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The Poetry Kit Interviews Roddy Lumsden

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up? Do you come from a literary family?

My background is small town, working class Scotland. But... that town is St Andrews, a beautiful and wealthy little place by the sea. My parents still live there, both retired. My father was an electrician, my mother a housewife until I was twelve when she returned to work, at the University's student accommodation service. I left at eighteen to go to University in Edinburgh, where I stayed mostly for over 13 years. My mother read me poetry when I was small - I remember The Owl and the Pussycat in particular and I think there was some Yeats and Christina Rossetti. I remember buying poetry with my pocket money when I was still quite young - AA Milne and Hilaire Belloc.
There is music in my family - a lot of drumming. My father played drums in a dance band. My elder brother still drums with a pipe band. My nearer brother has worked for the RSC in London for many years, so I suppose there is a literary connection there. The men on my mother's side were great readers: my grandfather and Uncle George - a very quiet man who lived with his parents until he died in his forties, whose loves were history books and classical music. Another significant factor was my high school, Madras College, a comprehensive which has the sort of teaching standards expected of top private schools.

When did you start writing poetry?

I described how this happened in the book The Message (Poetry Society 1999): "...one day, aged 7, in Primary 3, too lazy to write the story of what I did last night (run about in Woodburn Park as I did most evenings), I decided to take that path, often pointed out but rarely travelled. Didn't the teacher always say, "you can write a poem if you don't have a story" (and isn't there a whole PhD waiting to be written around that phrase)? Thus, accompanied by a blotchy Crayola drawing of a woodland scene, arrived the first of many such short poems:

        The lark was singing in the trees
	One of the forest, one of these
	In its nest it has some eggs
	Out of these will come furry legs.

It wasn't until my mid-teens that this urge to write returned, after puberty's years of self-obsession and the main urge was to write songs in my head, usually while delivering newspapers all over St Andrews. Soon there were jotters full of badly-drawn LP covers for bands with pretentious names like Seven Oktas and Hibiscus Galore, each with its own style, the focal point being the 'back cover' where I would fill in the track listing as I did my dawn-time composing. It was 1981 when I next wrote a poem, Something, sparked by a summer near-romance (each summer, St Andrews would be aflush with new, strange girls, on holiday) and filled with expressions of regret which aren't too bad for a fourteen year old: "normality is fun until fun becomes normality" and "we do not see until our eyes are open, and when they are they tend to cry."
At seventeen, I left school through illness and spent months walking the country and coast, writing poems, at least two a day. Strangely they were not often angsty, more surreal, full of song-like wordplaying, influenced by the poets I had studied at school, Eliot and Betjeman, and laced with a sickly sentimentalism I have been over-compensating for ever since.

What were the books \ events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

There were books in childhood - I was lucky to share a room with a brother five years older who liked to read aloud. When I was younger, this was Enid Blyton and such. Later, other things - the most memorable being Moonfleet and books on music. Being read to thus was more influential than any of the standard fare I read as a boy (Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, the James Herriot books).
Much later, definitely Prufrock. The whole of George MacBeth's Longman British Poetry 1900-65, which was the staple schoolbook and introduced me to Larkin (especially), Gunn, Eliot and Plath. Ondaatje and Bukowski and Alden Nowlan and Paul Durcan while a student. Scottish writers, of course - particularly WS Graham, whose Malcolm Mooney's Land I had found in the Penguin post-war poetry book (edited by E Lucie-Smith) - and then the ones I saw reading - MacCaig, Morgan, Dunn, Lochhead.
Also, Cooper Clarke and Cutler on John Peel and song lyrics. This was the post-punk era, when lyrics were quite literate - The Monochrome Set, The Passage, Microdisney, The Smiths and other bands whose words were as interesting as the lyricists I'd listened to intently as a child, eg Steve Harley, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.
At 17 or so I discovered that a schoolfriend also wrote poetry. It was like sharing a sinful secret. I remember sitting with him in his front room, swapping poems - absolute magic.

What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?

