.


PM: Yes, I’m probably looking at that through rose-tinted spectacles! Well, following on from the question of your relationship with landscape, one of the elements in your book Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds – one which particularly fascinated me – was the way in which the Scottish landscapes and the landscapes of London, especially the Docklands, seemed to interact with each other in the narrative, such that they’re almost refracted through each other.  


SW: Yes, I felt that very strongly. When I left the islands I came back and I got married and my wife was a teacher and she was teaching English as a Second Language, and this was the mid-70s, so four or five years after the end of the Bangladesh War of Independence, and she was teaching young Bangladeshi children English as a Second Language in Whitechapel. So we both came to Whitechapel and were living in Whitechapel, and I got to know the Isle of Dogs and it struck me really forcibly how strong the parallels were, for an urban area, with North Uist and some of the islands 

 For starters, both places had unemployment rates of about 25%, both places had dominant land-water areas. North Uist is a small landmass, but it has so many lakes within it as well as having a very intricate coastline. And the Isle of Dogs of course is dockland and the water was still there, as it still just about is now. So there were those two aspects, and also the pressures on human life: in the Isle of Dogs all the housing in the 70s was really on the edges of the island, peripheral, in ways you’ve been talking about islands being peripheral, and on North Uist almost all the townships were on the edge of the island, so there are these uncanny parallels.  

 I mean obviously there were huge differences, but there were uncanny parallels, and historically and economically they were not too dissimilar because both places were sort of economically derelict; places that central government to be honest couldn’t have cared at all about.  


PM: I was also interested in the way that the idea of the island, becomes – I  don’t know if I’m right in thinking this – metaphoric or metonymic, where you begin to apply the idea of the island to other units, whether it be a community or even the British Isles as a whole, as a sort of concept with certain values attached to it.  


SW: Yes I think that’s fair enough. I suppose for me it’s not even metaphor. It’s a more direct kind of flow, but you could call it metaphor. I don’t quite know how to talk about those values, except that I’ve always felt really strongly about them wherever I’m living or wherever people are living. I have a very strong sense of community; if I go somewhere then I immediately start responding to where I am, even if I go to a town in the Czech Republic for ten days, I sense a… I find ways of connecting.


PM: That idea might have a relationship with islands or ‘islandness’ in the sense that, by force of geography, islands are often small communities and, as such, offer a sort of human-scale model of how we might live. You seem to carry that idea of island community into the Docklands and into other places. 


SW: It’s also in Northern Italy, in fact through much of rural Europe still, although maybe it’s been eroded a lot, in small village communities. And I’ve gone back frequently over the past forty years to where my grandfather was from and I sort of know those communities in some ways. I don’t want to romanticise any of it because they are very complex communities and they have all sorts of crises and pressures within them as anywhere does, but there is that sense of small community, and even in London there are small…I mean where I live – Shadwell – which has gone through a lot of changes in the past ten years with the Olympics and various other things…there’s an identifiable community. 


PM: I was wondering about the voice or narration of the book. It seems to register a lot of memories, perhaps from all kinds of different people, but I was interested in the figure of the ‘islandman’, and wondered if he was slightly autobiographical and what his function is in the book? 


SW: It’s probably quite strongly autobiographical, but I think I also tried to withdraw quite a distance and it’s a funny process therefore of writing, knowing that I’m drawing on my experience but trying not to foreground that, or foreground myself in that. In other words, I was trying to withdraw. I suppose I sense in the text, rightly or wrongly, a tension which I hope keeps it quite vibrant by trying to pull back quite a long way whilst presenting the foreground of the language – but  actually drawing back in order to do that. 


PM: One of the things I loved about the book was the way in which you make space for the stories of people whose narratives would not normally be heard – people who are homeless or alcoholic or considered to be ‘dysfunctional’. Do you think the drawing back plays into that, enabling you to allow other voices or other stories to come forward? 


SW: Well I guess I’ve always just instinctively, wherever I’m living, wanted to listen to other people. Where I was living on North Uist there were a lot of people – extraordinary, lovely people – but living under great stress. I mean, the first small house when I had crossed the moors and reached the road was lived in by two old men and their sister, so in the early 1970s they were probably all in their sixties or seventies, and they were just incredibly welcoming. Actually if I look back on it now I feel I could have done so much, that I was taking from them in a huge way because they’d always welcome me and insist on giving me a cup of tea and ‘piece’ – you know, a scone or something – and talking, and probably just making sure I was ok. Most of the people there were living in that very ordinary but important way that for me is actually much more important than government or official organisation and much more supportive. 

