Very Like A Whale is tickled pink to serve as the launching pad for Rob Mackenzie’s De-Cabbage Yourself Experience, his virtual book tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, his debut collection from Salt Publishing. You, of course, have either already purchased his stirling collection or are about to do so.
Photo: © Gerry Cambridge, 2009
We thoroughly enjoyed reading this beautifully-crafted collection of poems which is infused with a whole range of desirables — intelligence, humor, satire, the surreal, the poignant and Scotland, to name but a few. We asked Rob ten questions about The Opposite of Cabbage. He answers half here and will be back towards the end of his tour to answer the other half. Thanks for being here, Rob!
1. Your publisher promoted your book launch as that of “a new Scottish poet.” Only seven or so of the 44 poems in this collection seem “Scotland-specific” in setting, theme or subject matter – the rest seem pretty universal. Talk about the “Scottish poet” label. How important is “Scottishness” to your work as a poet? Is the label restricting or helpful to you?
Restrictions are useful for publishers to market books and ‘Scottish poet’ no doubt attracts certain audiences and doesn’t alienate too many.
I am Scottish and therefore I am a Scottish poet. I probably bring a typically doom-laden, pseudo-Calvinist ethic to what I write, coupled with an off-beat sense of humour which enables Scottish people to survive the long, grey winters.
I do write about Scotland now and again. Poetry which is purely personal interests me less than poetry which engages in some way with the public sphere and, for me, that sometimes means Scotland, but it can mean many other things too. The worlds of popular music, holiday camps, public transport and multiculturalism also find a way into my work. I don’t find the Scottish label either restricting or helpful, but it is one aspect of my identity.
2. Talk about the importance of cabbages. They give your collection its title, are a central image in the poem Everyone Will Go Crazy and are mentioned more than once elsewhere (Fallen Villages of the North and Hot Shit, for example).
I’ve always wanted a platform to talk about how important the humble cabbage is! To be honest, I had quite a bland working title for the collection (In-Between States – zzzzzzz…). Someone (Andrew Philip, I think) read Everyone Will Go Crazy in draft form and told me he liked the ‘opposite of cabbage – fat as a bus honk’ lines, and it soon became the new title. From there, images of cabbages kept popping into my head whenever I wrote a poem and it was hard work to keep them from taking over. Fallen Villages and Hot Shit were written during that period and it seemed like a fun idea to incorporate a minor cabbage motif into the book. There is an absurdist sensibility in many of the poems, which the title seemed to reflect as well as any title could.
3. Talk about poem order in your book. What was the organizing principle behind the order you chose, and what were you hoping to achieve with that choice?
There were various stages. After my chapbook was published at the end of 2005, I continued writing poems without any real principle in mind. Halfway through 2007, I collected the best poems into a chapbook length manuscript and realized that they often dealt with extremes, opposites, and people struggling to find a meaningful path that wasn’t just banal compromise between them. I added poems until I had a book-length manuscript. However, I threw out more than half of that manuscript and seriously revised another quarter over the next eighteen months.
The turning point was reading Michael Hamburger’s book, The Truth of Poetry, which covers poets like Baudelaire, Celan, Eliot, Stevens, Pessoa, and various others. What they had in common was a distinctive style (none of them could be accused of writing what magazine editors were wanting to read!), an almost obsessive, singular vision for their poetry, and an obvious greatness. I couldn’t do anything about the third of these, but I realized that the first two aspects were vital for producing anything worthwhile, let alone ‘great’. I focused on writing poems that fitted with the best poems still in the manuscript, the kind of poems I wanted to write rather than what anyone else might have been expecting. The poems emerged at a much slower pace than I’d managed in the past, but it was worth plugging away at. The poet, AB Jackson, was a great help at this stage. His editorial skills and his rejection of anything bland forced me to try harder and stop playing about.
Once I had enough poems, it was a case of laying them out on the floor and juggling the order around. I wanted to scatter poems with similar themes throughout the book e.g. ‘Scottishness’. I wanted there to be less obvious connections from poem to poem, but I hoped the whole would feel like a unity. I spent ages deciding on the first and last poems but, when I look at them now, they seem like obvious choices.
4. With the exception of one, all the poems in the collection are very urban poems, set in streets, in buildings, in cafeterias and houses, around buses and bicycles. The one exception is The Loser, which relies on a pastoral forest setting in its compelling first stanza. Do you consider yourself an urban poet? What about The Loser set it apart from the rest of the poems and required a pastoral setting?
In one sense, I am very much an urban poet. I’ve lived in cities all my life – in Scotland, England, South Korea and Italy. I don’t know any other way of life and cities fascinate me. However, if ‘urban poet’ also connotes the idea of stylish seediness, dark alleyways, street narratives, and a hip, conversational voice, then I’m not that kind of poet at all.
The Loser was written a few days after Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. elections. I was delighted that he won, but knew the battle to wrestle power from the hands of those who oppose radical change was only just beginning. The losers weren’t going to roll over and capitulate. I chose an anonymous pastoral setting because it seemed out of eyeshot, the way plots of the powerful usually are. Also, I didn’t want to tie the poem to the single political event that inspired it. The undefined island setting makes the poem more universal in scope.
5. One of your blurb writers describes your poems as “restrained, intelligent, quietly ironic.” Indeed, they are finely-observed, well-crafted and precisely-written poems. In most of them, the narrator comes across as a perceptive observer — humorous, rather cerebral, and somewhat detached. Two small groups of poems are different, though. The first is the three poems The Loser, While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay and Berlusconi and the National Grid, which appear together. They have an immediacy, an emotion and a feeling of involvement by the narrator not present in most of the other poems. Talk about these three poems. At least two, and maybe all three, are set in Italy. Do these poems seem different from the rest to you and if so, was the setting a factor?
That’s a really interesting question. To me, these poems don’t really seem different from the rest and they were each written years apart. While the Moonies… was written about 2001 (easily the oldest poem in the book), The Loser is the newest poem in the book, and Berlusconi was written in (I think) 2005.
They aren’t the ones I felt I had invested the most emotion in. Poems like Glory Box, Holiday at the New Butlins, Light Storms from a Dark Country, and The Preacher’s Ear seem more immediately emotional to me. However, I don’t think the poems which carry the most emotional investment by the writer will necessarily be the ones to instill such emotional involvement in the reader. Each reader brings his/her own experience to a text and responds to it in ways the writer can’t always predict. That’s one of the great things about poetry. If poems are written authentically with a high degree of emotional and intellectual honesty, feelings are bound to be set off in readers, but different poems will set off different reactions in different readers. Without that – if poems are only craft and precision and lack that ‘spark’ of conviction or struggle or emotion – the reader may feel like a corpse afterwards, or perhaps a cabbage.
Rob A. Mackenzie 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.