An Interview with Robin Robertson
from New Letters, Spring/Summer 2016
Robin Robertson is from the northeast coast of Scotland and lives in London, where he is an editor for Jonathan Cape publishers. "The genius of this Scots poet," writes The New Yorker, "is for finding the sensually charged moment—in a raked northern seascape, in a sexual or gustatory encounter— and depicting it in language that is simultaneously spare and ample." This interview took place in Kansas City, Mo., in the fall of 2015, and focuses on Robertson's sixth book of poems, Sailing the Forest: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014). Among his many honors, he is the only person to have won the Forward Poetry Prize in all three categories: Best First Collection, Best Book, and Best Single Poem from a Book. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he also has received the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors, and the Petrarch Prize. He is a highly regarded translator of both the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and Euripides. An audio version of this interview can be heard on our radio series, New Letters on the Air.
NEW LETTERS: I notice that the contents pages for Sailing the Forest: Selected Poems (2014) show a division of poems according to your previous books, but the poems in the body of Sailing the Forest flow throughout without any section breaks. It seems like a small thing, but I wonder if that was your decision? If so, what was the reason?
ROBIN ROBERTSON: Yes, it was my decision. I suspect we're always trying to write the same poem, and just trying to write it better each time. We do just have the one sensibility, after all, so each individual piece is an angle or a fragment of that sensibility. I've kept the poems broadly in chronological order according to the collections where they first appeared, but that's of interest to no one but bibliophiles. So, yes, they're all of one piece.
NL: Some of the newer poems in the book, especially, deal a lot with the Greek god Dionysus. You have that wonderful poem "The God Who Disappears," about Dionysus, and I'm wondering about the appeal he has for you. In that poem you have the line, "He watched his body swim through other shapes." That "other shapes" quality, for a poet, must have a great appeal.
ROBERTSON: Dionysus, for me, is the most attractive of all the gods in the Greek pantheon. He's the trickster god and the equivalent to the North American Coyote, or the Scandinavian Loki. He is a protean figure, always transforming himself into other things; more protean than Proteus, in fact. He is the most volatile of all the gods, the youngest god in the pantheon, and the most intriguing, I think. So I've been following his progress and trying to write about him for quite a few years. I just did a version of The Bacchae by Euripides, in which he is the main character. For the poems, I went to the 5th-century Alexandrian Greek poet, Nonnus, who wrote the longest surviving epic in the Greek language, the Dionysiaca. It is largely unreadable, a truly terrible piece of work but, buried in there, there are some stories about Dionysus not recorded anywhere else. I wanted to try and retell those stories in my own way. Dionysus is unusual because he was born of a god and a mortal, and he is a young god who dies. I'll leave you to draw the parallels.
NL: He's the only god in Greek mythology who dies, I think. It's also certainly understandable, the appeal that a god like Dionysus might have in telling stories, and I've read that you don't really like to discuss autobiographical elements in your poems. Am I right about that? Or, are there some autobiographical elements there, but just not for their own sake?
ROBERTSON: I do resist this apparent need in some readers to decode poems as autobiographical sketches. Of course, all writing comes from some kind of personal experience, but it's sieved through various filters over the years and emerges at the other end in a form that's almost unrecognizable. There are a handful of poems that are straightforward in their biographical nature, but most of them have suffered a sea change over the years. Readers could look at these poems and, if they really insisted on believing them to be autobiographical, I would be all sorts of things; in my last two books alone I am a ghost, a murderer, a cross-dresser, August Strindberg, a consorter with geisha—and with witches—Hugh MacDiarmid's masseur, a soldier, a woman, a German medieval chronicler, a suicide and a selkie. I like to inhabit forms in the way that Dionysus does.
NL: I am thinking of the poet Dunya Mikhail, who has used Greek myth in her poems, mainly to disguise political statements. She's an Iraqi poet, and eventually had to move to the United States because of her particular political situation. Do you feel you're using Dionysus or Greek myth to disguise anything? Or, is it a way to tell stories that are bigger, maybe, than yourself?
ROBERTSON: Well, I think the Greek myths are certainly ways of telling stories about things bigger than ourselves, and that's why they've lasted for so long. All myths are basic archetypes and share similarities whether they are Greek, Celtic, North American Indian, Norse, Maori or whatever. The names change, but the basic stories are the same. So mythology is a way of tapping into something important that sometimes we lose track of. I've enjoyed translating, particularly Ovid, because his great work Metamorphoses is a retelling, in itself, of Greek literature into Latin. Translation and transformation—turning into and turning away from—that sense of movement, volatility, tension and opposition seems to me crucial to art. Paralysis and stasis are anathema to me.
