Monday, July 27, 2009

The Cabbage Cometh Forth

So, who is Rob Mackenzie? Well, Rob was born in Glasgow, and currently lives in Edinburgh. He originally studied law and then turned to theology. He has spent periods of time in Seoul, Lanarkshire and Turin and is involved in organising Edinburgh’s ‘Poetry at the…’ monthly reading series.

Rob’s pamphlet, The Clown of Natural Sorrow (Happenstance, 2005), was what brought him to people’s attention first, and a debut full-length poetry collection was published by Salt books this year, The Opposite of Cabbage, and is already receiving a great deal of critical attention, not only in Scotland but further afield. Current reviews (and they are very encouraging) include Magma 44 and the latest edition of Poetry London.
Failte Rob go blóg Barbara.

Today we celebrate your arrival at this stop in the Cyclone Blog Tour and offer a little Irish sustenance to keep you going on your travels. Our meal will be simple fare: cabbage, bacon and spuds, with homemade parsley sauce (none of that packet stuff, here), which goes well with your collection The Opposite of Cabbage. And of course a creamy pint of plain black porter. Complete with shamrock … or should that be a harp? Anyway, let’s get started on the questions.

In your interview on Nic Sebastian's Very like a whale, you mention when you began to work for real on your poems towards a first collection. Did you find it easy to tell the difference between good poems and better ones? Were there any you wanted to put in but were dissuaded from doing so?

Sometimes I know when I’ve written a good poem; sometimes it’s really difficult to know. It’s easier when the poems are many months or even years old. I often feel my most recent poem is my best one and only realise that it’s crap months later.

Two types of poem particularly resist self-assessment. Firstly, those which seem weird or adventurous, in which I’ve entered territory I’m unsure about, which I’m not sure the reader is going to ‘get’ in any meaningful way, especially those poems when I’m pleased with my own writing.

Writers can bewitch themselves by their own writing. Sometimes that’s because it’s good. Sometimes it’s because writing poetry is partly about casting spells, spells which should act on the reader. However, the writer has to examine his/her material more clinically. Self-deception is a common ingredient in many spells and can involve the writer returning to a poem months or years later and realising, with a high degree of self loathing, that the spell has worn off and the poem is awful.

In contrast, the second kind of poem I find hard to assess is the one that seems quite normal, fairly mainstream. I don’t want to write boring poems that mirror hundreds of others. The question is – does this one stand out from the pack? Is there something about it that’s distinctive? These questions are very hard to answer, although surprisingly easy to answer when it comes to assessing other people’s poems!

I was dissuaded (by a few writers who read my manuscript) from including certain poems. I took some out, revised some, and stubbornly held onto others. I always asked the question as to how important the inclusion of a poem was to me. If it wasn’t really important, it was easy enough to ditch. That’s all a writer can do, I think. You can’t ever guess which poems will go down well with readers. In two reviews I’ve had recently, a poem one critic pointed out as among his favourites was labelled a dud by another (in an otherwise very positive review).

In your other life, would you say that your pastoral work informs your poetry? I detected that behind the poem 'White Noise,' and wondered how faith (and in turn poetry) can be a consolation when we flawed humans feel most frail.

Yes, my work as a Church of Scotland minister does inform certain poems. I have to be careful with issues of confidentiality, so I never write about any individual directly or in a way in which a person could be identified, but many images and ideas come from my experience of working alongside people, often in difficult circumstances. ‘White Noise’ (scroll down the webpage) is a direct example of this – the character ‘Frank’ is entirely fictional, although informed by the death of a baby after a few days in a real family. The trumpet notes and cherry blossom were factual, and come from a house I pass daily on my walk down to my parish, although I’ve manipulated them for poetic purposes. That poem is one of those I wondered whether people would engage with or not, one I found particularly difficult to assess, but I’ve had as much positive reaction to it as to any poem in the collection.

I think poetry (and faith) can act as a consolation for people, but I tend not to write with that in mind. I try not to force poems to fulfil a role. I begin a poem with whatever has sparked it off and go with the flow until it’s done, whether that takes a few minutes or a few years. I then revise sections that seem dull or predictable. The poem may console, celebrate, challenge, illuminate, or discomfort. I don’t go out of my way to do any of these things (I go wherever a poem appears to lead me), but I hope each individual poem generates a reaction of one kind or another in individual readers.

