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…