The poetry I wrote in my late teens was playful, formal, dreamy, sometimes twee, sometimes surreal, with sexual and religious overtones. 'Private World' stuff. Betjeman was an influence then. And pop lyrics. I should say that there was a lot of it. From 1983, when I was 17, for the next two and a half years, I filled jotter after jotter with 'poems'. Then, in my second year at University in Edinburgh, I showed some to Liz Lochhead, who was a very supportive and encouraging Writer in Residence, and my way of thinking and working began to change.

To what extent do your 'roots' influence what you are writing now?

Well, I think the description above of my teenage poetry still pretty much does for what I'm doing now, though there is a degree of sophistication and game-playing which has overtaken the sentimentalism. There has always been a great amount of self-reference in my work, though it is seldom 'confessional' and this began then. "Roddy Lumsden" as opposed to Roddy Lumsden, if you see what I mean. A certain stepping aside, to stop those nagging questions about the whole purpose and resolve of making poems.
As to the idea of my 'roots' in a more specific way, I'm not sure. There is my physical voice of course, my accent: a strong factor in my work. I feel lucky for having an accent which people like hearing - after readings, people often talk to me about my voice more than the poems! I've made a sort of pact with myself that writing about my family is not something I approve of - not that there are any secrets, it's just artless, most of the time.

How did you first go about getting your poems published?

One night in Edinburgh in 1985, I bumped into Andy (A.B.) Jackson (who I knew vaguely) on Nicholson Street. We got talking and decided to start a student poetry magazine. We did several issues of Fox often done in calligraphy by Andy. My first poems were in there. Various people were encouraging - Hamish Henderson, Robert Crawford and Liz Lochhead and Anne Stevenson (the last two were Writers in Residence at Edinburgh). Getting an Eric Gregory Award a few years later made a big difference, though I think that I won one too young and I couldn't back it up. Christopher Reid at Faber took an interest in my work and published me in Poetry Introduction 8, but at this time (early 90s), I was working mainly as a quizmaster and writing two three-hour quizzes each week took up all my creative energy and I wrote next to nothing from Autumn 91 until the beginning of 94.
At this time, two things happened which helped immensely; one was the unfairly maligned New Generation Poets promotion which really fired me up and the other was a bursary which allowed me to buy a PC. Chris Reid stalled me again (though he wrote a long and extremely helpful rejection letter for that MS, correctly warning me that I was in danger of disappearing into obscurity in my current work) and I took a year or so out, working on the poems which later came out as Yeah Yeah Yeah. I then wrote speculatively to some other publishers and Bloodaxe got back to me very soon and signed me up. Along the way there was the usual tug of war with poetry magazines.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing? How do you decide that a poem is finished?

A lot goes on in the head. I think of 'honers' and 'receivers' - the former will make a draft soon after the initial idea and play about with many, many versions. They will leave gaps and come back to them, or write a so-so line and polish later. I'm a receiver, which is why my poems are short. I don't start the physical part of the writing process until I have to - until the balloon's about to pop. I try to retain a certain air of spontaneity in my work. I can hone and craft too, but I like the poem to have a certain rawness. It's odd that mid-century Americans like Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Schwartz, O'Hara, Stevens, Kees and so on are among the great influences on my generation of British poets, yet they all seem so scared of the rawness, risks and flaws which made their poems so great. I've never had much of a problem with finding ideas for poems, but I can only act on about 10%. I find I only have one chance at an idea, while others can re-approach a poem. I can't botch and later approach it afresh. So much gets wasted because of laziness, business, bad moods, hangovers, worry.
I write slowly, directly onto the PC screen, generally. I can't move onto line five until line four is 'perfected' - it's not a recommended method, but it works for me. I'm aware of shape and form as I write. I'm aware too of musicality and read it to myself over and over, to test it. Then I print out and do reworking. After it's 'finished', I'll show it to other poet friends, for advice - which I usually take. Learning to listen to and act on criticism is a necessity.

To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?

I've done bits and pieces with music, but always 'you do your bit / I'll do mine' which is not strictly collaboration. I've done stuff with various parts of the group The Divine Comedy: read in the middle of their set, done songs with the bassist, the lyric for a classical music choir piece for Joby Talbot their pianist and arranger. I've enjoyed these, but I don't see them as 'the poet Roddy Lumsden' collaborating, just me doing music stuff with people I happen to know.