NL: I was hoping you could talk about the Scottish lyrical tradition and your relationship to that. You have a wonderful poem in this book to Hugh MacDiarmid. I've read that Hugh MacDiarmid ushered in the modernist movement in Scotland. Is that correct?
ROBERTSON: Well, he would have loved to have heard that ... He did write some extraordinary poems, but he wasn't as profound a figure as say David Jones or Basil Bunting or Eliot, Pound, or Yeats. Hugh MacDiarmid was too political to be a truly great poet perhaps. I have various quarrels with him politically and artistically, but I greatly admire some of his work. He was a difficult, complicated man, by all accounts—not blessed with a relaxed sense of humor or an easy sensuality—so, I imagine that if we had ever met, it would have been uncomfortable for us both.
NL: I have to say, when I read that poem, "The Tweed," it almost made me fall over, it's so funny, and maybe you didn't intend it to be funny. Critics talk about your poems being dark, but, like this one to Hugh MacDiarmid, there's a lot of subtle humor. Is there any particular distinction in terms of Scottish modernism versus other modernism in Western poetry?
ROBERTSON: Well, Scotland receives culture, as with everything else, 10 years later than the rest of the country, so we were a bit slow to pick up modernism. It was a movement that tended to thrive in large international cities—Paris and London, in particular—and Edinburgh and Glasgow don't really fit that bill, so modernism filtered through slowly, I think. It also didn't quite suit the temperament of many of the Scottish poets who were writing at that time—Edwin Muir, particularly. You know, Scotland is a small country made up of many micro-cultures and, even now, all the poets that represent Scotland are spread out from Edinburgh and Glasgow through to Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles.
NL: While we're talking about some of your early influences, there was a teacher I read who was influential to you, Alistair MacLeod?
ROBERTSON: Yes. I did my master's in Canada, and I was doing a creative writing and English degree, and studying with Alistair MacLeod who died in 2014. He was one of the great, great short story writers of the post-war years. I'm not sure he was an influence, although maybe I've come to appreciate his work much more in my later years. He was a terrific teacher. I rather terrifyingly had to take some of his classes. I was used to the Scottish domine system of lecturing, where the teacher prepares a perfectly modulated 55-minute lecture then delivers it, uninterrupted, to his students. In my case, my first class was on "Araby," the Joyce story from Dubliners. The lecture was about 18 pages long, and I got as far as the second paragraph when somebody put up his hand. I couldn't believe someone wanted to go to the toilet. Of course, that wasn't it: He wanted to ask a question. And then they all started to ask questions, questions like, "Is this story set in Arabia?" I didn't get to the end of the first page, and I was furious. My time there will go down in the annals as some of the worst teaching that has ever been committed. So that ended my academic career.
NL: I'm also wondering about your creative process and how you work. The other thing is that you travel a lot, and you're on the move more than many other writers would be.
ROBERTSON: Well, certainly, I'm on the move a lot more than Dylan Thomas was, who just seemed to go from one pub to another, and I also have a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job. Well, I don't write every day. I write seldom, but I store things up, as most writers do, in notebook form, and some of those words, images, and phrases can go back 20 years, and they're just sort of waiting in this anteroom in my subconscious for a connection—a kind of live connection with something that I'm interested in in the present. So, when I do get a chance to sit down, I allow the mind to free up, and I start to see these connections being tentatively made with some old material and some recent material: whatever is in my head at the time. These images and words start to magnetically attract one another, and the poem seems to build out and beyond my control. I just sit and watch it. It's much like the process of dreaming, in that dreams attend to our buried desires and dreads, the same way as creative art does. It's a way of releasing and dealing with these problems.
NL: One of the reasons I'm curious about this is that your poems seem well-crafted in the sense that everything is taken out that shouldn't be there—for example, there's a great sense of understatement, even in terribly weighty circumstances. You have a poem called "A&E," about a heart operation, and I am struck in that particular poem by the restraint that comes at the end. There's no attempt to over-dramatize, which I think is a rare quality among writers.
ROBERTSON: That's the whole point of poetry, isn't it? It's a distillation of the essence of something, with all the paraphernalia—the superstructure, the scaffolding—all of that taken away. Nobody's interested in that. You've got to try and get to the nub of the thing as quickly and as powerfully as possible and, as you say, not allow it to be freighted down by unnecessary ballast. Although, it has to have clarity; you can't take everything away. You must allow it to move forward deftly and cleanly—and elegantly, one hopes—and deal with the matter at hand.
