Thursday, June 18, 2009

Still taking notes for poems but don't have the mental energy to actually turn them into poems. Doing lots of reading instead.

Just finished a bizarre short book by the wonderful Czech writer Milan Kundera, Identity. As the title suggests the book explores the theme of human identity through the relationship between two lovers. It's quite a psychological book - full of mind-games and manipulation. Kundera doesn't like being referred to as a philosophical writer but his books are definitely books of Ideas, existentialism in this case. One of my favorite bits in the book comes out of the mouth of the character Jean-Marc when he describes a visit to his dying grandfather :

"I had just turned fourteen, and my grandfather – not the cabinetmaker, the other one – was dying. There was a sound coming from his mouth that was unlike anything else, not even a moan because he wasn’t in pain, not like words he might have been having trouble saying, no, he hadn’t lost speech, just very simply he had nothing to say, nothing to communicate, no actual message, he didn’t even have anyone to talk to, wasn’t interested in anyone any more, it was just him alone with the sound he was emitting, one sound, an “ahhhh” that broke off only when he had to take a breath. I would watch him, hypnotized, and I never forgot that, because, though I was only a child, something seemed to become clear to me: this is existence as such confronting time as such; and that confrontation, I understood, is named boredom. My grandfather’s boredom expressed itself by that sound, by that endless “ahhhh”, because without that “ahhhh” time would have crushed him, and the only weapon my grandfather had against time was that feeble “ahhhh” going on and on."

I'm also reading a series of essays on feminism by Virginia Woolf. I've long been a fan of her novels but the essays are excellent, very sharp, insightful, a wonderful writer.

Still waiting (forever it seems) on replies for poetry submissions, some I've given up on.
So on a happier note here are some of the reasons why I love Poetry Scotland:

i They were the first to publish my poems
ii I've had poems in the last two issues and three poems coming up in the summer issue
iii The response time is usually about a week (bliss)
iv It's only a quid an issue
v It's a broadsheet packed with poems and only poems

Some non-poetry news - I'm having a girl!!! This was a surprise - I was convinced I was having another boy! So now I'm dreaming of rows and rows of little dresses and very excited about what having a little girl is going to be like!

I can't resist puting a scan photo up. It's the first time I've had a 3D scan, we only paid for a normal one but the very nice lady gave us 3D pics to take away as well as the normal. My wee girl smirks and smiles in the womb.

Monday, June 08, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself!

I'm delighted to welcome Scottish poet Rob A. Mackenzie to Poetry in Progress for stop two of his De-Cabbage Yourself Experience - Rob's virtual book tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, his debut poetry collection from Salt Publishing.

Rob was born in Glasgow. He studied law and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology. He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in Lanarkshire, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series. His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005 and he blogs at Surroundings (

(Rob Mackenzie photo © Gerry Cambridge 2009)

(1) Something I'm very curious about in your recent collection, The Opposite of Cabbage, is the conspicuous absence of religious poems considering that you are a Church of Scotland minister. God does gets a mention in the odd poem but only in the same fashion as your, if I may say so, rather cynical if not nihilistic portrayal of modern life. Is your personal faith something you consciously avoid writing about?

I compartmentalise my life – family, friends, work, poetry, other stuff – but now and again the compartments intersect. I do write about matters of faith, but not usually to my satisfaction. For instance, at Umbrella magazine (, you’ll find nine poems on the subject, none of which made my cut for the book, although a few came close. A few weeks ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Pentecost’, which I read during a fairly large interdenominational church service. I quite like it. Maybe it will be in my next book, unless I get fed up with it in the meantime.

Most attempts at religious poetry express something important for the writer and for readers who relate directly to the thoughts expressed. Nothing inherently wrong with that. But heartfelt subject-matter doesn’t make for good poetry in itself. It can do, but only within the framework of a good poem. Religious poems are often bland, abstract, badly written, clichéd and over-sentimental. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s very hard to write a good poem, but it’s even harder to write a good religious poem.

Most religious poems that work well have tension at their heart – Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, RS Thomas, Eliot, Geoffrey Hill. They all struggle to make sense of belief, as if they’re continually at war with themselves. Suffering, loss, doubt, guilt and rationality all put pressure on standard religious words and images. Religious poets have to find new ways to express what often can’t find complete expression. Good religious poems contain certainties, moments of rapture, but are rarely short on ambiguity.

There are a few poems in the book which touch on religious themes e.g. ‘While the Moonies…’, ‘The Preacher’s Ear’, In the Last Few Seconds’, and a few others. The first suggests an oblique sacramental presence within ordinary life, even within the poem’s chopped green pepper (just as theologian, Paul Tillich, referred to God as ‘the ground of all being’). The second is like a psalm, one of those brooding, angry psalms of prayer and protest. The third is a poem of resurrection, albeit an ambiguous, double-edged one. In several poems, I use religious imagery in very non-traditional ways.

