Colin McGuire’s collection of poems and prose pieces, Riddled with Errors, is exactly the kind of book I would have expected him to produce. I’ve been following his blog, Notes from a Glaswegian Immaturity, for some time and I have become quite taken with his no frills approach to writing. It’s a very Glaswegian attitude. We expect people to take us as they find us even if they happen to find us lying in the gutter staring at the stars (to misquote Wilde).
These are Scottish poems both in attitude and language. A number of them use colloquialisms and slang expressions along with non-standard spellings of English words. Without a doubt non-Scots will struggle with some of his expressions. The same goes for the aggressive language. The first poem I read by McGuire, and one that’s included in this collection, was this one:
‘Yir a wee puke'
That's whit ma Granny
used to say tae me.
'Yir a wee puke'
And, ah think whit she meant was,
ah was a wee bit soft in the heed,
a wee bit sensitive and dependant,
a mammies boy like, daft wae it tae.
'Yir mammy and daddy,
see only the Angel's Halo
above your heed, Boy.'
She didn't mean it nasty.
Maybe she was a bit jealous.
Bit she meant it in a way
that was just a wee observation.
'That boy, he's as saft
as a Caramel Sundae.'
Ma gran used to make
pancakes every Saturday.
A large tray of them,
and ah wid watch her make
the mix up, wae eggs
and flour and sugar,
then she'd spoon some out
and pour it ontae the hot pan,
in a wee cirlce it wid form,
and it wid cook,
then she wid flip it over
and it would be all golden broon.
And she'd do that and make about 30
pancakes, fir the whole family
to eat wae thur tea or coffee.
And ah wid just stand beside her,
and watch the pancakes being made.
And ah wid smell them like a wee prayer.
The sweet baked smell clung tae my
And ah loved that,
watching her make the pancakes,
wee circular pancakes,
wee, saft halos
that we all ate.
Whose grandmother calls their grandson “a wee puke”? Well this one and I dare say if this wasn’t McGuire’s own grandmother it was one he knew. Expressions like this need to be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s not the words you need to pay attention to; it’s the tone and the context. So, on an initial read it’ll be quite possible to misunderstand what McGuire is getting at but once you know what’s coming that shouldn’t be such a problem.
I love the way the characters come to life instantaneously. All we need is that first line and to know who is speaking and she leaps fully formed off the page. I can picture her in her pinny, probably a wee, small woman with her sleeves rolled up and a “face like a badger’s bum” as Billy Connolly might well put it. But she’s still your granny. It’s an evocative piece. I especially like how he describes the pancakes – “saft halos” (soft halos) – and that says everything. The fact is all we’re talking about is some fried batter but as my American cousins rightly know it’s not just an emulsion of flour, egg, leavening, milk, oil, salt and sugar.
The language is rough. At times it can even appear like a foreign language as this excerpt from one of the prose pieces aptly demonstrates:
from Albion Street
A ran like fuck, sprintin back doon Alba Street, away hame. Leaving them aw behind. Couple ay thum chased us fir a bit, shouting, but my adrenlin was pumpin - a bolted faster than a dug. They burds will probly go away with the big cunts, and probly went tae the park. Pricks! Fuckin useless.
I went on hame tae build a few joints and watch the tele, which wiz pish, but I couldnay be fucked going tae Jo-Jo's now. Fuck getting hassled. They probably hink am a shite bag. But fuck thum. I fuckin HATE Glasga! It's filled wae fuckin drunks mentals jakies, and nae cunt gives a fuck aboot anycunt. A get hame, slamm the fuckin door, an jump intae ma room. i was out of breath and red in the face. i sat down and took a wee breather, clapst on ma bed, and started tae txt jo-jo and build a healthy joint, ma ma and da wir oot so i could smoke it in ma room as well. i txt jojo: 'cannae come round yet, go huckled by crowd a' fuckin’ luneballs. txt yee latur.' and a lay back and sparked up the joint, took a few meaty draws and relaxed bak intae the covers, and just as ah wiz smoking, ma big bra came intae the room, he wiz fucken rubbered oot his nut to, and he asks:
'Aye...' I says. 'Aye...amgauntaethegemmethemorra.'
And a lay back, let out a big exhale of smoke, relaxed man.
Having lived all of my life in Scotland I can attest to the accuracy of the language. The big problem is that although Scottish dictionaries exist in many cases there is no definitive spelling. Take the first person pronoun ‘I’. In this piece sometimes it’s represented by ‘a’ and other times by ‘ah’ or ‘I’. Sometimes the letter ‘g’ is dropped from present participles but not always. Sometimes he says ‘was’ but mostly it’s ‘wiz’ and so on. You could argue that this is just sloppy editing but since most of the spellings are phonetic the simple fact is that a single word can have several pronunciations and the more heated people get the more variety you’ll find. Personally I aim to be consistent and not try and reproduce the sounds too precisely. McGuire’s writing style at times tends to veer towards that of Irvine Welsh as opposed to James Kelman and will make life very hard for non-Scots.
