A Celtic Mage’s Muses
Robin Robertson recently became the first poet to win Britain’s Forward Prize in all three categories: Best First Collection (A Painted Field, 1997), Best Collection (Swithering, 2006), and Best Single Poem (“At Roane Head,” 2008). Robertson must have running joke going with fellow poet (and Robertson’s editor at Picador) Don Paterson, that he beat him by ten minutes (I guess the single poem award is announced first—Paterson’s Rain won Best Collection this year). A full-blooded Scotsman with a wry sense of irony, Robertson has chosen to lead a double life. Aside from writing his own poetry, he holds the position of Deputy Publishing Director at Jonathan Cape where he has edited contemporaries (including Michael Longley, Anne Carson, Geoffrey Hill, John Burnside, Irvine Welsh and J.M. Coetzee).
|Robertson’s newest collection, The Wrecking Light is due to be released by Picador next year. As if he did not have enough bubbling in his cauldron, he is also a prolific translator. He recently published The Deleted World (2006), new versions of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer; a translation of Euripides’ Medea (2008); and, after recognizing the hazards and mishaps of book tours and publishers readings, he edited a collection of writer’s musings on the road: Mortification: Writers Stories of Their Public Shame (Fourth Estate, 2004).|
In his own verse, Robertson demonstrates a broad breadth of tone yet always finds his way back to the chants and incantations of his Celtic roots. Deft and chiseled to the last syllable, each poem sings from the landscapes of Robertson’s youth: mystical beings, omnipotent weather gods, heroes, beasts and saucy nymphs. Swithering, his last published collection, has the tension of a Glasgow barroom brawl seconds before the swing of the first fist. It is hard-hitting, rammed full of guttural Scottish consonants; yet it carries a deft hand and an unexpected tenderness that underlines the ever-present forces of Mother Earth. This intelligent, concise, ready-to-punch-you-or-kiss-you poetry is grounded in the magic of ancient Scotland. At times, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the sea howling, hissing, even singing lullabies out there in the unending blue.
What gave you the primordial impulse to write poetry? Was there a first poet or poem that just clicked?
I was brought up within earshot of north-east Scottish dialect, folklore and music, in what remained of a fishing community (Aberdeen) with all its superstitions, its oral tradition, its risk and romance. A solitary child, I fell naturally towards books and read indiscriminately. The stories that I remember having an effect were Scottish folk tales, the Greek myths (in some hopelessly expurgated edition, no doubt) and Grimm. It was years before I found the kind of poetry I wanted – and years, beyond that, before I could write anything worthwhile myself.
Scottish (Celtic) poetry is identified for its intimacy with nature and folklore. There are many echoes of old Scottish ballads in your most recent collection, Swithering. How has Gaelic/Scottish nature, folklore, music and lyrical tradition influenced your work?
The countryside in which I grew up is very beautiful, with the Highlands to the west and the North Sea to the east, with the lowlands of Aberdeenshire and its barrows and circles and standing stones in between; an unusual blend of Celtic and Pictish culture. We were the wrong side of Scotland for the Gaelic tongue, but there was still, in the late 50s and early 60s, a real and vivid sense of the old gods, the old ways, and many superstitions persisted vestigially. Samhain (Hallowe’en) was celebrated with great enthusiasm and A’Callainn (pagan Hogmanay) was almost more important in the community than Christmas. Meanwhile, my father was a Church of Scotland minister.
That’s poetic tension for you.
I grew up with a very strong sense of place, in a landscape that seemed freighted with significance, mystery and power. Everything since has seemed a displacement: a deracination.
The language of metamorphosis is one of your hallmarks. In Swithering you imply that transformation is essential; and yet, Swithering means unsettled, unsure, wavering. Of course every major transformation is fraught with obstacles. Are these changes a reflection upon choices you have made or perhaps those that are still to come?
