Archive | September, 2010

The vices and virtues of poets

24 Sep

Last night, after the excellent Kei Miller and Liz Niven launch at The Scottish Poetry Library I was speaking to Peggy Hughes about the need for poets, particular those beginning, to be tenacious.  It started me thinking about what virtues, or vices, poets need to have in order to get on, survive and develop.  The list I have come up with so far is

  • Tenacity
  • Honesty
  • An observant eye
  • An inquiring mind

I would be interested to hear readers ideas about what virtues or vices are needed to survive in contemporary poetry…


The sketch of the poet as an wiser, more tanned man

17 Sep

Rob A. Mackenzie continues his journey from poetry reading school boy to a man with a first collection.

In 2005, we returned to Scotland. I heard about an event taking place at the Scottish Poetry Library, the launch of a new pamphlet imprint, HappenStance Press, and decided to go along. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anything about the two poets being launched, Helena Nelson and Andrew Philip, but I was keen to connect with poetry in Edinburgh. Anyway, the place was packed out and the poetry was terrific, something well worth supporting, and I bought the pamphlets. Sometime later, I picked ten of my poems and sent them to HappenStance (as per the guidelines at the time). I fully expected to wait a few months and then receive a rejection slip. After all, I didn’t know Helena Nelson and she didn’t know me. However, 48 hours later, a letter arrived accepting my pamphlet for publication – that was on the basis of the ten poems alone, several of which didn’t actually end up in the pamphlet – one of those great moments in a poet’s life. Thinking back, Helena Nelson took a big risk with me, as my output was uneven and my audience was more-or-less non-existent, although I did try to work on both aspects.

‘The Clown of Natural Sorrow’ was published in December 2005. I had to work hard to draw people’s attention to it. Sales came at a trickle, but the trickle kept trickling. I had already started blogging months before at Surroundings, and I was going to readings and doing a few readings. Some Scottish poets were really helpful and supportive. I think I imagined I had achieved more than I actually had, mind you. After all, most poetry pamphlets (and books) do well to sell a few hundred copies and although I felt my poems were better than some stuff being published in book form, I would at times come across collections which made my own efforts look pretty second-rate. This still happens – I’ve just read Stephen Burt’s ‘Parallel Play’ (Graywolf Press, 2006), which is, you might say, a standard to aspire to. I don’t think this attitude is a bad thing as long as it becomes a source of challenge rather than a source of despair, but it’s not always easy to separate the two. It also worth realising that admirable work by other people nearly always seems better than your own. Because you don’t inhabit their brain or have their thoughts, it can seem amazing that anyone could ever come up with such poems. It is possible that other people might feel the same way about your own poems. It’s worth persuading yourself of that, in any case…

Anyway, I kept writing poems, not at all strategically, in hope that a first collection might emerge. I felt I needed to up my game and push myself further, and a sudden leap forward happened again. How that happens in one of the mysteries of writing. If I knew how to make it happen, I’d do so regularly! Andrew Philip was also forming a manuscript and we exchanged manuscripts regularly during this period. AB Jackson was a great help in persuading me to remove some of the blander poems from the manuscript and to trust myself to write what I wanted to, without worrying about reception. That’s an odd paradox. I want readers. I write poems to be read by other people, but I feel it’s vital to be true to myself when writing and to write what I need to write, not what I suspect might go down well either with the poetry establishment or even with notional readers. Rewards in poetry are very few but the best one is when a real reader connects with a poem that was vital for me to write.

Eventually, I submitted my manuscript to Salt. I guess over half the poems in my original draft-manuscript had been replaced or substantially revised by the time I submitted it. Andrew Philip’s book had already been submitted and accepted and I hoped we could both become Salt writers. Through the Internet, I had had contact with Chris Hamilton-Emery, Salt’s director, and knew he had an interest in my writing, but I also knew he would only publish the book if he thought it was a winner. Luckily for me, the response was positive and ‘The Opposite of Cabbage’ was the result, published in March 2009. I am very happy with it. It’s a thrill to have such a beautifully produced book. As to the contents, I can only leave that up to readers to decide.

Prove me wrong

14 Sep

I long ago learned that one reason why I lost friends was because when they asked me my opinion I told them it, very honestly.  It doesn’t work to well, and thankfully I am a bit more socially aware now, although my opinions haven’t become more popular.  I am about to share my latest with you now – but you are warned, you may not agree.

I’ve recently become aware of a campaign to Save the Arts – and here is the controversial bit – I’m not sure I totally agree. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I was handed a nice big cheque to go off and do nothing but write I would take it as quickly as I could.  I am a hypocrite, and I’m totally fine with that, I’m not trying to be a martyr or a saint for my ideals.  I have signed the petition, because I do believe in arts funding, however there are two parts to it which make me feel uncomfortable.

Firstly there is the economic argument that is put forward.  We now have research that shows that the arts creates money in this country, more than is invested in them.  That’s great.  However, which parts of the arts are these?  In the brilliant animation on the Save the Arts website we are told that eight out of the top ten visitor attractions in the country are museums.  So, what are people going to see in these museums?  Are they all filled with contemporary British art, or is a large proportion of them colonial works which we have essentially stolen from other countries?  Where are these museums, the south-east of England?  If we use an economic argument to defend arts funding we could win in the short-term, but there is no guarantee that these are the only cuts, there could be other rounds.  Where then will leave the avant-guard film festival, the poet who visits schools, that theater on the Hebrides, the group who try to get paintings by new artists into hospitals?  It leaves them with very little to defend themselves, because the benefits of these arts can not and should not be measured in monetary terms.   If we defend the arts on an economic argument we run the risk of weakening the arts in the long term by collaborating with the idea that the value of everything can be measured.

