In the previous article I talked a bit about Marion McCready’s new poetry collection, Vintage Sea, and hearing her read from it at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow on June 17th. Now I’d like to ask Marion a few questions about her poetry and poetry in general:
Marion, let me start with a poem, not one of yours:
Late in the night when I should be asleep
under the city stars in a small room
I read a poet. A poet: not
A versifier. Not a hot-shot
ethic-monger, laying about
him; not a diary of lying
about in cruel cruel beds, crying.
A poet, dangerous and steep.
O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;
this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow
until I exist in its jester's sorrow,
until my juices feed a savage sight
that runs along the lines, bright
as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust:
city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust
saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.
I get the feeling when I read this that this is a sentiment that you would strongly agree with. Am I right? And do you regard yourself as “[a] poet, dangerous and steep”?
First of all I’d like to say how happy I am to be here on your blog, Jim. I’ve been a regular reader and admirer of your blog for a few years now and I’m excited and delighted to have two of your wonderful posts devoted to my poetry.
Okay, now to the questions! This poem certainly demonstrates some of the aspects that excite me most about poetry. I love going to poetry readings, the public side of poetry and the inevitable shared experience that it entails. However it is the private reading of poems that is the real joy, the almost subversive nature of it hinted at in the line: “[l]ate in the night when I should be asleep…”.
I read poetry for the pure pleasure of it, the experience induced by the reading of the poem in itself not for what the poem can tell or teach me. I want poetry to challenge me through the senses rather than through statement or argument. I’ve always been attracted to strongly imagistic writing. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ was the first poem I read that really had an impact on me. Similarly in prose, I loved Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, packed as it is with all that wonderful sensual nature imagery. I originally came to Plath through her short stories, it was the dark themes played out through the striking imagery in her stories that initially attracted me.
However, I also enjoy poetry that has a touch of the surreal and the absurd. Miroslav Holub is one of my favourite poets, he combines both of these tendencies and yet his poems have their feet firmly on the ground.
I don’t particularly regard myself as “[a] poet, dangerous and steep” though it’s possibly what I’m aiming towards.
It’s interesting that you mention ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ because it was the first poem that really jumped off the page for me. Ironically it was the fact that it wasn’t a nature poem that struck me. Up until then I had been indoctrinated with the belief that poetry was, as Poe put it, “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” or, to quote Baudelaire, “[T]he development of the idea of beauty … is the greatest and noblest aim of the poem.” I know where they’re coming from but I also agree with the old idiom that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How do you define ‘beauty’ in this context? There’s certainly nothing beautiful in Owen’s poem.
On the contrary, I think Owen’s use of language here is very beautiful. Obviously the scenes he evokes aren’t beautiful but the compression of language, the accuracy of the similes and metaphors and the immediacy of tone make this a very powerful poem and, therefore, to me, a very beautiful poem.
Interesting. I think this is something I need to do some research on. Watch this space for a blog on poetry and beauty by about the end of the year.
I have been reading an article ‘On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry’ which discusses the difference between poetry as a written form and spoken poetry as an event. I was very struck by your style of reading – you didn’t recite the poems as I hear them in my head – and I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding the two forms of poetry. How important is structure on the page, for example, and can a reading of a poem be regarded as “a different poem” like a performance of a play that’s subtly different every time?
The structure of a poem is as important to me as any other aspect of writing a poem. It’s about manipulating the lines and spaces as to how you intend the poem to be read. When I’m working on a poem I read it aloud following the flow that I intend in the poem and then I read each line aloud singularly to make sure none of them jar or detract from the flow of the poem. In this sense I try to write as a reader as well as a writer.
Rather than be regarded as a “different poem” I think good poetry can be enhanced if it is read effectively. My most memorable experience of this was when I heard the Scottish poet Kenneth White read a few years back. His reading was utterly mesmerizing and even now I can hear his voice in the back of my head when I read his poems.
When I’m writing a poem I write for the page. Sound and rhythm are, for me, an essential part of the craft of poetry so in that sense I write with an awareness of how a poem sounds but the writing has to be able to stand alone on the page. I hope to be able to add a different dimension to my poems at a reading but the bottom line is that if a poem of mine is weak on the page then I regard it as a failure as a poem.