In its vernacular use, ‘swithering’ means a profound and violent uncertainty: very distinct from the more English ‘dithering’. I have always held that the act of ‘turning’ – whether ‘turning away’ or ‘turning into’ – is vital to the creative impulse; that inaction or paralysis are fatal. Slow Air (2002) might be loosely identified as a book about grief and stasis; Swithering is about flux.
|There is frequently an underlying sense of loneliness in your work (singular meditations along the sea shore, in the countryside), a deep solitary introspection. Could you tell me a little about those moments and how they manifest themselves into poems?
I can only think and write in solitude and silence. I have always found the ugliness and noise of crowded cities antithetical to creativit. Add to that the demands of a day-job in publishing and, earlier in my life, a house full of young children (enemies of promise: manuscripts and prams in the hall) and you can see why I have long been interested in escape.
Outside of Scotland, I know you spend time in Greece. Are there other landscapes and cultures that influence your lyric, approach, visions?
It’s actually Italy that has been more fruitful recently. I was lucky enough to stay at the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Vallombrosa on three occasions, and I spent five weeks on the Ligurian coast this spring. I particularly like its islands – Sicily and Sardinia, for instance – and the islands off those islands. All that said, though, it doesn’t matter where I go – as long as it’s away.
Do you ever sit back and look at your own art from a distance? from the perspective of the reader? Or are you mostly writing for yourself, from your own personal experiences?
It’s fairly fatal to think about the potential reader – or anything, for that matter – while writing. It is a strange state of openness that one wants to achieve, where the subconscious comes nosing out of the dark, and when the words start to dance all by themselves.
Is writing poetry an attempt to understand oneself in the scheme of the unending universe or an attempt to communicate?
I believe all art should have curiosity as a driving impulse. I seldom set out to write a poem on a particular subject. I’m convinced, though, that poems will attend to certain buried concerns and anxieties in much the same way as dreams do. If anything I write is of use to anyone else I’m pleased, of course, but communication is not the primary motive.
In a similar light, you have said, ‘Writers write for the void.’ What exactly does that mean, and how does it apply to you?
George Mackay Brown once wrote that the true task of the poet was ‘the interrogation of silence’, which I’ve always liked. In the face of a god-shaped hole, we are all surely looking for patterns and rhythms of beauty and significance that may help us to make sense of what we experience.
Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a central figure, perhaps even a symbol of personal transformation in Swithering. You have a strong affinity with Greek mythology, not only because you are an avid poetic interpreter of the ancient tales, but also a translator. Tell me about your relationships with Ovid and Euripides.
Both Ovid and Euripides seem to me vigorously modern. Metamorphoses is about, amongst other things, the instability of the flesh. In these stories, the gods are at their most arbitrary, most human in their casual violence. Actaeon is punished, with spectacular cruelty, for simply being in the wrong place. As for the Medea: well, its dialogue is the kind you hear four doors down the street on a Friday night.
You have said that in A Painted Field the sea came to represent a kind of certainty to you – you often personify/humanise her. Could you elaborate on your own relationship with the sea and how her steady breathing has affected you and your work?
Seas in general – and the Scottish seas in particular – have been powerfully present in my life. I find certainty in the implacable, the ineluctable; my position as a human being in the natural world is made clear by the sea, certainly. I can’t understand how one could fail to come alive, finally, on the edge of a life-force that has everything we lack: drama, beauty, mystery; a gigantic, ancient and unceasing mass of moving water, constantly changing its sound, its color, its shape.
How do you commence a poem? Is there any manner or order to your inspiration or impulse for each poem? Images? Words? Memories? Music? Rhythm?
Poems are accretions of words and phrases and images adrift in my conscious and subconscious mind looking for partners, for a home, for completion. Some are fresh; some have been waiting for decades. I love the urgency they have when they meet their new family.
Your poems are so very honed, as if you have spent weeks, months ruminating on single words – images. You have called this reductionism, or removing the impurities of the language. Could you explain a little about the process of your craft? Do these things come easy to you, or is this purely hard labor?
|If the circumstances are right I will already have the DNA: the words, phrases and images that have started to group, almost magnetically, around a shared interest or theme. I don’t necessarily know yet what brings them together, but I want to keep them there. I learn by their interaction, and I start to see the shape and direction of the poem from the way those words and phrases finally fit together. I don’t feel, during this process, that I am doing anything more than shepherding. Once the poem has declared itself, it’s much easier for me to become involved – though the effortlessness I’ve just witnessed is replaced by hours of dogged, botched joinery. The thrill for me is listening to the lines as they lock into the music I was after. I try to be sensitive to the weight and texture and sound of words, their sonic and semantic relationships.|
Do you consciously write towards a collection or with a group of poems in mind?
