Small talk: James Fenton

James Fenton has won the Queen’s Gold Medal and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry. His collections include Terminal Moraine (1972), The Memory of War (1982) and Out of Danger (1994). Born in Lincoln in 1949, he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and has worked as a literary critic and journalist. Fenton is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1994-1999). He lives in New York.

What book changed your life?

WH Auden’s Collected Poems. He seemed to me to be the greatest English language poet of our era.

When did you know you were going to be a poet?

Nobody really knows whether they are a poet. I knew I was interested from the age of 15.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

The Books of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, translated by Arthur Waley; Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich, who died recently.

What is your daily writing routine?

I prefer writing in the mornings, so to that extent I have a routine. I do reading and other things in the afternoon.

Who are your literary influences?

I’ve already mentioned Auden. In prose I’m an admirer of Orwell and I like Hazlitt very much.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Byron. Everyone wants to sit next to Byron.

When were you happiest?

A really interesting and happy time was when I first went to Florence as a student and studied Italian. I was living in a pensione on an allowance of £40 a month, which was princely. I did a lot of work and enjoyed myself immensely.

When do you feel most free?

On the rare occasion when I’m ahead of a deadline.

How do you relax?

I go to the gym.

What would you change about yourself?

Being disorganised.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

Probably a Bronzino. He did very beautiful portraits of the Medicis.

What poem do you wish you’d written?

“The Shield of Achilles” by WH Auden.

What are you most proud of writing?

A poem called “Children in Exile”. It put a lot of experience into words.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Northumberland in the north of England.

What does it mean to be a poet?

It means you stand a chance of writing things people will remember, and remember with pleasure.

James Fenton’s latest poetry collection is ‘Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011’ (Faber). He is appearing at the London Literature Festival this weekend, as part of Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World,

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