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.

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