The Opposite of Cabbage uses the device of a narrator that seems unable to help themselves but look, say for example in 'Girl Playing Sudoku on the Seven-Fifteen. They ‘bear witness’ but cannot do anything about it. I think that this points to the way that society tends to avoid having to get involved, and wondered if that was a valid reading?

I hadn’t considered that as a reading of that poem, but it’s a fair way to read it. At least, I think what you’re reading into it is mirrored in several other poems and in society. Paralysis is the dominant political reality of the day, I’d say. Governments do things, often against the will of the majority, and no one can work out what the hell to do about it. It’s no good to vote the party-in-power out because the opposition is just as bad and probably worse. Protest falls on deaf ears.

What’s odd is that mass demonstrations (against the war in Iraq, for example) are ignored and problems concerning young people, education, poverty and the health service are talked away, but when a newspaper reveals financial irregularities at the heart of Government, a whole load of MPs are forced to resign. I find that really disturbing. Scandal always seems to have more effect in the UK than political necessity. Why no resignations over Iraq and Afghanistan, over the dire state of many areas of our cities etc? A financial scandal is shameful, of course, but the resignations won’t change anything in our society. We are paralysed as far as that goes. Some poems in the collection reflect that, bear witness to it, reveal it. Sadly, they don’t, in themselves, have power to ensure change, but I do believe that poetry – and literature as a whole – is important for any society and the very fact that people often turn to it in times of tragedy and turmoil is compelling evidence of its continuing importance.

And finally, Some of your poems are self-referential (and humorous) in that they invoke the poet in the poem as well as the poet looking on from outside the poem. I'm thinking of 'Advice from the Lion Tamer to the Poetry Critic,' and 'A Creative Writing Tutor Addresses his Star Pupil.' Using the sestina form in particular in 'A Creative Writing ...' seems to undercut both content and the form. How did you get the idea to take this approach?

I’ve read quite a number of modern sestinas which undercut their own form. I know some people who would argue that such ‘anti-sestinas’ represent the only way to make the form work these days. I wouldn’t go that far (although good sestinas of any kind are few and far between), but there is something ridiculous about the form. It’s so difficult to write one without becoming repetitious and tedious that the challenge is irresistible for someone like me. I wrote numerous sestinas but only one made the book.

I use ‘John Ashbery’ as an end-word, which is a daft idea in itself. It references the fact that Ashbery has written at least one celebrated (typically oddball) sestina, ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’. I wrote an earlier draft of the poem in response to a sestina by Stephen Burt called ‘Six Kinds of Noodles’, which employed ‘Ashbery’ as an end word. I was then directed to another example, by Kent Johnson, ‘Avantforte’,in which the increasing length of the lines only adds to the farce.

I wrote my sestina in iambic pentameter while the tutor in the poem pontificates about how form and metre are effectively outmoded concepts, which I thought had humorous potential. Also, ‘John Ashbery’ was a helpfully iambic name! The poem is a satire on the creative writing industry. Not that the industry is all bad, of course. There are many excellent teachers I’d be delighted to receive a few lessons from myself, and many CW students go on to produce excellent work. The poem is a satire and I do think the sestina has real potential as a vehicle for satire.

Thank you Rob, for these full and informative answers, which I think add greatly to reading your collection. Please scoot along to Rob’s Salt Page, where you can read samples from the collection – it might persuade you to make a purchase, which you won’t regret. I hope you enjoyed the quick meal, Rob, and a pint of plain. Rob’s next Cyclone stop is at poet Michelle McGrane’s blog, Peony Moon.


Michelle said...

I love this, Rob:

"Writers can bewitch themselves by their own writing. Sometimes that’s because it’s good. Sometimes it’s because writing poetry is partly about casting spells, spells which should act on the reader. However, the writer has to examine his/her material more clinically. Self-deception is a common ingredient in many spells and can involve the writer returning to a poem months or years later and realising, with a high degree of self loathing, that the spell has worn off and the poem is awful."

Thank you for the fine questions and answers, Barbara and Rob.

Unknown said...

Yeah, that's my favourite bit too. Bewitched by our own work!

Group 8 said...

A fascinating read, thanks Bar and Rob. Great Q's, great answers.
White Noise is v poignant & beautiful.

Liz said...

Like the line about writers bewitching themselves too...too true...and a hard one to escape's a case of sitting it out.
Insightful questions and answers...enjoyed it all.

Rob said...

Thanks a lot, folks. And thanks to Barbara for being a welcoming host. All much appreciated.