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Interviews

A Postal Interview with Robert Crawford by Sam Leith and Steve Burt

It seems to be a commonplace of criticism that all modem Scots poetry has at some level to take off from or engage with the influence of MacDiarmid. How far do you feel this to be true, with regard to the practice of your contemporaries in general, and yourself in particular? How do your other influences - Ashbery, say, or even Eliot - relate to, or help you get round the specifically Scottish tradition?

I think it's unusual for anyone with a serious interest in poetry in twentieth-century Scotland to write without some awareness of MacDiarmid, even if that awareness involves a principled avoidance - as it might in the case of Kathleen Jamie, for instance. Some poets, like Edwin Morgan, have learned from MacDiarmid, disagreed with him, and taken what they need without in any sense becoming a vassal. I was very keen on modernist poetry, especially Eliot, when I was in my teens and writing sonnets. I didn't really read MacDiarmid until Edwin Morgan gave me a copy of the Macmillan New York Collected Poems in 1979. I found his work very exciting in its scope, its linguistic reach, its compressed emotion in the Scots lyrics as well as its know-all voracity in the later poems. I liked the modernist flavour of the writing, as well as the ability to do things with Scots and with Scottish material. I was really excited. MacDiarmid was so alert to European poetry and innumerable wider currents. I didn't, and don't, see him as some sort of Scottish roadblock that has to be veered round in order to make contact with international writing. His nationalism, especially as a writer, was international in its orientation. Like Ashbery and Eliot, MacDiarmid could do something with language that no one else had done in quite the same way before. I was awed by that. He was viciously Stalinist, masculinist, pugilistic in a way that was good then but isn't now, and I would have died from his cigarette smoke. None of that confiscates his genius.

Is there a particularly wide gap between your formal and your thematic influences? Where do you think your sense of the line comes from?

I find it hard to answer this. It's as if you're expecting me to produce a steely analysis of my own stuff. I can say that I like the idea of variety in poetry - of doing different things, as, say, Dunbar or Eliot did. Yet I also like the idea that there might be some subterranean thread linking these different things. My sense of line matters to me. It seems strongly instinctive, though maybe it comes through modernist poetry. I think for me the line is the basic unit of poetic composition, stanza breaks being line breaks writ large. I like unrhymed couplets because you have not only constant line breaks, but frequent stanza breaks too, letting you add a kind of formal poetic punctuation to idiomatic speech, producing a tension between formal construction and informal utterance. In most of my Scots poems, the balance is different, more experimental, mixing idiomatic rhythms with synthetic vocabulary. The oldest poem in A Scottish Assembly dates from my time as an undergraduate at Glasgow. It's a quatrain poem whose protagonist, Mulock, came partly from Eliot's Sweeney quatrains; the most recent poem I've written is in strictly rhyming quatrains because I wanted a sense of firm decorum. On the whole, though, I avoid rhyme because it makes the line breaks too explicit, overpunctuating the poem in a way that (I feel sometimes at least) is out of tune with late twentieth-century life. I think our lives are full of punctuation - joinings and jolts, dislocations, abrupt, sometimes mechanical movements - but less full of rhyme than a more settled, tuneful era. So most often for me when I write, line breaks rather than links of rhyme are the essential poetic punctuation that gives a poem its shape. I am not saying, by the way, that I hate rhyme.

How does your Scots poetry relate to your English poetry? Your English poetry is - it seems consciously - full of Scots words: how much is it possible, do you think, for a distinctively Scottish poetic to find a home in the English tongue, and what needs to be done to English idiom to achieve this?

Partly because there was a play between rhythms I was familiar with and vocabulary scoured delightedly from the dictionary, I could be more erotic, for instance, in Scots than in English, since something of the rich opacity of the language acted as a shield. When Bill Herbert and I wrote the poems that became Sharawaggi I felt a great sense of linguistic excitement. I still write in Scots, but only occasionally. I suspect that, on the whole, my English work is better than my Scots, and that with Bill the opposite is true. I think that he is more deeply engaged with Scots than I am now, though I retain a cling to it. I wanted, for example, a mix of English, Gaelic and Scots elements in Talkies, and my new collection will have a pinch of Scots work in it. When I write in English I don't usually tend to deliberately Scotticize it. The Scottish accent is instinctive - I have one. There are probably moments when I want to signal this, as an Australian or Irish poet might want to touch base with his or her acoustic community. I think most poets now have access to a linguistic spectrum, much of which may be taken up by what you call 'the English tongue', but some of which may shade beyond that to a home territory that isn't England. I like to use the spectrum.