And there were other people in the islands who drank a lot because they were just under severe pressure. I remember a couple of old men living on their own in quite isolated houses, and I knew they were drinking hugely, and in fact I think one of them died in a house fire, because I think he probably fell asleep and his cigarette fell. 

So, for me, I’ve always felt much closer to ordinary human situations like that because they just seem to be so much more important than other things. And coming to live in Shadwell, which is between Whitechapel and Wapping, again the people that I was surrounded by were either old cockneys who hadn’t been able to move out and were usually under quite a lot of financial stress or newly come-in British Bangladeshis who had been through a traumatic war. You know some of the young kids my wife was teaching – and they were sixteen or seventeen then – had actually fought in a war when they were twelve or thirteen. It didn’t get talked about much, but all of those things matter so much more to me than knowing that the City was a mile away with all these corporate things going on. 


PM: That’s a nice levelling, I think, a nice restoration of balance. I was going to ask you about some beautiful interludes in the book where you just talk about a very simple meal being prepared, and I think that brings out this idea of the ordinary being enchanting and, if experienced mindfully, very beautiful and very meaningful. Could you say a bit about some of the cooking? 


SW: I don’t know – cooking and eating, they’re so vital to us individually but they’re also so important communally, so that even if you’re cooking something for yourself you know that millions of other people are cooking for themselves, so you know it’s a shared thing – both here and on the islands there’s the simple act of getting food and preparing itIt’s horrible in a way, because the longer I’ve lived in London the more pressures have come in and the less time I’m able to do those simple acts. I do write a lot about food – 


PM: Yes, I like that very much [both laugh]. Perhaps I could ask you about your writing more generally then. In the Republics book you talk a lot about books and libraries and translation and so on, and obviously this idea of translation is very important to you. Could you tell me more about that? 


SW: Just when I began writing – I  started writing poetry the third year I was on North Uist – I hadn’t thought about writing poetry before – and when I came to London and I was in Oxford as well, I just wasn’t seeing much contemporary work written in English that really meant anything to me. Most poetry that I saw in bookshops or in accessible libraries just left me completely cold. I realise retrospectively that there were a lot of writers writing either in the underground sense or in a hidden sense who I didn’t know about who I realise that I would have felt a lot closer to, but I didn’t know them then.  

What did mean a great deal to me at that time was reading a number of poets in translation – contemporary and twentieth century poets, Russian poets, German poets, but also poets from Turkey, from Chile, from Peru, from Indonesia, from many places, and it was like I was a sponge, I just soaked all of that in because it meant a lot more to me, sadly because I didn’t feel part of a poetry community, which saddened me because I would have loved to have felt part of a poetry community in my mother tongue. But it was a wonderful thing to be able have access, via translation, to a whole range of tremendous poets and tremendous prose writers too. 


PM: I think it plays into the sense in your work that migration is a natural state, and this kind of welcoming of incomers reflects that, whether it’s in a London community or in a literary sense as additions to your own personal canon. How important is this idea of migration for you? 


SW: I think it’s very fundamental, very basic. My grandfather and grandmother migrated when they were probably both about twenty – and separately – they met in London, so personally that meant a lot. But migration has always been a part of human history, human activity. I suppose at times in British history we’ve felt that – or the majority of people have felt that – migration isn’t something that happens, but actually if you look historically it has always happened. It’s not to mean that I don’t love fixedness and community and solidity of things, but I think that can’t exist without flow and without migration. For me the two are sort of inseparable. I know that clashes with what some people feel, but for me that’s a given. 


PM: I think that’s a very valuable insight – the historical prevalence of migration. We’re all products of migration.  

I wanted to ask you about the animals in Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds, and you also sent me a very beautiful poem called ‘Birds of East London’, so I know that animals feature in your other work. The birds, especially, seem almost totemic – the cormorant, the gannet. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with the non-human. 


SW: OKWell, living on North Uist which is a very bare island with very few trees, you see the horizon, and the sky is a very large part of your visual life and therefore you see birds much more clearly. I remember, for instance, seeing cuckoos on North Uist, and there weren’t trees so you saw them – usually in most parts of England you hear a cuckoo, but where is it? But there you saw them the whole time, and other birds – and can’t quite explain about this, but there’s something about the flight of a cormorant and the flight of a gannet, for instance, which is so…I was going to use the word strong but I don’t mean strong in the sense of powerful, I mean strong in the sense of vibrant, to do with energy and flow.  