When I was in my twenties, I became an existentialist, which meant dressing in black clothes and drinking lots of coffee. What appealed to me most was Sartre’s advice on train travel i.e. assume the train is going to crash on the way to its destination because, if it ever arrives, you’ll feel a sense of happiness and relief. Later, I dropped the black outfits (OK, I met a woman who knew about clothes) and cut my coffee intake, but kept the attitude. I assume the train is going to crash (and for ‘train’, you can substitute ‘society’, government’, ‘relationship’, ‘financial system’, ‘European elections’ – whatever), but I’m not really a nihilist. I am often surprised when the train arrives and yet I feel delighted when it happens. Real nihilists feel a sense of despair when things go right because it means they’re wrong!

(2) I know that you are a fan of the work of Czech poet Miroslav Holub, and being a fan of Holub myself I enjoy seeing moments in your poetry which remind me of Holub though this may be my perception only (thinking particularly of your poem 'Berlusconi and the National Grid'). Would you say Holub has influenced your writing, and if so, in what way?

I love Holub’s work. He surprises me with every poem. It’s impossible to guess where he’s going and how he’s going to finish. I learned a lot from him and read his translated selection from Bloodaxe from end to end several times. As well as a sense of the unexpected, I enjoy his absurd humour, the underlying political charge in much of his work, his sheer intelligence and clarity of thought. There’s a strangeness about his poems, but I never feel he’s indulging himself in being odd for the sake of it. I learned from all of these things. I wish I could have lived inside his brain for one day, which would no doubt have been enough...

(3) The majority of the poems in this collection are city-based; packed with observations of city life and the crowd mentality. Yet a few lovely nature moments make the odd appearance. Have you written much in the way of nature poetry, and is it an area you might consider moving into in the future?

I haven’t written much nature poetry. I’ve always lived in cities and write about them. I admire poets who successfully write poems about nature without becoming boring, because mere description of nature is incredibly boring. Sam Meekings, in his 2007 collection, ‘The Bestiary’, observed animals closely and found in them fascinating ways to explore human nature. It’s a book full of surprises, a real achievement. Jen Hadfield is incredibly good at transforming the way a reader might expect to see a landscape in the space of a short phrase. She is never boring. I can’t do these things well, so I don’t. I can’t see myself writing much in the way of nature poetry in the future.

(4) How much is your body part of the process of creation? Does the body plays a role in the creative process for you? Many poets talk, for example, about a certain freedom the hand seems to acquire during the writing, like 'the hand writes by itself', before even the mind grasps an idea... or the need to say the words loud and 'taste' them on your tongue. (Roxana’s question)

Of all the questions I’ve been asked, I didn’t see this one coming! But it’s an intriguing question. I don’t really know the answer. I tend to write poems on the computer screen. Once I have a draft, or hit an impasse, I print what I’ve written and carry it around with me. I jot down ideas and images, and then come back to the poem later.

Sometimes when I get stuck, I do something physical unrelated to poetry, which usually (because I’m lazy) involves walking somewhere outside. Ideas tend to come to me during these walks. I can often complete a poem in my head in more adventurous ways than I would have achieved sitting in front of the screen. That may be because I’m no longer thinking directly about poetry and my mind starts working in a different way. Lines seem to come from nowhere and I guess that’s why poets have always given credit to the Muses, especially when a poem tells the writer something that he/she didn’t know before writing the poem.

So, yes, the hand can write by itself before the mind grasps an idea, but I’m doubtful whether that’s anything to do with the hand itself. I’m not a great believer in automatic writing, although the subconscious clearly plays an important role in any imaginative act. The creative process is largely a mystery to me. What I do know is that when I read one of my own poems and have no idea how I managed to come up with many of the ideas and images, these are usually the best poems. The poems in which I felt in charge and directed the course of the poem from beginning to end tend to fall short. If an image or phrase occurs to me that sends a poem spiralling away in an unexpected direction, I usually run with it as far as I can. Geoffrey Hill said that he writes poems “to surprise himself.” If a poem doesn’t surprise its writer, it’s probably not going to surprise anyone else.

This may also have something to do with the rhythm of walking, the exercise of the body. Scottish poet, John Burnside, once said that he often composes entire poems while walking for hours on the beach, and only has to type them up afterwards. Sound, rhythm, chance – the building blocks of a poem – perhaps combine when the feet are moving.

I read my poems out loud when writing, but that’s to gauge sound and rhythm rather than to “taste them on my tongue.” Everyone is different. I can’t even understand the concept of tasting words, although I’m sure many people can. Anyway, thanks for an interesting question, Roxana, even if I haven’t really done it justice.

Friday, June 05, 2009

I'd much rather be de-cabbaged than swine flu'ed!

Not poetry but swine flu on my mind over the last week.

Since last friday the eighteen confirmed cases of swine flu in Argyll and Bute has risen to sixty-five, the vast majority of them in my otherwise sleepy hometown of Dunoon. The strategy is no longer containment but treatment - looks like we're all going to get it, if not now then in the autumn.

However, very much looking forward to Rob Mackenzie's De-Cabbage Yourself Blog Tour arriving on this blog on Monday.