A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

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.

I stopped writing poetry in my twenties, but wrote over 700 songs – lyrics and music – for an alternative rock band called Pure Television. In my thirties, I started on poetry again, with little success in publication terms, but somewhere along the line, pennies dropped. I had started to perform poetry at the Bar Brel in Glasgow, and the need not to humiliate myself in front of an audience strengthened my resolve to make my poems work. And then my first marriage split up, and I think any blow to the system that deepens one’s experience of life can have a beneficial effect on one’s writing. Not that I’m recommending divorce to anyone who doesn’t require one!

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.

There is no single Scottish tradition. I suppose you could say that some Scottish poets stay at home and write exclusively from a Scottish landscape, and focus on everyday details to explore universal themes. Other Scottish poets, while concerned with Scottish identity, engage in a dialogue with other cultures, traditions and languages. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote exclusively in Scots, and indeed completely renewed the language, but he was concerned with a worldwide political arena. Edwin Morgan wrote a great sequence of sonnets exploring the city of Glasgow, but translated poems from all over Europe and beyond. Contemporary poets such as Don Paterson, Robin Robertson and Richard Price, who often focus on the Scottish landscape and psyche, have also published translations of Antonio Machado, Tomas Transtromer and Apollinaire. And Paterson has just released versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.

I lived in Italy for a while and identify with the cross-cultural, international engagement that has typified much Scottish writing. I’m interested in questions of identity and nationality, but not in a narrow nationalistic sense. I’ve translated poems from Italian by the likes of Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Saba, and a contemporary poet from Bologna, Davide Rondoni. I guess these activities are typical of what being a “Scottish poet” is about.

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.

My favourite is probably Edwin Morgan. His poetry is so varied, and each poem achieves just the right tone and voice. There’s no single form you could associate with him. He can do anything from the wildest experimentation to the most perfectly crafted Italian sonnet. He wrote some of the finest blank verse of the last century. I get the impression that, outside Scotland, he is criminally underrated. I also very much enjoy John Burnside – his lyricism, his questioning, philosophical mind, and the imagination that goes into his imagery, are astonishing.

What I like about most of these poets, and what informs my own work, is that they don’t find an “authorial voice” and stick to it with every poem. Instead, they give each poem its distinctive music and structure. I know that a Collected Poems unified around a single “voice” are what some poets seem to dream of for themselves these days. I know that creative writing classes appear to urge poets to “find their voice”. I know voice is trendy and variety isn’t. It makes marketing easier as there is a clearly defined product to sell. It focuses attention on the poet – his/her voice becomes a symbol of their personality and authenticity. But the poems can suffer. Style is another matter. Poems can be written in a multiplicity of voices and yet still have an identifiable style. Just as a great musician’s style can be heard whether playing a lyrical lament or a celebratory reel, so a mature poet’s style is evident even if the voice varies from poem to poem. Too many poets play the same sluggish, mid-tempo march all the time. I’m all for difference.

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.

There’s no doubt that camps exist, in the UK as much as in the USA, but I’d rather find what’s interesting throughout the spectrum than camp out with one side or the other. I wouldn’t want to label my own poetry. For example, take my poem “The Excavation,” published in this edition of Umbrella. Is it mainstream? In what sense? And while it’s clearly not avant-garde, in that it uses traditional form and sentence structure, it also employs certain post-modernist techniques. Come to think of it, I know few poets who would wish to use such limiting labels for their own work. “Mainstream” and “avant-garde” are usually employed as terms of abuse by opponents of a poet’s work. So, as methods of conveying abuse, the terms might have found their niche, but for critics who are interested in more than conveying sound-bites, I think they should be avoided.

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.”

There isn’t a great deal of poetry dealing with spiritual and philosophical issues in the UK at the moment, although writers like Edwin Morgan, John Burnside and Don Paterson certainly seem interested in exploring such questions – from different initial standpoints. Maybe Scotland is leading the way!

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.

I don’t know if the poem is responding to a parlousness of modern spirituality exactly, although that’s got to be part of it. But I have a sense that the efficiency and security that we experience day-to-day doesn’t go very deep, and could be torn down in the blink of an eye. The dark underbelly of contemporary life is an ever-present reality in my poems.

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.

The Scottish novelist Maggie O’Farrell put it well when she said, “Often, I think the impetus to write is to explore something you don”t fully comprehend.” Poems can tackle issues – whether personal, social or political – in a way that helps people (and the poet) articulate what they wanted to say but never could before. Poems also appeal to the imagination, which makes them a threat to tyrants when written in the context of repressive regimes.

It may be a male thing, but I have tended to compartmentalise my life increasingly as I grow older. My job, my family, my poems, all exist in separate compartments. There is some overlap – spirituality and family relations do feature at times in my poems – but so do many other concerns. My poems in Umbrella are grouped around a vague spiritual theme, and many others concern a groping around for meaning in a cultural environment that denies even the possibility of finding coherence. I don’t mind if I am out of step. I think that’s an advantage for a poet.

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.

Much lyric poetry celebrates that evanescence and preserves it. Indeed such poetry is the most popular and frequently published style of verse in UK contemporary magazines. The best of these poems succeed because the power of language helps to articulate experiences or emotions the reader has shared (at least in part) but never expressed quite so well. So perhaps the lyric can help us appreciate life more, even its dissipating vapour.

The flip side of this are the lyric poems that don’t justify their epiphanies, where the insights seem tagged on or remote from the images they describe – as though the writer hasn’t really experienced the metamorphosis described in a poem, but has simply added the epiphany because it’s the ‘poetic’ thing to do. There are too many of these kinds of poems around. They feel like betrayals to me, betrayals of what poetry should be about and, worse, betrayals of the reader.

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.

Form exerts a necessary, and liberating, control. I write mostly in free verse, but all good free verse poems have form. A poem without form isn’t a poem. I’ve heard people suggest that writing good free verse is more difficult than writing in form because the free verse writer has no props (e.g. metre and rhyme) that immediately make the poem distinct from prose. I don’t agree with that contention myself. Perhaps the metrical verse these people write needs to be worked on harder!

I think every poem presents the writer with its own significant challenges. I like what George Szirtes said about form in a BBC Radio 3 interview, and his comments are relevant whether one is writing in metre or in free verse: “There”s a lovely sentence which comes out of Emily Dickinson, ”Art is a house that tries to be haunted…” And I have to build a certain kind of house because that”s the way it sort of works for me, so that the haunting can take place. I mean you can build these houses and no bloody ghost comes, but you think well maybe if I built the room this way it”ll come in, and that”s what you”re trying to do. It”s that ghost for whom you have frozen your room.” The thing to beware of is when you become so adept at building that your architecture receives gasps of admiration, but no ghosts want to come anywhere near.

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