No: each poem is an individual; each book is a collection of those individuals under a flag of convenience.
How do you feel about the interconnectedness of each of your earlier collections to the next: A Painted Field to Slow Air, Slow Air to Swithering? And now, Swithering to The Wrecking Light?
I have just the one sensibility – so everything I write will inevitably connect in some way. There are continuities of theme or subject or tone, of course, and repeated motifs, and there are also some familiar faces. In addition, I’ve amused myself by setting up hidden tunnels and gangways that run back and forth between the books.
Your voice in A Painted Field, although exceedingly controlled, was more brisk. That bristly edge has toned down quite a bit in your more recent collections. Is this the mellowing of age?
My first book was gathered together slowly, and no doubt anxiously, over fifteen years, and was published relatively late: when I’d just turned forty-one. I’m probably less nervous now; about poetry, at least.
What changes in thought, tone, language, and approach do yourself notice in your poetry now compared to your earlier work?
I hope there is less that is strident, unearned, vatic; but who knows?
You frequently use monosyllabic chants to great effect in your poetry. Is this a conscious choice or does it just come about naturally?
It might just come from having a limited vocabulary.
You have numerous voices in your poetry. Aside from the mythical subjects, what proportion of your poetry would you say is not directly autobiographical, i.e. fictional? Who is the ‘I’ in your poems?
Very few of the speakers are identifiably me. I occasionally use the first person for its immediacy, or sometimes simply because of the sound: ‘I watch’ may be neater than ‘he watches’. It is very tiresome when readers identify me as the speaker in the poem and extrapolate an autobiography. In the next book they will be surprised to find that I am a ghost, a cross-dresser, August Strindberg, a consorter with geisha, Hugh MacDiarmid’s masseur, a soldier, a woman, a German medieval chronicler, a suicide and a selkie.
You edit other people’s poetry: Sharon Olds, John Burnside and Michael Longley. You have said that it takes you a couple of weeks to get other writer’s rhythms out of your conscious. Could you let me know how you go about doing that? And, do you ever find yourself inadvertently taking on someone else’s voice?
I look after over fifty writers at Cape, mostly novelists. I think one is influenced by everything one reads – everything one experiences, in fact. It is crucial, though, to recognize what is borrowed and what is your own. When I go off on retreat, I spend the first week reading something very different from what I write or publish – reference books often – and this acts as a huge sorbet. I then, generally, will attempt a translation of something short: a helpful five-finger exercise before the serious business begins.
As an editor yourself, do you find it easy to let go of the editorial reins when someone else is editing your own work?
Just because I’m an editor doesn’t mean I’m always right; all I can do is offer an informed objective view. I am blessed in having Don Paterson looking after my work at Picador, but I don’t always agree with him – and he is sufficiently sensitive to let me make my own mistakes if I want to make them badly enough.
As both a poet and an editor of formidable poetry, what significant changes do you see today as compared to when you first got involved? Do you feel that the audience is significantly smaller?
|When I first came to London there were established power-bases at various periodicals that were linked to certain publishers and which promulgated certain types of poetry by certain types of people. The poetry editors were all very English, very ‘Oxbridge’, very urbane and very male. Much of this has gone, but you could argue that it’s still male, it’s still white, and it’s too Scottish.
The audience for poetry is smaller, and probably getting smaller – given how reluctant people are to countenance the idea of engaging intellectually with art. Good art does not give up all its riches immediately; it requires an intimate communication, a communion.
Could you ever see yourself giving up the day job?
There’s still excitement to be had in coming across new writers, publishing them with vigor and enthusiasm and seeing their books win prizes and reach a decent audience. For every one that succeeds in that way, though, there are ten that don’t get that luck.