On your blog (18 November 2010) you say, “I'm a slow poetry book reader, it takes me months and longer to digest a collection, re-reading it, thinking on the poems, letting them work on me consciously and unconsciously.” Is that what you expect from those who read your own poems? Is that a reasonable thing to expect these days or could that actually be regarded as another hurdle your readers will have to tackle?
It’s the only way I can read poetry if I’m being fair to it. I don’t think poetry can be consumed the way novels are, where you can immediately follow one book with another. I think of it more in terms of music, if you buy a CD you really like you’re going to listen to it over and over again familiarising yourself with the sounds and words rather than playing it through once and then moving onto something else.
That’s true but the way people are listening to music is also changing. People are more inclined to download single tracks rather than entire albums and I would imagine they make those decisions after listening to perhaps just a few seconds of a track whereas a book like my own is more like the old concept album. I simple can’t imagine not listening to any of the later Pink Floyd albums from beginning to end. Mix tapes have their place but I think something is lost when people effectively self-edit their own albums. Despite the ability to cherry pick tracks I still see shops full of CDs – the album is far from dead – but what about the future of poetry reading?
I try not to worry too much about the future of poetry reading. I think that the reading of poetry has always been a niche market. I don’t think poetry will ever be consumed en-masse, even in our society where we are used to the concept of mass consumption in so many areas of our lives. Possibly it’s harder for poets to be read in any great depth these days simply because there has never been so much poetry published. But I think that the widening of publication is only to be welcomed, not least for the opportunity to read some great poets and poetry that may have been previously overlooked but also because it is a move away from the prevailing concept that there are only a handful of poets in any given period of history worth reading.
When you talked about your flower poems during your reading it was obvious that you’re acutely aware how, to many, the imagined tweeness of nature poetry is a hurdle you feel you have to get your readers over and there’s a danger that your work will be adversely prejudged. How would you respond to being called a ‘nature poet’? I know when I think back to the poetry we had at school – fields full of daffodils, wandering vagabonds and babbling brooks – I want to run a million miles.
Generally I’d feel comfortable at being called a ‘nature poet’. Nature is certainly central to, and very much an inspiration for, my writing. But you’re right, there are negative connotations with having that classification and I’m not particularly fond of a lot of nature poetry either. My poems aren’t purely nature poems, for the most part I use nature as a cloak to write about specific events or as a way of exploring different themes. I’m particularly interested in the contrast between the beauty of nature that surrounds us and the pain and suffering in the lives of so many.
Considering your professed passions for philosophy and politics it’s perhaps a little surprising that one would be hard-pressed to see these as touchstones in your life. Any thoughts? It seems to me that these topics would be more relevant these days than poems about ‘Cherry Blossoms’, ‘Dandelion Clocks’ and ‘Black Tulips’. In your blog (13 October 2008) you yourself wrote:
Which brings me to the financial crisis, where does poetry fit into all this? I've a feeling my writing ought to reflect the zeitgeist of the age but I'm just not inspired to write about the world's impending financial collapse. Is this not what gives poetry a bad name – its apparent pointlessness. Certainly a lot of writers do respond to climactic events. I've been thinking about how I can respond, maybe it just has to be in a less direct way.
Have you come up with an answer yet? What is the point to poetry?
Part of my ‘poetry journey’ has been to accept that the kind of poetry I can write and the poetry I would like to write are not always the same thing. I did a joint politics / classics MA at uni and would love to be able to use my knowledge in these subjects to inform my poetry but when I do, the result is so contrived that it certainly doesn’t make for good poetry.
I’ve come to realise that I can respond to events around me by focusing on the smaller scale of things. I may not have the ability to write directly political poems but I have, since writing that blog post, written poems about abused children and asylum seekers. I think it’s right that poetry should tackle issues relevant to our society and not solely be an aesthetic discipline.
"Insofar as poetry is convincingly the real speech of a real person, it seems to happen ‘off’ the page. I think that's fairly true" (p.373)
I’m assuming this is something you quoted because it resonated with you and yet, for the most part, your poems don’t contain “the real speech of a real person” – not in the way you might expect to hear from someone like Bukowski – the words are carefully crafted and, particularly when you read them aloud in that sing-songy way, they certainly sound like poetry but also a little unreal. What do you take from what Hughes is saying here and how do you apply it to your own poetry?
