Interview

Roddy Lumsden

Roddy Lumsden

Born in St Andrews, Scotland in 1966, Roddy Lumsden now lives in Bristol.He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1991 and a Scottish Arts Council bursary and was once the Writing Fellow for Aberdeen. He was The Poetry Society of Britain's Selected Poet and now sits on their Council of Trustees.

His first book Yeah Yeah Yeah was short-listed for Forward's best first collection. The second collection The Book of Love was published in 2000 it was the Poetry Book Society Summer Choice and was short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize. His third collection Roddy Lumsden is Dead appeared in autumn 2001.

NIALL O'SULLIVAN: The hard shoulder of the motorway, filing cupboards, the taming of barkeep shrews, the exhibition of intimate tattoos on a drive back to Dunbar: could you be the Julio Iglesias of modern poetry?

RODDY LUMSDEN: Someone wrote recently that my work is about “drug addicts, prostitutes and film stars”, erm, none of which have ever featured in my poetry. People have an idea of what you do and stick with it. My “quirky-relationship-poems” have tended to be anthologised, so many people think that's all I'm about.

But, okay, I have written quite a lot of poems about love, sex and relationships. I always have done, since my teens. And besides, nothing did happen in that filing cupboard. If it had done, I wouldn't have written about it. However, Cavoli Riscaldati, a forthcoming sonnet sequence which I began in the mid 90s, is about 'all the girls I've loved before', as Julio once crooned.

How was Canada?

The whole trip was weird. I spent two weeks reading in California, ten weeks in snowy Alberta on an Arts Council International Fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts, then spent a fortnight in NYC, and another two weeks giving readings / touring in Vermont and then the South (Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas). All of this against the background of having just met my girlfriend ten days before leaving. We were 10,000 miles apart when we decided we were together.

The log-cabin studio in the woods which I had in Canada was amazing, complete with grand piano and elk herds. The place was at minus ten to fifteen degrees, and very solitary, especially as I'd arrived later than fellow poet Colette Bryce (who'd been there five weeks already). All but 13 people left the huge campus in mid December, and I was very much on my own for five weeks, running up phone bills to Dorset. But I actually wrote quite a few poems and explored new styles.

I also wrote parts of nine songs, which one day I hope to finish with the help of collaborators. My dream is to hear Kate Rusby sing one of them.

You've read your poetry to many different audiences, both literary and performance-based. Any particularly good/bad experiences spring to mind?

Good: freakish acoustics at Lloyd George's old house Ty Newydd; a crowd of 350 mainly young people at the Stockholm Poetry festival; Nelly's in Beverley, a good venue; ditto the Waverley in Edinburgh, a tiny top room unchanged since the 50s where I gave my best ever reading in 97; reading in the middle of the Divine Comedy's set at the Aldeburgh Festival; needing 8 pints of liquid courage before doing my first London performance gig, and bringing it off; poetry groupies, of course!; being on form at the Cuirt in Galway, a great festival; reading (jetlagged and badly) one of my poems, translated into Tagalog in Manila; showboating at a ceilidh in the Black Isle.

Bad: the bitter few in most audiences who're convinced my success has happened at their expense; competing with a frothing coffee machine in Border's in Glasgow; reading recently in Oxford, during exam time, to only eight people; announcing in Aberdeen that I dislike anything with more than two feet, when I'm actually fond of animals; my reading with August Kleinzahler in Berkeley being cancelled due to a terror threat to the Golden Gate bridge; bad organisation and various terrible or non-existent introductions (I don't ask for much); making a snide aside about women with grey shocks of hair and many cats, in Ipswich, then noticing a group of the same looking daggers at the back.

To be a successful writer, how much do you think is down to talent, and how much is down to hard work or even charm?

I'm certainly not one of those people who thinks that if you have the talent then you can simply ride it and not have to work so hard. The separation of talent and hard work is slightly false because I think that a lot of the hard work is to do with discovering what talent you have, the precise nature of that talent, and how to nurture it. So in a way I think that the two go together in the sense that the work often reveals the talent.

Who would you call the biggest influence on your recent work?

I'd love to drop some names, as I dislike it when poets shirk such questions, or resort to xenophilia or grave-robbing for influences they'll admit to, as if no living British poets are any good, but most of my recent poems have been influenced by subject matter in non-fiction, including Jeffrey Kacirk's Forgotten English and also Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain. There's more image, less narrative, more dark whimsy (good name for a real ale?), less levity.

I've been enjoying the work of certain poets, e.g. Brenda Shaughnessy, Kathleen Ossip and Susan Wheeler, whose work is post-modern, difficult, but retains musicality and form, but I can't write like that. But I've taken a helping of their strangeness on board.

Any chance of 2001's Roddy Lumsden is Dead enjoying the wider distribution it deserves?

Despite not being widely available (not the publisher's fault), Roddy Lumsden is Dead has sold over 700 copies. But yes, there will be a New and Selected Poems from Bloodaxe in autumn 2004, which contains a new collection, Mischief Night, and selections from Yeah Yeah Yeah, The Book of Love, The Bubble Bride, the sonnet sequence and most of Roddy Lumsden is Dead (the poem sequence), plus a selection from the lighter stuff in the book's second half. It should be good for keeping doors ajar, or for balancing on your head in deportment lessons.

What have you been writing about since Roddy Lumsden is Dead?

Some of the poems in Mischief Night have a dark, folklore feel, with sinister farmyards, drowning pools, murdered (and murdering) children, bells, wells and night animals and so on. There are also some poems based on my long trip to the US and Canada. And a few sort-of-love-poems. And bathing in hot milk. And a robot's funeral.

