Photo Credit: Gerry Cambridge
Hi Richie. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Your debut full-length collection Cairn features a lot of poems which are fascinated with objects and how they throw light on our relationships with the world and indeed each other. Would it be fair to say you think of poems in the same way – as objects of curiosity in their own rights which also occupy their own space, albeit an intangible one?
It is funny you should mention this as lately I’ve been reading an awful lot of biographical material on Bruce Chatwin, the writer and traveller. He was an inveterate collector of beautiful things and was always drawn to the idea of the wunderkammer – that is to say the cabinet of lovely curiosities (I notice Helen Ivory also talked about this in her interview recently – it must be in the air at the moment!).
I am not saying that my poems are beautiful things, but I see a poetry collection as a gathering of the best of what you have at any one time. I write an awful lot of duds and the poems I do put in a collection are often tinkered with for a long time beforehand.
But to delve deeper than that, which I think is what you are getting at, I do write a lot of poems about things I see as noteworthy around me. We are defined quite a lot of the time by the objects we collect, or if we do not collect, simply by the objects we use daily.
My good friend and one-time university tutor Chris Powici best summed up my ‘thing’ poems in a tidy phrase when he said I am a poet who is interested in ‘unlocking the inner eloquence’ of objects.
Objects do speak to me, I do write about them, and I do see them (the poems) as curiosities – although they are not, I hope, locked up in some over-precious cabinet. I have always been put off antique shops that have signs that say ‘do not touch’ and I am put off poems that send out the same message.
Poems also occupy headspace – whether you are writing them or reading them, there are lines of poems by other people I cannot get out of my head, and I wouldn’t want to expunge them from my head, either.
I get the impression you are fascinated with the period of the Second World War too (I’m thinking of poems like ‘Dedication’, ‘Rust’, and ‘Warkworth’) and I understand you researched the Scottish poetry of WW2 as part of your academic studies. What is it that draws you to this particular period?
Good question, because it is not something I thought about much before. You are born into a post-War awareness, you see it in ghostly palimpsest around you (the gaps in streets, or the brutalist building in a street of older houses, or the old concrete pillar box in the field) and you learn about it at school, or at least you should.
I would not say I am fascinated by WW2 from a military historian’s point of view – I do not know many facts, dates, tactics and figures, but more by its cultural and personal impact. I am also interested in the anti-fascism in the air at the time. It has something to do with Hamish Henderson’s post-War revolutionary socialism and Angus Calder’s brilliant and egalitarian The People’s War where the reality of the war to ordinary people is explored and not swathed in, and whitewashed by, Whitehall propaganda.
The argument I came up against time and time again when I was writing my PhD thesis (which has just been approved by the University of Glasgow) on the Scottish poets of World War Two was something along the lines of ‘but what did they actually change, for all of their poetry, what did they actually achieve in terms of political change or public advancement?’
A lot of what was good that was gained for the UK politically/legislatively after WW2 in terms of welfare has been systematically eroded. These wartime poets perhaps had very little practical influence on changing the post-war landscape, but what matters most (to me, at least) was that there they were, mounting the challenge, the resistance, espousing something better.
It is a period that is both clearly in the past but also not too distant. It affected my family, it affected many families – it is something that surfaces in my poetry quite often.
My poem ‘Warkworth’ however, is about an accident during World War One, when a soldier on home leave was cleaning his pistol and it accidently went off, smashing a window in the saloon bar of the now Warkworth House Hotel, and killing a delivery boy on his bike.
As well as writing poetry, you have also been involved in the teaching of poetry. You ran a module last year with The Poetry School looking at a century of Scottish poetry. How did it go and do you plan to do more in the future?
Well, I did compile a reading list/syllabus for a century of Scottish poetry course for the Poetry School, but unfortunately it was not popular enough and they had to scrap it. [Ed note: a shame as it looked like it would have been a cracking course!]
With this course I wanted to introduce people to lesser known Scottish poets of the 20th/21st centuries. You might hear about the more famous names time and time again, such as Don Paterson and Liz Lochhead. This course wanted to show that there are amazing poets in the form of the more or less forgotten Alasdair Maclean (not the same man who wrote The Guns of Navarone!) or Ian Abbot or the very underrated (in my eyes) Angela McSeveney.
