The Umbrella Interview
Featured Poet Rob A. Mackenzie
by Katy Evans-Bush
How did you start writing poetry, or what made you want to?
I always loved reading from the minute I learned how. Words have been a part of my life since I was four years old. My dad used to take me to Burns Suppers and I learned Burns’ “To a Louse” when I was about 10, so that I had something to recite.
When I was 12, an enlightened and enthusiastic English teacher called John Cummings gave his class an assignment to write a ballad, so I wrote my first poem about a mouse who chased a cowardly cat around a house. A few years later, I was bewitched by the sounds and rhythms, and the twisting syntax, in Hopkins’ poetry. I wrote some bad sonnets in what I imagined to be his style – all part of the learning process. I could see he managed to express things important to him in ways only poetry could allow and I wanted to do that too.
Do you see yourself as a “Scottish poet”, and if so, how would you define that tradition?
That’s a hard one. The answer is “Yes” but I am also just a poet.
You sound as if you find it very energising for your own writing that Scotland has such an exciting crop of contemporary poets. What qualities would you say contribute to that?
Yes, it’s very energising. I really like a lot of the contemporary grouping of big-name Scottish poets – Edwin Morgan, Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, etc. – the list could go on for some time.
There’s also a burgeoning scene of lesser-known poets, often known only through chapbooks from small presses. Helena Nelson’s HappenStance Press, Duncan Glen’s Akros, James Robertson’s Kettillonia, Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat and several other small publishing houses are producing stuff of real quality.
One of the most prominent current Scottish poets, Don Paterson, has laid out a strong line on what defines “mainstream” versus the “avant-garde” - admittedly, for an American audience. Do you have a view on that? Do you think his points apply in the UK?
I don’t think the distinction is useful. To be “mainstream” implies you are part of the dominant flow and — as I see it — that you have nothing distinctive to offer. If you label yourself as avant-garde, you either have an ego problem or you are deliberately limiting your audience to the other four poets who write the same way as you do (although they’d never admit it).
Most poetry I enjoy operates in a grey area that doesn’t fall on either side of the mainstream/avant-garde divide. I’d include Don Paterson’s own poetry in that area (even if he wouldn’t). There’s a lot of boring, easily comprehensible poetry out there that’s predictable and safe, like painting-by-numbers, just as there is obscure poetry that follows the unwritten rules of how such “innovation” should properly look on a page and act on a reader. But Don Paterson’s poetry, while informed by tradition, is usually challenging, clever, and affecting and often takes a lot of working out.
Until these poems in Umbrella, I hadn”t seen any of your work deal overtly with spiritual matters; but these poems confirm my idea that you habitually avoid the classic “redemption” trope. I”m wondering if you are aware of seeing faith as more of a challenge than a consolation?
I don’t look on religious faith as a set of dogmas or moral values that have to be asserted or defended, nor do I see it as offering platitudes to help people through the trials of life. These are popular caricatures of religion, and indeed even people who call themselves “religious” sometimes subscribe to either or both of them. For me, it’s always the next step towards the other, the next risk, that counts – the step into darkness, and it’s there that God is most likely to be found.
The Canadian poet, Todd Swift, put it really well in a recent blog entry, “God is the despite, is the still, is the just about, is the almost - may even be simply the perhaps, or it could be. God is the barest sliver of hope, when all hope is gone. As such, it is a via negativa, and one”s faith can only be fully sounded when the instrument one plays is beyond need, is denuded of the self – when one mourns not for one”s own self, but for a greater love of another.”
Many of your poems seem to be about the disjointedness of modern life. In light of the poems in Umbrella it is easier to see these as particular reflections on a discerned parlousness of modern spirituality, as in your poem “A Night in the Circus” which describes a response to the demi-monde of Piccadilly Circus. Do you have a take on that?
“A Night in the Circus” was based on a real incident when I was about 20, and ended up wandering through Piccadilly Circus in the early hours. The place was packed with drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes, and evangelists handing out tracts. I used a terza rima form because the whole scene wouldn’t have been out of place in Dante’s Inferno. The image here was of the entire city fracturing into dozens of pieces, and of something inside me beginning to undergo a similar fracture.
Speaking of John Burnside, at this year”s Poetry International, he said that “every poem is, in some way, trying to save the world.” He was speaking in political terms, but one might equally apply this idea in a spiritual vein. Do you feel that your poetic vocation exists in tandem to your ministerial vocation, or would you say they are part of the same thing?
Well, I’m definitely not trying to save the world! That’s rather beyond me. Perhaps John Burnside’s idea is true in the very loosest sense. A poem might be said to save the world by preserving something — an insight, narrative, or historical moment. I write poems partly as an attempt to gain understanding of what I don’t know or have only a vague sense of. I then hope that other people have had similar feelings and questions and can relate to the poems because of that.
In your poem of the same name, you describe ”happiness” as “that feeling you had before the kettle boiled”. The “you” of the poem experiences this evanescence as a betrayal and gives up on the small quotidian happinesses precisely because they don”t last. I”m wondering if this is the challenge you think is set for us by faith, and maybe also by poetry?
No, the “you” in that poem was a tragic figure, sealing himself off from life. He’d given up on the metaphysical answers and by the end of the poem has become cynical even of the small happinesses of daily life. I think the evanescent joys are what make life bearable for the most part and I aim to live them and appreciate them to the fullest possible extent.
Rob, I know you write in form sometimes, even in quite demanding forms like Sapphics, but you also write free verse. Do you find that each of these ways of writing serves a different purpose for you?
It depends. I have, at times, set out to write a sonnet, just because I felt like writing one. But usually, a form will suggest itself as the tone and voice of the poem emerges. For example, Sapphics lend themselves to love poems, contemplation, and philosophical musings, and that’s why I’m drawn to the form for such poems. But the strong trochees and dactyls, and the tug of the short final line in each stanza, also lend themselves to satire and outrage – the demands of the form serve to keep poems from becoming rants.
So, what”s the next step for Rob Mackenzie, poet?
I don’t know. I’ve been quite lucky up until now. The main thing is to keep writing the poems I want to write. I hope some kind publisher will decide to take a chance on a full collection by me at some point. I’d like to do a bit more translating and to perform more before audiences. But I don’t have a game-plan or anything like that. I love poetry and it would be nice to achieve a little more recognition for my writing than I get at present, but the only possible way to achieve that is to work hard and write the best poems I can. So that’s the plan.
Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York and has lived in London since she was 19. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic; she was one of six poets featured in The Like Of It (Baring & Rogerson, 2005). She writes reviews and criticism, and is a regular contributor to The Contemporary Poetry Review. She also writes a literary blog called Baroque in Hackney.