The second thing I feel uncomfortable with is the essential role of “the artist” within this.  Given the fact that these cuts are going to affect everyone, and will be made on services which have much more impact on people’s lives than the arts (for all that they are enriching) artists defending their lot could have a tendency to look self-centered, and for many will just reinforce the idea of the arts as being elitist.  Artists of all types are considerably talented, and able to articulate and express themselves, concepts and ideas in a way that many can not. For “artists” to use those talents not just to defend themselves but to defend those who will be the most effected by the cuts, those who don’t have the same level of articulation and expression would prove to the public the usefulness and also egalitarian nature of the arts – that they truly are for everyone.

Perhaps I am being incredibly assumptive.  Perhaps all the 27,516 people who have signed the petition are at this moment working on terrifyingly emotive collaborations exploring the effect of a properly funded care system on neglected and abused children.  But far too often our culture appears to feel that a petition or a Facebook group are all you need to take political action.

Please, prove me wrong.

Sketch of the young man as an emerging poet

9 Sep

I have always liked poetry. Even at school, I enjoyed Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and (especially) Gerard Manley Hopkins. I wrote a few poems in my teens, uniformly awful, but I spent most of my free time in the eighties and early nineties writing songs for my art rock band – music and lyrics – and became an avid reader of literary novels. How that drift away from poetry happened, I’m not sure, because I enjoyed the occasional poems I did read, but I suppose I hadn’t a clue which poets to read and shop bookshelves seemed daunting – where to start? These were the days when bookshops had significant poetry sections.

In the early to mid-nineties, my active interest in poetry began to revive, through Scottish literary magazines like Chapman, Rebel Inc and West Coast Magazine (stocked in the bookshops!), and I began, tentatively, to read poets such as TS Eliot, Norman MacCaig, Seamus Heaney, and (perhaps more unusually) American poet, Charles Simic. I learned from them as much as anything else how poems were structured, how the form of a poem could be a perfect receptacle for the strange imagination, and started to write. My first marriage broke up and this provided me with subject matter. I didn’t often treat divorce directly, but those feelings of loss, failure, and the struggle for hope found their way into poems and they were very much better than anything I had written before. Even I could see this before submitting them anywhere. It was as though I’d made a serious step forward out of the blue and I think that’s often how it happens and keeps happening. Whenever I feel I’m not getting anywhere with my writing, I now convince myself that it’s only a matter of time – the way forward will suddenly happen, not as a gradual process, but a sudden leap. If that stops happening, I’m in trouble.

My first published poems were in New Writing Scotland in 1998 (I think) and I kept submitting to literary magazines through the next few years. I didn’t have many poems to submit, so it was a slow process – all snail mail in these days and sometimes months before editors were able to reply. I became involved with PFFA, an online workshop. Some people dislike it for its fiery negative criticism and prefer a more nurturing environment for their writing, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. I also remarried and moved to Italy, which removed me from the poetry scene I was barely a part of in any case. In some ways, this was good as I was writing unencumbered by trends and fashion. On the other hand, it left me with no audience for my work. On a visit home, I heard Tessa Ransford speak about poetry pamphlets and I remember thinking, “There’s no point in me doing one of those. Who would buy it?” I didn’t know a single person who read poetry and I didn’t know a single poet either.

For more adventures in the poetic journey that is Rob A Mackenzie’s life be sure to read next week…

My new disguise

7 Sep

Tonight I am settling down to start a whole new part of my poetry career, editing.  As part of the Marvelou arrangement with my cousin I have all control over words, and she has all control of the look and physical feel of the book.  Our first call for submissions on found poetry has now closed.  At first I was worried that no one would respond, and I am very pleased to say that I have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of people who did decide to submit.  Particularly given the fact that Marvelou is completely new, has no reputation and as it is limited edition each poet won’t get a copy.

However, now with the call closed, my week-long migraine abated, and everything printed out in a nice folder I can procrastinate no longer.  I hope first and foremost to create an excellent edition of found poetry.  However I am also beginning to realise what a journey is involved in editing something like this.  Perhaps I will come through the other end a better, wiser poet – who knows.  The one thing that is for certain is that however emotional I find editing, none of it would be possible without our contributors.

Thank you.


2 Sep

Not that long ago I let all my readers know that I had been lucky enough to be included in Emergency Verse an anthology of poetry in defense of the welfare state.  The anthology is the brain child of Alan Morrison, who is a strong and forthright believer in the ability of poetry to change things, and to make a difference.

I feel very privileged to be included, because as a relative newcomer to poetry I suddenly find myself gracing the same pages as much more illustrious and talented poets such as Michael Horovitz, Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, Ken Worpole and Mario Petrucci – yes, people who even those who aren’t poetry geeks will have heard of.  For once the glazed look my non-poetry chums take on when I start gushing about posey lights up with a glimmer of recognition.

The anthology is published by Caparison e-books, and is very affordable at £2.99.  Alan is hoping that in selling enough copies of Emergency Verse as an e-book he will raise enough money to produce it as a bound book.  My excitement at being included is not only to suddenly find myself in an anthology of respected writers, but as much at the blend of poetry and politics it contains.

Having studied media and working in both PR and politics I have often found there is little proper analysis or informed debate about what is happening in British politics or basic political policy – bar texting opinions to whatever magazine show is popular in the mornings.  The sheer bafflement of the media, under pressure to roll 24 hours, at the hung parliament in Westminster was laughable.  Add to this the very little basic understanding of economics there is in our culture and it is both ourselves and future generations who will not so much be reaping the whirling, as extracting themselves from layers of fetid social decay.

Anyway – that’s the end of my political rant, and I don’t expect my readers to share my view or even agree with me.  However, you might like to check out the anthology, and the Guardian article about it too.