BG: I have just finished reading (and listening to) your Covodes.[i] I found them very interesting because they catch not just the historical events that mingled in our memories but also the emotions, the fears and the frustration that we all experienced. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you some questions. First, do all the references to music give a sort of frame to the collection, keeping together and giving order to all the fragments of the last two years of plague?
RGH: I think I would see the musical references as a motif rather than a frame. There were various motifs I was conscious of developing as the writing proceeded. The musical references were also to be taken with the references to poetry and the visual arts as a celebration of the value of the arts in the context of the British Government’s attacks on the arts and humanities. There was a notorious government poster about re-training: it showed a ballet dancer in a tutu and said something like ‘next year she could be a computer programmer’. Some of the musical references (I am thinking of the dedication to Juliette Greco and the references to her life in covode 8) were in response to recent deaths.
BG: Is it possible to see your Covodes as also chronicles of the Covid Age, although it is not possible to have a clear narrative yet?
RGH: Yes, indeed, I was very conscious of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I started, and I was thinking of the covodes as a form of documentation. I knew I needed an open-ended form, because nobody knew how this would end – and I wanted to be able to respond to events as they happened. Precisely because there wasn’t a clear narrative, I also wanted a form that permitted multiple voices and a number of different characters. I would write a new covode about every three weeks, using the materials I had accumulated in that period. Covodes 1-19 covers only the first year of the pandemic. It took a while to put it into book form and to record the CD. Since then, I have written covodes 20-38 to bring the sequence up to the present.
BG: Is the lyrical ‘I’ that appears throughout the collection a sort of linking character? Does the cruise ship have a similar function?
RGH: I allowed myself to use an ‘I’ in this sequence, but the ‘I’ is different characters – none of them necessarily me. I am thinking, for example, of Covode 1 (‘I was an experienced serosurveyor) or Covode 14 (‘I am normally up in retail’). The pronouns are all very unstable – the ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’ have shifting referents. The cruise ship enters the poem because of the early stage of the pandemic, when cruise ships were picking up the virus and not being allowed to land, but that historical detail then provides the basis for a motif. It is also combined with other examples of confined spaces (recording studios, luxury bunkers, space capsules and space stations) as a way of registering the claustrophobia of lockdown. Thanks to Elon Musk, there is a whole science-fiction fantasy going on, which also brings in Davd Bowie (the Spiders from Mars and Colonel Tom ‘sitting in a tin can’).
BG: Your style in Covodes 1-19 reminded me of Eliot’s works ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land
RGH: I think Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land (taken from Our Mutual Friend by Dickens) – ‘he do the police in different voices’ – is very relevant to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I can see the link with Prufrock’s fragmentation (and the use of a character), but the poets in my mind were Pound and Charles Olson. With both, there is the problem about how to write a long poem that is able to respond to contemporary events. Pound had the idea that he would be able to fit it into a Dantean structure and felt that he had failed to do this. For me Pound’s failure is the important lesson. I am hoping to follow Pound’s model – where the Cantos were published originally in small groups (A Draft of XXX Cantos followed by Eleven New Cantos and so on), but there is no over-arching structure. Improvisation is an important principle throughout. As for the reader, I was working so much with my own free associations to the contemporary materials that I am hoping readers will be sparked by the fragments and references to make their own associations with that period.
BG: Thank you.
1 Robert Hampson, Covodes 1-19 Artery Editions, 2022. The accompanying CD, a reading od=f the complete set of poems is accompanied on cello by Joanna Levi.