Very Like A Whale is tickled pink to present the second part of the interview we conducted with Rob Mackenzie for his De-Cabbage Yourself Experience – his virtual book tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, his debut collection from Salt Publishing. The first part of his Very Like A Whale interview is here.
Photo: © Gerry Cambridge, 2009
6. A small group — perhaps five or six out of the 44 poems in the collection – have some of the cerebral ‘observer’ quality of the majority, but at the same time give a strong sense of personal involvement by the narrator and have poignancy for that reason. I’m thinking of poems like Light Storms from a Dark Country, Voices , Married Life in the Nineties and Plastic Cork, which all seem to be “relationship” poems. Describe the genesis of these poems. Do they feel different from the rest to you, and if so, how?
These poems are all about different people and were written years apart from each other. I suppose they do have a strong sense of personal involvement and, apart from ‘Married Life…’, an immediacy about them. The unfolding of the action seems almost synchronous with the pressures on the relationships. But they don’t feel too different from the other poems to me. I’m not in the least a ‘confessional’ poet and I try to find other strategies to draw readers into my poems.
7. You are quoted here as saying: “I wanted to find ways of writing about politics, religion and nationality that would engage, provoke and entertain people.” Not all the references in Fallen Villages of the North were clear to me, but it is precisely and compactly-written and seems to touch on all three of these themes. What were you trying to achieve thematically in this poem?
The poem began with place names. I was travelling by car up the A1 to Edinburgh from the English Midlands and noticed how odd some of the place-names were. The places in the poem like Longhorsley, Pauperhaugh, Cockle Park and Shilbottle (on the road signs to Shilbottle, the –l is often graffittied to a –t) are just villages. Much of the terrain is moorland and farmland but it was punctuated by small fairgrounds at regular intervals. I’d been reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and I also thought of Blake’s Jerusalem as I looked onto the green, rain-soaked landscape. All of these images and influences came together in the poem, which went through a large number of drafts.
Environmentally-questionable farms grow alongside merry-go-rounds. The hail falls. The priest is summoned to curse rival villages and to bless his home turf. Wind and rain play havoc. Messiahs drop in like bombs. Blake’s hymn shakes coconuts from the shy. A parochial and self-serving politics and religion vie with the landscape’s decay.
There’s no single theme, which I suppose makes it a complex poem to get a handle on. I wanted to hang a personality on the landscape, which would exert a pervasive effect on the surrounding human endeavour. The people look to God in a rather self-serving way, and God sends them what they deserve, I suppose.
8. Many of these poems are funny in a great way – if not laugh-out-loud funny, definitely wide-smile funny – and some (such as The Look, Slimming, Benediction and Sky Blue) are pretty Kafkaesque, also in a great way. Talk about the importance of humor and the surreal for you as poetic devices.
The kind of humour I like best in poetry is when it’s used as a counterpoint to seriousness. I think of Zbigniew Herbert, whose poems deal with important themes and yet engage their complexities with what appears to be a light touch. Humour is a big part of that. Many writers I enjoy do this and it’s a feature of the work of many 20th and 21st century Scottish poets.
I don’t think of myself as a surreal poet. My poems cohere too much for that, despite an initial appearance of fragmentation about some of them, but surreal techniques have influenced me. I use them in different ways: to view a scene from a surprising angle, or (similar to metaphor) to layer an image with unexpected connections. Also, there can be a political dimension – absurd images can reveal the absurdity of a situation better than any argument. That’s one thing I learned from Eastern European poets like Herbert and Holub.
9. Name your top five poetic influences and the nature of their influence.
Well, I’ll name five books I read almost exclusively while writing around half of the manuscript. I was consciously courting their influence, and read them slowly and carefully, and didn’t read anything else for months. I didn’t want to sound exactly like any of them, but if anything from their output has seeped into my poems, it will have been all to the good:
Harmonium – Wallace Stevens: his first lines are always remarkable. He never wrote anything in the least ordinary. He reminds me that whatever poems are, they shouldn’t be dull. Stevens is about as far from prose as poetry can get.
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation Millennium General Assembly – Denis Johnson: Johnson is better known as a novelist these days. He is a flawed poet, but never a bland one. This ‘Collected Poems’ contains some fantastic poems and the most extraordinary images and ideas. He’s never cited when poets mention their influences – another good reason to be influenced by him…
Collected Poems – James Schuyler: again, this big book is a mixed bag, but Schuyler’s best stuff is passionate and brilliantly observed. His writing often feels informal and is also really moving.
New Collected Poems – W.S. Graham: like Stevens, sometimes he mystifies me, sometimes he loses me, but Graham is one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. The odd syntax, the sinuous clarity of thought struggling to find expression, the varied approaches to writing a poem – unparalleled.
The Great Enigma – Tomas Transtromer: he can transform a landscape with a word or phrase and make me look at something simple in a very different light. He compresses his poems without them becoming ponderous and creates the most surprising metaphors and similes (often overused in poetry, but not by him) of any writer I’ve read.
10. You are one of what seems to be just a handful of UK poets familiar with and comfortable in the US poetry blogosphere as well. Talk about that cross-over experience. There doesn’t seem to be as much US-UK poetry blogosphere cross-over as one might expect, given the internet and virtual-ness in general – is that a good or a bad thing for poetry? What are the broad-stroke differences between the US and the UK poetry worlds as you see them?
These are huge and potentially controversial questions! My feeling is that many poets (and therefore, many poet-bloggers) aren’t much interested in poetry or poets from outside their own country. I guess some see blogging as a form of networking and don’t see any need to network beyond national boundaries. There’s no po-biz advantage. However, the Internet has made it possible for those who are interested to find out what’s happening throughout the world of poetry on a previously unimaginable scale. I know the work of many American poets I wouldn’t have heard of in pre-Internet days and am in touch with several U.S. bloggers.
As I see the U.S. poetry world (from a great distance, so I probably have it very wrong), there’s more acceptance of innovation in mainstream circles than in the UK. I know some U.S. post-avant poets might laugh at that, but much of the American mainstream would still seem quite avant-garde to many people in UK mainstream circles. This year, the Forward Prize nominees for Best Poetry Collection (published in Britain) included one U.S. poet – Sharon Olds! She is your representative! That’s where we are… A great deal of excellent British poetry is being written, but the best stuff isn’t always given the recognition it deserves.
American poetry is such a huge world though, it’s impossible to scratch more than the surface. I recently read through an anthology, Legitimate Dangers, of U.S. poets, most of them from the ‘elliptical’ side of things. It was a fascinating read, great for an overview of emerging American poets. Like all anthologies, I liked some poems better than others. I have quite wide taste. I really enjoyed Rick Barot, Stephen Burt, Matthea Harvey, Lisa Jarnot, DA Powell, Natasha Trethewey, C Dale Young and a good number of others, but some writers were indistinguishable from one another. Reading so many poems in a row employing an elliptical writing style brought to mind a prose poem by UK poet, Luke Kennard, called ‘The Elements’ (from one of the best books to emerge in recent years, The Harbour Beyond the Movie) which includes an ‘Interview with a Clod’. The poem concludes:
‘Your work often concludes in paradox,’ I say. ‘Is that intentional or do you genuinely not know anything?’
But I like a lot of American writing and read more of it than I do English poetry. Scottish poets have often looked across the Atlantic for inspiration, so I’m only carrying on a well-worn tradition by doing so.