Which of contemporary poets do you find most interesting?

Lots of them. There's a difference between enjoyment and admiration. A difference too between liking 'poets' and liking 'poems'. There are many poets I enjoy but don't admire and vice versa. I went to my bookcase and found there were well over 50 contemporary poets who I regularly read and enjoy. Too many to list here, but among the most consistently interesting are some of my Scottish contemporaries (Paterson, Crawford, Jamie, Burnside, Morgan, Dunn, Herbert), Michael Hofmann, Selima Hill, Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage, August Kleinzahler, Michael Donaghy, Lavinia Greenlaw, Paul Farley, Charles Simic, Charles Boyle. The ludic wing of the mainstream, you might say.

Reviewers often mention Armitage's name when discussing your work. Has he been an influence?

Yes and no. I didn't read him (apart from a few anthologised pieces) until quite late on, as a friend who normally has trustworthy taste had told me not to bother. I must have read Book of Matches about 1996 and liked it a lot. I'd like to see a new straightforward collection from him though - it's long overdue, but I hear his most recent work is very good. I made a joke about the Armitage influence thing in my PBS Bulletin piece, but reviewers have just picked up the thread again, without seeing the joke! I suppose there is a similarity; I certainly like his work more than most of my peers seem to do, though they may be informed by sour grapes (jealousy is rife in this little world). He's a small town working class boy, with a similar record collection to mine, I think. There's bound to be some crossover - I think that as more working class voices come into poetry, we'll see less of them being lazily lumped together by critics.

Do you see 'performance poetry' and 'slam' as sideshows or a return to the origins of poetry as story-teller and social conscience?

Well, 'performance poetry' means several different things - there's a whole article waiting to be written about the dangers of such a catch-all term. Strictly, I suppose it refers to those people who use voice, memorised text and movement to act out a poem, but that only covers a small amount of what I see in the performance clubs. What the term means up in Scotland is different. In Australia, so I'm told, they have another different take on the whole thing. Slam, too, is taken very seriously by some; for others, slam is a fun night out. Too many people talk about 'performance poetry' who haven't seen any, or at least any good stuff. Go and see Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, Patience Agbabi, Paul Reekie etc, who can do the 'spoken word' thing and the ideas and the erudition.

What use do you make of the Internet? Is Internet publishing just a cheaper way of getting your poems seen by a wider audience, or is it liable to produce new kinds of poetry?

I think poetry and the Internet is a fascinating subject. I've recently been helping two old friends, both of whom are doing second degrees with dissertations on the subject, but nonetheless, there isn't a worse time for making speculations and judgements about it! What is for sure is that there is / will be so much shitty poetry on the web that it will give the good stuff a bad name. Ask again in three years time!

What are you working on at the moment?

I've been doing a lot of readings to promote The Book of Love. I've just taken on an agent so hopefully there will be more to come. A third book, Roddy Lumsden is Dead, comes out next year, from a smaller publisher. It's a collection featuring a long sequence of that name, which looks at the idea of poetic persona alongside the problem of depersonalisation, a distressing but exhilarating, rare mental disorder which I have suffered from at (thankfully very infrequent) intervals during my adult life. That makes it sound very self-obsessed and heavy, but in fact it's quite mixed in tone. The book will also contain some performance / listy / unusual pieces which haven't fitted with the tone of my Bloodaxe collections. I'm sure I'll do a third miscellaneous collection, but no one has made me an offer I can't refuse (or any offer come to think of it) yet.
I'm also doing editorial work for Anvil (I have ambitions in that direction) which I''m enjoying hugely and various things for the Poetry Society. I also have a Poetry School course coming up, for young writers who are aiming for a Gregory Award.

Bibliography

  • Yeah Yeah Yeah (Bloodaxe, 1997)
  • The Message (Poetry Society, 1999)
  • The Book of Love (Bloodaxe, 2000)

© Ted Slade, Roddy Lumsden, September 2000