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, clich├ęd 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.


Jim Murdoch said...

Good questions. Especially the last one. I bet Rob sat for a long time before he came up with an answer to that one.

Roxana said...

haha, thanks Jim :-)

and no, not at all, Rob, i think you have done it justice, by all means. it's been really interesting to find out your thoughts about it - and to read the entire interview, thanks to both of you! i especially liked your description of an unexpected image that sends the poem "spiralling away", it is not only exact, i think, but also very beautiful: i don't think that one has to go to such extremes as the automatic writing to feel that, indeed, the poet is not exactly the one "in charge" of the poem, but this spiralling away of the language itself... thank you for the confirmation.

swiss said...

interesting questions! excellent post!

Michelle said...

Wonderfully specific questions and answers! I really enjoyed reading them.

Colin Will said...

Excellent post. Good to have such thought-provoking questions, and Rob's answers much appreciated. Thank you.

Titus said...

Really interesting, and in full agreement with Michelle - there was attention in the questions and answers.
I particularly enjoyed 1) and 4), as the place of the religious in poetry is particularly exercising me at the moment and hearing about how someone writes is ever interesting.

Thank you.

Marion McCready said...

Thanks everyone. I really enjoyed reading Rob's answers, particularly his answer to Roxana's question.

Rob said...

Glad you all enjoyed it, folks. It was fun for me too. Thanks to Madame Sorlil for being host. I'll be at 'Dumbfoundry' ( next Monday (15th June) answering more head-spinning questions.

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