How did you come to translate the poems of Tomas Tranströmer?
I was storm-stayed in a cottage on an island off the west coast of Sweden and I just translated a poem for every day of rain. I’d loved his work for thirty years, but that year I was with a Swede who could help me with the originals. I got to know Tomas subsequently and I’m pleased to say that he approved of my versions; indeed we did a couple of events together in London and Stockholm.
How do you approach translation as compared to creating entirely original verse? Is it an entirely different process?
Entirely different. The narrative work is done, so my concern is more about getting to the tone of the original.
Simon Armitage says: ‘Poetry kind of gets under the radar. It operates by stealth; fiction, on the other hand, is more public.’ How do you see poetry as an art form, in comparison say to non-fiction, fiction, even film, painting, etc? Do you feel that poetry is somehow the more poignant medium?
Poetry is to prose what a single malt is to a pint of good beer: stronger and more concentrated but not necessarily better. A matter of taste perhaps. As an editor, and a reader, I am interested in making the language work; and poetry is where language works hardest.
No medium has the monopoly on the profoundly moving moment.
What, in your opinion, does good poetry consist of? Is there such a thing as a perfect poem? What elements should it contain?
For me, writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect and therefore it is very hard to talk intelligently about the process of making poems. Art is resistant to explanation; it either works or it doesn’t, in my view, and any amount of exegesis isn’t going to improve matters.
I was never good at practical criticism, but I do know that nothing is ever perfect.
What art form would be your next choice?
Music, and then painting.
Tell me a little about your book Mortification and how it came about.
|As an editor I have often found myself traveling with one of my writers to some god-forsaken remedial arts centre in the back of beyond to find some local difficulty unfolding into something like catastrophe. Often this is prompted by the lack of books, audience, organizer, reading space or, in some cases, any visible event. These commonplace indignities take a baroque twist into full-blown mortification when you add any combination of drink, hubris and bodily fluids. I used to apologize to my writer at the end of the evening, only for them to reply: ‘If you think that was bad, wait till I tell you this story…’ After hearing a dozen of these grim tales from around the world I decided to collect seventy of them in a book called Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame.|
Although few poets have made the transition to the global poetry audience, you are popular on both sides of the Atlantic. How do you see the British poetry scene versus say the US, the Canadian and your own scheme in it?
You’re very kind, but I really wouldn’t say I was popular on either side of the Atlantic, and certainly not over there; I am published in the US and Canada, and that’s a start – for which I’m very grateful.
Any comparison between North America and the UK and Ireland always involves scale. They have many poetry publishers and almost too many literary magazines; we have too few.
America is large enough to accommodate entirely distinct poetics that seem to survive as micro-climates, sustained by their own eco-systems of magazines and publishers. We are small enough to have an island-wide critical discourse. Poets are happy and unhappy there and here, whatever happens: that’s just their nature.
What is your impression of poetry for the masses (is there such a thing in contemporary society?) vs. poetry for poets, academics and the intelligentsia? You see very few ‘accomplished’ poets now who are not academics. Do you believe that modern poetry has suffered because of this?
I’m allergic to ‘light verse’, if that’s what you mean, because it seems to me to be a betrayal of the purpose of poetry. Equally, poetry that sets out to be deliberately opaque is betraying the purpose of language. As Geoffrey Hill put it: ‘Why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when, if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right – not an obligation – to be difficult if it wishes.’
Even poets have to earn a living, and one way of doing that is through teaching. I don’t teach, so I can’t comment. I would say, though, that the American MFA system seems, to me, largely pernicious: rubber-stamping a great deal of second- or third-rate poetry instead of stamping it out. (Which reminds me of what Douglas Dunn was reputedly told by Philip Larkin, half-jokingly, on Dunn’s first day at Hull: that there was a great deal of modern poetry being written in the town, and he was relying on him to ‘stamp it out’…)
Is there ever a tendency to give the audience what they want to hear?
If you mean the audience at a reading, I’m afraid I have no idea what they want to hear. Really. I just try not to make them feel too uncomfortable.