NL: The poem "A&E," from Sailing the Forest, about your heart surgery, has a moment in it that I can't get out of my mind where the triage nurse is waving you away. It isn't overtly funny, but there's something inherently contrary about it that does add another level of wit to the experience.
ROBERTSON: That particular hospital, King's Hospital in Camberwell, is pretty much a battle zone. It's near Brixton in South London, and on a Saturday night, if you don't have an axe embedded in your head then they're not interested, you know? You've got to be pretty well down and out. So if somebody walks in calmly and in a straight line, like me, they're really not interested. So I had to open up my coat and show her my hemorrhaging wound, just to get her attention. As the poem says:
Unfashionable, but striking nonetheless:
my chest undone like some rare waistcoat,
with that lace-up front—a black eehelle—
its red, wet-look leatherette,
those fancy, flapping lapels.
—excerpt from "A&E"
NL: Speaking of tough neighborhoods, I want to ask you about growing up in Aberdeen. Was it a particularly rough neighborhood where you grew up?
ROBERTSON: Well, the Aberdeen I grew up in was, at that time, a thriving harbor city. The fishing industry was very important; it was the mainstay of the community. This was before oil was discovered offshore, which was another thing all together: a robber industry that created a lot of wealth for those who came in to Aberdeen and took advantage of its resources, but—for the local community—all it created was disruption, and friction. It's always been a hard city—very cold, very wet, and when men are out on trawlers for three to four weeks, and then come back to shore, they want to have a drink—and quite often they want to have a fight as well. So, yes, there was always an underlying tension.
NL: I read somewhere that when you walked to school, you would walk by a slaughterhouse in order to avoid another route where you would get beat up.
ROBERTSON: That was very valuable, because each time I went past the abattoir, I would step inside: moving in a little bit farther each time till the slaughter-men got used to me. I would go deeper into the slaughter-works and see the hanging carcasses, the rendering and so on, and it was fascinating. It was like going to an art gallery for me.
NL: You were speaking about the fishermen, or the sailors, and I was hoping you could talk about your poem "The Fishermen's Farewell."
ROBERTSON: The poem is really about all Scottish fishermen, although these fishermen are probably west-coast, Hebridean fishermen. I was trying to get at this sense—which I think is true for fishermen all around the world—that they occupy a special place and distance. They're so used to being out in the ocean that they quite often become uncomfortable on dry land, where there's a kind of dislocation. The sea has become their reality—their true element—and home and land seems like a kind of paralysis to them. I was trying to get at that sense in the poem. Of course, when they do come back to land, they can drink themselves into a kind of watery oblivion.
NL: The other thing that I notice about that poem, in particular—and I might sound a little nerdy to some people to talk about this—is the quality of the verbs in the poem, and in many of your poems, are really exceptional. One couplet in the poem states:
The drink storms through these men, uncompasses
them, till they're all at sea again.
I wonder if such a way with strong verbs comes instinctively to you, or if you really reach for it. I see this in many of your poems.
ROBERTSON: Well, I'm not a very adjectival writer, I suppose. I think the verb is underused and can express a great deal more than it often does. Verbs have a real tensile strength and a muscularity that I like. They have inherent movement in them.
NL: As an editor, I see many manuscripts submitted for publication with flabby verbs—to-be verbs and helper verbs—where people seem as though they aren't trying hard enough, or not caring enough about the language. So it's one of the things that made reading your poems so exciting for me. There's another poem, alongside "The Fishermen's Farewell," which is about drinkers, called "The Long Horne," from an earlier book.
ROBERTSON: This is one of the poems about Aberdeen and one of my favorite bars in Aberdeen, which, I will reveal now, exclusively, is called "The Prince of Wales," and it has the longest bar counter in Scotland, apparently. It's a famous place for day-drinking, which is the serious kind, as you probably know. The poem is a true story about one of these grave day-drinkers that I encountered there. Indeed, "The Long Horne" is a Scottish euphemism for the grave. It might have been a better name for the pub, now I come to think about it.
NL: I am struck by the poetic images in this poem, which I think are stunning. If I might quote a section:
The firewood's sap
buzzing like a trapped fly,
the granular crackle of a Green Final
folded and unfolded,
the sound of the coals
unwrapping themselves like sweets.
He only looked up when the barman
poured a bucketful of ice
into the sink, like a tremendous
burst of applause.