I am rather repelled by this idea of ‘prestige’ in poetry – that there are a few famous names and others need not apply. This seems very against the spirit of poetry as I understand it. Anyway, I heard from a few people who used my reading list to find new poets and their works, so I am glad it was of some use.
I have taught creative writing sessions before, however, and I enjoy them and I got to do a one-off session for the Poetry School on the subject of using ‘heirlooms’ as springboards into poems, which is relevant to your first question.
I also taught some Scottish Literature classes while I was doing my PhD, which I really enjoyed. I would always be keen to do more of that sort of thing, but living in Gent, in Belgium now, I doubt that can be done until I can speak Flemish, and perhaps write in it!
I tend to mostly review things now, write the occasional article and write the odd poem.
You wrote an interesting article for The Dark Horse last year where you confessed to being something of a bibliomaniac and discussed your love affair with collecting books. Do you think anything is lost in readers increasingly consuming written poetry through digital and electronic means or are the words more important than the medium?
Yes! Book collecting is one of my favourite topics, alongside vintage fountain pens (I am too cool, I know!) Nothing for me will ever replace or supersede the book. Perhaps it is my Luddism coming out, because I also vastly prefer writing letters to scribbling emails.
A book is more than just a carrying-case for words nicely arranged, it is about the whole sensory experience. You try and read Ulysses on a kindle and then tell me that your eyes don’t hurt afterwards! It is about the paper, the scent, the type (which is a whole world in itself, ask Gerry Cambridge), the binding, the dustjacket/cover and if you are into more geeky things like me – the edition, the rarity of the book, whether it is signed or associated to somebody interesting, its traces of previous owners like marginalia or bookplates.
I have copies of Edwin Muir’s first two books of poems First Poems (1925) and Chorus of the Newly Dead (1926). These were both published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and they most likely handled the copies, perhaps they inspected them, even had a hand in making them, maybe gave these particular copies to friends? You do not get this sort of narrative with electronic technology.
Compare letterpress work with words on the screen, there is no comparison in the aesthetic stakes. One thing I would like to see is the return of the hard-back poetry collection, something which has almost died out and I think publishers should give poems more breathing space on the page. I also think poetry online or e-poetry is more at risk of being forgotten than a volume sitting on the shelf.
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?
No, there is nothing in my calendar poetically speaking, apart from my graduation ceremony in the summer for my PhD. I have a new pamphlet collection coming out, but that is not until 2017 and I have not yet decided on a title. A couple of friends, Chris Powici and Matthew Stewart, are helping me edit and select the poems (I am a useless judge of my own work).
Since moving to Belgium I have felt rather disconnected from a poetry scene but have also found that I read much more and spend more time writing, so in terms of craft it has been a good move, but socially speaking, I feel rather alone.
I have Marcus Cumberlege (the Bruges-based poet) and occasional visits from the poet/translator Will Stone to keep me company. I am busy trying to learn Dutch at a local college, so I may well branch out into translations when the time comes.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve droned on many times before about the importance of Ian Hamilton’s poetry on my own poems, but this poem is a response of sorts to his ‘Father, Dying’ poem where a dying man feels temporarily spared by cutting his hand on a vase of dried-up roses in his bedroom.
Shortly after my Grandfather died, I came across Hamilton’s work and it spoke to me directly because my Grandfather had a similar drawn-out death, bed-bound in a bedroom. His garden was full of roses, and I used to get told off when I was little for pulling the thorns off the roses.
All these things come together in this poem. I use lower-case letters in the title to denote that, while this was an inconsequential event in the grand scheme of things, it was a central early experience/memory of mine. It has something to do with that Lukacsian idea of asserting the individual against the immensity of history, or the selective re-telling of history.
The wars of the roses
(after Ian Hamilton)
When I was little, I worked until
my fingers bled their own red petals,
trying to remove all the thorns
from roses in your back-garden.
I was sure I was doing something good,
that thereafter all would be better.
The rose’s weapons coming off easily,
as if glued on by a shoddy craftsman.
You coughed up blood like a barbed
stem had grown inside you, but my
face whitened to a York rose, as if it
was my blood that was being shed.