Within the line of Scottish verse, how much heterogeneity do you see? If a divide can be said to exist between the poets writing about rural Scotland and those finding Scotland in inner-city Glasgow, where would you place yourself first of all? And how much, as you seem to suggest in your Strathgawkinisation poem, are the Scots a people divided by a common language?

I love the many mixes of Scotland. I'm not attached to any essential' Scottishness'. So I don't see there being such a thing as 'the line of Scottish verse'. To start with, there are Gaelic, English, and Scots lines that sometimes do, sometimes don't intersect. Scotland contains both Barra and Glasgow. I love what I've called its quality of being 'crammed with intimate expanses' - linguistic, geographic, and other. Certainly a line that has mattered to me is the use of scientific and informational textures of language in Davidson, MacDiarmid and Morgan, but that's only one line. I don't want to place myself in the way you suggest. Being Scottish gives me various degrees of access to multiplicity. When the chips are down I want to be a poet, not just a 'Scottish poet' , though I love this country and find lots of my material here. Love comes into the poems a lot; they seem to me more loving, less programmatic than some people have suggested.

You have been active as a publisher, a critic and a poet: which of the three do you consider most important, if any; and which do you feel has the most immediate and exciting political and literary impact?

Most intimately important to me is writing poetry. Beyond that it depends on context. Sometimes it frustrates me that one audience knows me as a poet, another as a critic, another as an editor, but I suppose most of us are known in different ways by people in a variety of contexts.

How did its transatlantic mixed parentage affect the editorial policy of Verse? Do you regret handing it on, or do you feel you have done all you can with it to your satisfaction?

After founding Verse with Henry Hart and David Kinloch eleven years ago, I've just stepped down as editor, as have David and Henry. I think the transatlantic span was a great asset. It helped us keep our spectrum wide. I've written a bit about all that in the introduction to the book Talking Verse. It was great to be able to work on the magazine, and I think it was also the right time to stop, while we were on a high note. I'm delighted the magazine will continue, and I'll be glad to see what happens to it. It's someone else's baby now.

How significant is it that of the Scottish figures you celebrate, in particular in your first book, the majority seem not to be politicians or literary figures so much as inventors, scientists and industrialists?

Since I was an undergraduate I've been interested in using scientific vocabulary in poems, no doubt partly spurred by the informational poets mentioned above. When I wrote quite a number of the poems you're talking about I was going out with an experimental physicist, and so that personal love interest came together with interests in vocabulary and scientific subject matter. I wrote lyric poems that were quite science-rich. It's always seemed to me a challenge to fuse the erotic and the scientific. I think there are great moments in Michel Deguy's poetry, for instance, when he uses long numbers and invests them with emotional force.

How much does translation interest you?

For a variety of reasons the idea of crossing cultural boundaries excites me. That's probably evident in both my poems and criticism. I see translation as part of that process; as a term 'translation' is very rich in its connotations. I studied Latin and Greek at school, not modem languages, and my activities as a translator are pretty minimal, but it may well be that my lack of full access to so much foreign material gives me a quickened awareness of the other side, the foreign. I like to think so, anyway. Some of Talkies is about that. The parallel texts of Sharawaggi play with the notion of translation. Forme, the term also shades into religious ideas.

You have also said that we are in an age of poets being identified particularly with a nation or a place. Which poets, if any, do you feel don't fit into this concept, who are nonetheless very good? Talkies, in some ways, seems to be pointing towards a more individuating, perhaps more personal voice - is that a direction you see your poetry going in?

In Identifying Poets I gathered essays written over about a decade. They tended to deal with poets I liked. I suspect most of the poets I admire in our century have been' earthed' in some way, though you could argue about Eliot, for instance. What you say about Talkies fits in with my own view. I don't want to repeat myself, though it's inevitable that preoccupations recur. A fair amount of my next book, due from Cape in early 1996, is a lot more personal. There are poems about becoming a father after a long wait, for instance, and about my family. I hope the book will be more clearly emotional than before. In the later stages of putting the book together I realised that what I'd been writing about was being a man who was neither a kind of macho whisky'n'fags type nor a politically correct New Man. I was trying to be honest in my male, white, middle-class Scottish voice and I was writing, perhaps more clearly than before, about love. The book is called Masculinity.