An Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he is currently studying for a PhD in poetry at Sheffield University. He currently edits The Interpreter’s House poetry journal.
Hi Martin. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your second collection Cur last year. Now that you have a bit of distance from it, what similarities and differences do you see in the collection compared to your debut The Waiting Hillside?
Good question and one that’s tricky to answer in so much as it was the work of a poet perhaps buoyed by the modest success of The Waiting Hillside which won the Straid Award and came out, if I’m honest, somewhat before it was quite ready.
I love The Waiting Hillside but you only get one debut collection and maybe mine wasn’t quite the best first statement I could have made. I stand by it though and would rather put out frank reflections of the moment than hothouse something artificially with an eye on award shortlists and the like: the ‘early career poet’ phenomenon as I call it…jokingly, I may add. Fair play to those poets who do that, by the way; it’s just not my way.
So Cur came out of that situation and a period of intense productivity occasioned by two big love affairs and a marvellous, though ultimately doomed, collaboration with another poet. The poetry is probably a bit more focused, assured and spare in comparison to the first book. Although in some ways it is a Part II, in that there is a lot of material culled from autobiographical processes.
I can probably see this better now that I’m embarked upon third and fourth collections which are gloriously free from the curse of the self, being as they are about the legacies of the Great War. The art poems in Cur helped me get to this point and, I must say, it’s liberating to write about phenomena outside of oneself.
Having to sit down, think a bit, and hit upon a form of poetics beyond the lyrical ‘I’ is both challenging and immensely satisfying. Overall though, I’d say Cur is a stronger book and that’s the direction anyone would want to be moving in from one collection to the next.
I understand a new chapbook entitled Prodigals is due for publication soon as well. What can you tell us about it?
I just got back from the launch down in Middlesbrough a couple weeks back. It’s a lovely wee limited print-run through The Black Light Engine Room, a magazine and a bunch of folk whom I love. They do great work down there and asked me for some stuff for one of a series of occasional pamphlets they’re putting out. And what a cracking job they’ve done of them. Lovely off-white paper, flaps, nicely typeset, frontispiece artwork by Jane Burn, and a handsome house aesthetic to the blue covers.
When Morbid asked me Cur had not long come out and, mentally, I was off somewhere in the mud of Flanders so had no great number of unattached poems to offer him. I see Prodigals then as the ‘Bonus Disc’ to Cur. All the more loveable for not being on the main album. Can you remember those days? Sometimes there were great tracks hidden away on the Extras disc. Hopefully Prodigals will be received in the same way.
One of your other day jobs is as editor of The Interpreter’s House. I guess it must be something of a double-edged sword being heavily involved in the publishing side of the poetry business. While I imagine it is a great means of networking and keeping abreast of new writing, don’t you also feel a burden of responsibility in keeping the ship on course? And does it impact much on how much time and energy you’re afforded to concentrate on your own writing?
Ah. Yes. It is a double-edged sword. And not a job for the thin-skinned! The editorship came along at a bittersweet moment for me but felt right from the get-go. It was a magazine that I’d enjoyed being published in and I felt that it was punching a little below its weight with the potential to improve its profile a little.
I inherited a great infrastructure – just one without any kind of digital footprint. So I had a bit of an open goal in that respect: build a website, open Twitter and FB accounts, and immediately I had opened up a new readership. No real talent on my part there.
I have always been pretty rubbish at networking – just the thought of it makes me feel a bit icky – however, up to a point, editing The Interpreter’s House has provided me with something of a crash course. The awareness of great new writers is fantastic for you as an editor though deeply disturbing for you as a writer, since they just keep coming and keep reminding you how much your own writing might not be all it could be!
I am as scrupulous as possible in keeping the business side as separate as possible from my own poetry writing. Other than editorials and reviews, I’d never publish my own stuff, for instance. Again, I have absolutely no problem with editors who do, it’s just not something I’d feel comfortable with. My responsibility here is to other writers and to attempt to give something back gratis.
The editing does impact upon my own writing, but I guess I work better when under pressure and it keeps me on my toes. I’m genuinely proud of the work we do, the people we publish and the quality of the journal. That is reward in itself.
