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Music, Memory and Subversion: Two Scottish Poets' Second Books

25/06/2013 23:34 BST | Updated 24/08/2013 10:12 BST

What follows is an interview with Rob A. Mackenzie, author of The Good News (Salt, 2013) and Andrew Philip, author of The North End of the Possible (Salt, 2013).

Salt Author Books

RP:This is your second collection with Salt, who recently announced that they will stop publishing single-author poetry collections. How do you feel about what Salt has done for you, for poetry in the UK, and about this news?

AP: Salt opened up poetry in the UK by helping to break down some of the barriers between the mainstream and experimental sides, although plenty of those remain. They also published a lot of really good new poets at a time when it was challenging to place your first collection. It has been exciting to be part of that list and I was very sorry to hear that it is going to close but, at the same time, it opens up other opportunities for us as poets and for other new, independent publishers of poetry. Strangely, it has given me more fire in my belly for my new role as poetry editor for Freight Books, a Glasgow-based publisher.

RM: I wanted to be published by Salt purely because the collections they were publishing at the time were by far the most interesting in the UK and I was delighted when they accepted my first book. The situation now is that some of those poets will be snapped up by other influential publishers and others will struggle to find a publishing deal. I feel sad about Salt's decision, but I can understand why it was made. You can only lose so much money when you're trying to keep a business thriving during a recession. The poetry publishing landscape is always changing and I am sure it will continue to evolve over the next few years. Let's see what happens. My role, as a poet and poetry fan, isn't to worry about all this, but to write and read poems.

RP:There is this phrase in the music industry, "the difficult second album." To what extent is the second book "difficult" from an artistic standpoint?

AP: I don't think it's ever easy to do something properly, but at least you have only yourself to argue with if you're writing a book of poetry! To an extent, The North End of the Possible wrote itself. What I mean is that I unexpectedly ended up following a vein of writing that became the bulk of the collection -- the MacAdam poems. I had some dedicated writing time, courtesy of a writer's bursary from Creative Scotland, and those poems just kept coming. For that reason, it feels like something of a gift.

RM: With my first collection, I used many of the best poems I'd written over the years. With my second collection I was starting from scratch again and there is a (partly self-imposed) pressure to make a shift, to write a better book. It's never easy. The longer I write the less easily I'm satisfied with a new poem. A third collection could take some time at the rate I'm going...

RP:Rob's poem "Without Content" ends with the line "Don't think I'm not serious." Andrew's MacAdam seems incapable of answering an interrogator straight. To what extent is double-speak relevant to poetry? How does irony and avoidance play out? What is the allure? Is there a danger?

RM: The danger in irony is that it can become avoidance, doublespeak, a deliberate attempt to obfuscate difficult issues rather than explore them. It can be stylish and zeitgeisty and retreat from genuine engagement. However, irony is a poetic tool. Like all tools, it can be used badly or well. When it's used well - biting satire, unsettling but pointed ambiguity, aphoristic humour - it can make for highly effective poetry. The Good News, I think, contains less irony than my previous collection. My "Don't think I'm not serious", in context, is an angry, passionate line. When I read the poem, I can't help but spit out the last couple of stanzas.

AP: That's an interesting question. Irony can often be a way of avoiding committing oneself or a way of avoiding emotion -- a retreat from genuine engagement, as Rob says. That's dangerous for the psyche and society, but it's also protective to a certain extent and in certain situations. One of those is the situation in which MacAdam finds himself in the poem you refer to.

Irony is, and has always been, an important tool in writing. I think that for both of us, it is balanced by a genuine emotional engagement. Ambiguity, multiplicity of meaning -- which is different from irony but related to it -- is one of the facets of poetry that has always attracted me to the art.

RP:The frustrations of modern living appear often in both books, but never without a sense of humour. To what extent might poetry, like humour, be considered a means to cope?

RM: People often turn to poetry and humour in times of difficulty to find ways of thinking and feeling they'd found hard to articulate before. That in itself is a form of hope, even if a poem is not wildly optimistic in itself. Both poetry and humour have the power to make life seem worth living even in dark times. They are enemies of the consumer society, enemies of any soulless system, because they can strip away its pretensions and point to more vital values.

AP: I'm not sure I have much to add to what Rob says there. Except perhaps to say that the space that poetry demands for its writing and reading runs counter to, and is in constant tension with, the overstimulation of modern living. Perhaps that's another aspect of its being a means to cope.

RP:Music is also a recurrent theme. To what extent has music informed your life and work?

RM: Music has been central to my life for as long as I can remember. I used to walk to primary school inventing songs in my head and, for about twenty-five years, wrote hundreds of songs (both words and music) and played in an indie art-rock band. It's still a huge part of my life. I have what now feels like an intuitive sense of rhythm, but it must have developed through those years. I know how to write in metre, and sometimes do, but I'm less concerned with metrical perfection than with lines "feeling" right. Music lyric references are scattered throughout my poems, some more obvious than others.

AP: There was always music around my house -- folk, jazz, classical and pop, as well as the hymns and spiritual songs from church and Sunday school. Before we had a car stereo, we used to amuse ourselves on long journeys by singing. I sang in a few school and church shows in my childhood and played keyboards in a band in my teens. One of my earliest creative memories is of making up a cowboy song in playgroup. I have no doubt it was awful!

There are a couple of poems inspired by Keith Jarrett tracks in the book. His work has been very important to me, but I was unable to listen to it for several months after my son Aidan died. I knew that the first Jarrett track I would return to would be the recording of "Autumn Leaves" that inspired the poem of the same name in The North End of the Possible. It's just such a rich, profound recording. When I finally felt able to hear it again, it struck me for the first time that the extended solo piano introduction is based around the phrase from the melody that sets the words, "I miss you most of all". Suddenly, the piece took on even more significance than ever. It would be right at the top of my Desert Island discs, along with Bach's Goldberg variations, which also has associations with Aidan.

RP:Both works include erasures and extracts, from texts real and imagined. To what extent can we trust official documents? To what extent can we trust our own memories? How does poetry fit in?

RM: We can't trust official documents. In the event of a nuclear attack, hide under a table. Don't go outside without a towel wrapped round your face. That's what the Government told people in the sixties and seventies and the lies today are every bit as nonsensical, but more sophisticated. I don't think we can altogether trust our memories either. Poems can capture moments like undoctored photographs - as evidence against fakery and unreliability - but they can also enact fakery and unreliability by (in effect) photoshopping the past. Good poems don't try to fit in. Good poems don't pander to expectations. They know the official versions of events and subvert them.

AP: My day job involves creating an official document -- the official transcript proceedings of the Scottish Parliament -- so I probably have to be careful what I say here!

Memory is a notoriously fallible faculty. I often wonder whether, now that we have externalised so much of it, that is more so the case than ever. On the other hand, writing things down -- or recording them in another form -- can lend them permanence, power and weight. Or, at least, it can seem too.

Forgetting is an oft overlooked aspect of the creative process. The decay or partial covering of a memory can give you enough to work on as an artist while allowing you the space to invent. After all, Proust wouldn't have started his magnum opus had everything been sharp and clear in his memory.

Much of politics is concerned with presenting a narrative and trying to convince others of its validity. Official documents are, inevitably, part of that. Memoirs, and even diaries, are engaged in a similar project on a more personal scale. To that extent, they too can be seen as official documents of the individual. Poems, on the other hand, seem to be more about exploring than fixing; more about entering into a conversation than trying to convince someone of something. At least, that's my experience of writing and reading them.

RP:Well, gentlemen, this has certainly been a very rich and interesting conversation from my perspective. Thanks very much.