And then you’d also see migrating birds – Arctic geese or Canada geese – at  great heights, which again is part of migration, and then on the foreshore there’d be tiny wrens and swans, so a huge range of birds. There weren’t so many other animals up on North Uist, but the birds were really powerful. Seeing has always been something very essential. I love seeing – and over big distances. 


PM: Yes – you were just showing us the views of London as we came up the stairs! And in your poem ‘Birds of East London’ there’s a lovely idea that you’re encountering all the birds from a flat about twenty floors up, and having quite a number of different avian encounters. 


SW: Yes, when I first came to London I lived in a tower block – I can’t remember if it was the 21st floor but it was roughly that – in Southwark, only for a few months – actually the first six months I came to London. This would have been 1974 I guess, and I walked round everywhere, and I must have gone to the top of about 40 or 50 tower blocks in different parts of London, and at that time you could get into them – there weren’t all the bars and barriers and doors and locks you have now – so I’d just go into a tower block, take the lift up to the top floor and then just see round a whole different geography. And that gives a different sense of birds 


PM: I guess this is a question which you’re often asked, and I think a lot of people actually come to your work (from things I’ve seen in discussion threads on the web) via the writer W. G. Sebald, but I just wondered if you could say a bit about your friendship with Max [Sebald]? 


SW: Well, we met in 1990 when he’d set up the British Centre for Literary Translation, so, again, this goes back to translation as a really important strand. I mean he had a real vision of the necessity at that time to have a centre within Britain, within England, and where translation could be considered in a way that it hadn’t been before. I mean there were plenty of good translators, plenty of brilliant translators in the 20th century but there wasn’t a sense of community, or rather there wasn’t a centre where people could come to. So I got to know Max then.  

It was strange because he had happened to have heard me reading a poem on the radio about six or seven years earlier, which had always stayed in his mind, so when we met he said had I written that poem? So there was that closeness, that literary closeness immediately, and I really valued his work and, I don’t like saying this publicly, I say it privately usually, but he valued my work. And when I met him in 1990 he wasn’t known as a writer. I mean he’d only published Nach der Natur in German. He hadn’t published any of the prose at all.  

Yes we just became very good friends. Also I think it was important that his family was from the north side of the Alps, and my family, or my mother’s family, were from the south Italian side of the Alps, and both of us I think have a sort of strong Alpine element to our ways of thinking. There are one or two wonderful interviews with Max where he’s talking about winter in his village and, for instance, about not immediately having to bury some bodies because you couldn’t dig into the ground so they had to be carefully kept until it could be dug, which of course was very typical of much of rural Europe until very recently. I think you can’t physically dig into the ground, but obviously there are other ways of burying.  

Those things – our own writing, and that Alpine sense, and translation – brought us together, and it was great to know him, and it was very valuable for me because he clearly did value my work a lot and said so to me. And I’ve always been, despite believing strongly in community, quite an outsider in terms of British poetry, or English poetry anyway, so it was very welcoming for someone who had set up a translation centre for instance, to say that to me. His death was a tremendous loss. 


PM: I feel that there are a lot of connections between your work. Something I read recently about Max’s work was talking about his not allowing the erasure of stories and memories, which is something I immediately connected with your writing, and your accounts of people who have, I think you call them, ‘occluded narratives’. But you help to bring their stories out, so I can see that there are real parallels there between your work and Max’s. And I like the idea of the Alpine sensibility. Maybe that’s why you like going up stairs a lot! To look at your views! 


SW: Maybe it is! Yes I think that’s not unconnected…And it’s Alpine again in that recognition that rural life in the Alps can be astonishingly harsh. And it can be very beautiful but also tremendously harsh, and very complex as village communities have their traumas, their own enmities, their own intense, complex weavings of life as well. 


PM: I guess that helps you to avoid the ‘pastoral’ trap.  

Max Sebald died tragically young, and I wondered what you thought his legacy might be as a writer? Or is that a tough question? 


SW: Yes, that’s strangely difficult. He did die young. It’s tremendously sad personally, but it was a great loss a lot of people felt. It somehow does and somehow very much doesn’t make sense to think about what he might have done had he not died. I mean, I know at the time of his death he was researching the First World War; he was going to the military archives in Munich and he was also researching his own family history, and I think he would have tied those things in together. But it’s impossible to say what he might have written, so you have to just take what he has written and its impact on people.  

