Rob A. Mackenzie is a Scottish poet currently living in Edinburgh, and The Opposite of Cabbage is his first full collection of poetry. Published at the same time as Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box — and by the same publisher, Salt — The Opposite of Cabbage is currently on tour, and today One Night Stanzas is receiving a visit!
Rob was born and brought up in Glasgow, studied law at Aberdeen University and then eventually switched to theology at the University of Edinburgh. He has lived in various places including Seoul and Turin, and now lives and works in Edinburgh, where he is very active in the local literary community. Rob organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series by night and works as a Church of Scotland minister by day. His pamphlet, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005, and The Opposite of Cabbage was released by Salt earlier this year. You can find out more about Rob by visiting his Salt author page or his blog, Surroundings — if you want to get your hands on The Opposite Of Cabbage, it’s available here, and on Amazon.
Hi Rob, welcome to One Night Stanzas. As you know, this blog is all about ‘getting started’ in the poetry world, so I’d like to ask how you got into writing poetry, if I may. Was there something specific that inspired you to begin writing, did it just begin of its own accord, or have you just always written poetry?
Thanks for the welcome, Claire. An English teacher set my class the task of writing a poem in ballad form and gave me a good mark for my effort, ‘The Cat and Mouse Ballad’. I still have it in a notebook I scrawled poems in over several years at school. It’s dated 21/10/77, which makes me 13, and begins:
She crept up on the tiny mouse
Behind a straggly rose.
She got so close the mouse turned round
And bashed her on the nose.
She had a most terrific shock.
She ran right up the stairs
And seeing the mouse was chasing her
Began to say her prayers…
I formed a band with school friends and wrote lyrics for, literally, hundreds of songs. Lyrics took over from writing poetry for many years, although I enjoyed reading it. The sounds and rhythms Ted Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins could achieve made a big impression on me at school. I wrote a few terrible Hopkins-esque sonnets in my late teens, so heavy with alliteration they were almost unreadable. When I returned to writing poetry in the late 1990s, I couldn’t understand why so much poetry I read in literary magazines was ‘chatty’ and lacked attention to sound and rhythm. I began to think writing poetry was easier than I had thought. It took me a while to realise that these poems lacked sonic and rhythmic dexterity because their authors clearly had tin ears. Even bad poetry can be enjoyable for a reader, but it’s not at all good for a budding writer. Poets like Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan and Charles Simic helped me get back on track.
Before publishing The Opposite of Cabbage, you released a pamphlet, The Clown Of Natural Sorrow. I also put this to Andy Philip — it seems that nowadays, releasing a pamphlet prior to a first collection is an attractive choice for a lot of emerging poets. Do you think this is a good idea, based on your experience? How do you think The Clown of Natural Sorrow informed and influenced The Opposite of Cabbage — was it a natural progression or a great leap from chapbook to collection?
Releasing a pamphlet is a good move, but I’d caution people against doing so too early. The Clown was published by HappenStance Press and I wouldn’t have been considered if I hadn’t published poems in good magazines, so building a ‘track record’ of work. A strong pamphlet collection can help bring your work to the attention of readers, readings organisers, and even editors and publishers, but a premature one will do none of these things and may even be counter-productive. Also, being published by Happenstance gave me the invaluable chance to work with a good editor. Many self-published pamphlets I’ve read, even ones which show genuine promise, make me want to get out my red pen and edit the thing properly.
For me, there was a definite leap from pamphlet to book. I’m always looking to move on. I don’t like the idea of finding a style or niche and sticking with it. I want to stretch and challenge myself. There is less straight narrative in the book than in the pamphlet, more absurdity, although there are poems in The Clown which point in that general direction.
Sorlil recently commented that your poems don’t often make references to faith or the church — this struck her as interesting, given your “day job” as a Minister of the Church of Scotland. I’d like to ask about this too — do you find that being a poet helps you to do your job, and if so, how? Does it ever hinder you?
I do write poems about faith, although not many of them made the cut for the book. It’s a critical subject and very hard to get exactly right. Poetry operates as a tug-of-war. The poem is the rope and it’s being pulled this way and that by the competing possibilities the poet is considering while writing the poem. The poem might go one way or might go another. The poet’s job is often to maintain the tension for as long as possible. That’s why there are no great fundamentalist poets. They pull only on one side of the rope which, apart from anything else, isn’t much fun. Writing poetry is a creative way of questioning the world, God, and everything, and it helps me think through issues I might otherwise just mutter something bland or prosaic about. Although I often have an idea on what I want to say when I begin a poem, that tends to mutate in the process of writing.
