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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
What have you been writing about since Roddy Lumsden is
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
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,
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
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
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)
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
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