Alex MacDonald

alex macdonald

Alex MacDonald lives and works in London. His poems have appeared in places such as The Quietus, The Next Review, Ambit, and collected in the Best British Poetry 2015 anthology.

He is a co-editor of the online journal Poems In Which and was highly commended in the Faber New Poets scheme.

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Hi Alex. I hope you’re well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You recently participated in a poetry reading with Amy Key, Jane Yeh, and Leah Umansky at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. Can you tell us a bit more about the event and how it went?

Thank you! This event was part of the Poetry Society’s In Town Tonight reading series, which aims to provide a platform for international poets when they are visiting London. Leah and I have spoken to each other for a long time now through social media and she suggested putting on a reading when she was visiting London. It was a good night and so interesting to see the links between everyone’s work.

It’s something that I think more stalwart organisations of the poetry world should consider, giving a platform for or inviting non-UK writers to read – especially female writers who are so under-represented. It blows my hat off that poets like Noelle Kocot or Claudia Rankine aren’t invited to read by festivals or societies (Claudia Rankine being a rare exception, but who had to be shortlisted for people to consider putting her on to read).

I remember when Anne Carson gave the Poetry Society lecture, and then read the following day at the London Review of Books, the excitement was palpable. Imagine, for a second, that John Ashbery was reading in the UK, or Dorothea Lasky, Patricia Lockwood or Melissa Broder was invited over. Goldsmiths University recently did a night where Sara Peters and Jennifer Knox read via Skype and Emily Berry read in person and it was one of the best readings I had been to in a long time.

That said, this may all be poetry-pie-in-the-sky and I imagine the reality of doing it is tricky to say the least, like the equivalent of me suggesting to the manager of Leigh-on-Sea folk festival that “you should just ask Bob Dylan over!”

 

 

You were highly commended in the most recent Faber New Poets scheme at the end of last year. I imagine this must have been quite a boost both for yourself and your writing. Do you think having this kind of recognition will affect your poetry ambitions and how you approach your poetry writing in any way?

I don’t know about “boost”. Of course, I am humbled that an organisation like Faber highly commended me alongside writers whose work I admire like Chloe Stopa-Hunt, Richard Scott, Matthew Gregory and Abigail Parry. I am inclined to be overly critical of my work and how I write poems to the point where each poem is quite miraculous; up until it is finished – or nearing a first draft – I don’t believe I can do it, that I’ll never be able to write again.

I’d like to think this is fairly common (I know that Larkin said that, for him, writing a poem felt like laying an egg). Being highly commended was a reminder to keep honing and trying to do what I do better. So, less of a boost, perhaps it was more encouragement.

My work tends to be informed by whoever it is I’m reading and what I see on a daily basis. About a year ago, I was reading people like Mary Ruefle, Bill Manhire, Sara Peters, as well as my friends like Amy Key and Rebecca Perry. I started engaging more directly with my feelings.

Up until then I think a lot of my poems didn’t let people in. I also moved to a new place in London which overlooks a park and there’s a lot of wild parakeets, trees and silence. It’s also near a lot of pubs, so it isn’t uncommon to be woken up by people having huge arguments or the time of their lives under the blue street lights of the park. I can’t help but feel these sensations are the things pervading my poems, so there’s a lot of birds, trees, windows, green spaces and a conversational tone.

Formally I feel I’m in a freefall – I used to write these poems with big black lines in them or with a lot of tabulations. I like using space in poetry, but right now these new poems feel very staid formally. That may be something I change. I honestly don’t know.

 

 

You were digital poet-in-residence for The Poetry School a couple years ago and wrote an interesting article on the phenomenon of ‘Internet Poetry’ as an emerging genre and form in its own right. Have any other examples of internet poetry grabbed your attention since the original article was published and do you have any predictions on how the genre might develop in the future?     