I also wrote The Bubble Bride this year, a pamphlet of sixteen poems for an Arts & Business placement / commission at a five-star hotel / spa near my home town of St Andrews. It was a fruitful and interesting residency (I stayed there a week a month for six months) and just the sort to get up the noses of poetry's Meldrews and ascetics whose blood boils at the thought of such frivolity. Sod the grumps! The poems are about hotels in general, the town, food, golf, local history and landscape and so on. I'm quite pleased with several of them - sometimes commissioned poems can he a bit half-arsed. I'm also pleased that this led me to start writing more in Scots

Has your involvement in the Eric Gregory awards made you confident of the future face of poetry?

Probably. I've seen some good poets read since I started to host the annual winners' readings, but you can't always judge which ones are going to progress. I'm very much for the awards but there are worries that a) the judges are too conservative in their tastes and b) that the awards will in future go more and more to paying off the fees of students on creative writing degree courses who have had help from their tutors to sand down the poems into what's expected.

But I look forward to debut books coming out in the next couple of years from young-ish poets such as Kona Macphee, Sally Read, Helen Farish, Jonathan Asser, Sasha Dugdale, Dorothy Malone, Kathryn Gray, Matthew Hollis, Jacob Polley and I hope and expect that someone will publish Jen Hadfield, Tim Turnbull, David Briggs and Chris Jones.

Any advice for novice poets trying to 'find their voice', any pitfalls worth avoiding?

Lots. First, don't assume you have a 'voice' to find. Many leading poets don't have 'a voice' and do rather well. If we were all stylists, it wouldn't work. Inevitably, you hear poets discussing who is and isn't 'the real thing' which is more about aesthetics than quality, I suppose. And poets with strong styles can get diluted by their imitators, anyhow.

Secondly, hunt down a good teacher / editor, someone who likes your work, but who can be a devil's advocate about it. Be active and learn to read well. Make yourself known - I know of only one poet who was published just by sending a manuscript to a publisher. Be wary of the twin enemies of poetry: taste and terminology. Don't be tempted by online poetry discussion lists - they are largely populated by angry idiots.

Learn to tell the difference between stylistic tics and flaws. Emphasise your individuality without going overboard - the biggest weakness in British poetry is that so many are writing in the same ways.

Lastly, don't be a young turk. Being a bitch on the way up is a bad move. Don't write catty reviews and growling letters before you've proved yourself; remember this mantra: before you kick against the pricks, be sure you're not a prick yourself.

The early poems of the Roddy Lumsden is Dead sequence were written during a phase of bi-polar manic depressive mental illness. Yet the poems are controlled and free of the hazards that are often seen in “therapy poetry”. Is this due to re-drafting or a sense of control whilst writing?

By early poems, I meant first written, rather than the first few in the sequence. I was actually ill when writing much of The Book of Love in mid-97 to early 98. I wrote For the Birds on a day when I was very ill. Yet, it's a quirky little poem. I'm not sure about the word “depressive”: terminology in mental illness (as in poetry) is misleading.

The bulk of the sequence was written two / three years after my illness, with the framework of twelve or so poems I had conceived at the time (My Pain;, My Death etc, some of which were just in note form). This was another time of turmoil, if not illness, which is alluded to in the poems about the Philippines and Stoke Newington. It's not really a narrative sequence, and the mixture of despair and self-aggrandising exhilaration is what I'm trying to portray. As 40 page poems about mental illness go, I think it's very readable.

You read last year at New Blood and asked the audience not to applaud before the end of the set; what led you to this decision? (it worked by the way!)

Hyperclapping tends to be a performance venue trait. Maybe it's good for new readers needing a boost, but people will clap whatever the poem, out of politeness and it gets embarrassing for both sides. Also, a lot of my poems are short, so lots of clapping eats in to your reading time. Also, I'm Scottish and I have a sneaking feeling that applause and shame may be cousins.

What's this new website that you have just helped get off the ground?

It's The Poem (www.the-poem.co.uk). It has selections from the books of mainstream UK and Irish poets, plus some other features, including a monthly magazine of poetry from new and known names. I put the site editor Edward Barker together with the Anvil poet AB Jackson, who has good web skills, and they've done a good job

You co-wrote The Message, a book about poetry and song lyrics. What can both art forms learn about each other?

A hard one. Most poets, most songwriters have no wish or need to learn from each other. But I'm interested in the musicality of poetry (which I rate as more important than its substance or import or engagement) and in its performative power. I also rate a poet by their ability to read and their actual physical voice (which is chance, of course) in addition to the quality of the work itself.

Certainly, in songs, words are used in a different way: sense, tense and meaning may become looser. One of my songs starts like this:

When their faces appear on the wall drawn in blood and they give up their stories of times that you had, then I must let you out from under my wing, for fear of the bubble bursting.

…which, if in a poem, would have over-emphasised rhyme and an awkward rhythm. In the song, it works fine, and the word “blood” lasts about four bars, and the word “bubble” has three syllables. For me, song writing is about melody first, words later.

Is it true that you once made a living from consistently winning on pub quiz machines?

It is, yes. For over ten years, it was a major part of my income and, at times, it was my main profession. It's dull work and pubs are often dispiriting places; I wrote and hosted pub quizzes too for a year or two. I gave all that up in '97 and started to write quizzes and puzzles for newspapers, which I still do. Then last year, I started Vitamin Q, a trivia/lists/popular reference site which has become a bit of a minor cult. It is, I believe, the biggest and busiest trivia site on the web. I get 2500 visitors a month, and it is going to be turned into a book in 2004.

Interview and questions: Niall O'Sullivan

 

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