The questions I’ve been asked most often are the hardest to answer. People ask about inspiration and routine as if they are recipes I should be willing to share. For the first decade of my writing life, they asked me about being a woman poet.
Let’s now talk about your experience as a woman poet.
Only if we can also talk about your experience as a male poet.
But it’s important to address femininity in your work.
And to address masculinity in yours – to address them both in my work and yours.
I never sounded as confident as this. I managed a few times to say something like the above but with a great deal of blushing and demurral.
People asked questions as a way of telling me who I was and what I wrote about. I did my best to come up with a reply. If someone asked something stupid, I might contort my answer so as not to give their stupidity away. If they were aggressive, I became possessed of extreme good manners, which made me feel later as if I had slightly poisoned myself, which I had. I’d dismissed myself, making jokes about what I wrote and being offhand about what poetry should be and can do.
The man in the extrovert suit bounded over to me in the green room. He talked about how delighted he was to be chairing my event, how much he had enjoyed the book and how he had so many questions. He was looking neither at me nor at my book. Five minutes later, he was introducing me on stage and got as far as my first name before going blank. He read my surname off the front of the book and then turned it over and read the blurb on the back. And still I thanked him afterwards.
Just before I went on stage, a man sauntered up to me in the wings of the theatre and said he was there to interview me. He liked doing it because he got a free pass at the festival, and access to the food and drink in the green room. What was my book called and what questions would I like him to ask? On stage, he asked me to explain what I just had. He wasn’t listening.
I was at a festival event chaired by the books editor of a prominent journal. By way of greeting, he told me how difficult he found my work. We offered each other quick smiles as if to agree that this was not going to be a problem. When he introduced me on stage, he described me as terribly serious, probably lonely and a bit sad. I read poems about getting drunk and dancing. This time, my interviewer was ready with his questions.
I don’t understand your poems, he said. Why don’t you want people to understand them? I mean, not even you understand them, do you, you say so right here! He opened my book and prodded at a line while reading it triumphantly: ‘Why did I choose not to understand?’
It’s a line in a poem not something I said, I thought (but didn’t say). You do know what a poem is, don’t you? Because I’m beginning to wonder.
He was elated, smiling hard, leaning forward on the edge of his chair, excited at last to be able to exercise his putdown. You say it right here – you choose not to understand your own poems.
Did my book make you feel a bit stupid? I didn’t say. Are you punishing me for that?
Even after this, I tried to respond as if he had asked me an acceptable question. At one point a member of the audience intervened to complain about how he was attacking me. When I was signing books afterwards, he came up with his copy and said You’ll probably write ‘f*** off’ in this but then maybe it’ll be worth a lot of money one day.
F*** off, I thought, as I signed it.
This is an edited extract from Some Answers Without Questions by Lavinia Greenlaw (Faber, £12.99). Lavinia Greenlaw is appearing live at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 4pm on August 25. Details and tickets: edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/lavinia-greenlaw-honour-the-small-words