On the one hand I love it that he… not that he has become so well known – that’s irrelevant… but that his writings have come to mean such a lot to quite a lot of people. It worries me that there’s been a tendency to erase the political aspect of his work, to erase the sense of what you were talking about – the  importance of not erasing memory in his work – and a tendency to try to enter him into a comfort zone that he’s not in, for me at all. And somehow at the time he died I can understand how that’s happened but I think he would have reacted very strongly against that, and I think he would have been quite argumentative with some of the interpretations that have been put on his work. 


PM: I hope that that’s maybe being redressed slightly now, because I think there’s a real interest in his ‘melancholy resistance’ to the comforting narratives – an understanding which is becoming more useful perhaps in terms of ecological concerns. 


SW: Yes, I think so in those ways. But it worries me a little bit because melancholy is a complicated zone as well, and I think it’s quite easy to interpret melancholy in a comfortable way, to feel, ah that’s melancholy, whereas for me any element of melancholy in his work is not like that, or if it is like that then it’s somewhere where he’s not managed to maybe portray it in the way that he intended.  


PM: I’d like to come up to date now with your most recent work. I know you’ve recently been in Paris with Golan Haji. Perhaps you could say a bit about that. 


SW: Yes Golan is a Syrian poet, Kurdish Syrian though he writes in Arabic rather than Kurdish. We met in 2010 in Syria when I was lucky enough to be invited to a festival that happens yearly, although of course that was the last one to happen because 2010 was the year before everything completely exploded so appallingly in Syria.  

But I made fast friends with Golan, and we began translating each other’s work then, and also in Damascus where I went for about five days and did some more readings and sat in cafes with Golan translating, and Golan then managed to leave Syria for Jordan and  then to Paris. I go to Paris when I can and work with him to finish a book which should, touch wood, be finished next year [2018]. It’s been very sudden because a publisher in New York heard what we were doing and said he wanted to publish it. But that comes back to translation as something really vital to me. And, if I can put it like that, translation for me is an essential part of the landscape of poetry – it really is very, very vital – and I’ve always felt that other languages obviously have huge richnesses, English has huge richnesses, but equally so do other languages. 


PM: Each language has its own wisdom… 

My final question comes back to the Republics book: just inside the front cover it says ‘written in the late 1980s, found in 2012, and typed onto a laptop in 2013’. So I wondered what made you decide to publish it now and what you think it might have to say to a contemporary readership?  


SW: Well I wanted to publish it now literally because I’d lost it. It was in my home but I’ve lived in the same house for forty years now, the same council flat for forty years, and I’ve got so many books and so many papers and I’ve got a lot of unpublished stuff, and I had lost it! I had a memory of having written some prose and I found it in 2012; I showed it to a couple of friends who really liked it – because I was not sure about it, I thought, well, why had I not found it before and done anything about it?  

So I thought, well maybe I should publish it, and in a funny way I think it is relevant because the issues I was writing about back then, to do with language, to do with landscape, to do with community, to do with perception, to do with whether as individuals we are islands, are still with us… I mean it’s in a sense such a pat thing to say that no man is an island, no human being is an island, but if you go back to what John Donne wrote, it’s a very strong thing to say, and I felt that in the end what I’d written, especially as other people were encouraging me to publish it, was quite relevant.  

It’s a text that’s also – and I’ll just say this because I haven’t said it before – set partly on the Isle of Dogs just before that physical space completely changed. I mean it changed really more than any other part of London, because it was completely derelict, very run down, at a very low ebb – individual lives were probably bright and vibrant but there was a huge pressure on people’s lives economically, and now it’s become – well to me, I find it very, very difficult to take, travelling through the Isle of Dogs now, physically difficult, you know; I feel quite sick, except that you can look out of the train window and you can see landscapes and far distances, but society has developed through what’s happened in the Isle of Dogs and other places in ways that I have to question quite deeply. And so I think in that sense the text, which was in a way one of a number of possible accurate perceptions of the island or of East London at that time, still has relevance.


PM: Yes, I agree with that in all kinds of ways, and I also absolutely love the final line of the book – I think it’s the best ending of a book that I’ve seen – which is in parentheses: ‘(unwritten, mislaid or lost)’. I feel that that’s a throwing down of the gauntlet to recover stories which have been erased through this kind of development. 


SW: Yes, exactly, and I think so many people’s stories have been precisely that. 


PM: Thank you Stephen – it’s been a huge pleasure to talk you. 




DR PIPPA MARLAND is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and an editor of The Clearing magazine.

A copy of STEPHEN WATTS’S Republic Of Dogs/Republic Of Birds can be found here.

A translation of GOLAN HAJI’S poetry, titled A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know, has recently been published A Midsummer Night’s Press and can be found here.

All illustrations by KATIE MARLAND.


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