Small Talk: Christopher Reid

Born in Hong Kong in 1949, poet Christopher Reid won a Somerset Maugham award for his 1979 debut, Arcadia. From 1991 to 1999 he was poetry editor at Faber & Faber, where he worked with Ted Hughes. In 2009 he won the Costa Book Award for his collection A Scattering, a tribute to his late wife Lucinda, who died in 2005. Reid lives in London.

Who is your perfect reader?

All readers are imperfect, including myself – of my own poems.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

A heap, a mountain. Close to the top is Kirsty Gunn’s mighty novel The Big Music, a translation of Peter Huchel’s The Garden of Theophrastus and WS Graham’s New Collected Poems. I have about a dozen books on the go and I skip from one to the other.

What book changed your life?

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens at school was completely unlike anything I’d come across before. It gave me the strength to find my own way in poetry.

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

I don’t think I ever knew, but I’ve been writing since my early childhood. After university I used a small legacy from my godfather to write for a while.

What is your daily writing routine?

If I can get started early – and it’s a big if – I could be writing for 20 minutes or I could be writing into the dark of the evening.

Where do you write best?

Lying on my back, on the bed or on a sofa, with a spiral-bound notebook. But I can write anywhere – trains, buses, café tables.

When were you happiest?

I don’t think I’ve ever been happiest. Happiness is caught on the wing and it’s very frequent, actually.

What is the best advice a parent ever gave you?

I don’t think my parents gave me good advice; they gave me good instructions. Good manners were important.

When did you last cry?

Not so long ago. The precise cause of it I can’t remember. It’s often things that are reported on the news. Similarly, hearing loud applause for great musicianship at the end of a concert can bring it on.

What would you change about yourself?

My mortality.

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

There are a number of lovely paintings by Bonnard of his wife in the bath – I’d have one of those.

What do you snack on while you write?

Anything. I make frequent visits to the kitchen and have whatever’s available.

Who are your literary influences?

So many. My hidden influences are the metaphysical poets, who have been in my consciousness since my teens. I’d put them at the top of the list.

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

James Joyce, because of the depth of his wisdom. And I’d expect to hear a few jokes as well.

What are you most proud of writing?

A Scattering, because it answered a great need and did so successfully.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I would suddenly acquire musical skills that I don’t have and become a jazz pianist.

Can you remember the first novel or poem you read?

The poems in Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, like “Jabberwocky”. I was seven or eight years old, perhaps even younger.

What does it mean to be a poet?

It’s a completely absorbing activity, which incidentally brings some money in.

Christopher Reid’s latest poetry collection is ‘Nonsense’ (Faber & Faber £12.99)

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