I cringed when I read “that sing-songy way”; I’ll have to keep a watch out for that in my future readings! One area I’m exploring in my writing is trying to loosen it up; write less condensed and allow for a more natural flow of speech. For me it is about trying to turn off my internal editor whilst I’m in the middle of writing a poem, so that I’m able to compose with less constraint and save the editing for the redrafting process. It’s an area I struggle with.
Sylvia Plath is one of your favourite poets but I see little confessional about these poems, in fact, although many of them are in the first person, I don’t get a strong feeling of their Marion-ness; the I could be anyone. It sounds as if you’ve taken on board what Ted Hughes wrote, "My definition of 'poetry', almost, excludes anything coming from the ego under the ego's control" (p.628). Am I on the right track? Is it important to you to keep your distance?
I’ve never really viewed Plath as primarily a confessional poet in the same way that Sexton and Lowell are confessional poets. In many ways I think of Plath as much as a nature poet as a confessional poet.
The I in these poems is very much me, though of course the poems are not all strictly or, as with many of them, even remotely, autobiographical. But they are most definitely me.
The Hughes quote from the list of his quotes on my blog which describes best how I write is this one: "A feeling is always looking for a metaphor of itself in which it can reveal itself unrecognised". I keep my distance alright, but at the root of the various personas, the I is invariably myself.
At the reading, and also in your blog, you’ve indicated that you’re “[t]rying to work out where to take my poetry next. I want to deepen it, encompass more with it.” (13 September 2010) Hughes certainly said that, "The deadliest thing is for a writer to develop too fixed a 'style'. The ultimate, to my mind, must be the naked voice of that inner being" (p.636). I have to say that the poems in your collection feel that they, on the whole, belong together although if I was being uncharitable I might say there’s a sameness about them. Do you think that your ‘style’ might start to work against you? What is missing in these poems?
The writing process, for me, has come in a series of mini-enlightenments. The ‘style’ that I arrived at in my pamphlet poems came about through a process of experiment, failure and eventual self-discovery. Once I made the initial break-through in my writing the bulk of my poems followed the same process from gestation to the actual birth of the poem. It’s this process which gives the poems their definite similarity. More recently I’ve been making tentative steps towards a different way of writing which I’m hoping will open up a whole new area of opportunity for me to explore in my poems. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved in my collection but I don’t want to carry on writing the same old poems.
In one of your blogs (5 February 2009) you wrote, “A month ago everything around me seemed to inspire possibilities for poems but now it seems nothing can. I'm bored by my every attempt to write and wondering if I've exhausted my local landscape.” And more recently I know you’ve been trying to broaden your reading experience with an aim to stretching your poetry. How are you doing with that?
I’m loving what I’m reading at the moment. I’ve discovered over the last few months how important it was for me to let go of my three most loved poets (Plath, Eliot, Akhmatova) completely and wholly focus on some different poets for a lengthy period in order to open up my writing to new influences. I initially chose five poets to focus on – Pound, Lowell, Holub, Stevens and Celan – and read them solely for a few months and then I added Durs Grünbein and Claire Crowther. Now I’m focusing mainly on Grünbein and Crowther and loving it.
Back in 2008 you cited your poem 'Mother Nature House Hunting' which was subsequently published in Nth Position as the best poem you thought you’d written at that time. You said:
My poem 'Mother Nature House Hunting' was a real break-through for me. I'm not saying I think it's a spectacular poem or the best one I've written because it's neither of those two things. But it was the first poem I wrote which thoroughly surprised me and pretty much, in the last stanza, wrote itself. All of my previous poems were suffocated by my internal editor, in this poem I had found my muse (nature) and a freedom to write by ear, I discovered things about myself that I didn't know were there. – Poetry in Progress, 21 December 2008
I’m curious to find out why it didn’t appear in Vintage Sea. To my mind it seems a perfect fit, better than some you did choose. How did you come to the final grouping and were there other good poems that didn’t make the cut?
It simply wasn’t good enough to make the cut. Thematically it would have fit fine but the first two stanzas are very weak. It’s the third stanza that made the poem and brought about the break-through that I wrote about in my blog-post. I knew I couldn’t defend the first two stanzas from close scrutiny and therefore it couldn’t possibly go into the pamphlet.
There are certainly other poems that have also been published but didn’t make it into the pamphlet. At the end of the day I could only fit so many poems into a pamphlet collection and how they sat as a whole was just as important to me as the poems individually. I also had to be careful not to put in poems that were simply too similar as they would have had the effect of diluting the collection or even cancelling each other out.
