Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What is Scottish Poetry?

Rob Mackenzie has gone and got himself interviewed by Yang-May Ooi of FusionView. Part 1 of the piece is here. I was intrigued by the two following questions and answers:

Is being Scottish a strong part of your identity? What does being Scottish mean to you?

I’m not particularly nationalistic, until someone criticises Scotland. I am Scottish and Im sure thats shaped me in all kinds of indefinable ways. Its not something Ive explored all that much. Maybe I should. That might well be a future project.

Is your poetry Scottish poetry? (as opposed to English poetry/ Welsh poetry or just plain old “poetry”)

I feel its just plain old poetry. I dont write in Scots or Gaelic and while I've written a few poems about Scottish identity, its not a theme Ive majored on. I know some of my poet-colleagues here are far more interested in doing this than I am and are influenced mainly by other Scottish poets. I like several Scottish poets John Burnside, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Don Paterson, Roddy Lumsden they are excellent writers. But my influences come from all over Rilke (Germany), Roy Fisher (England), Simic (USA), Miroslav Holub (Czech Republic), and many others.

One wonders, first of all, what exactly the second question means. It's a fair question in it's own way, but how does one define "Scottish poetry" aside from the obvious and banal poetry written in Scotland and/or by Scots? More to the point, what does Yang-May Ooi have in mind when she asks the question and what concept does it evoke in Rob's mind as he answers it?

However, what caught my eye most was the discussion of influence. Whether or not this his intention, there is an implication in the way Rob phrases his reply to the second of those questions that his international set of influences makes him a less Scottish poet than those who "are influenced mainly by other Scottish poets". It's an implication I'd contest. There is and long has been an internationalist bent to Scottish thought and culture. By that account, those whose influences are more narrowly Scottish could actually be regarded as less Scottish than Rob with his literary internationalism.

I have to say, I'd love him to name names: not only the names of the poets whose influences are "mainly Scottish" but of the poets who influence them. It would be fascinating to see how many of those Scottish influences are good Scots internationalists. After all, to pick two of the prominent Scottish poets Rob mentions, Edwin Morgan is certainly international in outlook--witness his volume of Collected Translations, for example--and John Burnside not only looks considerably to American writers and musicians but is interested in Scandinavia.

Perhaps Rob might comment ... Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to reading the second half of the interview.


Rob said...

Hi Andy

It's strange. After doing the interview, which was conducted in March, I did the "write a poem every day" challenge during April. I wrote 30 poems on the theme of 'Scottish identity'. So the answer to my first question is, in a sense, already out of date.

I tried to explore my own attitudes and to reflect on questions relating to history, politics, nationalism etc. Not that I have any complete answers of course, but I went head to head with a few big questions.

I completely agree with you about the vast international influence on Scottish poetry. I didn't mean to suggest that I or others were any less "Scottish poets" because of these influences. I just wanted to avoid the reductionist label of "writer of Scottish poetry" and tried to wriggle out of it! Perhaps not too successfully...

Andrew Philip said...

Thanks for that, Rob.

Yes, I was aware of those poems from Surroundings and your reading the other week, but I didn't know when the interview was conducted. Ironic.

The main point I was trying to make was that those reductionist labels don't have much, if any, meaning. The best way to deal with them, I think, is to challenge the notion and ask what the person applying the label means by it.

Andrew Philip said...

Something else I should say is that, several years ago, I went through a phase of worrying whether my work was Scottish enough. Daft notion, really. What I should have been worrying about was how strong, real or just me it was. The degree of Scottishness or [insert epithet of choice] in one's work is a matter for others to determine, if others are worried about that.

Paradoxically, since I stopped worrying about Scottishness, my work has become more Scottish, at least in that it more consistently uses Scots.

Still, it's intersting to hear what level of importance other Scottish writers ascribe to their Scottishness.

Ms Baroque said...

Hey! Didn't I ask him both those things first??

& I'm sure he talked about internationalism. No theme park there, then. And anyway, the idea of nationalist poetry sounds disturbingly stalinist these days.

I wonder who those others would say have influenced them. More useful, perhaps, for the readers to pull out the influences that show in the story, rather than those the author claims!

Andrew Philip said...

I quite agree on influences, Ms Baroque. I suspect astute readers and critics can sometimes have a more accurate handle on what a influences writer than the writer him or herself. I certainly don't believe that we're necessarily influenced by all the writers we'd love to be influenced by.

Can't say I necessarily agree with what you said about a "nationalist poetry", but again I suppose that depends what you mean by it. Have you read Edwin Morgan's "Sonnets from Scotland", especially "The Coin"? I'd challenge you to find anything stalinist about them, though they're deeply Scottish nationalist. Morgan is, as I pointed out in the post, also deeply internationalist.

Your use of the word "stalinist" makes me think you can't see the political landscape in Scotland very well from Hackney. That's not your fault, as the London media doesn't often register its existence and can't read its contours very well when it does. Nonetheless, they ought to get used to reading it, because the current lie of the land has significant implications for the whole of Britain.

Yang-May Ooi said...

Hi Andrew

I am curious to understand more about the regional identities in the UK. Coming from a so-called ethnic background, I am often faced with questions about Chinese writing, Chinese novelists etc and I wanted to probe further into whether there is such a thing as Scottish writing etc. What if one were a poet of Chinese ancestry living in Scotland or whose family has lived in Scotland for several generations - would that person be a Chinese poet or a Scottish poet or uniquely a Chinese-Scottish poet? Are such "tags" ultimately meaningless? And if so, why does the mainstream tag "ethnic" writers with it but not any other kind of writer?

BTW, thanks for picking up on this point and extending the discussion on your blog!

Andrew Philip said...

Ms Baroque, I hope the last paragraph of my previous comment didn't come across too harshly. To put it better, the easy equation of nationalist with bigot/fascist/supremacist seems to me to be disproved by Scottish literature, which is both much concerned with Scotland and strongly internationalist. Your invokation of Stalinism seems to me to be an instance of that equation and to have something of the Ann Moffatts about it.

I had completely forgotten about your interview with Rob in Umbrella. You're right, of course, that you'd tackled those questions there. I'll add a post about that.

Andrew Philip said...

Interesting questions, Yang-May. Is there anything to prevent your hypothetical writer being Scottish, Chinese and Chinese-Scottish? I'd say not.

There's a poem called "Young, Chinese and Scottish" written in the voice of a young, Chinese-Scottish woman by Kevin Macneil, an obviously male Gaelic and English-language writer. How's that for complex identity politics!

Googling the poem (which I can't find online), I've just come across an online essay "Infinite Diversity in New Scottish Writing", by the Scottish-Pakistani writer Suhayl Saadi, who was born in Yorkshire. I've not read it, but it might well be enlightening.

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