You were the first person to have won the Forward Prize in all categories. How does this make you feel? Do the awards and accolades spur you on to write more?
Well, at least I did it ten minutes before Don Paterson.
Of course it’s a pleasure to win prizes, to receive external validation and a cheque, and equally it’s annoying not to have one’s name called out, but it’s salutary how little solace these things offer. In the end it’s just the tyranny of the blank page, and trying to do better than you did before.
I understand your fourth collection, The Wrecking Light, will be out very soon. Can you give us hint as to how this collection will differ from your past work?
It is the last in a costive quartet, so it’s the same sort of stuff as before – with some misguided stabs at humor and some lurches into sentimentality. I’m reading the proofs just now, so it’s the wrong time to ask me: there are only one or two of the poems I can still stomach.
You have been influenced by Yeats, Montale, David Jones, Rilke, Neruda; could you let me know a few other lesser-known poets who you have admired / have influenced you over the years.
I don’t think I’ve been particularly influenced by Montale or Rilke, and certainly not Neruda. From recent times, and from this archipelago, I admire late Yeats, early Eliot, Jones, some Bunting, and early Geoffrey Hill. David Jones is perhaps the least known – bafflingly – but is the poet who has meant most to me, for his art almost as much as his writing.
Who do your feel is the most underrated writer of your generation?
I don’t feel that Michael Hofmann has had the recognition he deserves.
What is that illustration on the cover of Swithering? It looks like an ancient cave painting – something straight out of Lascaux.
It’s a rock painting from Tanzania. No one has asked me that before. Thank you.
4 Poems by Robin Robertson
The Park Drunk
He opens his eyes to a hard frost,
the morning’s soft amnesia of snow.
The thorned stems of gorse
are starred crystal; each bud
like a candied fruit, it’s yellow
picked out and lit
by the low pulse
riding in the eastern skies.
What the snow has furred
to silence, uniformity,
frost amplifies, makes singular:
giving every form a sound,
an edge, as if
frost wants to know what
snow tries to forget.
And so he drinks for winter,
for the coming year;
to open all the beautiful tiny doors
in their craquelure of frost;
and he drinks
like the snow falling, trying
to close the biggest door of all.
Swimming in the Woods
Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun remade her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.
Beseiged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.
The grey sea turns in its sleep
disturbing seagulls from the green rock.
We watched the long collapse, the black drop
and frothing of the toppled wave; looked out
on the dark that goes to Norway.
We lay all night in an open boat, that rocked
by the harbour wall—listening to the tyres creak
at the stone quay, trying to keep time—
till the night-fishers came in their arc, their lap
of light: the fat slap of waves, the water’s
sway, the water mullioned with light.
The sifting rain, italic rain; the smirr
that drifted down for days; the sleet.
Your hair full of hail, as if sewn there.
In the damp sheets we left each other sea-gifts,
watermarks: long lost now in all these years
of the rip-tide’s swell and trawl.
All night the feeding storm banked up
the streets and houses. In the morning
the sky was yellow, the frost ringing.
The grey sea turns in its sleep
disturbing seagulls from the green rock.
We are near to the place
where they make the leather ghosts:
shoulder-bags like lost children,
purses shaped as cloven hooves
so you can walk to the shops
holding the devil’s hand.
Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong, but has lived in England, the US, Spain, Switzerland, and worked for many years in Shanghai. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a bi-weekly column on the paranormal for the Reykjavik Grapevine,
Iceland’s only English-language newspaper, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s Trespass Magazine.
His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in various journals and magazines including FRiGG, Poetry Scotland: Online, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle, Rumble, Sein und Werden, Danse Macabre and Right Hand Pointing.
Recently he has been collaborating with the Icelandic artist, Inga Maria Brynjarsdottir on a multimedia project entitled ‘A Pocketful of Crickets: The Cultural Revolution of a Capitalist Soul,’ based on his last collection of poems.
“Aberdeen” received book publication in A Painted Field (Picador, 1997); “The Park Drunk,” “Swimming in the Woods,” and “Old Ways” received book publication in Swithering (Picador, 2006). Copyright 1997 and 2006 Robin Robertson.