Tell us about your new collection, Condition of Fire.
It’s a collection of poems inspired by the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses interspersed with poems about a post-apocalyptic world where change is the only hope for survival. I wrote almost all the poems while on the Aeolian Isles, thanks to the Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary. The islands are a volcanic archipelago said to be the home of the god of the winds, and you can see volcanoes erupting there. The soil is rich and all around you there are plants growing, bugs crawling, fish swimming, birds swooping – it was just the right place to go to think about what change is, and what being is.
You mention melopoesie on your website – what is that?
Melopoesie is music and poetry together, but the idea is that rather than being poetry stuck on top of music or vice versa, the two are generated in a collaborative way so that they form something new in which the poetry and music are in conversation with one another or intrinsically bound.
You’ve collaborated with artists and musicians/bands – why?
It started with looking for more provocative ways to perform or to present poetry to an audience rather than standing in front of them with a piece of paper in my hand reading out words. That can be a wonderful way to perform and a good poem read well by a talented poet can keep any audience’s attention, but poetry can be a difficult thing to take in when you’re hearing it for the first time in a room full of folks. Sometimes having something with it – film, music, pictures, et cetera, can really help people to focus and to understand what you’re on about.
Also I’ve met a lot of people who say they have trouble understanding poetry. I think a lot of people got frightened off of poetry in school, or are under the mistaken impression that it’s beyond them. Or some people think all poetry should be instantly accessible and easy – I don’t think that this was necessarily the case in the past, and is perhaps a sad reflection on our current approach to the unknown. My poetry over the years has been described as ‘obscure’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘imagistic’, ‘abstract’, and whether or not I agree it’s often been met with frustration. So I try to encourage people to let go of their fears and be willing to engage with the poem – to use their imaginations and intellects to inhabit the metaphorical spaces rather than to feel left out. Further to this, I’ve often found that the process of collaboration both helps to clarify my own understanding (and often actual wordings and line breaks) of the poems, and also provides another way in for people who find the poem on its own elusive.
You’ve been in Britain for 10 years – has your poetry changed?
I think so, though it’s hard to say how much of that has to do with the place I’m in and how much has to do with getting older. For a number of years I tried to write a poem a day, which helped me work through some problems I was having with getting my ideas out the way I wanted and getting my lines to match up with the rhythms in my head. How much Britain has influenced me, and how my work might have been different had I stayed in America, is hard to quantify. My sense of what I’m trying to convey and the means by which to do that seems clearer, and I wonder if being outside of the place where one grew up helps one get perspective on one’s self and one’s origins in a useful way.
I was at a lecture once where the claim was made that American poetry tends to separate ‘nature’ and ‘the city’ whereas the two are more often interlinked in British poetry. I’m not sure whether this is true, but I suppose my own collection contains a mixture of these two notions.
What is the best and worst thing about Scotland, where you live?
The best thing is my partner and his family – he’s Scottish! Scotland is a magnificent country, rich with natural and hewn beauty, and its people are warm, funny and wise. The worst thing about it for me is the weather, the lack of sunshine and seasons. Where I grew up we had long, hot summers, very distinct springs and autumns and cold, snowy winters. I do love the long summer days in Edinburgh but I miss the sun the rest of the year.
Do you get along with other poets?
Yes! I wish I knew more. I like them.
What else inspires your poetry apart from other people’s poetry?
People I collaborate with and their work, other art forms and strange, frightening, gorgeous moments that happen every day that feel like poems.
What are you working on now?
Two collections – one about war (and peace) and one about nature and identity.
Is there anything you don’t enjoy writing about or avoid writing about?
I try to avoid writing about stuff that is so personal it isn’t relevant to other people. The personal can be universal but it has to be handled very deftly to be so.
What else do you do apart from poetry?
I’m the Literary Officer at the Traverse Theatre, Scotland’s New Writing Theatre www.traverse.co.uk. I make music and watch movies and go for walks with my partner and play with our cat, Tibor.
Confession: I couldn’t think of what questions to ask myself so in the spirit of collaboration I asked for help from James Iremonger, a very talented musician and composer