The first thing that comes to mind is Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage but I think that there’s been more critical and, perhaps, curatorial work around this theme than poetry. I thought Harry Burke’s anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (from Test Centre) collected together writers whose work had been increasingly informed (whether consciously or not) by the internet and digital culture in an engaging way. Charles Whalley’s critical work, especially his piece for Poetry Review on post-internet poetry, has been a good example, too.

Mostly I’m interested in projects that look back to pre-broadband days, like websafe2k16 which I will hopefully be writing a piece for soon. It’s this world of Geocities, really terrible web formatting and, perhaps, the very early days of broadband and web 2.0 that I find interesting. I think Carmen Hermosillo’s essay ‘Pandora’s Vox is a fascinating piece of writing about gender, commodification of the self and language on the internet. It was so prophetic – written in 1994, it outlines a world which looks remarkably like ours, filtered through social media.

 

 

Amy Key recently described the democratic process of editing Poems In Which and how all of your poetry tastes are something of a Venn diagram. I’m curious what poets and poetry movements you would include in your own set? 

Editing the magazine with Amy, Rebecca and Wayne is a great laugh and a great honour. I feel very lucky to have such like-minded but fiercely independently-minded co-editors. The fact that, for several years now, at least one poem published in Poems in Which has made it in to that year’s Best British Poetry shows people engage with it and come up with some excellent poems.

I feel that I’ve already mentioned enough names of poets whose work I admire, but in terms of poetry I think I can be swayed, hence the democracy Amy spoke about. Ultimately what I’m looking for in Poems in Which is work that grapples with the concept in a way that is confident and unique, which perhaps doesn’t rest too heavily on a conceit and so on. It’s hard to put more parameters on it than that; you know a good poem when you read it.

It is refreshing to know that you can be constantly surprised by people. I’ve come across a lot of new writers – both here and in other countries – who are just excellent. Emma Jeremy’s line from ‘Poem in Which I Address My Friend Tony’ – “you smell like a fork” – has stayed with me for ages. Graeme Bezanson’s work, too, was a revelation.

 

 

What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are especially looking forward to or goals you have set yourself?

Well, I’m reading at a poetry night called The The The on 10th May. I’m seeing Maggie Nelson do a reading at the London Review Bookshop which I’m super excited about. Almost every Tuesday I go to a Finnegans Wake reading group, organised by the very awesome Stephanie Boland, so I’m looking forward to finishing that book I’ve been trying to read since I was in my early twenties. It’s also my thirtieth this year, shit.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight? 

One day I remembered that I used to see a lot of videotape and cassette tape in trees when I was growing up in Southend – it seemed to be everywhere. I tried to find out why this was and came across this website written by a highly religious and very scared individual, claiming that a lot of these things were charged with witchcraft.

The more I read of the website, the more fascinated I became. It seemed that, whoever this person was saw malevolence and hatred in everyday objects. I got to thinking how terrifying everything could become. The title is a direct quote from the website.

 

 

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What the Darkness Is Doing Is Always the Secondary Issue

For Emily

New things in the church trees. This time videotape. It knocked a bird’s nest out. It’s bad, definitely demon.

Afternoon and it’s hot, very hot. Dangerous road bend near my house and a bag is tied to a bush. Sudden breeze, then it’s in the air. It waved over to me, then over traffic. On one side the bag said BIG SAVINGS. FURTHER REDUCTIONS on the other.

My dog is a good dog, nice face. I don’t have much to say to him. I got home and he wasn’t there, a hole in the door, dirty boy. Opened the paper, the same children with the pains, cars on fire and then the adverts are there again, recruiting the curious for paranormal research.

Went walking. I saw chocolate, empty box of chocolate, it said ‘Black Magic’. I thought of the past, of the plastic coiled snake outside the farm house. I used to sing there.

We had moved to this place. I thought ‘yes, safe’ but no, the same again, the broken glass in the dirt, the leaves with cut out smiles.

It’s almost winter now, so it’s better. It’s better and it’s just me, sometimes the dog, and the darkness, and the messages under rocks. Every so often the woodlice forming words. The slow voices always.

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