So poetry helps me in my job by forcing me to think about things. It doesn’t hinder me. It would be more accurate to say that my job at times hinders my poetry because it saps a vast amount of creative time and energy. On the other hand, it has fed countless images and ideas into my poems.
You’ve becoming quite an influential figure in the Scottish poetry scene, setting up and organising ‘Poetry at the Great Grog/Jekyll and Hyde’, among other things. What were your reasons for starting this event? Do you think there was a ‘gap in the market’ for good poetry events in Scotland?
I have been thinking about this issue of power and influence in the poetry world recently. Power is partly to do with perception. Your question suggests that I am perceived by some people to have influence, but I would say that I have no influence whatsoever in the Scottish poetry scene. The most I can do for anyone is give (or not give) them a reading at the venue. That will have no influence on either their poetic output or ‘career’. *
I started the event because, at the time, there were hardly any slots for people to read in Edinburgh (the Shore Poets was about the only regular poetry event happening). That’s all changed in the last couple of years. I now question whether there’s a need (and a big enough audience) to maintain the ‘Poetry at the…’ event. I am pleased to have done it. The standard has been consistently high, some nights have been quite brilliant, but funds are low. I don’t want to stop it quite yet though.
You also have a widely-read blog over at Surroundings, and I know you’re very pro-blogging in general. Why is this? Is it a good idea for writers to have their own blogs?
There are millions of blogs. It makes sense that only a small number are any good. That’s the same with anything from blogs to newspaper articles. Blogs offer an opportunity for writers to write about subjects that publication editors wouldn’t consider sufficiently contemporary or commercial. Bloggers can highlight poetry books and pamphlets that newspapers currently ignore and review books with a detail most newspapers wouldn’t appreciate, given that their audience is a general readership. And bloggers can write any old nonsense they want and no one can stop them – sometimes, that’s a great feeling.
A blog is a double-edged tool for writers. Some people view it as too much of an effort at self-publicity. It takes time and creativity, which might have been used for… I dunno… knitting a woolly jumper or learning the names of every star off by heart. As for bloggers with nothing much to say, enough said… But a well-written, interesting blog can build a loyal readership over time and can put the writer in touch with interesting creative people all over the world.
It’s just a phase though. My blog is a time-bomb. One day, not long into the future, it will explode and will be no more. People might swear they’ll miss a blog if it stops, but they won’t really.
Finally, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about your two publishers — Happenstance, who published The Clown of Natural Sorrow, and Salt, who published The Opposite of Cabbage. What attracted you to these publishers, and what did they bring to the publishing process — and indeed to the books?
I had lived in Turin, Italy, for about five years and came to live in Edinburgh in 2005, a city where I knew no one, certainly no one in the poetry world. I heard about the launch of a new pamphlet press, HappenStance, in the Scottish Poetry Library and decided to go along. I didn’t expect much. In fact, I feared the worst. Instead, Helena Nelson and Andrew Philip were raising the bar for new Scottish poetry. I bought the pamphlets and really liked them. The poems were of obvious quality and the pamphlets were well produced. I really wanted to be a part of it and, a few months later, submitted a batch of poems. I was fully convinced that it would be returned a few months later with a typed rejection slip, but it came back a few days later as an acceptance. Helena Nelson turned out to be a superb editor, which was, in itself, an eye-opener for me.
The first Salt book I read was Tamar Yoseloff’s ‘Fetch’, which was excellent, and I then read several others. I didn’t have a manuscript to submit at that stage, but Salt were publishing so much poetry I liked that they were always on my radar. About a year later, when I did have a fledgling collection-to-be, Andrew Philip and I exchanged manuscripts and discussed submission possibilities. Salt were always one of our top choices. They were publishing poetry I liked, their cover designs were great, they weren’t in thrall to dominant trends, and they were (at the time) open to submissions from new authors. My book had been well edited due to manuscript exchanges with a few poets and though fierce comments by my friend and poet, AB Jackson, who is as tough a critic as anyone out there. Chris at Salt didn’t really have any editing work to do after that, but his cover design and the quality of the end product was first rate. Chris and Jen are always looking for new ways to get their publications into the public eye and they work tirelessly. In HappenStance and Salt, I have been lucky to work with two excellent publishers.
[*An afterthought from Claire re: the "influence" of the 'Poetry at the...' series -- I think Rob's doing himself down here. My own reading at the Great Grog was incredibly helpful to me in several ways -- I met heaps of people from the local poetry community, was invited to submit work to two large journals and got loads of new RT readers on board! So actually I think the "influence" of the 'Poetry at the...' readings is quite something -- whether Rob wants to take personal credit for it or not!]
Thanks for bringing your blog tour to ONS, Rob! I know the book has been a great success already — long may it continue!
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