This is where a poem like ‘Pancakes’ wins over ‘Albion Street’ because it only strives to evoke and not replicate. Thankfully not all of McGuire’s poetry requires a Ph.D in Scotticisms to get. For some a working knowledge of English will do just fine:
I've been sitting on this chair for ages:
simple egg in a cup.
But chairs grow uncomfortable
rigid, un-bendable and suddenly
a large duvet would do,
or several large friendly pillows.
Wooden chairs do not attend funerals
but they should,
they are stern watchers
But what does a chair want
with the luxury of
Scotsmen die. Englishmen die. Men die the world over. And women. And children, cats, dogs, budgies. And for every one of them that dies there’s someone left to mourn their loss. And mourning doesn’t finish when the funeral service ends or when the coffin is lowered into the grave. Mourning happens unexpectedly, inconveniently, in the midst of eating a boiled egg even. Whereas the two previous examples of McGuire’s writing lean heavily on the personalities of the narrator and those being described this poem could have anyone doing the talking which makes it so much easier for the reader to insert him or herself into the narrative.
I have a particular fondness for poems about poetry. It’s a question that all young poets have to come up against eventually especially when we look at what we’ve just written and know we’re no Auden or Pound or Eliot. Are we really a poet or is this just self-indulgent crap we need to get out of our systems before we get on with our lives? Nowhere in the collection is this position expressed more clearly than in this poem:
from Commander Poetry
Commander Poetry marches around the squad hall,
sternly lecturing all the amateur soldiers in the discipline
of form and convention, the rigorous of the Sonnet, The Ode,
Triolet, Villanelle, War Epic, Paradelle and many more.
Commander Poetry slanders the troops into submission,
determined to educate them, rescue them from formless verse
Bring them to their senses; tune the ear to the metric line,
Train with the utmost vigour of skill and tool required,
but they are despondent, lethargic, and sloppy,
they don't want to hear a word of it.
They simply want to pick up their neurotic pens pencils
and create large spontaneous scribbles, write dodgy whim,
Lines that don’t come through, a few poles short, of some scaffolding.
If there’s one thing a true poet needs to be able to do is see himself for what he is, warts and all. McGuire knows he’s no Eliot but doesn’t pretend to be anything else. I think that’s one reason why writing in dialect matters. It puts truth in the mouth of the man in the street. Tom Leonard was doing this years ago – most famously with ‘The Six O’Clock News’ – but you don’t need qualifications to be able to articulate the truth.
All writers are driven to answer a single question: What if? Even non-fiction writers have to struggle to be objective and most of the time they have to pass comment on what they see and wonder if things could have been different. I think one of the most delightful what ifs in the collection is the opening to this poem:
The Poems Gather
In a spacious auditorium
one quiet Wednesday evening
some poems have gathered
to discuss each other
One poem is not a poem,
sits awkwardly on the floor,
all messy odd all over the place;
rather self-conscious and neurotic,
Which bring us to politics – and sex actually. I’m one of those who holds the opinion that there’s nothing that you can’t joke about and there’s nothing you can’t write a poem about. Personally I write very little about sex and next-to-nothing about politics. Not so McGuire:
One Nation is Submissive
One Nation is Dominant
- They meet in the bedroom.
America is screwing Britain tonight!
Russia is backward and perverted!
China brings the dildo, and pantyhose!
Israel, doesn't have sex, it has affairs!
Pakistan keeps everything under cover!
One Nation is Submissive
One Nation is Dominant
One Nation wears the gimp suit.
They fuck the world relentless and strategic.
This is exactly what poetry does best; it helps you understand one thing by talking about something else completely. It’s not a pretty poem and the language isn’t pretty. But it’s sincere. Just because a drunk man leans over to his girlfriend and says, “Y’know whit? Ah fuckin love you,” doesn’t make it untrue or any less true or any less romantic.
This is a sweeping collection; some poems are trivial whereas others are deadly serious. He really does have something to say about life, death and most everything in between, even love. How many of us poets have not had a crack at the ‘Love is...’ poem? McGuire’s isn’t half-bad. It’s not the best poem in the book but it has a few cracking lines. I especially liked the ending:
from A History of Invisible Love (The detached view)
Love poems do not love.
We can but record
The shifting facts of our care.)