In his blog, Swiss wrote about this collection: “if nothing else this is a collection that deserves to be read out loud by somebody Scottish!” In my article I draw a distinction between Scotland-the-nation and Scotland-the-country. In fact my own feeling is that what your poetry evokes is an-almost-mythical-at-times Scotia. There are people in your landscapes but the land dominates. Do you agree?
I completely agree. Landscapes don’t simply exist; land is tied to history, mythology and folklore. I don’t set out to write particularly Scottish poetry, I rarely use Scottish words and never write in actual Scots. For me, nature is very much a metaphor for something other than what it is. The bible says that nature is evidence for the existence of God, that God reveals Himself to us through it. This idea of nature as being a kind of sign or symbol for something other than what it is strongly influences how I perceive and write about it.
The poet R.S. Thomas also held that view and yet evidence of his faith (and his struggles with his faith) are constants in his poetry. There are a few nods to your faith here but, like the politics and the philosophy, one would be hard-pressed to see you as giving God a helping hand, joining the dots for people who haven’t read Paul’s letter to the Romans for example. Are you wary of proselytising?
Not at all. I’d like to express my faith more fully in my poems, my faith being an essential part of who I am. Yet, as with my interest in philosophy and politics, I’m still trying to find my own way of writing about it authentically rather than superimposing it onto a poem. No one, let alone me, wants to read bad or preachy Christian poetry. It’s an area I’ve yet to properly tap into and in that sense I’m excited about the prospects of the kind of poetry it could lead me to writing.
Crane's General Aims and Theories (1926) is a rather tortured attempt to explain the terms of his mystical "way up" toward illumination and discovery through the creative adventure of art:
"It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our 'real' world somewhat as a spring-board … Its evocation will not be toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an 'innocence' (Blake) or absolute beauty. In this condition there may be discoverable under new forms certain spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions. It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate …." [Crane's italics].
I feel that this is also something that might be applied to your poetry; that you’re trying to get people to see the world anew. A good example would be the poem ‘Ultrasound’ where you take something very modern and translate it into something of Nature. Would you agree?
Nature is the backdrop to our lives and living, almost like a sort of constant witness. I guess the old Marxist in me still thinks that in modern living we are alienated from our natural environment and therefore alienated from a part of ourselves. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to get people to see the world anew, rather I see us / myself as an extension of nature and our actions should be seen in the light of the natural world around us.
One thing people expect to do with poetry is get it. Most people would regard a poem as having failed if they can’t get it. How do you interpret getting poetry and if people don’t get your stuff does the fault lie with them? Are they simply the wrong readers?
It comes down to what you mean by getting it. I don’t think of poetry as a puzzle to solved, neither do I think it always has to work within the perimeters of a straight-forward narrative. I hope for my poetry what I most enjoy about poetry: that reading it is a pleasurable experience to the senses but with a depth that evokes and resonates and makes one want to re-read and think on.
You read a lot of poetry; on your blog you’re always talking about new books you’ve bought (you must have quite a library), and I certainly can’t think of anyone else who’s not an editor of a magazine or something like that who reads as much as you. What is the attraction?
Funny you think I buy a lot – I don’t buy nearly as much as I’d like to! I think reading widely is a necessary part of being a writer. Reading good poetry is key to writing good poetry. I don’t know of any writer whom I admire who doesn’t or hasn’t read widely. I came to poetry as a reader; I don’t believe writing should substitute reading. Also how can I expect other people to read my poetry if I’m not reading poetry?
Who should up-and-coming poets be reading? And why?
This is a difficult question to answer in general; it depends on individual preferences, what one looks for in a poem. Poetry covers such a broad spectrum, sometimes it’s simply down to horses for courses. What I do recommend is reading anthologies of classic and contemporary poetry, it’s a great way of getting a taste of everything and finding out what you are particularly drawn too. Bloodaxe is well known for publishing a great selection of anthologies, I can personally recommend their most recent, Identity Parade, edited by the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden.
Vintage Sea is available now from Calder Wood Press, an independent (unsubsidised) publisher specialising in poetry. Most Calder Wood Press titles are NOT available from bookshops or Amazon, but only by mail order from the Catalogue page on their website.
 Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1850 essay ‘The Poetic Principle.’
 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 (New Living Translation)