The sound of coals unwrapping themselves like sweets: Okay, let's say that 10 times to really get the power, the freshness, the intrigue of that image. I see these images throughout all of your poems. The poetic images do a lot of work, obviously, which substitutes for the exposition that other people might want to use. Does this come from any particular aesthetic or any particular love that you have for poems that you've known over the years?
ROBERTSON: I think so much comes from reading, of course, but as much comes from experience—just watching and listening. While I've been here in Kansas City, I've enjoyed sitting down and listening and watching people. Things can hit you by surprise, and you write them down... You've just got to pay attention. That's all. That's all you need to do.
NL: Right. The other thing I wanted to ask about is the diction—the language and the word-choice—that appears in some of your poems. I shouldn't even bring up this poem, because people will start to get the wrong idea, but the diction in the poem "The Park Drunk," is precise, and yet you use unusual words. This happens often in your poems. But maybe we should move off of the drinking poems.
ROBERTSON: Well, I must stress—as I'd really like to be invited back to the States—that this poem is firmly non-autobiographical. This poem is set on the first day of a new year, probably in the northwest of Ireland. Drunks get a bad press. This poem is about an alcoholic who is really watching, really looking at his environment, and the life that he has lived and the life that he's lost.
And so he drinks for winter,
for the coming year,
to open all the beautiful tiny doors
in their craquelure of frost.
NL: Words like "craquelure" in this section are what I mean.
ROBERTSON: Yes, craquelure is a term relating to porcelain, and the cracks in the varnish, which you see on certain glazes.
NL: You work in publishing and in editing, so you've noticed this, but writers need to reach for interesting language, and I see that happening through all of your writing, not only with strong active verbs, but with diction that comes out of a different place and maybe surprises the reader a little. You know, it reminds me of Wordsworth, who will introduce an odd word in an otherwise plain-spoken poem—for example, the word "diurnal"—and the poem changes direction, kind of like in your sonnet "Crimond."
ROBERTSON: I'm a son of the manse, which means my father was a minister in the Church of Scotland. That sonnet is addressed to—or, at least, dedicated to—Jessie Seymour Irvine who was also a child of the manse: daughter of the Reverend Alexander Irvine. As a teenager, she wrote the tune she called "Crimond," which is the standard setting for the 23rd Psalm. Crimond is a fishing village just up the coast from where I was brought up, and I love that part of the country and was fascinated by this young woman writing this beautiful air, so I started thinking about my own father.
When I hear it now, it's all wet cobbles and the haar
rolling in down the street outside, and him
shaking their hands, sharp in his black and white:
the dog-collar (I knew) cut clean from a bottle of Fairy Liquid.
I should say that Fairy Liquid—I don't know if you have it here—is washing-up detergent, and my father—because the dog collar or clerical collars were so expensive to buy from clerical outfitters—would cut up the empty bottles of plastic washing-up bottles and use them for his collars.
NL: It's fascinating how that image sits almost right in the center of the poem, and it's kind of the break in the poem.
ROBERTSON: The volta.
NL: Yes, it's the volta in the poem, and everything before it is elevated, and then you come to this dog collar cut from a plastic bottle of Fairy Liquid—it's just the perfect moment in that poem. Though you have a couple of sonnets, beautifully structured like that, you don't rhyme very often.
ROBERTSON: I rhyme internally and use a lot of half-rhyme, but I don't want to hobble myself unnecessarily with rhyme schemes—I don't really see the point of it. Some people tell me it's useful to discipline yourself with rhyme and that you can find the poem going in an interesting way as a result, but I'm fine with writing basically free verse, but one that has a kind of internal sonic structure.
NL: There's sound quality—vowels and the consonants and so on—even in poems that don't have rhyme in them. Your poem "Wedding the Locksmith's Daughter" has a highly lyrical quality. Many poets will talk about the sound or the rhythm or the lyricism of the poem being what's most important to them. What is your approach to poetry? Is it the imagery? Is it the story? Is it the lyricism? I suppose everything has to be there, but is one element more important to you than another?
ROBERTSON: I honestly try not to think about it too much, because the thinking about it impedes the writing of it. You have to have all these things in concert, and my particular fondness is for condensed, impacted, tactile language. I try to write the poem as if it's a musical score. The way the poem is displayed on the page is the only way, ideally, that you can read these lines, and through the end-stopping and enjambement and the stanza breaks and the punctuation you end up with something similar to a musical score. I mean, it's an act of the unconscious, and so little of this is ever planned—at least initially. I don't know what I'm going to be writing, because I write out of curiosity. As Paul Klee said, I'm "taking a line for a walk." Well, I'm taking a line of words for a walk to see what happens and see where my imagination and all these subconscious threads are going to take me. In the case of that poem, it was slightly different, as I was commissioned to write on a subject, and the subject was a locksmith's shop.