These are early poem and prose pieces. He actually calls them “juvenilia” but don’t let that put you off. Many people read the word ‘juvenile’ and hear ‘trivial’ and that’s not fair. They are unpolished, diamonds in the rough. Am I saying this is not great poetry then? I’d have to define ‘great poetry’ first and every definition I can think of could really be called ‘clever poetry’, technically brilliant. These poems are not that but that doesn’t mean that McGuire isn’t clever. He’s also writing from a culture where ‘clever’ is used as an insult more than a compliment: “Hey! Don’t you be clever wi me.” You can see from the subjects he covers that he has a broad knowledge. He asks more questions than he answers but I think the best poetry does that. We don’t want to be told, we want to be encouraged to think about stuff for ourselves. That he does. He leads us into poems where stuff is happening and lets us watch that stuff from a safe distance.
Is he saying anything new? Not especially. There’s not that much hasn’t been said before. It’s the way he says it that makes the difference. He could have written, “War is a bad idea,” and left it at that but what he tries to do is get people who understand that war is a bad idea to believe it’s a bad idea. That’s a challenge worth rising to.
I thought we could end this piece with a few questions:
Your collection is called Riddled with Errors and yet the cover you show on your blog says ‘Important Nonsense’ – how did that happen?
In error...got a hold of the first 30 copies, and was happy with the title Important Nonsense then after a while thought, nah, it’s too much of a headline, I’m not selling the news. I decided on Riddled with Errors because it was more in the spirit of how it was written – deliberate chaos. The first title was – Reductio ad absurdum.
On your blog and on the cover of your book you call yourself simply ‘McGuire’ – so what’s wrong with the name Colin?
I like McGuire. Simple – direct – a branding – no three barrel tongue twister. Mind you, Colin means ‘young wolf’ but I am nothing like a wolf, except for the hair on my neck, and two incisors. Colin sounds like such a soft name, don’t you think? Two soft syllables, a wee softy, like Nicol or something like that. Maybe it’s a strange formality using only the second name, like a title.
You have a tendency to post works on your blog in very rough states sometimes with typos and spelling mistakes. The collection also has many of these. Is this simply sloppy editing or do you have a point to make here? I’m thinking that the whole collection could be viewed as a metaphor.
I’m happy to put things up in any condition – error, mistake, nonsense; the process in plain sight. I edit things – here and there – on a constant basis. But then some things come out as I want them and never get touched. I’m still framing my mind, you see, finding out who or what I am writing exactly, waiting for things to crystallise, so no harm in putting up the bits and pieces, the dross and doggerel – after all, who am I? No one, just a wild card doing the thing...
Riddled with Errors contains the errors of writing in my 20’s. It’s not so much a metaphor as bloody true – life is full of failure, mistake, error, stupidity, idiocy, the ridiculous; I contain all these qualities too. Most of it was written in a spirit of impatience, nervous energy, and purges of drivel, honesty, reflection, self-doubt, and experimentation.
Is it just another example of post-literate, egotistic, formless, sloppy, ego? Maybe I’ll look back at it when I’m 50 (if I’m lucky enough to get there) and think – God – what chaos lurked within me back then. Thing is, I’ve re-written so much of the work in that book; so it serves as a marker – the raw beginning – what could be more interesting than reading the raw workings of a mind? Apart from sex...and food, and church going.
We learn a lot from our mistakes, I’ve made as many as possible.
I note that one of the quotes at the beginning of the book is by Charles Bukowski. Is he a big influence?
Influence, I don’t write under the influence ;) There are writers I have read, that have encouraged me to keep on writing, despite the fact, it’s so easy to see it all as pure bullshit. Work through it, keep at it, and get it down!
I quote Tristan Tzara too – a monkey of Dada – basically pretentious Europeans, subverting, writing drivel, being playful, cunning, comic, anti-artist fools. And, I was drawn to that, that spirit of impatient creativity, provocateur, reactionary ... containing all the energy of a house on fire.
Maybe we should revive classical standards, maybe we are being dumbed down, but some of us remain lovers of illiterature – unpolished truth, laughing at seriousness. I mean, if you don’t train classically, in art or literature, and finger painting is all you’re good at, and all you want, then finger paint; be the Michelangelo of finger painting. Be the great dyslexic! Be Don Quixote! ;)
As for Bukowski – no, never heard of the man; who’s he? I’m a scholar, don’t read riff-raff. Quite frankly: he’s honest and vulnerable to a beautiful fault, straight to the bone, lines clear as light, who can deny a man does not hide behind the page? I have never read someone with more honesty and cunning simplicity, and apparent throwaway ease – yet there is a real logic and fire in his method. He reminds me not to be a completely pretentious fool. A person first, a writer somewhere down the line; let real life make a man out of you. He reminds me how easy it is to be a sycophant, literally or life wise. He reminds me that most people have a psychological closet full of baggage and private turmoil – and there is gold in writing about this, one to another. He shared the prejudice of his experience with us; he turns anything into something worthy of observation.
Italo Calvino is another guy I read. Real chess player with writing – simple and complex strategies, clear and precise moves – check mate: story wins.
I hope that explains a few things. I have a cheek to talk really. I’m a nothing, a non-entity, 27. I have experienced little physical hardship in my life. I have a lot to endure yet:
a lot to learn – a lot to write = a lot to learn about writing.
I’ll only fail if I seek too much or delude myself into thinking I think I deserve more. Something like that...
This is unusually a mixed bag, some poetry, some prose. Is there a clear distinction in your mind between what one is and what’s the other or is it all just ‘writing’?
This ‘collection’ has a lot of the ingredients that I will later cook a meal with – a bad cooking metaphor, excuse me. It keeps you interested; a nice assortment of chaos, poems, stories, notes.
There is a clear distinction between poetry and prose, but wasn’t particularly concerned about it. The stories are obvious. The poems are too. I suppose in some ways it is all just writing. I’m making these distinctions as I write with more focus, more understanding of what I’m doing. I wrote a lot of these when I was nearly 20, maybe even one or two earlier than that, so it is a kind of malformed, and half-baked – what’s wrong with that? I’m not seeking perfection. I like warts and all. I’m focusing more – shaping up the way I write, how I write. Not so much that I kill the spur of the moment bursting forth from me; I don’t want to call the fire brigade to put out my spirit.
A lot of the pieces, like ‘Pancakes’ and ‘Albion Street’ are quintessentially Scottish using the kind of street slang that will be almost unintelligible to anyone outside of Glasgow. What do you think is to be gained by this? Is it simply a matter of preserving a culture or do you have a different agenda?
I love the Glasgow dialect – harsh, guttural; I imagine it sounds almost like Russian to those who hear us speaking and don’t understand it. Not that there is anything wrong with Russian, far from it, but it has a certain harshness in its tone.
Leonard and Kelman wrote something about the sovereignty of your own dialect/language/slang – and in a small way, I’m of a similar thought. Of course, the Queen’s English, Received Pronunciation, is no longer the monotheistic tongue, we see all sorts of accents/dialects/languages being expressed. But we still see certain languages sidelined or seen as primitive or as a classification. I see why, and I don’t know what it all means exactly, linguistic oppression. I don’t want to get into all that here, because I’ll expose the half-baked potato of my mind. The politics of language is a meaty subject – go read Orwell, for that
Playing with Glasgow dialect/slang is so enjoyable. You have open reign on word play, misspelling of words by using phonetic play, which I think can make language more interesting. Not a static thing. I like the challenge of spelling a word as outlandishly as possible, yet still being able to read it – for example: Are you to going to the game with us tomorrow? Becomes: uryegauntaethegemmewayusthemorra? – There is something just so playful, something that undermines, something creative, not simply the way it’s spoken, but they way you can mess about with it on the page, to express it. Reminds me, of Dada play, or Buk the trend realism, turn things upside down, and inside out...
What’s a ‘note poem’ when it’s at home?
A note poem is a wee conceit on my part. It’s basically a wee idea, image, thought or exclamation that you don’t wish to develop or leave as it is, at that moment. Like the plum poem by William Carlos Williams. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but it’s definitely a note poem. I mean, I also have a thing called – paragraph stories or page stories. Some people think it’s horrible, it’s horribly post-modern – yuck – but it’s not, look at Aesop’s Fables, Nietzsche’s Aphorisms, Biblical rhetoric. Brevity, being concise (God knows I can be long-winded) is basically what all these things become. The note poem is perhaps the cheekiest form, for example, this note poem is in Riddled with Errors:chaos wrapped inside a book
Wrapped inside a bag,
later held by a mad hand.
It’s nothing special, it’s curious, it’s an idea, it’s an autumn leaf blown down the road. You know what but, I think (too much) that, maybe, just maybe, I’ve just thought of it, I think note poems, could get a lot of folk (particularly younger folk) into writing, reading, playing about with language. They have a swiftness, an ease, that might well inspire or loosen people up around the idea of the seriousness and sacredness of language.
Anyway, you’ve caught me in a nursery, I’m still growing up. Embarrassing myself here, as though I’ve actually achieved something; I wouldn’t even say I’m a writer yet. Anyway, I’m away to eat a Clementine. Cheers for taking the time to consider me.
Colin McGuire is, in his own words, “A thin 27 year old Glaswegian man, touch giddy in the head, sometimes poet of mangled form and dirty prose, sporadic drummer, drunk grammarian, waffler, painter using crayons, lover, pedestrian, provocateur, confronter of shadows, irritating whine.” I think that about hits the nail on the head.
You can buy Riddled with Errors from the author’s website for the princely sum of £5.50. There’s no extra charge for all the errors.