All the same, I note with each passing issue how much nearer I am to the moment when I hand it over after my 15th issue in charge. And yes, there is a burden of responsibility involved, though I’ve always been philosophical about the journal’s ability to survive and thrive; largely on subscriptions, the odd small donation and the annual competition.
If it somehow disappeared under my editorship I wouldn’t beat myself up too much. It would certainly not be for the want of hard work on my part or indeed that of Charlie (the Deputy Editor) and Louise (the Competition Administrator). The main sense of responsibility is to the poets we publish and those we actually don’t: the first deserve a good quality home for their work, the second deserve a sympathetic explanation.
Music has also been a big part of your life in the past as well. As a musician, do you see there being any correlation between songwriting and the writing of poetry or are they two very different disciplines?
They’re certainly cousins but no closer than that. When I came back to poetry, after a 25 year songwriting stint, I found it a relatively easy bridge to cross but I’d always been a songwriter who valued the lyrics as much as the tunes. However, the poet and the songwriter are ploughing a different soil in that the poet lacks the manure of the tune and the complicating factors of the physical instrument.
Song lyrics have much greater leeway in one sense. They can get away with big abstractions and grander phrasing because they’re fly-fishing off the back of the melody. Whereas poetry is a more nakedly linguistic pursuit, it’s in more direct contact with the words; in their fullness of meaning, etymology and capacity to generate their own music.
There are some great lyrics out there that might be taken as poetry, but strip them of their musical contexts and they’re not great poetry really. Bob Dylan, for instance, is a great Bob Dylan but a very middling poet. I’m a very average musician, I hasten to add. I leave it to others to complete that thought in terms of my poetry.
I realize that I’ve mixed up a fair few metaphors here. Put that down to the songwriter in me, he can get away with it.
What else 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, March looks busy! And I’m doing a Moniack Mhor residential in July. Also, I’m hopefully running a first literary festival in Mirepoix, France at some point. But because I’m not great at networking or elbowing my way to the front of the queue in the Poetry Chippy – nor am I a ‘big’ enough name – I confess that there’s not exactly a hectic schedule ahead of me.
However this year is really all about getting my PhD finished and handed in on time so that I can start earning a wage again come the Autumn. That has taken up a lot of my time these past couple of years and, I suspect, will take up a lot more before I’m through.
Though, at least I’m now clearly into the poetry writing phase more than the critical research and writing bit. Also, there’s always another The Interpreter’s House launch around the corner to organize and travel to. So, I’ve no complaints.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
This poem comes out of research for my PhD collection at Sheffield. I’m working with Great War poetry and part of the final thesis will be a new collection of related poetry. It’s such an already well-written about area that I was initially overwhelmed about the chances of finding anything new to say about it or new ways of saying it.
What I’ve opted for is an almost palimpsestic/neo-modernist approach which collides the subject matter into 21st century critical and popular registers so that, hopefully, you see the Great War anew through the lens of mixed contemporaneity: Then part-rendered as Now.
This poem came out of a visit to the War Museum in Vienna where, sure enough, there is the Sarajevo car that carried Archduke Ferdinand to his world-changing appointment with Gavrilo Princip on 28th June 1914. Don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting to run across the fascinating diorama they’ve got set up there, nor to encounter a sense of just how utterly random the whole event and its outcome was. Princip fired off two shots from a tiny handgun, both bullseyes. The rest is, of course, bloody history.
Around the same time as my trip, that dickhead Clarkson from Top Gear, had allowed his overweening sense of self-importance to get the better of him once more. Always searching for current ways into a century old subject, I simply tried to fuse the arrogance of both men into some sort of shared idiom and consequence.
Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton
Now that’s what Everybloke would call top gear:
a black, four-cylinder, thirty horsepower dream.
So, when you took this sweet ride for its June spin
did you just get carried away with the dumb cut
of your own dash?
Did you, once again,
fail to consider how the casual and throwaway
can come back from nowhere, take a wrong turn
down the right street into a motorcade
and catch you by the toe with a pair of lucky shots?
A hole blown into that buff bodywork,
the itsy tear just an inch
below your brocade collar;
as the Tschakos and the Tschapkas react too late,
and the doctors
lose ten minutes cutting open a jacket
while the words stick in your throat.
For so the world turns
on such random stuff,
did you not stop to think of that?
Now, everyone remembers
where they were when you went.