So I dutifully went off and read as much as I could bear to read about locksmithery. I did discover some useful things, and some handy words and phrases which appear in the poem. But I wasn't particularly interested in the actual process of making locks and keys; so I thought, well, there are some similarities between locks and keys and the business of writing and reading a poem. For example, how a poem is a kind of secret machine that can be unlocked. That was satisfying for a while, and then my mind, which was then the mind of a younger man, turned to more carnal matters, and that gave the third aspect to the troubling poem.
NL: I love the internal rhyme in "Wedding the Locksmith's Daughter." I also think the real trick for contemporary poets is to use rhyme in a way that isn't so noticeable. Did you put the poem into the form of a sonnet as a device, because it was an assigned poem?
ROBERTSON: I think I did that more because it needed to have a real shape and a defined accuracy, because it was talking about locks and keys and the precise mechanism that is required for them to work in conjunction. I thought form was crucial, really, to the poem.
NL: How has your career in publishing affected you as a writer? What has been your experience?
ROBERTSON: If I could advise all of your younger readers, I would tell them not to go into publishing or into academia if you are writing. It's difficult, because if you're working at close quarters with text during the day, the last thing you really want to do, or the last thing you really can do in the evening is to turn your mind to your own work, because you've too many other voices in your head if you've been doing your job properly and are deep into editing and the deconstruction of a text. Your mind, then, is somebody else's. That has been an impediment. I mean, I enjoy my job and working with the 50 or so authors I look after, but it takes me a couple of weeks to detox from their creativity and try and turn my mind to my own. I tend to go off, if I can, for a five or six week sabbatical, so that the first fortnight is getting London and the city and these other writers out of my head. Once I do that, things start to open up.
NL: Yes, and that does account for the fact that you've lived in many places all over the world. Greece and Italy, I understand. I also read somewhere that landscape, in particular, is extremely important to you. You said it was "freighted with meaning" for you, and I don't know if you were referring strictly to the Scottish landscape or to any particular place you might travel to.
ROBERTSON: I think for everybody, the first 12 to 14 years of one's life are formative, and if you are brought up in a place like Aberdeen then what you're aware of more than anything is the weather, the landscape, the sea, and the mountains behind. This was my playground—this nine-mile beach and huge park with the River Don flowing through it—and going through the Highlands and hill-walking. These were the colors in my palette. You know, I didn't grow up in a city, and I'm glad I didn't. I suppose I'm attuned to, or attentive to, landscapes of that kind and am interested in the difference between them and the ones in my head.
NL: Is there a particular poem in here that maybe catches that sense of the landscape of Scotland? The poem that I'm thinking of is "At Roane Head."
ROBERTSON: That poem is one of my favorites. It's also yet another poem that's not—I'm relieved to say—autobiographical. It's one of a series of invented Scots folk narratives that really have something in common with the Celtic folk tradition in that they're everyday stories of murder, rape, insanity, and physical damage. This is a poem that draws on those old stories and a particular myth of the selkie, which you can look up for yourself.
NL: That poem is a horrific tale in some ways, and yet the language is strangely engaging and beautiful in its own way—I mean, I keep coming back to this level of diction that you inject into these poems. For example, "to smoor the fire" and "at scraich of day," and these lines:
Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling
down to the shore, chittering like rats,
and said they were fine swimmers,
but I would have guessed at that.
ROBERTSON: These will be unfamiliar words, perhaps, to your readers, but "to smoor the fire" is to smother, or bank the fire—keep the ashes going through the night, so it won't flame up. That's a Scots word. "Scraich of day" is the first glimmer of sunrise and "hirpling" and "chittering"—these are just vernacular words that I used as a child. When I moved down to London, I would use some Scottish word and people would look at me blankly and say, "What on earth do you mean?" As a result, I found myself losing my own language, because I would hold myself back from using Scottish vocabulary. I hated that—that loss—so, I called my third book Swithering just out of spite: because it's a wonderful word and nobody in England understands it. To "swither" is to feel very violent uncertainty, but also to appear in shifting forms. I'm "swithering" between life and death, you know? I'm swinging between these two. In my poetry I try and cherish some of these extraordinary words: try to keep them active and alive.
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University of Missouri - Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart